Whistler Film Festival 2017 Interview: THERE IS A HOUSE HERE director Alan Zweig
By Jason Whyte
Posted 11/29/17 17:58:18
"For five years I talked on the phone with my Facebook friend Tatanniq otherwise known as former Inuit rock star Lucie Idlout. Over the years she told me so many things about Nunavut where she lived, that eventually I had to come see for myself. I arrived with no particular story to tell and no agenda other than curing my own ignorance about the lives of people in the North. At first I stumbled but eventually people started telling me their stories." Director Alan Zweig on THERE IS A HOUSE HERE which screens at the 2017 edition of the Whistler Film Festival.
Welcome to Whistler Film Festival! Are you planning to attend WFF for your screenings?
I will be there for both my screenings. What I am most looking forward to at Whistler is the opportunity to hang out with other filmmakers. I hope that the nature of the location will encourage such an atmosphere. I'm also looking forward to being in a beautiful place. The landscape of the North is a character in my film and I have a feeling that showing it in Whistler might add a layer to the experience.
Great to hear you are coming! Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and your previous work in the industry.
I went to film school a long time ago. I went mostly to avoid the path that was otherwise in store for me but I fell in love with the opportunity to express myself, something I hadn't let myself do before that point. I spent a long time trying to find my way in the industry, making short films, writing some episodics as well as driving on features and even a little acting in friends' films. But everything changed in the mid-nineties when I bought a Hi-8 video camera and made a very personal documentary called VINYL. After that I saw a door open and I walked through.
How did THERE IS A HOUSE HERE come together for you?
I pitched this film in a few incarnations while I was finishing other films. But it only came together when I realized that my Facebook friend Tatanniq would make an interesting collaborator as well as a character in the film. It will be clear to anyone watching the film that our previous five years of friendship went more smoothly than our collaboration but in the end it is all to the benefit of the film.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
What drives me most effectively while making a film is a deadline. What drives me when I am shooting a film is the prospect of getting into a small room with an editor for five months or so and shaping a story. That's my favorite part of the filmmaking process.
All projects are challenging in many ways, some more than others. What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment where you knew you had something?
The biggest challenge with this film occurred when I got up to Nunavut and realized that my ignorance was not just a gimmick to hang the film on, it actually had the potential of derailing the whole thing. But a few days into my first trip to Igloolik where most of the film was shot, I met an Inuit hunter named Peter who generously talked to me about his traditions and I suddenly had a goal of sorts, to make a film in which this man could be a character.
I am about to get on the technical side of things, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed!
I am a strange person to talk about the visual design of a movie because my first four documentaries I shot myself. And I don't even think I can use the word shot. I hit record on the camera. Visual design was not an issue for me. And even when I first started working with professional camera people I would have probably left this answer blank. It was not a particular concern of mine. But just before starting the film that I made before this one, a film called HOPE which was a sequel to my previous film HURT, a documentary about Steve Fonyo, I met a man who I sensed was my perfect collaborator. His name is John Price. When we went to make the film HOPE I realized that the landscape had the potential to be a character in the film and John was enthusiastic about helping me establish that character. The way John and I have chosen to work I am sure some people might see as an abdication of my role as director. When we're not doing interviews or shooting specific planned scenes, John gets to wander and try to capture the character of the location. Sometimes I come with him. Sometimes I ask him to go back and get specific shots that I saw as we traveled through the area. But I don't look over his shoulder telling him shoot this, shoot that. I give him freedom. And he, in turn, gets me what I need. Shooting the film HOPE was the perfect way for us to work out the way of collaborating we needed when it came to shooting THERE IS A HOUSE HERE. The landscape is also a character in that film, and by landscape I include the light or the lack of it. Our first shoot was in 24 hours of darkness, our last shoot in 24 hours of light. I needed to capture that without calling attention to it. I could talk all day about the look of this film but all I need to answer this question is two words, John Price, the secret weapon of documentary filmmakers throughout Canada.
After the film screens here in Whistler, where is the film going to show next?
The film will start screening in Ontario on TVO shortly after the Whistler screenings. I only know of one other festival it will appear in, namely Tromso in Norway in January.
If you could show THERE IS A HOUSE HERE in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?
There has been talk of showing the film in the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to try and get some federal politicians to attend. I'm not going to be so grand as to say that perhaps they could learn something from the film. But you never know. I learned things I didn't know making the film and audiences here in the part of Canada Inuit call the south have told me they have a feeling for life up there that they didn't have before. So it couldn't hurt.
What would you say or do to someone who was being disruptive at a screening you were attending, even if it was your own?
What would I say to them? I would probably shush them a couple of times and if they persisted, I would say STFU. But I have sympathy for people texting, as long as they attempt to cover the light. It actually kind of bugs me when people yell at the texters. A few distractions like that are not going to kill your viewing experience.
What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?
I have a whole speech, which I won't burden you with, in which I try to dissuade young people from setting out on a career in the film business. But that speech is just for filmmakers or directors. If someone asks me advice about the film business in general, I would tell them to try and get a job with a broadcaster or something where you can actually have a real job and you don't have to constantly sell yourself, which by now I assume you can tell I am horrible at.
And finally, what is the greatest movie you have seen at a film festival?
The Festival of Festivals, later called TIFF, essentially began while I was finishing film school. For me that Festival was like graduate school. I just marinated in movies. I used to drive cab and I would drive all through the opening weekend of the Festival and then take off the week. Back in those days you could sit in the same seat in a theater and every time they cleared the theater you could just flash your pass and stay there till the next film started. We would do that all day, see five or six films without actually choosing any. The only movie I can remember seeing for sure under those circumstances was a harrowing film about a guy who goes into the hospital for cancer treatment and he has to discover for himself that in fact he's dying. That was the first movie of the morning and I was still wiped out from driving cab all night, so it almost made me nauseous.
Read my review of this film and many others playing at WFF this year in my preview article by clicking HERE!
This is one of the many films playing at the 2017 Whistler Film Festival. For showtime 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 Instagram Stories at jason.whyte!
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com