Sleep-deprived after a late night of schmoozing at a Whistler Film Festival party ("I'm riding on two hours"), Joel Ashton McCarthy nonetheless kills it on the festival's first-time feature filmmakers' panel, regaling the standing-room-only crowd of writers, directors and producers with candid quips about how he made his debut narrative feature After Film School with next to no money.
"We had so many different layers of [b.s.] going on. You can't make a film for $5,000. It's physically impossible. You have to lie, cheat and steal."
McCarthy, who grew up in Coquitlam, B.C., has been making films since he was 10 – starting out shooting Jackass-type stunts. "By the time I was like 12 years old I had videotaped like five different people breaking bones," he told The Globe and Mail during a meandering interview through Whistler. In 2012, he graduated from the film program at Capilano University. This year he premiered his first two features – After Film School, and a documentary he co-directed with fellow Cap grad Bryant H. Boesen, Taking My Parents to Burning Man.
Burning Man has had some success on the film-festival circuit – winning audience awards and leading to a weird and amazing bifurcated experience. McCarthy, 24, found himself hobnobbing with celebrities and film-industry movers and shakers, booked into a grand suite at the Fairmont in Maui and sampling fine wines at the Sonoma International Film Festival (where he spent a lot of time hovering over the free snack table). Then he'd return to the low-rent Burnaby, B.C., fixer-upper he shares with roommates, which he calls Crack Shack Studios (he largely shot and entirely edited After Film School in the house).
"It was kind of sad that we had to go back to the cruel realities, even though our film was competing on a scale that we would never dream that we would be contenders in."
After Film School is a (more than a little autobiographical) mockumentary about a group of film-school grads who, unable to find proper work in the industry, collaborate on their own project, High School Shooting: The Musical. When the only way they can get permission to shoot inside a high school is to lie about the nature of the film, they are forced to make a fake parallel second project, Sunshine and Rainbows and Jesus.
(Asked about the controversial subject matter, McCarthy repeats the line he told his producers on day one: "Let's never apologize for fiction.")
Awarded a $5,000 Telus Storyhive grant, McCarthy was supposed to make a short film with it, but bent the rules and instead made an ad for his feature. "I burned my bridge with Telus but I knew that sometimes you've got to break eggs to make an omelette." (He ultimately received an additional $10,000 from investors to complete post-production.)
Just about everyone who worked on the film – about 150 mostly under-25ers, many of whom were also looking for meaningful creative work – did so for free.
Unable to afford film permits, McCarthy had a story ready while filming outside the local elementary school in case there were official inquiries: They were shooting a wedding-proposal video. "No one will ever shut us down for love," he says. (Nonetheless, the production was shut down by police on three separate occasions.) As in the mockumentary, a "wholesome fake script" was manufactured in order to secure a school for an interior shooting location.
McCarthy sent a rough cut to Whistler for consideration and found a champion in Paul Gratton, the festival's director of programming. Gratton told the First Weekend Club, which promotes Canadian film, about the project, and they selected it to launch a new video on demand streaming service. So for two weeks immediately after the film's world premiere at Whistler, it was available for free on CanadaScreens.ca.
McCarthy describes himself as "being, like [a] total broke, but trying to go for broke, artist." Despite having pulled a string of all-nighters with his roommate/sound designer to get the movie finished in time for Whistler, he found the energy to make the most of his first Canadian film festival. So he chose parties over sleep – and networking over food. At the filmmakers luncheon – where Gratton singled out After Film School in his remarks to the crowd – McCarthy (reluctantly) left behind his fancy plate of chicken to chat up important industry types – including the film distribution and production company Pacific Northwest Pictures; he had made sure to attend the industry screening of their new film, Mountain Men, just before the lunch, so he could knowledgeably chat about it.
Once again, his double life was in play: While in the middle of important film-festival business – say, prepping for an interview with a reporter – he would be interrupted by urgent questions about malfunctioning printers and what have you from his December day job as a shopping-mall-Santa photographer.
Further, the festival had granted him a hotel room, but for only two nights, and McCarthy wanted to stay in Whistler for the entire event – and bring up about 20 people who had worked on the film. So McCarthy rented what he thought was a three-bedroom cabin. It turned out to be a cabin with three beds.
"I told everyone you've got to flirt extra hard and hope you go home with someone, but to their [place]."
Animal House-type accommodations, left-behind chicken fricassee, urgent calls from Santaland, truth-stretching to secure locations or bare-bones funding – it's all part of McCarthy's continuing education.
"This whole year has been a crash course," he says. "This is like me getting a master's degree. I'm just making features and throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks."