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VIFF 2015 Interview: BOREALIS' Sean Garrity & Jonas Chernick

by Jason Whyte

BOREALIS, a widescreen prairie road-trip adventure that takes us from Winnipeg, all the way north to the
shores of the Hudson Bay." Director Sean Garrity on his film BOREALIS which screens at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. Both Sean and lead actor and writer Jonas Chernick talk to for this article.

Adds Jonas Chernick: "BORELAIS is about Jonah, an unemployed, deadbeat single father, and his teenaged daughter, Aurora, who hates his guts. Jonah finds out at the beginning of the movie that Aurora's vision disorder is getting worse, and she'll soon be completely blind. But instead of telling her the truth, which he lacks the emotional maturity to do, he takes her on a road trip from Winnipeg up to Churchill, Manitoba, to show her the most beautiful thing he's ever seen in his entire life, the magnificent Northern Lights, before she loses her vision completely. And of course, because Jonah owes a massive gambling debt to the Winnipeg Jewish Mafia, there are bad guys chasing them and threatening to kill them along the way. It's a funny, tense, emotionally moving comedic drama road trip movie, with great performances by Joey King and Kevin Pollak."

Sean, I have met you a few times here at VIFF and at Whistler Film Festival. I take it you are going to be here to present your screenings!

Sean Garrity: I'm a VIFF regular! Between shorts and features, I think VIFF has played more of my work than any other festival. Thanks, VIFF! I will absolutely be there to present BOREALIS at both screenings, although I plan to be very drunk.

How about you, Jonas? We met at Whistler a few years ago but not in Vancouver.

Jonas Chernick: I was at VIFF in 2006 with a movie called LUCID that won the award for Best Canadian Feature Film that year. This is my return to the festival, and I will be there to enjoy my favourite Canadian city, and take in a few days of the festival.

How did you get your start in the business?

Jonas: I'm an actor first and foremost, but I got tired of waiting for my agent to call, so I started writing scripts in my spare time, with great roles for me to eventually play. Then I realized that nobody on the planet would be as motivated to get those movies produced than me, so, naturally, I started to produce them. One by one, I made three movies like this, and now here I am with movie number four, BOREALIS.

Sean, although I have seen many of your films and we have interviewed before, just remind our readers about your start in Winnipeg!

Sean: I started out working as a musician in Winnipeg, and from there, directed music videos for some of the bands I was playing in, which developed into a run of gradually longer short films, until one of them grew into my first feature, INTERTIA. BOREALIS is my seventh feature film.

So how did BOREALIS all come together? I understand it has a very personal and long history behind it.

Sean: I made a short film called BLIND which Jonas adapted to a screenplay for BOREALIS. BLIND had been about many things, but at its core, it was about my father, and my relationship with him. When Jonas first showed me the script that he had written, it was an extraordinarily strong, well-written screenplay. But, as a very talented writer, he clearly writes what he knows, from his heart and his experience, and so he used the story to explore issues he had with his own father, and refashion the story so that it spoke to him. I found myself, therefore, re-negotiating my relationship with the story I had written, and the characters I had created, because they had undergone such change.

When we landed Joey King and Kevin Pollak, to play Aurora and Tubby, I had to keep slapping myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. And luckily, I wasn't! This motivated me to set my sights really high for the rest of the cast, and we ended up creating a roster of incredible actors that we had no business getting on our budget. In addition to Emily Hampshire, Cle Bennet, Jake Epstein and Greg Bryk, I was able to feature a lot of my favorite Winnipeg actors, from my previous films, including Gord Tanner, Mike Bell and Steve MacIntyre. Imagine going into work, and being surrounded by smart, funny, talented people all day. I would say to myself "Why can't life just be like this, all the time?".

We shot the film in Winnipeg, during an autumn when production was booming; so much so, that many shows had to bring in crew from out of province. As a very low budget movie, BOREALIS had to rely on existing relationships with local crews, appealing to their sense of loyalty, because we didn't have the budget to out-bid the other shows. Ultimately, we ended up with an amazing group of people, with a wide range of experiences, who really pulled together in the face of impossible odds to make this show happen.

While I was able to rely on some of my tried-and-true crew favorites, like first AD Ronaldo Nacionales, picture editor John Gurdebeke and composer Ari Posner, for many of the other key creative positions I had to find new people to collaborate with, which is always scary. Fortunately, I really lucked out by finding keys, like cinematographer Samy Inayeh and production designer Maryam Decter who were not only talented, visionary people, but also profoundly dedicated to the project. I work best with people who see filmmaking as a collaboration, and who bring something of themselves to it; people who are able to bat aesthetic ideas around until they are fully formed. This ended up being absolutely the right group for that task, and it was certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of making BOREALIS.

While you were both working on BOREALIS, what was the substance that kept you going throughout production?

Sean: I am driven by the interactions with the other artists on set, but I also drink a tonne of Yerba Mate; you don't get the caffeine shakes that result from too much coffee, nor the sugar crash of sweet energy boosters. Oh, Yerba Mate.

Jonas: I'm driven by a pure love and passion for the craft of acting. Making movies is indescribably challenging, each and every time. Honing a script, convincing financiers to invest and putting out fires. I would never make it through the process if there wasn't a glowing light at the end of the tunnel. For me, that light is that I get to ACT in these films, to play the roles I have created, dreamt up, developed over years and years of trying to tell these stories effectively. That's my poison.

What were the biggest challenges with BOREALIS?

