Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Big News from Grand Rock a warm Canadian comedy

Writer/Director Daniel Perlmutter at the Fox Theatre

Chris Davis

Writer/Director Daniel Perlmutter was in attendance to answer questions about his movie Big News from Grand Rock, which was shown at the Fox Theatre on Monday evening April 15 as the last Pincher Creek Allied Arts Council (AAC) presentation of the season.   AAC volunteer Janet Costa managed to secure Perlmutter's attendance in December when she was booking movies for the AAC's regular Monday evening showings.  "It's our last film of the season, and our 14th year of doing this," she explained.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

'Big News from Grand Rock' is a deliberately non-R-rated light comedy ( "We were wondering if there was a place for a movie like that anymore" said Perlmutter after the showing), a one-camera film centred on the character of Leonard Crane (Ennis Esmer), a small town newspaper editor who resorts to rewriting the plots of old movies as local news to revive the flagging fortunes of the paper.  Enter big city reporter Lucy (Meredith MacNeill), and the plagiarized lies start to fall apart.

Cast: Ennis Esmer, Meredith MacNeill, Kristin Booth, Peter Keleghan, Tammy Isbell, Leah Pinsent, Art Hindle, Aaron Ashmore, Gordon Pinsent.

The film is gentle at heart, and witty as much as it is funny.  There are some big laughs along the way, certainly, but most often it entertains without pandering for the big laugh.  Likewise, the romantic subplot is also treated gently, as almost a given, colouring the film slightly rather than motivating it.  What does seem to motivate it is the author/director's fondness for his characters and small town setting.  There are many familiar actors in the cast, but their roles aren't burdened with expectations.  No one is retreading an expected character.  Very little is overblown, and it all feels real.  Perlmutter gets it right.   Esmer gets it right.  MacNeill gets it right.  The supporting cast gets it right.

It wasn't perfect.  I wondered why the lead character wasn't burdened with a camera throughout, which I would expect from a reporter/editor,  and how a town bigger than this one could have so few stories any given week is beyond me, but other than those artistic conceits Perlmutter also caught the vibe of a small town and the challenges of a small town newsroom.   

I'll be watching this one again, and if the Toronto big shots are still wondering what could possibly replace Corner Gas on the small screens, Big News from Grand Rock isn't the rapid fire set-up/delivery kind of comedy that was featured on that show but it's got Corner Gas'  or King of Kensington's type of 'everyman' appeal, delivered in a different way.  Refreshingly, it's kind instead of mean.  That's a more difficult type of comedy to write but Big News from Grand Rock is engaging from start to finish.  A very rewarding experience.

Perlmutter is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker also known for Peepers (2010), Beware of Dog (2008) and The Clock Strikes Doom (2006). Other films and shorts to his credit include Dancing With Myself, What They Ate, Beware of Dog, and The Recommendations. He was mentored by Eugene Levy as part of the 2012 Governor General Performing Arts Awards.

After the Fox Theatre screening Perlmutter answered questions from the audience, and after that answered even more questions from the local press.  Most of those questions and answers appear below, somewhat edited for clarity.

Where did your idea come from?

Daniel Perlmutter: Someone asked me at one of the screenings which movie I stole this idea from. And I actually did steal it from a movie.  There was a film 'Shattered Glass' which was a very good movie, and it was about a reporter... it was based on a true story of Stephen Glass, who was a reporter (for The New Republic) who made up stories, and that was a drama, it was a serious film, but it seemed so close to a comedy in a lot of ways... making up these stories and then having to go through these hoops to kind of cover up his lies.  It seemed like if you just changed a little bit there's grounds there for a funny comedy.  And at the same time as that was going on I was very interested... I've never lived in a small town, you know, but I love small towns, I travel a lot, and every time I'm in a new town I pick up the paper and it just seemed like a great source for a film also to set it in a small town newspaper because they're so connected to their communities.  So those two ideas came together.

Why did it take five years to make?

