"We're always role playing – and isn’t that a form of faking it? You have to be able to have the confidence to believe you are what you are in that moment: parent, teacher, etc,, and then others will accept it also. To me, that’s art in a nutshell. We are makers of belief. Our first job is to believe."
About Matthew Kowalchuk
Matthew has been recognized as one of Canada’s emerging playwrights and filmmakers. For Lawrence & Holloman, his first feature film, he won the BC Emerging Director Award at VIFF, as well as the Rising Star Filmmaker Award from the Edmonton International Film Festival. Recently, the film won top honours (Best Feature Film) at the Canadian Comedy Awards, and is about to get theatrical release south of the border, opening in LA in early May.
He has also written and directed several acclaimed short films including the recent Bedbugs: A Musical Love Story (Canadian Short Film Award – EIFF; Best Short – Austin’s RxSM Film Expo). His film debut, the 35mm-shot The Janitors (co-directed with Daniel Arnold), which has been shown worldwide and was a recipient of the coveted National Screen Institute’s Drama Prize.
Matthew has long been a student of comedy, having first trained as an improvisor with Edmonton’s storied Rapid Fire Theatre. He got his start as a writer working in comedy troupes and with Rapid Fire’s regular sketch comedy show, The 11:02 Show, which led him to playwriting and then directing.
Born in Vancouver and raised in Edmonton, Matthew eventually returned to his birthplace, where he earned his degree from UBC’s department of Theatre, Film, and Creative Writing.
What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
I think it depends on what I’m working on, but what really drives me is… a good story. I think back to why I do it. I don’t know if that’s the question exactly, but it kind of ties into why I do this. In High School I remember the experience of being in the audience and being touched by what I was watching it. What I remember from that experience is a feeling of being included in the show somehow. They weren’t just showing me, they were allowing me to be a part of the experience, swept up in this completely other world. In the moment, I knew that I wanted to hang on to that feeling, and also that I wanted to help others to experience it. And I realize, looking back, that I’ve always wanted to bring people into that world of story.
And then when I’m creating, making a film or writing something, it’s the pursuit of excellence that I’m driving toward. I get in there, and I get taken away by the story. And honestly, some of the best stuff I’ve written – or the most well received at least – were things that I didn’t spend a lot of time on, but they just took me away. I didn’t spent a lot of time thinking about why things should be a certain way. I just wrote a story, and intuitively it came. Later I understood why it was my story.
I spent a lot of years not necessarily knowing what my voice was. As an actor I’d be trying on different characters – it was a combination what feels like therapy, I guess, and growing, and learning about yourself as a person… while trying on other people’s lives. It took me a long time to begin to understand what my own voice might be. I think that’s It’s an ongoing thing.
I’m also driven by a desire to get stuck inside a story, in a good way, seeking out it’s heart. So when we’re writing Lawrence and Holloman… that story gets inside of you, and it tugs at you every waking hour until you find the heart of it; the beating heart of it. And then you share it with people, and hopefully you’re right. Hopefully that heart connects to other people too.
The ‘voice thing’ is something that, as a writer, I’m definitely familiar with.
For a long time… I just assumed ‘well, I think I have a voice. I don’t have to think about that do I?’ I just have to write something, and my voice will be there. And I think we forget about that. As an actor or a writer, or a poet, or a painter… you have to assume that you’re in there. If you paint a picture of a sunset, you’re in that sunset. And if you’re playing the part of Stella in Streetcar, you still have to make that connection. Otherwise, what are you doing? Why am I spending 5 years of my life on a film, if there’s not a big part of me in it?
The projects we choose are a part of us. And we don’t always necessarily know (when we choose the part), why we’re being drawn toward certain things. But we don’t have to know the answers. We just have to be willing to question.
Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
As a director, you have to finish. You have a show. As an actor, same thing. You’re in there. But as a writer, I think the nature of it partly is that sometimes you don’t finish… and that’s okay.
So I think… my greatest failure was that I just couldn’t finish anything.
I moved to Vancouver to go to theatre school. I stayed at that school for a year. I learned so much – became a better actor, a better person, and a better artist. But then I dropped out. It just wasn’t for me. And I thought ‘what am I doing.’ I moved here for this. I just spent a year doing this. Now what? What do I do now?’
