With two features, Only and Nurse. Fighter. Boy, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), film- maker Ingrid Veninger is clearly an independent talent on the rise. Adding the roles of producer and director to her acting resumé, Veninger admits that “I’ll never be in this place again in my life.” The films, one a low-budget and somewhat autobiographical effort, and the other supported by the Canadian Film Centre (CFC), should keep Veninger and her directorial partners Simon Reynolds (Only) and Charles Officer (Nurse. Fighter. Boy) on the festival circuit throughout the fall.
Only was produced for $20,000, including post- production costs. Its lead actors, Elena Hudgins and Jacob Switzer, are also making their feature debuts, and both are still shy of their fourteenth birthdays. Switzer also happens to be Veninger’s son and she appears in the film, in a small but vivid role as his mother. Even its running time of seventy-four minutes is slender.
If that sounds like a “little film that could” cliché— the kind lazily and dishonestly appended to hype- machine-powered quirk-fests like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno — know that Only is 1) not “little” but authentically tiny; 2) not “indie” but authentically independent; and 3) almost entirely cliché-free. No small feat for a film pitched within the ever-swelling, ever-tiresome subgenre known as “the coming of age drama.”
At its best, the film suggests a pre-teen Before Sunrise, capturing the emotional tenor of the time before adolescence with the same unfussy precision with which Richard Linklater’s film sketched its ending. From the second that Switzer’s Daniel, who lives in an off-ramp motel operated by his parents, meets Hudgins’ Vera, who is just passing through en route to Toronto, where her father has secured a new job, it’s clear that the filmmakers are attuned to the rhythms of late childhood: the ease of forging a new friendship, the back-and-forth volleys of big-picture questions, the considered pauses, the synapse-quick responses, the faint stirring of hormones, the blessed obliviousness to how formative each passing moment may prove. At the same time, Only fairly tingles with some very grown-up emotions, chiefly that back- of-the-throat nostalgia for a time and place you’ll never get back to, and didn’t necessarily appreciate the first time around.
Set in a wintry Parry Sound, Only was shot in and around the same motel that Veninger’s father managed over thirty years ago, and Switzer’s role—a lonely but resourceful kid trying to stave off the boredom and dislocation of spending so much time in a such a liminal space—has a distinctly autobiographical tinge. “It was a very personal story for me,” says the director, who was born in Bratislava and immigrated to Canada with her parents in the ’70s. “I used to clean the pool that you see in the film. I used to clean the rooms there and if they were unoccupied, I would hang out and sleep in them.”
A story close to her heart then, but one she wasn’t sure she wanted to tell on her own. Looking for a collaborator who she could trust, Veninger contacted Simon Reynolds, whom she’d worked with as a producer— though they’d first met as fledgling actors on an episode of Friday the 13th. (Reynolds recalls that her character murdered his character by pushing his head into a band saw, an ominous but thankfully inaccurate portent for their forthcoming collaboration.) The pair took a drive to Parry Sound together to scout the location and a deal was struck. “Making a film like this, where you’re laying your own credit card down, is such an up and down ride and having someone to partner with, who you can laugh with, is so important,” says Veninger.
Not to mention the fact that two credit cards are better than one: Reynolds says his commitment to the project was instant and total. “Ingrid had the basic story already,” he says. “But from the moment I became involved, it became mine as well. I never felt like I didn’t own it for myself. There were moments where I would defer to Ingrid’s judgment when it involved something very per- sonal for her. It would have been inappropriate for me to be pushing something that was particular to me. At the same time, the last script we had looked at was a script about my own childhood, and a lot of that creative energy got diverted into Only.”
Energy is the operative word here. For the filmmakers, having such minimal resources—the entire production hinged on whether or not Veninger could convince the motel’s new owner to let her shoot for free—meant maximum effort: long days and little margin for error. It also meant a certain level of freedom. Neither director wants to give the impression that Only is a scattershot piece of work—and it’s not—but both maintain that there’s something liberating about working so far off the grid. “I like the idea of ownership,” says Reynolds. “It brings a different level of commitment than if you’re being funded—not that you wouldn’t be committed in that case. There’s so much flexibility this way, though. We could make sudden decisions and execute them instantaneously. Some of the disadvantages of a lower budget become advantages stylistically and creatively. Because we knew what our parameters were, we were able to strip away a lot of things that wouldn’t fit—a lot of narrative crap.”
It also meant room for experimentation. Reynolds says that for each scene in the film, Switzer and Hudgins were given a “free take,” in which they could do their dialogue any way they liked. Some of Only’s most affecting scenes came out of those takes, like a game of phantom tennis on a snowed-over court that could easily be read as an homage to Blow Up but for the fact that it was entirely Switzer’s idea and the young actor hasn’t seen Antonioni’s Modernist classic. “They were amazing at going with the flow,” says Veninger of her young leads. “As an actor, I know that a lot of what we ended up using would normally be cut. We were waiting for the (happy) accidents.”
