December 04, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

A Vital Talent Incubator 

Over 20 Canadian features have been made and hundreds of filmmakers mentored thanks to professional development programs at the Whistler Film FestivalThe Future

click to flip through (6) STORY BY CATHRYN ATKINSON - A vital talent incubator Over 20 Canadian features have been made and hundreds of filmmakers mentored thanks to professional development programs at the Whistler Film Festival.
  • Story by Cathryn Atkinson
  • A vital talent incubator Over 20 Canadian features have been made and hundreds of filmmakers mentored thanks to professional development programs at the Whistler Film Festival.

Late October. Two alumni of the Whistler Film Festival search for a place to make a movie. Overhead, a steel-coloured sky casts a mood of purposefulness.

Director Marshall Axani and his executive producer Peter Harvey are scouting locations for their latest film, tentatively called The Cannon, at the Bosa Centre for Film and Animation at Capilano University in North Vancouver.

They and four crewmembers are taking notes and photos as they snoop around an assistant dean's office, critiquing the lighting; wondering if there is enough elbowroom for the scene they want to shoot there.

It's a matter of taking the macro of the space and seeing how it measures up to the micro of the action and dialogue in the script.

Each person, particularly cinematographer Naim Sutherland, is impressively knowledgeable about the minutiae of the screenplay, which was written by Axani, and tweaks to the narrative are added to adapt to the location.

Suddenly, all talk of story blocking ceases with a signal from a student film crew not 10 feet away.


The professionals are quiet for 90 seconds while the young crew shoots their scene — though Axani continues to communicate about the office space with gestures and pointing. As soon as the other director yells "Cut!" the talk ramps up again.

Most of the team, including Axani and Harvey, are Cap U graduates. The Cannon, a comedy about an aging porn star in meltdown, is Axani's first feature, and Cap U has sponsored them through their application to Telefilm Canada's Micro-budget Production Program for funding of the $120,000 film.

"We're two weeks away from shooting and have a great team. It's really exciting," Axani says in an interview.

"The last month has been full steam ahead and we're pulling the ensemble together."

The Whistler Film Festival (WFF) was an incubator for the talents of both men, in the process contributing to the building of at least two careers.

Axani has taken home Whistler awards in the past, winning WFF's Short Work Award for Anxious Oswald Greene in 2013, and the MPPIA Short Film Award at Whistler for The Light of the Family Burnam in 2007.

And Harvey has made even more use of WWF. He grew up in Whistler, so he was able to take advantage of having a hometown film festival from the time it started up in 2000.

"I've kind of been a part of everything Whistler does," Harvey says with a laugh.

"I did Whistler Stories in I think it was 2009. They gave me a $5,000 grant; it was two years after graduating from Cap."

And Harvey's film Picture Day, starring Tatiana Maslany, won WFF's Borsos Competition for Best Canadian Feature Film in 2012.

He is also an alumnus of WFF's Telefilm Feature Project Lab for producers with Talk Like a White Boy in 2014.

Harvey moved to Toronto to work in the industry full time and now has 22 producing credits, 14 production manager credits, and two directing credits to his name.

He's a busy man but he's back every year for WFF.

"I come whether I have a film in it or not," Harvey says.

WFF's evolution

This kind of loyalty to the film festival is not unusual.

A boutique, five-day event running this year from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, WFF has run multiple programs for creative and professional development since 2007, says executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw.

She estimates that over the years, 2,000 Canadian filmmakers and industry alumni have come through the WWF system, taking part by screening films, taking programs for screenwriters, producers, aboriginal filmmaking, and pitching to producers and funders. 179 of those taking WFF professional labs. There is even a showcase for British Columbian music talent.

"When we started, our first lab was in collaboration with the Canadian Film Centre. We started the Go West Project Lab for producers, and this eventually became the Feature Project Lab," Hardy Mishaw recalls.

"And during that time, we had other things come up, such as the MPPIA Short Film Award, that's in its 10th edition this year."

In 2016, there will be 12 professional development programs and labs at Whistler.

Hardy Mishaw says more than 20 feature films have been filmed over the years thanks to WFF's investment.

"It's one thing to be a film festival and show films, which is what we originally started with. Then came the second part, the industry component (with speakers and gatherings of Canadian film's talent from studios, distributors, funding organizations, and production companies) was added because it was essential," she says.

"And what evolved out of that was this idea to be able to help nurture talent, and to use the festival as a place to help filmmakers really hone their projects and their craft. That is how the talent programs started; it was a natural progression.

"Now I think it's the foundation for our future because we have over 2,000 alumni. If we can help them make their projects happen because the right people are coming to Whistler then it makes tons of sense."

The deal wheels for WFF 2016 were already spinning weeks ahead of the festival's opening film, La La Land, on Wednesday, Nov. 30.

"I already know of two projects that are being picked up for distribution at this year's festival... we're putting them into play," Hardy Mishaw says.

