Thorne has 'Buried' treasure at Toronto fest

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Thorne talk: Hollywood may dominate the Toronto International Film Festival, but it's also a good place to discover local talent.

A case in point is Canadian writer-director Chaz Thorne, whose feature directorial debut "Just Buried," which he also wrote, premieres at the festival Sunday and has its press and industry screening a day earlier. A second public screening of the film is set for Sept. 11. Thorne will also be in the Toronto spotlight Sept. 11 with the premiere of his debut feature screenplay, "Poor Boy's Game," which he produced and Clement Virgo directed.

"Buried," a Trilogy Entertainment North & Standing 8 Prod's. in association with Telefilm Canada and RGM Entertainment, was produced by John Watson, Pen Densham, Thorne and Bill Niven and executive produced by Devesh Chetty and Neil Kaplan. Starring are Jay Baruchel ("Knocked Up"), Rose Byrne ("Sunshine") and Graham Greene ("Die Hard: With a Vengeance").

Thorne, who started his career as an actor, was graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada's Professional Acting Programme in 1996. Since then he's acted on stage in Canada and in films and founded Toronto's Jack in the Black Theatre, serving as its artistic producer. Thorne's first film projects as a writer-director were half-hour television comedies ("Table Dancer" and "One Hit Wonder") for the CBC.

I was happy to have an opportunity to focus with Thorne recently on what went into bringing "Buried" to the screen. "I find that oftentimes when you work in the film industry you have friends and family members and people you don't even know that find out what you do at a party and pitch you an idea," he told me. "My best friend's girlfriend had a party and we were sitting around drinking and she said, 'God, you know, I always thought it would be a funny idea for a movie if a guy inherited a funeral home in a small town, but he had no customers so he had to start killing people.' I was like, 'You know what? I think that's a great idea.' That was the genesis of it.

"From there, began five years of script development. It went through a lot of different phases. Actually, at one point it was a much broader comedy where the reason why no one was dying was the town was actually run by a natural supplements company and everyone was insanely healthy. So he kept trying to kill people with fast food and stuff. That concept didn't quite play out so it evolved eventually into the very dark, twisted world that we ended up with."

Thorne began working on the screenplay in 2001 and shot the movie in 2006. Asked about how he approaches writing, he replied, "I basically bash my head against the keyboard until it starts to bleed and hope that some good ideas pour out my ear. I find writing unbelievably difficult, to be honest. But, at the same time, once you finish it's obviously extremely rewarding because you've literally created something from nothing. I can't think of any other experiences I've had creatively that equal that. I normally start with an idea or I start with a relationship. In this case, it was an idea. In the case of the other film that I have at the festival, 'Poor Boy's Game' with Danny Glover, it was a relationship. That is then what determines the genre that I play within.

"One thing that confuses a lot of people about my writing is that I definitely don't stick to a particular genre. 'Just Buried' is a very dark comedy and 'Poor Boy's Game' is a very intense working class drama. It's hard to see the parallels between the two in terms of the creator behind them. But for me, I just start with something that tweaks something in me and also something that I feel some sort of personal connection to, as well, and then I go from there and I basically write and write and write and collaborate with other people and do many, many drafts over what is normally several years in order to iron out all the kinks in a screenplay. That's more or less my process. I oftentimes will drop a screenplay for several months. At one point, with 'Just Buried' I had dropped it for about eight months and I thought I would never go back to it. Then I had a bit of an inspiration and went back and explored it and ended up following it through to production."

In his efforts to bring "Buried" to life, Thorne participated in a pitch festival where he delivered a particularly unique presentation: "That was in 2002 at the Toronto International Film Festival. They do this pitch event every year where they choose six finalists from across Canada that have six minutes to pitch a feature film to a room full of industry delegates and a panel of about a dozen industry judges. The previous year I had actually won the event for 'Poor Boy's Game.' So I have a fair bit of history with that event. I'll actually be going there this year as a guest. It's pretty wild. The first year I did it I was pitching to a room of probably about 500 delegates in a ballroom in one of the hotels. When I pitched 'Just Buried' there were probably about 350 delegates there munching away on croissants and drinking orange juice at tables while I was up there doing my shtick.

"What I did was I had eight of my friends actually carry me in in a casket. It was really interesting because what ended up happening at that event is it really crystallized in my head the way I needed to craft the entire film as a filmmaker to have a maximum effect on an audience. There was a bit of a walk (bringing in the casket) and 'Amazing Grace' was playing with bagpipes over the loudspeakers as we were coming in. At first, there was this awkward silence from the audience and then it turned into whispers as the casket was being brought in. And then that turned into titters. And then by the time my pallbearers put the casket down people sort of figured out, 'Oh, my God, the guy's inside this' and they just broke out into laughter and applause. I flipped open the lid and started my pitch."

