DOWN RIVER DIRECTOR'S DIARY BY BEN RATNER
My dear friend, mentor, and collaborator Babz Chula is in her final weeks after a long, brave fight with cancer. I ask my friend Colleen Rennison, a gifted singer, to come over to Babz's place and sing her a few songs. Colleen is still a pup at 22, but when she first met and acted with Babz she was in grade school. Colleen shows up with her friend Kevin House, a journeyman guitarist/singer/songwriter. Turns out Kevin knows Babz, too. Everyone knows Babz. We gather around in the living room overlooking Lost Lagoon and they start to play. The first song they sing is an original Kevin House ballad that grabs me by the throat.
Down river...Where the loons cry for you...Down river...The further we go...”
I host Babz Chula's memorial at the Arts Club theatre, which is packed. I read the letter Babz wrote to say thank you to the many people who supported her, financially and spiritually, through her long illness. "I am there for you," it reads. "For every one of you. It has to be that way. This cannot be about me. It must be about all of us, about community, and the world. Cancer is the opportunity we've been given to all be better at what we do. To be bigger of heart and greater of mind." Kevin and Colleen play his song "Down River", and everyone feels it deep down in their bones.
I'm teaching acting class one night when two actors, Melissa Robertson and Melanie Walden, do a scene from a play called Delores and blow everyone's minds. Somehow their work triggers something inside me. I want to write about all the crap women have to overcome in order to empower themselves as artists. Even if it's just for a fleeting moment in front of twenty people, it counts.
This movie idea starts to spill out. Onto my computer, note pads and napkins, into conversations. I want to write about a woman like Babz, a friend to everyone she meets, a mentor, a mensch. And I want to write about a group of women she empowers, all of them artists. I don't know the story, other than in the end the older woman will die and the younger women will have to find their own way, just like I had to find my way when Babz died. There will be a painter, and I'll write that part for my fianc'ee, Jennifer Spence. There will be an actor, and I'll write that part for my friend Gabrielle Miller. There will be a singer, I'll write that for my friend Colleen Rennison, and there will be a dancer, written for another friend, Jennifer Copping. I know a bit about painting. I know a lot about music and acting. I don't know anything about dancing. I'll figure it out.
Figuring out who to cast in the role of the "Babz" character is proving to be more difficult. One day Helen Shaver suddenly appears in my mind. I remember seeing her in Martin Cummins' low-budget film All Fall Down, so I figure she's got the "independent spirit." She was fantastic in that film: funny, sad, sexy, and utterly raw and real. I get her number from Gabrielle Miller and call her up. I tell her about the movie I want to make. There will be no money, but it will be good. I can't think of anyone else to play this part. Before we hang up she gives up and says, "I'm in, I'll do it." I am enthused, but I know no one as good as Helen Shaver comes that easy. I have a lot of writing to do, and the script will have to be something special.
I try to think of a title. I want to call the Babz character "Pearl," named after my dear old aunt Pearl. Pearl... Pearl... "Pearl and the Girls"? That ain't bad. It is what it is. A film about "Pearl" and these younger women, "the girls."
Larry Lynn, Babz's widower, my dear friend, and a fantastic cinematographer, is going to shoot the film. Who else? I'm concerned the subject matter is too painful, and it's too soon, but Larry is an artist. Like me, he deals with loss by working through it with his craft. And he deals with it in other ways, too. After Babz passed away, Larry decided he was going to become a Priest. But that's another story. Larry asks how I'm going to finance the film and I admit I have no idea. Larry says he might "have a guy." He tells me about his friend, Jack Ong, who wants to get into producing films. We set up a meeting. I tell Jack the story, making up parts of it as I go along. It doesn't matter. Jack knew and loved Babz, and he trusts Larry. We shake on it and agree our budget is going to be "very, very low." I feel like I just signed a three-picture deal with Miramax.
