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VIFF '06 Interview – Acts of Imagination creators Carolyn Combs and Michael Springate

Acts of Imagination at VIFF (
by Jason Whyte

“A lyrically shot and sensual film, Act of Imagination tells the moving story of a brother and sister, immigrants to Vancouver's east end from Ukraine. The story speaks about the interplay of memory and imagination and follows the journey from historical obligation to present responsibility.” Carolyn Combs. Director . “A character study of a brother and sister, both seeking a new way forward, neither willing to support the choices of the other. An understanding that the past is illusive, and imagination is always present in our understanding of it… perceiving how we use our imagination both to bind ourselves to our misconceptions, and to free ourselves to the present.” Michael Springate, writer and producer of "Acts of Imaginaton" which screens at the 25th Vancouver International Film Festival (Sep. 28 – Oct. 13).

Is this your first film in the VIFF? (Or the first film you have) Do you have any other festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favourite and least-favourite parts of the festival experience.

Carolyn: Yes, this is my first film at VIFF. This is my first feature film. I have participated in three prior festivals celebrating disability arts and culture, where segments of a documentary I made have been shown. These festivals, for me, were quite inspiring.

Michael: This is my first time at VIFF, and as a writer, my first feature film. The film was accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival, which immediately proceeds Vancouver. I am a bit bewildered by the size and speed of the festivals. A lot happens in a very concentrated time. They are very much “media events”.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

Carolyn: My educational background is in theatre and education. I have little formal film training, but began teaching myself through the creation of several documentary projects that Michael and I have produced and that I have written and directed. We formed a company together several years ago with the intent of developing and producing our own work. Our work is our research into the world around us and our way of relating to it. We have several projects that we are developing.

Michael: I grew up in the east end of Montreal, one of eight children, in an “immigrant” neighbourhood marked by Europeans flowing in after the second world war. I went to the Montreal Museum School of Fine Art to study visual art, and now have an MFA (interdisciplinary studies) from SFU, which I did as a mature student. What I like about film is that it can find a niche market in different places over different times. It doesn’t have to be a one weekend mass market wonder. It can be extremely personal, intimate, and considered, and capture performances which share those qualities.

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

Carolyn: When I grow up I want to be a teacher or an actress.

Michael: I never answered that question when asked. The list would have been too long.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

Carolyn: We have wanted to make this film since the early days of our collaboration. I have always found the script very moving, with a relevance to the themes it explores. I have been particularly interested in this project because of the opportunity it has given me to develop and understand the character of Katya. Michael, as the writer, has done an extensive amount of historical research, setting historical event in the context of contemporary reality and thought, and asking how thus to move forward. I have learned a great deal about Ukrainian history and its relevance to contemporary society. My focus, though, has been on understanding and developing the character and contradictions of Katya. To that end I researched the immigrant experience, interviewing a number of Ukrainian immigrants and getting my head around issues of loss, landscape, memory and in particular how identity is shaped by obligations to the past.

Filmmaking, weather it be documentary or fiction, allows me to explore character. Working with Michael's writing allows me to explore character through a well researched social analysis and with a poetic sensibility that I find challenging and complimentary to my own approach.

Michael: Historically, the roots stem from my living among the Ukrainian Diaspora in Montreal, and my visit to Ukraine in 1992, after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, but also during the financial meltdown of that period. It was a time of paradox and contradiction, in a society where no-one was quite sure which part of the official history of their time was accurate or not.

The story was first written as a play, and developed with the help of performers Mariusz Szibiga and Amy Price-Frances, and was published in Ukrainian translation in Vitchisney (becoming the first Canadian work published by that venerable journal). But early on Carolyn and I started to envision it as a film, and it became a screenplay.

The film was optioned, the option lapsed, and we realized that if the film were ever to be made, we would have to do it ourselves. We moved to Vancouver at this time and I rewrote the script in the context in which I was currently living, just off Commercial Drive. We initiated shooting on a tiny budget, and worked with truly dedicated and wonderful cast and crew.

Producing the film ourselves was definitely the right choice. The production experience was entirely positive.

While you were making the movie, were you thinking about the future release of the film, be it film festivals, paying customers, critical response, and so forth?

Carolyn: I tried not to.

Michael: No. An error on our part or perhaps not. We made the film on our own terms, and it is better for it. However, the film was hardly finished when it was in the Festival in Toronto, and we didn’t frame its release the way we should have.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?

Carolyn: I cannot think of a particular challenge that is bigger than any other of the major challenges we faced on an ongoing basis. The whole project has been a new, exciting and challenging process.

Michael: I think the biggest challenge, which ran through development, production and editing, was telling the story through the relationships of the characters, and letting that find its own rhythm and integrity. I am grateful to Carolyn for letting the story breath, and for her sensitivity to character. I think her interpretation masterful.

Please 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.

Carolyn: We shot on a Panasonic DVC Pro 50 24p. This was somewhat affordable, and partnered with the lenses and lighting we used, we thought it would give us the look we wanted. Our cinematographer was Steven Denealut. He was very good.

