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Chaz Thorne: feature film director 

With the release of Thorne’s new comedy-drama Whirligig, he explains its troubled gestation and the struggles to keep his tenuous job in a country that doesn’t want to go to the movies to see its own stories.

click to enlarge SCOTT MUNN

Chaz Thorne is a producer, writer, director and sometime actor. He can be the money behind a film and also its author, ringmaster and creative force. Probably best just to call him a filmmaker.

This weekend his newest feature film opens in cinemas. Whirligig is a comedy-drama, an unconventional story about a young Nova Scotian who, having returned to his parents' Eastern Shore home, has an fling with his older neighbour. Thorne said the script, by Dartmouth-based scribe Michael Amo, reminded him of Little Miss Sunshine or Juno.

Thorne's new movie has been a long time coming. In late 2006 he directed his last picture, the mortician comedy Just Buried. It was shot in Windsor and starred Jay Baruchel (She's Out of Your League) and Rose Byrne (Damages). He also produced and co-wrote Poor Boy's Game with director Clément Virgo, a Halifax-based boxing drama starring Danny Glover. Both films screened at the Atlantic Film Festival that year.

Thorne is unusual. He's a Nova Scotian who directs feature films in his home province. Given that movies are one of the most popular storytelling mediums of our time, why is it so few people here get to be directors?

The answer is complicated.

It has to do with how expensive movies are to make.

And how in English-speaking Canada, we don't seem to be very interested in seeing our stories in the cinema.

April 2009

Thorne is busy with one of the things that producers do: fundraising. With help from producing partners Amo and David MacLeod of Big Motion Pictures, he'd like to shoot Whirligig at the end of the summer for a 2010 release.

Thorne's company, Standing 8 Productions, runs out of an office in Halifax's west end. "With my first cheque from Poor Boy's Game, I renoed the basement of my house," for the office, he says. By keeping his overhead low, he's been able to survive in the long stretches between his films. "Over the years we've seen so many production companies go bankrupt, particularly when you're doing features and not TV. It can be so long in between projects. I am a one-man company. I have a part-time assistant that comes in, maybe 10 hours a month. Everything else, from licking the envelopes, all that shit I have to do myself."

With two feature films under his belt, is raising the financing for this project any easier?

"The answer is, 'Sort of,'" says Thorne, scratching his head. "It's really hard to be defined as a success in Canada. The main advantage is just now I know what to expect and what not to expect. So, I still struggle. I don't get treated like I'm anything special. Not that I should be, but the reality is that is the way the industry works."

As with any business, success is defined on the profit returned by the venture.

Thorne says neither of the two feature films he put together made their money back---Poor Boy's Game had a budget of approximately $6 million, Just Buried around $4 million. Neither was a good investment for its backers, if you define a successful investment as a money-making proposition. But, with filmmaking, nothing is as simple as that.

In Canada, there are only a few sources to go to for funding, and the first stop is the federal government: Telefilm Canada.

"Normally you're looking for 40 to 49 percent of your budget from Telefilm," says Thorne, who acknowledges Telefilm's support of his work. "From there Film Nova Scotia puts in equity to films." There are also tax benefits to shooting in and around Halifax, something that appeals to both local and from-away productions.

But the financing of Canadian film remains baffling, even to professionals like Thorne. "Canadian film is a challenge," he says. "If you just purely look at the economics of it, it makes no sense. There are a lot of individuals who feel that art should be able to support itself, which is actually complete bullshit. I mean, the oil industry has a heavy government subsidization, for fuck's sake. It's an ignorant argument. And it's well- documented that cultural investment has such a high return-on-investment, it's almost unprecedented, there's almost nothing you can invest in that's better. Those of us in the cultural industries are getting much better at making that argument."

However, there's a lot of spin as to what is considered a success or not a success, he says, using Paul Gross's Passchendaele as an example of how a Canadian film "hit" is spun. It made $4.5 million in Canadian box office, which Thorne calls "really, really good," but the budget for advertising was probably close to that. "So you spend almost dollar-for-dollar to get people in...none of that money would have made it back to investors on this $20 million Canadian film."

