As anyone in the movie and entertainment journalism business knows, the weeks leading up to Christmas are some of the busiest in the year. Studios rush to stake their claim on the best screening locations and times for their award-caliber pictures and holiday offerings, while smaller films, are often left in the dust fighting for even the smallest bit of attention. One could easily go insane and run into a total lack of sleep attempting to see and write about everything, as conflicting screenings are the norm instead of the exception and underperforming films get yanked just as quickly as they arrived to make room for the fourth print of that week's big new release.
Hoping to become the exception to the rule is Canadian director Robert Cuffley's second feature, Walk All Over Me, starring two lovely and statuesque actresses in Leelee Sobieksi and Battlestar Galatica's Number 6, Tricia Helfer, with a plotline sure to make any male moviegoer take notice. Going off very little sleep, I caught up with Robert and Tricia on a recent press stop in Vancouver where we talked about the uphill battle Canadian films face at the box office, the use of the internet as a marketing tool for smaller films, as well as a history of the project. And of course, what interview with Tricia Helfer would be complete without some hot new BSG information.
Mark McLeod: Let's talk about the origin of the project.
Robert Cufffey: It happened in a coffee shop, and Tricia you've probably heard this a thousand times.
MM: Well this is for the internet, so you can be x-rated if you want.
RC: The movie was originally called Alberta Bound and the lead character is Alberta, so I thought that Alberta Bound would make for a good play on words. I was thinking, what if Alberta was a woman that stepped into the world of S&M. I was fascinated by having a black pool and putting an innocent in the pool and watching her try and claw her way out. There's something about putting someone who knows nothing about S&M into that world that really intrigued me.
MM: Now Tricia is from Alberta, was that a choice you made as sort of a wink to the audience members.
RC: Not really, no. I wish I was clever enough, but I'm not.
Tricia Helfer: Well the beginning process of this was developed way before casting ideas.
RC: It's funny, I was talking to some people last night from the Vancouver Film School. They were saying it's just genius to get these two girls in it, but I didn't know that it was genius at the time because I don't think from a marketing standpoint. I was just thinking I like both of them for different reasons. I remember meeting someone at MovieCentral, and I pitched the idea and she said, "I can already see the poster." That's a good thing because they were thinking marketing but I wasn't thinking that way. Then I wrote a draft and it was a love story and then I brought in the guy I write with and he said we should have some crooks, some ne-do-wells, some sinister people, and I said what were you thinking and talked and then made it not only stepping into this sexual underworld but also a crime underworld as well, so that she had to maneuver her way out of a variety of messes to get to a place where she's somewhat more confident than she was at the beginning.
MM: Now I was talking to Bruce Sweeney, the director of American Venus, about casting his latest project and he went on a bit of a rant about how he basically got given a list of actresses and told if he picked one from the list that he'd have a go picture. Did you encounter something like that on your film?
RC: I did and those people are largely very much out to lunch. They'll look at something that says mid-20s and give you a list of people in their 40s or someone who is 14, and it's like, that's not what I'm after. I understand that they have marquee value, but have you read the script, and that's not what I'm after. They are going strictly marketing and not going for tone, nuance, physical characteristics that they, man or woman, have to have. So I mean, it was an accident that I got who I did. I wasn't thinking bigger is better; I was thinking who's right for the role. In Leelee's case, I went after her for a long, long time and in Tricia's case, it was one of these things where she was kind of right under my nose and one of those "why didn't I think of that?" (situations). Her manager, Richard, brought it to my attention and as soon as I did some research into it, there was no way it was going to happen because it's too good to be true. And usually, when things are too good to be true, they are too good to be true. It's worked out better than I could have hoped, for a variety of reasons. You look around, and Tricia's on E-talk, you're on the cover of Georgia Straight, and aside from the film, it's so nice to get close enough to her and Leelee to be friends now. And I think after today, I don't expect either of them to ever talk to me again. And maybe a lot of actors and actresses aren't friends with directors, but I think we're going to be friends for like 10 years.
MM: Now, the film debuted in Toronto and played a couple other festivals, notably Whistler last weekend. How's the reaction been so far?
TH: We got bought by the Weinstein Company in Toronto, so that's one of the best scenarios. You go there hoping to be bought and really, the other festivals are just to garner exposure, and Whistler because the movie's being released theatrically tomorrow, it was more of a press push and to get more people aware of the film and talking about it. At this point, we don't know what the Weinstein Company has in store for it yet – if it's going to get a theatrical release or if it's going to get a DVD release or what, but for a small Canadian film to get noticed by some of the biggest people in Hollywood is a pat on Robert's back.