This balancing act—beween planning and discovery, formalism and fortuitousness—was the film’s organizing principle, and probably accounts for its ultimately disarming effect. “For me, the whole process of making a movie is less about executing a pre-determined plan, and more about cultivating an atmosphere where people are free to take risks,” she continues. “We took risks. Not great big grand risks, but pure and simple risks. In fifteen days of shooting we ended up with 32 hours of raw materials, which were distilled to 74 minutes.”
This process was very different than the one that birthed another TIFF ‘08 premiere bearing Veninger’s imprimatur: Nurse. Fighter. Boy, which she co-wrote and produced in partnership with the Canadian Film Centre’s Feature Film Project. “Nurse. Fighter. Boy is still low-budget in relation to what’s out there,” she says. “The CFC was very supportive of our choices, from writing to shooting to casting. But there’s still an infrastructure to it.” The contrast with Only is obvious enough, and Veninger makes it even more so: “On Only, people were making $100 for the entire shoot. On Nurse. Fighter. Boy, it was more like $100 a day.”
Co-written and directed by Veninger’s longtime friend and collaborator Charles Officer, who made the excellent short Short Hymn Silent War in 2004, it stars Clark Johnson as an aged boxer who comes into the orbit of a single mother (Karen LeBlanc) and her twelve-year-old son (Daniel J. Gordon). On the basis of viewing a few short clips, it’s clear that this is one of the most strikingly composed Canadian features in recent memory. Its digital-video compositions are clear and crisp and beautifully color-coded, all warm yellows and deep blues (the cinematography is by Steve Cousins). The fluid, dreamlike aesthetic is reminiscent of Urda/Bone (2003), a Sparklehorse-scored short that Veninger and Officer co-directed in 2003. As with Reynolds, Veninger met Officer through her work as an actor. “We were in an acting class together,” says Officer, “and I thought she was giving me a really hard time.”
“I was aware of all the girls in the class saying to each other, ‘oh, look at Charles, he’s so beautiful and great. I want to work with him,’” Veninger retorts. “I resolved to not be one of those girls.” She may not have been smitten, but she was impressed, and hired Officer—who was then working as a graphic designer—as photographer on her 1999 short So Beautiful (which won her admit- tance to the CFC). The pair then co-starred in Nadia Ross and Jacob Wren’s play Recent Experiences, which toured across Canada and Europe. “Charles had his camera with him,” recalls Veninger, “so when we were in Vienna, and everything was just so lush, we felt we had to do something.” Inspired by a local performance artist, Officer and Veninger trailed each other through Vienna and then Frankfurt, cameras in hand. The erotic reverie of Urda/Bone with Veninger and Officer playing lovers was edited out of the resulting footage.
Travel would again prove conducive to creativity on their follow-up short Hotel Vladivostok, shot in collaboration with five other filmmakers after Anais Granofsky’s 2004 feature The Limb Salesman —which Veninger co-wrote and also starred in alongside Officer— was invited to the Vladivostok Film Festival. “We had ten tapes and filmmakers and actors from around the world. We had a camera,” she recalls. “So everyone got a tape and two hours to shoot, and the only rule was that the stories had to take place around the hotel. We had twenty-four hours, and at the end of the day, Charles and I took the footage back to Canada and edited it. The goal was to get invited back to Vladivostok the next year.” Hotel Vladivostok was indeed invited back, where it won an audience award.
Even as they were putting that film together, Officer was already working on the script that would become Nurse. Fighter. Boy. Five years and some twenty drafts later, cameras finally began rolling on the feature.
It was the fulfillment of a long-time dream—working together on a full-length film—but with the CFC on board, it was also a new sort of professional environment. “We had never done something where we were being overseen like that,” says Officer. “Ingrid had her elbows up, protecting me the whole time, taking punches.”
“When we were writing together, we were both on the creative side of things,” adds Veninger. “On set, I had my producer duties and [Charles] had his directing duties. I was managing the time and the budget. I had to fight to maintain communication with Charles, and that had never happened before. When we were acting together, the producer would come on set and we would think ‘oh… boy’… now, as the producer, I felt like I was the bad cop, or something. It was an interesting new level for our relationship, because I was the one clamping down.” “There were moments where I would think she wasn’t on my side,” says Officer. “But they were just moments. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t true.”
“What got us through was a level of mutual respect, faith and trust,” says Veninger. “I wasn’t going to do anything to hurt the film. I had the big picture in mind. I knew that if we went overtime on production, we’d get slammed later, on the music or on the mix. We weren’t at odds, at all. We were just working on different levels.”
This idea of different levels will surely inform Veninger’s experience at TIFF, where she plans to be active in the promotion and presentation of both films. And while most of the questions she’ll be asked there will be built around the idea of disequilibrium between projects, the filmmaker seems to be on a pretty even keel. “It’s incredible to have these two films that live completely on different scales,” she says. “It’s not about comparing them. So I’m just going to enjoy the ride.”