Thorne identifies another problem, using Trailer Park Boys, Men With Brooms and One Week. "They won't travel," he says, pointing out the limited international market for films deemed so outwardly Canadian. "So, the economics are, unless you get---as Sarah Polley did amazingly in Away From Her---unless you get some sort of significant release in the US the film won't make anywhere near its money back.

"I don't have any of the answers," he admits, sighing. "I'm trying to figure it out for myself. But we do have to call bullshit when it's bullshit. And my biggest concern is it's not sustainable, these films that are lauded as successes that don't play to the rest of the world and therefore don't get their money back. It might suit Telefilm in terms of getting their nebulous five percent box office target, but it's not a sustainable model."

Telefilm Atlantic has supported eight films in the past two years, six from Nova Scotia. Gord Whittaker is the regional director of business development and feature film executive at the local Telefilm office, and is proud of his organization's impact on Thorne's career. He says the goal of having five percent of the annual Canadian box office is still the mandate of his office. Since that hasn't happened yet, how does Telefilm measure the success of films they fund?

"Talent development," says Whittaker. "Through things like awards, festival invitations, critical acclaim. What we're doing out of Halifax is primarily developing the talent in the region. If you look at Chaz Thorne, his film"--- Just Buried--- "was in Toronto, he went to Berlin and he received an audience award at Santa Cruz. These are all measures of success as far as we're concerned."

There are other ways for Nova Scotian filmmakers to get a movie made: the international co-production market. One of the stops in that world, Strategic Partners, is hosted at the Atlantic Film Festival every year in September, allowing international producers, broadcasters and financiers to meet about future projects. But Thorne is dubious of those sources, too, offering up David Cronenberg's thriller Eastern Promises, an international co-pro.

"It was successful and this is not anecdotal, I loved it. But it had dick-all to do with Canada. There was nothing remotely Canadian about it...from a cultural standpoint, what's the point? Just remove me from the equation as a filmmaker; as a taxpayer, why are my tax dollars going to support some story about gangsters in London? What the fuck is the relevance of that? A lot of people come back to this argument that it represents how Canadians see the world, and you don't want to be xenophobic, either. But I don't know."

August 2009

Whirligig has been delayed to February 2010. "We have to reimagine it as a winter film," says Thorne, evenly.

Over the summer he and his creative partners will take the script to Los Angeles and get some interest from a few prominent actors. The Hollywood press suggests Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt is circling the project, and Zachary Quinto, a star of TV (Heroes) and a recent summer blockbuster (Star Trek) is reported to be attached as the lead, which should help convince financiers to invest it. "The private money we have is very cast-dependent," Thorne will admit. The shoot was delayed to accommodate Quinto's schedule.

But toward the end of 2009, Quinto will bow out, along with other name actors. With them, the private financing for the film---almost half its estimated $4 million budget--- collapses.

Thorne also loses his Canadian distributor, eOne Entertainment. At the eleventh hour, a new distributor, Kinosmith, will step in to help make the movie---at half its original budget.

"There is this trickle-down effect that causes you to lose a lot of other money," says Thorne later. "I think with the actors, they're just thinking, how is this guy going to make a decent movie with this amount of money? They're concerned with their careers. When you get down to a micro-budget, which is what the majority of films are that we make in Canada in comparison, they're worried about their reputation. They don't want to be in some little crappy art film that nobody sees. At least, most of them don't."

February 2010

On a sunny, mild day, Chaz Thorne is shooting exterior scenes of Whirligig at an oceanside location at Three Fathom Harbour. With a budget under $2 million--- less than most TV movies shot here---his all-Canadian cast---including Gregory Smith (Everwood) as the restless young man cramping his parents' (Jennifer Overton and Brian Downey) empty nest---is working hard with him to make the day. It's three takes and moving on, no time for expansive set-ups.

Thorne knows he has to shoot an entire feature in 10-hour days over four weeks, and there's no room for overtime, delays or other glitches with such a tight budget. It's been more than three years since Just Buried wrapped.

"It's tough to keep learning and growing as a filmmaker," he admits, given the long wait between productions. "The good thing is, I also write. That's where the majority of my living comes from. But shooting is shooting, how do you keep it up?"

