Articles by: Luigi SaracinoLuigi Saracino
Luigi Saracino is a musician, composer, writer, stand-up comic, actor and voice-actor. He also plays and writes music with a lovely group of guys under the moniker Better Living Through Chemistry. Luigi loves living in Ottawa, is naturally buoyant in freshwater, and believes that “Slinkies” are powered by a combination of “magic” and “bluish-hued imps from the seventh dimension.” Luigi would also like everyone to know that he is only a little bit ticklish, and a huge sucker for any movie with the incomparable Marty Feldman in it.

An Actor’s Life Bonus Disc: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad (Film) World

July 1, 2013 11:26 am
An Actor’s Life  Bonus Disc: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad (Film) World

Life’s like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

 

I’m just looking for the best story being told by the best people and the best part that I can find. If those things add up, I want to be part of it whether it’s a studio film or, more likely in that instance, an independent film.

– John Hawkes

 

Part of the trick to thriving and remaining driven throughout the inevitable and compulsory ups-and-downs that all creative people – and particularly film actors –experience, is to stay focused on the work and to surround yourself with like-minded people.

But part of what will help you move forward in your career is learning to take advantage of the amazing advances in the development of more powerful and user-friendly filmmaking equipment. The notion that you need $20 million to make a movie is no longer necessarily a truism. The film industry has been in flux over the last few years, with traditional moviemaking models no longer applying in terms of what will put bums in seats. The financial cost of filmmaking has changed dramatically over the last decade. While you still have your Hollywood-made, mega-blockbuster $400-million film vehicles, the availability of film production, screenwriting, music, mixing, graphics and video software has advanced to such a degree as to make it easier than ever to get your ideas on film, and out there to the general public. More people than ever before now have the opportunity to do so, right from their laptops, tablets and smartphones. And all without having to take out a third mortgage.

As an example of how those costs have significantly changed, I offer the following anecdotal evidence. Back in the nineties when I played in a local band called boywonder http://music.cbc.ca/#/bands/HYDROFOIL (I know, the band is called HYDROFOIL on the CBC website. Trust me when I tell you the band was called boywonder… it’s a long story. Also, hey look! I had hair! Neat!) It eventually came time for us to shoot a promotional music video for our third album’s first single Bright Idea. We were lucky enough to have Canadian rock band Moist’s manager of the time help us  plan and organize the shoot, coach us through preparing “press packs,” and deal with the top people at MuchMusic. Keep in mind those were the days when videos were shot on actual film, which was (and still is) extremely expensive. All of that to say the three-minute video (pre- and post-production costs included) ended up running us just over $10,000!

But thanks to newer and more powerful film-production software, http://download.cnet.com/1770-20_4-0.html?query=filmmaking&searchtype=downloads filmmakers are now finding it much easier to bring their visions to life more cheaply. Check out a recent article showing off five incredible short sci-fi films made by filmmakers in the comfort of their own homes: http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-badass-new-sci-fi-movies-you-can-watch-your-lunch-break/

So the issue now becomes, how do you stand out from among the plethora of newly minted, would-be Martin Scorsese’s, Hal Hartley’s and Jim Jarmusch’s out there? Ottawa-based filmmaker Randy Kelly, whom I’ve had the great pleasure to work with on two separate short film projects, says that, technological advances and all, it still comes down to how good your story is, and as importantly, how you tell it.

It’s certainly easier and faster nowadays, and you definitely have more options, Kelly explains, which means that to stand out, there are a couple of things you need to do. You’ve got to be extremely good at the visual and graphics side, which gives it the eye- catching quality you want and need, and the other thing of course is story, which is something that I like to work more on – to get a story out there that makes people think about their own existence, about art, about life, and that has a couple of twists in it to boot.

Pic 1-There's More-Micheline Luigi Randy

Micheline Shoebridge, Randy Kelly and me… deeply into produce (Photo Jonathan Maher)

Ottawa has a lot of driven, dedicated and amazing people who love to tell stories. Kelly and his partner Micheline Shoebridge are two of the nicest folks you could ever hope to meet, but the fact that they’re also two of the most innovative, original and empathetic filmmakers and storytellers I’ve ever met, doesn’t hurt either. I’ve worked with this creative powerhouse of a team on two separate and award -winning short-film projects. The first, a 10-minute short called There’s More, was shot overnight in one eight-hour stretch at a grocery store in Aylmer, where an aging and retired rock star discovers that the call of The Muse can show up pretty much anywhere at any time, whether he wants it to or not.

Little known fact: Actors working on independent productions are oftentimes paid in tiny mandarin oranges.

Little known fact: Actors working on independent productions are oftentimes paid in tiny mandarin oranges. (Photo: Jonathan Maher)

A much shorter piece titled The Key – a 60-second film put together for a recent short-film competition – was made in collaboration with Invest Ottawa: http://investottawa.ca/

The idea behind the competition was to give budding filmmakers the chance to express their art, and to promote Ottawa’s many different and varied potential film locations.

The Key: Getting my meditation on! (Photo: Randy Kelly)

The Key: Getting my meditation on! (Photo: Randy Kelly)

 

The constraints for the competition were fairly rigid in terms of the project’s run time (one minute maximum), but add to that the idea that filmmakers would only be given their shoot location randomly, chosen from literally hundreds of possible locations across the city. The one problem for a filmmaker with that approach is that you can’t control the environment around you. You can’t pre-plan to a certain degree, because the variables of something unforeseen happening have now increased ten-fold. This was made more than abundantly clear on the actual day of our shoot, when two overly amorous and completely uninhibited lovers decided to loudly and forcefully demonstrate their love for each other in broad daylight in the middle of a field, no less than 30 feet from where we were shooting. Maybe it’s just me, but I have little to no desire to start my day watching some middle-aged guy’s flabby backside bob up and down like a cork in a bathtub, just as I’m trying to enjoy my Subway breakfast sandwich. Coital longings aside, my point is that distractions, last-minute problems and all, filmmakers have to power through – no pun intended.

Pictured: The beautiful stone gazebo in Rockcliffe Park. Not Pictured: Love, sweet love.

Pictured: The beautiful stone gazebo in Rockcliffe Park. Not Pictured: Love, sweet love. (Photo: Randy Kelly)

We had seven different concepts for the film, Kelly explains, but my co-writer Katie Compton was taken by one specific outcome and ran with it – an idea that we both agreed gave the story a greater depth and air of love and mystery. The Key is the story of someone who tries guided meditation for the first time, and it ends up working much better than he would have ever suspected. I decided to use the idea of guided meditation as a different and interesting way to get our protagonist from point A to point B. We felt it was a good way to transport the story to a different physical location… in our case, Rockcliffe Park. So we chose a metaphysical means as opposed to a physical one to be able to show movement.

Kelly says that regardless of budgetary restraints or otherwise, people are still out there making movies:

Part of the new reality is that a lot more short films are being made than there are budgets for them, but they’re still being made because people have stories to tell. Filmmaking has become a much more accessible endeavour. The only way you used to be able to achieve the “film look” was to use extremely expensive equipment and post-production techniques. The issue there is not only that it’s very expensive, but that you also need highly specific talents geared towards that field. And while even with the advent of cheaper, smaller cameras that give you that same “film-look,” you do still need some specific talents to work the gear, but it has absolutely become a much cheaper and more accessible endeavour for people who don’t have millions, or even thousands of dollars in their budget.

Big budget or not, filmmakers and writers will always find a way to do it, however much work, frustration and sacrifice that choice often entails. Kelly confides:

I’ve always been touched by filmmaking, by storytelling, by its potential as a medium of communication. I’ve always had a great love and passion for it. It’s a great way to communicate and share stories, and it does a great job reflecting our existence to others. What I particularly love is that cinema encapsulates so many different aspects of the arts – music, writing, the visual aspects, all coming together to create something different than its individual parts, all stemming from the one source.

The Key was recently submitted as a semi-finalist by CBC Ottawa for a national short-film competition, where participants from across the country submitted their best stories with the nine finalists airing on CBC Television. But regardless of the outcome, Kelly’s drive, passion and empathy for the medium are palpable and genuine, and will ensure that this talented filmmaker will keep doing what he loves. You can check out The Key, starring Céline Filion, Jodi Larratt, Rachelle Casseus, Alix Sideris, Chris Wiley, plus two thankfully unidentified lovebirds at https://www.facebook.com/thekeyfilm?fref=ts ,http://vimeo.com/44350287

A lot of dedicated people worked on bringing The Key to life and it’s thanks in no small part to the efforts of Parktown Productions, an outstanding Ottawa-based production company owned and operated by Richard Towns and Sean Parker, that The Key turned out as well as it did. Parktown Productions has long been putting out quality work, some of which you can see here: http://www.parktown.ca/ The main focus is innovative custom television advertising design for broadcast and other visual media, but Parktown also provides production equipment rentals, technical support, and post-production editing services. Definitely good guys to know if you’re working in the industry. Having had a role in bringing films like Adrian Langley‘s visceral and action-packed Donkey to the big screen, Towns is no stranger to the hard work required in the world of Indy film, and is one of the finest persons I’ve ever been on a project with. His professionalism, drive, good humour and generosity made the experience richer and easier than it would otherwise have been.

You can also check out the previous short film Randy Kelly and I did together – the award-winning There’s More, starring Catherine Boutin, Rachelle Casseus, Alix Sideris, Nancy Kenny, Katherine Dines and Éloï Jacques at  https://www.facebook.com/OxusFilms?fref=ts, http://vimeo.com/42249055

 

In conversation with my Muse and co-star, the lovely and talented Catherine Boutin!

In conversation with my Muse and co-star, the lovely and talented Catherine Boutin! (Photo: Jonathan Maher)

 

Choosing to pursue an acting career can definitely be rewarding, but it can also be daunting, and even discouraging. Many times over the course of your career, you will find yourself asking “Why am I doing this again?” At times like those, the best thing to do, to paraphrase my sister Rosanna Saracino (an incredibly talented and visionary writer, director and filmmaker in her own right), is to remind yourself to Do the work for no one but yourself. Check out her wonderful theatre company’s Arts and Lies at https://www.facebook.com/artandliespro?fref=ts, www.artsandliesproductions.com and www.redhanded.ca. [Stay tuned for an upcoming behind-the-scenes post on the inner workings of the Canadian theatre world!]

It’s definitely a good piece of advice, and one I certainly agree with, but also be wise enough to  take advantage of the recent exciting changes in the industry, because never has the phrase “think outside the box” been more appropriate or timely. Directors and actors are fundamentally storytellers. And while in some cases, the words may not be their own, an actor’s job is to add dimension, intuition, empathy and instinct to what’s given them. In other words, to flesh out and make real the characters, situations and stories on the page, and ultimately to share knowledge and experience. To those of you out there driven by the same desires, I can only say work hard, be brave, be true and get out there and tell your stories. With how easy it’s become, there’s less reason than ever to not share your vision. And if people ask why you do it, despite the frustrations and immense challenges, you could always say what I tell people when I’m asked: “What? And give up showbiz?”

 

__________________________

 

Luigi Saracino is a musician, composer, writer, stand-up comic, actor and voice-actor. He also plays and writes music with a lovely group of guys under the moniker Crown Victoria. Luigi loves living in Ottawa, is naturally buoyant in freshwater, and believes that “Slinkies” are powered by a combination of “magic” and “bluish-hued imps from the seventh dimension.” Luigi would also like everyone to know that he is only a little bit ticklish, and a huge sucker for any movie with the incomparable Ernest Borgnine in it.

Pow! Zap! Boom! Revenge of the Nerds: The Art of Story and of the Spaces in Between

May 28, 2013 11:22 am
Kicking ass and taking names!

 Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.

Salman Rushdie

When I was a boy, I always saw myself as a hero in comic books and movies. I grew up believing this dream.

Elvis Presley

I read a lot of comic books when I was in school, and I used to pretend I was in them, and kids would tease me and call me names. But now I do the same things and people say that I’m artistic and cool, and I’m doing the exact same thing I did in high school.

Freddie Prinze Jr.

Stories, and by extension, storytelling itself, is in our blood and in our bones. Whether the ones that relate to our own personal roots and direct history, or stories we’ve devoured and absorbed over the years and ultimately made part of ourselves, they shape us and teach us. They make us reflect and consider. They have the power to open our eyes to different perspectives and ways of thinking, and they are incredibly important as they promote our growth and evolution as a culture and as a species. I highly recommend Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth as a good starting point in appreciating just how much stories have molded and been incredibly formative to our communal experiences, psyche and survival.

Storytelling has been a part of society for as long as there have actually been societies, and no doubt, when we made our first tentative steps as a species all those eons ago, one of the ways we connected and flourished, one way we passed down lessons, morals and knowledge, was to tell and retell stories to each other. Huddled together tightly around a fire, our backs to the impossibly dark, unyielding, seemingly unending night, we told stories. We shared our history, our lessons, our achievements, our failures. What these have all taught us was then passed down from generation to generation.

Thankfully, along with stories, we had pointy spears and flint knives and fire and such, as passing anything down becomes a touch more difficult when you’re busy fending off a crazed, rabies-infested mastodon, or ravenously hungry, razor-fanged sabre-toothed tiger attack. Admittedly, I’m a little unclear on the actual danger our ancestors had to face, as I’ve seen pretty much every episode of The Flintstones, and things always seem to work out okay there. Aside, of course, from each episode ending with Fred getting thrown out of his own house by what must be the largest and most unfriendly, surly and poorly-trained house cat I’ve ever seen. Now it’s certainly possible that Hanna-Barbera were just terrible historians, but giant cats notwithstanding, my point is that same survival hinged in a very real way on the existence of stories.

Sequential art is the oldest form of storytelling in recorded human history. Long before we had a verbal language, we were hanging out in caves and drawing on walls, and I’m quite sure our prehistoric parents were very probably grunting at us to stop drawing on the damn walls, and why can’t we just go outside and play with the weird neighbour kids Ook and Dak already?! The famous cave paintings at Varhaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in France, show a grasp, structure, and understanding of storytelling that is remarkable and paradoxically, ahead of its time. Far from crude, these paintings are some of the most colourful, striking, lovely and earliest recorded evidence of how deeply we are grounded in storytelling. Humans have been around for about 200,000 years, but the written record of our existence has only been with us for the last 6,000 years or so. That means that 97% of all human knowledge had been passed down via some kind of oral tradition or more pointedly, the aforementioned prehistoric tagging. In other words, comic books have been with us for a very, very long time.

When I was a kid, most superhero comics being produced by DC and Marvel were very black-and-white in regards to their views of the world. These were simple and clear-cut; there was Good and there was Evil, and Good always won out in the end. Comics were mostly four-colour, archetypal morality plays where you knew that despite the odds, the intrepid hero would always prevail, and that by the time you made it to the X-ray Specs, Sell Grit and Sea Monkey ads on the back cover, all would be right with the world again. Perhaps it was that neat and concise, albeit naive message, that appealed to me, or maybe it was my subconscious realization of just how primal and powerful a communication method this was, but regardless, I was hooked. There was something about the freedom and clarity inherit in their pages that has stayed with me throughout my adult life.

I’ve been in love with comics for years, having started reading them at the tender age of seven, starting as most kids do with Archie comics, and then moving on to some Franco-Belgian strips like Asterix, Tintin and Spirou, or Italian ones like Corto Maltese. (Interestingly, Italy is one of the foremost producers of Walt Disney comics outside the U.S.), and eventually to superhero comics and beyond. Countless hours of my life were spent completely enraptured and engrossed by comics. They were my escape and, to a certain degree, as I’m sure many comic fans will attest, they helped to develop and define my own personal moral compass and set of ethics. Do good. Be nice. Help others. Be responsible. Stick up for the little guy. Look out for each other. Comics have changed quite a bit over the decades, and have taken on more and more complex themes and ideas. Truth be told, some of my interests in other fields were initially inspired by something I’d first read in a comic book. The first time I’d ever heard the term quantum theory was in a comic book by writer Grant Morrison called Animal Man, more than two decades before it became an idea incorporated into mass culture. I’m amazed to realize how brave and forward-thinking comic book artists and writers have been through the years, and at how they have pushed the boundaries of the medium far past its original roots and origins – Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, Promethea by Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III are great examples of comics pushing the boundaries.

Thousands of fans visited the second annual Ottawa Comic Convention over its three-day run (May 10-12, 2013). Held at the glorious Ernst & Young Centre, the Con’s kickoff event took place at City Hall. This year’s Con was filled with an impressive line-up of movie and TV stars, artists, writers, speakers, retailers and media guests: Gillian Anderson (The X Files), Nathan Fillion (Castle, Firefly), Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Big Bang Theory), James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Billy Dee Williams (Star Wars! OMG! Lando!), legendary comic book artists George Pérez (The Avengers, The New Teen Titans), and Neal Adams (Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Deadman), groundbreaking comic book writer Chris Claremont (boasting an unprecedented and truly remarkable 17-year run as the main writer on Uncanny X-Men), as well as some amazing homegrown talents, like artist and writer Tom Fowler (Mysterius the Unfathomable, Hulk: Season One, MAD Magazine, Venom), artist Ronn Sutton (Honey West/Kolchak the Night Stalker, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark), writer/artist Janet Hetherington (Eternal Romance, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark ) and many others! Visit http://www.ottawacomiccon.com/ to find out more.

Landooooooo!

Landooooooo! (Billy Dee Williams)

 

Swoon! Pt.1

Swoon! Pt.1 Gillian Anderson

 

Swoon! Pt.2

Swoon! Pt.2 (Felicia Day)

 

Big Bang, baby!

Big Bang, baby! (Wil Wheaton)

 

Aye, Cap'n!

Aye, Cap’n! (Nathan Fillion)

 

Bow down before your god!

