I knew Nate Wilson before it was cool; before he was an award winning filmmaker. Well, in fairness, a lot of people have known Nate Wilson before I have, but after this coming weekend and after his victory in last year’s RBC sponsored TIFF Next Wave 24 Hour Film Challenge for his short film Spaceman, a lot more people are going to take notice of him as already being a bit of a veteran filmmaker even though he’s still in high school. A kind of fixture among the local movie scene, Wilson is the kind of kid who watches films almost as much as he makes them, constantly attending movies and occasionally working in a video store to supplement his education whenever he’s not attending his day job of going to school at Rosedale Heights School of The Arts.
Last year around this same time, to coincide with the annual TIFF Next Wave Festival (running this year from February 14th to the 16th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox) dedicated to teen oriented films and filmmaking, Wilson produced a film for the competition with some friends in hopes of landing the $500 cash prize for being the best. What he would encounter was a long and exhausting night, but one that left his greatly fulfilled from the experience even if his short wasn’t going to end up winning by the end of it. While such filmmaking contests and feats of creativity over limitations are nothing new, it was a challenge that ultimately gave Wilson (who still produces numerous shorts and helps out on the occasional feature from time to time) a newfound sense of confidence in his abilities going into his current university film school application process.
This Saturday at 9am, Wilson returns for the kick off to this year’s challenge to meet with this year’s crop of competetors and budding filmmakers (a title he very jokingly says he should be defending this year) and to offer some advice from having previously been in the trenches. Also attending the kick off breakfast will be Matt Johnson and Evan Morgan, not only the creative forces behind the sleeper hit Canadian film The Dirties, but also two members of this year’s decision making jury and a pair of filmmakers who know a thing or two about creating things on the fly themselves. Wilson will have his ear picked by people hoping to replicate his success in advance of this year’s completed entries screening at the Next Wave festival on Sunday, February 16th at noon. (For full information on the competition, head on over to the TIFF website.)
Nate met up with me for coffee in the lobby of the Toronto Reference Library for a coffee and after catching up and geeking out about our shared excitement for The Lego Movie and Shane Black’s rejected treatment for The Lone Ranger, we talked about what kind of advice he would give to any teens interested in taking on the challenge this year, what the experience and the shoot was like last year, and how the competition makes him feel about his work today.
Dork Shelf: It’s been a year since you did the 24 Hour Film Challenge, which you won, or else I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now…
Nate Wilson: (muttering under his breath) Well, I didn’t think we would win… (laughs)
DS: Well, it’s really hard to go into something that unknown with that many variables and be all that confident about it.
NW: (laughs) Oh man, no one ever works on a challenge like this and see the final product and says, “YUP! This is the winner! I’m so proud of the work I did! This will be the best thing I have ever made!” (laughs) They leave sleep deprived, and exhausted, and like you might want to throw up at times, and it really does make you question sometimes if you want to make movies anymore, but these are all things you need to learn how to work with.
One of the great things about this year that’s different from last year that they fixed and I think is a really good thing, is that this year the competition starts at 9 in the morning, so people can actually shoot during the day, which is great. Last year we started in the evening, so we had already been up for part of the day and now here we were having to be up for another 24 hours.
But, sorry, what was your first question going to be? (laughs)
DS: (laughs) When you first heard about the challenge and that it was going to happen, how did you first approach it. Because you never know what you’re going to get until you get there or as soon as you start making it. What could you anticipate ahead of time?
NW: We didn’t, really. I think I had an idea for a movie roughly a week before the competition – just kind of offhandedly – and I kind of threw that away.
For a while, none of us were really even thinking of doing the challenge really until the last minute. My friend, Peter Kuplowsky, kept telling me about it for a few weeks. We had already been working on another movie for our film class at school, and to be honest, we were feeling kinda shitty about it. It was taking way too long and it was only this ten minute long film and we had been shooting it for about a month up to that point, and that was really just because of location problems that we were having. So what happened was one night we were going to shoot and our actor wasn’t available, but we were all ready to shoot something, so we all just figured, “Why not? Let’s do it!” We knew it would be good for us no matter what the outcome was.
On our walk home from the start of it we were just kind of tossing around ideas. We were given guidelines. It had to include a line from a John Hughes movie, and we got “That’s quite a volcanic ensemble you’re wearing” from Pretty in Pink and we had to include something from Sixteen Candles. From there we just set about finding ways of putting that into our film in a way that had nothing at all to do with John Hughes. (laughs) We were just trying to think of ways to subvert that and just make something really crazy.
