The director of 100 Musicians and Nurse/Fighter/Boy talked with us about old school filmmaking
Charles Officer has directed shorts, music videos for K'naan, and the features Nurse/Fighter/Boy and Mighty Jerome, a documentary about Canadian track star Harry Jerome. His new short 100 Musicians, which screens Monday as part of Short Cuts Canada, is a small ode to civic optimism, concerning itself with a lovers' argument over who exactly misheard a radio DJ reporting the plans of Toronto's much maligned mayor. He spoke with us late last week.
thesubstream: I laughed as soon as I heard the words "Rob Ford" in your short. How do you explain Mayor Rob Ford to people not from Toronto? How do you explain him and his weird relationship to the media?
Charles Officer: (laughs) I'm hoping that folks will look him up. That they will say "OK, who is the mayor of this world-class city in Toronto, in Canada? And what are some of his opinions, what is he up to?" People should ask questions about the people in power that are running their city, whether you're in Geneva or New York City.
tss: It's based on a story by Dionne Brand (Toronto's Poet Laureate). How did you become involved with her? What was that process?
Charles Officer: That was pretty amazing. A friend of mine who actually worked at Toronto Film Festival sent me this story by Dionne Brand years ago, and it always stuck with me. I wanted to have the whole thing longer than I had time for and so… years later Mayor Ford was elected, and I remembered this story, an then I just re-read it and I reached out to Professor Brand and she had no idea who I was and she was like "Yes, please, I'd love to see what you could do with this."
And she owned all the rights to this material, so it was a very smooth process working with her. I showed her the script and she was like "this is great, I would make a couple changes."
She gave it the blessing and it was very, very cool to work with a writer that I so respect and she basically was like, "You know Charles, my story was meant to be first consumed on the page, and that's been done. This is a new form and you have freedom to make it that form." And I was like, "What?!" That's pretty amazing.
tss: You've made features, fictional and documentary, shorts and music videos. What can you do with shorts that you can't do in the other formats you've worked in?
Charles Officer: It's the beauty of actually using story telling in a creative visual form, and you have so many great options within that form. I can watch a silent short film… I mean I watch a lot of weird shit. But focused. You can really really be pointed with the form. I think a short form is a great form that you can experiment, practice and try things out. And see whether people react to them, whether it's silent, or consciousness of colour, performance, or the music you choose. It's a great little canvas to practice your story telling.
tss: It seems to be, aesthetically, quite a departure. Your films have been good looking–always–that's something that links Mighty Jerome and Nurse/Fighter/Boy. 100 Musicians seems a lot more… aesthetically mannered. You mentioned experimenting… there are shots in 100 Musicians that are jarring–in a good way–that are abruptly beautiful. Is that a direction that you want to continue heading in?
Charles Officer: It is. It is so different. And that's kind of the thing I love about this short form. It's all practice for me. I didn't use any lights. I shot it completely in sequence, during the day, in one location, and we scheduled it based on the light.
That idea informed how I shot it. I couldn't do a lot of coverage. I didn't have a lot of time and I wanted certain shots. It was really great to work that way.
The performances in it, I think, are really great – my actors were really great, they took it seriously–working on a short–and it was wonderful to work with them.
I'm actually preparing for a feature, my next one. And I'm actually thinking of using this approach, so this was an experiment for something long form that I'm working on.
I was really specific with what I wanted and the shots that I stuck with it… I was like… "this is what I want or what I see. We're going for this. This is what we have to work with, this is the film." It was fun to challenge myself that way. Especially in the digital form, where you can get kind of carried away with shooting so much. And I was like "no". We shot film. And I was freaking the editor out, saying I want to cut this on a Steenbeck, and he was like "are you fucking crazy?!" We had to be so damn specific, in a certain way. I think that filmmaking has kind of lost that.
tss: Do you think there is an advantage to using old tools?
Charles Officer: I definitely do, especially for this generation. I've never had to use old tools. I don't even know some of that stuff. But the films that I watch and that I admire most were made with old tools. I love technology, and I love the way things are going but I just always remember that there is the old school… another approach that can inform how the story ends, or how the stories feel.
tss: Can you talk about what you are working on next?
Charles Officer: Right now I'm finishing a commission for Bell Media and TSN for the anniversary of the Grey Cup. They commissioned 8 documentary films and I've done one about an African American quarterback who had to come to Canada for an opportunity because the NFL wasn't accepting quarterbacks in '72. It's going to air October 5th.
My next feature film is called Torch Bearer, a murder-mystery. Again, I feel like I am experimenting, obviously its a bit bigger budget with bigger actors and I'm really excited and I'll be shooting that around March. We're shooting in Northern Ontario - Lively Ontario.
tss: This may come out of left field, I know you played hockey and you were drafted by my biggest nemesis… the Calgary Flames. I go to the festival every year you know, and watch all these smart movies, and I love Canadian film and I love hockey too and those are two things that never seem to go together properly. How come the great Canadian hockey movie hasn't been made yet?
Charles Officer: (laughs) I think they've been waiting for me... I've been approached and I have a story that's urban, that's here. That definitely plays on some of my experiences for sure. I'm really appalled of all the hockey films I've seen come out of this country, and I'll go on the record saying this, I'm appalled that the Americans have made, like, incredible baseball films, incredible football films... I mean we have a lot of catch-up in terms of our national fucking identity.
tss: It's our national artistic shame.
Charles Officer: It is - it is, man, No one's touched where I want to go yet. So I'm working on it Mike, I'm trying.