Coming into focus

Starring Robb Wells, the drama Dawn, Her Dad and The Tractor shot in Halifax at the height of the pandemic. Photo: Dan Callis

Emerging from COVID-19 and a tumultuous few years, has Nova Scotia’s filmmaking industry finally found a way forward?

Tara Thorne had always dreamed of being a filmmaker. As an arts journalist she’s rubbed elbows with filmmakers and actors, regularly attending the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2007 she made a short. 

On the morning of her 40th birthday, Thorne was on the phone with EI. She’d left her gig as a writer and editor, and things weren’t going well. 

“Your life is half over, you have no job, what are you going to do?” she says. 

Through the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative (AFCOOP) she tried Writing Small, a writers’ workshop. It’s geared to polish scripts for Telefilm’s Talent To Watch, a national financing program, giving filmmakers a chance to make micro-budget first features in the $150,000 range. 

In the stack of ideas Thorne had for a movie was a feminist revenge drama. Her mentor at AFCOOP, filmmaker Iain MacLeod, suggested she do that one. 

“I was wondering, ‘What if women were as violent as men?’” At the time she was chronically angry in the wake of #MeToo. “You have to get to 40 to accumulate that many micro-aggressions,” she says. “And I learned in that time how many of my close friends experienced sexual assault.” 

Thorne’s first feature, Compulsus, was shot in the spring over 15 days. 

The Compulsus crew shoots at the Freehouse in Halifax. Photo: Jessie Redmond.
The Compulsus crew shoots at the Freehouse in Halifax. Photo: Jessie Redmond 

But one movie doesn’t make a career, especially in Nova Scotia. In many ways it’s no easier 

in 2021 to make a go of it as a filmmaker than it’s ever been, but what keeps filmmakers like Thorne striving is the need to tell their stories, spurred on by ridiculous levels of optimism. Ridiculous because the industry is built on funding and exhibition models that change, dissolve, resurge, and change again. 

In June, then-premier Iain Rankin committed to almost doubling the province’s film and television production incentive fund from $25 million to $48.6 million for this fiscal year. 

It’s unclear at the time of writing this story how the new Progressive Conservative government will fund the industry, but Laura Mackenzie, executive director of Screen Nova Scotia, says stable support is key. It’s been a long road back from 2015, when the Liberal government killed the Nova Scotia tax credit, crippling the industry. 

Something Rankin said at the announcement sticks with Mackenzie. 

“He said that the fund never stops, it never runs out, no eligible projects are turned away,” she says. “That’s never been said publicly before.” 

The problem with the incentive fund — as compared to the tax breaks on offer elsewhere — is it’s largely accepted to be capped. International studios looking to come here to make their movie or TV series can’t bank on that. They don’t want to sign contracts and then find the money’s run out, gone to other productions. 

“When he said that publicly, it validates the fact we’re a reliable partner in business,” says Mackenzie. 

Another sign Nova Scotia is reliable came last summer, when the industry successfully managed shows during the pandemic. Word spread to Hollywood of safe sets with rigid testing and distance protocols. The phone in Mackenzie’s office rang off the hook. She heard from all the big American streaming giants, many interested in bringing their shows to Nova Scotia. It made for a busy summer 2021: The Sinner, From, and Moonshine, formerly known as Feudal, all shot here. 

But infrastructure limits the ability of the local industry to serve these visiting productions. 

“We miss Electropolis,” says Mackenzie, referring to the former studio space on the Halifax harbourfront, now Nova Scotia Power’s head office, where shows like Lexx and The Conclave were once made. “I’ve had a number of conversations with project managers and engineering companies who are looking to get into owning a soundstage. We’re looking for the right partner to build something that can hold the level of production we have now, but also has acreage to grow.” 

That would bring more service, out-of-province productions here, and that’s a good thing. It’s good for the economy, and it’s good for local film crews, employing them and training them. That training opens them up to work on smaller, home-grown productions. 

But, there’s a concern from Nova Scotian producers that the incentive fund doesn’t do enough to help support their local, smaller-budget productions. Those budgets have reduced because of an absence of an equity fund, which was shut down back in 2015. 

“We used to do our first features for about a million dollars,” says Mackenzie. “That hired producers and editors. Now we see risk-taking, where directors are also writers and editors. It’s going to impact the quality of the project. And, not to mention, nobody is going to get paid.” 

Terry Greenlaw is the producer and partner at the production company Picture Plant, along with filmmaker William MacGillivray. Founded in 1981, it’s the oldest extant production company in Atlantic Canada. Picture Plant recently produced actor Shelley Thompson’s first feature as a writer-director, Dawn, Her Dad, And The Tractor, and in December will produce the first feature by actor-writer-director Koumbie, called Bystanders. 

“We’ve been lobbying for is something that would take the place of the equity fund,” says Greenlaw. “It could fill the hole that we find happens so often, a 20-per-cent hole to complete the film. Production companies and producers, they put their fees into that hole.” 

Greenlaw and MacGillivray moved their film Under The Weather to Newfoundland because that province has an equity fund for homegrown filmmakers. She sympathizes with first-time filmmakers in Nova Scotia who hope to build a future on a film made for less than $200,000. 

“The budgets are so small,” says Greenlaw. “As Ron Hynes used to say, you can’t drink the sea and you can’t eat the air.”

Bretten Hannam is a Mi’kmaw filmmaker from Bear River. Their pronouns are they/them, but they say that they’re “not terribly fussy about it because in Mi’kmaq there are no pronouns. That we’re all speaking English is the problem.” 

Their first feature was North Mountain, a 2015 thriller with both indigenous and 2SLGBTQ plot elements. But, following its release, people weren’t lining up to give Hannam a second opportunity.

“No, goodness no,” they say. No regrets, though. The first-time experience of making a feature taught them resilience, shooting a film with a lot of exteriors in wintery weather. “It took almost two years before I got all the feeling back in my feet,” they say. 

It’s taken six years for Hannam to get a chance at a second feature. It’s called Wildhood, a coming-of-age Indigenous identity road movie about a teen crossing the province with his little half-brother. The film is being produced through another Telefilm funding stream with its budget coming in under $2.5 million. 

“My first one I shot in a crazy blizzard, and the second in a pandemic. You do learn a lot, and when you’re done, yeah, you want to do it again.” 

Hannam is thrilled to have had a second chance to make a movie, especially as the path ahead after the first was never clear. 

“I don’t have another job,” they say. “I live a sporadic paycheque-to-paycheque existence. Before COVID, I knew that I might get a couple workshop teaching gigs a year, or do some arts jury work, maybe a script review or treatment writing here and there. But since COVID, it’s been unpredictable. Besides that and grants, I keep my cost of living low.”

The challenge for any Canadian feature film is finding an audience, especially on the big screen where the competition has multimillion-dollar marketing that puts bums in seats for the most recent Fast & Furious movie. Streaming and digital options are another possible avenue for success. 

“If you’re in the film business, you have to dream big,” says Gharrett Paon, Bretten Hannam’s producer on Wildhood, busy strategizing its release. It will premiere at TIFF and will screen shortly after at the Fin Atlantic International Film Festival. “Really it’s about getting the most amount of eyeballs. The film brings representation to two-spirit individuals, and my hope is that kids who represent that way will find it.” 

Koumbie’s working toward shooting her drama, 

Bystanders, at the end of the year, but she’s not thinking of the big screen at all. 

“It won’t be shot specifically with a theatrical release in mind,” she says. “I’m not being precious about how audiences want to see it. The way Telefilm weighs these things, the funding bodies care about that, but artistically, and personally, I’m not shooting it for a cinema. Our audience is a younger audience and people are watching films at home — it’s a fact. I’m even taking into consideration that people will watch this on their phone.”

Marc Almon may have the answer for both sides of this equation: Nova Scotian films for those who love watching movies in cinemas, and those who want to watch at home. 

With his partner Rob Power, he runs Culture Link CIC, which operates Light House, the new media, performance, and production centre in downtown Halifax. It includes a studio and performance space, and is the new home of CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes. That’s not where Almon’s ambitions end. 

“One of the things we’re trying to address is a need for more commissioning agents in the Atlantic region,” he says. “The consolidation of broadcasters in Canada has been severely detrimental to filmmaking here. There’s a handful of decision-makers in Toronto who say what gets made. We want to provide more options for local decision-making.”

That includes a project they have in development called Light House Go, a streaming service for Canadian content. 

“We want to partner with Atlantic Canadian filmmakers, that’s the ambition for Light House Go,” says Almon.

He hasn’t given up on getting Canadian films on the big screen, either. Plans are afoot for an independent cinema at Light House. 

“We have to make it more of an event again, to encourage people to come out to films,” he says. “Cineplex is a terrible company, they don’t care about local tastes. I look to the United Kingdom where there’s much more competition. Why can’t we have more cinemas like that? We’re talking about smaller cinemas, and maybe add other components to the mix — beer, or wine, or tapas. If you look at the Devour film fest, they’ve hit on a very smart model.

“If we can find that way forward, I think people would love to see the return of neighbourhood cinemas. In Halifax we’re so deprived, we don’t even have the Oxford anymore.”

Spinster was Andrea Dorfman’s Halifax-shot comedy aiming at a theatrical release last year. Starring Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Chelsea Peretti, it had a real chance to stand out. The pandemic scuppered those plans and it was released online. 

Nova Scotia filmmaker insiders had high hopes for the local production Spinster, starring Chelsea Peretti.
Insiders had high hopes for the local production Spinster, starring Chelsea Peretti. Photo: Corey Isenor

Spinster was a disappointment in that it didn’t get into cinemas,” says Jay Dahl, the film’s producer. “But, we did see the numbers and it found a large audience. That was very much because of Chelsea. I’ve never made a film with serious marquee talent, and she’s a name. It opened a lot of doors and it’s done well.” 

Dahl says hiring an American star is a way to make a Canadian film stand out from the crowd, a business decision Canadian producers have made in the past. 

“Budgets in L.A. have collapsed,” he says. “Major A-list stars are looking at movies at $2 million or $3 million. Suddenly, it makes Canadian financing interesting.”

The question remains: if you’re dealing with budgets under $2 million, or maybe a lot less than that, how do you rise above the noise, find an audience, and have a career as a filmmaker in Nova Scotia? 

Tara Thorne hopes Compulsus gets into the festival circuit and get some attention there, but beyond that she has no expectations. 

“The idea that I would be making a film in my 40s? For some reason it happened. I might not get to make two, but I made one. That’s made me feel extremely privileged.

“I wanted to see professional actors create this world, and just make magic.” 

Local Spotlight
The biggest showcase for East Coast filmmaking talent, Fin Atlantic International Film Festival, returns from Sept. 16 to 23. The lineup will feature both virtual and in-person programming.

“The festival experience is so much about community enjoyment of films from here and around the world, so the team at Fin is thrilled to be able to say, ‘We’re back!’, executive director Wayne Carter says in an announcement on the festival website. “With last year’s introduction of our Fin Stream event, we now have multiple ways to bring the magic of movies to our audience, not only locally in person, but online to the rest of Atlantic Canada.” 

Wildhood, written and directed by two-spirit L’nu filmmaker Bretten Hannam, is its 2021 Opening Night Gala Film. 

The film tells the story of Link and Travis, two Mi’kmaw brothers who embark on a two-spirit odyssey, reconnecting with culture and the territory of Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia) while trying to find Link’s mother. The film deals with themes of community, culture, language, and identity.

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