Bow down before your god! (George Perez)

 

To me, my X-Men! (Chris-Claremont)

To me, my X-Men! (Chris Claremont)

(Media kit from public relations firm Agence Pink: www.agencepink.com and Comic Con Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OttawaComiccon)

For a self-avowed nerd like me, this was the promised land! There was literally nothing you couldn’t buy that wasn’t emblazoned with some sort of comic book-related logo. Rows upon rows of T-shirts, models, key chains, bathrobes (my fave was the full-length furry Chewbacca bathrobe, although wet fur is probably not very comfortable, now that I think about it), hoodies, stickers, photos, pins, masks, swords, underwear, coasters, make-up, original artwork, watches, pendants and jewelry. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, The Avengers, G.I. Joe, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Who, Dragon Ball Z, and on and on and on! So much comic-book goodness, so little time.

Pic 10-MERCH bathrobes

Aaahh!!

This Con had everything! The original 1966 Batmobile, a 20-foot-high Dalek from the Doctor Who series, the Landspeeder, R2-D2 and Chewbacca from Star Wars! There it all was, most of my pop culture obsessions all on display. Or to put it another way, I was as giddy as a mini-van full of kids with ADD hopped up on Jolt Cola and cough medicine on a three-day trip to Disney World!

Pic 6-Landspeeder-Leo and Eva 2

Happiness is a warm Landspeeder! Pictured: My two awesome little cousins Leo and Eva! Also pictured: Sheer joyful speechlessness!

 

Pic 7- 20 FT Dalek- Exterminate!

Giant Daleks! Now with 20% more “exterminating” power!

You also had the opportunity to meet members of the cast from the insanely popular show The Walking Dead at the Ottawa Horror booth (http://www.ottawahorror.com/), hosted by my friends, the lovely and talented Kevin Preece and Howard Sonnenburg, comic book and pop culture-themed Improv brought to you by Paul Ash and Battlecom (www.facebook.com/battlecomtv), photo ops and the chance to meet and chat with your favourite TV and movie stars, a costume competition, the chance to dress up as your favourite Star Wars character and pose with Chewbacca or other cast members, members of the Capital City Garrison in full Star Wars regalia (http://www.capitalcity501st.ca/), make-up and special effects workshops, dozens of panels of artists and writers, Cosplay and LARPing (live-action role playing), Steampunk, Elves, Samurais, Robots, prop-building, a game zone brought to you by the folks at the Comic Book Shoppe (http://thecomicbookshoppe.com/), live-music concerts from, among others, James Marsters and Ottawa rap phenom and all around awesome dude Jesse Dangerously (https://www.facebook.com/jesse.dangerously), and even a “weapons check-in” booth for the more ardent and devoted costumed folk.

There’s something particularly surreal but extremely entertaining about seeing the clerk at the weapons check-in hand a guy his ticket stub, just to have the same guy hand the clerk a 20-foot broadsword made of foam and tin foil. And let me tell you, some of the costumes I saw were real doozies! Favourite? Darth Dead Maus was pretty great, but the title definitely goes to the father-and-son team, who came dressed as Thor and Captain “Kid” America! You can check out some amazing costume pics here: https://www.facebook.com/OttawaComiccon/photos_stream and on the Comic Con’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OttawaComiccon

Pic 17 COSTUMES Borg

Forty feet of plastic and rubber tubing, check! Two hours of prep and assembly time in the Ernst and Young parking lot, check! Alright, let’s do some assimilating! (Comic con FB page – https://www.facebook.com/OttawaComiccon)

Kin Jee, manager of Ottawa’s iconic Silver Snail Comics (http://www.silversnail.com/main/ http://www.silversnail.com/contact/), has been an avid comic reader for almost 50 years. Jee explains one of the reasons for the appeal of these types of conventions:

Partly, it’s that it’s fun to meet these comic book icons, and to meet like-minded people. There’s not that many comic book stores left in Ottawa, so it’s also a great place to try find stuff that you can’t get in stores anymore, or that’s hard to find. It’s a great opportunity for people who can’t afford to go to the cons in San Diego or Chicago to look for the items they need to complete and add to their collections. Comics really started as something aimed towards kids, but it’s evolved into so much more, into a real art form.

Jee freely admits that he immediately fell in love with, and was completely drawn in by, how unique an experience reading comics is, and marvels at the sheer amount and consistency of the material that comes out on a weekly basis.

I’m a proud geek-nerd from way back. I started reading comics at a very young age, when they were still fairly underground, and I remember having to go to four or five different stores to track down all the books I read at the time. Fans like me just kept reading them as they got older because they could still enjoy and relate to them, but it wasn’t nearly as accepted as it is now. Comics are a completely different experience from going to a movie or watching a TV show. It’s incredibly immersive, as it all takes place in your brain. And the real beauty of it is that over 100 new titles come out every single week. They never go on hiatus, and fans don’t have to wait years between their favourite comics like you sometimes have to do with films and TV shows. It’s a fantastic form of entertainment and people are really starting to appreciate what it has to offer: intelligent and engrossing stories.

Jee notes that the rise in popularity of the genre has brought a different group of people than would have traditionally frequented comic book stores and conventions.

I’ve definitely noticed an increase and diversity in the age groups buying and reading comics now. Twenty years ago, if you were into comics, you were a nerd or a geek, now it’s an accepted thing, which has been a really cool change to see happen. What’s particularly interesting about comics is that, like with Sci-Fi, the subject matter and themes are usually way ahead of current societal mores. The genre is still pretty heavily dominated by superhero fiction, but there’s also a huge diversity to the medium: comedy, detective, horror, fantasy, science-fiction, autobiographical. It’s expanded in ways that I never could have imagined when I was a kid. Comics are more expensive now obviously, but the visual and written qualities of the material is greater than it’s ever been.

Ottawa-based writer and artist Tom Fowler (http://bigbugillustration.blogspot.ca/,http://tomfowlerstuff.tumblr.com/) has a unique, bright, quirky and dynamic visual style, and that – along with a strong and dedicated work ethic – has helped Fowler make his mark in the industry on books like the critically acclaimed Mysterius the Unfathomable and Hulk: Season One. Fowler has been a guest at dozens of much larger comic cons over the years, like San Diego or Chicago’s famed events, but he says the spirit and feel of the Ottawa Con is substantially different.

Up until last year, Ottawa hadn’t had a real comic con in 20 years, and there’s obviously a real pent-up desire for it. People really wanted this kind of event in this city, and you can see how happy they are to finally have a real Comic Con. Everybody who’s at the show is excited and in a good mood. Kids run around dragging their parents with them, as opposed to the other way around. It’s been a really interesting and amazing thing to see. What I like the most about this show in particular is that everyone is welcome. Other cons will have specific Family Days set aside, but I think every day should be Family Day. It’s a comic con, for goodness sake, and it’s great to see such a varied age group show up. I love seeing so many people who are genuinely excited about comic books, who are talking and asking questions about them and about the process.

Pic 26-Tom Fowler -Spidey vs The Sinister Six

Spider-Man vs Sinister Six! (http://bigbugillustration.blogspot.ca/)

Recent movie tracking figures boast that the latest instalment in the Iron Man series has broken the $1billion ticket sales mark. That is a truly mind-blowing and staggering figure, and is literally more money than we even spent getting to the damn moon. One can now confidently say that most people on earth now know who Tony Stark is, and speaking as someone who experienced the kind of criticism and mockery that was fairly common for comic book readers back in the day, it’s a happy, but slightly surreal turnaround. Marvel Studios has no less than 10 upcoming comic-book-based movie projects in the planning and development stages. Obviously, studios have seen that there’s an obscene amount of money to be made here, but Fowler believes that this fairly recent interest in the comic book world by the public is simply a case of “what goes around.”

I think a lot of the corporate gate-keepers and money-people from the TV studios realized that people were genuinely interested in genre, in characters, and in solid, well-told stories. And I also think that a lot of the people who grew up as nerds and who were kind of made-fun-of and picked on as kids, are now running the studios. They’re taking the things they loved as kids and bringing it to the public in a larger and more accessible way.

Fowler's business card (http://bigbugillustration.blogspot.ca/)

Fowler’s business card
(http://bigbugillustration.blogspot.ca/)

Fowler’s love of the sequential art form is genuine and deeply rooted, and one that resonates with him on a personal and instinctual level.

Comics were the only thing I was ever good at or truly passionate about, Fowler says. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve realized that my brain likes to problem-solve. It likes puzzles. It took me a long time to realize this, but putting together a comic book page (and) a good story, is like a kind of elegant math. It’s pushing pieces together to get as much information through as possible, but in as streamlined and coherent a fashion as possible. There’s an elegance that I love when you “solve” a page.

You have a story to tell, but you have to find a way to way to tell that story right, Fowler continues. You have to find a way that has the right story punch, the right emotional punch, the right humour punch, whatever the message is that you’re trying to put across. But there are always certain technical concerns for a page as well; you want it to read quickly and concisely, you want it to be clear, you don’t want people to get confused about how it functions. At the same time you want it to look good, to be aesthetically pleasing, and you also want all those character beats and emotional beats to be their best. All of those things coming together is amazing. If you equate it to something like film, the comic book writer is the writer of course, but the artist is everything else: the director, the director of photography, the entire cast. You’re literally wearing all of those hats, and that makes the artist a co-author in a very real way. It’s the marriage of the two, writing and art, working in tandem, that make comic books so unique.

Fowler is currently working with writer J.Torres on a series set right here in Canada called True Patriot (http://bigbugillustration.blogspot.ca/) and with writer James Asmus on the much anticipated re-launch of the critically-acclaimed Quantum and Woody series, to be released in July.

The Watchmen, 300, Kick-Ass, Iron Man, Ghost Rider, Captain America, The Avengers, Spider-Man, The Hulk, X-Men, Thor, Daredevil, Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Constantine, 30 Days of Night, The Walking Dead, The Crow, The Losers, The Mask, The Spirit, Sin City, G.I. Joe, Tank Girl, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tales from The Crypt, Arrow; the list of comic book-related movies and TV shows is seemingly endless, and if recent successes are any indication, many more will follow. We now live in a comic book world. A world where a band like Gorillaz can decide to completely forego their actual flesh-and-bone live stage personas for cartoon versions. The lines are definitely blurring, folks. From the first moment I was exposed to a comic book, something clicked with me in a profound and meaningful way. There was something extremely appealing about the seeming simplicity of how comic books told a story. Sequential art is perhaps one of the purest and most direct art forms around, one that speaks directly to your brain and your heart, like all good stories should.

Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics google images

Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics
scottmccloud.com

Writer and comic book artist Scott McCloud, in his brilliant graphic novel Understanding Comics (http://reviews.rebeccareid.com/understanding-comics-by-scott-mccloud/) points out what is one of the more interesting and revealing things about sequential art. McCloud explains that the “spaces” in between comic-book panels, say as much, and sometimes more, than what is happening in the actual panels. That space can represent so many things, and in a very real sense, that tiny empty space actually helps propel the story forward. The irony here is that the space isn’t empty at all. That margin can not only indicate that “time” has passed between panels, but that something has “happened” in between one panel and the next. The fact that we subconsciously “fill in” that space with our own perspectives and imagination is fascinating, and is also one the reasons this art form resonates so strongly with people. There is a graceful and elegant efficiency at work here, and it connects to us on a primal level.

My sincere thanks to Leeja Murphy and Agence Pink who handled the PR and Marketing sides of the second annual Ottawa Comic Convention (http://www.agencepink.com/). Leeja’s professionalism, dedication, generosity and thoughtfulness made working with her an absolute treat. My many questions and requests were always responded to promptly and courteously with grace and aplomb, and a great part of the convention’s success was directly due to Leeja and her agency’s tireless efforts. Thank you, Leeja! (Hey, that sounds like a name from Galaxy Quest!)

 

An Actor’s Life — The Trilogy

May 13, 2013 1:09 am
The lovely and talented crew! – Guillaume Arsenault, Mathieu Coderre, Marc-Olivier Guindon, John Koensgen, Johny Hendricks, Alex B. Carrière, Christian Roy, Pete Dillon, Luigi C. Saracino, Chris Newton and Pierre Beaulne (Photo Credit: Marilou Simard)

The lovely and talented crew! – Guillaume Arsenault, Mathieu Coderre, Marc-Olivier Guindon, John Koensgen, Johny Hendricks, Alex B. Carrière, Christian Roy, Pete Dillon, Luigi C. Saracino, Chris Newton and Pierre Beaulne (Photo Credit: Marilou Simard)

Disc 2: Fight For Your Life Club or Just What Do You Talk About When Standing at a Urinal with an MMA Superstar in a Cage Aux Sports Bathroom in Downtown Montreal for Two Straight Hours (Hint #1: Be Polite. Hint #2: Fresh Breath. Hint #3: Always Make Sure to Lock Eyes.)

Story is far older than the art of science and psychology, and will always be the elder in the equation no matter how much time passes. – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. – Robert McKee

Over my last few blogs, I’ve talked about working on a feature-film called Crook, starring Adam Beech, which you can check out here: http://www.ottawalife.com/2013/04/an-actors-life-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-standing-in-an-alley-in-the-dead-of-winter-for-12-straight-hours-with-only-linty-pocket-candy-to-eat/

As well as a project called The Gamechanger – We Work Ottawa, a short film starring Dan Aykroyd meant to promote Ottawa’s burgeoning film scene, which you can see here: http://www.ottawalife.com/2013/04/an-actors-life-the-sequel/

Me, Johny Hendricks and Peter M. Dillon. Hells, yeah! The boys are back in town! Well, back in the basement of a Cage aux Sports in downtown Montreal, in any event.

Me, Johny Hendricks and Peter M. Dillon. Hells, yeah! The boys are back in town! Well, back in the basement of a Cage aux Sports in downtown Montreal, in any event. (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino )

I’ve had the tremendous blessing and good fortune over these past few months to be involved in a television pilot called MMA Super 8, written and directed by the extremely talented and driven Alexandre Carrière. Along with producer and business partner, the ingeniously creative Ghyslain Simard, Carrière has put together something very special with MMA Super 8, namely, a relatable story with lots and lots of heart.

MMA Super 8–Night #1 – http://blip.tv/mmasuper8

The backdrop for the series, as the name implies, is the fiercely competitive world of Mixed Martial Arts, but while it’s a series rooted in that world, it also isn’t a show about fighting per se, in the same sense that The Walking Dead is not really a show about zombies. It’s about the interplay between the characters who happen to be living in this zombie-infested landscape, and their personal stories. To be clear, I’m not comparing MMA fighters to zombies here, as I do not wish to be on the receiving end of some pissed-off fighter’s “flying-nut-cruncher-monkey-groin-kick” or whatever. I’m just trying to make a point.

Mama said knock you out! Apparently, Mom's in a bad mood. Also, right now, I'm humming the theme from Rocky in my head. Awesome!

Mama said knock you out! Apparently, Mom’s in a bad mood. Also, right now, I’m humming the theme from Rocky in my head. Awesome! Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino

The heart of MMA Super 8 is built around the relationship between two struggling and semi-washed up MMA sports agents, Brad “Buck” Huck (Peter M. Dillon) and Enzo “E.T.” Torres (yours truly, Luigi Saracino). Both characters are more than down on their luck, and desperate to claw their way back to the top of the MMA sports agent game. How? By criss-crossing North America and recruiting only the best damn MMA fighters they can find, and then facing them all off against each other in a butt-kicking, bone-snapping, kidney-punching, jaw-dropping final battle, re: The Super 8, that’s how! MMA is about the kind of heart that it takes to sacrifice and train hard to get to the top of your chosen field, to persevere and prosper, particularly in the hyper-adrenalized, cut-throat world of the MMA sports agent. And if there’s anything that Buck and ET have, it’s heart. In spades.

Carrière explains: Buck and E.T.’s motivations for wanting to be the very best MMA agents out there are sometimes totally different, but it’s the complex and dynamic interplay between these two characters that adds a genuine and heartfelt depth, humor and resonance to the stories. Buck, while admiring E.T.’s skill in finding and signing top-notch MMA fighters, as well as his ability to just say what’s on his mind, is also frustrated and angered by E.T.’s seeming lack of focus, and what some would call exceedingly poor life choices. E.T. meanwhile admires Buck’s almost prescient-like ability to spot a great fighter as well as his drive, confidence, tenacity and ability to stay on point. They’re both misfits, but in different ways and for different reasons. But incredibly, somehow, when they work as a team, it works for them.

Alex and Pete discussing the particularities of a scene.  Later, we all went for hoagies. Once again, awesome. (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Alex and Pete discussing the particularities of a scene. Later, we all went for hoagies. Once again, awesome. (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Torres and Huck are rabidly driven and insanely hopeful, fueled by ambition, naked optimism, bulk-store size cases of Red Bull ,and lots and lots of those tiny pink “Wake-Up” caffeine pills. A modern day Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, with a touch of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope “road movie” thrown in for good measure. Theirs is a reluctant partnership at best, not so much oil and water as peanut butter and hamburgers. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it just does, and it’s delicious.

We also wanted them to be fun and relatable, Carrière continues, and the characters are actually loosely based on myself and my business partner. The Enzo character has no shield, so to speak, like a kid who’s not afraid of telling the truth. He has a very poor “internal editor” and is a bit immature. But he is also willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. He’s a very charming and authentic human being with actual good values, but he also has some… “problems”. But, hey, who doesn’t have problems?, Carrière adds jokingly.

Sometimes, in conversations and in life, you need to self-edit, you have to choose your words carefully, he says, and while there’s so many advantages to acting on impulse, sometimes acting that way hurts people’s feelings. E.T. is all impulse but with good intentions, which pisses his partner off, as Buck’s the kind of guy who thinks way too much. He wants everyone to love him. He wants to always do what society dictates as “the right thing”, but he starts to learn that maybe being authentic works, that being himself and not having his shield up and constantly worrying about saying the right thing isn’t the best way to live his life.