"We are intentionally putting people beside those who can help them make a deal. We even have two of Variety's Top 10 Screenwriters to Watch delivering master classes to our Praxis Screenwriters this year for the first time.

"Can you imagine? Two Oscar-contending writers are in the room with six screenwriters chosen out of 76 applicants, and then the screenwriters are going to have readings with actors from our Stars-to-Watch program. The calibre of the people coming here is so high and they are willing to help.

"We say, 'Giddy-up! Let's do this.' It's very exciting and impactful. Bringing people together is the magic behind this festival."

When Leo met Veninger

As industry attendees discover at WFF, connections can come from anywhere and sometimes manifest in surprising ways.

In 2013, Oscar-winning actor Melissa Leo attended the festival and changed Toronto director Ingrid Veninger's life.

Veninger was onstage at the film festival's annual award breakfast, having just won an AWFJ EDA Award for her film The Animal Project, telling the audience about her dream to support female filmmakers.

She called out to the hundreds of people present, boldly challenging someone to step forward with $6,000 to fund six women directors to create new projects through her production company pUNK Films in Toronto.

Veninger describes the moment, which has now become something of a WFF legend:

"I had no idea I was getting that award. I told everyone I wanted to launch this program for women across Canada. It would be intensive, six writers creating six scripts in six months.

"I very impulsively had already put it out on Facebook before the festival and submissions were beginning to come in (but there was no money to run it). I was thinking about it at Whistler a couple of weeks later. I remember being at the podium and I wanted to see more films with narratives by women.

"I can't even remember if I said it out loud, but people were going, 'Yeah! Stories about women!' And so I said, 'Would anyone stand up with $6,000 for a first look at the script?' It was a call to action, to encourage each other.

"The room was silent and I thought, 'Oh, no surprise. People are constantly talking about things they don't follow through on.' So everyone was looking at each other and my heart kind of sank... I knew Variety was there and I knew Hollywood Reporter was there so I said whoever would do this would get some press out of it. And everyone started laughing.

"I started to count down from six out loud, and before I hit two, someone at the Variety table shot their hand in the air and said, 'I'll do it!' And I didn't know it was Melissa Leo until later. She walked to my table and I saw her braid and her glasses and I thought, 'Oh my God.'"

Veninger's new film Porcupine Lake, which she developed through the pUNK Film Femmes Lab, has just completed filming. It is one of the first films completed from the program. Leo didn't want to be called executive producer on the project, so Veninger listed her as "Foremother."

"I've just picture-locked it and am working on the score now," Veninger says.

"Out of the initiative that I announced from that podium, six Canadian women each wrote an original film and Melissa had a look at the scripts. We went to her place, we had a big slumber party and she read the scripts. She has become a real champion and good friend."

Veninger is grateful to WFF.

"The Whistler Film Festival has a healthy level of films directed by women and that is something to be celebrated," she says.

"It really looks after filmmakers and people keep coming back because they have such a good time."

Veninger has now screened five films at WFF, and last year took part in a women-in-film panel. Now she's returning as a member of the 2016 Borsos Award jury, headed by director Deepa Mehta.

Winnipeg director Danishka Esterhazy has never been to WFF, but as one of the six women filmmakers to participate in Veninger's Femmes Lab she, too, benefitted from the day Leo stood up for women filmmakers at the festival.

In an email she wrote:  

"We met once a month for six months. I flew from Winnipeg each month to meet the group in Toronto or Montreal. I wrote two screenplays as a result of it, The 25th during the lab and Shadowy Lines immediately after.

"The lab culminated in a sleepover at Melissa's house in New York where she wined and dined us and (best of all) gave us great notes on our screenplays. It was an unforgettable experience. Very inspiring. The experience encouraged me to step outside of my safety zone. So I took a giant leap."

Esterhazy says while The 25th is still in development, whole Shadowy Lines has been shot and has gone into post production. It will be her third feature.

Making it

Vancouver actor, producer and director Josh Epstein is preparing to start filming his feature Public Schooled, starring Judy Greer of Jurassic World and Arrested Development fame.

Epstein was in the Feature Project Lab for producers with Public Schooled in 2013, alongside Axani and Harvey. It was his second WFF talent lab, and his second feature with his partner Kyle Rideout.

"Public Schooled is about an awkward homeschooled kid whose only friend in the world is his teacher/mother, who Judy Greer is playing," Epstein says.

"Then he falls in love with a public-school girl."

The film has a budget of over $1 million, considerably more than his previous film Eadweard, a more bare-bones production. Public Schooled is supported by the Canadian Film Centre and Telefilm Canada.

The ability to manage a bigger project is down, in part, to training opportunities like those offered by WFF.

"The films from that (talent lab) are getting made. It's impressive," he says.