While in pre-production we talked about an approach to shooting that I had used while shooting my documentaries, where the camera is curious, hand held and moving, searching to find out what is happening and closely following the subject. We talked about incorporating this "style" with a smoother approach, less movement and using a tripod. Steven soon found his own approach to the concept of a moving, searching camera and developed, what I thought, was an exciting relationship between the performances and the camera. The choice as to when to use this approach as opposed to the smoother approach was determined by the nature of the scene, in particular the character's relationships within a given scene.

Light was also a key consideration. We wanted to utilize natural light as much as possible, in particular during the scenes with Petro, where his appearance in Katya's imagination blended with the shadows of the room.

We were also trying to create a sense of fragile beauty to emphasize the weight of the loss that characters must experience.

Michael: I admired the patience and the consistency of the crew’s search, take by take, scene by scene, day by day. As a Producer, I woke up early and made them big breakfasts. That was my major contribution to them on a daily basis.

Talk a bit about the festival experiences, if any, that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

Carolyn: We recently returned from Toronto. The screenings there went very well with the audience asking thoughtful questions and revealing an appreciation of the film's themes and styles. It was also quite wonderful to be approached by total strangers after the film who were really moved by the story. Women are particularly appreciative of this film.

Michael: I have received emails and calls from people engaged by the film, whose analysis of it is rich and rewarding, both for themselves and for me. I hadn’t expected such insightful responses by so many. There are people looking for films that are different from the usual genre-driven fare, and who ask questions that the film asks. That confirmation is good.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Carolyn: For this film I was inspired by the Decalogue by Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg, and In This World by Michael Winterbottom.

Michael: I like Carolyn’s list of Kieslowski, Vinterberg and Winterbottom. We discussed all of those particular films in depth prior to filming Acts of Imagination. There are, of course, other influences, but those had the most immediate influence on the process.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself directing larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

Carolyn: I want to continue down the independent path.

Michael: I am very committed to the independent path.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

Michael: I am happy to teach acting and directing at the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Michael: I would like to work with Carolyn again, and members of that cast and crew. I am not trying to be clever, I just think that we were beginning to explore a certain way of doing things, and a certain range of artistic/thematic concerns, and that the exploration is very far from complete. The film felt like a beginning, and not an end. I like writing for actors I know, and there are many actors for whom I would like to write. I feel very fortunate that way.

Do you think that you have “made it” in this profession yet? If you don’t believe so, what do you think would happen for that moment to occur?

Carolyn: I certainly don't feel that I have made it. I wonder if one ever does. Perhaps I will feel like I have made it, when I have a body of work behind me that I feel good about, and have paid off the debts it took to get there.

Michael: I think the whole concept of “made it” very suspect. Better to have genuine interest in the work, and the weight it bears, rather than any illusions about personal status.

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

Michael: I don’t know the answer to that question. In one sense it is obvious that it is initially important for opening (or closing) doors, and attracting audiences. But my suspicion is that the good work outlasts the all-too-apparent biases and agendas of the media, in a word-of-mouth community that knows how to come to its own conclusions. The subtext of most Canadian film reviews is whether or not the work will be accepted or rejected in the American market… that is, almost all major media film reviews are about the projected market penetration of commodities with a short shelf life. But really, that is a limited vision, and not everyone’s driving concern.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

Michael: Walking the streets of Cairo one comes across groups of people having dragged their chairs outside and watching a small television set together… and they have chosen a particular program for that night. I would like very much to walk such streets and come across a group that had chosen to see Acts of Imagination. I would also like to see it play in downtown Seoul, in South Korea. Also, during a beautiful fall evening, see it in the park on Commercial Drive in Vancouver. That would be great. All three “disparate” groups would, I think, understand and appreciate the film.

Do you have an opinion on the issue of “A Film by (Insert Director Here)” ? Is this something you use? Many people collaborate to make a film yet simultaneously, the director is the final word on the production.

Michael: It’s irrelevant in most cases. Used or not used, not to worry.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the Paramount?

Michael: The next day you’ll remember the film you saw. Promise.

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?

Michael: Many will tell you what you are doing wrong. Work with the people who can appreciate what you are doing right.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

Michael: Probably Ugestsu, directed by Mizoguchi, made in the early fifties. It’s a story told in feudal Japan, which is actually an analysis of what led to the Japanese militarism and defeat in the Second World War: the misinterpretation and glorification of a mythical past; the turning of a blind eye to the selfish and falsifying military spirit that swept the nation. The narrative structure is profound. It stands the test of time. Or on a more recent character and ensemble basis, perhaps Vera Drake by Mike Leigh.

The 25th Vancouver International Film Festival runs from September 28th to October 13th, 2006. To see when this film is playing, and for more information on other screenings, happenings and what is going on at this year’s VIFF, point your browser to – Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 10/02/06 19:07:35
last updated: 10/06/06 02:03:39
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