My friend Brian Markinson, the busiest actor I know, introduces me in person to Helen Shaver. The three of us have lunch in Yaletown. She looks great, and I love the touch of gravel in her voice. She sounds like she's lived a life and I know she'll be tremendous in the film. I barely get a word in as they yack away, excited to see each other and catch up. Two great ways to turn a woman off are by talking too much and being cheap, and I am careful not to do either one. I let them do the talking, and I pick up the tab.
We decide to shoot a little "teaser" on a 7-D to get the ball rolling. I know from previous experience if you want something to happen, start shooting. Even if you don't have a camera, start shooting and a camera will show up. We shoot non-dialogue scenes with Jennifer Spence, Gabrielle Miller, Jennifer Copping and Colleen Rennison. We don't really know what our footage is going to add up to, but I have a basic idea of how it'll cut together. It's going to be a montage set to Kevin's song "Down River".
I get Helen on the phone and ask her to shoot some scenes for us next time she's in town. The day we shoot she comes over to Larry's place and looks at all the photos of Babz on the wall, her art, her jewelry, her clothes still packed into the closets. We shoot scenes of Helen walking by Lost Lagoon. She's got something going on in her head and emanating out of her great big eyes that gives me shivers and makes my heart beat faster. I keep my mouth shut and let the camera roll.
My friend Rob Wenzek and I edit the footage in his basement. There's something there. The women are all very powerful in very different ways. Kevin and Colleen's performance of "Down River" is sublime. I decide to call the film Down River. How could I ever have thought of any other title? Pearl and the Girls was a sucky name.
We finish the "teaser" and stick it on YouTube. People are liking what they see. They think it's a trailer from an actual movie. This is just what I was hoping for. Now we have to make the film, or we look like total shmucks.
I keep writing. Some of it flows very easily. I hear Babz's voice. I know what she would say. Same for Colleen's character, "Harper". Jen's character "Aki" and Gabrielle's character "Fawn" are also speaking for themselves. I know them well, and I know what the men in their lives have to say, too. Babz's voice, her sense of humor, her wisdom, her vulnerability, there's an endless well to draw from. The most challenging character is "Sherri" (Jennifer Copping's character). I don't know dancing, and I've written her as a single mom for some reason, which I also know nothing about. I keep playing around with it and finally a good scene in a child psychologist's office ends up on the page. I'm starting to get "Sherri", and I like her. She's so needy, even her ten-year-old kid can see right through her sunny optimism. "Pearl" will set her straight at some point in the film. The page count is climbing and the walls of my office are covered with index cards and that gives me hope. But I still don't really know what it's all about. It's about losing your mentor, but I don't want to write a bummer cancer movie. That's not what Babz was about. There's something else here, I just haven't found it yet.
I marry the love of my life, Jennifer Spence. I gotta get the script for Down River finished, but life is so busy. We go to New York on our honeymoon and see amazing theatre, on and off Broadway and on every street corner. We return to Vancouver revitalized, and I'm determined to finish the script.
Jennifer Copping tells me she's pregnant, and unless I can write "Sherri" as being "with child" she'll have to drop out of the film. I feel bad, because Jennifer is an excellent actor and I was finally starting to understand her character. But the good news is she's pregnant! I cut "Sherri" out of the script and we re-edit the teaser. The show must go on.
I go to Spain with my wife. We stay in a little town called Javea. I get up every morning while it's still dark and walk down to a caf'e on the Mediterranean where I work on the Down River script on my MacBook. It's flowing, I'm banging out ten pages some days. It's falling into place. One morning a very charismatic woman in her late 50s comes into the caf'e and speaks loudly and dramatically to the owner in Spanish. I don't know what she's saying, but she makes me pay attention. A couple of days later I am in there pecking away and she comes over to my table and begins to speak to me in a very proper British accent. Her name is Nancy Harwood. She speaks six or seven languages, has lived in twelve countries and is Laurence Olivier's second cousin. She asks me to come watch the sunrise from her apartment the next morning. I usually shy away from 7 am invites from strangers, but there is something grabby in her eyes that makes me say yes. And besides, the dozens of bangles and bracelets on her wrists remind of Babz.