Peter M. Dillon, Alexandre Carrière and Luigi Saracino (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Peter M. Dillon, Alexandre Carrière and Luigi Saracino (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Carrière adds, Buck’s driven by the desire to be the best, and to get back at his old boss who unceremoniously fired him, but being a newly-separated single dad, he’s also driven by his love for his young son, for his desire to take care of him. The interesting part is that the learning curve goes both ways for Buck and E.T., they both end up adapting and adopting each other’s more positive traits. Like all of us, they’re flawed human beings doing their best to move forward. But there’s an “everyman” kind of quality to them too; they vocalize the things we all think, that we don’t tell anyone else, the things that make us feel like there’s no one else who could possibly think the same thing.

It’s this character-based approach that gives MMA a unique sense of intimacy and openness. Peter M. Dillon effortlessly brings my partner-in-crime, Bradley Huck, to life. Dillon’s sense of character, nuance and timing add depth to each scene, and speaking selfishly as an actor, it always gives me plenty to work with and give back. I’ve known Dillon for over 20 years, but we’ve never had the opportunity to work together to such an extent or frequency. Dillon is both a hoot and a holler to be on set with, and his naturalness, good humor and generosity as an actor never fail to impress. Dillon shares Carrière’s take on Buck and E.T.’s dysfunctional “Bro-mance”:

Pictured: Goofiness ensuing

Pictured: Goofiness ensuing (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

On paper, there’s no reason that any kind of relationship, much less a financial one, between these two would be any more than ill-advised at best, but there’s a chemistry between them that makes their exchanges insightful, playful, maddening, frustrating and, above all, entertaining. So much of the series revolves around the chemistry that these two guys have, and how it’s essentially that bond that keeps them going, it’s how they deal with the insane challenges that come up in the world of MMA. They’re both misfits, but that’s why it works: they both seem to share this strange disconnect with the world. It’s like there’s something missing from both of them that evens out when they’re together. A certain playfulness that allows them to deal with their conflicts. They hate and love each other at the same time, but they’re like two brothers. Two really messed up brothers, but brothers nonetheless. They both are forced to reluctantly acknowledge and realize deep down in themselves that they’re much closer to being a functional human being together than when they are apart.

MMA Super 8 has drama, Dillon adds, but lots of humour as well, so you don’t necessarily have to be an MMA fan to enjoy the chemistry and to enjoy the storyline. But if you are a fan, the bonus is that there are some amazing fights and some wonderful appearances by some MMA stars, an aspect that we’ll see more of as the series goes on.

Working with Carrière, Simard and crew has been a phenomenal experience. The writer/director and producer, respectively, bring a unique and seldom-seen sense of inclusion and camaraderie to their projects that I have not often had the good fortune to be a part of. What started as just a gig, has become so much more than being only about acting. Working on this series is a collaborative, communal and symbiotic relationship that has everyone involved – cast and crew – driving for the same goal. Namely, to produce an entertaining, human, insightful, funny and genuine television series. Dillon echoes my excitement, commitment and gratitude.

It’s so much different than just showing up on set and learning your lines, Dillon says, to be able to act, to have such a large role. It’s become an experience where we’re all really contributing to the overall feel and to the whole. To be able to discuss lines, and formulate and build these characters, makes it a much more personal project, and much more of a collaborative creative process than anything I’ve done before. We have an amazing group of people, cast and crew, all pushing ahead, without any of the drama or b.s. sometimes associated with film sets. Whenever I’m on set, I think to myself: this is amazing; this is living the dream.

But that’s the sense you get working with Alex, Dillon says, that anything is possible, that great people and projects are out there. When I get to the set, I’m like an excited kid. Everyone is; there’s always a real high working with Alex and the crew, and I know it sounds corny, but there’s a genuine sense of family, of respect and love there. Alex really believes in the actors and crew, and it never feels like work: everyone is contributing ideas and feedback; everyone is so positive, I just feel lucky to be there.

Prepping for the big scene! (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Prepping for the big scene! (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Quick quiz? What do sitting in the back of a beat-up pickup truck in a CEGEP parking lot, the Hull Casino, a highway underpass, an Italian restaurant, a martial-arts Dojo nestled deep in the wilds of Quebec, an old barn and stable nestled even deeper in the bush, a Las Vegas-calibre magician’s sprawling, multi-level, eight-bedroom home – complete with 12 ft x 4 ft outdoor hot tub and sauna, and a Men’s urinal in a Cage aux Sports in downtown Montreal, have in common? MMA Super 8, that’s what!

The varied and extensive shoot locations for MMA has made this one of the most extensive artistic processes I’ve been a part of, and that, along with the amount of collaboration this project has involved, drives home the point that this isn’t the typical experience for an actor. I can honestly tell you that in the two decades that I’ve been acting, it’s very rare for these types of golden, remarkable opportunities to come up. Over the last few months working with Carrière, I’ve sat in the back of a beat-to-hell pickup truck for six hours. I’ve been punched in the face in a barn. I’ve splashed around in a 12 ft x 4 ft hot tub at a magician’s house (no guff) on one of the coldest damn winter days ever (seriously, it was cold enough to actually “invert” my nipples: that can’t be right).

James Brown hot tub party! Not pictured: inverted nipples. (Photo Credit: Dominique Binoist apbw.ca)

James Brown hot tub party! Not pictured: inverted nipples. (Photo Credit: Dominique Binoist apbw.ca)

I’ve entered a ring and sparred with an actual MMA fighter. I’ve been thrown out of a Dojo in the woods. I’ve stood next to MMA superstar Johny Hendricks in a urinal for two hours. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Johny-Hendricks-Fan-Page/257511507645384

To say Hendricks is intimidating, is like saying that Bruce Lee was only “kind of” fast, but I’m happy to say that he was a truly genuine and genial person with a keen sense of humor, a true professional through and through, and it was great to have the opportunity to act alongside an MMA athlete of that calibre. While the series revolves around the hijinks that ET and Buck find themselves embroiled in, making the series as authentic as possible was just as important to Carrière, and he says that one way to do that was by talking to actual fans of the sport.

The best thing, we thought, was to speak to fans directly to see why it hadn’t worked. We quickly realized the issue was that while those shows were mostly well-written and acted, their choice to have MMA fighters act, or to have actors fight, took away from the credibility and flow of the shows. That’s not MMA, that’s just a movie. We found that people wanted the action and the fights to be real… that was what drew them to the sport in the first place. We wanted to have true representations of the sport, and not cheat it using camera tricks. It started with the simple concept of having actual MMA fighters fight, and having actual actors, act. Sports agents, particularly MMA ones, lead very interesting, insane, pressure-filled lives, and we wanted actual actors to be able to fully flesh that out. While the topic of sports agents has been looked at in movies like Jerry Maguire, this is something that to a large degree has never been done before – a running television drama set against the MMA backdrop, and we felt like that backdrop would be perfect for a good story because it’s got it all: drama, action, humour and humanity.

Carrière recently took top honors as best director in the Spiralfilm festival for his beautifully haunting and evocative short film, Mika, http://www.cs1films.com/home.html  and has what is referred to in the business as a great eye. He is able to draw you in with beautiful images, and keep you rooted with an entertaining and insightful story. That same aesthetic sensibility is used equally well in MMA Super 8, but Carrière is candid with regards to the realities of being an independent artist.

We wanted to make a web series to be able to keep creative control of the project, but the reality of it is, you can’t make money on the web in that way yet, because advertising rates are still quite low on the internet. But I think that in a couple of years, the majority of people will be watching their favourite shows via the web, and advertising rates at that point will obviously increase because of it. But what’s really exciting is that we’re going to start to see more and more projects from independent filmmakers as well, because the technology has increased to the degree where it’s much easier and cheaper to make a film or a series, and get it out there. What’s really exciting is that at that point, the filmmakers will also be the writers, the editors, the composers. They’ll be the ones making all the decisions, and they’ll be the ones in charge of all the content. I think it’s going to change the face of television forever.

As an independent filmmaker, there’s little to no funding, but I’ve the good fortune to be able to work with an amazing bunch of people, or there’s no way I could do it. I have friends who work in film and TV, in a good year, sure they’ll make $200 000, but you have to remember that in a bad year they’ll make $20 000. What I love about indy filmmaking is that I get to choose which shots to use or not use. It’s much more open. There’s much more freedom to decide on the fly, to go with a feeling in a scene, even if the lighting wasn’t exactly perfect. You don’t have that luxury with big-budget studios. You shoot exactly what’s on the page. I’m very lucky to be able to work like this right now.

Carrière is frank about the realities of dealing with larger studios and TV production houses.

For studios, it’s always all about numbers, market share, demographics. It’s a science for them: one sex scene, one alcohol scene, three sponsor scenes, etc. The original idea with MMA was to shoot 10 to 12 11-minute webisodes, but now that investors are involved, there’s a good chance we may lose the creative control we’ve had so far. The reason is simple and understandable: investors obviously want a return, and feel that they have a say in the direction and flavor of the show because of their investment, but that’s just a reality of the industry. The goal for us and the investors is to attract the attention of a TV studio and hopefully work out a production deal * for the series. And this is where, unfortunately, things start to change a bit. We won’t be able to improvise as much, for example, so the environment we’re working in now is perfect for learning the ropes of the industry.

It’s been an amazing experience, Carrière continues, and I’m so happy and lucky to be able to get to work with such an exceptional cast and crew. Everyone always wants to see the dailies*  after we’re done shooting, everyone always has positive, constructive input. Everyone is so excited and invested, it’s really been amazing.

I’ve known the director and crew for only a handful of months, but it’s a working relationship that I hope continues for many years. I’ve been fortunate in my career to be able to work with people who love to tell stories… people who are fed, energized and excited by the craft and by the process. And that’s Carrière all over. His knowledge of film history and techniques is detailed and extensive, but more importantly, Carrière is able to create a feeling and atmosphere on set that is rare, and he is able to tell a human, funny and entertaining story. His deep love for his craft, his good humor and joy on set pour out of him, and are contagious to everyone around him. He’s just so damn…happy! It’s an uplifting and amazing thing to be around a group of people who are all on the same page, who are all personally and emotionally invested in a project…  and that its success means so much to them.

And sure, I won’t lie, it would certainly be incredible to be able to work on MMA with this great group of people on a full-time basis, but honestly, and I think I can speak for Dillon here too, we both pinch ourselves every time we’re even on set. MMA Super 8 is the kind of project that as soon as the shoot day is done, you just can’t wait to go out and do it all over again. When you see that people around you are so happy to be doing what they’re doing, that they believe in it so much, that attitude can’t help but propel you, can’t help but want to make you give as much as you’re getting.

Carrière and Simard will be flying down to the City of Angels this weekend to meet with their investors and work out the next steps for the project, one of which will be to arrange meetings with two large television studios, namely CBS and SPIKE TV. With a little luck, perseverance, dedication and a whole lot of hard work, we’ll soon be bringing you the further adventures of two loveable and entertaining misfits, Enzo “ET” Torres and Bradley “Buck” Huck, in MMA Super 8!

MMA Super 8 stars Johny Hendricks Gregory Wilson, Alexis Maitland, Johni Keyworth, John Koensgen, Imogen Haworth and Toby Bisson. Casting for the series was ably handled by the amazing Mike Migliara.https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mike-Migliara-Casting-Constructing-Your-Vision/401095523272465

Mike is new to the city but certainly not to the business. His keen eye for talent and extensive knowledge of the industry make him the perfect person to cast the series. Migliara was nice enough to join us in Montreal when we shot with Johny Hendricks, and it was amazing having his energy, positivity and support on set. Thanks, Mike!

Pic 9- Peter M.Dillon, Mike Migliara, Me, John

Peter M. Dillon, Mike Migliara, Luigi Saracino and John Koensgen (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Check out the MMA Super 8 Facebook page for updates and goodies!

https://www.facebook.com/mmasuper8

And a special thanks to my agents Rachel, Kate, Christine and Laura, the wonderfully lovely folks over at the Mensour Agency, for all their continued hard work on my behalf and for their steadfast and sincere encouragement: http://www.mensour.ca/

_____________________

*Production deal: The studio agrees to sign you on for x amount of shows under a finite time line, i.e. x number of episodes over x number of months. All to be renegotiated at the end of the contract’s term, based on the show’s numbers.

*Dailies: Footage that was shot during the course of the day

 

 

An Actor’s Life: The Sequel

April 22, 2013 12:06 pm
The Fantastic Dan Akroyd

Disc I: Film City or Mr. Saracino Works in Ottawa

The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in. – Harold Goddard

A word does not frighten the man who, in acting, feels no fear.Sophocles

I love the stage. I love the process of acting, but unfortunately, it doesn’t pay the bills. – Kabir Bedi

In my last blog, I talked about my experience shooting the feature-film Crook, which in case you missed, you can check out here:

http://www.ottawalife.com/2013/04/an-actors-life-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-standing-in-an-alley-in-the-dead-of-winter-for-12-straight-hours-with-only-linty-pocket-candy-to-eat/

So for this posting and the next, we’ll be looking at what it was like to work with the incredible Dan Aykroyd on a project called The Gamechanger – We Work Ottawa, as well as my time spent working on an exciting TV pilot called MMA Super 8. In addition, we’ll learn what it’s like to stand next to a top-ranked MMA fighter in a bathroom in a Cage aux Sports in Montreal for an hour. Granted, Johny Hendricks is a lovely person, but describing it as “awkward” is undercutting it a little bit. (But more on that in the next post.)

The Gamechanger is the brainchild of an extremely talented, driven and dedicated Ottawa actor and writer, Peter Michael Dillon –http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0227055/

http://www.bigtimemurder.com/ – and it has been a long time in the making in terms of the idea itself. That is, to promote Ottawa’s screen acting and film production talent to a worldwide audience. To say this project is important to Dillon is an understatement. Take as earnest evidence of that his decision to bankroll the project in its entirety, which, with film production, is no small feat. While discussing the project with President of ACTRA Ottawa and co-producer Sally Clelford– http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1108797/ – she instantly recognized the importance and value of such a project, and as proof, offered to split half the project’s cost. A highly skilled and natural actor herself, Clelford understood that the immense talent pool of actors, technicians and directors in Ottawa was simply not getting the attention and work they deserve. Clelford explains:

There’s a serious lack of attention to the fact that this city contains an immense amount of talent, and this project developed out of a love for the talent here, and of wanting to promote it. I think most people would be surprised to know there is a film industry here. It’s an immensely powerful revenue-generator for the city, and a lot of our industry is disappearing to other places where there are more options available to them. When more productions come to town, obviously it’s wonderful for the talent, for the cast and crew. But the fact is everyone benefits. When productions come to Ottawa, they shop here, they eat here, and they spend money here. It contributes not just to our industry but to our city’s economy. And it’s immensely important not only to Ottawa, but to the country. We want to promote Canadian talent, that’s also important. When you scan a website like IMDb (The Internet Movie Database), you quickly realize how many actors are actually Canadian. But equally important, we want the incredible talent pool in this city, and the city itself, to be recognized worldwide. We want to keep the industry here in Ottawa, and have it grow as a really great spot for people to shoot.

Cities like New York, Los Angeles and Toronto tend to bring in millions (if not billions) of dollars in revenue because of location shooting. Bottom line, wouldn’t it be nice to have a little extra dough in the city coffers the next time you drive over and smash into that Wookie-sized pothole on your way to work? Exactly. But what tends to happen when most productions come to town is that they have not only already cast most of the actors, but also usually bring along their own technical crew as well. As you can imagine, that doesn’t leave much by way of our city’s actors getting cast. Most of the roles left at that point mostly consist of either background or minor roles, re: “B” players, and to have 300+ actors in the city vie for the same role is not only far from a workable solution, but a terrible recipe for trying to build a career, and to actually stay and work in the city you love. What unfortunately ends up happening is that our brilliantly skilled, hard-working, dedicated actors and crew leave Ottawa for greener pastures, the so-called larger “film cities” of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

When finished, The Gamechanger will clock in at around 10 minutes, the average length of a short film. Dillon also plans to have shorter versions of the film, but his original intent was always to make this project a little different than the ones that other Canadian cities with similar ideas have tried. Dillon’s goal with The Gamechanger was not only to make the project different in terms of length, but to also give it an actual storyline, and to shoot it with the same attention to detail and purpose as a feature film.

The idea was to have an interesting and beautifully shot storyline that would have a mysterious package being handled by a lot of different Ottawa actors, he said. Something unique and eye-catching that would show off our pool of immensely talented actors and crew. There’s such a high level of professional performers here, it’s amazing. I got to sit in on a recent audition, and I was amazed and delighted by the sheer amount of wonderful and varied performances. Oftentimes, production companies already have their leads cast, and they’re usually brought in from other cities. But Ottawa is the place I want to see flourish, and this is one way to do that. We need to promote and celebrate our own. We need to work with and employ each other, and we want these casting companies to look at us first.

Dillon’s belief in Ottawa as a viable location for big-budget films and for its talent pool is strong: I’d like to think we can play any city that you see. Movies of the week are often shot here and dressed up to be one major city or another. We offer a lot of different locations to cover it from a physical standpoint and create a specific look. But add to that our wonderfully diverse, rich and dedicated talent pool, and there are not many other places that can offer what we can.

A big part of making this whole thing work, tight time-frame, low-to-no-budget and all, was to bring in the perfect director for the job. Dillon and Alex Carrière – http://www.cs1films.com/home.html – were chatting one night, and the conversation turned to Dillon’s short film idea. Carrière is the enthusiastic, driven, hyper-talented and downright loveable writer and director of the MMA Super 8 TV Pilot that Dillon and I are working on and starring in as renegade MMA sports agents Bradley “Buck” Huck and Enzo “ET” Torres. Carrière loved Dillon’s idea and ran with it, his enthusiasm and drive bolstering in us even more the belief in The Gamechanger as a viable project. Dillon knew from past experience working with Carrière that his method of shooting is markedly different from most directors, and that Carrière’s joy and excitement when working is an almost palpable, contagious thing. Thankfully, not contagious in a bird-flu kind of way, but more so in the very real sense of community, camaraderie and excitement that he manages to create on set. It’s very easy to get swept up in their enthusiasm, when working with Carrière and crew.

Now, with another piece of the puzzle in place, Dillon and Clelford realized that to be able to really promote this properly, they would need a very special ace-in-the-hole. A big “name”, read: movie star, would need to be attached to the project.

From the very beginning we wanted to have celebrity support in this, Dillon says. We thought about who would be the best person, if we could only get one, and the answer was someone who had obviously made it on the big stage, who is extremely supportive of the town he grew up in, and is an actor’s actor. Someone who really supports his own. He was definitely the guy who we knew would be perfect.

Dan Aykroyd is undoubtedly a Canadian icon – actor, writer, businessman, entrepreneur, comedian, and creator of seminal TV and film characters. Original member of Saturday Night Live‘s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players, star of Trading Places, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers (my personal fave), Gross Pointe Blank, Antz, Canadian Bacon, and on and on and on. Getting Aykroyd was certainly a coup for the project and no small feat to accomplish. Dillon confides that he can’t get into the specifics as far as to how exactly he managed to get in touch with Aykroyd, but the importance of having someone of Aykroyd’s stature drove Dillon to use more creative methods when trying to reach the star.

I did everything I could to get his attention, and when we finally got in contact, he made it very clear he wanted to be involved. I want to underline how incredibly supportive he is of the actors here in Ottawa. At the end of the shoot, he made a point of saying that he would love to come back and work on a feature or a series here. He was very supportive of the idea of making it happen. And that was a real breath of fresh air and another great vote of confidence for the city.

I’m not one to usually be star-struck, but being on set with Dan Aykroyd, while certainly a privilege, was also a somewhat surreal experience. It’s a strange thing to be standing only a few feet away from someone I’ve been directly influenced by as an artist, and who has had an impact on my early comedic formative years. And frankly, my not excitedly and haphazardly blurting out one of Elwood’s lines from The Blues Brothers was sometimes a challenge. Aykroyd is someone whose body of work has affected and informed countless comedians and actors over the years, and has entered and infiltrated mass culture. Dillon echoes my enthusiasm in meeting the star.

Because of how insanely busy his schedule is, we only had him for two hours, so we’re a little worried about making sure that everything was prepped and ready to go when he got there. But he never made us feel rushed or hurried; he was genuinely happy to be there. Working with Aykroyd was absolutely great. He has a wonderful reputation and he exceeded all of our expectations. He was extremely friendly, supportive, and easygoing. He always had a smile on his face, a true professional throughout. Everyone who met him was absolutely delighted with the experience.

I had two days scheduled for The Gamechanger: the first, at a film production warehouse in Ottawa’s south end, The Fenton Film Production Space, operated by Ottawa-based film producer Steve Boisvert, who also donated his expertise to the project as associate producer –http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2656168/

Boisvert’s extremely generous donation of time, warehouse space, and production assistance allowed Dillon to greater showcase the variety of Hollywood-level sets and scenes that our production crews are capable of mounting – from run-down bathrooms to office spaces, street scenes, living rooms, and pretty much anything you can think of.

Pic 2-Police cars

Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of the police! (Photo: Luigi Saracino)

Pic 3-Bathroom 1

Ok, I am NOT cleaning this up! Seriously, this bathroom would make Mr. Clean retire. (Photo: Luigi Saracino)

Pic 4-Office interior

Sure, it’s an office now, but just wait a few minutes. (Photo: Luigi Saracino)

It’s a strange feeling to walk through 50 feet of warehouse space, but pass through a half dozen different sets every few feet as you do. It’s a bit like tripping on mescaline, but all your hallucinations happen to be “film-based”. Overall, 75 people, actors and crew worked on The Gamechanger. A huge group to corral and bring together, but for all the seeming chaos, it was amazing to see how precisely and joyfully it all worked out. Actors and crew, all energized by the simple fact of being on set, and of getting to contribute to a project that could potentially change the film industry here in town. The thing about actors is that, plain and simple, they love to act. And any chance to get to express that drive and desire by being on set with a few dozen like-minded folks, all directed towards the same goal, made it a unique and unifying experience.

My second day on set, for what was to be an overnight shoot, was in the beautiful Westin Hotel in downtown Ottawa.http://www.starwoodhotels.com/westin/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=1083

Alexandre Carrière, Peter M. Dillon, Sally Clelford, Greg Wilson, Nikki Mosca, and Me

Alexandre Carrière, Peter M. Dillon, Sally Clelford, Greg Wilson, Nikki Mosca, and Me (Photo: Luigi Saracino)

The Westin had kindly allowed us to prep and shoot the closing sequence for the film in the lobby and elsewhere in the hotel. But getting this particular sequence right would be a tricky undertaking.

It was written to showcase not only the wide variety of actors working in the city, but also to show off our technical expertise and know-how. The goal here was to have one long, continuous shot, travelling from point A, the hotel’s parking garage, to point B, the film’s denouement. Director Martin Scorsese used a similar idea with the “kitchen scene” in his movie Goodfellas, and anyone who’s worked in film can tell you that such a scene is ambitious and challenging at best. It all hinges on each person – actors, director, sound and lighting and camera crew, moving and hitting their marks (literally, where the actors are supposed to stand and/or enter the scene) or cues precisely and exactly on time. Like a giant, living Rube Goldberg machine, each piece had to fall into place to be able to not only keep the scene itself moving, but to keep the story moving as well. The viewer’s focus throughout the shot follows the mysterious package, as it’s passed from person to person, sometimes taken slyly, sometimes forcefully, each character with their own shady reasons for wanting to get their hands on it. When a scene like this comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to see. And I’m sure I can safely speak for the other 30 or so actors and crew who had their heads excitedly crammed together around a tiny video screen, we were all feeling very proud of what we had managed to accomplish.

It’s a wrap!

It’s a wrap! (Photo courtesy of Dominique Binoist, apbw.ca)

One of the things that most people may not know about acting is that while it certainly pays well when the work is actually there, more to the point, and this is important to remember, for most actors the work is by no means, what you would call, steady. The fact is that even when you’re on a job, you’re looking for the next job. And sometimes, that can take months, if at all. It’s the simple reality of being an actor. Just getting the gig is a challenge, and trust me when I tell you, there’s nothing quite as surreal and Twilight Zone-like as being in an audition room with 20 other bald, tattooed, vaguely-ethnic looking guys who look exactly like you, all there for the same role. One of the things I try to remember as an actor, is that rejection is a huge part of the process. I want to be clear in saying that my goal here is not to discourage anyone reading this who may have the ambition to pursue this particular life path. I only mention it, as that too is another reality of the industry and of the arts in general. Actors have to be able to demonstrate and generate a remarkable amount of self-faith and trust to be able to survive. If there are those reading this who feel that desire to pursue the call of the muse, I humbly offer a few pieces of advice that I’ve managed to learn over the years

– Meet people, talk, share ideas. You never know what could turn into a project.

– Read. Read, dammit, read. Everything you can get your hands on. Know the world around you.

– Be positive, even when you’d rather not be. Always try.

– Be generous as an actor; give and ye shall receive.

– Love what you do. It’s the only thing that will keep you going, and keep you honest.

– Listen.

– Watch.

– Work hard.

– Be respectful to everyone.

– Know your lines.

– Show up early.

– Eat your greens.

– And lastly, when all else fails, selling your blood will get you some quick cash and also score you a delicious macadamia nut cookie. (If you happen to go to the Appletree Clinic on Carling Avenue near the Westgate Shopping Centre, be sure to ask for Nancy. She’s not overly “jabby”, and she knows where they stash the best sweets.)

Here’s a link to ACTRA’s website with tips on how to get started: http://www.actraottawa.ca/

Any career, let alone a career in the arts, requires sacrifice and dedication, and the choices involved will almost certainly create hardship. Those words quickly take on a very real meaning, particularly if you work in the arts for any length of time. Ask any musician, writer, actor or what have you, and I can almost guarantee that all of them will say the same thing when asked, that they do it for the “love”. It’s an expression that you hear quite a bit from artists. But it’s one that doesn’t precisely capture the enormity and weight of such a decision. Most actors have full-time jobs, but even finding an employer who will be willing to grant you the flexibility and understanding to take time off from your day job when need be is challenging.

Please don’t misunderstand, acting is certainly one of the most rewarding and fulfilling endeavours I’ve had the privilege to participate in, and to be completely frank, there isn’t one decision I would change in regards to my artistic life. But it takes courage, determination and perseverance, which unfortunately is still no guarantee that you’ll “make it.” I think the thing to remember here is that your success will be defined by your perspective, by what you choose to see as successes. By the projects you involve yourself in and the people you create with. By the relationships and exchange of ideas that will inevitably lead to more and more projects. And most importantly, to quote The New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman: “Just do good work.” Gaiman gave a compelling, honest, revelatory speech about working in the arts to a graduating class that you should check out here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikAb-NYkseI

And that’s one of the reasons projects like The Gamechanger are so important. Even aside from the incredible revenue-generating potential film projects create for the city, even aside from the necessity and importance of promoting Canadian, and more specifically Ottawa-based talent, is the idea that it creates connections. Not just in terms of creative and financial relationships, but more importantly in terms of the art that’s being made, and that we all get to enjoy, share in and grow from. I don’t know about you, but I always get a kick out of recognizing my hometown in a film I’m watching. In some strange way, it makes me feel proud. Dillon echoes the sentiment, and plans for the release of The Gamechanger to be a big event.

We’re going to do this right. We’ll be inviting the press, the industry in the city. It’s something we hope will bring the city together to celebrate our own talent. But where they’ll also have the chance to meet people, to network and more so, to give them the chance to talk about new film projects. Dan Aykroyd will obviously be invited and we hope he can be here to take part in this massive celebration. The goal was always to get film productions to seriously consider this city to bring their projects to – actors, crew, we have it all.

The celebration for The Gamechanger will take place at the Centrepointe Theatre, date to be announced soon.

And a special thanks to my agents Rachel, Kate, Christine and Laura, the wonderfully lovely folks over at the Mensour Agency, for all their continued hard work on my behalf and for their steadfast and sincere encouragement: http://www.mensour.ca/

Top Photo: Dominique Binoist, apbw.ca

 

 

An Actor’s Life or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Standing in an Alley in the Dead of Winter for 12 Straight Hours with only Linty Pocket Candy to Eat

April 8, 2013 12:02 pm
An Actor’s Life or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Standing in an Alley in the Dead of Winter for 12 Straight Hours with only Linty Pocket Candy to Eat

Acting is nothing more or less than playing. The idea is to humanize life.

George Eliot

Acting deals with very delicate emotions. It is not putting up a mask. Each time an actor acts he does not hide; he exposes himself.

Rodney Dangerfield

For nearly 30 years of my life, I’ve had the good fortune and the opportunity to work as a so-called independent artist. I’ve worked as a full-time stand-up comic and professional actor. I’ve gotten to record and tour in a band, as well as work as a voice actor for several animation productions. And of course, the wonderfully encouraging folks at Ottawa Life Magazine have given me a platform on which to voice whatever musical and/or pop-cultural ramblings I may have on one topic or another. More importantly, these same lovely people have also kindly allowed me to take some time here and there to pursue my more cinematic interests. (Merci, Harvey! I owe you a “thank you” bunt cake!)

Some of you may have noticed that over the last few months, I haven’t been posting as much as I usually do, and perhaps some explanations are in order. My acting life has recently kept me more than extremely busy for one thing, and for those of you not familiar with the vagaries of choosing a life in the arts, re: “crapshoot”, the work always comes very much in the feast or famine variety – which is to say that it’s always best to take advantage of being busy because you never know when you won’t be. Over the last few months, almost every free moment I’ve had has gone into working on different TV, film and music projects. What I hope to do with the next few blogs is to provide some insight into what it’s like working on independent productions here in our beautiful nation’s capital. The first I’ll examine is a full-length feature-film release called Crook, written and directed by Ottawa’s own Adrian Langley. (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1454995/)

A well-thumbed copy of the Crook script, and only some of the many, many, many shell casings that were left behind after the shoot

In other words, what exactly does go through your head as you spend 12 hours huddled under a urine-soaked underpass in an industrial complex, in minus 25 degree weather, running on nothing but some paradoxically lukewarm Rock Star energy drinks, some body-temperature ju-jubes nestled snugly in a co-actor’s linty pocket, and a pack of mint-flavoured floss you happened to find in the prop-car’s* glove box. Well, what goes through your head aside from third-degree frostbite, that is. Seriously. Frostbite literally through your head. That’s how cold it was. I think that might technically be called “head-bite” but I’d have to look it up. If it isn’t called “head-bite,” it damn well should be. I’m saying it was cold, people! So over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about exactly what it is that I have been doing, and I hope that it makes for some entertaining reading.

I think most people would be surprised to know not only the number of film productions that shoot here in Ottawa, but that our city also has 300+ working actors. Literally tens of dozens of productions, big and small, shoot here over a given year. Check out some of them mentioned here in a recent Ottawa Sun article on Ottawa’s burgeoning movie industry: http://www.ottawasun.com/2013/03/10/ottawa-film-industry-growing

Ottawa is the perfect place to do it, if you think about it; we have pretty much any kind of “movie backdrop” you can think of, whether it be a beach, a farm, mountains, nightlife, industrial complexes, hotels, museums or restaurants, we’ve pretty much got it covered and more.

Crook was made through Langley’s Fluke Productions, in conjunction with Ottawa’s own Zed Filmworkshttp://www.zedfilmworks.com/, a longstanding and prominent film-production house, and it is an achievement in filmmaking. As I’m sure most people know, big-screen movie budgets are measured in millions, and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, and the filming itself can extend for years in some cases. Crook was shot in 14 days, with a budget averaging out at around $50,000. That may surprise you to learn, but there have been several examples of movies shot on little or no budget, that ended up taking the film world by storm – The Blair Witch Project and Bottle Rocket, to name but two. In fact, most big-budget film directors get their start shooting anything and everything but feature films. Commercials, music videos, short subjects, anything they can get their hands on to hone and perfect their craft. My point is that there is not necessarily a correlation between how much something cost and how good it actually is. Ask Michael Bay. What makes or breaks a good movie, in my humble opinion, is story, plain and simple. And Langley seems to go to great pains to try to craft as interesting a story as possible, both visually and thematically, with this film.

Crook is a gangster movie, first and foremost. Langley says. And its themes are that of facade and trust. About the masks that we wear and the things that we do to support them. It’s about asking how much we can trust in what we consider to be the truth in a given situation, no matter what side of the law you’re on.

Much like his previous works – A Violent State and DonkeyCrook is clever, quirky, memorable and sometimes downright brutal. Action, suspense and lots and lots and LOTS of gunfire. Lots. Peppered with gritty dialogue and themes, Crook is a morality tale set against a dark criminal underworld; an ambitious, tight film about some pretty shady characters. It looks at the idea that someone knowing right from wrong doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll still make good decisions. Emotional and stylish, with genuine moments of humour and pathos, violent but more “kick-ass” than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Quentin Tarantino by way of Kevin Smith – cartoonish and larger-than-real-life in some sense; a very conscious choice on the director’s part. But Crook‘s themes are all grown up. And interestingly, the entire story takes place over the course of one day and night. Langley’s use of violence is more homage to than celebration of violence, smartly using those elements to add and enhance the story and to make a point.

Canadian television and film actor Adam Beech (Arctic Air, Law and Order SVU, Windtalkers) stars as Bryce, a low-level drug dealer under the employ of local mob-boss Tony Deluca.

Bryce is a conflicted, brooding character – intense and tightly-wound, quietly wrestling with the weight and realities of trying to live as an ethical person in a world where the choices are much more black and white than grey. My character (Deluca) is the thinking man’s mobster. More Bricktop than Tony Montana. Meticulous, calculating, sharp. A man whose propensity for violence is closely matched only by his voracious intellectual appetites. Every move thought through, patient, thorough. But Bryce and Tony are only two small pieces in a fairly intricate puzzle. Crook runs on the strength of the story and its characters. And quite a cast of sketchy characters they are; these are the kind of guys who make Charles Bukowski look even-keeled. Langley shows strength in balancing the subtleties and nuances of the people who populate his worlds. And he’s assembled a strong cast to make this particular world come to life. I have known and worked with most of my fellow actors on Crook for over a decade, and I am continually thrilled and delighted by the level of craft, drive and humour they bring to each occasion when we work together. Getting to work with an actor like Adam Beech was definitely a privilege, and his fun and can-do attitude helped to create a warm ambience of camaraderie on set. Homegrown actors meanwhile, like Matt Stefiuk (Max), Greg Wilson (Jack), Dennis Lafond (Andreas) and Mark Slacke (Cameron), whom I’ve worked with under Langley’s Fluke banner, always make it an original, rewarding and intense experience.

 

Me and the amazing Adam Beach 

Overall, I had two shoot days originally scheduled. The trick to shooting a movie for most actors with regular day jobs is pretty simple: you use every free moment that you have left to do it. One of the trickiest things about shooting a movie like this is the size of the cast. Scheduling is a potential nightmare. Crook was shot mainly at night and on weekends, with actors, technical, and support crew agreeing to work for less than scale. Think about that for a second: when was the last time you went in to work for less than your regular wage? For me, this is one of the aspects of the film that I’m proudest of – the extent to which everyone involved believes in the project, and the fact that they would actually take a financial loss to do it. It’s a pretty amazing testament to how dedicated these people are in wanting to tell a story, and more importantly, to show the world the level of filmmaking now taking place in this city.