I didn’t go to post secondary right outside of high school in Edmonton. So when I eventually enrolled I thought that was it. I was going to school to be a professional actor.
What I ended up doing, is I spoke to a mentor of mine – Stephen Heatley, now the department head of UBC Theatre. He’s someone I knew from Edmonton, and from High School. He’s directed me. He’s actually responsible for one of my first forays into Theatre and much of my development as a director – through his the company in Edmonton, Theatre Network.
So after I dropped out, I went to him asking for advice. And he actually suggested that I come audition for a BFA in Acting, and I just kind of went, ‘really, do you think so?’ So I went, I auditioned, got accepted…. and then it turned out that I was 6 credits short. My college credits from the school that I went to… there were some credits that weren’t transferrable. So basically I had an invitation, but I couldn’t get in. So then I spent a year wondering, ‘what do I do?’
I ended up taking some academic credits, auditioned again the next year, and then got in.
So finally I did finish. I went to UBC and I graduated, and I was very proud, and I didn’t think that I’d be that proud. I just never really cared about that stuff… but finishing was a big deal.
I think the other thing about failure is that… failure is not a bad thing. I fail every day. Well (laughs), hopefully not every day but…
I grew up with improv. That was my training. When I decided that I wasn’t going to go to university outside of high school, I ended up getting involved in the Teen Festival for the Arts at the Citadel Theatre. It was a pretty big deal. They brought in professional writers and directors. Brad Fraser (Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love) and Stewart Lemoine were the local heroes at the time that influenced so many of us. I ended up doing that for a couple of years.
In my second year of TeenFest, I was part of a comedy show which was directed by the members of a comedy troupe called ‘3 Dead Trolls and a Baggie’ – which sounds weird if you’ve never heard of them, but they were fairly famous in Alberta at the time. So I did this sketch comedy thing. And from there, one of the directors invited us to do Theatresports. And I just got sucked into that world, it was amazing. And that became my training ground – As an actor, director and as a writer.
My first teacher was Patti Stiles. She studied under Keith Johnstone – who created Theatresports. My theory is that the closer you get to Keith, the more pure the teaching is. He teaches about story. He doesn’t just teach about gags and getting laughs. I felt I learned many great storytelling lessons through improv. Learning to let go, let the so-called bad ideas out, too, knowing that the ‘good’ ones wouldn’t be far behind. So Patti – who studied with him – was my teacher. And one of the first thing she teaches is to be able to say ‘YAY! I failed.’ You get past that and move on to the next thing. You can’t be afraid to leap. You can’t be afraid to fail.
It’s not failure that’s the problem. It’s fear of failure that stops you from trying.
You mentioned the decision to focus more on writing than acting. Was there a moment when you made that decision?
It wasn’t so much a moment as a period of time. I was spinning my wheels as an actor. Growing up in Edmonton they have this huge Fringe festival where they encourage you to create your own work. They had the Teen Festival, where as a teenager you were encouraged to work on a professional level. And now they have ‘NextFest’ which is short for ‘Festival of the Next Generation – it’s multi-disciplinary, with new plays, musicians, visual arts, dance, and beyond. So growing up in Edmonton, the normal thing was to create a show. Put it on, and say ‘hey this is me.’ You’re encouraged to take risks.
But when you enter into the Film and TV world… you’re no longer encouraged to take those same risks. You might once you get the job. But in terms of getting the job… Especially when you’re starting out, you’re auditioning for a lot of commercials and one liners. I feel like there’s no real heart in that. That’s not what I signed up for. I did accept that that was part of the deal – that if I was going to do this I was going to have to create a five year plan. For a year I’d have to prove myself with these commercial auditions, for example… but I love film and I love TV and I wanted to do something where I got to play somebody of substance. And I’m sure every actor does, and that’s part of the struggle for us all.
I actually got an agent a couple of months before I graduated. So I got lucky in that it wasn’t hard for me to find an agent. But that didn’t mean I got the parts or the auditions I wanted. You have to put in the time promoting yourself. You have to go to the parties. You have to be visible. If you’re not visible, and someone hasn’t heard of you… there’s no chance that you’re going to get cast. There’s a fine line. There’s a balance you have to have, between recognizing what you have to do, or perhaps sacrifice, to get the work, and the actual work itself. So it was a reality check.