"It's really important when you take these labs that you are meeting talented and driven filmmakers — it's really important that they are driven. You have to show a record of success, though in Canada if you are getting things done, you are probably pretty driven.

"When you go to these labs you are meeting people from all over the country who have been working their tails off to get something going."

He describes them as up-and-comers who are not having success handed to them and they become the people who are able to shepherd projects to completion.

"In Canada, I think the only way to get into the feature world as a producer or director, even a writer, is to be pushing your own projects," Epstein says.

For these filmmakers, festivals and grants are crucial.

"To get a film to the place where you're getting the resources you need to get it made, the script needs editing and you may need a story consultant. You have to learn how to pitch a project, all the fragments need to come together."

Epstein grew up as a Canadian cinephile, not an overly common thing for a kid, going to the Toronto International Film Festival to check out the latest work.

"I'm excited by what I would say is a new kick in Canadian cinema. In the last couple of years, I've been to a few film festivals, mainly taking Eadweard around, I was just in Reykjavik.

"Whistler is one of the best festivals in the world. Firstly, you are in this gorgeous setting and you are in a small community and get to spend a lot of time with these people. You bump into people here and that is really valuable.

"And it has great leadership, with people who really want to help you out. I love (WFF programmer) Paul Gratton. He is probably the best introducer of movies that I've ever seen."

Moving behind the camera

Coast Salish actress Mary Galloway is one of WFF's Stars to Watch in 2016.

An alumni of the festival's Aboriginal Filmmaker's Lab, she was recently awarded the Kevin Spacey Foundation Award and $10,000 for her first short film as director, Unintentional Mother. She is the first Canadian winner.

The film, her second short, will have a rough-cut screening at WFF. It co-stars the Vancouver Island director's mentor at WFF, veteran aboriginal actor Lorne Cardinal, as well as Galloway herself.

"The Kevin Spacey Award has allowed me to make a bigger and better film," Galloway says.

"The aboriginal filmmaker's lab helped me get the script to a place where I felt confident enough to submit it to other things."

Galloway went behind the camera in order to augment her first love, acting. She hasn't given it up though, having just returned from Los Angeles, where she went to support the film Fire Song, in which she stars, at the L.A. Skins Indigenous Film Festival.

"I started writing so I could write myself roles to act in. Then I started producing in order to make what I wrote," she says.

"And I've started directing for the same reason. I do it all now."

As an indigenous woman, telling stories from her community is also important, her family is supportive.

"It's really nice to think I'm reaching that community. They're on the reserve and I don't get to go there that often. But technology is so cool these days and you get to keep in touch and stay close," Galloway says.

"My stories will always have a female protagonist whose life doesn't revolve around finding Mr. Right and living happily ever after. The other aspect of it, which I also want to do, is shatter the stereotypes of First Nations people."

"It's a big undertaking but I am very passionate about it. I'm stepping into those roles out of necessity. The whole world — and the film industry — is lacking in female filmmakers in general, let alone female filmmakers from diverse backgrounds."

Having Corner Gas actor Cardinal play her father in Unintentional Mother was a little overwhelming.

"He was an amazing mentor. It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't come to Whistler. It was invaluable," Galloway says.

The Future

When WFF executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw looks to the future of professional development and talent programming at the festival, she knows where they have the greatest impact. In fact, she says it is where the festival's future lies.

"We are a filmmakers' festival. It's all about the talent. The focus for us is the talent behind the scenes and on screen," she says.

To that end, WFF 2016 will see a real push for seed funding for their latest initiative, a new film business unit.

The unit would be a "film institute model" that Hardy Mishaw says aligns with both the resort municipality's learning and education initiatives and its desire to promote cultural tourism. She says there is receptivity to the concept.

Professional development programs offered at the festival this year include Women in the Director's Chair WFF Industry Immersion, Aboriginal Filmmakers Lab, Praxis Screenwriters Lab, Digital First Lab, Doc Lab: Story Money Impact, Feature Project Lab, Canon Hi5 Short Film Challenge, Stars to Watch, MPPIA Short Film Award Competition and Power Pitch.

The festival's biggest challenge in 16 years has been to meet its growing success with a quality event on a budget that means they are chronically understaffed and under pressure.

Hardy Mishaw says they are grateful for $700,000 of in-kind assistance. And, of course, there are the volunteers, without whom WFF would not happen.

"You say, 'build it and they will come.' Well, they're coming," she says.

"At the end of the day, the rubber hits the road and it's not enough to maintain it at this level. It took 16 years to get here... how do we deal with (our success)?"

WFF has developed a brief on their plans that Hardy Mishaw intends to share during the festival to drum up support and funding. The evolution towards this moment has already been happening for years, she says.

"What we needed to do in order to leverage the past 16 years and the major investment to date, which has been over $16 million creating a $100 million impact, is that we needed to evolve our business model that compliments the existing program and augments the talent program," Hardy Mishaw says.

"That's what this is all about."

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