Interview: Shawney Cohen

The Manor - Shawney Cohen

Premiering a first movie is a stressful experience for anyone, but for Shawney Cohen the experience is sure to be particularly odd. His movie The Manor opened the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival and now has an exclusive run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema before sliding into a Kinosmith theatrical release elsewhere. That’s an achievement any debut filmmaker can be proud of. But for Cohen, the experience is flavored by the fact that his film is about his family and a particularly eccentric one. As a child Shawney’s father Roger Cohen bought a strip club/motel in Guelph known as The Manor. It became the family business and flavored every aspect of their lives. When Shawney turned 13, he asked for hockey gear for his birthday and his father got him a lapdance instead. So it wasn’t a conventional upbringing, but it was a sweet one that Shawney decided to capture on camera.

After a promising career as a visual effects artist working on titles like Dawn of the Dead and A History of Violence, Shawney quit to tend bar and make a documentary about life at The Manor. For three years he followed his family, capturing his obese father’s gastric bypass surgery, his mother’s ongoing battles with anorexia, his brother’s relationship with a dancer, and his own struggles to form an eccentrically funny and surprisingly touching family portrait. It’s a wonderful little film that should put Shawney on the map as a documentary filmmaker and turn his family into reluctant doc celebrities whether they like it or not. We got a chance to chat with a rather shell-shocked (in a good way) Shawney Cohen on the day of The Manor’s Hot Docs opening night premiere to discuss his family, his film, and how they intertwine.

Dork Shelf: Do you still do any computer animation?

Shawney Cohen: No, I’m retired.

DS: How was the experience of going from that to returning to The Manor?

SC: It was great. I approached working at The Manor in a naïve way. It was something that I avoided while I was working as an animator. Then I got really bored of animation. It’s something that you jump into as a kid out of university and it’s really exciting at the time. But once you’re in your 30s…it was tough. Long hours. You spend four months animating a shot of Godzilla’s toe. I got burned out. It felt like a young man’s game and I couldn’t continue. So I was lost for a while.

It didn’t occur to me to work at The Manor right away. I realized that my parents were getting older. They’re in their 60s now. I hadn’t spent much time with them and my brother. So I decided to take a leap. When I say it was naïve, that’s because it was a completely different world than what I was used to. In my first week working there I tried breaking up a fight and got pushed through a plate glass window in the champagne room. I just thought, “What am I doing here?” But that naivety was great. In many ways you feel like you’re living in a Bukowski novel, but it was living. In animation every day is the same. In a strip club, every day is different and there are always strange new problems to solve.

DS: Have you told your family that they remind you of a Bukowski novel?

SC: (Laughs) Yes, absolutely. They don’t know who Bukowski is, so they assume it’s a good thing because of the literary reference.

DS: Was there a specific moment that made you think your family and The Manor could be a movie?

SC: Well, it wasn’t like I showed up with a camera and said, “Hey, let’s do this.” I worked there for over a year before I started shooting. One of the first things that I filmed was my father. I’ll never forget this, he was in the office, his feet were up, he was smoking a cigar, and he was yelling in Hebrew. I didn’t understand a word he was saying, but he just jumped into the lens. I just got addicted to filming him and from there it expanded into a documentary. It was complicated because I was a manager there while making the film. But it got more serious as I filmed. I don’t think you need to come up with an idea and execute it right away. I’m much looser than that in my approach. I’ll film and if something comes out of it, then great. When filming your family, you can do that. They’re always going to be around.

DS: Did they know it would be a film when you started filming?

SC: No, nobody knew.

DS: So when did that conversation happen?

SC: Oh, probably about a year and 100 hours in. I look back now and I think one of my greatest assets was…it wasn’t that they didn’t know what I was doing, but they didn’t expect all this. They just saw some random film student running around with a camera and thought, “just let him film.” Because when you think about it, you wouldn’t expect it to go anywhere. They assumed no one would see it and really let their guard down.

DS: So they were never self-conscious about the camera?

SC: Well, there are certain scenes that are intense. But, keep in mind that I’d already worked there for a bit and there was a level of trust. I told them, “I’m not going to portray this in a way that will make anyone uncomfortable. It’s going to be truthful.” For me, that was the most important part. Especially in the edit, I needed it to be a truthful depiction. I’d seen a lot of documentaries that are very well crafted, but I say “crafted.” They play with timelines and can be manipulative. I didn’t want The Manor to be that. I wanted there to be four natural story arcs – my brother, myself, my father, my mother – and let the timeline fall into place. You know, let this be a very traditional and honest vérité film.

DS: Did you show any footage to your family as you were filming?

