This time last year, I was at the Berlin International Film Festival presenting the international premiere of my latest feature, Anne at 13,000 ft. Looking at photos of that sold-out cinema now feels like glimpsing a distant past or even a dream. In our present moment, an audience of 1,000 people gathered to see a movie together has become the stuff of fantasy. Our plan after the festival was to fly back to Canada and release the film across the country. We were hoping for many more nights like that one in Berlin. Little did we know that it would be the last time our film would be screened in-person.
For an independent film, everything depends on building momentum from festival to festival, from screening to screening. Suddenly, that came to a screeching halt. The release date for Anne at 13,000 ft. was March 20, 2020. Ontario issued a state of emergency on March 17. I remember having daily calls with cinemas leading up to the release. How naïve I was, bargaining with them, still hopeful to open.
Like many, we didn’t realize the full scope of the pandemic’s consequences. At first, we accepted that we’d have to delay the release for a month, then we became hopeful about opening in the fall. One year later, we’re back in lockdown, and the film will be released virtually across Canada on Feb. 19. This isn’t what we planned. But that’s part of what filmmaking is about.
The film follows Anne, a volatile young daycare teacher whose increasingly erratic social behaviour and emotional outbursts cause tensions to rise at the workplace and in her personal life. Deragh Campbell gives an incredible performance as this troubled woman in free fall – not just figuratively, as she has an affinity for skydiving – who reaches a tipping point when a tentative relationship with a romantic interest (Matt Johnson of The Dirties) she drunkenly meets at a wedding pushes her closer and closer to the edge.
Anne at 13,000 ft. is only 75 minutes long, and yet you might be surprised to read that it took two years to shoot. Patience is a huge part of my process. I’m inspired by the spontaneity and the flicker of the unpredictable. But to achieve those moments requires a lot of preparation. Scenes were revised and tailored to be shot documentary-like at a functioning daycare with 200 children. Deragh volunteered there to research her role and seamlessly blend with the environment. She even took skydiving lessons so she could jump out of a plane for the film. We had to plan for the unplanned. It took two years to film Anne. It only makes sense that it should take two years to release it.
It may sound unusual to work this way, but Anne at 13,000 ft. was produced through MDFF, a production company that I co-founded with my best friend, Dan Montgomery. We have the freedom to make our films how we want, setting our own pace, determining our own methods and adjusting on the fly. It also means we have the autonomy to release our film the way we think is best. We never could have weathered the COVID-19 storm without our independence.
It means we work with modest budgets, that we have to be resourceful and self-reliant, but it also means we aren’t beholden to stakeholders or the whims of a studio. Otherwise, like too many films, ours would have likely disappeared into obscurity, rushed out on a video-on-demand platform months ago.
Fortunately, the film has slowly gained its momentum back over the past year, travelling the world and screening virtually in South Korea, Argentina and Austria. We screened at the MoMA and signed a deal with Cinema Guild to handle our U.S. theatrical release. Earlier this month, the film was nominated by the Toronto Film Critics Association as one of three finalists for the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award.
And, at last, we’re set to finally release Anne at 13,000 ft. into Canadian (virtual) cinemas.
Reflecting back on this journey and all of its setbacks and delays, we’re exhausted, but in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, we have nothing to complain about. I can’t help but feel strengthened and emboldened to move forward. I’ve already written a new screenplay for Deragh Campbell and Matt Johnson. Telefilm is on board. A new project with its own set of surprises awaits.
Embarking on each film is its own leap of faith and presents different challenges to overcome. Being an independent filmmaker requires you to jump without knowing exactly how you’ll land. Not unlike Anne herself, we found ourselves in free fall, but we managed to end up on our feet. Now we’re ready to jump all over again.
Kazik Radwanski is the director of Anne at 13,000 ft., which is available virtually across Canada via digital TIFF Lightbox starting Feb. 19, followed by digital screenings via The Cinematheque in Vancouver starting March 5
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