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Whistler Film Festival Interview – “Doppelganger Paul” director Dylan Akio Smith

Doppleganger Paul - At Whistler Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“Doppelganger Paul (Or A Film About How Much I Hate Myself)” is a madcap, meta, buddy movie about two misfits who are thrust together by a near-death experience. It questions the nature of collaboration, friendship and being a man in a an increasingly fragmented world. Identity theft, a road trip to Powell's books in Portland, a severed thumb, and rides on the miniature railroad in Stanley Park are highlights of Karl and Paul's bizarre journey.” Director Dylan Akio Smith on “Doppleganger Paul” which screens at the Whistler Film Festival, 2011 edition.

Is this your first film in the Whistler Film Festival? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Whistler for the screenings?

This will be my fourth film as a director (two shorts and now two features), and I believe the fifth or sixth from The Whatever Institute. We won the Best Short Film award for Man Feel Pain in 2004 and Love Seat in 2006 (which the co-director of “Paul”, Kris Elgstrand, directed).

We premiered the film at Toronto this year. Given the chance, I would premiere every film there. We are really lucky to have that festival in our country. My latest and most exotic festival experience though was doing the International Premiere of “Doppelganger Paul” in Tallinn, Estonia at the Black Nights Film Festival. Wow! What an awesome festival and arts community. We could and should really look more to Europe for how they do it. Their festival is really integrated into their cultural identity and is a really big deal every year. Everyone attends and takes it very seriously. They've only been independent for 20 years, and man are they hungry to make their mark on the world. A great experience.

Most of, if not all of the team will be in Whistler this year. It will be the BC premiere of the film, and we never did a cast and crew screening, so we're expecting a big turn out and plan to celebrate with everyone up there. The festival has come a long way over the past few years, and we're really excited to be a part of it again. Being included in the Philip Borsos competition is a particularly big honor for us. It's a great place for a festival, really intimate and there are a lot of good industry initiatives going on every year. We haven't missed it since year one.[br]

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to wanting to make films

I think I got my start from studying acting at a place called The Studio on the Commercial Drive in Vancouver in the late 90's. This is where I met Brad Dryborough and actually first read Kris Elgstrand’s material. It really was a hub of inspiration at that time. A very supportive and talented group of actors came out of there. Many of them are still working as actors and many have done very well. Building off of this experience, I decided to apply and was accepted into the University of British Columbia Film Program from which I graduated in 2000. At UBC, I really became obsessed with learning the technical craft and worked on many film sets as a gaffer or cinematographer trying to get a handle on lighting and creating mood and aesthetics that support the material and the actors performances. Eventually, I began directing short films in an attempt to combine all my experience and learn and progress with each project. After doing this for about 10 years, I finally feel like the hard work is paying off.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

…film director. Honestly. I've known I wanted to do this since I was 11 years old. When I was even younger, I wanted to be an actor or comedian. I was involved in lots of theatre, music and was even in a circus! As I got older, I began making films on my Super 8 camera and sending the film away to get developed. I'd wait weeks for it to come back and then spool it up on a super 8 projector and watch my handiwork. It quickly became an obsession. I used to watch the oscars with my mom every year too, and would get really inspired by films like “Ghandi” and “E.T.” I wanted to know how to create inspiring messages or experiences for an audience even then.

How did this whole film come together? Please give me a run-down, start to finish, from your perspective.

It started with Kris writing the script. We had been developing another project with Telefilm and had become stuck trying to attach actors and money, We were frustrated with how long it was taking to get this other project off the ground, and then suddenly Kris wrote Doppelganger Paul. To me, it was a revelation. It was the script I had been waiting for Kris to write, It was more personal, more fun, and more experimental than anything I had read from Kris before. I thought it was a breakthrough for him as a screenwriter, and I began pushing him to let me direct it. I think because the material was so personal to Kris, he wanted to be involved as more than just a writer/producer. Based on our past collaborations, on which I am usually the sole director, and the material of the story itself, I decided that we should co-direct the film. Now all I had to do was convince Kris.

I believed that to co-direct would give credit where it's due to Kris' involvement in a project, to his writing and more interestingly to me, it would almost force us to live out the themes of the story while we attempted to create it. This made a lot of sense to me. We would be like Doppelganger directors. From that decision on, everything fell into place very quickly. I raised the money with the help of a friend from high school, and we started assembling the team of actors and collaborators that we would work with. We were shooting within about four to six months of me first reading the script. In post, I took on the job of lead editor with Kris hovering over my shoulder and we took our time with it. Did some test screenings, wrote new material, gathered everyone up again and did some reshooting, and finally screened the cut for TIFF programmers in June. The rest I suppose is history.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

I shared the cinematography credit with Craig Trudeau, my neighbour-slash-landlord, and super talented camera dude. We used his camera, the Canon 5D and also shot some stuff on Kris' Canon 7D. We didn't have the budget for Red, but I loved the look of A GUN TO THE HEAD, which Craig had shot with his camera, so we went that way. The plan was always to shoot it gritty. We thought of the mumble-core films; handheld, natural light, and so forth. Once we got on set though, the approach changed.