Perlmutter: The movie got its start in 2009.  The Toronto Film Festival has a pitch competition and they select every year I think six different people to pitch their ideas for a movie. And that year I pitched this as my idea for a film, and you get five minutes in front of a room and it thankfully won and I got some interest. And so I went off, I got a little bit of money, wrote the script, I had some producers interested, and then it takes a long time to get the script... the script went through a lot of changes.  It started as a much sillier movie than this one.  It started as a much broader comedy in a way.  It took some time to find the right tone.  And it also takes time to get the funding here.  It's difficult to make a movie in Canada - a real challenge.  And so to get all those pieces into place, the right cast, the funding, the team that you can work with, and to get it all come together and to get the schedule to come together, it takes a long time and a lot of perseverance.  It was a great treat that it was able to actually finally come together.

What was it like to work with Gorden Pinsent (who plays publisher Stan)?

Perlmutter: Gordon Pinsent was amazing.  That was a dream to get someone like Gordon Pinsent in the film, and you know this is a relatively small film, so to get Pinsent...  And he was just incredible.  He was someone who would show up on set, he had great ideas... Really for me as a director that's one of the great joys is to work with these great actors and to see what they bring to each role. And so for Gordon, you know, he would have all these different ideas but he was also so generous... and he brought everyone else's performances up, which was the other thing is that all these other actors who got to work with him, you could just feel the performances came up and they kind of lent this kind of credence.  He would have ideas, like when he's at the end there, he's drunk at the end in that scene at night in the office, it was his idea.  He said 'What if I've been drinking and I'm on the floor when they find me'...  

He was also great, so generous, he would sit out, that newspaper office we built in the town that we filmed in, which was Midland Ontario, we built that newspaper office right on the main street and between takes he would sit down on the main street there and everybody in town would just be coming by and chatting with him, and he was so gracious chatting with everybody.  

But it was kind of great, having a family feeling also, because his daughter is Leah Pinsent who plays the mayor in the film, and she was fantastic also. I remember she read the script and she called me up and she said she liked the role and she wanted to bring a little Rob Ford to it (big laugh from crowd). That's why she's out there with the beer bottle at the end. And her husband is Peter Keleghan who played Bill in the newsroom (you probably remember him as Ranger Gord from the Red Green Show), so they had this whole family, you know, and that was kind of the feeling on the set really was... we were up in this town, we had the whole cast and crew come up and stay in this town for the duration of the shoot, and it really brought everybody together.  If we had shot it in Toronto lets say everybody would just go home at the end of they day, there wouldn't be that same sense of all being in it together that I think really adds something to this film.

I remember once we were filming one of Gordon's scenes, wardrobe was getting ready for the scene, and he said 'You know, I feel like I want to wear a cardigan' and the wardrobe person said 'Well, I don't think we have any cardigans'. Someone who was just passing by said 'Oh, I have a cardigan' and went to their house and got it. He's wearing it through half the movie. It was quite something filming in Midland.

How many people did you get with crowdfunding, and what was it like using that source?

Perlmutter: We had all these different pieces of the puzzle together as far as the financing to make the movie, and then we decided to film at Midland... no film had shot there before and we needed just a little more money to be able to make that a reality and make that happen.  So we had an Indiegogo campaign, a crowdfunding campaign, and the response was great.  We raised 50 thousand dollars which really put us over the edge. The community of Midland where we shot responded to it, we had people in the film industry, we had people who were just supporters of the idea.  It was also a great way to get the idea of the film out there and to build some early interest in the film.  For me it was a very positive experience, crowdfunding in that way.

How does a movie like this get enjoyed off the continent?  What do Europeans think of it, or Brits?

Perlmutter: It has yet to play, really... We've played a few places in the states, we've been luck with some festival dates there, but it hasn't really played overseas yet, so we'll see.  Meredith MacNeill, who plays Lucy,  worked for years in England actually, she was on a sketch comedy TV series there called Man Stroke Woman, really funny stuff she's done in England, I feel like it would play well in England so I'm hoping to be able to get it over there.  It's a challenge to get these kinds of movies out there and get them seen, so we'll see.

Perlmutter later said this was MacNeill's first project after returning to Canada.

Janet Costa (Pincher Creek Allied Arts Council) and Daniel Perlmutter
Any thoughts to adapt the film for television?

Perlmutter: There has been talk about a TV series, it seems like a great source for that kind of weekly story, the paper and continued adventures, so we'll see if anything happens with that but yeah, there's definitely been some mention of that.

