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From left, Roller Town actors Evany Rosen (playing Beth) and Kayla Lorette (playing Julia) watch filming at the Olympic Community Centre in Halifax, September 25, 2010. (Sandor Fizli For The Globe and Mail)
From left, Roller Town actors Evany Rosen (playing Beth) and Kayla Lorette (playing Julia) watch filming at the Olympic Community Centre in Halifax, September 25, 2010. (Sandor Fizli For The Globe and Mail)

Comedy

Halifax comics aim for silver-screen fame Add to ...

Gliding on white roller skates, swaddled in shiny pants and angel wings, Kristin Langille is dancing in the middle of a Halifax disco. The camera follows her every move. "Stay on the bum," yells director Andrew Bush to his cinematographer.

"Okay, that's great. Shake the bum. It's that kind of movie."

No, this isn't a real roller disco. It's a film set, spawned by the absurd imagination of local sketch comedy troupe Picnicface. Their movie, Roller Town, is a parody of the short-lived genre of disco flicks that crested in the late 1970s. Many of those, such as Skatetown USA and Roller Boogie, came out when most members of Picnicface were still in diapers.

"All three of us sat down to watch these movies and we picked apart the moments that haven't been parodied and the moments that are still incredible," says Bush, 32, who co-wrote the screenplay for Roller Town with two of his seven colleagues in the troupe, Mark Little, 27, and Scott Vrooman, 32. " Roller Town is a parody the way that Wet Hot American Summer (2001) is a parody of camp movies," Little says. "But really, it's absurd enough to exist on its own."

How did a sketch comedy group end up here - making a feature film in a warehouse-turned-roller-rink in the north end of Halifax?

Picnicface's loyal following has made them, to use a local idiom, Halifamous.

The eight stand-up comedians - Bush, Little and Vrooman, along with Kyle Dooley, Evany Rosen, Brian MacQuarrie, Cheryl Hann and Bill Wood - are best known here for their regular Sunday night gigs at Joker's Comedy Club, where after years of performing, they still only charge $5 a ticket. The troupe was born when Little and Dooley were students at Dalhousie University in 2005, with the other members joining as they moved from college bars to popular recognition on club stages.

But there's more to the story. Picnicface is known worldwide due to its enormous online presence. A series of videos, posted on its own YouTube channel and the comedy sites CollegeHumor and Funny or Die, has earned them an international fan base. "We first posted on Funny or Die in June of 2007," says Vrooman. Will Ferrell is one of the creators of the site. "Ferrell made Power Thirst and Near Death Experiences two of his three favourite videos the next week, and then a few weeks later he made The Proposal one of his favourites."

Ferrell's comment: "Frickin' Picnicface cranks out the goods."

Power Thirst, a clip-art video, now has more than 20 million hits. Cumulatively, Picnicface's online hits top 40 million.

This buzz has earned them shots at a Comedy Network TV show - still in development - and trips to Los Angeles, where they engaged a manager to help forward their Hollywood career. Now they're putting together this feature film, which already has a distributor, Toronto's D Films Corp.

The troupe members know they are making a big leap in making the film. Their predecessors, The Kids in the Hall and the SCTV crew, honed their craft for years on TV before attempting feature films. But it isn't unprecedented to jump straight from short to long form.

"[U.S. comedy troupe]Broken Lizard didn't get their sketch show and they ended up making a bunch of movies," Vrooman points out. "It's just another way to get the foot in the door. We've learned a lot over the past few years writing the script, going through draft after draft after draft and now rehearsing. We're getting more confident that at least parts of this are going to work."

Despite the relative inexperience of the creative team, the Atlantic office of the federal cultural agency Telefilm Canada saw promise and agreed to help finance the film.

"It's extremely timely," says Telefilm's regional director Gordon Whittaker. "What we're seeing is a trend towards using online strategies, to build audience right from the get-go. The barriers of entry to the digital world are pretty low, which ups the competition. These guys have risen to the top ... so much so they were able to attract a Canadian distributor, which is highly unusual at this level. I think that speaks volumes about the team and project itself."

The troupe has even tried to tap into the YouTube fan base to solicit funds for the film - staging online telethons and offering to write raps, record fans' sketches or even make some more permanent changes: "For $500,000 I will change my middle name to your full name," Little pledges in one video.

So far, there've been no takers on the last item, but the comics are doing plenty of thank-you raps and skits for the contributions. Vrooman says the donation percentage of the overall budget is "a fraction, but we really appreciate it. Everything has helped, especially when we get down to the fine details."

With $800,000 to work with and a 17-day shoot, Roller Town qualifies as somewhere between small- and micro-budget filmmaking, which is fine, since, as Bush says, "We're so used to doing things for zero dollars." Veteran producers Jay Dahl and Bill Niven are keeping them realistic about what they can accomplish, but on-set in the glitzy roller rink, with smoke, lights and sparkly silver jumpsuits, the illusion of 1980 is entirely convincing.

Details of the plot are sketched out in the script - roller dude Leo (Little) tries to save the local disco from those who want to bring in video arcade machines, while falling in love with a girl who was classically trained at the "roller conservatory" (Kayla Lorette).

But, despite the budget constraints, they have been able to go "off book" regularly to see what works in the moment, allowing the performers freedom to develop their roles on the spot.

"In this case, we want improv," Niven says. "Andy knows what he's doing; it's a safe world for them to play in."

"I didn't really know who my character was until I got in costume," says Rosen, wearing a gold tank top, red belt and black-satin hot pants with the requisite skates. "I made out with three people in two days. I chew a lot of gum. I guess I'm just confused about where my tongue should go."

There is a sense that the members of Picnicface feel like they're getting away with something here, applying their craft in a new format, so they certainly aren't complaining. "We're just happy to make it," says Bush. "But I don't know how we're going to make it. It's all going to be wides. Wide shots, one after the other."

Special to The Globe and Mail

 

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