Jason and Brett Butler are hardworking filmmakers that prove that the microbudget independent spirit in the Canadian filmmaking community isn’t only thriving, but becoming ever increasingly accepted. The sibling writer/director/producer/actors have been toiling in the indie film and television trenches for the better part of a decade now, but their latest feature, the dark comedy Mourning Has Broken (opening at The Royal in Toronto this Friday, fresh off winning the Audience Choice Award at the Anchorage Film Festival last year) finds the filmmakers not only at an important crossroads in their own careers, but also at a pivotal point in terms of how Canadian independent films are viewed and financed on a larger scale.
Their story for the film is a simple one. A nameless man (veteran Canadian actor Robert Nolan) wakes up one Saturday morning to find that his wife has silently and painlessly passed away in her sleep after a lengthy illness. Unable to come to terms with his loss, the man sets about his daily errands outside the home, not wanting to return to the sadness. Unfortunately, everyone he comes in contact with is destined to annoy him, from movie theatre talkers and unsavoury mechanics to bullying parents and thoughtless drivers. It’s about a sad man who has lost the one thing closest to him but who now wants his own life to go smoothly starting immediately, as he takes realistic levels of vengeance against everything that pisses him off on his daily adventure.
The story of how the film got made in the first place, where it places the film within the Toronto filmmaking community, and how it landed distribution is a bit more complicated. Pitched as an idea in 2012 as part of Modra and The Animal Project filmmaker Ingrid Veninger’s 1K Film Wave competition, Brett and Jason were one of five filmmakers who were given $1,000 each to complete a film (which Veninger paid for out of pocket shortly after winning the then $5,000 Jay Scott Prize for emerging talent from the Toronto Film Critics Association).
After premiering the film in the 1K Wave showcase, the work of the brothers caught the eye of veteran Canadian producer Avi Federgreen (One Week, Empire of Dirt, Still Mine), who picked up the film for distribution by Indiecan Entertainment. Not only taken by the film, but by the initiative that Veninger set with her own series, Federgreen announced last week the formation of the INDIECAN10K: a similarly themed initiative inspired by the 1K Wave to team up first time filmmakers in each province with a filmmaking mentor to produce 8 debut features budgeted at $10,000 a piece. Similarly, Veninger herself has recently started up another altruistic film initiative (with a little bit of unexpected help from actress Melissa Leo) called the pUNK Films Femmes Lab, designed to help create six feature film scripts all developed by female artists. It’s certainly an exciting time to be a Canadian filmmaker to say the least.
Jason and Brett continue to work on other projects (currently working on a TV series about superheroes with suspect abilities called The Undrawn), but it’s this decidedly smaller production that looks to be a stand out in their careers and a major turning point for the local film industry if it makes enough waves. But they don’t seem at all pressured by all the hard work. They sound like they thrive on it. Chatting on the phone after a long work week on their latest project, they sound just as energized as ever and excited that their film – which started out as a short – has been getting so much attention from the community at large.
We talked to Jason and Brett about expanding the film to feature length, how they kind of bluffed their way through their initial pitch, their collaboration with Robert Nolan, and how they like to keep audiences guessing.
Dork Shelf: I know you guys got your funding for this project through Ingrid Veninger’s 1K Wave project, and I was wondering if this was an idea for a story that you had kicking around before the chance to try and gain this kind of funding or if it was an idea that you guys came up with to try and be a part of the project?
Brett Butler: We had an idea for a short film at first with the same basic premise. It was originally only about five pages long in total, and then when Ingrid’s challenge came along we thought that it was the best idea that we had that we could blow up into a feature and we went ahead and pitched the hell out of it.
DS: So you originally intended it as a short, but when you go to extend something like this into a feature and you know you still have a microbudget of only a thousand dollars do you really begin to add to it?
Jason Butler: I think in a lot of ways it actually made things easier in a sense. When we were thinking of it as a short film that was going to be only five minutes, we were so full of different themes and situations that this guy could run into over the course of his day, but in a short context you can only stuff so much into five or ten minutes. When we first thought of the film, those were the parameters we gave to ourselves, so it actually kind of opened things up which was exciting.
BB: Yeah, it was nice going in to still have the beginning and ending already in place, which is always a hard thing to figure out. Then it was just filling the sandwich out from there.
DS: And you guys really luck out by being able to cast someone like Robert Nolan in the lead because you get to have a veteran actor that’s already done a lot of film and TV to come on board for this incredibly small film, which is a great anchor to have. What was it like trying to bring him on board to be a part of this?
JB: It was pretty exciting, and a bit intimidating at first. To be quite honest, when we initially pitched the whole idea Ingrid, we said that we had Robert Nolan on board, which was NOT true at the time. (laughs) When we got greenlit, it was then a matter of contacting Robert and convincing him.
BB: And all we had was the original five page script, and he was just, like, “Uh, guys? How are we going to shoot a feature with just five pages?” (laughs) But he was just a total professional and we knew that before even going in. We had known him from auditions from some of our previous stuff, and we always knew what he could bring to the table. And when he first sat down with us for this he came prepared already with loads of ideas. It felt good right off the bat.