There’s an old saying in the film world: hurry up and wait. And being on set is often an exercise in endurance. Twelve to 16-hour shoot days are the norm. Everything with moviemaking is done piecemeal, and sometimes, depending on the shoot schedule and hundreds of other variables, is even shot backwards or out of context. Just setting up a shot can be a time-consuming affair, so making sure everything is set up correctly and quickly comes down to the technical crew on the project. Gaffers, lighting, sound, props, special effects, costumes, continuity – it all has to synchronize and flow together. And it’s an impressive thing to see. The crew on Crook were consummate pros, and are genuinely the kind of people who enjoy what they do, and that certainly makes it easier to get through the stickier bits when things just aren’t going according to schedule. And unfortunately, my first day of shooting was a bit of a casualty. So after standing outside in the dead of winter under an underpass that was owned, apparently, as clearly indicated by the spray-painted tag, by a gang member named Cholo the Rat-King… in an industrial complex off Preston Street for 12 hours, I ended up getting sent home the first day without filming a single line. Which was a blessing in that I eventually got to spend an extra day working on the set, but it was also a reminder of how filmmaking works. Still, time spent hanging out with your friends, shooting a movie, and firing off tons of guns is a pretty damn fun way to spend the night!

Day Two:

The interior scenes taking place in Deluca’s 1970’s retro-looking office went without a hitch. Day 2 included my two biggest moments in the film, namely my face-off with Detective Miller (Bill Lake), and my confrontation with mob lynchpin William Weaver (Guy Beuller), one of the shadier, creepier, characters in Crook. Both Lake and Bueller are strong, natural actors, making our takes in their respective scenes a tight, professional experience. One of the greatest gifts in a scene is when the other actor, in the vernacular, “gives” you something back, whether a reaction, a gesture or an inflection. It’s the “intangible” something that intensifies and strengthens the moment and the scene, and Lake and Beuller certainly gave me lots to work with. Another 12-hour day, and we were all certainly exhausted and spent, but it was definitely a good kind of tired!

Day Three:

My last day on set, unfortunately, happened to coincide with Ottawa’s last big snowstorm of the year. Coming straight from my workplace in the St. Laurent area, it took me nearly 90 minutes to get to the industrial complex where we were shooting. This was my last day on set, and the last shoot day, so pressure to get things right the first time was fresh in everyone’s mind. Tonight, we would shoot my penultimate scene, my bloody and just fate as a no-goodnik! And my anxiety in knowing that there was a crowd waiting for me to get there added a little anxiety and immediacy to my reaching the set. Once I finally arrived, I quickly changed into my wardrobe while sitting in my car and hustled to the location. So there we were – cast, crew, braving the storm, all tucked in behind an old warehouse and a portion of the OTrain track. To say it was uncomfortable in a weather-sense is a bit like saying that high-fructose corn syrup is only kind of bad for you; in other words, a bit of an understatement. With the wind chill, it was roughly minus 28 degrees that night. To be clear, it was so cold, that the Norse god Thor himself would have been like “Holy frick, it’s pretty damn cold! Forsooth and whatnot.” Now granted, he’d say it in Norse or spell it out with some runes or something, but you get my point. The only thing that helped was knowing that A) We’re all working on something that we love and believe in, B) At least my friends are here, and C) At least they’re as cold and miserable as I am. Obviously, I get pretty mean when I get cold and am surviving only on linty pocket candy.

Me and fellow head-bite victims Adam Beech, Matt Stefiuk, and Greg Wilson

 

But something strange and amazing happens when you spend substantial chunks of time with people, much less with friends you’ve known for years. When you sit in a car with someone for hours at a time, as anyone who’s ever gone on a road trip can attest, things can get a little… weird. Maybe it’s because you’re all confined in a tight, small space, literally inches from each other; maybe it’s the anxious excitement of wanting to do a good job; maybe it’s that almost palpable giddiness of feeling like you’re someplace you belong and doing what you love. Or maybe it’s because you’re dizzy from the constant release of a gas so foul that it would make a World War one vet keel over, by one of your more overly flatulent co-stars. Regardless, at one point the fatigue and goofiness take over. I have never had the kinds of conversations that I have on movie sets, outside of that environment. There’s something about it that brings down your guard and pretence. And while there were some conversations that would not be appropriate to retell here, suffice it to say, the four actors in the car that night really tried to tackle life’s deepest mysteries. Things like: “Seriously, what are marshmallows made of exactly?” or “How do snakes move so fast without legs?” or even “Do you think the inside of a kangaroo’s pocket would be soft or sticky?” You know, the really important questions.

Now, with the amount of gunfire we let loose that night, I’m sure we gave more than one nervous neighbour or OTrain passenger some cause for concern and a bad case of the sweats. Extremely loud, sustained and repeated bursts of automatic gunfire, dozens of folks yelling, actors dressed as SWAT team members, and extremely bright lights will do that to people. It was a little like that last scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial where the Government is coming to nab the little fella, but with much, much more gunfire and foul language. This was it – the face-off between my character and Beech’s. The wind-up to the longest day and night of their lives, and one destined to be filled with a truckload of bullets. But high-intensity scenes like that one, with so many moving parts, stunts, people and gunfire, are tricky and delicate shots to get.

Action takes a lot longer to do, Langley confides. The scenes are shot in little bits and pieces, it takes longer to set up, and you need several cameras to film it correctly and make sure you get the coverage you need. Most productions get anywhere from 40 to 100 days to shoot an entire movie. We shot about nine pages a day on Crook.

By comparison, some big-budget movies and directors can sometimes spend months on one single page of script, never mind nine pages in one day.

Filmmaking is one of the most difficult things do in that it’s a collaborative effort. We had a crew of 14 on a shoot that should have taken 30 to 40 days, but because the budget and the timeline we had was so tight, that’s what we did, and because we had such amazing actors and crew, we were able to pull it off, Langley says. It was a tough shoot for sure, it was cold, and making a page-count that high was challenging. But the desire we all had was to accomplish something special. And our actors and crew showed great talent and tenacity; the collective community was able to raise the production to something we all wanted to see.

Langley shares a story about a director in town being asked what his favourite movie was. The director’s answer? “Any movie that actually gets made.”

So if it’s that hard to make a movie, if it’s there’s that much hardship and sacrifice required, why do it at all?

Partly, it’s the art itself, the sense of creative expression, the love of the process and of that medium of expression, and the fact that I don’t want to do anything else, Langley explains. Art is the biggest three-letter word there is, and it fuels the core, the engine of millions of people in the world. I think artists are artists on a genetic level. Animals build things for survival, but people build things for the creative sake of it, for the sense of completeness, connectedness and joy that it gives us. He adds: And where would we be without that? People love movies for what they give them, and that same love is also on the other side of the camera. Both sides of the camera love movies for the same reason, for what it gives them. It’s a selfish and selfless gesture all at the same time.

There’s something about creating art that bonds the one making with the one receiving, something that allows both parties to simultaneously experience the two sides of the coin, and that’s part of what makes it such an intimate experience. Bottom line, if you can find something that you like to do that much in life, something that lets you feel like that, even a little, you owe it to yourself to have it in your life. We all talk about wanting to find a place to belong, a place where we fit in. And acting not only provides that for me, but as importantly, it caters to my most basic and human need to play. Playing gets a bad rap a lot of the time, I think. There have actually been studies pointing to the necessity of play for a healthy psyche and spirit. But eventually we get older, and we’re told we need to leave behind the things we define as childish. So maybe that sense of play, that sense of fun, is a gift that we shouldn’t ignore or dismiss so easily; maybe it’s a gift that allows us to feel that purity of innocence, that blissful hopefulness and joy that we used to feel when we were kids, all over again.

 

And a special thanks to my agents Rachel, Kate, Christine and Laura, the wonderfully lovely folks over at the Mensour Agency, for all their continued hard work on my behalf and for their steadfast and sincere encouragement: http://www.mensour.ca/

___________________________

*“Prop car” – Literally a car that was parked onset as a prop for the shoot

 

JP Hoe – Getting Under the Skin on Mannequin

February 5, 2013 11:23 am
JP Hoe – Getting Under the Skin on Mannequin

Twice-nominated Western Canadian Music Awards artist JP Hoe is the ultimate singer-songwriter. The Winnipeg native is earnest, wry, ironic, funny and insightful. His material has a genuine homespun feel, filled with catchy hooks and melodies – genuine, uncontrived and confessional.

Hoe’s songs have vision and substance, and are a welcome change in this age of disposable everything. Hoe’s casual style is the perfect foil to his warm and welcoming voice. His approach has been described as a combination of torch song and tongue-in-cheek humor, but this is something of a disservice to an artist who uses genuine insight, emotion, smart lyrics and strong melodies to craft such heartfelt and fun music. Hoe is also most definitely a DIY kind of guy, having sold zillions of copies of his previous two critically acclaimed records: The Here in Review EP and The Live Beta Project, without the help of a record label, but rather through talent, relentless touring and continual hard work.

Yet it’s Hoe’s relaxed, familiar approach to music that fills his new release with life. The song arrangements on Mannequin are smartly built from the seed of his voice and guitar, and the subject matter revolves mostly around love and heartbreak… themes at once personal and common to all of us. But that’s definitely one of Hoe’s touchstones and strengths as a writer and storyteller: his ability to weave songs from an everyman’s point of view. Hoe’s extremely popular and perennially sold-out Christmas show in Winnipeg, called somewhat cheekily The JP Hoe Hoe Hoe Holiday Show, is a perfect illustration of how important he holds the ideas of connection, roots and community. And it’s his sense of connection to our shared humanity and foibles that has made Hoe a substantial musical success in his native province. JP Hoe could easily be called a troubadour, a man almost displaced out of time, using the honesty and simplicity of his guitar and voice to travel the world and slowly build a devoted and deserved audience.

 

Dark and at times tinged with melancholy, Mannequin has powerful moments, given an even greater strength by Hoe’s honest,forthright and focused approach. It’s a solid collection of pop-folk-influenced material, with a distinct, flavorful touch. What makes the album particularly impressive is Hoe’s willingness to experiment with traditional pop arrangements and instrumentation. This is a skillful record, peppered with memorable hooks and lyrics. Hoe is obviously quite comfortable plumbing and experimenting with the different aspects and perspectives of traditional radio-friendly pop music, and this approach works extremely well on Mannequin.

There’s a tendency that some music reviewers have to compare the artist being reviewed to other artists that readers may be more familiar with. While I understand the efficiency and directness of this tactic, for Hoe, that type of pigeonholing doesn’t really work and it doesn’t do Mannequin justice. This record is a great example of the fact that Hoe can write a memorable, profound, downright charming piece of music, period. Case in point: I can honestly say that after hearing Nothing’s Gonna Harm You only once, the damn thing stuck in my head like a big, fat wad of sugary-sweet bubblegum in a fifth grader’s hair. This tune is propulsive, simultaneously sweet and foreboding, and almost impossible to forget. Hoe sings: So take back what you said, and we’ll start anew like the morning’s end… a rather nice sentiment until it’s followed up by the lyrics I want your eyes looking at me, that’s why I keep you under my thumb, turning the track on a dime from sweet pop song to a statement on the hazards and dangers of obsession and control in a relationship. And it’s in these shades and perspectives that Hoe is most successful on Mannequin.

The record’s opener (Bingo Palace) is another high point and a great pick to get the whole magilla rolling. Subtle, soulful and emotive, Hoe’s mournful, heartfelt vocals, framed by lush, orchestral string arrangements, and his colorful, succinct, observational lyrics nestled warmly in between, create a truly beautiful song. The main line of the chorus wryly illustrates what we must all certainly feel at times: This world is tumbling around like balls in a bingo palace. He’s not wrong. And the haunting, determined, straightforward chorus of Learn to Let You Go, with its jangly guitars and sing-along backup vocals, will definitely tug at your heartstrings, but it will also make you smile: Oh, how did I learn to let you go. It’s the kind of song and lyric that inspires thought and consideration, simple and profound, the best kind of insight and wisdom.

JP Hoe will be at the Black Sheep Inn with Hannah Georgas and Mo Kenney on Thursday February 7, 2013. For tickets and times, visit tickets.theblacksheepinn.com

 

For more info on JP Hoe, check out: www.jphoe.com

 

 

Sarah Slean: Navigating the Mystery on Land & Sea

January 29, 2013 12:15 pm
Sarah Slean: Navigating the Mystery on Land & Sea

Fifteen years on and Sarah Slean’s list of accomplishments is as varied as it is impressive. Slean is something of a modern-day Renaissance Woman. During her career, she’s released an exhaustive amount of work: her own albums, collaborations with other musicians, painting exhibitions, two volumes of poetry, acting roles in two short films, arranging and composing for string quartets. Slean has performed with five of the country’s leading orchestras. She received multiple Juno nominations and two Geminis. Her albums are perennial sellers in a dozen different countries. Slean’s musical impact has by no means been confined to radio, as her songs are featured on the big and small screens in the US. Slean’s musical resume reads like a who’s who of Canadian music royalty. She’s worked with Rufus Wainwright, Alanis Morissette, Hayden, Royal Wood, Buck 65, Hawksley Workman, K-os, Ron Sexsmith and Feist, and has toured extensively in France, Germany and Sweden.

Slean’s successes in these fields have clearly contributed to her musical perspective on Land & Sea. It’s a beautifully expansive, striking, literate and emotionally rich double album (one titled Land, the other Sea). Orchestral, hooky, delicate, dramatic, poetic and intimate all at once, Land & Sea is an ambitious project in terms of cost and execution. The release of a double album in these uncertain financial times – never mind the current unsettled state of the record industry – makes this a brave choice on her part.

Slean confides: “It was kind of an insane idea in terms of it being twice the work, twice the budget, and twice the personnel. But that’s the thing about the Muse, when you get inspired, all common sense kind of flies out the window. When the Muse visits, it’s kind of a physical experience for me. I like to call that feeling ‘the whoosh’: it’s like a physical and spiritual quickening, but there really is no real method for songwriting. It’s more like being in a state of anticipation.

“When I was creating these songs, the common sense side of me knew it would be very difficult to tour a record with a 21-piece orchestra, and even more difficult in this day and age to sell two different records. People want to know who you are in 30 seconds. They want the ‘Coles Notes’ version. But this is not a record that has anything to do with that way of thinking. I like to think of it as a novel in that you can enjoy it superficially, but if you want to go deeper, there are treasures there. That’s the way I made it, and I feel like that’s the way people who love this record are receiving it. And that gives me hope for future creations that are equally challenging or insane.”

Land & Sea is the kind of album that gives you more with each listen; it is filled to the brim with lovely, catchy melodies. But Slean has always had a great ear for melody and hooks. She picks her moments precisely and carefully, weaving a richer overall musical tapestry.

Thematically, the lyrics on Land mostly reflect Slean’s perspectives, thoughts and feelings on the strange, often-times downright baffling age we live in. The record’s opener, Life, with its inviting piano intro and intriguing chord changes, is a perfect introduction to the experience, and by the time the drums kick in, the listener is easily carried away by Slean’s exuberance. Songs like Everybody’s on TV and Society Song clearly illustrate Slean’s opinions on our consumer-driven, media-obsessed society. I Am a Light is my favorite track on Land, with its entrancing, lush vocals and hypnotic piano ushering in a gorgeous chorus.

This two-pack clocks in at over an hour of music, which may seem like a lot of attention-span to request from listeners in this day and age of 15-second sound bites, but it’s well worth the running time. Land is the more uptempo, rock-pop influenced of the two records. On it, Slean’s compositions are built primarily around the vocal and piano lines, with bass, guitar and percussion, adding more flavor and movement. The über-talented Joel Plaskett handled the production duties for Land. Plaskett’s no-nonsense, earthy, and direct approach complements Slean’s writing style, and she speaks very positively about working with him. Slean says that she very much appreciated his forthrightness and directness during the recording process:

“We got along personally, and it felt like it would be a good match musically as well. We did butt heads a lot in the studio, but I’m glad he stood his ground. He has a real immediacy and humanity in his approach that I really appreciated. I was really impressed with how he puts a song together. He’s able to distill the song down to its best parts, to shave away the surplus and keep what really matters. He approaches it in a very succinct, and natural way, and I think that’s a really important skill for a songwriter, to be able to be brutal in cutting away the excess. His process isn’t a calculated, step-by-step one, and having all the musicians play in the same room at the same time gave the recording process a much more human and organic feel.”

That naturalness is extremely important to Slean, and the idea of connection and shared origin is one she takes to heart. She speaks eloquently to the notion of “mystery” in both the cosmic and human sense. In her own words, she is gobsmacked by not just the amount and variety of beauty that exists around us, but also by the idea that we are all fundamentally connected to it, and to each other.

“That’s what Land & Sea is all about,” Slean explains. “Land contains songs about our perception that we are separate consciousnesses, and the tangles and drama that we get into believing we are separate beings. It’s about the tangible, visceral experience of feeling like we’re separate entities, when we’re actually not. It’s the idea that we see ourselves as being different people among billions of other different people. But Sea is about the realization that all of us, our lungs breathing, our hearts beating, all of it, is one phenomenon.

