"I've been in this business 17 years. It's not like I was an accountant and two years ago I thought, "Oh I'm going to make a film now.'"
Sitting in a south end coffee shop on a warm August day, Chaz Thorne is rolling his eyes at the prospect of his "overnight" success. If you glanced at a Canadian film festival schedule this fall it's easy to see where the perception comes from: Thorne's directorial debut, Just Buried, and Poor Boy's Game, the Clement Virgo-directed drama Thorne wrote, both played at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, and each has a gala here at home in the Atlantic Film Festival.
It's a complete fluke. Both films were shot, six months apart, in Nova Scotia last year. But both have been in development for more than five years. It just happened that a perfect storm of funding, scheduling and serendipity has made Thorne a double threat on the festival circuit this year.
"It's basically unheard of," he says, shaking his head at the thought. "Being the key creative on both, I've never heard of it before."
He doesn't mind, as he sips amiably on a smoothie procured by his assistant, how crazy his life is about to become when he'll spend three-quarters of September in Toronto and Halifax promoting two films at once.
"Doesn't bother me at all," he says. "A lot of how you create future opportunities in this industry is having a unique story to tell. And no doubt it's unique—a first-time feature-filmmaker to have his first and second features at the exact same time at the Toronto International Film Festival."
Chaz Thorne was born in Bridgewater, where he lived until he was 10. He fell into acting on the South Shore at a young age.
"I played Tiny Tim in a production of The Christmas Carol," he says. "I had two lines. In my death scene I was lying on a bed with my feet toward the audience. And my Mom had just gotten me these really cool new pair of sneakers from Zellers—they were canvas on top, with a rubber band around them and cartoon characters on them. During my whole death scene"—he sticks out his sandalled feet, heels together, in a V—"I was doin' this"—he smacks his feet together over and over. "Whacking my feet together. And it was like, really loud. So smack, smack, just reverberating throughout the theatre."
In Halifax, Thorne attended St.Pat's, where he nabbed the lead in Godspell in grade 10. The performance got him a job at the Halifax Feast Dinner Theatre that summer. "The first time I got paid for performing," he notes, "was when I was 15." A bit of television followed ("This really atrocious Canadian television show called Unexpected Heroes. I played a bank robber") as did an acting degree at the National Theatre School in Montreal.
Then he headed to Toronto for a five-year stint playwriting and acting with his own company, Jack in the Black Theatre.
"I started the company to produce my first full-length stage play, whichwas
Upon returning to Halifax, Thorne set his sights on film—behind the camera. "I don't really have much interest in acting anymore," he says. "I wanted to be able to tell my own stories from beginning to end. The full story. And I also just found I'm better suited to writing, directing and producing than I was to acting."
In 2003, local actor Gord Gammie sent Thorne the script for Table Dancer, about a man's mid-life crisis, with Thorne in mind to direct. Thorne worked with him to rewrite it, and then they put their own money in to produce it.
"We shot a 20-minute film over three days, four days, with literally no money, with a crew of like four people," says Thorne. "When I think about it in retrospect, compared to the resources that I've now had to make two feature films, it's amazing we had anything to cut together to make into anything. Kyle Cameron shot it and he was, you know, running around with two lights and it was really, you know, guerilla filmmaking. But it worked out."
That was followed by One Hit Wonder, a short about a washed-up singer who's been living in the same hotel for more than 30 years, never having followed up his only chart-topper. His girlfriend at the time, producer Natasha Ryan, hooked him up with Brad Horvath (who now works with Thom Fitzgerald), and on their second try they got Bridge Award funding.
"It was still very low-budget filmmaking and we did it for free," says Thorne. "But Brad really worked his ass off and I'll forever be grateful to him for that—because I made One Hit Wonder, it gave me the portfolio piece to be able to direct a feature film. And it was a pretty significant leap to go from two low-to-no-budget short films to a multi-million-dollar feature." He pauses to think about that. (Re-considering where people are getting the overnight success thing, perhaps?) "I sort of skipped quite a few steps in between."
The higher-profile film of Thorne's is Poor Boy's Game, the Halifax-shot and -set boxing drama directed by Clement Virgo (Love Come Down, Lie with Me). The two filmmakers were hooked up by their mutual agent and began discussing the project in 2001. (Re-considering the overnight success thing, perhaps?)
The genesis of the story came from family tragedy—Thorne's cousin was murdered in 1995. "It really got me thinking about race and class in Halifax," he says. "And the justice system and forgiveness, and you know, acts of extreme violence."
