Windsor Film Society Presents: The Birder and Q&A Discussion

The pre-show reel featured photos from production and the Red-Carpet Premiere. It was an interesting behind the scenes look at a local film production, full of images of camera and boom operators, grips, grip stands, grip stands holding flags, and all the other crew members it takes to make a movie right here in Windsor. It was nice to see the movie highlighted in this way, as if making it was special, meaningful. It set the tone for a night of celebrating U of W Alumni filmmakers. 

One of the clips from the Red-Carpet Premiere Q&A showed Mayor Drew Dilkens saying how proud he was to see Windsor on the big-screen. I concur, Mayor, and from the popular turn-out to the screening, quite a few others do as well. 

Following the main presentation, was the highlight of the evening, a Q&A discussion with filmmakers Theodore Bezaire and Mike Stasko of The Birder, and Gemma Eva of “Rough Love”, which began with Mike Stasko asking crew members of both films that were in attendance to stand and take an applause. 

Gemma Eva, writer/director of “Rough Love”, the short film which preceded The Birder said the idea came to her from, “basically my past acting experience, I started off in theatre, and when I started off acting I did screenplays like Night of the Living Dead and High Physique and later on I started doing more parody musicals and getting into stuff like a musical called Evil Dead Musical. A parody of the Evil Dead film and so from there I wanted to do something in lieu of more parody.”

Gemma was asked about the thrilling soundtrack. “We basically picked five 80’s pop songs to mimic in the film, our composer Will Rogers did an amazing job, he said, whatever song you have, we want your parents to think, ‘oh yeah, I know that song’ – he goes, it’s not that song.”

When asked about the actors, Gemma replied, “They’re all friends of mine from theatre I’ve done around the community. I had an idea of who I wanted to cast while I was writing it and hoped to God that they said yes”. Gemma continued to say, “My favorite relationship in the film was the two brothers – [the actors] had actually been best friends since before high school … so their chemistry was on-point.”

Gemma was asked about the shooting schedule next: “It took four days and they were very long days. Most movies are 10-hour days … 14 hours a day are quite long. I remember picking up Starbucks on the way to set, and them closing and then coming home and it was already open for the next day.”

Of the sets, costumes, and props, Gemma stated, “renting from the theatre companies that I’m involved with, production designers buying stuff, and then a lot of the paintings in the background was us painting them, a lot of them were home-made.” 

The audience also noticed the sharp colors that highlighted the movie. “We wanted to make a difference from the party room – nice, fun, bright colors, and we wanted to make the death room to be spooky as possible and cliché as possible.” 

And, finally, what are you doing next? “Right now, I’m working on my thesis, because I am doing my Masters at University, and I’m working on a musical movie.”

The focus shifts to The Birder. Theodore Bezaire spoke about coming up with the idea for the movie: “I was having an idea about relationships with teachers after high school. I had had this interesting conversation with a teacher. I was in University at the time, I went back to my high school and had this real conversation with a teacher, and [realized] ‘he’s a real person, he has emotions’, so that sparked an idea … Mike and I were kicking around different ideas, we have a mutual friend who is a big ornithologist – that’s kind of an interesting sub-culture, that at the time we hadn’t really seen.”

Mike Stasko adds, “I think the idea of him being an ornithologist came late in the script … There’s a lot of parallels between drift migration and finding the path again. We knew we wanted Ron to go through this arc. At first, it was a teacher that decides to live in the school for the summer.”

Theodore adds: “And then we developed it.”

“The script was in development for technically seven years. Originally, it was more of a buddy comedy between the two main guys. When Telefilm came in, they wanted us to play up the daughter relationship and the parallels that came out of that gave it a nice third dimension.” Mike remembers.

Theodore reflects: “Looking back, growing as a writer during that time was huge. Through that process of dealing with story editors, with producers at Telefilm Canada made us better writers.”

When asked about actor selection, Theodore remembers, “during that development process we started doing packaging – getting the main actors together and creating lists. Tom [Cavanagh] was always on that list. He was one of the first people that we went after, because we wanted to lock in our Ron, and then hopefully, the other people would fall into place.”

Mike adds: “Fred Willard was a dream pick of ours, one of my favorite comedies is Waiting for Guffman. He was one that was a big feather in our cap.” 

Theodore notes: “He came on early in the process. That was a big day. Being a huge Christopher Guest fan, as a filmmaker, Waiting for Guffman, was a transformative movie for me. Graham Greene fell into place, he was only on-set for a couple of days. Mark Rendall, is the other key component of the relationship. I had seen him in a movie called Victoria Day, and it’s more of a drama, and kind of sullen, but his performance, I like that guy a lot. When we were trying to cast for everyone, a lot of people were pushing stand-up comedians, but my thought process was let’s find an actor, and they can be funny.”

What about the locations? Will people from Windsor recognize shooting locations?

“I remember going on scouting trips and shooting videos dating back to 2007. We checked out the old St. Joe’s. One of the key components was the outdoor stuff. We found a home at Ojibway for most of the outdoor stuff, on the trails and things.” Theodore said. 

Mike adds some technical filmmaking insight: “If you know Windsor-Essex, the park for example was exterior at the park, Ojibway was the inside of it, Malden Park was the side of it, and from Villa Nova roof was the roof of the old St. Anne’s. Optimist was the façade of the front. It was five different locations to piece it together. If you’re an outsider, it looks like a continuous thing, but people in Windsor were probably a bit confused.”