Which brings us neatly to the second record. Sea is the more orchestral and intimate-sounding of the two albums, and Slean’s influences and loves are a bit more on display here, as shades of Leonard Cohen, Kurt Weill and Gustav Mahler color some of the songs. Sea has a dramatic, earnest, at times cabaret-sounding feel, and its arrangements are centered on Slean’s fluid, chameleonic voice, backed by full, lush, vibrant string arrangements. This is an organic, enticing, sultry record. The Devil and the Dove is a definite standout here, with its beautifully layered vocals and harmonies. Meanwhile, Attention Archers reminds me a little bit of Heart of Saturday Night-era Tom Waits in its beauty and simplicity. Subtle, emotive, with only Slean’s voice, a piano, and backup vocals, it becomes a haunting and intimate experience. All summed up with Slean’s simple but emotionally expressive lyric in the chorus: I’m on your side. The Right Words has a windswept, epic feel, encompassing, transformative, and downright beautiful.

Slean’s choice to have a different producer for both records was a true stroke of inspiration, as it gives the double album two distinct, but also unified influences, while emphasizing the different themes for each record. Award-winning film composer Jonathan Goldsmith manned the production sails on Sea, and he tastefully adds just the right subtleties and color to it, giving it, forgive the pun, an even greater depth. Slean says that ironically, Goldsmith’s approach was not all that different from Plaskett’s in terms of building the songs from an organic and natural perspective. Slean says she had initially suggested to Goldsmith that she pre-record her piano and vocal tracks. Goldsmith answered simply: “You can’t write songs about the mystery and not invite it into the studio.”

“That really stuck with me, Slean says. “I realized I had to have faith in this mysterious power that I keep writing about, that entrances me intellectually and spiritually, but that I also had to have that presence in the recording studio, or this project wouldn’t be alive, it wouldn’t be a living thing. And it wouldn’t have been if it was done any other way. It was an experience where I could sing completely in the moment, where I reacted to the orchestra, and vice-versa. We played and reacted to each other, it was a very ‘human’ thing, and that’s what made it special.

Slean is motivated and inspired by a genuine and profound sense of awe at the world around her, by both the known and the unknown, by the mystery which surrounds us, and that we often take for granted. She is fascinated by the sense of creation and connection that she believes we all share. She loves asking important questions, and the questions themselves. Slean has a genuine love in her voice when discussing her craft, ideas, possibilities, connections, faith – in short, when discussing Life.

“I do genuinely feel like luckiest girl in the world. I love my life. I believe in Art. I believe in its transformative power, in its ability to remind us that everything that’s going on is in the nature of the miraculous. I feel really lucky, and very blessed. I love the kind of art that gives you the option to plum further into a work, or perspective, or aesthetic, or artist. That’s the kind of art I want to make available. To attempt to create what James Joyce called ‘aesthetic arrest’. The sense that in the middle of an artistic experience, the veil lifts for a moment, and you tangibly experience the shock and wonder of your own existence.

 

 

 

Lindi Ortega – Shootin’ Straight from the Heart

January 24, 2013 11:06 am
Lindi Ortega – Shootin’ Straight from the Heart

Lindi Ortega loves telling stories. That love comes out in the form of haunting, warm and honest music. Ortega’s voice is beautifully evocative, charming and rich… filled with a sweet sense of longing and regret, floating over and caressing each word as she lays her heart bare. She thanks the tutorials and tips she has taken over the years. It conjures stories of love and heartache, and shows a wisdom and depth beyond her 33 years. The tracks are genuine, inviting and sincere country odes to lost loves, betrayal, hopeful tomorrows, and the promise of redemption and healing. Ortega sings straight from her heart, and her lyrics and delivery are as honest and upfront as can be… her songs are silky-smooth and welcoming. Her lyrics carry an equally impactful emotional resonance, with lines like: “I’d rather have you still beside me, than have you running through my mind. Look out, California: I’m coming for my lover’s heart tonight. – from Cigarettes & Truckstops’ lovely title track.

It would be easy enough to compare Ortega’s voice to one of her self-admitted heroes and country music icons, Dolly Parton, but that seems like a convenient pigeonhole for someone who calls punk music as much of an influence as country. Ortega’s decade as an independent artist shows her determination and drive, and illustrates her DIY ethic. Her extensive touring helped her further hone and sharpen her craft, having shared the stage on two separate tours with punk icons Social Distortion.

It was an amazing experience, Ortega says. I ended my set with Folsom Prison Blues (The Johnny Cash classic) and they ended theirs with Ring of Fire. I think there was a mutual appreciation of outlaw country and it was almost liberating in a sense. That type of audience can be kind of intimidating. If you don’t sing with conviction, and give it your all, and be who you are, they can eat you alive. But for some reason it worked out really well. It was one of the best experiences of my life… And I don’t know too many women singer-songwriters who can say they’ve opened for a punk band.

Not that Ortega has any issue with showing conviction or being who she is: My love for outlaw country stems from my mom’s love of it, she says.

Ortega speaks fondly of her time spent going through her mother’s record collection, and credits it as being the source of her love for the genre.

Waylon, Willie, Loretta, Patsy… I love what those artists were singing about. I love the originality of it. Back in the 60s and 70s, there were people in country music who had unique and original things going on. They were all country artists, but you could always tell the difference between a Dolly, a Patsy or a Kristofferson. They were all distinct in their approach and style. I also love the storytelling, all of those things that later became cliché in country music, at the time were a new thing. I grew up the only child of immigrant parents who worked all the time. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, and I could really relate to those themes of loneliness and alienation; they really resonated with me at a young age, but I continued being attracted to country because of the imagery, lyrics and music.

I don’t know too many women singer-songwriters who can say they’ve opened for a punk band.

I myself was not exposed to much country music as a kid, growing up as I did in an Italian-Canadian household. I can pretty much guarantee that I never heard Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin do any big-band versions of Your Cheatin’ Heart, or He Stopped Loving Her Today (although that would have been pretty cool.) Most of my exposure to the genre came much later in life and consisted mostly of the stalwarts of country music, the founders and icons… people like Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson. What I liked about those artists, and what has always attracted me in music generally, is an artist’s willingness to be completely open. I think that some of the most important and constructive insights and lessons in life happen in those moments. And with Cigarettes & Truckstops, Ortega faithfully delivers those same universal themes of love and loss with great ease and aplomb.

Cigarettes & Truckstops is an emotional, insightful album. Its themes and stories are deeply rooted in traditional country, but its musical approach not only borrows from the past, it also incorporates new ideas. Cigarettes & Truckstops was recently added to SPIN Magazine’s Best Country Albums of 2012, and deservedly so. This is a record that will satisfy country purists, but will also garner Ortega lots of new fans.

The video for the album’s title track reflects Ortega’s genuine affection for tradition and history. The sepia-toned scenes, the whirring and clicking of an old Super 8 projector kicking off the video, the deeply moving lyrics, vocal delivery and production… this is a Hurtin’ Song in every sense. Sad, forlorn, but ultimately redemptive. Ortega’s words are tinged with equal parts loss and hope. Day You Die is one of the album’s more traditional-sounding songs, harkening back to the Grand Ole Opry. With its locomotive drum beat, hooky vocals and melody, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek lyrics, it is inviting, revelatory and, despite its somber title, a whole lot of fun to boot!

Ortega’s sense of fun and whimsy is sometimes overshadowed by her darker and more sober lyrics: A lot of people sometimes bag on me for writing about stuff that has dark undertones, she admits, but I’m not the kind of person to shy away from the fact that life is going to have these down, dark moments. Life is going to have things that happen that cause you to feel those things, but I try to write about it in a way that also offers a silver lining, a little bit of hope. Everyone struggles with their demons, but don’t let them bring you down. It’s about acknowledging that difficult things happen, but there’s always hope, and you can always make it better for yourself.

Life is going to have things that happen that cause you to feel those things, but I try to write about it in a way that also offers a silver lining, a little bit of hope.

Country music is about roots and connection. And Ortega’s recent move to Nashville – the heart and soul of country music – is one that she feels was exactly the right thing to do: There unfortunately aren’t a lot of venues in Toronto where I can play the type of music I do. It felt like in order for me to really spread my wings, I needed to come to a place that had a lot more venues, and more opportunities to write and collaborate with like-minded people.

But whether Ortega is in Toronto or in Nashville, her songwriting approach remains the same: Music can come from all sorts of places, but as long as it’s coming from an honest place, that’s what gives it validity and resonance.

And that’s exactly what Ortega’s music does: it connects, it invites, and it tugs at your heartstrings in all the right ways.

 

Lindi Ortega will be at The Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Quebec, with special guest Dustin Bentall on Sunday, January 27. Showtime is 4:20 pm. Tickets are priced at $15.

For more information, visit  http://tickets.theblacksheepinn.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=124

 

Check out Lindi Ortega’s website at http://lindiortega.ca/ or

http://lastgangentertainment.com/records/artists/lindi-ortega

Blue Rodeo – History in the Making

December 23, 2012 4:33 pm
Blue Rodeo – History in the Making

Blue Rodeo- History in the Making

1987-1993 – 8-CD Box Set

Blue Rodeo are a Canadian treasure, simple as that. It’s rare enough for a band to be able to produce well-crafted, poignant, and honest musical gems, but to do so with the consistency and quality that Blue Rodeo have done for more than two decades now, is an outstanding achievement. This country has produced some remarkably talented bands and musicians, but Blue Rodeo, like their stalwarts, The Tragically Hip, have through sheer talent, hard work, outstanding songwriting and a unique musical chemistry, earned a hallowed place in our collective Canadian consciousness. Few bands or musicians are able to transcend themselves and their particular genre to become more than the sum of their parts, but Blue Rodeo have, in some sense, become iconic.

Blue Rodeo have released 12 full-length studio albums, three live recordings, one greatest hits package and five video/DVDs. Their studio albums have sold over three million copies worldwide, not to mention the band members’ countless solo projects and side-projects producing other bands, one of the most notable being Greg Keelor’s work with phenomenal Canadian alt-country darlings Cuff the Duke. They’ve also collaborated with many other musical icons, from Sarah McLachlan to Burton Cummings, each time bringing their own unique flavor to such collaborations. Over their 20+-year career, they’ve won umpteen Canadian music awards, including seven Juno Awards and seven SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) awards, and in 2009, were rightfully honored with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. They are only the fifth band in Canadian music history to receive such an honor.

So the recently released box set, Blue Rodeo 1987-1993, seems like the perfect way to commemorate and celebrate the band’s 25-year anniversary in the music business. The 8-disc set is a mix of newly remastered and remixed versions of the band’s first five albums. Disc 1: Outskirts (remastered), Disc 2: Outskirts (remixed), Disc 3: Diamond Mine (remastered), Disc 4: Casino (remastered), Disc 5: Casino (demos), Disc 6: Lost Together (remastered), Disc 7: Five Days in July (remastered); and Disc 8, Odds & Ends, a collection of previously unreleased material, demos and outtakes.

The package also includes a beautiful 44-page booklet of liner notes, with rare photos, and an insightful and evocative essay written by Exclaim Magazine assistant editor Jason Schneider, in which the band speaks openly and candidly about their early days in the business, and their reactions to the trappings of success. Band founding members Jim Cuddy (guitar/vocals), Greg Keelor (guitar/vocals) and Bazil Donovan (bass) have been together since Blue Rodeo’s humble beginnings, and it must be a wondrous thing to be able to look back at 25 years’ worth of music.

So let’s take them one at a time, shall we? The set opener is, of course, Outskirts (Disc1- remastered, Disc 2 – remixed), and it’s certainly one of the band’s darker albums. The tone and lyrics of songs like Try and Rose-Coloured Glasses, two of the record’s four singles, certainly reflected that. The impetus to remix Outskirts initially came from Keelor, as he was never really satisfied with how the songs, and consequently the band, sounded with the original production of the album.

Diamond Mine (Disc 3 – remastered) is a warm, relaxed album with a spontaneous delivery that runs somewhat contrary to the intensity of their previous album’s recording process. It was the band’s first attempt at producing themselves, and its title track, buoyed by Keelor’s earnest and immediate vocals, crystallized the essence and earnestness of this album.

Discs 4 and 5, featuring the remastered version of Casino, along with some of the album’s original demo recordings, are among my personal favorites in this set. Originally produced by L.A.-based Pete Anderson, Casino had a tighter and more streamlined feel overall than previous albums. This disc has some great demo versions too, and hearing how the songs evolved from the beginning of the writing process straight through to the recording stage is utterly fascinating. Beautifully crafted gems like Trust Yourself, After the Rain, and Til I Am Myself Again, make it easy to see why this album did so well.

The remastered version of the band’s fourth studio album, Lost Together – Disc 6 in the set – was actually the last record with the band’s longtime keyboardist Bob Wiseman. This record also has one of my all-time favorite Blue Rodeo songs, namely Rain Down on Me. Cuddy’s powerful and emotional vocal performance gives the song a deep and rich otherworldly resonance. The beauty and scope of Lost Together went on to win the band even more fans.

Disc 7, 5 Days in July (remastered) has a substantively different vibe compared to some of their other records: lighter, more carefree, sunnier almost. Whatever the reasons for that approach, it worked extremely well for the band. Most of the album was recorded on site at Keelor’s country home near Toronto. The album, bolstered by its title track and songs like Hasn’t Hit Me Yet, went on to sell close to 250,000 copies in Canada alone.

Lastly, Disc 8, the most interesting one for me, simply called Odds & Ends – a CD of previously unreleased material and various demos. Unfortunately, there are no demos here from some of the band’s most successful songs, but it’s still a great feeling to be able to hear some of the songs we’re most familiar with, change over time, evolve and come to life, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. It’s a revealing and rare, fly-on-the-wall kind of experience, and it’s one that ends up being fulfilling and rewarding for old and new listeners. The goodies and extras alone on this collection would make it worth the price of admission. Odds & Ends has the feel of a homemade mixed-tape, put together by someone in the band and only handed out to his closest friends. It’s an amazing thing to hear, and it reminded me of how much fun it used to be when I was a kid, to sit down with my fellow music nerds, listen to old Beatles records, and then try to figure out who wrote which song. There are some standout moments here, one of which, Keelor’s beautifully inviting The Ballad of the Dime Store Greaser and the Blonde Mona Lisa, for example, wraps around you warmly like an old friend, just like all the best Blue Rodeo songs do.

While some of the mastering and remixing changes may seem minor or understated, overall the tweaks have added a new dimension, a new vim and vigor to the material. Having the chance to re-experience and enjoy these songs, I’m struck by the quantity and strength of the material Blue Rodeo has written over the years. But the fact is that these are the kinds of songs that could be stripped of any studio polish whatsoever and would still, at their core, be well-crafted, resonant, heartfelt and wise. This one’s a no-brainer, folks. This much goodness under one roof, so to speak, would make a lovely Christmas present for that musically-inclined someone special in your life. Granted, an 8-CD box set may be awkward to try to stuff into a stocking, but you can get those giant sleeping-bag-sized Christmas stockings from The Dollar Store now, so problem solved.

http://www.bluerodeo.com/

 

 

Jim Bryson -Making Merry and Keeping Spirits Bright

December 22, 2012 5:33 pm
Jim Bryson -Making Merry and Keeping Spirits Bright

Jim Bryson: Making Merry and Keeping Spirits Bright

  • 12th Annual Christmas show at the Black Sheep Inn
  • Album review for the Instant Holiday Album
  • Album review for The Falcon Lake Incident

 

Luigi Saracino

Jim Bryson will be back at the Black Sheep Inn for his 12th annual Christmas show! And if that wasn’t enough to put a seasonal spring in your step, this year, there’s a Saturday night and Sunday matinee show too! Now that, my friends, is a Christmas gift! Bryson’s shows at the Black Sheep have taken on almost mythical proportions, and have become a fan favourite, with tickets routinely selling out well in advance. (The two shows on December 22 and 23 are sold out.) Year after year, Bryson has obliged his fans, old and new, with exhilarating performances; insightful, candid, entertaining stories; and special musical guests.

This year will be no exception. Backing Bryson is his band the Occasionals, with musical guests The Weather Station. Of course, the evening will certainly include some great music, stellar performances and a whole lot of fun, but one of the things that’s got me the most excited is the rumor that Bryson may have two drummers playing on stage that night! Woo and hoo! I should admit, I’m a bit of a “drum nerd”, in that I don’t know too many other people who would pick John Bonham’s drum solo from Moby Dick as one of their favorite pieces of music. Suffice it to say, I’m excited at the prospect! This, I can pretty much guarantee, will be one heck of a festive night!

Bryson has also released a lovely holiday recording called Instant Holiday Album. The title refers to the way the record was put together, as Bryson decided to ask some of his musician friends – audio-engineer Dave Draves, Jarrett Bartlett, The Acorn’s Rolf Klausener, Jon Bartlett and Jeremy Fisher, to name but a few – to participate in a 15-hour recording session, with the proceeds going to the Royal Ottawa Hospital Foundation’s You Know Who I Am campaign for mental health awareness. http://www.youknowwhoiam.com/ , as well as to the Shepherds of Good Hope http://www.shepherdsofgoodhope.com/  It’s a warm, thoughtful, rollicking album, and as all sales will go to charity, there’s really no reason not to pick up a copy!

Bryson says the recording of the album could not have been a better experience:

“It was really fun! We had a really good time making it. I’m a fan of that sort of amalgam sound between the Peanuts Christmas record and the Frank Sinatra / Dean Martin stuff. That’s what we were aiming for with this album.” The idea for the record stemmed from Bryson’s writing collaboration with fellow songwriter Jeremy Fisher for their Catch and Release recording sessions, where Bryson and Fisher would routinely write an entire song under an extremely tight timeline, and then simply give it away.

