COVER STORY: Canadian Film 2012 preview w/ Carl BessaiCanada’s actors, writers and directors fare well enough in the court of public perception, but too often our films are dismissed as either too highbrow, too dull, too weird or, simply, too Canadian. What does that mean? Well, in 2012, it means a potential Academy Award winner (David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method), a Variety magazine “one to watch” screenwriter (actor/writer Jay Baruchel’s debut, Goon) and an indie darling on the festival circuit (Carl Bessai’s Sisters&Brothers). Get thee to a movie theatre!
At the start of our conversation, Vancouver-based filmmaker Carl Bessai laughingly concedes he’s never done karaoke. He just can’t put himself out there like that. And yet he’s easily one of the country’s most prolific, excitingly experimental filmmakers, cranking out one-to-two movies a year over the last decade. He alternates scripted efforts with largely improvisational films, like his newest feature, Sisters&Brothers, which wraps up his FamilyX trilogy and will hit screens this spring. Bessai, who operates almost giddily without any kind of safety net while filming, and who has swept big names like Glee’s Cory Monteith and 90210’s Dustin Milligan into starring roles in Sisters&Brothers, can’t concieve of singing “Sweet Caroline” at closing time. Luckily, he has no such inhibitions when it comes to taking risks as an indie filmmaker. Bessai spoke with WE over the phone from his office about quantity over quality, improv and Sisters&Brothers’ leading men.
QUANTITY OVER QUALITY
“My hero is [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, the now-dead German director. He died when he was 47, or it might have been younger, but he made 47 movies. (Laughs) Some years he made three or four films. He was just insane. And not all the films are that good, but I really marveled at the incredible volume and and the way he made films with a company of actors that he really trusted. There was a lot of collaboration and a lot of craziness that went down in their personal lives, but it was really amazing to see the creative output...
“I love the craft of those crazy, imperfect films. You see something like the new Sherlock Holmes movies: they’re beautifully made and they’re stylish, but they lack a kind of truth and beauty, a substance. The thing that I always feel like from a directing point of view is, I guess, my truth, about the truth that I experience with people. Like, in Sisters&Brothers, we really tried to stick to narratives that were related to experiences we’ve had or people we know or things that are close to home. It sounds so heady, it doesn’t sound funny at all, but that’s where the beauty is. You take something that isn’t necessarily all that funny, but you juxtapose these dramatic narratives with these bites of humour, and there’s something so great about that. I really feel like that’s what Sisters&Brothers was.”
THE FRAMEWORK OF IMPROV
“I have to build a framework for a script or it’s impossible to do. The trick is getting everyone together to jam so you can build the outline properly. The only thing we’re really doing here is skipping the writing of dialogue. You do a lot of work-shopping and discussing with the actors so everyone has a really strong idea of how they relate to each other. People have to be able to bring a certain amount of experience to the table. If you look at the story between Cory Monteith and Dustin Milligan, who star as a movie star and his brother, a former actor who wants to start a charity, there’s a ton of the actual actors’ lives in the story. They are relying on shorthand to build their brotherly narrative.
“They were two young men, once upon a time, who lived in Vancouver together. They decided to go to Hollywood. In real life! And Dustin got a job on 90210 and started to take off, and Cory was struggling. And then of course, Cory got onto Glee and Dustin left 90210 and things shifted and their relationship changed. What does fame do to your relationship? And they weren’t brothers, but they had a brotherly relationship, so there was a certain amount of chaos they experienced in real life. I love when you can tap into that stuff, because when they’re on the spot, they know what to say.”
“Before I had cast these roles, I knew it was going to be two brothers, one of whom was famous and one who wasn’t, and the rivalry that comes out of that. I come from a family of brothers, and I have a brother who’s really the guy I’m closest to in the world, but he’s an architect. We get together two, three times a year and for a while I was thinking, you know, I should just come in and read my resume, and you should read yours, and once we get that out of the way, we can get on with just kind of getting along. (Laughs) But there’s always this sense that we have to have this pissing contest of who’s doing what before we can relax. I always thought it was a little bit more him than me, I never felt the need to whatever, but it was funny. Like, God, how old are we now? We used to run track together, so we’d always race against each other, and sometimes he’d win and sometimes I’d win and we’d train together and had this crazy rivalry.
“So, I walked in the door with that structural idea. I’d worked with Dustin Milligan on Repeaters, my previous film, and loved working with him. He’s such a great actor and I hadn’t realized how funny he was and how good on his feet he was. I thought he’d be good in this improvising world, so I reached out to him, thinking that he would be a good movie star brother, but he was the one who said, ‘You know, this little outline is interesting. It’s exactly what my relationship with Cory is like. Do you mind if I call him?’ I’m like, ‘Do I mind if you’d call the star of Glee and ask him to come and do our no-money movie? I really mind!’” (Laughs)
“The actors have to trust that I’ll put together a narrative that works. And the actors love working like that... but they have to feel safe to be in a place where they can fuck up. When you’re Cory Monteith and pretty famous, you don’t want to be exposed fucking up. There’s a lot of trust there and we can take the bones or the raw materials and put together this film, that at the end has the ability to be well received. It takes a certain amount of faith and luck and all that other stuff to come together. But it’s an exciting way to work. It really puts you on the line.”