A couple of weeks before that I had just watched (John Carpenter’s) Starman, and I wondered what that would be like if the alien was instead a really terrible kind of creature, but the wife character still really loved him anyway. So we thought up this idea of a love obsessed Molly Ringwald type falls in love with this space alien that landed in her backyard, but he was kind of like a pirate and he’s all dirty and gross and she still tries to court him.
And our idea was WAY bigger in our planning than what actually panned out. There was going to be, like, ten aliens, a shootout, and all sorts of craziness.
DS: At what point did it really dawn on you that you only had 24 hours to do all of this?
NW: It was definitely at about six in the morning and we were still shooting and we all looked at each other and just kind of said, “Yeah. We should end this.” (laughs) By that point we were just kind of making stuff up. We even had these ideas of having, like, parallel dimensions and stuff like that. We went at it from a point where we have absolutely nothing to lose, so we might as well just go big and be as crazy as possible.
And the biggest thing that I would recommend to anyone doing it is to realize just that. You have absolutely nothing to lose by entering, and even if you just barely finish, you still made something. Don’t go in grumbling that you only have 24 hours. You can make a great movie that takes place just in a single room and still have it be great. I mean, I’m not particularly as proud of the movie I made for the challenge as I am some of the other stuff I have done, but for something that we just slapped together over a weekend it was fun and I had a lot of fun learning from it.
DS: Is it hard at times to see it as something that you’re using as an exercise to see how you perform under pressure and that you probably won’t turn out a masterpiece in 24 hours?
NW: Totally. If you do this the first thing you should bring to it is just that fun of making a movie and just wanting to have fun doing something; to just push yourself and see what you can do. We weren’t thinking too hard about perfecting the tone or tightly editing it. We just wanted to have fun making something, and I mean this is the kind of challenge that sort of bridges the gap between goofing around as a kid and what you might have to do when you get older. Again, you have nothing to lose and only fun to gain.
It’s funny because I think at first we were just having so much fun that we thought we might just luck into some kind of goofball masterpiece. (laughs) We actually had the bright idea to keep doing podcasts throughout the night to chart how we were doing because we were having so much fun and we just felt so unstoppable at first, then at about six in the morning I think I said, “Hey, didn’t we forget to do one of these a few hours ago?” And from behind me I just hear someone say “Fuck off.” (laughs) Then we did one at the end that was just completely delirious.
It was kind of surprising, because some groups actually didn’t hand anything in. They just didn’t finish, and I was just thinking that it’s probably easier and a lot less stressful in the long term to just find a way to finish it no matter what over the 24 hours. Unless you just never rolled the camera, just cut something together out of what you have or even enjoy the silliness of just screening a bunch of unassembled footage and have a laugh about it, you know? If you are just that pressed for time and you just want to make something simple and tight, you can just make a three minute long, one shot movie.
Just finishing what you started in these kinds of competitions is the best feeling in the world, and people should be proud of it. I know, personally, that we all learned a lot about finishing things that we were starting because ultimately it helped us with the movie that we were working on for school at the time. And after the fact it helped us have that attitude about it always being better to finish what we start.
You are going to go through a range of emotions, so really the biggest advice I can give is to have as much fun as possible. Make what you could most feasibly be proud of under the circumstances. And if you are making a movie for too long, say like with the project we were all working on for school where it was a month for a short film, people who aren’t accustomed to making movies will get really stressed out and start to not have fun making movies anymore because that illusion that they can be fun to make will go away. But for that 24 hour period, the stress should be fun. For me, that’s the most fun, and this should be a time where it’s kind of fun to be stressed out. It’s the same kind of idea behind doing anything for 24 hours, like just doing a 24 hour movie WATCHING marathon. Even if you don’t like the movie you are watching – which has happened MANY times for me – you should still be having fun trying to power through. It’s like a test on how far you can push yourself.
DS: And you’re working with a whole crew of people that you knew going in, and even though I know you are working with friends, any filmmaker will tell you that working with a crew you always have to be careful with the different needs and working styles of everyone around you. How do you balance that even with a crew you’re familiar with in only 24 hours?
NW: I had been working with the people that I worked with on our film for at least several months and in some cases even longer. Honestly, I can imagine that being a big problem with a lot of groups, especially bigger ones where people might be working with friends who know nothing about movies or anything like that. We had a weird thing where we had all been doing this for a while together, so thankfully I never had much of a problem with that. I had been the director of the group for quite a while.
