The weird worlds of Jeffrey St. Jules always begin with geography.
One of the country's most lauded makers of short films, St. Jules, who is about to make his feature debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, sets his stories in places that are odd if not downright surreal, but that also have extremes of circumstance that reveal a person for who they truly are – a frontier town that would explode if anyone dared step across the town line, an isolated compound sealed off from the rest of a city where the inhabitants survive on a stream of garbage and alcohol.
His first feature, Bang Bang Baby, is set in the small town of Lonely Arms, where a chemical leak makes a sweet high school girl believe she is living in a musical.
"That's actually a big thing for me, the geography of the worlds. I think in terms of where things are located and the world that they're set in," St. Jules says. "It's a way to reflect the themes and psyche of the characters."
Of course, among audiences, the most striking aspect of St. Jules's films are their distinctive weirdness. It's a strangeness that manages to be both charming and disturbingly sinister. There are backdrops that look like they were painted by children, a man pregnant with a stuffed animal donkey, an orphan who believes a tree is his mother, a donkey who is a former university professor, all mixed frequently with alcohol and murder.
The worlds and their weirdness are expressed with techniques that show a similar disinterest in whatever it is we mean by realism. For example, to achieve the shaky quality of his second short film, The Tragic Story of Nling, St. Jules shot it on video, printed out every single one of the approximately 12,000 frames, and rephotographed them to play as animation.
"It's just what I've always been drawn to," the 36-year-old writer and director says of his penchant for strangeness. "I think it all kind of goes back to childhood. I guess it's got something to do with life not seeming as exciting as it should. I'm really pretty conservative. In real life, not politically, just in terms of my lifestyle. But it's sort of an outlet for expressing craziness."
He can express craziness as well as anyone, but what St. Jules really wants is to understand people. That's why he is turning to features.
St. Jules, who lives in Toronto with his wife Shalini, a social worker, and their two young boys, knew he wanted to be a filmmaker as a teenager growing up in Fall River, N.S. (population: 11,526).
"What excited me about it, even talking about it then, is the possibility that you could do the craziest thing in a movie. The possibilities of how crazy you could get were limitless," he says.
He applied to Concordia University because "somebody at some point said they had a film program," he says. But he didn't get in, so instead he studied creative writing at the university until he finally got into the film production program in his third year.
After Concordia, he moved to Toronto to attend the Canadian Film Centre. It was there that he wrote and directed The Sadness of Johnson Joe Jangles, about two male lovers, one of whom is pregnant with the aforementioned stuffed animal donkey, who are torn apart by life in a frontier town.
The film premiered at TIFF in 2004. It was nominated for a Genie award and won him Best Emerging Filmmaker honours at the Worldwide Short Film Festival. It also earned him a Cannes Film Festival residency. He is still the only Canadian ever to be accepted into the program, where he began writing the first draft of Bang Bang Baby.
The film is many things: a musical, a homage to sci-fi movies of the 1950s and 1960s, an unsettling story of a young girl trapped in a small town, a nightmare. But at its core, St. Jules says, "It's really a movie about the dangers of escapism."
He followed up Jangles with Nling. Before the story of the underprivileged forced to eat garbage and numb themselves with alcohol, one of whom is a donkey professor intent on holding onto his humanity, there is a Nietzsche quote famous among philosophy grads: "Can an ass be tragic? To perish under a burden one can neither bear nor throw off?"
Anita Lee, the acclaimed producer, remembers seeing it for the first time: "I was blown away."
She was so impressed, in fact, that she produced a St. Jules documentary, Let The Daylight In To the Swamp, about his grandparents' fraught relationship, for the National Film Board.
"There's this absurd, almost campy, fantastic element. But at the core, there are real moments of emotional truths," Lee says. "You're left with this sort of very heightened sense of both sadness and beauty and truth. It's a very powerful, unexpected mix."
Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo, now the Canadian features programmer at TIFF, first met St. Jules when the festival featured The Tragic Story of Nling.
"He's an incredibly creative filmmaker with a very unique and strong vision. But there's also this really strong emotional core to his films. So even though they're set in these often bizarre worlds, you really connect with the characters," she says.
Making a feature film in Canada is not easy for many directors, but Lee says that, because of his "audacious vision," it likely has been particularly difficult for St. Jules. After all, the oddness that is beloved at short film festivals often doesn't attract feature film financing.
"In some ways, he's had to work harder," Lee says.
St. Jules is the first to admit he hasn't pushed as hard as he might have to get a feature made. "I could probably be better at being a business person. What I want to get better at is being relentless about getting to a level of where I want to get to."
Right now, that means making the leap from short films to features.
"I started out making films because I liked to experiment and play and create worlds," he says. "But for me the most exciting thing about making features is creating characters. In a short, you have characters but it's less about going on a journey with those characters."
He's also now more interested in features because he's more confident working with actors.
"I've always been an introverted, kind of shy person. And actors just kind of seemed like the opposite of that," he says. "I was very scared of working with actors. But as I started doing it more, that's what has becoming most exciting about it, is working with actors and seeing them bring things to life. Because ultimately that's what grounds the crazy world."
He credits Jane Levy's lead performance in Bang Bang Baby for taking a character who still felt too strange on the page and making her a believable, sympathetic person.
Amid all of the movie's strange mix of influences – which run the gamut from Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – and its surreal flourishes, including a toxic purple cloud that causes gross physical mutations, St. Jules wants to us to recognize his strange worlds, and the people in them, as familiar, however odd they may at first seem.
"I've always been very conscious that a fun, crazy world only goes so far," he says. "I know a lot of great films that aren't character-based, but in what I do I think it's all about connecting with the characters and caring about them. That's what I see as the anchor in all the wild worlds. It makes the absurd flourish as something you can actually feel and connect with."
Bang Bang Baby screens Monday, Sept. 8 at 7:15 p.m.; Sept. 10 at 4:15 p.m.; Sept. 12 at 6 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre.