Fresh off two sold out screenings at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto and some very loud online buzz, The National Parks Project opens formally at The Royal in Toronto on Friday, May 20 for a full week long run of shows. The anthology film was conceived of as a project for Discovery Canada in conjunction with the centenial of Parks Canada and paired various Canadian filmmakers and musicians with some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. On Thursday May 19, the NPP kicks off it’s run with a special concert at The Royal featuring 15 of the musicians who have their music in the various films, including members of Broken Social Scene, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Do Make Say Think, and The Constantines. Tickets are a steal at $15 and the show starts at 9:30 p.m. with doors at 8:45 p.m. On May 20, the film will screen in it’s entirety with all 13 shorts running together much as it did at Hot Docs (also $15 and screening at 8:00 p.m.). For the remainder of the week, films will be divided into two programs and will be $10 for single shows and $15 for double bills. Check out The Royal’s website for full details.
Criticize This! caught up with the directors of two of the shorts within the project. Peter Lynch, possibly best known for his work on the 1996 documentary Project Grizzly, traveled to Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta to film Paahtomahksikimii (The Place Where Lakes Go Into The Mountain) along with musicians Laura Barrett, Cadence Weapon, and Mark Hamilton. Jamie Travis, who had previously only made short fictional films including the Patterns and The Saddest Children in the World trilogies, went to Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick with musicians Ohad Benchetrit, Don Kerr, and Casey Mecjia to create the only narrative short of the series, Mystic Morning. Together they talked about their vastly different relationships with the wilderness, the challenges of composing a film based around both nature and music, and how The National Parks Project is different from anything either of them had previously attempted. When the film is divided into two sections for it’s exhibition, Peter’s film will screen in Part 1 and Jamie’s will screen in Part 2.
Andrew Parker: What drew you guys to The National Parks Project and how were you approached to do it?
Jamie Travis: I got a call one day from Geoff Morrison, one of the producers who I had known from the film scene for years, and he put this offer on the table that was pretty irresistible and also pretty scary because this is not what I do. I am not a documentary filmmaker. I don’t go outside into the wilderness very much. There were many risks involved that were just really exciting to me. I sort of wanted to challenge my ways of filmmaking so I just couldn’t say no.
Peter Lynch: With me, Ryan Noth, one of the producers, told me about the project early on in it’s inception. He had worked with my wife as an editor on a number of projects so I just sort of gave him feedback on his early ideas and then a couple of years later he just told me that they were ready to go. I was pretty excited about that and I just have an interest in nature and music and this project was just a great way to fuse those two passions. National Parks are powerful places and the particular park I chose had a lot of family history on my wife’s side. In a way, it was a bit of a love letter to the family as well.
AP: Every part of The National Parks Project tells a different story. Jamie, your film has a fully realized story and Peter, your film has more of a historical feel to it. When you set out to make your films did you know going in that you wanted to make something that was more spiritual or more reverential?
JT: For me it was neither (laughs). I still don’t know much about the history of Kouchibouguac National Park. I really did treat this project as an experiment to make something in a way that I had never done before. It was just this kind of selfish artistic journey where it was all about me and what I felt like doing on that day.
It’s funny because the beat thing about the project for me was the music and working wit the musicians and seeing these incredibly talented people collaborate. The nature aspect was… I’m not a nature boy. I really don’t love being out in nature. I don’t know if it really informed my story approach greatly. Like, my film is not very scenic in comparison to some of the others. I tended to focus on the more architectural aspects of the park, like that amazing giant fog tower that became the focus of my piece.
PL: For me, I was thinking about this longstanding tradition of great photographers like Ansel Adams and Paul Strand that did these amazing early studies of national parks, and at the time that was how parks got into the consciousness of the public’s imagination. It was through seeing these photographs in these famous magazines. That was something I wanted to tap into, but to take it somewhere more personal. Obviously, the musical aspect was a huge part of it. With a camera you are doing a portrait but you are also synthesizing the music as a portrait to become a compendium with your image making
My wife’s father grew up in Alberta along the edge of the park and her grandfather was the veterinarian at the cattle ranch that was around that area and her uncle was a writer who wrote about the Blood Indians who were also in that region, so there is a bit of a thread that way, and I had been there because her father’s ashes and those of some of her family members are scattered in and around the park and those perimeters. I’m not quite sure if that’s legal or not (laughs). I was fascinated by these boundaries that are partly human and partly arbitrary and you’ve got this 10,000 year old history of the Blood and the Blackfoot and all the other tribes in the area When you see these National Geographic specials, and I don’t want to diss them, but in so many of these nature specials you see all these beefy looking white people with perfect camping gear and they forget to even mention this 10,000 year old history? That kind of gets under my skin and in this region that borders Alberta, Montana, and BC, it’s the foothills of the Rockies, and there is this sort of East meets West sort of thing that plays into the idea that these borders are sort of arbitrary and it is mixed in with this family history in a struggle.