That part was really easy, but I think a lot of that might have been because our concept was so out there and we kind of subscribed to the old improve rule of just adding stuff, like, “YES, AND…!” Everyone just went along with it and just built upon it. Even myself, who would usually be the first person to shake his head and say “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I don’t think I ever once said that. And I don’t think anyone else said that, either, and that’s a really great and positive attitude to have towards a project like this.
DS: Any other tips you would give for people to save their sanity when they get to that point where you guys reached when you were getting too tired to go on?
NW: Well, what happened last year was that I think a lot of people slept, which in some cases might have been a good idea and another way of doing things. A lot of people shot during the daytime and I just wondered “When did you have the time to edit this?” But in a lot of cases it was clear that they had their idea, planned it, napped or did something like that and just rushed the rest. We spent most of our time that next morning on the edit, and some people shot firmly thinking ahead with the edit already in mind, which is also a pretty great idea if you think you can manage it. I mean, we thought with it in mind, but maybe they were just harder and better working than we were because they slept. (laughs)
We were almost convinced that maybe we were the only group who was able to stay up all night. Maybe the other groups that tried that were the ones that crumbled and didn’t hand anything in. I think we were one of only a few that shot at all at night. You could tell, though, that our movie was one that was made while we were up all night because it got progressively rougher and rougher around the edges. (laughs)
But this year, it’s a lot better because now you really have the whole day to do it instead of shooting everything overnight. But when you get to that point where we were around 6am, just keep going because by that point there’s no reason to stop.
DS: What was the most stressful part of it? Was it the conception, the shoot, or the edit?
NW: Definitely not coming up with the idea. That was by far the most fun. We started shooting at midnight and up until then we just bounced back and forth. We were kind of shooting as we were writing it, kind of like Jurassic Park 3 or Alien 3 or Back to the Future Part 3, really any part 3. (laughs) We were writing for the most part while people were running around trying to grab props from people’s houses before everyone went to bed for the night.
Maybe midnight was a little late to start shooting, but it was still a lot of fun, because we found the girl that starred in that one and later starred in the two films we would do after that, her name is Jackie De Niverville, and she had just been hanging around working for us as a crew member on a few of our movies before that and we never thought of putting her in front of the camera at all before that. But she was the only girl in our group, so she just became kind of the muse for our group, and we put her in front of the camera and she was just fantastic! That was really fun and easygoing because we felt we had never made something this abundant before, just pulling in things from everything we had at our disposal. We never made something this conceptual or crazy because we never had the chance to do something like this on our own before with a sense of purpose to finally turn something in.
Shooting did get pretty difficult towards the end. (laughs) I’m pretty sure I didn’t get enough coverage for all this stuff, to the point where we ended on a freeze frame because literally the shot after the one we ended it on, our actress looked directly into the camera. (laughs) It was either that or she just kind of said “I’m done!” and then just passed out. I don’t even remember now why, but it was something like that.
The hardest part isn’t pacing the movie, but pacing yourself. The actual part where I felt the most physically sick and awful was sitting down with my friends to edit the film. That was rough. And the absolute worst was sound editing. Let it be a lesson to everyone doing this competition that you will absolutely in no way have time for sound editing. (laughs) No. Just no. Expect your sound to be rough. That is a luxury that only time permits. When we got to editing we were just exhausted, that was when the fun began to slow down.
DS: What’s it like to come back now a year later to meet with some of the people trying to win the competition this year and get a chance to meet and talk with them?
NW: Yeah, wow. These guys are gunning for my spot. I think I should just enter every year now. (laughs) That would be horrible. I would be like the old time sports movie villain, you know? The eight time winner. (laughs)
Actually, I think this really, really cool to be able to come back and do this. I’m always excited to see what comes out of these kinds of things and to be able to check it all out, and to just remind them all to have fun and to not think about winning it all so much. There was a bunch of great stuff last year that came out of it. I’m even more excited to talk to them after it’s all done, and be, like, “Hey, how you feelin’?” (laughs)
And we were one of those groups who almost didn’t hand our film in because we were just too tired and we almost didn’t go to the screening. It was a last minute decision to even go, and that’s something that no one in this competition should be silly enough to take for granted. You are having your film screened in an actual theatre and in front of an actual audience and no one can take that from you. I mean, I’m no matter how ashamed you might think you are of the final product, you still made a movie.
And I mean, it’s a huge confidence boost to someone like myself who is still trying to keep making movies. I mean, if what I think is one of my worst works is something that actually won me a prize, that just makes me feel even better about the stuff that I am really, really proud of.