|Whistler Film Festival 2015 Interview: THE SABBATICAL'S James Whittingham
by Jason Whyte
James Whittingham in THE SABBATICAL
"THE SABBATICAL is about the joy of life and evaluating what part of that joy we leave behind with each year we go through adulthood. I like quoting one my favourite songs by R.E.M., NIGHTSWIMMING, when I talk about this movie: "It's not like years ago/The fear of getting caught/The recklessness in water/They cannot see me naked/These things they go away/Replaced by every day.
We get used to life. Nothing is all that new after a while. We lose our sense of wonder due to familiarity and routine. This is what bothers me about middle age. The only cure I have found so far is travel, something I can rarely afford as an actor working on the prairies. The film asks the question: Why do we let go of the wonderful things of our youth? Why do we let ourselves grow up and stop laughing, stop exploring, stop filling our lives with wonder every day? My character is privileged and self-possessed. He made it with a hit photography book twenty years ago and coasted on its success every since. He's become boring and complacent. He's lost touch with his wife, his friends, and especially the next generation: his students. He's lived in the bubble of his success as an academic at a small prairie university for too long but when forced to conjure up the artist he was in his youth to produce a new book for the dean on his year off, he can't. Not until meets Lucy, a young artist in the glory of her youth. Nothing bothers her. She's an eternal optimist and she'd rather starve than sell any of her paintings that are dear to her. My character James Pittman is confounded by her but he goes along for the ride as a beautiful and unexpected friendship blossoms. It's not a manic pixie dream girl film that audiences might be set up to expect. The story and the characters will surprise you." Lead actor James Whittingham on THE SABBATICAL which screens at the 2015 edition of the Whistler Film Festival.
I am really moved by your above remarks, and I am excited to have you as part of the 15th Anniversary at Whistler! I assume you are joining us at the festival?
I have to be honest. I am going to Whistler, and it's shaping up to be the most remarkable experience of my life. I was a bit of local TV star back in the 1990s but it has been a long haul since doing independent films in Regina since then. Suddenly I find my executive producers from Autumn Productions flying me and my castmates out on a private jet to the world premiere of a feature film I star in, a film I gave everything to for a quarter decade. It's surreal. I've never even been to Vancouver somehow, and I haven't been to Whistler but I love the mountains. I love cross country skiing and my favourite pastime is mountain biking. I only got into both sports about four years ago.
You mentioned you worked in TV in the 90s. Tell me a bit more about your start and how it led to that.
I didn't intend to become an actor. I went to film school to be a filmmaker. I was performing improvised puppet shows from the age of five, and I eventually turned those into films when I was a bit older. But I was funny, and I hung around funny people. I was cast in a cable access show in 1993 called The James and Kevin Show. That led to national TV pilots and a stint starring in the interstitials of the 1997 season of Just for Laughs on CBC. Then I started doing independent films, although I became very cynical about my career. I was ready to retire in my mid-thirties when a young film student named Lowell Dean talked me into coming out of retirement. I didn't think much of him at the time but he grew as a filmmaker and went on to make two successful genre features, 13 EERIE and WOLFCOP, which I had a role in. WOLFCOP II shoots in February. Brian Stockton, the director, has known me since the eighties and he rocked my world when he told me about this film he wanted me to star in some three years ago. I have been waiting for this day for a long time.
So with that, how did YOU get yourself into the starring role in THE SABBATICAL?
Brian's lazy. The man has a reclined chair in his office for taking afternoon naps on. He's like George Costanza but taller. He didn't have the time to write a script. He shot an improvised segment for a omnibus feature called I HEART REGINA. I starred in it and it went effortlessly and was very well-received. He wanted to take it to the next level. He knew I worked cheap and he could work with me. I'm very grateful he put his trust in me. He claims he never had any doubts. I always got frustrated with him on set for not giving me many notes. He kept saying everything was perfect otherwise he would tell me. Everything just gelled on this film.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What is your own drive as a performer?
Anxiety. I have anxiety issues that I try to exploit when I'm acting or performing comedy. I amp myself up on purpose. It comes from performing improvised comedy on camera and wanting to have split-second, razor-sharp timing. Beyond that, it's the fear of failure. I've always been driven by a fear of failure. There were so many times this film almost fell apart and my anxiety drove me to make sure it kept going. My anxiety was often a thorn in Brian's ass, right through post-production. This film was a dream for me and I wanted to make it so badly I lost sleep over it for two years. My friends worried for me. They wanted the damn film to premiere and for me to move on.
I usually don’t get to ask actors this, but what were some of your biggest challenges with the film, and when did you know this project was something special?
The moment that I knew we had something actually came very early, before we were even in production. The first audition we did was with Laura Abramsen. She was going on a trip to Europe and we had to make a special sped-up arrangement for her in case "she was the one." Well guess what? She was! We shot the audition for an hour, improvising the characters and I started playing around to see what I wanted to do with my character in the film. We then started feeding off each other, building our own characters on how the other person's character reacted to us. I watched the video a month later and I knew right away we had something special and the film could work. The audition was like an engaging short film that I couldn't take my eyes off of. Then it was just about not fucking the project up. And that's where my stress came from for the next two years.
You have talked about it a bit already, but what are you looking forward to the MOST about showing your movie in Whistler?
I'm looking forward to two things. First of all seeing THE SABBATICAL with an audience for the first time. Will they laugh? Everyone who's seen it say it's hilarious. We got funding because it was hilarious. So they have to laugh, right? But it's not always a laugh out loud kind of funny so I'm terrified as well as excited. Secondly, I'm looking forward to spending time with my co-star Laura Abramsen. I met her on the day she auditioned. She was 20 years old. I was 46. The film is about an unlikely friendship between a middle-aged man and a young woman. Well, the weirdest thing happened. Laura and I became close friends in real life. It didn't happen magically over night like it does in our movie. But it happened, gradually. By the time she moved to Toronto last summer we were the best of friends. The magic of a new friendship is at the heart of what THE SABBATICAL is about and I experienced that magic in a very wonderful way with Laura, a way that can't be conveyed on film. The fact that I'm going to be reunited with her when she walks onto the runway in Winnipeg and joins me on a luxury private jet to fly to the world premiere of the film we star in is something fit for a movie on its own. Laura jokingly calls it our ENTOURAGE moment. Whistler will be the most amazing dream, one that we will always remember. I'm so happy to be able to share that dream with my dear friends who made the film together.
What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?
Don't. It's heart-breaking even for the most successful people. If you can bring yourself to do something else, do!
And finally, James, what is your all time favorite movie? Or film festival movie?
Jaws. For itss purity and simplicity. Saw it when I was ten and keep coming back to it.
Be sure to check out THE SABBATICAL at #wff15 on Thursday, December 3rd, 5:30pm at Village 8 Cinemas. ALSO please check out our interview with the film's director, Brian Stockton, in our interview series!
For more information on the film and its progress, check out thesabbaticalmovie.com!
This is one of the many films playing at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival. For show information, tickets and for other general information on films and events, point your browser to the official website at whistlerfilmfestival.com!
Be sure to follow instant happenings of Whistler Film Festival on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a photo or two. You can also follow the festival on my Instagram at jason.whyte!
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3873
originally posted: 12/03/15 03:03:56
last updated: 12/03/15 03:05:21