"That is not a problem, dude," responds Andrea Dorfman. "If you need to flex your muscles, there are a million ways to do it."

Dorfman has directed two features, Parsley Days in 2000 and Love That Boy in 2003. Since then she's helmed documentaries, videos, short films, animations, television series and has worked as cinematographer on friends' projects. She directed last summer's YouTube sensation How To Be Alone, a video poem by Tanya Davis.

"I just don't think feature films are the only answer," she says. "If what jazzes you is to get actors in front of the camera, then do it. I think we get stuck in this idea that once you've made a feature film, you are a feature filmmaker. I do a lot of different things, but the common theme in my work is storytelling."

Dorfman had a feature film idea that she took from Halifax to Toronto. She shepherded it through development with a producer and Telefilm's support, but after five years of work it never got off the ground.

"If I stayed in Halifax maybe it would have been made. Or maybe it wasn't that good," she says, frankly. "But I never want to stop doing what I'm doing. I never want to wait for the phone to ring or wonder if my whole next year is going to hinge on a piece of funding."

Thorne has no bias about working in other media, though says he doesn't get jobs because there's a prejudice that as a film director he hasn't the chops for TV.

"It's really funny, there is a snobbery about TV people doing features and it also goes vice versa. All these TV producers in Canada saying, 'I don't think he'll be fast enough.' I shot a feature film in less than 200 fucking hours. I think I'm fast enough.

"I would love to work in TV, but I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is the equivalent to Outer Siberia in the film world."

Maybe the biggest obstacle to Chaz Thorne continuing to make movies until he's, in his own words, "Norman Jewison's age," is that English–speaking Canadians---Quebec has its own successful French-language industry---aren't inclined to see Canadian movies in cinemas. There are a number of theories on how to change that.

"It's obvious," says Atom Egoyan, director of The Sweet Hearafter and the recent thriller Chloe. "Go watch Canadian films. Australians or the Brits, most cultures are fascinated to see themselves on screen. We're certainly fascinated to see ourselves on television. But that effort to go see films in theatres, it's a bit of a hurdle.

"The question is marketing them. Creating an awareness. That takes a tremendous amount of commitment and trust on the part of the distributors and exhibitors. There's a huge failure rate, but you have to accept that and not use that as an excuse to not do it again."

Newfoundland's Paul Pope, who produced the feature Rare Birds, agrees that the problem isn't the quality of the films being produced. "The whole theatrical model has to be adjusted," he says. "But I don't think it's a Canadian problem. American indies aren't selling either."

Michael Melski---Halifax writer-director of the comedy Growing Op who recently shot the feature Charlie Zone in Halifax---thinks the internet could yet be the future for homegrown filmmaking.

"We're just on the frontier of what it means to Canadian cinema," he says. "If I had a dime for every time my movie was downloaded for free I'd have a yacht on the Northwest Arm."

"The digital media is presenting content makers with enormous opportunities," says Telefilm's Whittaker. "It's not necessarily one or the other. We've heard a term called hybrid distribution, where the different platforms compliment each other. We are in a world where we have greater opportunities to reach audiences. Cinema is one. This is not only the filmmaker's challenge, it's the industry's challenge."

It's a challenge Jason Eisener faced with his much-ballyhooed first feature, Hobo with a Shotgun. The exploitation drama, earning both a Canadian and American distribution deal, was recently a popular download on a torrent site, prompting Eisener to write a personal message to the downloading public, begging it to pay for his film.

But Chaz Thorne certainly sees the reputable online sources---along with film festivals and DVD---as viable venues for Whirligig. He'll happily admit it's a thrill to get distribution and have his film show up in cinemas this weekend, but in terms of encouraging Canadians to see homegrown film, he thinks we've already missed our chance.

"I think we just need to stop," he says. "It's ridiculous. We're not going to get Canadians into theatres to see Canadian movies. We're talking $15 million really well-made American indies are not being seen in theatres. You think some $2 million Canadian movie...? It's not going to happen.

"We need to stop looking at theatres as an outlet. We lost that when we didn't have the same regulations on Canadian cinema as we did on Canadian television and radio. At that point, this whole thing was lost."


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