At Nancy's place the next morning, Jen and me are served caf'e con leche and croissants, as we watch the sun rise over the Mediterranean. Nancy tells us she is bi-polar, and it has been a tough winter. She usually swims every morning, but this winter has been particularly cold. Meeting us has given her spirits a great lift.
Nancy takes us for a walk through the town. She's on a natural high, and when we tell her we have to go she gets very sad. She's not ready to say good-bye. She asks where we live in Canada. I tell her Vancouver, and she asks me if I would mind hand delivering a package to her cousin who is dying of cancer in a hospice in North Vancouver. I say I will.
Back in Vancouver, I punch the address from Nancy's package into my GPS. It takes me to the same hospice Babz was in before she went home to spend her final weeks with her family and loved ones. My knees are shaking as I get out of the car.
In the hospice, the nurse tells me Sylvia, Nancy's aunt is sleeping, so I leave the package and write a brief note explaining who I am and how I came to be delivering the package, then leave. Outside, something stops me. I need to wait awhile, see if Sylvia wakes up. I want to meet her. In a half hour, I head back up. As the elevator doors open I hear my name being called, "C'mon Ben! Come on Benny, come on, Benster!" I look over to see two nurses helping a little old man, obviously "Benster", out of his wheel chair. He's struggling, but the three of them are smiling and laughing, doing a little jig together. I feel like I'm going to faint. It's as if Babz is speaking directly to me. I can almost hear her voice.
You're gonna die," she's saying, "but you're gonna live a long life, and you're gonna be loved to the end. Stop worrying so much and enjoy it while you can."
Sitting in the Sylvia Hotel, looking out at English Bay, I write the new beginning and ending to Down River, in which the characters go swimming in the very waters I'm looking at. I know what the film is about now. It's not about dying. It's about living.
James Brown likes the script and comes on as producer. I have worked with him on a couple of Carl Bessai's films, and James is as cool as his name. He's a young lion, and I need his energy and enthusiasm as I am older and perhaps a tad wiser, but not as upbeat about torturing myself through endless unpaid sixteen-hour days as I used to be. Andrew Halliwell, another precocious producer with a big heart, joins us on the journey. We crew up, nabbing a Red camera and a few veterans for key positions. We're using a lot of students for our crew: my students, Larry's students, our editor Rob's students, and more. It's a small, green crew of about a dozen, but "kids these days!" They know how to do things I can't even imagine. One of them tells me a few Blackberry secrets that change my life.
We round out our cast with a bunch of first-rate actors, all of whom I've known for many years. Veteran casting director Stuart Aikins agrees to play himself in a pivotal scene. And as with all the other actors, he doesn't have to audition for me, even though I must have auditioned for him at least 150 times over the years.
I give all the female cast members bracelets that belonged to Babz and the tears flow. These are very special gifts, as all these women knew and loved Babz. They will wear the bracelets in the film. Colleen will never take hers off.
We start out the shoot with "Aki" and "Otto" (played by the razor-sharp Brian Markinson) scenes at an art gallery and at our executive producer's place. Transporting gear, parking, unpacking and schlepping is a pain in the ass. But once we are lit and ready to go, I am in heaven. I am totally confident that I know the story, the characters, and how to get what I want out of the actors. Brian and Jen tear it up. It couldn't go any better. I feel totally different than I did directing my first feature, Moving Malcolm in 2003. Back then I felt like I was playing catch with a nerf ball. This is hardball, baby! And when the ball hits your palm it goes "whap!"
