Talking Inspiration, Funding & Filmmaking with Martin Edralin, Jenna MacMillan & Jason Arsenault
As movie theatres compete with online streaming for viewers’ time and money, the future of cinema looks uncertain. While multiplexes may go the way of the dodo, watching movies has never been easier, and that’s a blessing and a curse.
With thousands of movies available to streamers at the push of a button, too many first-class films are relegated to second-class treatment. This holds true for Canadian cinema because it’s historically drowned out by big-budget American titles. The Batman’s marketing cost could bankroll the Canadian Screen Awards’ entire Best Motion Picture field.
Despite Hollywood’s Infinity Gauntlet-like grip on Canuck moviegoers, Canada still holds its own in producing next-level talent. No matter what genre you’re into, Canadian talent delivers world-class filmmaking for movie lovers of all tastes.
When pundits discuss the dire state of Canadian cinema, it’s the work of Denis Villeneuve, Jasmin Mozaffari, and Jeff Barnaby that allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. But it’s filmmakers like Thyrone Tommy (Learn to Swim), Danis Goulet (Night Raiders), and Bretten Hannam (Wildhood) that leave me most optimistic. Our next wave of filmmakers already possess the talent, vision, and critical acclaim to elevate Canadian cinema on the global stage.
Given that Canadian moviegoers have a poor track record for supporting homegrown content, how did we arrive at this promising moment? The industry wouldn’t be here today without taking steps to recognize, develop, and celebrate up-and-coming talent. And it’s at this embryonic stage where institutions like Telefilm Canada and programs like the Talent Fund play a crucial role.
Since the 1960s, Telefilm Canada has supported the Canadian film industry by “financing, developing, and promoting” Canadian talent.
In 2012, Telefilm Canada created the Talent Fund to support the discovery and development of emerging Canadian filmmakers. Programs like the Talent Fund/Talent to Watch are critical to the growth of the nation’s future generations of talent.
The Talent Fund helps diversify the industry’s sources of financing through the support of private companies, industry partners, and individual donors. More funding means more opportunities for filmmakers. And more filmmaking opportunities mean more space to amplify singular voices.
The Talent Fund-supported Talent to Watch program was designed to support “a diverse array of emerging filmmakers.” The program seeks to “discover and develop the next generation of Canadian filmmakers, and to allow them to establish their voice and sensibility through a first feature.”
The Talent Fund offers filmmakers up to $250,000 for fiction feature films and $150,000 for documentaries and aids career development in the areas of marketing and promotion. Support from the Talent to Watch program can mean the difference between getting a movie off the ground and watching the project stagnate in pre-production hell.
To better understand the Talent to Watch program’s impact, I met with filmmakers and producers with firsthand experience.
I spoke with writer-director Jason Arsenault and producer Jenna MacMillan about their collaboration on Wharf Rats. The movie takes place in a blue-collar east coast fishing community full of larger-than-life characters. Wharf Rats may have the rough edges of a raunchy comedy, but don’t let its abrasive facade fool you. At its core is a sweet and sentimental tale of family, friendship, and finding your tribe.
Wharf Rats synopsis: A wharf rat discovers an old family secret that might help him get everything he ever wanted in life – beer, girls, and a fishing boat.
I also spoke with Islands writer/director Martin Edralin. The film received a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best First Feature. Islands tells the story of an introverted middle-aged Filipino immigrant confronted with a monumental change. It’s a gentle meditation on loneliness, responsibility, and finding a sense of meaning.
Islands synopsis: Joshua, a shy middle-aged Filipino immigrant, has lived in the comfort of his parents’ home his entire life. As their health declines he longs for a partner, terrified of being alone after they pass.
Tonally, Islands and Wharf Rats couldn’t be more different. Islands is a sombre drama, while Wharf Rats is gleefully outrageous. However, there’s one area where both films outshine their competition. Arsenault and Edralin both create rich and textured worlds for their characters to inhabit. I’ve seen films with ten times Wharf Rat’s budget fail to capture its magical sense of place.
Arsenault described how a certain small-town east coast vibe inspired Wharf Rats’ distinctive tone. “First and foremost, it was really the place where all that comes from,” he told me. “We were just sitting around thinking about what could we begin with that others wouldn’t be able to start with. And it really just came down to location, and the types of characters and the types of locations within these towns that we could get access to. And that became the impetus for everything.”
Arsenault and MacMillan felt it was critical to tell a local PEI story. “We wanted to focus on sort of working-class elements that fish the types of places that we grew up in with people that we grew up with,” he said. “We drew inspiration from stuff that we had seen, but we turn that inward into our life, [and] the places that we grew up.”
I’m not a shy middle-aged Filipino man, and I never lived in a small fishing community, yet I saw my own lived experiences reflected in both Wharf Rats and Islands. I asked Edralin about crafting a relatable protagonist based on the character’s specific experiences.
“I’ve made two short films before this and in all of my films, the characters aren’t exactly me, on the surface,” he said. “Their stories are not mine, but I think the feelings are, the experiences of the emotions are genuine to me. And that’s what shines through no matter who the character is or the scenario that they’re in.”