Theodore adds: “But the key component was the school though. We were lucky enough to get access to the old St. Anne’s in Tecumseh. We basically got the run of the place, so it was our production office, it was our production design workshop, we had the gym for building sets and things like that. We had also shot in the school a lot. It became a central hub for the film, it was our headquarters. You move around a lot to different locations; it was nice to have that one hub.”

Asked next about the production schedule, Theodore remembers: “It was 19 days. 99.9% of the movie was shot in Windsor-Essex. The park film [from opening scene] was shot up in Toronto, and a couple of inserts. At the end, when Floyd’s running and he cranks his knee, that’s all with the actors here in Windsor, but just that one shot of his ankle bending was up in some park up in Toronto, and it was our producer’s brothers, that was his foot.”

Mike: “I play a lot of Ron Spencer’s hand-modelling. When you see close-ups of Ron’s hands or feet or he’s driving – that’s me.”

Theodore: “The foot going into the pedal of the fountain:” Mike: “that’s my foot.”

The Q & A ended on a humorous note with somebody asking about Mike Stasko’s beard in the film. Mike replies, “I wrote the character Mike Harper. I gave him the name Mike so that it would force Ted’s hand to cast me. He didn’t want me in it, because I starred in his last one, so he said, “fine, you have to grow a huge beard and look unrecognizable and that’s what I did to get the part. He made me audition for it as well.” 

The screening was made all the more special for having the opportunity to gain this insight into the production of these two movies. Windsor, we are so lucky to be living here right now in the midst of a burgeoning film industry. The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger, screening at the School of Creative Arts downtown on Friday Feb 28th is your next opportunity to be part of the growing discussion about movies in Windsor. Come out to the event and engage with the filmmakers themselves and see for yourself what is so cinematic about Windsor. 

The Windsor Film Society

The Windsor Film Society is something that every film buff in Windsor will want to know about. Outside of Silvercity and Devonshire’s small Classic Films Series, Windsorite’s do not really have a lot of options for seeing older movies. WIFF, and the newly devised WIFF365 which seeks to show movies at least once a month at the Capitol, tend to screen foreign and independent content, not necessarily old and classic. What about the movie buffs that want to see old classic movies on the big screen? 

The Windsor Film Society has just the ticket for such a Windsorite. Theodore Bezaire and Mike Stasko, two popular local filmmakers themselves, formed the Society out of their own passion for movies. Theodore remembers fondly the independent theatres of Toronto – The Bloor Cinema, or The Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles Ave, and would like to create a similar experience here. “I just love watching movies, outside of my house, on a big screen.” Says Bezaire. “Right now, it’s a hobby between just Mike and I, we’re the two guys running it in the hopes that we can build it up, and bring in those audiences every month.”

It is not just about nostalgia for a by-gone era in cinema though, it’s about trying to create a community discussion about film in hopes that it will grow over time. “We do a lot of stuff with the University, because they do have a film program, so we market a bit towards them, these students are interested in films and seeing films in that environment.” The WFS is presenting linked films as a series. The current theme is “Women in the Director’s Chair”. Their last screening featured Sarah Polley’s, Stories We Tell and hosted a discussion with local filmmaker Kim Nelson afterward. They hope to have something similar for the next one. 

“I’d like to get that conversation going more in Windsor,” says Bezaire. If you would like to be part of that discussion, the next screening by the Windsor Film Society is The Babadook, on Feb 26 at the Green Bean Cafe. Be sure to check it out. 

The other part of that love of movies and desire for conversation about them is that Bezaire is also a filmmaker. In 2013, he directed the feature length film, The Birder. In 2006, Bezaire directed Things to Do, which he co-wrote with Stasko. He recollects, “my first feature we did shortly out of film school. It did really well for us, it played at Slamdance, the independent little brother of Sundance. It got a positive review in Variety. It opened a lot of doors for us here in Canada. It got a deal with Mongrel Media, a Canadian distributer for films, and we were in every Blockbuster across Canada.” 

The success of Things to Do, led to The Birder. “With that one, we wanted to step it up with our cast, do something a bit bigger. We brought in Tom Cavanagh, Fred Willard, and Academy Award nominee Graham Greene.” -again, shot in Windsor; and again – more projects in various stages of development ensued. For instance, The Control, “we’re working on distribution on that one now, and most recently, Boys vs. Girls, written and directed by Mike.”– and yet again, these were also shot in Windsor, “we’re trying to shoot more features down here…one of Mike Stasko’s goals as a professor is to give his students opportunities so they can gain some professional experience on a set.”

If you’re like me, you’ve already heard rumblings such as these about the movies in Windsor; but don’t get so excited and start thinking that Hollywood productions are on their way into town – they are not. According to Nick Shields in a recent CBC article, we don’t really have the infrastructure here yet to support them. Bezaire is optimistic that it can be done though: “We’ve had amazing experiences shootings our films here in Windsor. It works for us as local filmmakers, but it may be difficult to bring bigger films to the area…There’s definitely challenges, but maybe we can overcome those challenges.”

As for the infrastructure, Bezaire says, “We definitely need work in that area, but it is getting better. That’s part of what Mike’s trying to do with the University students, so it’s not the first time they’re walking onto a feature set, they understand the process, they understand the workflow, and are not as green as they would be otherwise.”

Giving students experience at making movies is a positive thing for their artistic growth. From that experience they will be better equipped to direct their own first features after leaving school. If there’s two things Essex County is doing really well, it’s growing things and making movies. With the cultivating of youth through these experiences, as well as others that are available, it’s imaginative to wonder what the future film industry may look like one day in Windsor.  

If you have thoughts that you’d like to share, you can always feel free to leave a comment below and start some conversation about movies here in Windsor.