Festival Daily

By Jonathan Doyle

Judging from the work of veteran filmmaker Carl Bessai (Mothers & Daughters) and first-timer Terry Miles (When Life Was Good), improvisational cinema is alive and well in Canada. Both directors arrive at this year’s Festival with aggressively improvisational works that challenge the norms of traditional scripted filmmaking. They foreground performance at the expense of carefully planned visuals and tightly structured narratives, creating films of unusual truth, spontaneity and insight.

Bessai has been working in this area for quite some time (this is his third consecutive year at TIFF including 2006’s Unnatural & Accidental and last year’s Normal), which means he has had plenty of time to consider and refine his philosophies about improvisation. 

“It’s a political statement to ‘improvise,’ in the sense that you are defying all the conventional, industrial methods for making a movie,” he says. “Gone are the trucks, the lights, the crew, the sets, the wardrobe and all the pieces of the machine that go along with these departments. It brings the truth, affordability and spontaneity of the documentary process to dramatic filmmaking.”

Like Bessai, Terry Miles crafted his film without the usual set of production resources. In fact, he went so far as to shoot without a boom operator. But Miles doesn’t view this minimal approach as an artistic choice so much as a resourceful response to threadbare means. “I shot When Life Was Good in a guided improvisational documentary style, out of necessity more than anything else,” he admits. “It seemed to me a way that I might turn all the limitations into advantages.”

Both directors cite realist filmmakers John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh (at this year’s Festival with Happy-Go-Lucky) as key influences. But they also acknowledge that this inspiration could only take them so far. As is the norm with Leigh, Miles crafted his shooting script from a series of intensive rehearsals, but he quickly grew tired of hearing the same dialogue and re-worked the script extensively during production.

“I was editing as we went along and then writing madly every night, working to connect the story points,” he says. “I would bring these pages to set the next day, and off we went. None of the actors had any idea what type of film we were making until I screened a finished version for them months later.”

For his part, Bessai also credits the influence of his friend Bruce Sweeney (“the standard for this kind of work”) and the plays of Paul Thompson and Theatre Passe Muraille from the early 1970s. “In every case, these directors have built their work around the actors and their importance to the narrative,” he explains. “I find that increasingly in films, actors are becoming secondary to visual effects and enormous spectacle. When an audience truly bonds with a film, it is because of the acting, so I think we need to fight to bring our films back to this essential relationship.”

And yet, while improvisation has clearly enriched the work of both filmmakers, they’re not shy about its shortcomings. Bessai admits that improv leads to dialogue-heavy films, continuity nightmares and – if the director is not sufficiently attentive – characters who spend too much time discussing their feelings. Miles has his own set of complaints, most of which stem from his permissive attitude about on-set wine drinking, which invariably leads to excessive swearing (on average about “12 times per minute”) while the cameras roll.

It’s not clear whether wine-related concerns were to blame, but Miles says improvisation is “virtually non-existent” in The Red Rooster (currently in post-production), his follow-up to When Life Was Good. “I believe that a well-cast and well-written scripted drama can deliver in every way, with little or no improvisation,” he argues. “The casting and the writing in this case is everything, but the actors can’t appear to ‘act.’”

While Bessai has no plans to craft a traditionally scripted drama any time soon, he concedes that this will remain the norm for most fiction filmmakers. However, as an alternative production model, he sees improvisational filmmaking as an increasingly viable and accessible approach. “For some, the script and the rigorous pre-visualization of the shooting process is an important way to guarantee predictable results,” Bessai says. “I believe that the new digital technologies give us the latitude to rethink the process, and improvisation pushes this non-industrial experiment to the extreme. It will never be the standard, but it’s good to shake the foundations of the system every now and then.”

Sept. 8, 9:00pm, AMC 3      
Sept. 11, 8:45pm, Varsity 6  
Sept. 12, 2:45pm, Varsity 4

Sept. 7, 4:15pm, AMC 5      
Sept. 11, 2:00pm, AMC 5