JB: Yeah, the collaboration with him started immediately as soon as we met him.
DS: So when you start off with only five pages and an actor, how much does your leading man end up contributing to the final direction of the film? You clearly gave him a lot of room to move.
JB: A lot, really. I mean, editing is ultimately what helps the most in the end when it comes to making your choices, but our approach is sort of to have people “go big” and not limit ourselves, but if we do that from the outset we can always change direction later, you know? We always told Robert if he was feeling something to just go for it.
BB: Yeah, once we got greenlit by Ingrid, we were trying to write the scenes, and we would send each scene to Robert as we were finishing them. So he always had an ongoing script forming, and then he could come back at us with his thoughts about these situations that we were writing.
JB: Some of the fun scenes are the scenes when he’s driving around in his car. We aren’t there in the car with him, and we just say “This is the situation Robert and we’re going to run it a few times. Just act how you’re feeling.” In those scenes we didn’t even know until we watched the footage afterwards what he was even coming up with!
DS: With those sequences especially, you are doing some kinds of drama that are really hard to fake or to pull off on your budget. It’s not like you could lock down a street or an intersection for something as simple as the part where he gets annoyed with another stopped driver at a four-way and neither of them wants to move. Those are cool character moments to have, but when you don’t have a lot of money, they can be the most difficult things to pull off.
BB: One of the best things in the film was our first shot on the first day, which is when Robert goes through a red light in front of a pharmacy and a funeral home. We initially planned to play around with it in editing so he wouldn’t have to go through a red light. It was just going to LOOK like he did. And the first take he just blew right through the red light and we got it, and we we’re just, like, “BOOM! Robert Nolan is definitely our guy for this.” He’s one committed actor. (laughs)
DS: None of these characters have names and they are just figures that float through this one man’s life on this particularly bad day for him. Even taking his own circumstances out of it and the reasons why he doesn’t want to go home, it’s still a pretty realistic day full of things that could really annoy someone. What was it like crafting all of the foils for this man?
JB: It was a lot of fun, because there were a lot of different archetypes that you see every day. I know that at least I kind of tapped into my past retail experiences and working with, around, and for all sorts of egos of different shapes and sizes, so it was really just a matter of breaking it down and dramatizing each and every one. And since we didn’t have a lot of time, it was really just a matter of going through all the actors we knew and saying “I think this person would have a lot of fun doing this” and then just pitching it to everyone that way.
BB: It was very cathartic for us to write it, and unleashing that anger at people that we kind of had inside of us for some time. (laughs) It’s also something that we wanted to be cathartic for the people watching it, too.
JB: Yeah. We never wanted it to feel like sour grapes, so we throw in that death at the beginning so people can have a little bit more room to get angry about this man’s day. (laughs) We gave them just a little more rope.
DS: And it’s interesting that you have your main character react in different ways to similar kinds of behaviour. He’s not afraid of taking someone’s keys for not knowing how to drive or getting up in front of a crowded movie theatre to tell everyone off about how awful they’re behaving, but you also have him deal with someone like the pushy, overselling sporting goods store employee, who you would think he’ll snap on, but he’s actually remarkably patient with.
JB: And that’s exactly it! We want to keep the audience off balance and make them wonder what people and situations he’s going to go really extreme on. It’s sometimes just as fun to pull things back and remind the audience that this is a normal guy having an unheard of, one of a kind day. It all falls into place nicely, I think. Everyone’s always expecting him to just go off and go crazy, and we want to amp up the comedy aspect at certain times instead of just showing rage.
BB: And the sporting goods guy is also complimenting this man on his biceps and his power, so that always feels good. (laughs)
DS: So what was it like casting yourselves as arguably two of the douchiest people in your own film?
JB: It was easy! (laughs) We actually didn’t want to be in the film at all, but it was one of Ingrid’s prime directives; to have us show up in the film and at least do a cameo. And we figured that since we weren’t really paying the actors and we wanted a little bit of violence, let’s have the directors and writers be the victims of that violence. (laughs)
BB: And after spending about 20 hours every day with Robert, I’m sure he had some pent up aggression against us that he wanted to unleash at some point. (laughs)
JB: But it was great because those characters are so out there that you can just take them as far as you want and see what happens.
BB: And Jay wasn’t really playing a role there. (laughs)
DS: So with that directive in mind was that why you also include one of Ingrid’s films within your own as a sort of cameo in itself?
JB: Yeah! Initially we had wanted to and we had written an actual part for her, but unfortunately because of ACTRA rules she couldn’t participate. But she still wanted to be a part of the movie, so we just show her movie in our movie during the theatre scene. That was a nod to her, and she definitely did want to have a bit in the movie herself.
BB: And it was really cool for us to have that in there because i am a good person/i am a bad person was where the whole initiative started. We went to see the movie and we met her, and then she launched the 1K Wave as a result of that film’s success, so it was special for us to feature her film in that part because that’s where everything really started for us.