And at the same time I had a play that I had written, and a short film that had done well. Things that I had created on my own seemed to be well received without too much effort on my part, beyond, you know: ‘Here’s what I wrote… here’s this thing I did.’
I work hard on every project, but I also feel very fortunate for things have come my way to help make them successful.
Daniel Arnold (we wrote Lawrence & Holloman together… Basically every film I’ve worked on he’s been part of it as either co-director, writer, actor; he’s a longtime collaborator) and I wrote a short film together called ‘The Janitors.’ He’s from Edmonton also. We met when I directed him in a show at NextFest. He moved to Vancouver, and he was at a reading for a play of mine. And after the show he said ‘hey, let’s get together and work on something.’ So we got together for coffee, and he surprised me by saying ‘I don’t want to do a play. I want to do a film.’
It’s stupid that I’d never gone there myself, because I’ve always wanted to do movies, but I’d been in theatre all my life. So we wrote this film – like a 10 page script. And we submitted it to the National Screen Institute in Winnipeg, and we got it – the NSI Drama Prize. First time, first screenplay… the funding is different now. But then they gave you cash, a week of training, and services in kind. So you got a real genuine budget. So, this (I was still at UBC) was 2006. We shot on 35mm film, and it was a phenomenal experience. We got William B. Davis as an actor, and as soon as we got him on board it became even more legitimate in other people’s eyes. People trusted us. We then surrounded ourselves with people who had done this before (because we hadn’t!), and that became an important lesson in itself, that having more experienced people around is a good, good thing. In the end, it got some big festival play. It played in a Berlin Festival. And they reached out and became our international distributor… and short films don’t have distributors, do they? But we did.
So, I’m grateful for those things. I mean, it does take work. It’s not just luck. But I feel fortunate. For everything.
With Lawrence & Holloman. We had our premiere in Vancouver, and we premiered in Edmonton the very next day. And the day of our Vancouver premiere, we got a call from Edmonton saying we won an award. And I swear to God… until that exact moment, I had never considered in my mind at all that we would ever win an award. The fact that we had made a film at all had clouded my mind. That was it. We made a movie, and people were going to see it, and that was enough. And then we won an award. And then we won another award. And it just sort of snowballed from there.
You look at the actors and directors who are at film festivals… and all of a sudden you’re a colleague, you’re a peer. You know? I’ve had those moments several times when you’re on stage with someone, or you’re working with someone who you’ve only admired. It’s those moments where you realize that maybe you’ve made it to a different level. Because I’m now working with the people that I’ve looked up to. And you realize that you’re not just looking up to them anymore.
Before Lawrence & Holloman came out – it was a Morris Panych script, we adapted his play – and we were at a Morris Panych premiere at the Playhouse, and Daniel MacIvor was in town. Daniel Arnold had worked with MacIvor, was a protégé when Macivor was awarded the Siminovitch Award (Canada’s largest theatre prize). And I remember being at the premiere, and someone taking a picture with the four of us – me, Morris, and the two Daniel’s – and that was this weird feeling of… does this mean I’ve “made” it now? I mean, it’s not that it really means anything, you know – but it definitely was a moment of reflection for me.
So, moments like that. Moments to come.
Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?
I think I’m like Lawrence. I’m sometimes blissfully happy. I think I’m just generally happy and open to life. I’m accepting of what’s coming to me. Sometimes I see things through rose coloured glasses, but I think I’m happy. I feel fortunate. And that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. But I’m grateful that I’m allowed to do what I do for a living. That I’ve made that choice for myself. That I’ve led a life where very few people have told me ‘no, you can’t do that.’ I realize that’s a big obstacle for a lot of artists. Maybe through their parents. I know people whose parents almost disown them because they say they want to be a professional actor. You know? So I feel fortunate every day that I get to do this.
And, on a happiness level. I think that… the more freedom I get to do the work, the more that I’m happy with other aspects of my life. I have a family now. I have a three year old son. And just spending time with my wife and son makes me happy. Happiness isn’t just about the job.
