If the names Lewis and Thomas fail to ring a bell, don’t fret; it couldn’t be otherwise. The pair of media-arts graduates from Toronto’s Sheridan College are only now releasing their debut feature film into the world as part of the Canada First! program at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Amy George is the coming-of-age story of Jesse, a cherubic junior-high student with artistic inclinations, raging hormones and an old 35-mm camera on the prowl in Riverdale. The only child of hippie-ish parents, Jesse has been asked by his teacher to “take a self-portrait without it being a literal portrait of yourself.” Mr. Lewis and Mr. Thomas co-produced, co-wrote, co-shot, co-directed and co-edited the whole thing, spending less than $50,000 in the process.
The film screens at AMC Yonge & Dundas on Sept. 13 at 6 p.m., Sept. 15 at 9:15 p.m., Sept. 17 at 12;30 noon. Tickets online through tiff.net
How much was Riverdale chosen on the basis of what you were trying to say or do in Amy George and how much was the result of budget limitations?
Yonah Lewis: Probably both. The film came about because we were out of school and we started to write a lot of screenplays – this is our seventh – but each one prior to that had been a reaction against what we thought was Canadian cinema. We’d write about these generic American towns that don’t exist, motels in the desert. Eventually we wanted to embrace what was around us. I’m living here in my parents’ house at the moment and Calvin would be here and we’d be wandering around and what we’d see would be Withrow Park, Riverdale Park, Gerrard Street East.
Calvin Thomas: When we wrote the script we were about two years out of Sheridan [College]… like a lot of film grads, we were itchy to do something. It was like, “We have to make a film; we have to be on set.” So the idea of shooting with what we had came first but what came next was trying to find an interesting story in this neighbourhood.
Was the story then something you imported and reworked from one of your previous scripts or did it arise, so to speak, from the soil of Riverdale?
Y.L.: It’s from the soil, I think. Calvin and I do everything together film-wise but sometimes it’s mildly difficult to find where our experiences overlap. He’s originally from Burlington. I was born in Montreal and lived in Hamilton. Eventually we stumbled across this idea of male adolescence, being a really, really grumpy young male teenager, as being this experience we both shared and could speak to.
How would you characterize Riverdale?
Y.L.: Obviously, it’s lefty. I mean, we had Jack [Layton]as our MP, [the NDP’s]Peter Tabuns is the MLA, Paula Fletcher’s on city council. I’m certain that’s why my parents [father: urban historical geography professor at the U of T; mother: head of an anti-bullying organization]moved here back in the day. It’s a neighbourhood that I love. It feels mildly isolated from downtown but unlike some other neighbourhoods, you have amazing access to everything.
CT: And photographically, the second we took the camera out to do tests, we fell in love with how it looked. And we shot it in spring so it was beautiful and it was just so easy to make things look good.
Amy George feels, looks, decidedly homemade. The camera’s hand-held; the sound can be mumbly; sometimes you can’t quite figure out what you’re looking at …
C.T.: Light bulbs from Home Depot!
Y.L.: Well, the financing was through friends and family and out of our own pockets as well. Our co-producer and composer was my brother [Lev]and he’s 20, and our executive producer [Connor Jessup]is 17 now but was 15 at the time.
C.T.: [Jessup]called us up in pre-production early last year – we’d known him from an art summer camp we’d taught at – and he said, “Guys, I wanna be in on the film; I wanna be on the set every day. And I’m gonna give you a significant amount of money.”
Fifteen years old: what did he do? Smash his piggy-bank?
C.T.: He’s a child actor and was most recently on the TNT Spielberg show Falling Skies. In fact, at the end of the day, he was our sole biggest investor.
Y.L.: We just knew we wouldn’t be able to do the film with large aspirations. We wrote a screenplay that we could actually shoot. We’re very happy with it but we’re very aware of its smallness and limitations. At the same time, we felt the need to shoot something and if we hadn’t, well, we wouldn’t be in TIFF this year.
Where’d you find Gabriel del Castillo Mullally, who plays the lead? Is he from Riverdale?
Y.L.: Technically, he used to live just above the Danforth. But now he’s just across from Withrow Park. He’s a friend of our 15-year-old exec producer and his mother, Maria del Mar, the actress, was one of Connor’s acting coaches … we really lucked out in all of our casting. Our main roles happened within the last week or two of pre-production including Jesse’s parents [played by real-life husband and wife, playwright/novelist Claudia Dey and musician Don Kerr] My brother, the musician, had recorded in Don’s studio and had actually babysat their son in return for studio time before.
You’ve taken Amy George to festivals in Wisconsin and in Brooklyn and now it’s going to Toronto where all these industry guys are and there’s the potential at least of a distribution deal. So after this, are you looking at doing a suite of Riverdale films, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio stories?
C.T.: We’re interested in making small movies in Toronto that aren’t ashamed or afraid of being a Toronto film. So the next film we have scheduled is a Toronto film but it won’t be in Riverdale. We feel it’s very, very different from Amy George.
Y.L.: We wrote Amy George in February and two months later we were starting to shoot. We know if we can get things moving, we have the ability to pull things off quickly. The point of Amy George was to put us a little bit on the radar. We were a couple of years out of school; nobody knew us. Now a few people do. So the next film hopefully will be a little bit bigger and obviously a little bit better. Amy George satisfied our itch a year and a half ago and we’re starting to get that itch again.
This interview has been condensed and edited.