Jason Eisener’s big shot | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Jason Eisener’s big shot

From game-player and movie-watcher to bloody auteur, the Dartmouth filmmaker’s moment is here

For Jason Eisener, the circle is complete. The Dartmouth born-and-bred filmmaker's creative interests---at least partly the by-product of grainy, stuttery VHS and eight-bit video games, obsolete by the end of the 1980s---drove him to find work at the The Last Gamestore, the original location at 590 Portland Street and the current one in Clayton Park. Now, on the eve of the release of his first feature film, Hobo with a Shotgun, Eisener is playing a new video game on his iPhone, inspired by his movie. 

"The movie in some ways structurally is kind of like a video game," he says, sitting at Two if by Sea---a block and four years away from his old workplace---and enjoying the retro-primitive graphics of the game, created by Texan company Mondo. The blocky, digitized hobo whacks punks with the butt of his shotgun. "You need to pick up shells before you can shoot anyone," says Eisener, his thumbs darting over the controls. 

Eisener describes it all as a little surreal, when he has time to stop and think about what's going on, which he says pretty much only happens these days when he's alone in the bathroom. He and his buddies---producer partner Rob Cotterill and screenwriter John Davies---have been working toward this day since they were teens.

They grew up with the high-concept entertainments of the 1980s. The heritage of '80s low-budget films, TV, wrestling and video games, Canadian and international, bleeds through Hobo's celluloid pores. Everything, from the jagged editing to the choice of incidental electronic music to the white blazers and Ray-Bans worn by the villains, Slick and Ivan, speaks to that time. Certainly the presence of Rutger Hauer in the lead evokes the days when his name was above the title on films such as Blind Fury, The Hitcher and The Blood of Heroes

"The movie is inspired by his career in the '80s," says Eisener. "If I'm going to make a Rutger Hauer movie...it's gotta have pumpin' synth behind it. To me that just goes with Rutger Hauer." 

The song over the end credits of Hobo with a Shotgun is from the 1980s Canadian animated TV series The Racoons, sung by Lisa Lougheed. Eisener chose it because of that show's darker themes, which he feels are echoed in his film. "That song has such a haunting sound to it. It's such a weird song to a kids' cartoon show. We put that in there as a tribute to Canadian entertainment."

For those who don't know the epic tale of how the video store employee became a homegrown film auteur, the greasy and abridged version of events goes something like this: Eisener makes monster-in-the-basement mini-feature The Teeth Beneath, shot largely at the old ProSkates location on Blowers Street. He enters the Grindhouse (the subgenre of low-budget exploitation films of the 1970s and '80s) contest staged by Hollywood bad-boy directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and has his fake trailer for a non-existing film Hobo with a Shotgun chosen out of hundreds of entries and placed on prints of QT and Rodriguez's Grindhouse feature film. Eisener impresses with his horror short Treevenge at Sundance 2009. Major Canadian film producer Niv Fichman comes aboard to produce a feature-length version of Hobo. Dutch-born international star Rutger Hauer is cast in the lead. Hobo with a Shotgun shoots on the streets of Dartmouth and Halifax in spring 2010 with Eisener, his friends and a local crew. Stories of the litres of fake blood used on set, splashing on camera lenses, extras, into the gutter and running into the harbour, spread around town like an STI. Hobo debuts at Sundance 2011. It opens nationwide this week. 

And now it's finally here. The movie is a visual and aural assault of saturated reds, blues and yellows over fuzzy melodies and beats. The story can be quickly summed up like this: vagrant arrives in the satanic dystopia also known as Fuck Town; runs afoul of monarchic gangster The Drake (Brian Downey) and his two princes of evil (Gregory Smith and Nick Bateman); gets kicked around before resorting to a pawn shop scattergun to help save the life of a young prostitute, Abby (Molly Dunsworth). The script is peppered with lurid and hilarious one-liners, often yelled into the camera. And, yes, the blood runs in rivers, spurting from severed limbs and heads.  

Easily the most shocking moment in the picture comes about halfway in, and it involves a flamethrower. Saying more than that would ruin the surprise. ("We probably could have shot the movie two years ago if the scene wasn't in the script," says Eisener, indicating that a producer who might have invested in the movie was squeamish about the transgressive level of violence.) 

Shooting the scene was also particularly memorable for the actors in it. Smith and Bateman, playing Slick and Ivan, respectively, had to deal with operating an actual flamethrower inside a school bus, turning it into an oven. 

"The flamethrower was like a huge pilot light," says Smith, on the phone from Toronto. "After three or four seconds the ceiling started melting. I turned back and Nick, his hair was smouldering. And then we had to do it a bunch more times because every time I did it, they said I looked terrified."

Bateman concurs about his bad-hair day. "I have so much hairspray in my hair. All of a sudden I hear something crackling and it's my hair, burning. All the tips of my hair were orange and singed." 

For Eisener, his favourite moment from making the feature was early on, when a background performer named Jonas was on set, just at the time Trailer Park Boys' Robb Wells has his head torn off and a woman dances in the arterial geyser.

Jonas "had been blind his whole life and had corrective surgery before shooting," says Eisener. "Hot chick comes up and starts dancing in the blood, and that was his first vision of the world. One of the assistant directors heard him say, 'Wow! Red is so beautiful.'" 

The movie went into the can just before Eisener and his buddies travelled to the Sundance Film Festival in January. Hobo was well-received at the Utah fest and since then it's screened at the Lincoln Centre's Film Comment Selects series in New York and the Film 4 FrightFest in Glasgow, Scotland. The Glaswegian crowd was particularly pumped. "That audience was insane for the movie. You couldn't even hear half of it," says Eisener. "People were just screaming at the screen." By the time you're reading this, the film will have screened at South by Southwest in Austin and in Montreal at a special Fantasia screening. This week it's also premiering in Boston at the Underground Film Festival. 

With all the travel, work and attention a project like this requires of him, Eisener never forgets to credit his crew and his friends for helping him get here. He mentions the many members of the Dunsworth family for their contributions---especially the three sisters Molly, Zoe and Sarah, who all worked on Hobo---as well as first assistant director Jason Shipley. Shipley had an offer for a more lucrative gig but stayed to do Hobo, which he called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

With the buzz coming off of Sundance, Eisener has received the inevitable job offer from Hollywood to do a horror remake.

"I turned it down," he says. Though he acknowledges the money was good, he doesn't want to spend two years on something where his heart isn't in it. "No amount of money is worth that." 

Besides, the script for the next movie is already being written and Fichman is on board again to help get it made. "It's going to be a high school martial arts movie," says Eisener, gleefully. 

Carsten Knox is the special issues and film editor at The Coast.

Hobo With a Shotgun is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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