They say that acting is like jumping out of an airplane. All right, no one really says that. But Deragh Campbell would – because she did just such a thing.
In August, 2017, the Toronto actor filmed her first scene for Kazik Radwanski’s new film Anne at 13,000 ft., an intense character study that follows a 27-year-old daycare worker who finds it impossible to interact with the adult world. While Anne struggles to relate to her co-workers, her family and her romantic suitors, she finds herself completely in her element while skydiving, where she can float above all that she doesn’t understand. Radwanski was working with a micro-budget (just less than $200,000), so there was no money for green-screens or stunt doubles. Campbell would have to take the leap herself.
“That was the first thing we shot, and it was absolutely horrifying – full-on physical horror,” Campbell says. “I don’t think I would have done it if not for the movie. But it was worth it to capture the most genuine reaction that you could possibly get.”
This desire to capture sincere, in-the-moment emotions doubles as the through-line for Radwanski’s work. At only 34, the Toronto filmmaker has already made a monumental impact on the Canadian independent filmmaking scene, with his previous micro-budget features, 2012′s Tower and 2015′s How Heavy This Hammer, showing just how much cinematic firepower can be delivered for so few dollars. Using tight close-ups and shooting in a loose, hand-held style, Radwanski’s films evoke a sense of intimate claustrophobia – by the end of his features, we know his characters better than even they know themselves. It is sincere, inventive and intense filmmaking that is impossible to shake.
And now Radwanski’s latest and most ambitious effort will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Anne at 13,000 ft. is slated for the high-profile Platform program. It’s in that juried slate where the tiny little Canadian film will go head to head for a $20,000 cash prize against works from such internationally renown auteurs as Julie Delpy, Alice Winocour and Pietro Marcello.
"Kaz is one of Canada's most talented filmmakers. Although his subjects are very local and he works with a team of Toronto filmmakers and actors, his films feel like they're speaking to international cinema," says Cameron Bailey, TIFF's co-head and artistic director. "This film shows him to be working on an even higher level than in the past, and is a sign of greater things to come."
For Radwanski, the project can be traced to twin desires: to explore the setting of a daycare, where his mother has worked for four decades, and to collaborate with Campbell. The pair met in 2013, just after Radwanski had made Tower, which he jokes “sneaked in through the back door” to premiere at TIFF, and after Campbell had made her on-screen debut in the acclaimed teenage-runaway drama I Used to Be Darker. Both shared a passion for Canadian cinema – their first encounter was after a screening of a Michael Snow film at the TIFF Lightbox – and both wanted to become fully invested in the burgeoning local scene.
“We were immediately on the same wavelengths in terms of the films we were watching, what we were interested in, and I’ve always wanted to work with a great actress,” Radwanski recalls. “So for How Heavy This Hammer, Deragh has a cameo as a daycare teacher, which was our trial run. From then, it was researching and exploring the space, and slowly figuring out this character.”
Slow is the operative word, as the film was shot over the course of two years.
“A lot of it was learning how to shoot certain things, and Deragh for a while worked alongside the staff at the daycare. Things sort of grow throughout the film, and we took the time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. A lot of it is taking cues from Deragh,” says Radwanski, who filmed in the same daycare his mother continues to work in, and where he attended as a child, too. “It was a long evolution, and we wanted the character and the film to feel true to life. Part of that is living with it and getting to a more interesting place.”
“We definitely discovered who Anne is through the shooting of it,” agrees Campbell, 30. “She has different moods and fluctuations as a person does, and that comes across because we shot over a long period of time. I never looked at it as getting into character, because it wasn’t this thing where I was just Anne. It was less a cerebral thing of moving into that person’s mindset as it was more a physical thing, being in those environments and circumstances.”
The result is a staggering marriage of Radwanski’s empathetic sensibilities and Campbell’s talent for controlling volatility. It also, in a very real way, delivers on the initial promise of the country’s nascent wave of indie filmmakers, the first ripples of which could be felt when Radwanski and Campbell initially met.
“I remember feeling very alone when we made Tower, and the year it played TIFF, I think there were four debut Canadian features. This year, there’s seven, and so many more returning filmmakers able to work autonomously,” says Radwanski, who goes on to name-check Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis’s White Lie, Albert Shin’s Clifton Hill and the frequent presence of indie-scene ringleader Matt Johnson, who co-stars in Anne. “Thinking back, we had to jump through so many hoops to get our films in certain places. But people seem just way more interested now in Canadian films.”
Part of that interest can be traced to Radwanski’s production company and screening series MDFF, which he runs with producing partner Daniel Montgomery. Since 2014, MDFF has connected Toronto audiences with the work of daring Canadian filmmakers whose work would otherwise go ignored at home. Although exposure for these types of films is still limited, there is momentum behind the movement.
“I feel one of the differences is that back then, Kaz had made Tower, Sofia [Bohdanowicz] had made some shorts and Antoine [Bourges] had made his shorts. But now with the support of granting bodies like Telefilm, these people have been able to continue making features under $200,000 and are able to explore the material and be structurally and narratively innovative,” says Campbell, who recently co-directed her own film, the docudrama MS Slavic 7, alongside Bohdanowicz, scoring a Berlinale premiere this past February. “It doesn’t have to be this process of making a small movie, then accelerating quickly into making expensive movies and losing creative control.”
But with that artistic autonomy come financial limitations. After making Tower for $50,000 and How Heavy This Hammer for $100,000, filming Anne at 13,000 ft. was the first time Radwanski was able to pay himself a little bit and “not just run up credit-card bills.” The director supplements his income by teaching film at Ryerson and York universities – he also did some television and commercial work, which he found “heartbreaking” – while Campbell works a variety of part-time jobs.
Still, for Radwanski, “it’s an absolute dream to work this way,” he says. “There’s always anxiety of will I be able to make a film this summer, or will I have to wait a year? But in this budget bracket, if I have creative control and if my collaborators are taken care of, that’s the dream.”
And if the result is as challenging and powerful as Anne at 13,000 ft., Campbell says, then she and Radwanski and the rest of their friends and frequent collaborators will stay low, and stay innovative.
“It’s nice to bring people into different kinds of filmmaking that doesn’t have to be this hyperpolished, overstated narrative,” she says. “It can be weirder than that.”
Anne at 13,000 ft. premieres at TIFF on Sept. 9, 6:45 p.m., Lightbox, with an additional screening Sept. 14, 7 p.m., Lightbox (tiff.net)
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