It was, he continued, "a real good example for me of the sort of darkness and uncomfortability in this fine line that you have to skirt when you're doing dark comedy. I find it unbelievably challenging. I think it's probably one of the reasons why so many of us in the industry when it's a good dark comedy just love it so much because we know how hard it is to do. It's not like slapstick or broad comedy and it's not even like drama because you always have to ride this line and even (for) a moment if you go over to one side or the other in terms of either being too broadly comic or too seriously dramatic, then you lose your audience. So it was a challenge that I embraced and looked forward to and I think that in the final film we've actually risen to it. But we'll see what audiences think."

What came out of his well-received pitch? "The most positive thing that happened from it was realizations that I made myself about this script and this story," he said. "I also ended up with my present manager and agent as a result of the pitch, as well. What had happened was that these were people that had seen me the previous year pitch one film and then I came back and pitched a very different film and also quite successfully pitched the film. So they went, 'Oh, well here's a kid that seems to have some good ideas and a little bit of staying power.' So that led to other opportunities for me. Your agent can essentially be your manager in Canada -- so (I'm represented by) Ralph Zimmerman at Great North Artists Management in Toronto."

Thorne wound up having both "Buried" and "Game" screening in Toronto at this year's festival, he explained, because "I shot 'Poor Boy's Game' in June and I shot 'Just Buried' in November. So it was a busy year last year.

Asked if "Buried" has a distributor yet, Thorne told me, "In order to get funding in Canada you actually have to attach a Canadian distributor that guarantees a Canadian theatrical release of the film in advance of even getting the production financing. So we have a Canadian distributor -- Seville Pictures out of Montreal -- and we'll be very aggressively hunting for an American and international distributor."

Seville is also the Canadian distributor for "Game" and THINKFilm is distributing in the U.S. "We did the (film's) world premiere at the (2007) Berlin Film Festival in the Panorama section there," he said. "I think we sold something like 38 territories out of Berlin. Danny Glover is really great in this movie. Rossif Sutherland, who's Donald's second youngest son, plays the male lead in it and he's something else. He's a real discovery, I think."

Coming back to "Buried," I asked how it went from a good pitch at Toronto to becoming a movie? "I went back at the screenplay with some renewed vigor after that," he replied. "What ended up happening is at that time I was starting to also direct, myself, and I directed a couple of half-hour comedic things for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and was really enjoying that. So I was getting more interested in directing. And in 2004 I went on a trade mission to Los Angeles and met John Watson and Pen Densham of Trilogy Entertainment. John and Pen are British Canadian Americans.

"They had read my script for 'Poor Boy's Game' and we had hit it off really, really well. We really liked one another and obviously their resumes in the business sort of preceded them (including such productions as 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' and 'Backdraft'). The greatest thing about John and Pen, all the business aspects aside, is they're just great guys. So a few months later I finished off the script. Then it was titled 'Pushing Up Daisies.' We changed the title a few months ago because the ABC series 'Pushing Daisies' sort of forced us off of that."

When Watson and Densham read "Buried," Thorne continued, "They both were like, 'Oh, my God, we haven't read anything that we both unanimously love in years and years and years -- like decades.' They wanted to be involved in it somehow. So we started a little bit to explore the idea of it being done as an American film, which would have meant that I wouldn't have directed it. We would have looked for a higher profile indie American director. We explored that process a little bit and basically we got a few no's from a few directors and then John just sort of said, 'You know what? I really think that the best chance this film has of working because it's such a specific tone of comedy is of you following your vision of it all the way through.' We went from there, since they are Canadian, as well, we went, 'OK, well, looking at it as a much smaller movie we can potentially access the funding for this in Canada.' So that's the process that we took."

It took a while to raise the financing, however. "The Canadian system is great, don't get me wrong," he said. "I've been given a lot of opportunities because of the fact that I am Canadian. Obviously, making two films in one year is pretty much unheard of. But it's also (a system that's) not without its pitfalls and frustrations. It's not like giving a script to a studio where they give you a yes or a no after a weekend. It took like six months to get an answer out of the funding body. In the meantime, we couldn't move forward on anything because we didn't necessarily have the financing to be able to offer it to actors and say it's a go movie. So it was pretty frustrating.

"A lot of this was actually going on (during shooting on) 'Poor Boy's Game.' Then we finally got the green light on the majority of our funding, but we needed more internationally. It's really difficult to find money for Canadian films outside of Canada because frequently they don't perform very well in terms of boxoffice and outside of Canada it's a straight ahead business model. They're not looking at culture or anything like that. It's (just a question of), 'Will this film make its money back?' We ended up securing the rest of our financing and then it was just blasting away (to) finalize the casting and a short prep period, a short shoot. At the same time, it was wickedly exciting and the fact that it was so insane and intense, I think, actually probably really helped me not to get nervous about the fact that I was about to step on set for the first time as a feature film director. There was no time for that. You just had to basically trust the team around you and I have a pretty amazing group of people that I work with. It worked out really well."