Happiness is also knowing that I’m able to do this now. For a long time it was a repeat of ‘how do I do this? How do I do this?’ You have to work so hard to convince yourself that you’re worthy. You have to work so hard to convince others that you’re worthy, and then get the job. Even if that’s a couple of shows a year. You have to work so hard to do that. So, it sort of takes over your life.
I see a lot of artists that forget about the other part of life. The parts that really and truly do make you happy. It’s not just about accomplishing something through a show. It’s not about gratification through someone else’s eyes.
I mean, I still have to fight for jobs. The feature film is a big deal, and it’s a big stepping stone for sure, but it hasn’t completely paved the way for my career. I’m still, in many ways, at the same place I was before. It’s just that I’m now fighting for a different level of job. But I think what it’s allowed me to do is be a little bit at peace with what I do. I have an identity now in other people’s eyes. So now it’s about, ‘what makes me happy outside of that?’ It’s sometimes hard when you’re caught up and trying so hard to establish yourself. But eventually there’s got to be more. And hopefully not ‘eventually.’ Hopefully it’s there the whole time in the form of family and friends; travel. All those things.
What do you think is your greatest strength?
I think my greatest strength is… I accept everything. I say yes a lot. I guess that’s an improv lesson. I say yes when I’m working on a story. And I say yes in life a lot. And it doesn’t always serve me well. Much like Lawrence, sometimes I’m in my own bliss. So there’s a balance that needs to be achieved.
I accept the good, and I accept the bad. And I roll with it. And that means, in the heat of the moment on set as a director, I accept what’s happening. And I deal with it. I don’t cling to what I wanted the scene to be. I’m there in the moment. And film is such a great tool for that.
As a director, one of my strengths is… someone articulated this for me really well recently, they said ‘you’re a gatherer.’ I bring people together. Bedbugs: A Musical Love Story (the Crazy 8’s short I did) is a 21 person cast in 16 minutes. I kept encouraging Shauna to write more characters and build this community. I love the idea of community building, and ensemble.
I always want to cast more actors. I always want to make things bigger. I love bringing people together, and I feel like that’s my skill as a director, is in bringing in people who are better at their jobs than I will ever be. If I cast you as an actor, I’m casting you not because I want to tell you how to play the role, but because you can bring something to it that I didn’t write, and that I can’t quite see. I want to allow others the opportunity to advance the project. My job is to accept what’s in front of me, and keep it all together.
On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?
I think balance between life and work. As artists we often talk about how we need to set concrete goals. If you don’t know what you’re going to ask for, how do you ask for it? For me, a lot of my life has been setting the goal for myself of having my life and work being one. And that is, in a general sense, what I want, but I also have to realize that doesn’t work for everyone in my life.
I’m finally at a place where I don’t have to work at a restaurant all day, and then work at night. But I still have a day job. It’s a little easier now – it’s related to my work because I’m teaching and I’m doing more work related to what I want to do. So it’s finding that balance.
And in the last few years with family – with being a dad – it’s been a challenge to try to be a good husband and father, while also feeling good about the work I’m doing and the time I’m spending on it. I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet in that. Ultimately I would like to find a balance where I feel like I’m succeeding in both areas.
I brought my son on set. He saw the bedbug puppets and interacted with them, so he gets what I do. In a sense. He understands that I make movies, and that I write. And that when I go to work, there are different places that I work on any given day. So I’m either writing, or I’m teaching. Or whatever I’m doing. When I say I’m going to work, for him it’s ‘Oh, which work are you going to?’ To him that’s normal. And sometimes I go to work at night time. So…I’m forever finding that balance.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?
On one level… I’ve sort of always known and I’ve never questioned it. No one really ever told me ‘no’ is the biggest thing. I grew up with this sort of hippie aesthetic, and my parents never really told me no. So on the one hand, I got to do anything I wanted, and on the other hand I never got really good at any one thing. I never stuck with any one thing for too long.
My parents split up when I was fairly young, so I was raised mostly by my dad. As a kid, I remember always loving movies, and in turn theatre came into the picture. But I remember loving movies, and understanding at a very young age the world of make believe.
