In contrast to the glitz and glamour of the Oscars, the Canadian indie film-making experience has Vancouver actor/director/screenwriter Ben Ratner standing outside Vancouver’s Fifth Avenue Cinemas lately, handing out pens. They say “Down River,” the name of his film being released in that theatre on Friday (and next Friday in Toronto). It’s a low-cost way to promote his shoestring-budget project, which has won a number of awards on the festival circuit.
The film was inspired by Mr. Ratner’s close friend Babz Chula, who was a beloved and central figure in Vancouver’s acting community. The Chula-like character Pearl (Helen Shaver) acts as a sort of den mother to three younger artistic women living in her building. When Pearl becomes very ill, it has a profound effect on the three women (one of whom is played by Mr. Ratner’s wife, Jennifer Spence).
Mr. Ratner began writing the script a few months after Ms. Chula died in 2010.
How did you meet and get to know Babz?
Everyone knew Babz. I met her at an audition, and I said, ‘How’s it going,’ and she talked for about an hour. We just had a connection. And I really got to know her when we were shooting the Bruce Sweeney film Dirty. The film was created based on improvs, and Babz and I would improvise scenes in her kitchen and just talk about stuff and she’d cook or make some soup or roll a joint or have a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, whatever. Those meetings I had with Babz are in many ways what Down River’s inspired by.
Did you set out to write something inspired by Babz or was it less conscious a process?
I absolutely knew it was going to be inspired by Babz. It was a turning point in my life when she died, and turning points are good things to write about. I also wanted to write about being an artist and particularly about being a woman artist. I’ve been an acting teacher going on 20 years, and I see how difficult it is for them to maintain hope and self-esteem and creative fulfilment particularly in film and television – an industry that rewards beauty over talent. Not always, of course. But it’s tough. A man can have a career as an actor well into his senior years, and for women those roles diminish year by year.
How directly is the character of Pearl inspired by Babz?
She is directly inspired by Babz. And ‘inspired’ is the key word. A lot of the dialogue is culled from things that Babz said to me and other people over the years. The letter that’s read at the end of the film is largely from the letter that I read at Babz’s memorial. There’s her furniture, her clothing, her jewellery, her artwork; so much of what she left behind physically is in the film – in addition to what she left behind in other, longer lasting ways. But having said that, the character of Pearl is a creation of Helen Shaver. Helen was very clear with me that she was not playing Babz; she was playing Pearl. It was vital for me that this was not a biopic.
Did Helen know Babz?
They weren’t close friends, but they had met before. Everybody else in the film, the three lead characters, knew Babz very, very well.
It must have been emotional.
On any low-budget film set, there’s so much that needs to be accomplished so fast that you kind of have to go into warrior mode. You can’t luxuriate in emotion. But we had plenty of it. The most emotionally impactful scenes that we shot were the point in the film where all the women put on an article of clothing that was bequeathed to them from Pearl. Those clothes were actually Babz’s clothes. And Larry Lynn, our cinematographer, was married to Babz, and he’s standing there with the camera and I’m standing next to the camera and these dear friends of mine, including my wife, Jen, are standing in front of us wearing Babz’s clothing.
What kind of budget did you have?
You could not buy a new BMW with the amount of money we had to get the film in the can. We got this film shot for about $60,000. And then Telefilm gave us enough money to finish it properly. And, fortunately, with technology the way it is now, shooting things on high definition and with a very skilled director of photography, you can’t tell that it’s a cheap film. We never said we don’t care what it looks like. We always knew that we needed a film with aesthetic integrity. The film is about these beautiful women, and we’re not going to do a crappy job of shooting them; we really have to see who they are and what they look like. You can make good films for a little bit of money. The challenge comes in releasing them. It costs a lot of money to get something in theatres.
And that’s where you are now. This must be pins and needles time.
The whole experience of making films is pins and needles. It starts as soon as you decide you’re going to tell the story, and it never stops. Every step of the way from trying to get a script written and time passing by, to pre-production, finding people, crew, cast, locations, to shooting to editing to completion to releasing to promoting to the reviews. The pins and needles never stop. The ticking clock never stops. So believing in the film makes it all worth it. The more you value your own opinion, the less other people’s can destroy you.
This interview has been condensed and edited.