SC: No, I thought that would be a bad idea. I’ve heard from a lot of filmmakers that when you do that people respond differently. So I didn’t show it to them until I was done and that was tough. It was the longest 80 minutes of my life. And I freaked out a little bit. I think what I was worried about was that I created an extra layer of tension and anger in the family. That hit me right before I showed it to them and I thought, “What did I do? Is this going to be damaging to our relationship?” I was wrong. They loved the film. The first thing my mother did was look at my father and say, “you know Roger, that’s exactly you.” And then she started to laugh. It made me feel better. It got me thinking, “This is a somewhat abusive co-dependent relationship, why are they together and ok with this movie?” It just made me realize that as their son I’ll never fully understand their relationship.

DS: Was there anything that you were uncomfortable putting in the film or is it all in there?

SC: Yeah, there’s a lot that I cut out, for different reasons. Sometimes people just don’t want to be in there even though they signed a waiver. You’ve got to balance that out later. You know, some dancers would come to me later and say, “my parents don’t know I dance.” And I’d just think, “then why did you sign the waiver for my documentary?” But I took them out. It’s tough, people came up to me later and complained, “I didn’t know this was going to be such a big thing.” In the end, I just realized you can’t show everything. If you did, you’ll offend people. So you want to pick your moments. Also, there were logistical issues. We shot 200 hours of footage. Most feature films shoot a 1:8 ratio, documentaries are about 1:15-1:20. We were at 1:200, which is a lot. When you’re editing and it takes you four and a half months just to watch everything you wonder, “why did we have to shoot my dad clipping his toenails for two hours?”

DS: Was this a particularly eventful three years that you happened to shoot or would you say it was business as usual at The Manor?

SC: It was pretty normal, I guess (Laughs) When you grow up in this environment it all feels quite normal. Getting a lapdance for your bar mitzvah and having strippers babysit you seems normal. You don’t experience anything else, so that’s just how you live. When I started showing it to people for the first time, I realized not only was this a bit of a tragedy because my family is a bit fucked up, but I wanted to make sure that it had integrity for that reason. Like I said before, I just wanted to make sure it was truthful and the only way for it to work was if it was truthful. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to my family. So that’s how it was.

DS: How does it feel watching it with an audience who doesn’t know you? Is it like projecting home movies in a theater?

SC: (Laughs) I don’t think I know how to answer that one yet. It’s strange, for sure.

DS: Has it been surprising how much people have been relating to it?

SC: It’s nuts, it really is. I really only finished it a few weeks ago. So once the arcs were in place I spent weeks just crafting and polishing. Now people say that it almost feels like watching fiction and that’s because there’s a lot of effort to make it feel more like a feature film. I was so busy with that up until a week and a half ago, so when the movie broke in the media…it’s a lot to digest. You know, it’s my family so I’m still working through what audiences think of them, what they think of the film. It’s a process that hopefully I’ll come to terms with soon and realize that everything is ok.

DS: How does your family feel about the big premiere and it getting a release?

SC: It’s been great. I’m probably the least excited to tell you the truth (laughs). I just wanted to get it done. In many ways I still don’t feel like it’s done, I feel like I abandoned it. Hopefully that goes away.

DS: Do you have any thoughts of what you’ll do next?

SC: It’s funny you say that. My uncle owns a sex club in Parkdale.

DS: I smell a sequel!

SC: (Laughs) Yeah, I’m not going to shoot that. I just like to tell that to reporters for fun. It’s true though. I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I have some ideas, but don’t want to discuss them yet specifically. These docs take years to do and are a gigantic commitment. You don’t want to speak to soon. I’ve seen other filmmakers come up with an idea in a couple days and still be trapped in it two years later wondering why they did it. So I want to take my time and choose the right thing. I will say that I do like themes that have to do with addiction and grit. So hopefully it’ll fall along those lines. It might be too early to make that decision. But we’ll see. I want to take my time and find something that I care about.

DS: Will you be in it again?

SC: I hope not. I didn’t like it. That was the hardest part of the process.

DS: I’m sure, but you probably had to be in this one for the sake of the rest of your family.

SC: Yeah, for sure. But I doubt I’ll do it again. I had an interview with Vice Magazine for something. I’m not sure if I’ll do that though. A few months ago I would have said “never.” Now? Maybe, but probably not.

DS: Do you plan on continuing to work at The Manor in the meantime?

SC: Yeah, absolutely. (Laughs) I don’t see why it’s such a big deal to work there two nights a week and still make films. That’s the plan anyways. I do wonder what will happen after my father retires. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s gone within five years, but we’ll see. 

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