MM: How important do you think audience reaction to the film at the festivals is to the film?
RC: I think it's really important because of word of mouth, which is kind of our biggest friend. One of the film's co-producers in Toronto does all the Facebook and internet type stuff for the movie. Last week, someone e-mailed me and said, "I saw the movie and loved it. Can I make a MySpace page?" I was like, what's MySpace? I mean, I know what it is, but I mean go for it.
TH: There's a big Battlestar site that my sister was showing me this morning, that they are planning on going to the opening night screening. We should have a few of those fans coming.
MM: Well the Sci-Fi fan base is a largely internet-based group with like BSG, Stargate, and even Serenity and Firefly.
RC: It's funny, because Michael Eklundand I were talking last night at VFS, and I was saying like 10 years ago you couldn't do what we're doing now. I cut the trailer myself with my editor and we put it online and thousands of people are watching it. But without the World Wide Web, that wouldn't be there; Facebook wouldn't be there; MySpace wouldn't be there; reaching out to the Battlestar community, to Tricia's fanbase, Leelee's fanbase. We're trying to take advantage of that – it's kind of like (giving) the power to the people and the filmmakers, because we don't have the marketing budget to take out a bus shelter ad or to hire a Goodyear blimp, although I did try. This is the kind of stuff we can do, and I think Tricia's fanbase is largely internet, as you just pointed out, so it's great timing. I'm not going to lie, the content and the genre and the premise with the dominatrix... the press is all over that, and we're getting – hopefully deservedly – a lot of attention.
TH: But that's really not what the movie is about. That's a subplot and a side story to enhance the film, and some of the funny elements, but that's really what grabs people's attention, and I think we certainly want women out there to know that it really is a relationship film between these two women – two strong female characters. Me being a woman, I don't want women to be dissuaded going to the film thinking it's all about S&M – women that aren't into S&M – and that it's a guys film. It's a film that both women and men can enjoy, and it's really a women's empowerment film in a way. I certainly want to get that across to women that they should go see it as well.
RC: Not that I'm doing a sociological study or anything. It seems in all the test screenings we had, that it's literally 50-50 men and women responding to completely different things, and that's kind of a good. A happy accident, because we didn't plan it that way, but it's good and it's kind of a date movie that way in that there's aspects for males and aspects for females.
MM: Now I ask a lot of people this question. Canadian films don't really seem to do all that well at the box office in English Canada. They seem to get sort of a one week push, then they disappear down to one or two shows a day and are gone before the third week. Why do you think it is that Canadian films perform this way, where as in French Canada and Quebec, their films are often big hits.
RC: That's a very good question, and my perspective is audience awareness. If you take the fact that we have 3 screens, and then 2 more in February in Montreal and Winnipeg. If you take our screen average, whatever it ends up being, and times it by 80 or 100, we will do just as good as an independent Hollywood film. But by virtue that it's only on three screens quantitively, if you were to multiple by it by 2000 or whatever Star Wars gets, we would have a shot. But it's 3. Now I'm not bitching, because it's a challenge and I want to break through that wall, and we're going to starting Friday. It's awareness and getting it out. We're having a lot of luck because of a variety of reasons – the story, the genre, the cast, the music – but I don't really know the answer.
TH: It is what you said earlier, we don't have the marketing budget. Small Canadian films don't have the budget to be pushed out there and thrown in people's faces, so people know what it is, where it's playing, what times it's playing, who is all involved, and you can't compete with big American films that had a big marketing budget. Why I think Quebec does so well is American companies aren't putting out French language films. So they have only themselves and France to watch, and that's more of an insular market where they are feeding off their own thing. In English Canada, you're bombarded by everything coming up from the States, not only the big huge blockbusters but also the independents. Most of them have a lot more money, even the low budget independents, than the higher-budget Canadian films.
MM: You don't see a lot of posters, and then if you do see a poster, you don't see a trailer, and certainly there aren't any TV spots.
TH: It's not on TV, there's just no money. We'd want to spend the money if we could, but the people who've put the money into it don't want to spend more money. In a way, it's cutting off your nose to spite your face. You put your money into it, but you don't want to put that last little bit to help garner some of the money back. The big thing it seems for Canadian films is to get sold outside of the country to recoup your costs, but then you're not really trying to make that much money inside of your own country.
RC: It's kind of a shame. I did an interview this morning and we've sold the US, we've sold Russia, India, the UK, Australia, so it's selling everywhere. Canada ultimately doesn't matter that much, but I'm from here, Tricia's from here, and I want people to see it on the big screen. It was written, shot, acted, scored to be seen BIG, and that's how it should be seen. It's kind of David vs. Goliath, but to be fair, I'm never worried about what people think when they see it. I'm worried about getting them to see it.
At this point in the interview, Robert's phone went off, and was asked to take the call, leaving me alone with Tricia – a fact he and I joked about later on after the interview, that there are far worse things that could happen than be left alone with the lovely and infectious Tricia Helfer.
MM: Skipping ahead to some questions that were more tailored to you, what attracted you to the film?
TH: Initially it was the script. My agent in Vancouver passed the script along and said it was a Canadian project, the director is actually a part of our agency, (and) I think it would be a really fun role for you. So I read the script, and Robert flew out from Calgary to Vancouver, so we met and I instantly liked his take on what he wanted from the film and the tone he wanted. Then it was Christmas and things dissipate and I was back in L.A., and then not too long after the New Year, I got the offer for the film. I knew that Leelee was interested in it, which was another thing for me to really want to do the project because I wanted to work with her – she's an acclaimed actress and most of my stuff has been the wife or the girlfriend or the seductress. I really liked that this was two strong female characters opposite each other, and me being in the older mentor role which was something I hadn't done.
MM: Now you play Celene, a character who's in control of her own life, though a bit cold towards others. And then later on you sort of become a big sister and more of a role model for Alberta. Was it hard to make the transition?
TH: No, because Celene's character used to babysit Alberta, so it's not like she was an old friend. She didn't want to make the break because she had sent the postcard to Alberta, but she just didn't expect she'd just show up on her doorstep. I saw Celene as someone who's very focused, very driven, very ambitious, and not ashamed of what she's doing in her life; but also wanting to keep pushing herself and do the acting she always wanted to do. So I see her world as being very small. I don't think she'd have many friends, (is) a bit obsessive compulsive, and likes things the way she likes things, and she welcomes Alberta into her home but with trepidation, as Alberta's sort of the type of person that things go wrong for. I want the audience to see that she's not just some cold-hearted bitch, but she wants Alberta to learn from experience knowing that from babysitting her, Alberta is the sort of person who maybe doesn't think things through. So Celene is trying to teach her in a way. I think that there's a journey through the movie where Alberta learns to take a bit more control and be more confident, and Celene learns to loosen a little bit and take things a little more day to day. What I really like about the film is there isn't a huge transformation, and then Alberta's perfect and Celene's perfect at the end. They aren't, they are still who they are, but there's been growth there.
MM: Now being that I write for the internet, I'd be shot if I didn't ask at least one BSG question, so here it is. There have been rumors that due to the writers' strike, part of the fourth season may not air.
TH: We shot 12. We were picked up for 22 – two of them in the beginning of the season were Razor. (So) we shot 14 so far, so we have 8 more to go. As far as we know, we're coming back to shoot the remaining 8. Who knows what is going to happen. I certainly don't have a crystal ball. If the strike goes on long enough, yeah, with any show there's a possibility that will be the final episode. What we've shot will air, absolutely; I think it's scheduled to start airing in April. Because it was 20 episodes, I think they were going to show 10 in April 08 and then hold 10 for technically a 5th season even though we would have filmed it all at once. But technically a 5th season for the end of '08 or beginning of '09. That's what might change. They may air all 12 episodes as Season 4 and there won't be a season 5.
MM: Can the story wrap there at the end of the 12 that are shot?
TH: Where we are could be season-ending. I know with certainty, that's not how the series is supposed to end. Without giving away any spoilers, that certainly could be season-ending, but again, who knows. I don't know what's going to happen. All I know is that when we left the last day of filming, everybody thought we were coming back for the final 8 episodes. Only time will tell.
MM: What's your dream project?
TH: Oh, I have so many dream projects, I just want to keep working. I'm still relatively new at this business, (so I want to) keep working and work with people that I can learn from. I'd love to work with Cate Blanchett, there are a lot of directors I'd love to work with, and really I just want to keep doing a variety of characters. I wouldn't want to get stuck doing the same character over and over again.
RC: Sorry about that. (apologizing for leaving me alone with Tricia)
MM: No problem. I was just asking Tricia to talk a little bit about her dream project. What's your dream project?
RC: One of them I just made. In so many ways, I got to do whatever I wanted, had the exact cast I wanted, and it made a big U.S. sale that exceeded my expectations, so I'm really happy.
MM: They film a lot of movies up here in Vancouver, and we've stood in for just about every American city, but your movie which is set in Vancouver was shot in Winnipeg?
RC: It wasn't my choice.
