As a film critic, if I ran across a “director’s statement” in a press kit for a seven-minute film, I would think it the height of pretension. But as someone who just spent more than a year of his spare time making a seven-minute film, I feel a need to explain myself. So at the risk of writing a director’s statement that takes longer to read than the film takes to watch, here goes . . .
Some famous filmmakers, such as Truffaut and Godard, began as film critics. But I have no ambition to direct features, at least not while it’s my job to write about them. There is only so much time in a day. Shorts, however, are another species, more akin to poetry than to prose—at least shorts with single-digit running times. Both the poem and the short are compact, thrive outside the commercial mainstream, and are open to experiment. Both tend to relish in subverting convention, and playing with language, elision, cadence, and colour.
Dennis Lee’s brilliant book of poetry, Yesno, is an apocalyptic suite about colonial folly, the extinction of species, the destruction of habitat. While genetically re-engineering the language, Lee writes a jazz prognosis for humanity (this “late-breaking primate”) and the species caught beneath its footprint.
When I read the book, I immediately saw it in cinematic terms. Fixating on a phrase from Yesno—“52 pick-up, the species,” I decided to create a deck of playing cards bearing images of endangered species cited in the poetry. To source graphics, I plugged words like “manatee” and “condor” into Google Images and downloaded drawings and engravings from the 18th and 19th century. The period graphics suited Yesno’s colonial themes—and had the beauty of being in the public domain. Before long, I was plugging other words from the book into this endless search engine, including some I had to look up (such as “nematode” and “Boolean”). Soon surfing images became an escape from the chore of writing the Yesno script. By the time my screenplay had collapsed under its own weight, like a house of cards, I realized that the real script was emerging from the surf of Google images tossed up by words from the book. They began to form an improvised storyboard. For someone who can’t draw, this allowed me to sketch scenarios for the animator, who would create what could not be shot. Also, author Graeme Gibson (The Bedside Book of Beasts) kindly donated animal art from his personal collection.
The other aspect of “scripting” the film was to carve Dennis’s book down to seven minutes, sometimes performing surgery on individual poems. Dennis was a great sport. Before he agreed to hand over his book, I told him I wanted to “remix” his poetry, and recruit a cast of other poets to voice the fragments. He granted total license, and said he wouldn’t look at the film until it was finished. As it turned out, most of the poems used in the film remain more or less in tact.
The film unfolds as a series of movements, driven by half a dozen poems. The film’s original concept is that five other poets, along with Dennis, would read his work, as distinct voices. I drew up a wish list of Dennis’s Canadian peers. The fact that this pantheon responded with such generous spirit, and delivered such exceptional performances, is a testament to Dennis Lee’s stature, and a desire to pay homage to his brilliance. The film became a tribute album of sorts. And in the recording sessions, I learned that when poetry is read by a poet other than the one who wrote it, the poem can be freed up—cut loose from cautious intention, and the need to reproduce the “original” meaning.
In making a film, the normal way of doing things is to shoot and edit the footage, then record any voice-over. But I did it backwards. Before shooting a frame, I recorded the poets and edited their performances so the vocal track worked on its own terms. Although I was creating a fiction, and had staged a chamber scene with the magician, If wanted to shoot it on location as verité. Nick de Pencier was the ideal cinematographer, a documentary filmmaker with an eye for poetry and metaphysics. His previous film (Act of God) required him to stand in thunderstorms and shoot lightning.
I needed a magician to handle the species cards, and was referred to David Ben, “the best card man in country.” I met David at his Magica headquarters in Toronto and asked if he play 52 pick-up with my proposed species deck. Sure, he shrugged, he could make the cards fountain into the air. But then he showed me how, with sleight-of-hand, he could make the species vanish from the face of the cards. David improvised magic with the Yesno custom deck on a vast oval table in the domed chamber of the Croft Chapter House at the University of Toronto.
Bravo!FACT Executive Director Judy Gladstone introduced me to Nick Fox-Gieg, a young animation genius, who was a fan of Dennis Lee’s work from the TV series Fraggle Rock. Nick and his team—Bryce Hallett, Jeanne Stern and Jamie Ryckman—would animate the creatures on the cards, and let them loose. I realized rather late in the game that animation requires almost military planning, and my improvisational methods drove Nick a little crazy. More than once he had to remind me that you can shoot a bunch of film or video then cut it to shreds; but animation is so time-consuming and costly that you animate only what you’re absolutely sure you’re going to use. (The other thing he was fond of telling me was that, in animation, it’s easier to blow up the planet than to show a simple conversation.) From Nick, I learned the importance of “workflow.” And in spite of my best efforts to confuse him with shifting agendas and last-minute requests, his work turned out brilliantly.
Finding the composer was an act of pure serendipity. One night last year I went to see the National Ballet of Canada’s contemporary dance program at the Four Seasons Opera House. Of the three pieces presented, the one that blew the roof off was Emergence, choreographed by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite. I adored the score; it was like listening to molecular biology. I tracked down the composer, Owen Belton, who had won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for that score, and he signed on. Coincidentally, while at the Opera House, I’d become enchanted by a translucent plexiglass staircase in the lobby, where you could watch the patrons’ footsteps from below. I would return to the Opera House with Nick de Pencier to shoot the staircase during intermission—capturing otherworldly images of the human footprint that would frame the narrative of Yesno.
I don’t recommend this method of making a film. Had I known what I was doing and had a better plan, things would have gone more smoothly. But it would have been a different film. I like to think that a professional filmmaker could not afford to do this, to stretch the production of a seven-minute poetry short into 14 months of experimentation. Instead of writing a clear script, then shooting it, I became engaged in time-lapse process of improvised production, making up the method and the genre as I went along. Hopefully, by the end of it, poetry and film have found some common ground.
– Brian D. Johnson, August, 2010