Bryson explains: “I like the idea of throwing up challenges to yourself and seeing if you can pull it off. It’s not like we pulled off Live Aid or anything, but to see the support and donation of time and effort from all of these people was amazing. Everybody I asked said yes. It’s like that old cliché, the first step is just asking. Everybody wanted to do it, and no one was sending me invoices afterwards.” Bryson’s decision to donate the proceeds is something he humbly downplays: “It makes sense not to keep it. The spirit of the record was meant to be that of a gift, and if some people end up putting it on when their friends and family come over, that would be great. That’s a victory. With the help of all these people, we were able to have a beginning, a middle and an end. We were able to make something really special.” The album, filled with holiday classics, is available via online music site Zunior, http://www.zunior.com/ but to those lucky few attending one of this weekend’s shows at the Black Sheep, fans will also be able to purchase a limited edition woodcut hand-printed postcard with a download code. How cool is that! As Larry David might say: “Pretty, pretty, pretty, cool!”

One of the greatest things about attending the annual event is getting to experience the level of intimacy and warmth that Bryson and his band are able to project during his shows. It’s almost as if the entire crowd is sitting in Bryson’s living room; there’s a sense of familiarity and welcoming that few musicians and performers are able to achieve. Bryson is a songwriter’s songwriter, the kind of artist other musicians admire and respect. And his songs are open, humble, honest and filled with wit. Bryson is one hell of a guy and one hell of a musician, as his stints playing and touring with the wonderful Kathleen Edwards, the enchanting Lynn Miles, the outstanding The Weakerthans, and the iconic Canadian superstars The Tragically Hip will attest. When Kathleen Edwards is writing a song about you, namely, I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory, which appeared on Edwards’ Asking for Flowers record, you can safely assume you’ve made a good impression.

But that’s what Bryson does, he makes a good impression. Whether through his music, or just by having a good old conversation with you, he’s the kind of artist whose thoughtfulness, insight, consideration and soulfulness come through regardless of the environment. I’ve had the good fortune to know Bryson for more than 20 years. In that time, he has always shown himself to be an earnest, outstanding performer, an outside-the-box kind of thinker, and a daring and extremely well-accomplished songwriter. Bryson pushes himself to do new things, and it’s perhaps this trait that has contributed most to his growth as an artist and as a person. His songs shine with honesty, sincerity, earnestness and integrity, and his insights into human nature and the world at large are unique and thought-provoking. Bryson first rose to prominence in the Ottawa music scene back in 1994 as a founding member of the outstanding pop-punk combo Punchbuggy. But he really started to shine when at the helm of his own ship, so to speak, taking the DIY ethic to its logical conclusion by releasing an album under his own name, the amazing The Occasionals, in 2000.

Bryson’s most recent record, The Falcon Lake Incident, was recorded with none other than the aforementioned Canadian rock heroesThe Weakerthans, in the Falcon Lake summer vacation area, located near the border of Ontario and Manitoba. Falcon Lake is said to be the location of a rather famous UFO sighting back in 1967. Perhaps some of that otherworldly, transcendent energy was left behind, because there’s plenty of it on this album. Most of it was recorded in what must be some kind of record-breaking six- day stint. This is an extremely natural, organic-sounding album, not at all hurried-sounding which is what you may expect based on the tight recording timeframe, which makes it an even more remarkable achievement. Rather, it is subtle, warm, inviting and expansive. Bryson and The Weakerthans obviously work very well together, and both parties seem to be able to spur each other on to greater heights.

This is a collaboration that created something truly unique and important, a record with actual sentiment, depth and real emotion.

Metal Girls is one of my favorite tracks, with its accompanying guitar and toy-piano-sounding flourishes, adding a charming sense of richness and fullness to the music and lyrics. Another standout track, Constellations, has some of the most heartbreaking, emotion-filled opening guitar chords I’ve ever heard. Bryson’s seemingly simplistic songwriting approach belies a great depth and wisdom. Bryson’s lyrics are just as keen and sharp as ever: he is a storyteller through and through, like some sort of folk-rock Tom Waits. And when he delivers lines like “Despite what they say we are not like birds or even aeroplanes, we never get to fly,” the acceptance and resolve in Bryson’s voice is almost palpable.

Bryson confides that his battle with depression last winter, crystallized certain things for him, and literally gave him a new perspective on life. While he admits it was one of the most challenging periods of his life, he is also grateful for it.

“I realized that I just have to do as much as I can do, and not worry whether it amounts to anything. I felt like I had become much more aware of the balance around me being much more fragile than it had ever been, and something just clicked with me. Luckily, I was able to get up and say ‘enough of this, I have to take this on.’ I have to have a better attitude; I have to love life more. I was able to remind myself of what it felt like when I wasn’t someone who played music, but someone who just listened to music and went to shows. As strange as it may sound, I was able to remind myself of my love for music and for my craft. And I also realized when I came out of it that I never would have found that love again if I hadn’t gone through the experience of that depression.

“As hard as music is, it’s not coal mining. There’s certainly bad days, and uncertainty, but the fact that you get to steer your own ship, to make your own choices, to do what you want to do, is something I deeply appreciate, and am immensely grateful for, and something I don’t take lightly. You’ve got to just keep doing stuff. You have to keep doing things to keep your brain and spirit active. I think it was John Fogerty who said, ‘You have to keep on keepin’ on’, and those are pretty good words to live by.”

You can obtain a copy of Jim Bryson’s new release The Falcon Lake Incident via the Kelp records website: http://kelprecords.com/jimbryson/?page_id=92

or through Bryson’s website: http://www.jimbryson.org/

For more music and information on recordings and gigs, check out Bryson’s MySpace page: http://ca.myspace.com/jimbryson

 

_______________________________

Luigi Saracino is a musician, composer, writer, stand-up comic, actor and voice-actor. He also plays and writes music with a lovely group of guys under the moniker Crown Victoria. Luigi loves living in Ottawa, is naturally buoyant in freshwater, and believes that “Slinkies” are powered by a combination of “magic” and “bluish-hued imps from the seventh dimension.” Luigi would also like everyone to know that he is only a little bit ticklish, and a huge sucker for any movie with the incomparable William Atherton in it.

A Charlie Brown Christmas w/ the Vince Guaraldi Trio Collector’s Edition – CD, Bonus DVD

4:53 pm
A Charlie Brown Christmas w/ the Vince Guaraldi Trio Collector’s Edition – CD, Bonus DVD

Luigi Saracino

It’s Christmas, Charlie Brown!

The holidays are here!! And to me it’s just not the Christmas season without pulling out my copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring music by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. One of my fondest memories is nestling down in front of a fireplace, holding a football-helmet sized bowl of Cap’n Crunch, wearing a pair of freshly-laundered, dryer-warm Onesies, eyes glued to the TV, anxiously awaiting the first few notes of Guaraldi’s trio announcing the start of the Charlie Brown Christmas special! And to tell you the truth, I’ll probably spend Christmas the same way again this year! I love this record, and I’m happy to have the excuse to take it out and enjoy it all over again.

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a job in a lovely retail store during Christmas. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever worked retail during the festive holiday season, but frankly, sometimes, “festive”, is the last word you’d use to describe it. Try to imagine being pelted with three-year-old Christmas fruitcake by extremely disgruntled elves, while Handel’s Messiah plays in the background for what must be the 47th time, all while rabid, exhausted, eggnog-fueled shoppers are fighting past you trying to get to the last 12-pack of “Hello Kitty” Christmas tinsel. It’s a little bit like that.

While all of that was going on, one of the things that always lifted my spirits during the more trying retail moments was being able to listen to this album while we worked. My love for the Peanuts strip started at a young age. There was always something about Charles Schulz’s genius of a comic strip that really resonated with me as a child. Whether it was trying to figure out why a seven-year old kid had gone prematurely bald except for that one weird curly hair on his forehead, or wondering why his dog had more hobbies and alter-egos than I’ve had, or even how one of his friends managed to start a seemingly thriving psychiatry practice in her backyard. Admittedly, Lucy had the best rates in town, but whatever the reason, I simply devoured those comic strips. One of the things that made them truly brilliant was Schulz’s ability to illustrate the tiny struggles, victories and defeats of everyday life, but from a perspective and wisdom of seeming innocence. For Schulz, it was not only about the disappointments of life, but about the hope of change, the hope of things getting better. My first-year university philosophy professor used to be fond of saying that there was more “philosophy” in Schulz’s four-panel strip than in some of Socrates’ treatises!

All of this makes this album even more amazing for the sense of joy and warmth it is able to evoke. To be able to see these characters on television, brought to life, and even more, to be able to hear that boisterous, joyful, and fun soundtrack, was pretty close to perfect for me. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a re-release Collector’s Edition set a few years back that came with a remastered copy of the animated TV special, originally aired in 1965. The soundtrack, beautifully performed and arranged by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, was put together to accompany the CBS Christmas television special of the same name, and has gone on to become one of the most popular and best-selling Christmas records of all time. It’s easy to see why. It’s a sweet, breezy, heartwarming record, and it positively fills your heart with the spirit of the season.

Every single time I listen to this album, I begin smiling from ear to ear. Whether it’s the innocence and honesty of the music, or the seeming simplicity of these arrangements, or the fact that they vividly bring to mind so many happy times, that’s all sort of beyond the point. Guaraldi’s renditions of these songs is so approachable, so memorable and lasting, that they are still loved today the world over by millions of people, jazz lovers and non-jazz lovers alike. Guaraldi was legendary television producer Lee Mendelson’s first pick to arrange and perform the soundtrack. And Guaraldi’s heartachingly beautiful renditions of holiday classics like O Tannenbaum or Hark! The Herald Angels Sing totally encapsulate the nostalgia and warmth of the holiday. There are plenty more Peanuts-themed tracks, though, and hearing Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and the gang sing their little hearts out on Christmas Time Is Here is one of the album’s high points. Guaraldi’s arrangements take on a life of their own, echoing the moments and feelings of the season. They are somehow instantly familiar, welcoming and recognizable, even if you’ve never heard them before. This album is so chock-full of warm feelings and sentiments, it’s like a musical hot-pocket for your psyche.

Christmas is the season of gratitude and appreciation. It’s the season of looking back and taking stock of our lives, of remembering friends and family, and of being grateful for having them in our lives. At its heart, the themes of this album are its messages of good will towards all, of acceptance, of empathy and hope, and they celebrate the idea of a better, more loving tomorrow. And you get to experience all that while also getting to do that goofy Peanuts dance to some pretty great jazz music! Merry Christmas, indeed!

 

 

 

 

Luigi Saracino is a musician, composer, writer, stand-up comic, actor and voice-actor. He also plays and writes music with a lovely group of guys under the moniker Crown Victoria. Luigi loves living in Ottawa, is naturally buoyant in freshwater, and believes that “Slinkies” are powered by a combination of “magic” and “bluish-hued imps from the seventh dimension.” Luigi would also like everyone to know that he is only a little bit ticklish, and a huge sucker for any movie with William Atherton in it.

Diamond Rings: Reaching for a higher plane with Free Dimensional

December 4, 2012 10:33 am
Diamond Rings: Reaching for a higher plane with Free Dimensional

The lack of pretension on Special Affections, Diamond Rings’ debut full-length release, is one of the things that makes it so special. There is a palpable and almost desperately anticipatory feeling to the songs – they are unapologetically boisterous, exultant and celebratory… and it is those same qualities that make Special Affections unique, ambitious, and utterly without deception.

 

While some of those same feelings and themes are evident on Diamond Rings’ follow-up album Free Dimensional, the overall package doesn’t capture the same sense of direction and propulsion of the earlier work. It has great moments, but there is a sense of disparity, which seems to contribute to the lack of a wholly unified vision. Diamond Rings’ founder and frontman, John O’Regan, is not your typical musician. In fact, his forays into music didn’t begin until relatively late in life, at a time when some would say he’d be too old for a viable career in music. The history of O’Regan’s rise to fame is well documented, as are his debilitating struggles with Crohn’s disease. O’Regan wrote some of his earliest songs for Special Affections during a lengthy hospital stay. And what made that record so special, transformative and vibrant was O’Regan’s sense of spirit, strength of will, and determination.

 

With the release of Free Dimensional, O’Regan obviously has his sights set on a much more ambitious artistic goal. He skillfully appropriates and uses the idea of “Rock Star” in the most theatrical and grandiose sense – think David Bowie or Bono or any other musician who realizes that longevity in the music industry means having to constantly evolve and move forward. O’Regan’s penchant for elaborately designed wardrobe and choreography during his live shows also confirms his firm grasp and understanding of the “show” side of the music business. O’Regan’s songwriting style is reminiscent of earlier glam pioneers, in that he is also very much tied into the visual aspect of performances.

As his recent appearance on Late Show with David Letterman will attest – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v33g1jK4xFY – that performance showcased the Diamond Rings’ penchant for grand, energetic choruses, sweeping hooks, and solid musicianship. O’Regan’s rhythmic, almost baritone vocal approach is brim full of the darker, more visceral elements of 80s New Wave music, and reminds me of singers like Lou Reed and Peter Murphy, whose use of phrasing, timing and drama worked extremely effectively.

Free Dimensional is definitely aimed for larger crowds, and with its high-energy grooves and catchy hooks, it will certainly attract its share of new listeners.

Produced by Canadian audio-production wunderkind Damian Taylor (Arcade Fire, Björk, U.N.K.L.E.), Free Dimensional lays out O’Regan’s evolving artistic credo and songwriting approach. His themes generally revolve around the ideas of self-empowerment and individuality, and the record’s debut single I’m Just Me is an energetic, unrestrained ode to (and celebration of) those themes.

O’Regan’s musical talents aren’t simply constrained to his keyboard-playing prowess, as he deftly shows on another standout track on the album, Runaway Love: O’Regan can definitely write a kick-butt rock-riff with the best of them. The production on this record wisely tries to showcase Diamond Rings’ intricacies and playfulness, while giving the songs the opportunity to breathe and shine on their own. There are heavy and obvious New Wave influences on Free Dimensional, as well as splashes of R&B, and even an older, more adult-radio sound on songs like Stand My Ground. But while this versatility is interesting, and even sometimes fulfilling, it eventually detracts from the overall cohesiveness of the record. It seems that a tighter rein during the production phase would have better served the artistic goals, if for no other reason than to draw a connecting line between its disparate elements.

There are some odd musical choices on this record: long instrumental noodly-bits, coupled with O’Regan’s almost deadpan rap style in some songs, and even a strange angularity to the music and production. And while this type of New Wave/rock hybrid doesn’t typically lend itself to much improvisation, the rigidness and polish on some of these songs hold them back when they should be running loose. O’Regan’s lyrics on this album are sometimes nonsensical and seemingly haphazard, and at times sacrifice lyrical content for the sake of a catchy hook. Not to say that this album isn’t chock full of energy, life and possibility. It was O’Regan’s honesty and willingness to discuss extremely personal events, such as his struggles with his own identity and sexuality, that gave his previous effort a greater and more profound depth than it would otherwise have had, and while Free Dimensional is an ambitious record, and certainly has its high points, it doesn’t necessarily always hit the mark. There are certainly plenty of interesting arrangements, catchy hooks and grooves on the album, as well as some solid performances, but the lack of lyrical substance sometimes makes it a thin listening experience.

Overall, Free Dimensional is a promising follow-up with some very solid moments, and if it’s any indication, Diamond Rings certainly have big things planned for the future.

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Diamond Rings will be at Ritual on Friday, December 7. Doors open at 8pm.

You can get tickets at the door, or in advance from: http://www.ticketmaster.ca/Diamond-Rings-tickets/artist/1500851

Free Dimensional is available through Secret City Records: http://www.secretcityrecords.com/artists/diamond-rings

and the Diamond Rings website: http://diamondringsmusic.com/

Paul Brandt – Getting back to his gospel roots

November 22, 2012 9:00 am
Paul Brandt – Getting back to his gospel roots

Paul Brandt’s newest record Just As I Am, released in October, is an interesting departure for this Canadian country star and multi-music-award winner. Just As I Am is a reference to Brandt’s gospel roots, and the record is a collection of traditional favorites. If you’re not interested in an album with overt Christian themes, this may not be for you. Although Paul Brandt’s resume is impressive, not only is he the most awarded male Canadian country artist in history, he’s also had five consecutive number one songs, starting in 1996 with the release of My Heart Has History.

Brandt is no stranger to U.S. country charts either. My Heart Has History, along with the follow-up track I Do, both reached top 10 on the U.S. country music charts, and I Do has long since gone on to become a perennial wedding-reception favorite. Brandt’s album Calm Before the Storm went on to sell one million copies internationally; he’s written songs for Johnny Cash, Dave Matthews and others; and he’s also produced tracks for new Canadian country-trio, High Valley.

This album, recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, is certainly a musical departure for Brandt, but one that he prefers to refer to as a journey back to the songs he says inspired him and his personal faith. Brandt has chosen to recreate some of the most traditional gospel songs of the past century, digging deeply into his own musical roots.

Brandt says: “These songs have brought, and continue to bring, joy, comfort, conviction and inspiration to the lives of many people.” His relationship with gospel is genuine, having begun singing at the West Hillhurst Gospel Hall at the tender age of six. Brandt’s brought in plenty of guest stars on Just As I Am, pulling in artists like Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, Dan Tyminski, John Anderson, The Whites, The Isaacs, Jon Randall Stewart and High Valley. His renditions of classic gospel songs like Old Rugged CrossAmazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, are sung and performed sincerely and earnestly, and it’s easy to tell that he has an honest and heartfelt love for these songs.

The album was produced by Brandt, Gordon Mote and Ben Fowler, and overall they have taken a warm, relaxed, and understated approach. Brandt calls this record a real labor of love, and believes these songs hold universal appeal.

Brandt is currently planning a Just As I Am tour for 2013.

Just As I Am is available on itunes or directly from his website at: paulbrandt.com

Follow Brandt on Twitter:@paulbrandt

 

PHOTO: PaulBrandt.com

 

TOP PHOTO: CMT

David Usher – Ushering in the End of the World

November 14, 2012 10:30 am
David Usher – Ushering in the End of the World

Songs From the Last Day on Earth is David Usher’s eighth solo release since the heady days of Canadian super-group Moist, and seemingly the most sober in terms of subject matter and content.