When I was pretty young, my dad would sneak me into movies with him. He used to sneak me into these movies that were pretty grown up – Scarface, for example, when I was maybe 10 or 11. And I think about that now, as a Dad myself, and it just gives me perspective. That totally would be frowned on by a lot of people – even now — but I don’t see it as a bad thing at all. I understood there was a level of truth through storytelling, and I also understood that these weren’t real people, that on that level it was also pure fantasy, a representation of how someone perceived the world. I can look back and say, under some circumstances maybe that wouldn’t be a good thing. But I had a very healthy relationship with storytelling, and movies in particular.I understood that people told stories that entertained us, and that had truth in them. For my Dad, Scarface was an important story. It was about trust, and about loyalty – things that were important to him. And as a young boy, understanding the power of how he connected with the movie resonated with me.
In terms of a moment, I remember High School.
I was a real drama brat. I thought I was a good actor, and I had a big ego about it.
But then I did this one project where I stepped out of the role of actor and into the role of director, and I found myself so incredibly connected to someone else’s accomplishment. I was so proud and happy for the people in the scene, and for what they had achieved. It was a completely different feeling, and it felt better than anything I had ever done – better than any applause I had ever gotten from being on stage myself. Even though at that point, I didn’t yet follow a path toward directing, It was a real awakening for me and the seeds were sown.
Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?
The obvious is just… if you’re writing, you have to write. Force yourself to write. It doesn’t matter what you write.
Something that resonated with me in one of the other interviews I read on this blog is that you have to have a life outside of your work. Spend time with family and friends. Have a hobby.
At a certain point, you can become so enveloped by what you’re writing, that you sometimes forget where it comes from. What are you writing about, if all that you’re doing is writing it? There has to be the other side, literally out-side. Remind yourself to go out and play, basically.
Daniel actually articulated a concept for me a long time ago. There is an input/output relationship. I’ve learned that sometimes I have a need to take things in before I can create anything at all; before I can create. I’m talking about inspiration in the loosest sense of the word, but I find it very true. In the sense that you can breathe in inspiration, and once it’s inside of you, you can exhale your creation. Is that abstract enough?
I think there’s a basic equation that needs to complete itself. And it can go both ways. Sometimes I try to pick up a book and notice that I have trouble sticking with it. Often, it’s because my mind is in more ‘output mode’ and needs to get some ideas out instead of take new ones in. If I’m in the wrong mode and forcing the writing, I’m just… I feel like I’m faking it.
But then, I also think we all have that fear: ‘I’m faking it. I hope no one catches on.’ And I think once you come to terms with that, it’s like ‘Yeah. We’re all faking it.’ Good. Just be good at that. People believe you and believe in you and that’s scary, but it’s okay. That’s also part of the job, and that’s part of the fun of it.
We’re always role playing – and isn’t that a form of faking it? If you’re a teacher, you’re ‘role’ is teacher. If you’re with your mom, you’re role is daughter, or son. You’re always playing a different role, and we change our role depending on the situation and who we’re with. To me, that’s how I accept the faking it. You accept that I’m an actor, because I’m doing it. And all I need is confidence to say that and do it, and there it is. I am an actor. We can succeed and fail at being parent, friend, teacher, lover, the list goes on. You have to be able to have the confidence to believe you are what you are in that moment: parent, teacher, etc,, and then others will accept it also.
To me, that’s art in a nutshell. We are makers of belief. Our first job is to believe.
I do wish I had a better routine, there’s always room for improvement. I’m always involved in a number of projects, so my routine is that I find a couple of days a week where I can go to my office and work on my own projects. So that I don’t lose sight of where I’m going. In my office, it’s just me.
I can shut off the phone. I identify the project that needs attention. And within that, what’s priority? What’s going to pay my rent next month. I can’t just go ‘Okay, I’m writing my masterpiece now.’
I also try to create a routine with Daniel. We write regularly. And it’s important that at least a couple of times a week I also do something fun with my family. We go skating, or we go swimming. Or something fun. When I hit a period where I’m unable to keep any one of those routines, and of course it happens, I feel off, big time. If I’m not able to spend that time with my family, for instance, then my time at work is off balance, I’m just not happy doing the work because the balance is skewed too much toward it.