We shoot scenes with Colleen Rennison and Teach Grant at Stanley Park Manor, an apartment building that two of our cast members have lived in. Our production design team is making four apartments out of two, and they look fantastic, even on our micro-budget. The building manager is incredibly kind and patient with us, as are the residents. Colleen is an animal: wind her up, let her go, and get the hell out of her way. Teach knows his character better than I do, and his subtle improvs are perfect. Ali Liebert glides in as "Molly", "Harper's" muse, and her chemistry with Colleen is palpable. I love directing this movie, so so, much. Larry, our cinematographer, sets an example for me of what it means to be a man. He is patient, calm, and in good humor, all the while operating the camera himself and treating everyone on the crew with respect and consideration. Babz would be very, very proud of him.
We shoot a huge scene at The Cobalt. "Harper" serenades "Molly" from the stage, singing a song Colleen wrote. There's a loud, live band, about fifty background performers and endless billowing fog. After some excruciating technical difficulties, we start shooting. This is turning out to be the most challenging day of my career - the chemicals in that fog are making my head spin and there is soooooo much to shoot and so little time. Helen Shaver shows up for her first day, looking stylish in a wide-brimmed hat. When a continuity issue arises, she kinda grabs the reins in a way that makes me nervous. She doesn't mean any harm, it's just how she works, but I feel the need to assert myself so I ask her to step outside to chat. This woman is a very accomplished director, far more experienced than I, and as an actor she has worked under Scorsese, Friedkin and Schlesinger, to name just a few. But again, I know this story, I know the characters, and I have total faith that Larry and I know where to put the camera. I tell her so, being as respectful and tactful as I can. She assures me our little talk is uncalled for, but listens to what I have to say, and goes in and plays her part marvelously. Helen and I may not always agree on everything, but it always turns out good, and that's what counts. I have nothing but gratitude for her being here, and the most important thing is that she gets what she needs from her director in order give her best performance. Doing is easy, learning is hard. And I'm learning.
More days of high-voltage shooting follow. Helen mines the material, makes it her own, and her scenes with the fabulous Jay Brazeau and that ol' sly fox Tom McBeath jump off the page. She makes it very clear to all that she's not playing Babz, she's playing "Pearl". I respect where she's coming from, but she's wearing Babz's clothes in some of the scenes and I can actually smell Babz's rose oil wafting in the air, so it's hard not to smile.
Gabrielle Miller is next up, and we start with a big five-page scene with all the women working at once. Gabrielle starts off a bit harder edged than I imagined her character. We do a couple of takes then I give her a slight adjustment. She gets stressed for a moment, but on the next take she is perfectly in character and stays that way in all her scenes. Gabe is one of the most skilled actors I know. It's all gut instinct with her, and she knows how to make the drama funny and the comedy dramatic. It's a rare gift. Peter Flemming plays his part with barely-restrained anger that makes his character less of a sap than he is on the page. Bull's-eye.
The shoot goes on, the sun keeps shining... I am exhausted in ways I never imagined, but at least I can walk to work in the morning and stumble home at night - most of our sets are minutes from our home in the West End. One night Jen finds me "sleep directing" in the kitchen, naked. I am frantically setting up a shot over the sink, convinced the crew is in the living room waiting for me. Jen gently wakes me up and walks me back to bed.
On our last day of filming, we shoot the "memorial" scene at Or Shalom synagogue. A very pregnant Jennifer Copping drops by to show her support. Jennifer Spence, as "Aki", reads a letter written by "Pearl". It is actually, for the most part, the letter that Babz wrote, the one I read at her memorial service.
...This life has been good to me. I know its abundance. Even the challenges of life: the career struggles, the financial worries, the dashed hopes and disappointments, the broken hearts, the tears, the fears, seem to me to be opportunities for something... for growth? For wisdom? For understanding? For something. Something good.
As the camera rolls, Colleen and Kevin take the stage and nail "Down River", live, in one take.
Larry puts down the camera. We look at each other and nod. Our faces are streaked with tears, but we're smiling.
That's a wrap.
Down River will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and will be released theatrically by IndieCan.