TH: It's a financing thing, it really is. Part of the reason is because there are so many big American films shooting here all of the top crews are taken, and it's more expensive than shooting in Winnipeg, where there's not as many crews. And by doing that, we also got the best Winnipeg crew. So we had a great crew. If we had shot here, we might not have had...
RC: ...the cream of the crop.
TH: They also probably give bigger tax credits and we can save money that way.
MM: So it was pure a monetary reason then?
RC: It was, as Tricia said, but we're happy that happened. The movie is mostly interiors, so we were able to disguise that quite nicely. I don't think anyone knows.
MM: Probably not, I only found out by watching the end credits.
RC: We did shoot one day here without the actors. Just on the bus.
MM: Which, if you're from here, doesn't really make logical sense.
RC: Here's the thing, the bus driver was drinking, he kept circling the city and then was like, "F***, I'm just going to take the bridge." So that's what happened.
MM: Now, I like to ask everyone I talk to, to describe their film in one word and then give a brief reasoning.
RC: (to Tricia) Can you go first?
TH: Eccletic, because you can't fit it in one genre. It's pieces of a lot of different things that I think fit together to make a really great movie, but you can't fit it into one genre.
RC: You stole mine.
TH: I was going to say quirky, but you hate quirky.
RC: Yeah, I don't like that word. Can you ask another question and I'll think on that?
MM: Well you won't like the next one any better. Describe yourself in one word?
RC: Umm. You're right, I don't like that one either. (noticing Tricia's playing with her dress) Let's talk about your dress.
MM: Are we having a wardrobe malfunction?
TH: I'm having a wardrobe malfunction; one of my sequins is falling off.
RC: Now the next question.
TH: (still laughing)
RC: I don't know about myself. The film, how about tantalizing?
MM: And why did you choose that word? Is it because Tricia stole your other answer?
TH: It keeps you wanting more.
RC: The characters and the actors both pull you in, and you want to know more – more about them as people and as characters. It's also got a great premise. I made the movie I'd want to see if I saw the trailer, and I wasn't thinking, "Let's sell this to this market or that market." It's something I'd pay to see, and that's tantalizing.
MM: Now Tricia, can you describe yourself and your character in one word?
TH: Myself... you see, I was thinking while he was talking (laughs). Myself, I would say feline because I think I'm part cat. No really, I very much have the characteristics of a cat in many ways: I have moods and I can change quickly from moods, I can be mischievous, I can be lazy, I can be a hunter so to speak, and the fact I'm madly in love with cats. I have 6 of them myself, I really do feel similar to a cat in many ways. My character (long pause)... sort of self-isolating. She's driven, driven could describe her.
MM: There are a lot of movies out there, and a lot of Canadian films tend to get released in the January dead zone, whereas yours is getting released right in the middle of the busy holiday season. Why should audiences go and see your movie, over say The Golden Compass.
TH: I've heard The Golden Compass sucks (laughing). I'm kidding. No, I have actually heard that. I think that sometimes there's a lot of Hollywood fare out there, and why not take a chance and see something that may surprise you. It's something that's supporting your own country. Why not take a risk?
RC: For me, it's that every producer says we're looking for something different. I think this is different, that's why they should see it.
MM: Now you even have a bigger uphill battle with the film with the release date. Screens are at a premium and it's going to be even that much harder to stay around.
RC: That wasn't my choice. We're still going to kick ass but this wouldn't have been my choice.
MM: Any plans for the DVD?
RC: I'm cutting a behind-the-scenes doodah; I'm talking to these girls about a commentary which I think will be fun, especially if we're kind of hosed; a blooper reel; and I want to do something with the score. I'm trying to convince the studio, and there's a great deal of people, and I sense you're probably one of them, who will buy a DVD for the special features. I want to load it up!
MM: What's next for you guys?
RC: As of Monday, I'm going back into writing mode and working on three scripts – a comedy and two thrillers – and we'll see which one takes momentum quickest and put my energy into that.
TH: I'm waiting to find out if we're going to be finishing Battlestar after the strike, and I have a project called Unforgettable – a film that will be coming out next year about amnesia, and meeting with a director about another film that we'll probably shoot in Canada, and meeting on another series in Los Angeles. It's too early to say yet, but there will be lots happening.
MM: Thanks for your time guys.
TH & RC: Thanks Mark!
Walk All Over Me, starring Leelee Sobeiski and Tricia Helfer and directed by Robert Cufflfey, is now playing in theatres in Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary, and will be released in Montreal and Winnipeg in Feburary. Special thanks to Bonne Smith at StarPR, Robert Cuffley, and Tricia Helfer.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.