It’s really an impossible task to perfect, but that’s where the routine is helpful. It keeps me on track more often than not.
One of the artist’s in a previous interview mentioned that they thought routine might be bad for artists, would are your thoughts?
For me, I need to have check points. Otherwise I just get lost. I have to have something to ground me.
But while also being open to the fact that what you’re going to be doing day to day is going to change significantly?
Right. Like as an actor, one week you could have two auditions a day. And then the next week, nothing. So what do you do with that time? On the one hand, you need the flexibility of routine – the flexibility of time – to be able to do those auditions, and on the other hand you need to know how to fill your time when you don’t have the auditions. How are you accountable to yourself?
Some days I don’t make it to my own office, and other times I get a full week. Both are okay, but you just need to have enough of a routine that you’re kept on track. I’m always developing a script, or an idea, or a pitch, or I’m shooting something next week. I’ve always done that, and so it seems normal to me. But how you do keep that on track is the question? By having a few things that are routine – that you make sure you are doing every week, even if they’re not on the same days.
How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?
On one hand, I doubt a lot. And on the other hand I’m a real Lawrence and I don’t. Ha. Oh, and did I mention that I also contradict myself, often in the same sentence.
I’m an eternal optimist. But when doubt is there, when it creeps in, I have family. In those moments , the support is always there. So… it’s surrounding yourself with people who care; people who support you. But that’s a tricky thing, too, because if it’s ever ‘all about you’, then you probably will have trouble finding that support. As an actor, my greatest lesson was always ‘it’s not about me’. The scene is better when you care more about your scene partner. And in life, we are better when we care more about others, I truly believe that.
What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?
I think somehow, you have to give yourself permission. Maybe that’s obvious.
Say yes to yourself, and say yes to whatever ideas come to you. Don’t censor yourself. If you can say yes to your own ideas, then you’ll get somewhere. You’ll put paint to canvas. Otherwise, you’re stuck thinking ‘what do I paint?’ When you’re writing, same thing. I have SO many pieces of things that I’ve started to write, and then thought ‘meh, that didn’t work.’
You’re going to fail. You’re probably going to fail more than you succeed. And that’s what makes the successes feel so good and feel important.
There’s a really great quote from Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro: “People who say yes, are rewarded by the adventures they go on; by the adventures they have. People who say no are rewarded by the safety they attain.” There’s two sides to the coin, and there’s finding the balance between yes and no… but I definitely err on the side of yes. That’s my blessing and curse. I make it work for me in my work, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
If you want to go on an adventure, you’ve got to say yes to it. You’ve got to get on the plane. You’ve got to step out the door. You’ve got to go for it. If you’re an artist, you’ve got to find a way to give yourself permission to step out the door.
How many cliches can I fit into this answer? Every journey begins with one step. You’ve got to give yourself permission to take that step. And after that, you take another. And see where you go from there.
Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).
It’s always been important to me that I have some measure of choice. Choice versus control. Choice over the projects I choose to do. And as an actor, you rarely do. But as a writer and director, you have a greater choice about what you’re going to work on. And, actually, to an extent as an actor too.
When you choose what you work on, don’t make the choice lightly. Choose projects that you’d be happy to work on for five years. You’ve got to work on things you love.
Lawrence & Holloman was four years of my life from the seed to premiere, and then a year of festival play and distribution beyond that. So, more than five years. And we couldn’t have done that if we weren’t in love with the material.
A short film is one to two years of your life, easy, and a feature film is five. That doesn’t mean that you’re not working on other things, but that takes up a big chunk of your time. I’m still working on Lawrence & Holloman. We’re releasing theatrically in May, in Los Angeles. So right now we’re still talking to distributors and international sales.
I went to the writer’s fest in May, and one of the writers in one of the seminars said that the thing about writing a book is that the person you are when you start writing it is different from the person you are when you’re half way through, or finished. You sort of change as you’re writing. Did you have that experience?
Yeah! And I find that on a professional level… I mean Bedbugs is interesting because it’s a short film that I didn’t need to do to bolster my career. It was so much fun, and I pulled out all the stops, and I was so ambitious because I didn’t care what people thought. So on the one hand, that’s the way that you have to work. You have to create your own ambitions. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and take risks.