Jonas: The climactic ending of the movie is set in the wondrous and bizarre locale of Churchill, Manitoba. This is a magical town, at the top of the world, unlike anywhere else you've ever been. You knew we couldn't just shoot those scenes on a beach a few kilometres north of Winnipeg. But we also knew we couldn't move the crew up to Churchill and shoot there, either. It would have been financially and logistically impossible. So our biggest challenge on this movie was figuring out where we could shoot the final scenes. Then my Mom, on a whim, mentioned that the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg had just opened a multi-million dollar, decade-in-the-making Churchill exhibit, where they painstakingly recreated the town right there in the Zoo, as a polar bear enclosure. So my task, as producer of the movie, was to convince the Zoo to close their brand new, state-of-the-art exhibit for two nights, relocate the bears, and allow a film crew of more than one hundred people inside with lights, gear, equipment and everything else, for free. How did I do it? I didn't take no for an answer. And I was lucky enough to find a few unbelievably cooperative people who worked at the Zoo, who allowed it to happen.

Sean: Although the material is drama, we infused a lot of comedy into it and ultimately pitched it to our investors as a comedy. But, in the edit suite, the two tones fought against each other and robbed from each other, so there was a very delicate balance act that we had to strike. Ultimately, it made the most sense to cut it as a drama, and fit the comedy elements in where they wouldn't get in the way. Much great comedy was lost in this process, but it worked for the film.

I love the passion in hearing about this movie, although I must twist your arm. If you both had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

Sean: My favorite moments are the ones where I get to see the whole picture, as opposed to the small, disassembled pieces. The first cast read, or the final playback in the sound mix.

Jonas: The moment that Joey King, who stars in gigantic Hollywood movies like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, THE CONJURING, BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, WHITE HOUSE DOWN and OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL said that she wanted to come to Winnipeg and play the role of Aurora, was probably the single greatest moment of my entire career. We aimed WAY above our expectations when we sent the script to Joey, and if she hadn't taken the role, the movie probably never would have happened.

Sean, I have always admired the VERY different and unique looks in all of your films, from the HD look of LUCID and ZOOEY & ADAM to the stunning use of digital in MY AWKWARD SEXUAL ADVENTURE & BLOOD PRESSURE. BOREALIS is, to my eyes, your best looking work to date. I was wondering if you could talk about the cinematography and design of the movie?

Sean: Samy, our cinematographer along with our designer Maryam and colorist Mila and myself worked very hard to craft a certain look, and a gradual arc for the look that reflected the journeys of these characters. My main character is losing her sight, which presented some exciting opportunities to play with concepts of seeing. Over the course of the film, while she is going blind to the physical world, she is also coming to a deeper understanding of her relationship with her father, and herself. Therefore, the driving visual concept was about a transformation of vision and a movement from unclear to clear. This played out by looking through dirty glass, or reflections, or rain, by manipulating focus & depth of field, by pattern choices made by the art department and the wardrobe department.

It also played out in the colour concept as the colours in the film started out a little muted. Specifically, muted warm colours that we would typically associate with a feminine touch, or little girl's clothing. This is the fading presence of the wife/mother in the lives of my heroes But, over the course of their journey, we moved into clarity and vibrant warm colours. I am very proud of how it came across. We had a tonne of fun crafting it.

Jonas: I will add that we shot the movie with anamorphic lenses, the first film I've made that way, even though we had tried to do it on all our previous films, and man does it look great!

Well I am very excited to have you both here for VIFF! What are you both looking forward to the most about showing your movies here and what's next for BOREALIS?

Jonas: I'm excited to watch the movie with the VIFF audiences who are among the best audiences in the country. I also love love love the city, so I'm looking forward to walking through the park, gorging on sushi, seeing family and old friends.

Sean: I wouldn't miss showing my film at VIFF, Vancouver has such a marvelous energy, and such great audiences. And I could go skiing in the morning, and swimming in the afternoon! After this, it plays Calgary and Edmonton film fests, and then, a theatrical release in January, across Canada.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

Sean: Well... how large is this theoretical person? Actually, I think this is part of the communal experience of watching a film in a cinema; when you share a space with other people, you have to put up with the sounds and smells and visual distractions they create. That's part of the deal. Spectators who insist on absolute silence and absolutely no distractions of any kind should invest in a giant HD monitor, a great surround sound system for their homes.

Jonas: It used to drive me nuts if anyone did anything during the screenings of my movies besides sitting and watching attentively. But I've made enough movies now, and screened them for enough festival audiences, that I don't do or say anything. I just mentally curse them.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Jonas: You better LOVE making movies, whatever your reason may be, or find something else to do, because it's a tough road. If you love it enough, you'll find a way to do it. You won't be able to NOT do it.

Sean: Marry into money.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

Jonas: I saw JUNO at TIFF the year it was released and everyone in the room knew it was incredibly special. That was the first time I had ever casually gone to a festival screening just because I was interested in seeing the film, and was then gobsmacked by the mob mentality, executives making offers to buy the movie right there during the screening, after fifteen minutes, etc. It was insane, and electric, and surreal.

Sean: For me, it's always the awesome movie that, because of small-minded market concerns will never get distribution in Canada, nor will ever appear online; the movie that you can ONLY see at a film festival. For example, I remember seeing Shinji Aoyama's brilliant film, EUREKA and distributors told me that none of them would even bother considering it, because it was a three hour long, subtitled, black & white, widescreen film about recovery from trauma. I loved it.

Be sure to check out the official website for BOREALIS at, and on Twitter at @borealisthemovie and on Facebook!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 24th to October 9th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 09/22/15 13:37:02
last updated: 09/28/15 18:20:36
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