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Whistler Film Festival Interview - "You Are Here" director Daniel Cockburn

You Are Here - At Whistler Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“Already praised as “inventive and multi-layered” by Atom Egoyan, “a major discovery” by Olivier Pere (Locarno Film Festival), and “a charming, Charlie Kaufman-like meta-fictional puzzler” by VARIETY, You Are Here is my first feature film. Funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking, it pushes at the boundaries of cinematic storytelling while creating a deep and strange emotional connection with its cast of characters as they negotiate an absurd and cryptic world. At the centre of this narrative labyrinth is a reclusive woman (Tracy Wright) who searches for meaning in the mysterious documents that keep appearing to her. But the organized becomes the organizer when her meticulous system turns on her; her archive is a trickster threatening to pull her mind apart. As realities collapse and intersect around her, she must make a final choice: is she a free agent, or just a tool of the archive?” Director Daniel Cockburn on the film “You Are Here” which screens at Whistler Film Festival (December 1-5).

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

This is my first feature film, and my first time at Whistler. “You Are Here” has already screened at the Locarno International Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival; festivals lined up for 2011 include Rotterdam, Goteborg, Victoria, Miami, and Istanbul. I have been to many festivals worldwide over the past 10 years representing my short films & videos, but this is my first feature-film festival experience.

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?

I studied film at York University, 1995-1999, and always thought I would make narrative feature films. Then after graduating I discovered the experimental film community in Toronto and beyond, and spent a decade making shorts which I guess you would classify as “experimental”, but which always had a strong narrative bent. “You Are Here” represents a return to my early desire to be a narrative feature-film director, but it’s a strange, unorthodox way of storytelling which uses all the techniques I’ve been exploring in the last decade in service of creating a long-form emotional story experience for the audience.

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

Interestingly, I always assumed I would be a musician, and so did my family and friends. But I always had a huge interest in film; I would seek out film books at my local bookstore (I grew up in Tweed, a small town in Ontario), and in high school, about once a month I would drive for two hours to the Princess Court in Kingston, the closest rep cinema, to see whatever foreign/arthouse film they had on offer. In my final year of high school I realized how strong this interest of mine was, and it occurred to me for the first time that I could make this my focus in postsecondary education. So I made a sudden shift and that was that.

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

I received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship in 2006, which enabled me to leave my job for a year and work on the script. Then in 2008 I received funding from the Canada and Ontario Arts Councils, which enabled me to go into production. There then entailed a months-long process of looking for a producer; through a daisy-chain of meetings and recommendations, I met Dan Bekerman, and immediately knew that his combination of experience and practical know-how with a deep understanding of alternative cinema made him an ideal collaborator. I relied on him greatly for arranging the logistics of the production, from assembling our crew to finding equipment and other resources necessary.

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

In a general sense, our biggest challenge was the fact that we were working with a micro-sized budget – which would have been fine if I had written a really simple script; three actors, one location. But, due perhaps to my naiveté as a first-timer, I absolutely didn’t do that. “You Are Here” was an incredibly ambitious script production-wise, with many, many locations, a large cast, and heavy demands on production design and cinematography. Luckily, the crew that Dan Bekerman assembled was composed entirely of people who rose to the challenge. For example, Production Designer Naz Goshtasbpour was given a working budget that a lot of people in her position would have found laughable; but she managed to build a number of totally convincing sets entirely from scratch, and came up with ingenious solutions for slightly modifying locations to make them exactly what we needed. I learned from this shoot that if your crew understands the tone of the script, sometimes one telling detail can do the same cinematic-magical work as a whole swath of complicated ideas, and at one-tenth the cost.

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.

Cabot McNenly, the cinematographer, was an old colleague and friend from my York University film days. We’d wanted to work together for years, so he was on board literally a couple of years before we went to camera. Because “You Are Here” is composed of a number of different stories, each of which have their own style, we shot on a wide, wide variety of formats: HD, miniDV, RED camera, BetaMax, 35mm, 16mm, super 8. I’m really proud of the spectrum of visual styles Cabot and I brought to the film with this approach – and in fact the BetaMax is my favourite footage in the entire movie; just because a camera’s 35 years old doesn’t mean it doesn’t generate its own unique beautiful images.

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?

The screenings have been uniformly amazing in terms of audience reaction. It’s a movie that really stirs up a lot of strange thoughts in the viewer, and there are a lot of different ways to react. So the question and answer sessions afterwards are always full of interesting, unexpected, and vibrant discussion. My best screening so far has been during Toronto; the festival arranged a screening to a film class at York University, and the students responded with a level of excitement and interest that was totally affirming to me.

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?

I draw my inspiration from all over the place, and a lot of the inspirations for “You Are Here” are literary; Jorge Luis Borges, and Paul Auster specifically. For this film I was really inspired by Todd Haynes (“Poison” and “I’m Not There”) especially, for how he plays with film language with multiple styles in one movie, or the same character being played by multiple actors and Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) came out just as we were beginning to cut “You Are Here”, and the way it spun a totally abnormal-looking story structure into a moving emotional experience gave me a lot of hope for my movie.

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

Performance-wise; Jeff Goldblum, James Urbaniak or Tom Noonan. I’d love to collaborate with Lars Von Trier though he obviously scares the crap out of me. I have a multi-million-dollar science fiction script I’m developing which I would like to direct myself but if Steven Soderbergh wanted to direct it I wouldn’t complain too much.

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

This question is on my mind a lot. I also write film criticism, when I have the time, and I’m working on a video project that’s about the idea of film criticism in an alternate universe. I think the media response to film is obviously hugely important, in terms of determining the success or failure of a given movie. But I think the impact of the critical response is waning; though its importance is, in my mind, integral. Movies should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

What would you say or do to someone who talks or uses their cell phone during a movie?

In reality I would say nothing because I’m shy. In my imagination I would find some horrible genius way to humiliate them publicly.

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?

I never went the route of making a calling card short for the express purpose of getting support for a feature, and I’m glad I never had to do that. I got financial support for “You Are Here” on the basis of the video art I’d been making, so I don’t know if it’s irresponsible of me to advise based on my admittedly anomalous experience, but I would say that I never found myself making something that I didn’t believe in, or genuinely want to make, just in the hopes it would pay off down the road. And, though I’ve never done that, I would advise against doing so. Anything you make should be something you want to make. Otherwise why are you making it?

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

That’s impossible to answer. I’ll just say that “After Hours” is Martin Scorsese’s best movie, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is the best Tim Burton you can find, and Toronto-based recluse Robert Lee made something called “Minima Moralia” which you will probably never see and that is really too bad.

”You Are Here” screens on Thursday, December 2nd, 7pm 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

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 Tweetphoto or two. #whisfilmfest or @whisfilmfest are the official hashtags.

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originally posted: 12/03/10 04:43:31
last updated: 12/03/10 04:44:14
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