Bedbugs was also the first thing that I’d directed since Lawrence & Holloman, and I learned that I was a much better director from the experience of doing the feature. At the end of Lawrence & Holloman, I’m in the editing room going ‘oh, I would have done that differently now.’ And then on the next project, you have the opportunity to bring that experience with you.
Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
In Improv it’s pretty amazing. Athletes talk about too. It’s that moment when everything disappears and all you see is what’s in front of you. So improv for me has been this great way into that. And it doesn’t always happen, and that’s okay. It’s just this whole idea of letting go of whatever you’re holding on to, and being with what or who you’re with in that moment. It’s not always easy to achieve. But it’s a principle that can become a part of your work.
I’m trying to think of specific moments when I’ve achieved that.
I wrote a short play called ‘Penguins’ which then became a short film. And I wrote this when I was at Studio 58. It was a writing project, and it was in the middle of this whole semester of me literally not finishing.
The idea was that you were supposed to write a 10 minute monologue, and at the end of the class you would perform it. So each week we would write a bit further – but I kept starting over, and with each new start I would crumple it up every time. I was never happy with anything that I wrote. I wasn’t personally invested in anything. I don’t know. I just couldn’t open myself up to it. So for the whole semester, I had just crumpled up everything. And on the night before we were supposed to present our play, with the fear of having to present something the next morning, I finally wrote it.
So, the night before…
It was midnight, and I had class at 8am. At midnight I put pen to paper – don’t do this at home kids.
I put on some music and I titled it after a Lyle Lovett song that I was listening to. It was called ‘Penguins (are so sensitive to my needs)’ Later on, he actually gave me permission to use a version of the song in my short film, which was quite the honour. So I gave myself a title, still having no clue at all what the story would be, and then I looked at the clock. It was midnight exactly, so I wrote that down as the beginning, and then I started writing.
It became this thing about a guy who was an advertising writer who was once a big deal, now washed up, and he couldn’t come up with an idea for this coffee ad. Like me, he couldn’t come up with anything… and for some reason penguins were on his mind. He didn’t know why. But he kept imagining penguins in his coffee ad. So my protagonist kept coming up with ideas and crumpling them up (which was what I was doing), and every now and then I’d look at the clock, and I’d write down the time. So the initial draft was written between 12 and 3:30 or 4am – which was almost the timeline of the story. In the story the penguins gradually took over his ideas until he/they eventually came up with the perfect concept. Which was pretty much what it felt like for me.
Then, it was a big hit the next day and surprised me by finding a life beyond the classroom. My instructor, Aaron Bushkowsky later championed it and became my dramaturge, helping me to create a longer version from this seed of an idea.
This thing that I wrote in three-ish hours became a huge success for me, in many ways. It re-connected me with Daniel Arnold, which indirectly led to the creation of our first film, ‘The Janitors’ and then ‘Lawrence & Holloman.’ It also became a short film in itself, starring Daniel, and a one man show first was showcased at Solo Collective’s (Aaron’s theatre company) Emerging Playwrights Showcase, then played the Walking Fish Festival (a local festival that showcasing new plays), which is now the Revolver festival, and did very well with Fringe Festival audiences.
So that was flow. That three hours, in which I created a play that I was supposed to be building the whole semester – which then became a much bigger thing. I don’t really know where it came from. I just said yes to the things that were around me, and allowed it to become personal.
Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with money? It’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot recently, and I think it might be a question that is on a lot of artist’s minds.
Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know how to talk about money. Money’s hard. I wish I could make every decision without it being a factor, but I can’t.
I don’t always value money well enough, because so much of my life has been about finding a way toward happiness by creating art. and money hasn’t really been a part of that equation. Now money is more important because I need to have enough to support my family.
Lawrence & Holloman was a great learning experience because it was the first thing that I got paid anything substantial for – and still wasn’t even that substantial, it was just enough to be away and working on it and that was a big step in itself. A lot of people sacrifice far more in order to make a feature film. I don’t mean to sound cocky about it, because I know artists everywhere sacrifice so much for their art, and so have I, but at a certain point you’ve got to set your priorities in life, and if your art does not mesh with it, then you need to re-think your relationship with your art. I find, especially now, I do that again and again. I have to re-assess, is this working? Am I getting what I need to live my life and support my family? The answer isn’t always a happy one.
