Authenticity the Key to Successful First Feature Micro-Budget Films

There’s nothing like filming on a micro-budget. The term, often applying to what up-and-coming filmmakers are working with, comes with connotations that are not always flattering.

Yet, this year’s crop of micro-budget films supported by the generous donors of The Talent Fund turn that notion on its head.

Two such films, Werewolf by Ashley McKenzie and Nelson MacDonald, and The Lockpicker by Randall Okita, took the festival circuit by storm this season, displaying not only excellence in craft but a mode of filmmaking that brought honesty and authenticity to their work.

The Story Behind Werewolf

Premiering as a ‘must see’ at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), Werewolf won rave reviews from a number media critics including The Globe & Mail, and Toronto Life. TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock called it: “One of the most courageous films I’ve seen this year.” Screened before a captivated audience at the Atlantic Film Festival (AFF), Werewolf won three awards: Best Director from the Atlantic RegionBest Actor, and Best Actress. The accolades continued at the Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) (New Cinema Festival) where Werewolf took home the Best Feature award in the Focus Québec/Canada category.

One of the most courageous films I’ve seen this year.”
– Steve Gravestock, TIFF Programmer

In Werewolf, Ashley McKenzie and producer, Nelson MacDonald tackle the themes of youth, poverty, and drug addiction in the small Nova Scotia mining town of New Waterford and draws on real life to the point that fiction feels more like documentary.

Friends since the age of 15, Ashley and Nelson both spent time in Halifax building their knowledge and creative network. They chose to return home to Cape Breton to make films, wanting to tell stories from their community. Grassfire Films were able to produce Werewolf, their first with the mentorship and support of Telefilm’s Micro-Budget Production Program partner, the National Screen Institute, and the subsequent awarding of Talent Fund financing.

Ashley wrote, directed, and edited Werewolf. The film was shot in 25 days using a very small crew, many non-professional actors and the unobtrusive Panasonic GH4 camera.. All of these elements made success possible for everyone involved, portraying a harsh reality and delicate subject matter with respect. As Ashley explains, “I was able to express my authorial voice without compromise while making Werewolf. The more freedom, trust, and financial support I am given, the more time I have to delve deep into creating a singular work that will stand out.”

While premiering at TIFF was nothing short of humbling, “to have the film play along-side the amazing filmmakers we grew up with,” Nelson says he and Ashley look forward to making a lot more films in Cape Breton. “We wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else.”

The Story Behind The Lockpicker

With The Lockpicker screening in Vancouver (VIFF), Sudbury (Cinefest), Montreal (FNC), New Jersey (Honorable Mention), Virginia (Best Narrative Feature Festival), Tacoma and Orlando Randall Okita continues to showcase his film on the festival circuit. In addition to the festival screenings, he has participated in numerous panels to discuss his filmmaking techniques, including panels attended by industry stakeholders at TIFF and VIFF. Currently working   on a theatrical release and digital distribution, Okita has also lined up screenings in schools and nonprofit institutions.

“With a tender observational style comparable to Gus Van Sant’s adolescent portraits, The Lockpicker enters the pantheon of coming-of-age films, distinguished, as it is, by its impressionistic form punctuated with dreamlike imagery.”  – Vancouver  International Film Festival 

With support from The Talent Fund, the Harold Greenburg Fund, the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, and an Award from Technicolor, Randall works with a method of community storytelling: “Quality – a great meal – made with only a few ingredients, can be the most amazing meal you ever had.” Within that recipe, each partner is key.

For The Lockpicker, Randall applied the tried-and-true adage of “write what you know,” creating a deeply intimate portrait of a young man coping with the tragic death of a close friend, the challenges of his own psyche, and life choices.

Strong believers in mentorship and engaging filmmakers early in their careers, Randall worked with Producer Jason Lapeyre to involve their own mentors and filmmaking community directly in their process. Casting first-timer Keigian Umi Tang as the lead character Hashi and using high school students and amateurs for supporting cast and extras, the film reads as a candid view inside the gritty parts of teenage life.

This authenticity in acting and language was achieved by Randall’s open book/open script approach. Working with Telefilm’s Micro-budget Production Program partner, the Canadian Film Centre, as well as Ryerson University, Central Toronto Academy, and other high schools, the project provided valuable experience to students.

Ultimately, The Lockpicker and Werewolf both illustrate the intersection of complex characters and tough choices. What happens in real life and in the life of a film often comes down to opportunity, timing, and the support of the community. Both extraordinary and successful films, audiences are already looking forward to what’s next from this amazing talent.

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