There was concern that the hand held on the 5D would not look great. There would be focus and jello issues. So I began using more dolly movement and more light and while I think we stayed open to happy accidents, the look of the film became more predetermined or conceptualized as opposed to just letting it be anything. I think in this way, the film becomes more of a fable or at least takes on a more mythical quality. The decision to go this way was very much an instinctual one, and I think it makes a big difference. If we were a bigger production, it would have been a lot harder to change tactics so freely, so I'm glad it all worked out.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

The most difficult aspect was probably the road trip to Portland. We got stuck in a wicked snow storm on the Interstate 5 on the first day, cars were left abandoned on the highway, 18 wheelers sliding into walls, etc. I later found out that we were driving the picture vehicle, an old Chevy VanDura, without back brakes the whole time! We basically lost our whole first day of shooting because of the storm and it just seemed like the whole trip was going to be a disaster. We made the only Americans we had, Craig and Tygh Runyan drive all the gear across the border and meet us at our first location. It was crazy and probably illegal, but it all worked out in the end and I think some of the stuff we got is my favourite stuff in the film. Especially the motel scenes.

My most pleasurable moment is probably the discovery of the polar bear enclosure in Stanley Park. It was scripted to be the outdoor whale pool attached to the aquarium. The letters from the characters to each other which start the film have all these bits talking about whales in captivity, etc. but when we were there and ready to shoot, the whale pool just looked lame. The sun was coming in from the wrong side essentially flattening everything. On top of this, we hadn't actually received permission to shoot it yet. We were shooting another scene in the park, waiting to get approval from the parks board to shoot the whale pool when Craig went wandering off, I think to go to the washroom. He came back saying "Dude, you gotta check out these Japanese maple trees over here", so we took a quick break and walked over to see what he was talking about and wandered onto the old Polar Bear enclosure. Quickly we decided to scrap and re-write the stuff about the whales and change it to polar bears. I remember the polar bear in Stanley Park from when I was a kid. He apparently went insane before he was put down. It's sort of a sad little piece of Vancouver history. Strangely, the polar bear ends up becoming this symbol in our film. Their own shame at how he was treated becomes something that bonds our characters together. The polar bear even became the central image of our movie poster. To me, it's a happy accident that ended up becoming a major symbol in the film. It proves that this kind of magic can happen on a film set, if you are open to it…

How has the film been received at other festivals or screenings? If this is your first festival, what do you expect at the film’s screenings in Whistler?

It's been received very well at TIFF and in Estonia. People enjoy the tone and pace of it. They laugh a lot. They say it feels original, perhaps not quite like anything they've seen before. In my mind, it's not trying to be like something we've seen before. I get bored with that experience in a movie. Recycled plot lines, borrowed aesthetics, it all frustrates me. We attempted to make something unique, something that answers to no one, something that has its own voice and own internal rhythm; something that has substance or a message that lasts in a viewers consciousness long after the film ends. This is what makes a successful film to me, and I hope this is what comes across.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

P.T. Anderson is probably my favorite filmmaker these days. Kubrick and Altman before him. Woody Allen continues to inspire as well as the Cohen brothers, Charlie Kaufman, the Dardenne brothers, Powell and Pressburger, Preston Sturges, Shohei Imamura, Soderbergh and so forth. The list is a long one. On this film specifically, Kris mentions the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road movies a lot. I can also see traces of Synecdoche, New York, Pierrot Le Fou, Fight Club, Strangers on a Train and anything by David Mamet can be seen as a reference, as Kris' writing really blossomed from time spent at the Atlantic Theatre Company. There's also a direct reference to a Woody Allen movie in the film. See if you can spot it!

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

It's very important. We share information so freely these days, so it's really these initial reviews and responses that mark the film. Luckily, the responses have been overwhelmingly strong. It's been very encouraging to us as filmmakers, but will also hopefully open more doors and give many people a chance to see it.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Don't think it's going to happen overnight. Assemble a team of people whose opinions you value, share and trust and be open to the collaborative spirit. Don't take things too personally. Be open to criticism and try and learn from it. Continue to develop and evolve your tastes in film by going to film festivals and searching out material that you relate to personally, but may not exist in the mainstream. Find critics whose taste you relate to. Never give up, push and inspire the people around you to be better, listen to your instincts and your heart over your head. Realize it's about team building, not all about you. We can create something more profound with a collective effort than with one person.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or making noise at a screening of your movie (or any screening that you attend)?

I don't know…. "Sssshhhh?"

A question that is easy for some but not for others and always gets a different response: what is your favourite movie of all time?

Well that has changed for me many times over the years. Right now, it's probably “Dead Man” by Jim Jarmusch. Neil Young score, Johnny Depp, film noir mixed with First Nations Spirituality and deadpan comedy…you can't go wrong. I also really love “The Eel” by Imamura. There are too many to list just one.

”Doppleganger Paul” screens today, 9:30pm, at Millennium Place.

This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Whistler Film Festival. For show information, tickets and for other general information on films and events, point your browser to the official website HERE

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 12/03/11 05:29:47
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