Inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of corners, but Toronto filmmaker Daniel Warth may be the first person who can trace the creative spark to a bland corporate boardroom. It was in one such beige, all-purpose meeting room about six years ago that Warth, working as a freelance videographer, found the key to his debut feature.
"I was hired to document this seminar, all about corporate mediation – fairly run-of-the-mill," Warth recalls today. "But then the company brought out these two late-20s actors, and they did this heavy routine where one played the other's father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's. They were acting their hearts out at this boardroom table – there were real tears – while people sat around taking notes. I was blown away by it."
That contrast of high drama and low stakes was the seed for his stellar first film, Dim the Fluorescents, which opens in Toronto this week. The dark, piercing comedy focuses on two struggling artists – actor Audrey (Claire Armstrong) and playwright Lillian (Naomi Skwarna) – who pay the bills by taking on corporate role-playing gigs. Just like the two performers Warth once witnessed, they take their jobs extremely seriously – to hilarious, or more often hilariously painful, effect.
"I started thinking about it in the context of what happens when an actor lets their life bleed into their art, and vice versa," Warth says. "It's exciting, it's silly and, yes, it's a little sad."
He toyed with the idea for a year or two until teaming up with playwright Miles Barstead in 2012. The pair spent the next four years cobbling together those much-sought-after elements in the Canadian independent film world: time, money, resources, even more money. Finally, Warth cast long-time friend Skwarna – a prominent figure in the Toronto theatre scene – and Armstrong, and the film was completed in late 2016.
"After conceiving it, it's all about trying to figure out where the money comes from, and I was totally new to that world," says Warth, who puts the film's final budget at about $300,000. "Even when you finish the movie, there's a sense of 'Oh great, it's done and it won't cost any more money.' Ha! That's not true."
Just like the lead characters' desire for a big break, Dim the Fluorescents needed one big push into the spotlight to get on the radar. Warth and Co. found that push at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the low-wattage alternative to the more mainstream Sundance.
"Our strategy was pinned to getting in there, but we had a Plan B – and a Plan C, too," Warth says. "We came into it honestly. We had zero connections there and we just submitted it with a cover letter and sent it out into the world. And it worked."
But those big breaks can be costly, too.
"Taking it to festivals – we were doing all that largely out of pocket," Warth says. "We were able to get some money from Telefilm for some premieres – they do fund travel for certain events like Slamdance – but it's still an effort getting the film out there, putting it out for the world to see."
Luckily, the Slamdance plan paid off, with the film winning the festival's Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative – the same award that Matt Johnson's debut feature, The Dirties, won in 2013, offering a neat echo of rookie Canadian filmmakers getting recognition outside the country.
"The festival is a launching pad, and maybe even being at a larger or more well-known festival wouldn't have been great for us, as we would've been lost in the competition," Warth says. "It was the best of both worlds: We're in the States, where there's a lot of press, distributors and buyers, but it was still a festival focused on first-time filmmakers."
Slamdance led to other festivals – 13 at last count – and now, almost a year after its Utah debut, a Canadian theatrical release. It seems a long way from that first boardroom meeting so many years ago, but in a way, Warth has never left it behind.
"Seeing those actors perform then, sobbing and giving this amazing performance with all the obstacles around them, it was inspiring and absurd," he says. "It taught me that you can turn your vision into what you want if you just give 110 per cent. Take that crummy scenario and don't phone it in. Art can succeed despite any trappings."
Dim the Fluorescents opens on Friday in Toronto.