2003 was a banner year for my career as a writer. The month was October and I had been in the middle of my first full fledged Film Festival experience, having only gone to the odd show a year earlier. There would be days when I'd see two or three films back to back with very little downtime and then spend the night covering a Hollywood feature. The workload was intense but the vibe was killer, and though my personal life would turn out to be tested just as the festival was ending, it was without a doubt a good time.
Festivals are a haven for movie fans like me who like to see something different from the cookie cutter romantic comedies and action spectacles that get churned out of the Hollywood movie making machine. I saw over 20 films at the Fest and had the chance to interview and meet some great people. One day in the midst of all this film festival chaos, I had the chance to see a film by the name of On the Corner, a movie I selected due to it being Canadian and having one of my favorite Canadian actresses, Katherine Isabelle, in a supporting role. So I arrived at the theatre after a brief stop at a going away party for a friend, and the line was around the block. Luckily my media credentials got me past the line and into the film with minimal problems. That night would turn out to be memorable for a number of reasons, including the film itself and a coveted invite to a post-screening party for another movie later in the week.
Due to the events that occurred after the night of the party, much of my planned Film Festival coverage was scrapped and a review of On the Corner was never posted. Imagine my surprise when I found out the film was getting a theatrical run. Now at last I could post my thoughts on the film and when the chance came to interview people who worked on and appeared in the film, I was more then happy to try and set something up to promote the film.
It didn't hurt that I had just worked with the film's publicist on another interview, so I put in a request to sit down with the film's director Nathaniel Geary and co-star JR Bourne, who has the tough role of Cliffie and worked closely with Katherine Isabelle, the person who drew me to the film in the first place. A time and venue was set and I was off and running on preparing questions worthy of their time. The rest as they say is history, as Nathaniel, JR, and I sat down to discuss On the Corner and a number of other subjects.
Mark McLeod: On the Corner was a fan favorite at the Vancouver International Film Festival, playing to sold out crowds. Did this strong initial reaction help in getting theatrical distribution for the picture?
Nathaniel Geary: I think that probably helped. It's hard to say. I think what probably did help was the fact that it got into Toronto (Film Festival) and that a lot of distributors saw it there. I know that TVA saw it there and I think that was a big part of the deal. Obviously the good reaction in Vancouver showed them that the film had some legs in Vancouver as well. It sold out two shows so they added a third. Obviously all that enthusiasm helps the film for sure and led to a theatrical release.
MM: For the most part, Canadian films get released with very little fanfare and disappear after only a week or two. Why do you think audiences are so reluctant to spend money on Canadian films? Is it the unknown factor?
NG: I think that's part of it. But it's also the fact that Canadian distributors don't spend enough money promoting the films. They just buy the films and throw them into theatres without telling people about them. We don't have the star system where people know to go and see the film, and they (the public) don't know the actors. People go up to a movie theatre and see the poster and go "Oh Bill Murray is in it!" and then go to see the film.
JR Bourne: We don't know who those celebrities are in Canada. There's no sort of encouragement on who the Canadian celebrities are.
NG: Well it's also really an issue that Canadian distributors don't do enough print and advertising and there's like no marketing. There's hardly ever any trailers for Canadian films so there isn't any real promotion for the films.
JRB: I'll speak for myself, but I know that if they came to us and just said here's a place to do the promoting, we'd promote the hell out of something we're proud of. No cost involved on our behalf.
At this point Nathaniel, who's a real trooper for doing the interview when sick, begins to talk of all the fluids swirling around in his body. I quickly add an off-the-cuff remark about how he is promoting the movie and that he should probably hold off on dying until after the interview is over.
MM: The movie tells a number of very personal and human stories about the people of the downtown east side. As a filmmaker, did you try and combine accounts and occurrences from multiple people's lives into the story, or are the characters based directly on people you met during your time at the Portland Hotel?
NG: The characters are composites of people that I met or even just heard about. The characters and the situations are just coming from people, from experiences that I had both during filming and during pre-production, and the time I spent down there for sure. Then obviously the actors brought the characters to life with their own ideas.
JR jokingly dodges the question while trying to hide his face from Nathaniel so that he doesn't get sick. Nathaniel jokes back saying that he doesn't think he's contagious anymore and that's he's indeed fully sick. I add that we're probably all going to die because of this interview so we might as well finish it and at least promote the film while we still can. JR cracks back with "Exactly, thanks for coming out Mark, now we're going to kill you."
JRB: Yeah, he says that it had a lot to do with characters and people that we met down there. There's such a realism to the characters he wrote because they are based on people that he knew down there so once we were down there we saw the people and saw the characters. One day when we were shooting a scene towards the end of the film, I remember saying, "There's Cliffie (JR's character) in another 20 years!" to Nathaniel.
Nathaniel doesn't remember this occurrence and argues that it never happened. Perhaps it's his memory or the illness, but being the quick thinker I am, I thought to ask if he was even on the set.
JRB: No, he wasn't there, he very rarely showed up on set actually. He had an assistant that actually really directed the movie.
NG: I directed from my trailer.
JRB: Which was blocks away. In fact, his trailer was his house and he'd phone in the direction. Just sort of sensing what we were doing wrong. There was no real budget for any monitors so he couldn't see what we were doing. Basically, his direction was to "act better" and that was about all the direction we'd get.
MM: So who's this phantom director then?
JRB: There was no director on set. His girlfriend showed up a couple of times. A lovely lady and she'd basically just stay stuff like "act better".
MM: So you basically just directed yourself?
JRB: God no! I pretty much just looked to "act better". That's what I need to give a good performance.
MM: JR, in the movie, you play Cliffie, the only real character in the film that's hard to connect with. You're abusive towards Katherine Isabelle's character Stacey and you take advantage of Randy at the beginning. What attracted you to the part?
JRB: What attracted me to the part? Well, I guess the writing of the script and the content and situations in the movie. As actors we love to do things that are going to make us stretch and challenge ourselves and a part as a drug addict is very different than myself. I mean, I don't do any drugs and that was definitely a sort of a challenge. I don't think he took advantage of anybody, he was just looking for love.
MM: JR, using only one word, describe your character in On the Corner?
MM: You want to expand on that at all?
JRB: No Mark, you said one word.
At this point, I explain that everyone I interview always answers with one word and then never expands on the question.
JRB: I say need because that was the driving force behind Cliffie. The need for love, the need for drugs, the need for family. It was just the need. Aren't we all in need Mark? What are you in need of?
MM: A girlfriend. Someone to love and who can love me in return.
JRB: Well yeah.
MM: Well preferably one that's not psychotic in any way and will treat me well.
JRB: Well that lets out all of my friends. (laughs)
MM: And mine. (laughs)
JRB: And there's the problem. Yeah, but the word you're looking for is "need".
MM: The film has some pretty dark subject matter, which on the surface might leave some potential audience members a little uneasy about going to the film. Knowing this, explain to them why they should go see On the Corner this weekend instead of the latest Hollywood blockbuster?
NG: Because people don't have enough darkness in their lives already. Don't go and see The Chronicles of Riddick because it looks the stupidest piece of crap ever made. Thing about it is the Canadian public should support Canadian films. We have a growing industry here in Canada that could use all the support it can get and they are good stories. They (most Canadian independent films) are thought-provoking films that are well-acted and well-written. Some of it's crap but that happens. Unfortunately, most people go to the movies with the idea of escaping into fantasy for a while, but films for me are very different than that. I like to experience a whole range of emotions. Whether it's a dark subject matter or a lighter piece, if you can still connect with it, that's what's important.
MM: In addition to playing the major Canadian film festivals like Vancouver and Toronto, the film has also played smaller Canadian cities like Halifax and Whistler, as well as overseas in Germany and Spain. How has the crowd reaction differed between the smaller and larger cities both in Canada and internationally?