Your experience of audience feedback of the film?

Perlmutter: It played in some cities across Canada but it's been great, through the film circuit, which is a program that TFF has, I've been able to go to these different communities, smaller communities, and that has been great because this is a film centred in a small town. So to be able to bring it to different communities has been really fantastic, and for me that's been very gratifying. That's been a real treat for me.

Did working with Eugene Levy inform this at all? 

Perlmutter: I was very fortunate to get a chance to work with Eugene Levy, him reading this script and giving me feedback. You know, I was talking about that five year process of working on this script and working the project, and you get so many notes and... working on a comedy you can very quickly start to lose sight of anything that's funny about it and it just becomes kind of really meaningless to you, so to have someone like Eugene Levy who I respect... I grew up with SCTV, and I love all the Christopher Guest movies, "Best In Show', 'Waiting for Guffman', so to have someone I knew that I could trust giving me feedback about what was working and what wasn't, and he was very direct and very honest, and he was a huge help, he really was. He really fine-tuned the tone and helped me get the script to where it needed to be, that last kind of push to get it to really be what the film is now.

One of the things I really enjoyed was just how awkward the people were with each other. Was that in the script from the beginning?

Perlmutter: At a few points I got the advice, and I think it's great advice, that you have your idea for a movie and you have your script that you're working on, and then once you start casting it you start tailoring the roles to who that cast is. I think there was a general tone of that kind of humor in the script to begin with, but then a lot of it came out of who the cast was. And a lot of it was improvised also, not necessarily the bigger things but just little moments, little awkward interactions between the characters really came out of improvisations that we had on set.

path not taken...

It was nice to see the guy from Warehouse 13 (Aaron Ashmore) in a different context.

Perlmutter:  Aaron Ashmore in the video store.  So to give you an idea, we had five years of working on this film and then we had 18 days to actually shoot it, so you know, you've worked for so long and then you have to hurry up and do it so quickly.  That was one day we shot all of the video store scenes, in one day, it was great to have a cast like that where you could do it because they were such professionals and they come so prepared.  In a case like that, it was the night before, I met with Ennis Esmer, the lead, and with Aaron, and we kind of just talked through those scenes and worked out some little bits that they would do together.

Who was the crazy blonde woman who plays the reporter who is so shy?

Perlmutter:  Kristin Booth, who you probably wouldn't recognize from this but you would recognize otherwise because she's normally playing very glamorous roles and is not normally a mousy shy character, so this was a complete change for her, and I think she was really having a lot of fun with that.  

The future of Canadian cinema?

Perlmutter: It's a tough thing to do. It's a tough industry for sure, but I think there's a lot of opportunity. Personally I feel like there's hope still. I think programs like this, like the film circuit that brings out films to different communities is a great thing. I think technology being what it is now is much more accessible, to be able to make films. I think that there is opportunity there. It's still a big challenge, but a big part of that challenge is getting Canadian films seen, also.

Would you film here or in Crowsnest Pass?

Perlmutter: I'd love to make a movie here. Everywhere you point a camera it's great. I want to write a western now...

If you're not from a small town, what did you use as a reference? You captured the heart of a small town and the small town media.

Perlmutter: That is very gratifying to hear. I think part of it was just my personal affection for it. And you know, a big part of it was I felt that it was really in the end a kind of celebration of this idea because although I've never lived in one I've always been a fan of spending time in communities and I've known them. Midland, the town we shot in, I knew because my wife has family there and we spend a lot of time there. But I think it was just being open to that and seeing what was great about life in a small town and wanting to represent that. It was so important to me that the comedy of this film came from these characters and these little actions but was never about making fun of anybody. Really from the get-go that was one thing that was consistent was that it was about... there was a warmth about all these characters and this story. Silly as it is, that was key to it I think.

Related link:

Shannon Robin and Brenda Shenton of Shootin' the Breeze and TIFF film circuit manager Meaghan Brander
John Stoesser of the Pincher Creek Echo zooms in on Costa and Perlmutter
Brenda Shenton, Janet Costa, Daniel Perlmutter, Shannon Robin, and Toni Lucas

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