As he began committing the story to paper in 1999, Thorne was a serious boxer himself. "When I stumbled on this term for boxing—that's referred to as the sweet science, the cruel profession or the poor boy's game—it was like, "poor boy's game, that's it,'" he says. "That's the theme of the movie, that's what this is about."
In 2001 he and Virgo began taking a run at Poor Boy's Game as writers, with Virgo attached to direct, though he did take a pass at a draft himself. "And from then on it was basically me doing the writing and Clement would read drafts and go, "This doesn't quite work or I feel we need this here or we need a scene about this,' and I would go away and write it," says Thorne.
The film, shot primarily on Maynard and Creighton Streets, opens with the release of Donnie "Decker" Rose (Rossif Sutherland, of those Sutherlands), who was imprisoned as a young offender 10 years previous for a brutal, racially motivated attack that leaves the victim, Charles Carvery (KC Collins) brain-damaged. Rose is a boxer, and as soon as he gets out he sets up a match with local champ Ossie Paris (Flex Alexander), who's been waiting a decade to exact a community's revenge.
Charles' parents are played by Danny Glover and Tonya Lee Williams. You'd think attracting top-tier talent would make getting the greenlight easier. Thorne sort of shrugs his agreement.
"But you'd be surprised even how that can be dismissed," he says, then launches into a spiel.
"I personally think the whole star casting thing is bullshit. I think it's absolute bullshit. There are so many examples of star-cast independent films that no one has gone to see," he says. "There's this myth among financiers that that's what contributes value to a film. I personally don't subscribe to that at all. I think that when you're making a small indie film, what's gonna make it sing is daring, originality, great story, unique execution. That's what's gonna make an indie film. Throwing a star into it? So then we have these really fucked-up pressures as producers like, "Oh, you need to have these names or those names.' In both films that I did, I think both of the casts are fucking great, whether it's a known actor or an unknown actor in the cast, just really good casts. It just so happens in both films, we ended up getting some known names. Which is great. And that was a pressure that was put on us. But I don't think it's a legitimate way to be making independent film and I just wish that the industry would wake up and move away from that, and just concentrate on making quality films."
The lower-profile film of Thorne's is the one he's most proud of, Just Buried. (Formerly known as Pushing Up Daisies, Thorne sometimes still refers to the film as Daisies for short.)
It's a dark comedy about a guy (Jay Baruchel, of the Judd Apatow Repertory Players) who inherits a funeral home in a town no one's dying in because the old folks home burned down. So he and the home's embalmer (Australian Rose Byrne, most recently seen in Danny Boyle's Sunshine) begin killing people, accidentally at first, and then on purpose once they see the profit rolling in.
"Just Buried is a drastically different film from Poor Boy's Game," says Thorne. "And when people have read both scripts they're just like"—he makes a shocked noise that sounds approximately like "huh-wha!?' —"they can't believe the same writer has written both scripts."
Thorne was not originally slated to direct the film. He sent the script to John Watson and Pen Densham (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), his producing partners, and the trio began speaking with American directors, hoping to set it up as a low-budget indie in the US.
"But what we were finding is first of all," Thorne says, "any of the directors we were interested in already had their next two, three productions lined up. And also it stimulated more conversation about the film and what my vision was for the film. And finally John said, "You know, this is ridiculous. We're all Canadian. We should be doing this as a Canadian film. And you should direct it. You've directed before. The script reads like a film. You're a filmmaker.'"
Just Buried is a zippy, quirky, beautifully photographed picture that plays off moments of inspired insanity—the murderous confrontation at the film's climax—against pure gross-out (someone gets impaled through their eye), with Byrne's endearingly batshit-crazy performance holding down the centre. There's also a twist ending.
It's a worthy debut, and Thorne knows it.
"No one else is gonna be directing my work ever again," he says. "Unless I get a call from Clint Eastwood or something like that. Because it is something I can do. And it's something I'm really good and, and it's something I really enjoy. I remember the first shot of Table Dancer—I realized that yeah, this is what I'm meant to be doing. It just felt—literally, in that moment, I can remember the shot outside my house. In that moment, I went, "This is what it is.' The many many years of other stuff have led to the discovery that I'm meant to be a film director. So from here on in, if you want a script by me, then it's directed by me."
Just Buried, September 14 at the Oxford, Quinpool at Oxford, 7pm, $16 and Poor Boy's Game, September 15 at the Oxford, 7pm, $16 and September 16 at Park Lane, 7:15pm, $11. Chaz Thorne speaks at Script to Screen, September 18 at the Delta Halifax, Bluenose Room, 3pm, $16. 422-6965, atlanticfilm.com
Tara Thorne is not related to Chaz Thorne, but would like to be. She is arts editor of The Coast.