Tonight Kyle Thomas’ micro budget Canadian film The Valley Below will make history as it screens in almost 20 theatres across the country. To those unfamiliar with how most Canadian films get theatrically distributed this may not seem like such a feat. If one of the bigger studios releases a film, it’s usually only in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, so to have this film screening in a little towns such as Cranbrook, Kanata, and Penicton is unprecedented. This is happening thanks to the Canadian Indie Film Series, an initiative by A71 Entertainment that is curating Award Winning Canadian Independent films and launching them with advanced screenings before they open the larger markets.
The Valley Below was a hit at TIFF and is the first of five films that will be exhibited this way on the first Wednesday of every month between now and July. With its depiction of life in rural Alberta, it is the perfect selection to kick off this unique series of small town screenings. We spoke with the film’s writer and director Kyle Thomas about the ideas he presents in the film, what makes it Canadian, and why programs like the Canadian Indie Series are so important to the industry.
Dork Shelf: What was the genesis of The Valley Below?
Kyle Thomas: I made a short film in 2011 that was called Not Far From The Abattoir, and it basically told one of the stories that’s in The Valley Below, but five years before where we’re at now. This starred Kris Demeanor and Mandy Stobo playing the same characters that they do in The Valley Below, and really going with that naturalistic style, working with character, that kind of thing. It did quite well in the festival circuit, it won some festivals, we played South by Southwest, Telefilm brought it to Cannes for the market. It had some legs, so when it came time for me to start thinking about a feature film idea and what worked and what I’d like to do on a micro budget, I kept coming back to this project. I felt like I could have written 20 more stories in this small town. So it actually came fairly easily when it came time to decide what to do.
DS: When did you decide to make it several interconnecting stories?
KT: It was slightly daunting, the idea of writing a feature film script. I’d only ever written 16 or 17 page short scripts and that was sort of the max, when I thought ‘oh god, I have to write 80 or 90 pages’ I got a little freaked out. So I tricked myself and said you know how to write a short film, you’ve done that, if you just do that four times, that’s a feature. That’s how I got into this idea of actually breaking it up into these different chapters. What could I do differently if that were the case as opposed to having one solid narrative? Then I got really interested in that idea and took it in that direction.
DS: What made you choose Drumheller to set it in?
KT: It’s such a unique place. I shot all my short films there, so we were able to develop some relationships with some locals. Every time I go back I learn more and more about the valley and the history. It’s such an inspiring place for me. Every time I go out there I get so many new ideas for movies. It seemed like the natural fit. Beyond the fact that it’s absolutely gorgeous, with the sedimentary rock hills, there’s this kitschy dinosaur element which I find fascinating as well. There’s a creationist museum, there’s a prison on a hill, there’s abandoned coal mines, there’s ghost towns. It’s just extremely rich in history.
DS: Is it at all meant to be a critique on small town living?
KT: I think it could definitely be perceived as a critique but that was absolutely not my intention because I think it’s me exploring my fascination with small towns. I’ve never lived in a small town for an extended period of time but I’m always considering it. I feel like I’m almost always on the brink of packing up and moving to a small town. There’s something I find attractive about that lifestyle and also something that I don’t. I have this polarizing effect going on within myself. It was never meant to be a critique, so many people can get stuck there who seemingly don’t want to be there. It can be very cyclical and monotonous and tough to leave, it’s kind of like breaking out of a relationship that you don’t need to break out of but you feel like you want to sometimes.
DS: Kris Demeanor has only acted in your short film and this feature, yet he was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. What’s his day job?
KT: He was Calgary’s first poet laureate actually. He’s a poet, he’s a musician, I think he has four albums. He does performance poetry, theatre, that’s his livelihood. I don’t know if this has inspired him to pursue screen acting further but he’s fantastic and I think he should. You never know, he seems content now.
DS: Who knows what would have happened if John Cusack wasn’t in a Canadian film this year (Cusack won for Maps to the Stars).
KT: Exactly. I was kind of predicting that. It’s funny though because out of all our actors he’s the only one who’s not actively pursuing screen acting. Anybody else would have gotten that CSA and it probably would have furthered their career. Kris is in Nicaragua eating papayas the size of dogs.
DS: Can you speak about the role of music in the film and how Dan Mangan got involved?
