Here at WUFS we strive to do what no club has done before: screen the wildest films you won’t see anywhere else on campus. This time I around, I thought it would be a smashing idea to showcase Toronto independent cinema. I immediately enlisted some advice from my friend Nate Wilson, a first year student at the University of Toronto and a real whippersnipper in the horror scene. He was not just receptive, but enthusiastic. I was inundated with links to interviews with filmmakers, private Vimeos (narrowly seen by the general public) and personal anecdotes aplenty.
In the first segment, I screened what-is-essentially an introduction to the Toronto independent film community. I included two adverts from the Toronto After Dark Film Festival (TADFF), which is held at the Royal Cinema over a few late-nights every September. The first was by Nate. A precociously sweet short about him and his father’s past history with TADFF. The next was for TADFF’s fifth anniversary by filmmaker Chris Nash. Essentially, a gross, troll-like puppet has sex with an ambiguously-young five-year old. The audience laughed so hard, they didn’t hear the punch-line in which the puppet exhaled “OOOOOH, I AM IN TROUBLE.” Next was “Top Men?” from The Rep (Morgan White). When I was researched the topic of ‘Toronto Independent Horror,’ this documentary immediately came up. It initially sets out to discuss the trials of running the Toronto Underground Cinema, an under-respected repertory theater which specialized in grindhouse and horror film. Unfortunately, since The Rep was made, the Underground closed. I felt it was important to include this segment because it becomes too easy to look at independent film communities and boast about how great everything is going. It becomes pertinent to admit: sometimes institutions, like the Toronto Underground Cinema, close. It is unfortunate for the community.
The next segment showed off Toronto independent film. The first film was Crimson Thread, Nate’s most accomplished. I hate when I describe him as a ‘student filmmaker’ (and I’m sure he does too). Nevertheless, the film’s professional slickness is unexpected. Next, I screened both the Canadian segments of ABC’s of Death 2. For those who may be unfamiliar, the ABC’s of Death is an international project in which 26 filmmakers around the world are each asked to depict a way to die corresponding to a letter (A is for, B is for and so on). Canada contributed W is for Wish (Steve Kostanski) and Z is for Zygote (Chris Nash, whom you may recognize from the TADFF advert). Both of them played well, but people really responded to Z because it was different. Truly, it was as close to that classic kind of ‘cringe-worthy horror’ as we got. I almost didn’t screen Z because of a personal inclination toward campy science fiction. Nate insisted that I include it and he was right to do so.
In the final segment, we screened the seminal piece of the Toronto film community – Manborg (also by Steve Kostanski). Okay, well it wasn’t shot in Toronto, but it certainly mattered there. When I planned the screening, I thought the film would only be half watchable. Something students would appreciate. I have no reservation to say it was a legitimately good movie. The aesthetic is rusty, but the humour is on-point. He borrows from obvious sources: Terminator, Robocop, Star Trek, and even a bit of Triumph of the Will. Steve is the kind of guy who watched films like these and said, “Why can’t the evil guy’s cronies have crushes?” That was my favourite joke. Some horrible monster of a bad-guy is in love with sparky revolutionist, Prisoner Number Seven (or as he says, “Prisoner Number One in my heart”).
The Q and A followed the films via Skype. I never got a full confirmation, but as I understand, the filmmakers were at “Eyesore Cinema’s Second Story Screenings.” (For those who find themselves on Queen Street in Toronto this holiday season), Eyesore Cinema is the Be-Kind-Rewind-esque video store in which Nate finds meaningful employment, located above the famous ‘Rotate This’ in Downtown Toronto. They also mentioned something of attending an American Thanksgiving party. If you wanted to see the importance of institutions in bringing together filmmakers, this was kind of the perfect set-up. Cuddled up in a cozy blanket were Nate and Steve. That’s not to say their relationship is that of a mentor and mentee. I realised quickly, they are good friends.
The Q and A was built upon this juxtaposition. Nate knows exactly what he wants to do and he could not be happier about it. On the other hand, you have a guy like Steve Kostanski. If you had a chance to see the documentary Indie Game (a worthwhile watch on Netflix) you’d notice Steve’s type immediately. He’s an absolute visionary, but he’s worked hard and as such, he’s got more of a cynical outlook. In Indie Game, independent video game developers make a similar point as Steve. Executing their vision is really just a bunch of time coding on a computer, rendering and hoping at the end you have something positive to bring to the market. Steve has a professional career as a Special Effects Artist for major films such as Pacific Rim and Capote. After work, he makes independent films, at first starting with no more than borrowed film equipment, illegal editing software and some major time on hand. Most of Manborg was shot on a green screen and cost around $1000 (an incredible feat considering W is for Wish cost $5000-7000). When you leave a film like Manborg you wonder, “What could that guy do with $100,000 or $1,000,000?” It’s not even that he could be financially responsible. He frankly admitted to the opposite ($1000 is the guess-timated price of the film). It’s that he could really use a big budget effectively.
In one instance we asked how their films do at festivals. This was a relevant question as many students at the screening are taking a course on film festival scholarship. Nate said they are just a “big dumb party.” Steve was less-enthusiastic; he considered the whole thing very stressful. The way he spoke about it seems as though he doesn’t even like Manborg. But, it’s a good thing gone right. Steve made the film in his spare time and found himself with a producer, entrance into festivals and international distribution deals. When I looked at IMBD fan reviews, things were mixed. Some adored the film, whereas others said things like, “Words do not exist to describe how much this film sucked.” Short of a couple bad reviews, Steve undersold the trandmedia universe of Manborg. As it was revealed, there exists a comic book, an unusually photoshopped Japanese poster and even a family who loved the film so much, they made a 15 minute follow-up and used it as their annual Christmas card. Even Western’s newly seasoned “Fanborgs” were in talks of starting a club dedicated to the film’s kind-of-Australian loudmouth anti-hero, Justice. Steve is that special kind of filmmaker you constantly want to compliment. But, I’m sure he has heard it a thousand times.
When we asked Nate and Steve what their biggest limitations were, it had to do with working for free (a likely answer). They said they had lots of friends to help them, but the availabilities never sync up and inevitably friends only stay for the fun “making the movie” part of making a movie. The two bring up an interesting point. If you should get the chance, offer to help a filmmaker in a way which is both consistent and meaningful. Independent cinema can’t survive without those who support it.
Co-chair, Western Undergraduate Film Society