Edralin has a penchant for outsider characters. The Islands director didn’t see himself represented in the movies he watched growing up. He was a hip-hop kid and gravitated towards movies that embraced hip-hop culture. Years later, a Filipino and South Asian friend pointed out hip-hop’s appeal. The friend suggested, “Maybe we were into this stuff because that’s all we had.” Since Edralin didn’t see himself represented onscreen, he related to characters like himself, who didn’t fit in with the culture around them.
It’s hard to imagine a version of Islands that isn’t set within Toronto’s Filipino community. So much of the lead character’s sense of longing stems from his experience as an immigrant in Canada. So this version of Islands wouldn’t exist without support from the Talent to Watch program.
“I was in a unique position. I already had funding from all of the arts councils, and I was going to make this in the Philippines because I wasn’t eligible for any Telefilm funding at the time. And then when they changed the micro-budget program to Talent to Watch I became eligible,” Edralin said. “Suddenly my budget more than doubled. And I just had to reset the movie in Toronto and rewrite for it. The story changed, but the ideas behind it and the idea of the lead character stayed the same.”
Arsenault says that a struggle to secure funding forced Wharf Rats to take on a number of different lives before going into production. “We started by pitching it through CBC’s ComedyCoup, a weekly competition where we tried to pitch it as a television show, we had a deal, an option deal for a while with a company who wanted to make it into a feature,” Arsenault said.
“And for various reasons, like most projects, things stall or change or whatever. But then finally, we managed to piece together some financing through Telefilm Talent Watch and IPF and Bell. And so that’s when things really move from a concept that could be almost anything to something now, very specific.”
MacMillan added, “[Talent to Watch] was very helpful because it showed other funders an interest in the project. It would’ve been more challenging to get them involved if they didn’t already have Telefilm’s endorsement.
“We shot it on Prince Edward Island where there’s a baby film industry. It’s growing, but at the time, there as very little supports for the film industry. So Telefilm supporting us was exponentially helpful because we didn’t have those other provincial rebates to fall back on. Now I think our next project was Telefilm funded as well. And if we hadn’t had that initial funding piece from Talent to Watch it would’ve just slowed everything down, had we not done this project with them.”
Programs like Talent to Watch are a blessing to filmmakers working on shoestring budgets, but it won’t solve all their problems. MacMillan stressed one critical piece of advice for up-and-comers who think they’re the next Spielberg. “I would say write for the budget in a creative way. Find a world that’s really contained, a story you want to tell with limited characters, limited locations, so you can really maximize the funding that’s available to you. It might not be that fun for your dream project, with your action movie, with stunts and a cast of 50,” MacMillan said. “Sometimes I think, even [with] us, this was very ambitious. It was a lot of locations, a lot of cast, and it was challenging. So looking back on it, if you’ve got a story that is contained, that you can really make it pop with this funding, then that might be the one to do with this fund.”
Edralin also drove home that key piece of advice, advising young filmmakers to “Mostly work within the budget that you have. At every budget range, you always try to make something that’s at least 25% more than the money you have. Maybe it’s because I was already thinking about this for a much smaller budget, but we had a very contained shoot. We were able to pay everybody, we never had to go out of pocket, and we just really focused on a particular sort of character in a story that suited the amount of money and time we had.”
MacMillan and Arsenault touched on how their lives have changed with Wharf Rats under their belts. “Jason and our company has received a lot of interest in both co-production and shooting Prince Edward Island stories,” MacMillan said. “There are television series that are interested in shooting on PEI because there’s just so much content being made and a lack of crews and resources and studios.“
When I asked about the future of storytelling in PEI, MacMillan told me that she’s really optimistic about what’s ahead over the next ten years. “One of the things that we struggle with is having access to crews because people need to go where the work is. And historically, the work hasn’t been on PEI,” she said.
“But I am thinking that through these training initiatives and through more production happening, we’ll have more of a crew database on PEI. So we’ll be able to handle more production, but Jason and I have several projects, one feature going to camera this summer and another in a television series in development. So just for us, the next five to ten years looks more promising than the last few without that provincial support.”
I asked Arsenault to describe how shooting Wharf Rats helped him grow as a filmmaker. He believes his first step up from short films helped him quickly learn his strengths, weaknesses, and what he could do better. “I had never shot something with a crew behind me before so I was learning on the fly. By day three or four, I was like, I don’t even know if I could do ten more days. I just didn’t know, it felt like a lot, but reflecting back on that, I see now where I could do things faster, more efficiently or, even just understanding how all the pieces fit together better.”
Edralin says making Islands levelled up his filmmaking skills by honing his storytelling abilities. “The biggest change is I feel like I understand story better. This was really difficult to write for me, going from 10 to 15-page scripts to 90 pages. It’s hard to explain because it’s not like I’ve really reflected too hard or tried to break down the process or anything, but there’s something that I just organically feel, like I understand how story works better and how character arcs work better.
“I see it better and I don’t have to be so focused on one section [where I] couldn’t see the bigger picture. I see the bigger picture now.”
Islands opens in select Canadian and U.S. theatres on April 12.
Want more great Canadian movies? Be sure to visit Telefilm’s See It All portal for more info on the latest Canadian new releases.
This content is made possible with the support of Telefilm, dedicated to increasing the awareness of Canadian films.