August 20th, 2013, 10:00 a.m.: East Coulee, Alta.
The drive from Calgary to Drumheller is a good hour and a half. Add about 20 minutes to get to East Coulee – the hamlet-sized agglomeration of 140 people, now technically part of the Drumheller municipality. It must be at least 25 degrees outside, the sun is blazing hot and the epic badlands surround the seemingly deserted streets of East Coulee. It is completely silent outside; only the sounds of grasshoppers of some sort resonate in the wind. What a perfect place for a film set.
Make a right from Highway 10, then a left right away, continue on for about 100 m and you’ll find yourself in front of a corner lot where a red and green house stands, the home base for Kyle Thomas’ crew for his new feature-length film, The Valley Below, for the next few days. The crew is returning to the Badlands come November to shoot winter scenes. The film is aimed for a multi-platform release date in 2014.
“As you can tell, this is kind of a light day. No one’s really stressed. Who’s ever really stressed though?” says Alexander (Sandy) Carson, The Valley Below’s Ottawa born-and-raised producer.
The crew is getting ready for a late morning shoot and it’s true: no one really seems stressed. There’s cooking going on in the background, some laughing, more talking, general happiness all around.
Carson is super friendly right away and open for discussion. He seems to be Thomas’ right-hand man, his go-to guy, the one who has the answer to anything related to film. Thomas is sitting close by with his laptop open, planning the day ahead and perhaps answering a couple emails.
“It” being filmmaking, an art that seems to have taken over Thomas’ and Carson’s souls, no questions asked.
Both are alums of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Montreal’s Concordia University, with Carson holding a BFA in film production and an MA in film studies.
Upon completion of their BFAs, Carson and Thomas launched North Country Cinema, a director-driven media arts collective based in Calgary and supported by numerous film councils, including The National Film Board of Canada and The Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Its mandate is to create strong visual storytelling set in the Canadian cultural and artistic landscapes, something we will surely be treated to with The Valley Below.
“We’re interested in building the brand (North Country Cinema) mainly as a Western Canadian thing. Obviously, Kyle’s family’s from here and we have a lot of friends out here. We wanted to do bring more experimental and personal narratives to this relatively underrepresented part of the country,” shares Carson.
The Valley Below stars Kris Demeanor as Warren and Mandy Stobo (Bad Portraits) as Ada, both returning actors from Thomas’ short film, Not Far from the Abattoir, which inspired The Valley Below, its full-length counterpart.
“[Not Far from the Abattoir] is about personal demons, redemption. It’s about a guy who’s at a bad spot in his life work-wise; his personal life: he’s single, he’s alone, he’s drinking too much. Then, he has a encounter: he meets this girl, Ada. Although nothing really intimate or sexy happens, they have a nice night getting to know each other. And this relationship gives him some new hope to find a way forward,” says Carson.
The Valley Below picks up after what looked like a hopeful open ending roughly three to four years later, says Carson. We find out that these two characters have had a relationship, had a baby, but split up again once they reverted to old habits.
“I mean, as much as Warren is a bit of bum, he is likeable. You want him to succeed and you can tell that Mandy and Kris’ characters still really love each other. So, the film poses a question: can this relationship work, can these people rise above their adversities?” says Carson.
11:30 a.m., The Car Wash: Drumheller, Alta.
The crew finally drives into town. We’re dropping by an auto shop to pick up a rental truck for a car wash scene starring Demeanor. The crew is setting up in an empty parking lot across the retro-inspired car wash. Demeanor is given directions through a walkie-talkie while he soaks up his pick-up truck across the street.
“I think it’s worth mentioning that a lot of people who are in this film as actors come from different backgrounds,” says Carson.
In Montreal, roommates of varying backgrounds, from actors to musicians, always surrounded Carson and Thomas. As musicians and photography buffs, the melding of different artistic disciplines into one big film project just seemed to be the perfect way to “explore the limits of film itself,” says Carson.
“Kris is a writer and musician, Mandy is a painter. We have lots of actors that are coming from the theatre. It is a multi-disciplinary project in terms of the influences that are coming into the work,” he says.
Thomas, who saw Demeanor perform live in the past, approached him for the role of Warren.
“I thought that somebody who had a musical career, had been on tour, had slept in the back of a van could bring that sensibility and way of life into the character. That was my first instinct,” says Thomas on picking Demeanor for the role.
Stobo, on the other hand, came in as an audition. Coincidentally, Stobo’s character is also a painter.
“She came in and the performance was just so good. It just seemed that this role was her in many ways but I didn’t know her [beforehand]. It was strange, she said she sunk right into it and I guess it happened a bit by chance,” shares Thomas.
3:00 p.m., Back to East Coulee
There are a total of 13 crew members with a key team that includes Cameron Macgowan as producer, Sara Corry as co-producer/production manager, Mike McLaughlin as cinematographer, Bobby Vanonen as production designer and, of course, Kyle Thomas as writer/director/producer/editor and Alexander Carson as producer.
“I think having a smaller crew is good because [everyone’s] more engaged. I mean, there’s a bunch of us doing multiple tasks, everyone’s always busy, you feel more connected to [the project] and, you know, we’re living in a house here together and eating meals together,” says Thomas.
“It was different from any other film we ever worked on because it was so dedicated to the characters and getting to the heart of the scene without relying heavily on production which can eat up a lot of time and money,” he says.
According to Carson, Telefilm Canada provided a $120,000 grant for the film to be made, following some conditions.
“It’s important to our funders that we pursue innovative digital distribution avenues,” shares Carson.
Carson says they’d still want to go down the traditional festival release route with a digital release around the same time.
Either way, The Valley Below and the filmmakers of North Country Cinema are to watch for. They’ve grown exponentially over the last two years and have been getting a lot of recognition, including this fall’s TIFF and CIFF film festivals.
Visit northcountrycinema.com for more info. The Valley Below is set to be released in 2014.
Story and photos by Claire Miglionico
Mikaela Cochrane, Joe Perry and Kris Demeanor photos: Paul Chirka