This used to be like the Serengeti. There used to be 40 million buffalo roaming this area and the whole life of the Blackfoot and all the animals that fed off the buffalo and the ecology of it all, the decimation of that way of life has just changed the landscape of that area. Then you start thinking about geological time and it just makes you feel like a speck on this massive landscape. So trying to diffuse all those things gave me a way to go in with these preoccupations and I kind of dreamed with my eyes open. Not so much a historical preoccupation, but definitely a personal one. You look at all these postcard vistas, but then you look at the ground and there’s life, there’s death, there’s fossils, there’s bones, so try try and come up with a narrative that brings all those in, that was the trick.
AP: Jamie, you haven’t done any documentary work before in any formal sense. Was there ever a moment out there in the woods when you wondered what you had gotten yourself into?
JT: On the first day when we got there and realized there were no showers and no electricity and it was more rustic than I thought it would be. But I am also a chronic showerer. I shower twice a day, so this was quite a shift for me. I grew to really like it, though, and by the end of it I really wanted to go back. If they invited me back I would certainly do it again, but that was always a huge part of this whole gig. I wanted to go into this film using a methodology I hadn’t used before.
AP: And how did you decide what music you wanted to use in your piece? Yours unlike the other shorts is very much based around a single piece of music.
JT: I always knew that I wanted it to be about one piece. I hadn’t met any of the musicians in advance so there was that whole mystery where I didn’t know what was going to happen here. When we all got together and started talking on the first day it all became very clear that we wanted the same thing. Ohad had a film scoring background so I was really spoiled in that sense that he was asking me questions before I even started shooting. So we all kind of agreed to do something kind of dark and moody and there was a certain kind of structure to it. I knew I wanted a dream sequence in the middle of it where we kind of just went off with the drums and it kind of went on either side where it was more floating and dreamy. We had conversations like that and they came together and created this beautiful music that kind of got more and more refined as the days went by. I think on some of the other trips the musicians kind of went off and wrote all sorts of different kinds of music, but on this one there really was the focus on just the one piece. And it was great because every day the music would sort of shift my approach in the filmmaking. They would watch the footage at night and that would approach how the music shifted the next day. That’s how I wanted this project to be. I wanted it to be this kind of ideal collaboration between music and image and it really did end up being that.
AP: Peter, your film has a lot of different elements. It seems like it was really time consuming to put it all together. How long did it take from start to finish and did you know going in that you wanted all of these different elements in the same film?
PL: It was a bit of luck, really. I had the same amount of time as everyone else. I did have a shopping list of ideas that I was trying to get and that becomes a bit of a liability because when you don’t start getting them you start going into this frustrated film mode where you think you aren’t “getting your day” (laughs) It’s a more organic process and nature has a way of intervening. Like, the first three days it rained and you think “aw crap” because it’s a pain in the ass to film in the rain, but then the Blackfoot come along and say that it’s funny that we see it as a difficulty because they actually pray for the rain to sustain all that is here. The place is where the water goes into the mountains. It’s the name of the park in Blackfoot. Then water becomes a big thing so instead of trying to fight that I just started to go out and film it. That started to help dictate seeing the park in a different way so it wasn’t all just pretty postcards.
The process in terms of shooting was my own maniacal approach, I guess, and where I was I had access to a car which allowed us to drive to places other people in other parks in the project might not have been able to get to so it was a different kind of work rate. Outside of that was how the music evolved. It was kind of like how Jamie said that sometimes the musicians would go off and compose pieces in the middle of nature, watch my footage and then feedback into what I was trying to do. In some cases, I introduced them to the Blackfoot who told them stories and those stories became a part of the musical narrative. Then there is a song called “Don’t Fence Me In,” which Cole Porter and many others did famous renditions of, but it was actually commissioned as part of this project by this highway company in Montana really close by and I though there was something poignant there that I could push off against. There was an interpretation of that.
AP: When you guys were filming was it always your intention to make things as cinematic as possible despite this being largely a web and television based series?
JT: I think everything I do I just aim for cinematic so I think that’s just my automatic approach to everything. I think I had a bit more prep time than some of the other filmmakers because by coincidence I was only an hour away from the park two weeks before the shoot on my own self imposed writing retreat. So I did my own location scouting in advance so I already knew what they landscape was like. I had a really good vibe with the park ranger before everyone else showed up, which was great. I did sort of have a plan like that when I got there.
PL: In that same way, I had entered my park twice before, but not for long periods of time and with my wife and her family. I did have some sense of how to bring this into a more mythic direction than just a big screen documentary approach. I was definitely thinking in more cinematic terms. I was trying to illuminate the story more by meditating on it in a more poetic fashion. Even the lenses we chose and how we shot it are more traditionally 35mm approaches as opposed to a purely video aesthetic.