So the lesson from making L&H is, okay, that’s a baseline. For the next feature film I have to make at least more than that. I need to find a way to do that, so that my family at home feels secure and not worried or left behind.
If money itself is unimportant to me, what’s important to me is the security it can bring. So I guess the question for me is: ‘how much money do I need to not worry about it?‘ It’s not about making gobs of money, it’s about making enough money so that I can just keep doing what I’m doing and continue to have this choice validated.
And also, we all have different reasons for doing things. So I think it’s important, that when we finally do achieve a level of ‘this is my rate’… it’s important to stick to that, but then also realize you can make exceptions. There are people who have helped me in my work, and if they need some help, I’m going to return the favour. It’s not all about money, but you also have to understand the business side of this. You are a business. You personally are a business. And if you sell yourself short, you’re ultimately going to get taken advantage of.
In the end, what’s going to suffer is you. Your art is going to suffer because you aren’t going to be able to put proper time into it, and you’re not going to be as happy in the rest of your life. You have to sort of draw a line. That means you maybe won’t work on some projects that you’d like to, because there’s no money.
A big discovery for me – and maybe it was when I was in between schools, or when I was considering whether or not I wanted to keep acting – was discovering ‘I don’t have to do this.’ It took me years and years to be able to say that. I choose this. I can make other choices, but I feel that this is what I do best. I feel like I’m making a genuine contribution to the world through it.
What are your favourite books? They could be about your craft, or maybe just an excellent story.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I don’t think anyone should go through life without having read this book.
I honestly don’t. I think that’s something everyone should pick up. I think it’s the ultimate example of creative flow. It’s kind of perfect. It’s so famous that I probably don’t have to describe it, but for those who haven’t found it yet, the Hitchhiker’s Guide is the so-called ‘trilogy in four parts’ (and then there’s actually a fifth part that was added much later on…). The series of four is really complete and satisfying. And it’s brilliant. It’s funny. It’s just good on so many levels. And as a piece of creative fiction it’s mind blowing. Adams creates a substantial world, a universe in fact, yet it somehow doesn’t feel effortless. I admire that and strive for it in my own work. The best art is often made to look easy, even though it sometimes can literally be someone’s life work.
Impro by Keith Johnstone
It’s about Improv, but it’s also not. It’s about life. He writes about how his childhood, and school in particular, taught him to say “No”, and how many of us have to unlearn that in a sense, in order to create. For him it’s about finding ways to say yes to any and all ideas, and I find that there’s so much value in that. Whether or not you’re an artist – it’s valuable to understand that concept and be able to let it into your life.
‘Fuck Yes: A Guide to the Happy Acceptance of Everything.’ by Reverend Wing F. Fing M.D., Ph.D, D.D.S., L.L.D., D.V.D., and much, much more!
This one is kind of obscure. It’s out of print, but you can find it on goodreads.com or Amazon.
It’s a work of fiction written very loosely as self-help book. It’s set in the early 80s and is about a family man who is unhappy with his life, and who discovers for himself a simple truth: That the best answer to every question is Yes. He follows that as his mantra, which takes him on a journey. It’s kind of weird and honest. It’s also very sexual, and very, very funny. When I read this as a 17 year old, the pure brashness of it blew me away and gave me a sort of ‘permission’ – in the way that say, the Coen Brothers have done for me in film, showing me that yes you can tell stories the way you want to as opposed to the way they are “supposed to be” told. You can feel the author going through something as you read it, a sort of parallel catharsis as Wing, the character in the book. It was rumoured that Wing F. Fing was a pseudonym for Tom Robbins (it’s not) – since it’s got that sort of road trippy, meet-several-quirky-and-surprising-characters-on-the-way template, and it’s also set in the Pacific Northwest. It is among the funniest books I have ever read, and is equally heartfelt and honest.
Lawrence and Holloman
Bed Bugs: A Musical Love Story
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