NG: I'm not sure that it has. For example in Sweden, the Swedes were very interested in the fact that there were native characters in the film, and the native people of this country, and the drug issue obviously. They were interested in that and what Canada was doing to address its drug problems. So maybe that's a little different than the Canadian cities. Although, a lot of people are interested in those issues too because outside of Vancouver, I think there's less awareness of the serious drug issue here. I hope the film speaks for itself in terms of having engaging characters, an engaging story, and that it gets beyond some of the social issues.
MM: On the Corner explores some pretty important themes including the importance of family and the ability to accept your past and try and improve your future. In making the film, did you find that these themes influenced where the story was going because, given the dark subject matter, things could have played out much differently?
NG: Yeah the themes are driving the film forward. For sure, they are going to affect where the film is going. The film ends with one of the lead characters having gone through maybe the worst part of the journey, while at the same time accepting the fact that her brother might be lost for a while.
MM: At the festival showing, you said in the Q&A following it that your next film was going to be a comedy. How are things progressing on that front and are we any closer to seeing that feature up on a movie screen?
NG: It's actually a dramatic comedy. It's good, I almost have the first draft done, it's about a family. It's called Destroyer. It's good. It's coming along.
MM: The Canadian film industry is important in and of itself, and has spawned the careers of some fine talent. Is there any actress or actor out there you haven't had a chance to work with that you'd like to, or is there someone you'd want to work with again? I know JR you've had a couple chances to work with Katherine Isabelle (both in this film and the upcoming Ginger Snaps prequel).
NG: Neither one of us want to work with Katherine again.
MM: Horror stories?
JRB: I will run from any project that Katherine is involved in. Katie is just a bitch. You can print that. No, I'm kidding. I would work with her again, so yes. I'm working with her on Bryan Johnson (the DP of On the Corner)'s new feature. On the other hand, I will never work with Nathaniel Geary again. The man doesn't know how to direct.
MM: "Act better".
JRB: "Act better" is all he knows how to say. He's just an annoying little director. Kidding. Of course I'd work with him again.
NG: I want to work with Sarah Polley.
JR adds that he'd like to work with Sarah Polley as well. He then suggests that I should call Sarah up and tell her that Nathaniel Geary and JR Bourne would like to work with her. Both also agreed on Parker Posey.
MM: During the film's theatrical release, one dollar from every ticket sale is going to support Covenant House. Was this an important decision in choosing a distributor for the film's release, that they'd be giving back to the community?
NG: It was the distributor's idea totally. I had nothing to do with it.
I admit to not knowing much about the downtown eastside and I found the film to be thought-provoking and interesting. It's not always easy to watch, but it's not too gritty that it becomes sickening or downright disturbing.
MM: How do you think you were able to make such a moving film that didn't go over the top in its depiction but at the same time didn't sugarcoat the subject matter in the slightest.
NG: I think because I knew the world and the characters, so I didn't need to glamorize it in any way. I think when you know something well, that the truth comes through and it doesn't come across as being forced in any way.
MM: What do you hope audiences members take home with them after viewing the film.
NG: I just hope that people enjoy the film as a film and that they sit through the 90 minutes and are engaged as opposed to sitting through it because they feel they have to because it's good for them. Also, if they drive through the downtown eastside or have some sort of interaction with a drug user that their first impulse will be compassion as opposed to disgust.
MM: Nathaniel, a lot of Canadian directors spend the time in between movies directing episodes of various Canadian television series. Any possibility of seeing a Nathaniel Geary-directed episode of a CBC or CTV drama or comedy? Perhaps Cold Squad, which coincidentally JR has appeared on?
NG: Yeah, I'm hoping to get some real paying gigs. You don't make any money when you direct low-budget films. Yeah for sure. I want to expand and do other projects.
And with that, I thanked the two of them for their time and the interview was done.
On the Corner is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver from TVA Films. One dollar from each ticket sale during the theatrical run will go to support Covenant House. Special thanks to Nathaniel Geary, JR Bourne, the staff at the Vancouver East Cultrual Centre, and Bonne Smith at StarPR.
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.