Usher has said that Songs From the Last Day on Earth is a “theme” record in terms of all the material reflecting the same overall subject matter… namely, a group of friends gathering for the last time at the end of the world. The record centers on the idea of growth in relationships, and is a somewhat alternative-sounding – but adult-radio-friendly – record.

Usher’s approach on each of his albums has always been somewhat understated, but Songs From the Last Day on Earth reflects a true sense of minimalism insofar as Usher’s approach to songwriting and arranging is concerned. Usher says that having had the opportunity to tour as a three-piece, and play more intimate venues in support of his previous acoustic album, really illustrated how much more of a vulnerable and open experience that can be, and he says this experience very much informed the process of how the album was recorded.

The production is very light-handed, and there is also a certain rawness to it, which gives the songs more room to breathe. On the other hand, the lyric content is rather heavy and dark, as I suppose the title of the record would imply. “It’s not about the end of the world in a literal sense,” Usher clarifies. “It’s more about the idea that if you found yourself at the end of your life, in that final instant, how would you distill all your experiences down to the few moments that really mattered? If you read about people who find themselves at the end of their lives, and you hear what they talk about, it’s usually very specific and very similar. They talk about family and friends. They talk about the personal things they wished they’d taken the time to do, or of the things they wished they hadn’t been afraid to do. This record is a mixture of those ideas. The idea of being less afraid of the things that we’re afraid of, usually for the wrong reasons, and at the same time, keeping the moments that matter close.”

Usher’s distinctive and plaintive voice and vocal approach is what drives these songs, and his unique timbre and delivery really shines on tracks like City of Light and All These Simple Things. And while the arrangements on Songs From the Last Day on Earth are not particularly groundbreaking, Usher’s lyrics and vocals are solidly anchored and earnestly delivered. One of the standout tracks on this record – the piano-driven Stay – is a truly lovely piece of music. A repetitive piano line lies beneath Usher’s understated vocal, embracing it and giving it forward movement and warmth. The heartfelt and sincere lyrics to the chorus – Here in my arms, just stay – encapsulate and illustrate what really becomes important at the end of the world: connection. But with the advent of so many new forms of communication, how does one establish a genuine and real relationship in these fast-moving times?

The irony, of course, is that the same advances in technology that enable these instantaneous connections also potentially keep us more disconnected and further apart than ever.

Usher says: “I’ve always been very much a first-adopter of new technology. I’ve always been very into it and aware of its impact, and I find the act of social media very interesting overall. The world today seems to sometimes move like a Facebook thread, in that our experiences all kind of float by us now. So much of this record is about flashes of memory, and trying to hold onto them; so much of it is about our inability to stay in, and really appreciate, the moment as it’s happening.

“There’s so little time for context these days, and we now all have to be so cautious of the ‘small information byte.’ There’s very little time to place things in some sort of conceptual space, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. There’s a lot of amazing things about the technology. It gives us so many new and amazing ways to communicate; it can be very connective as well.”

And having another language at his disposal, in this case French, widens the opportunity for Usher to make even more connections. Songs From the Last Day on Earth has two French-language version tracks on it: Partir ailleurs (Go Somewhere Else) and Répondez-moi (Answer Me). Usher’s decision to once again record a track that isn’t in his native tongue is a sincere one. “It’s pretty personal for me,” Usher confesses. “I live in a French neighbourhood, my kids go to a French school, and I’m endlessly taking French lessons and working hard on getting better at it. I did (the recording) because of where I live, and because of the fact that it was a fun and challenging thing to do. That’s always the goal for me with every record, to find new things to challenge myself with.” And having another language to draw from certainly gives Usher another potent tool to communicate with, and to help get his message across.

The theme of Songs From the Last Day on Earth is clearly illustrated in the video for the single – Rice Paper. The video summarizes six years in the life of a couple, all boiled down into a three-minute video; from meeting, to dating, to breaking up, to getting back together, and finally, to having a child. Rice Paper is shot using a uniquely point of view perspective, giving the watcher the opportunity to become more immersed and attached to the story and video. And while the choice to shoot the video from a first-person angle also gives the video a strange sense of distance, the story itself, conversely, draws the listener in. It’s an interesting effect and dichotomy in terms of establishing an emotional connection to the material.

“I feel connected to the record in the sense that it really is written about my experiences, my friends and family, and about my life here (in Montreal),” Usher says. “I’ve been very lucky to find myself in a position where I can write and record with my best friends. Songs was done in kind of a shambled way – partly at my house, partly in the studio – but we made sure it was always made in a way and in a place that we were all very comfortable with.

“Every record has been about change and transition, and that’s the nature and crux of the human condition. But we also tend to constantly work ahead and behind that change. We focus on the past or the future, but rarely do we work in the moment. I know it’s something that I struggle with. It’s something that’s very hard to do, now more than ever.” And with the release of Songs From the Last Day on Earth, Usher is reminding us to enjoy and appreciate being in the moment.

David Usher will be at The Bronson Centre Theatre in Ottawa on Friday, November 16.

 

Red Potion – The New English Words Record

November 5, 2012 12:58 pm
Red Potion – The New English Words Record

With the new release Red Potion, English Words become slicker elixir-mixers. (Try saying that 10 times in a row with an alcohol-thickened tongue.)

For whatever reasons, Canada’s East coast seems to continually nurture and produce some of the coolest Canadian bands around, whether Thrush Hermit, Eric’s Trip, Rose Cousins, Rich Aucoin or Wintersleep. The consistency, variety and talent of acts hailing from the Maritimes is remarkable. There obviously seems to be something intrinsic to the east coast that fosters and supports music and the arts. Maybe there’s something in the water? No one knows for sure, but that cultural attitude has helped bands like English Words put out lovely gems such as the new full-length release Red Potion.

Having recently undergone a name change (English Words was formerly known as Smothered in Hugs, the name itself taken from the title of a Guided by Voices song), the band’s style and sound has accordingly also undergone a rather dramatic metamorphosis and evolution. Whereas Smothered in Hugs was pretty much a straight ahead alt-rock combo, sometimes aggressive, sometimes sounding like Murmur-era R.E.M. or Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active, English Words’ sound is more reminiscent of the synthesized, post-punk side of 80s music, proudly electronic and synthesizer-driven. There are lots of vocal effects, reverb and other studio enhancements on Red Potion, but they are used to great advantage by producer Matt McQuaid, bassist for Toronto’s Holy F*ck.

The album’s opener, Bumblebees, showcases the band’s darker, dreamier, more ethereal side. The first single and one of the standout tracks, People I Love, nicely illustrates the band’s penchant for majestic and warm-sounding arrangements and production. The follow-up single, Takeover Panther, is a perfect example of the “growly” (excuse the pun), danceable and accessible feel of these songs. The sixties-inspired guitar intro leads nicely into a melody line that would be at home on a Public Image Ltd. record.

Lead singer Ryan Crane’s voice is welcoming, with an interesting tone and delivery – lush, deep, sombre and reflective. The band also experiments liberally with new approaches and sounds. The song All My Lovers, for example, with its church-like intro, leads into a 1970s Casio-keyboard-sounding clap-track, steadily keeping time, with Crane’s drenched, velvety vocals draped over top.

The eighties sound seems to be very much de rigueur nowadays, with bands like Foster the People and MGMT making inroads into larger, more commercially-minded markets. The thing is, having lived through the 80s the first time, I’m not so sure I want to go through it all again. I sometimes still have nightmares of being trapped overnight in a Club Monaco, pinned under a mound of 70 or 80 well-folded (but ultimately ill-fitting) Jodhpur riding-pants. All while an out-of-work “Hypercolour” rep tries really hard to sell me on the idea that clothes that change colours based on how sweaty you are, are actually a good idea. Not so!

But on Red Potion, English Words is able to surpass the more shopworn ideas and aspects of that genre, while still maintaining its obviously sincere love for its influences. This is a somewhat darker take on 80s music overall, and there’s a heavy, almost foreboding kind of atmosphere on this record, reminiscent of 80s mainstays like The Mission, Love and Rockets and David Sylvian. The orchestral flourishes add an interesting layer and feel to the songs, and are a nice juxtaposition to the darker undertones. Overall, English Words’ influences serve to make Red Potion an interesting and expansive record, and it definitely makes me curious to hear what the band will come up with next.

Someone once said: “There is nothing new under the sun”, as if that were a bad thing. All Art, heck, all Ideas are built upon the ideas and innovations that came before them, good and bad. (Just ask Bill Gates.) Because that’s how good art and good ideas are created in the first place. Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones “borrowed liberally” from the blues legends before them, and it worked to their advantage in terms of creating a new sound. Artists take from the world around them; that’s how art works. In fact, the next time someone you know starts spouting off about how this painting or that book is completely original, sit their all-knowing butt down and make them watch this – Everything is a Re-mix

All art borrows something from everything, and that’s the whole point. That’s how something new is born, to in turn be taken by a new generation and spat out and rethought again and again, each time different, each time a new idea. And on Red Potion, English Words made a very good new idea.

Red Potion is available through Bandcamp or iTunes.

“Hillbilly Pop” from The Strumbellas

November 1, 2012 10:04 am
“Hillbilly Pop” from The Strumbellas

Hear ye! The Strumbellas are coming to Ottawa! Holy macaroni, I love this band! You  may not have heard of them yet, but believe me when I tell you, you will! Quirky and adrenaline-fueled, The Strumbellas’ debut release My Father and the Hunter is a wonderfully full listening experience.

Packed with Southern twang and superb pop hooks, The Strumbellas takes these elements and more, and genuinely create a rich, evocative, lively record, clever and sweet, tender and at times drunkenly joyful. The themes and lyrics on My Father and the the Hunter are mostly retrospective and reflective, centering around the idea of relationships, whether with your significant other, the world around you, or with your own personal Maker. Songs of loss and redemption, insightful and thought-provoking, will get stuck in your brainpan.

The Strumbellas have smartly crafter a strong balance between the more “hillbilly” aspects of the genre, and the strong pop sensibilities on this record, and it works rather nicely. “The Bird that Follows Me” is definitely a standout on this album – orchestral, sweeping, and heartfelt, beautifully arranged and performed. While there have been other bands that have successfully delved into this genre, from Dexy’s Midnight Runners to the more recent Avery Brothers or Mumford and Sons, rarely have bands of that genre done so as earnestly and raucously as The Strumbellas. My Father and the Hunter is an album infused with a joy and energy that is an amazing thing to hear. This Toronto septet displays a genuine love for this type of music, and it certainly shows.

If you haven’t heard the new Strumbellas single, Lakes, do yourself a favour and give it a listen! Check it out here.

I haven’t heard something this fun, or that I’ve liked this much, in a long time. It’s
an infectious, carry-you-away kind of song. Quirky, locomotive, peppered with great
vocals and harmonies. The presence of alternate instrumentation, accordions and
mandolins, could have easily fallen into cliché or an uninspired attempt at reviving
the “hillbilly sound”, but The Strumbellas have crafted some lovely, downright poignant songs with My Father and the Hunter. Seven people delivering high-energy, fun, danceable roots-based music, singing, dancing, and playing their hearts out. What’s not to like?

The Strumbellas will be at Café Dekcuf on Friday, November 2. More info: www.cafedekcuf.com

Also! Try the super-fun My Father and the Hunter video game, designed and created by the band’s very own Dave Ritter, at thestrumbellas.ca/game

 

 

The Gospel of Nick Drake — Coming to a church near you

October 30, 2012 10:29 am
The Gospel of Nick Drake — Coming to a church near you

British poet and singer-songwriter Nick Drake was not the kind of musician, admittedly, that I’d had much exposure to, or even had much knowledge of, when my appetite for music first kicked in. My exposure to Drake had always consisted primarily of other songwriters’ mentions of him: people like Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Kate Bush, artists who spoke of their love and admiration for Drake and his work in respectful, reverent tones. So years later, when my curiosity finally got the better of me, I borrowed some Nick Drake records from a friend.

After a few listens, I was a convert to the Church of Nick Drake. Listening to Northern Sky, Day is Done or any of his other songs in my room that day, I was struck by how, well, gentle, the whole thing was, how reserved. Keep in mind, that at that point of my life, I was deeply into bands like Faith No More and Bad Brains, and I had grown up listening to Frank Sinatra, so bombastic and over-the-top were pretty much par for the course for me in terms of what I was familiar with musically.

Drake’s earnest, honest, laid-back approach was jarring and foreign to me, striking in how Drake could put across so much in an understated way. There was something about his unrelenting earnestness and vulnerability that struck a chord with me. What I heard that day wasn’t anything like I’d ever heard before. There was definitely a strength and courage in his music, but all couched in a gentleness and openness that wasn’t the musical norm for me at that time. Drake has been referred to as a “musician’s musician.” The kind of songwriter who for one reason or another flies just under the radar of mainstream recognition and success. The kind of songwriter people inevitably discover, but slowly and in their own time, and that same discovery becomes richer and more worthwhile because of it.

In spite of the lack of any outright commercial success, Drake’s music is still just as relevant and vital as ever, as his style and approach have influenced countless singer-songwriters through the years. I dare you to try name a band where the singer hasn’t co-opted and borrowed from Drake’s subdued, reserved yet urgently immediate writing approach. Everyone from Patrick Watson to Radiohead to Elliot Smith to Jeff Buckley have Drake to thank in some way for his contribution. The Dream Academy song, “Life in a Northern Town,” for example, is actually a tribute to Drake. The Nick Drake song that most people seem to claim a familiarity with is “Pink Moon,” a beautifully evocative song, used a few years back as a musical backdrop for a VW Golf ad campaign. But Drake’s catalogue has also been used in movies and ad campaigns many times since. His music and lyrics are observational, thoughtful, literary, expansive, welcoming – and they tug at your heart. His material lingers in your brain and spirit. It connects and grounds you, and that’s why new generations of music fans are continually rediscovering his work.

Coming to the First Baptist Church Ottawa on Friday November 9, The Songs of Nick Drake Tour is designed to celebrate Drake’s life and songs. The brainchild of British-born musician Luke Jackson, the show was first produced at Toronto’s Trinity St. Paul United Church in November 2010, paying tribute to Drake and his extremely accomplished and talented composer, arranger and friend, Robert Kirby. Kirby’s tasteful and moving string arrangements became a big part of Drake’s songs live, and truly added an extra dimension of depth, warmth and lushness to the feel of the material. Sadly, Kirby unexpectedly died a week before the show was announced, and while his loss is tremendous, it also served to further inspire Jackson to honor Drake and Kirby. The show that night was recorded and broadcast by the CBC, and was an unqualified and resounding success.

Check out some of it here.

The musicians joining Jackson on tour reads like a veritable who’s who of Canadian music: Toronto alt-country darling Oh Susanna,the wonderful Kurt Swinghammer, Kevin Kane of The Grapes of Wrath, drummer Don Kerr (Rheostatics, Ron Sexsmith) and double-bassist Jason Mercer (Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Ani DiFranco).

Swinghammer, a Canadian musical legend and artist in his own right, says that his attraction and appreciation for Nick Drake started via Toronto’s legendary CHUM-FM radio station: “They used to play him a lot in those days, and I was transfixed by his voice and his music. It was this hybrid of jazz, folk, sometimes even bordering on easy-listening. At that time, it was the norm for male singers to be more aggressive, and he was a really refreshing backlash to that kind of rock-and-roll thing that had taken over blues-based singing. He was coming to it from a very gentle place, and I think that has influenced a lot of contemporary singers. (His style) was an original blend of things, and that’s the kind of artist I’m drawn to. He was a real singular kind of voice at the time. He was a very striking presence, and it’s a pleasure to get to perform the material live.” To coincide with the tour, Swinghammer is releasing Two Portraits: a limited-edition 12″ single of his version of Nick Drake’s “River Man” backed by a version of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street.” The sleeve will feature Swinghammer’s portraits of both singer/songwriters.

The tour has been intentionally organized and booked to play unique venues, in churches for example, eschewing the traditional “soft-seat” theatre route. Jackson explains: “The show at St. Paul’s had such a good vibe, and there are certain benefits to playing in those types of venues. There’s a beautiful built-in ambiance. Nick’s music sounds great in a church, and we were able to sidestep all the politics and goings-on that usually take place when dealing with theatre venues. It was really refreshing to be able to do that. This is something that I’m taking very seriously. It’s something I would like to take out and tour every year. But it’s a matter of making this tour a success. I’ve been working on it pretty much non-stop for a year, giving my all and pulling out all the stops to prove it can be done. I want to know that I haven’t cut any corners in trying to make sure that this tour is a success.”

Another unique aspect of this tour is that Jackson has invited local musicians from each city they will be playing in to join the band on stage. The lovely and hyper-talented Jim Bryson, Marie-Jo Thério and Marc Robert Nelson will be joining The Songs of Nick Drake Tour in Ottawa.

That was something that made a lot of sense from a production point of view,” Jackson said. “Inviting musicians who are fellow Nick Drake fans from those cities keeps the show fresh and different every night. We’ll never have the same show twice. For the ten of us on the tour who are playing each night, we get into a groove with our own thing. But then some real magic will happen when we have the guests and throw them into the mix. We’re all coming at it with a good degree of musicianship but with very little in the way of rehearsal, and I think that’s a good recipe for something more organic. I wanted to do something that honored Nick’s musical legacy and took everything in a slightly different direction as well.”

And this approach guarantees that the shows will evolve and change from venue to venue, delivering a new and unique musical experience at every performance.

The Songs of Nick Drake Tour will take place at the First Baptist Church Ottawa on Friday, November 9. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door. Available at Vertigo Records, Legends, Ottawa Folklore Centre, Compact Music Inc. or online at ticketbreak.com

Keep up with the tour on facebook

 

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