Filmmaker and journalist Chandler Levack at Bay Street Video, one of Toronto’s last remaining video stores, on Aug. 26. Levack’s debut feature film I Like Movies will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail
It is October, 2018 and I’m 31 years old. I don’t know whether I’ll ever have kids, but I know that I want to give birth to a movie. But nobody in the Canadian film industry wants to get me pregnant.
I’ve spent the past four years trying to get a million-dollar movie off the ground, a rom-com called Anglophone about my experiences navigating the Montreal indie rock scene. I’ve written 39 drafts of the screenplay, found producers and pitched it to a Telefilm executive who told me that the best way for my character to learn French is through “pillow talk.” The movie falls apart and I sink into a depression that scares everyone I know.
At this point, I’ve been through every single Canadian film institution that exists. I studied film at the University of Toronto. I graduated from the Canadian Film Centre’s screenwriters lab. My short films and music videos have played TIFF, SXSW and been nominated for multiple Juno Awards. And I’ve been a professional film critic since I was 19 for publications across North America, including The Globe and Mail.
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I talk to Matt Miller, a close producer friend of mine, about my options. That’s when I realize that I’m eligible for Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program – a $125,000 microbudget grant responsible for the breakout success of filmmakers such as Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf) and Jasmin Mozaffari (Firecrackers). All I have to do is find a producer who’s never made a movie before, create a budget, shoot a pitch video and write an entirely new screenplay in the next four months.
That’s when I start thinking about Blockbuster Video. Every weekend during my last year of high school, I would spend five hours pushing a DVD cart across a grey carpet. I was the kind of dork who urged customers to rent Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs when they wanted Mr. Deeds, but every so often, someone would let me talk about why I liked movies, and it would feel as if my heart had grown six sizes.
I Like Movies will get a theatrical release later this year.
I write the first draft of my script, I Like Movies, in three weeks, pouring myself into my dual protagonists: Lawrence, a narcissistic 17-year-old video-store clerk desperate to escape Burlington, Ont., and Alana, his mid-30s boss with a traumatic past. In all my years making music videos or writing about other people’s work, I’d never made anything that felt like my actual voice. Giving myself permission to make a film feels both liberating and terrifying.
My producer Vicki Lean and I got the grant in June, 2019. We obtain funding from Canada Council and the Toronto Arts Council, too. In the fall, Lean’s documentary series for Crave goes into full production and we come to the hard decision that we’ll need to find another lead producer.
My friend Evan Dubinsky (who later becomes a co-producer) passes my script along to a another producer who he knows. His positive feedback reignites my ambition, and I take a meeting with Lindsay Blair Goeldner, a recent graduate from the CFC’s producer’s lab and a former video-store clerk. When she assures me that “your movie is going to happen,” I get a small electric feeling of possibility. We form a creative partnership, which Goeldner compares to a marriage. It is now January, 2020, the start of a brand new decade.
Then, the pandemic hits.
I move in with my father, back to Burlington. I channel all my restless energy into sexting with my ex-boyfriend until the sun rises, as my dad’s elderly dog shoots me dirty looks from across the futon.
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One day, Goeldner tells me that I like the idea of being a filmmaker more than making a film. She’s right – while life on the futon is gross and safe, it is not my destiny. I decide to embrace the idea that I will shoot my first feature in the middle of a pandemic: March and April, 2021, which will become Ontario’s third wave.
With a timeline to hit, things move quickly. We find our lead actor, Isaiah Lehtinen, our incredible Lawrence. I make detailed, obsessive look books and inspiration boards about my vision for the film, modelled from my high-school yearbooks, and research the video store chains of the early 2000s. I start collaborating with a great team of artists: my cinematographer Rico Moran, production designer Claudia Dall’Orso, hair and makeup artist Andi Clifford and costume designer Courtney Mitchell.
My father drives me around the Greater Toronto Area. We’re looking for a sprawling suburban video store location, but it turns out we can only afford tiny, weird convenience stores in back alleyways. Then, Lean texts me a picture of an abandoned Blockbuster in Northern Ontario. If you ignore the asbestos leaking from the walls, it’s a perfect time capsule. Everything in the store has been left untouched since it closed in 2004.
Unfortunately, we can’t afford to shoot there. I cut a deal with the property manager and we fill a cube truck with the building’s dusty shelving and computers. We eventually find our dream location – a 10,000-square-foot storefront that was recently a thrift store in Ajax, Ont. – after I get the demented idea to call every store that used to be a Blockbuster.
The film was shot in a 10,000-square-foot storefront that was recently a thrift store in Ajax, Ont.
Finally, our first day of production arrives. I haven’t been in the same room with anyone other than my dad in eight months, and now I am directing a crew of 25 people.
COVID-19 costs, such as hiring a team of on-set medics to administer nasal swabs each morning, wipe out 15 per cent of an already strapped micro-budget, forcing my producers to defer their fees and me to put my life savings into the film. A lead actor gets recast halfway through production after a freak accident. My assistant director tries to mandate that all our extras have to wear masks, even while they’re on camera and it almost blows a mental gasket in my brain. I direct in a face shield that fogs up my glasses, and stumble around the set like Mr. Magoo.
But there are moments of creative discovery so fulfilling I double down on my conviction that I actually love making movies. It’s that collective rush when everyone’s brains fire on the same frequency so intensely that you feel like you would die for anyone on set. We wrap in late April at a college dormitory and drink celebratory beers in the back alleyway, standing next to our cube trucks in the spring air.
Now, I have to face what I’ve actually made. My editor, Simone Smith, says she will send me her first cut of the film in three weeks. One night, two weeks after wrapping, I take the streetcar home and step off into a pothole. I don’t know it yet, but I’ve just broken my ankle and will spend the next four months on crutches, relearning how to walk.
I go back to the futon at my dad’s house and down Tylenol 3s. One night, Smith sends me her cut. At 2 a.m. I watch I Like Movies for the first time, cradling my dad’s dog, who I’ve also cast in the film. In some scenes, I see the glimpses of the story I’ve always wanted to tell; in others, I cringe all the way through.
Editing with Smith saves my life that summer, even though we have to do it over Zoom. There’s a parallel between healing a broken leg and healing a broken movie. Things that seem impossible at first – shaving down the first act to 20 minutes or walking up my dad’s stairs without crawling on all fours – happen as I build up my strength and bravery.
A year later – after catching COVID-19, getting rejected from 10 film festivals and doing two pickup shoots (one, naturally, during the Omicron wave) – I find out that I Like Movies will have its world premiere at TIFF. I weep on my kitchen floor with gratitude.
Giving birth is violent, and as I let my movie go into the world, I feel a sense of post-partum depression. I’m scared to let I Like Movies live a life so separate from me, when I’ve sacrificed the better half of my 30s for a Canadian microbudget dramedy.
I’ve wanted to call myself a filmmaker my entire life. As a critic, I’ve occasionally been flippant in my assessment of a director’s work, not knowing exactly what that label costs and what it means. I’m a very different person now.
I Like Movies screens Sept. 9, Sept. 14 and Sept. 16 at TIFF (tiff.net); it will be released theatrically later this year
Special to The Globe and Mail