KT: Because I had these four sections, and it’s a minimalist piece, I knew I didn’t need a score necessarily to bring it down. I knew that I wanted a single voice that almost acted like another character in the film to really speak to the season, speak to the themes in the film of each section, so that was the intention behind the music. Dan Mangan came through a friend of a friend. He was the last one to come on board. We were really trying to find the right person for the closing section of the film. We sent him the film, he watched it, he really liked it. He got it and said ‘yeah I’ll give it a go, I’m just finishing my album but I’ll see what I can do. I’ll play around with stuff over the next week.’ Then I got an email from him with a song about four days later, and he was like ‘I think it’s done.’ So I listened to it and it was awesome. I talked to him on the phone after and he was like ‘yeah I just locked myself in the studio’ and he said it all just came out and that hasn’t happened in such a long time. What he took away from watching the film was all of these characters seem like they want something or they know what they want but they can’t quite figure out how to get it. That’s a theme that does resonate through all the stories and I think he picked up on that and wrote that song and it’s a great summation of the entire film. It all came together very quickly but very nicely.
DS: Besides the setting, what do you feel makes this film Canadian?
KT: We don’t hide the fact that this is Drumheller. It’s not like we were trying to make it a neutral Prairie town in North America. We have references to Calgary, Toronto. This is what I feel needs to be done more in Canadian film. It might hurt us on a global market when we’re trying to market the film but I think more filmmakers just need to take that risk, especially in places that aren’t Montreal or Toronto. We need to develop some kind of local identity.
DS: Why are programs like The Indie Film Series more important now than ever?
KT: There’s always been great Canadian films, but over the last little while with technology changing there’s been a lot more opportunity for young filmmakers to take a risk and get their vision out there and do it a on a micro budget scale. So you’re seeing a lot more productions happening but with that, now you have to figure out how to actually get them out there. Now digital is such a huge part of it and everyone’s trying to figure that game out, this idea of the theatrical release is becoming less and less common. I think something like the Canadian Indie Film Series, whether they promote it online or whether it’s theatrical, it’s great that we have outlets like this that are pushing Canadian film. The fact that they’re actually going theatrical is rooting it in the history of cinema, as opposed to just doing something online. It’s saying hey, we’re taking these films seriously and we want to bring it to as big of an audience as possible. The fact that the Indie Film Series is opening in a lot of smaller towns in B.C is also fantastic, because how do people in smaller rural communities actually get to see Indie films? They don’t, so you have to really bring it to the people in this day and age.
DS: What hurdles in the Canadian film industry need addressing?
KT: There’s always the issue of funding. Because Telefilm launched this micro budget program, we were able to make our film, now they’re doing their third year, so I guess almost 30 to 40 films are being funded under this new program. So that is good but this is only the first step I think. It’s not like we don’t have funding, but there are some old guards as well and there needs to be some shifting in certain funding bodies to account for new models of distribution and just new models of production in general. That would help, but also it’s all about education and just getting the word out there. I had a lot of my family members who watched the CSAs (Canadian Screen Awards) and they said they had no idea there was so much Canadian talent, and this isn’t even indie, this is mainstream! We’re still really attached to Hollywood and to U.S. TV, so there’s still a lot of work to do. Making people aware is the biggest thing, that’s how we’ll grow the audience.
DS: What’s the most flattering comparison someone could make to your film?
KT: They’ve already made it! This wasn’t conscious, although I’m a Raymond Carver fan, but this has been a common comparison to his work. The first time I saw that, I think one of the TIFF programmers had written that it has a lot of Raymond Carver-esque moments and I was like oh yeah, I guess it totally does. That’s absolutely flattering because I really like his work. I think Short Cuts, although that’s on a much bigger scale, that was a big influence on the multi narrative style in general.
DS: What’s on your Dork Shelf?
KT: I’m a “cork dork”. That’s a technical term by the way. I’ve worked part time off and on over the last ten years in the wine business, so I actually got to learn a lot about that and I have been collecting wine for about ten years now. I have about 160 bottles that are sitting there, doing their thing, aging. That’s my vice, that’s what I spend money that I shouldn’t be spending on.
You can read our review of The Valley Below from our 2014 TIFF coverage here.