Shooting began in mid-November of '06 and wrapped in mid-December. "It was a fast shoot," he noted. "We shot the movie in 24 days. I shot most of this film in one or two takes and that's not a big kudo to me or anything. It speaks to the level of the people I was working with. My director of photography (Christopher Porter) is a well-known gaffer ('Brokeback Mountain,' 'The Shipping News,' 'Dirty Pretty Things'). His father-in-law is Chris Menges (winner of best cinematography Oscars for 'The Mission' and 'The Killing Fields'). (Porter) trained under Robby Muller ('Dancer in the Dark,' 'Coffee and Cigarettes'). I met Robby a few months ago. He actually came to town for Christopher's birthday. He flew all the way from Amsterdam. He came and saw a cast and crew screening of the movie. Robby loved it. He thought it was really great. The way he put it was he said, 'It's on the fingertip. Nothing is too much. You're not trying to be pretentious. You're not trying to force the comedy. You're not trying to force the image.' So Christopher was just over the moon.

"It was Christopher's first time as a feature film DP and obviously my first time as a feature film director. We had experienced producers that we were working with and the rest of the team was quite experienced, but all local folks. And the cast (was terrific). You don't shoot a film that quickly and get the level of performances that I was able to get unless you have a really stunning group of actors that you're working with. And that was the case from our lead actors straight on through our smallest supporting roles that were cast with local actors out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a pretty amazing group. So (we shot for) 24 days and averaged one or two takes a shot. I think there's maybe (only) a dozen shots that we actually shot that didn't end up in the final film. There was no room for extraneous coverage or anything like that. It worked out really well. I can only think of one instance where I was like, 'Ah, I should have moved the camera around and grabbed a closeup there.' And the rest of it, I was actually really happy with what we had to work with."

Looking back at production, he recalled, "The biggest challenge was the fucking snow! We were shooting a fall movie and it normally doesn't snow in Halifax until like January or February. As the local guy I said to my producers, who live in L.A., who were like, 'Oh my God, it's going to be 20 feet of snow,' I was, 'No, no. It'll be fine.' There was this one location we had that was cursed. We were shooting there one day and then we had to come back to pick up some more exterior stuff and when we came back there was like two feet of snow on the ground. I went to my producing partner John and (told him), 'I can't do this.' And we were on such a tight schedule so we had to do an entire unit move. And it wasn't a small move. We moved from being out in rural Nova Scotia back into the city in order to keep shooting that particular day.

"And then we had to go back to pick that stuff up and we get the first half of the day -- fine, we're all good and we get some really beautiful stuff -- and then there is literally a blizzard and two feet of snow accumulates in a matter of 90 minutes. We already set up like an 80 foot long dolly track for this really great sequence that we had planned and it was covered in snow. Not only was there tons of snow on the ground, but there was tons of snow coming down. I almost lost my mind at that point. We had to restage a scene. Instead of it being exterior, it was actually staged inside the hearse. All the grips were scrambling and tenting the hearse. Oh my God! It was unbelievable. But, again, because I was surrounded by a group of people that had seen almost every eventuality you could run into in terms of weather, we figured it out. You would have no idea that several days of this film were shot in snowstorms."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Nov. 8, 1989's column: "Disney, which has already had great success with one mermaid tale, is about to release a new one that insiders are predicting will be one of this holiday season's major boxoffice hits.

"The company's earlier mermaid success story, of course, was 'Splash,' the 1984 live action film directed by Ron Howard and produced by Brian Grazer, which launched Disney's Touchstone label. It grossed about $70 million domestically and pointed the way towards the bright future Disney has since had with its new management producing adult appeal films under the Touchstone banner…

"Word has been circulating among insiders for some time that 'Mermaid'…has big boxoffice potential because its appeal is not limited to children. Specifically, there is talk that this is an animated film with adult appeal. Having now seen it for myself, I'm happy to confirm that that is the case. 'Mermaid' may be animated, but it doesn't talk down to its audience. It's a fantasy, but one that can play to adults as well as youngsters. What's on the screen is so beautiful to look at and so well-crafted that it takes on its own reality and believability…

"All told, 'Mermaid' delivers terrific entertainment that looks like it will be able to satisfy adults as well as young moviegoers. Disney's marketing department, one of Hollywood's very best, has already run some early newspaper ads for the picture, suggesting that a special effort will be made to reach adult moviegoers as well as youngsters…

"Whether 'Mermaid' will be able to draw adult moviegoers will depend to a great extent on whether theater owners play it at evening performances. Animated films are often relegated to daytime showings only. It would be a tragic mistake if exhibitors did that with 'Mermaid,' which deserves the full opportunity to achieve its great potential."

Update: "The Little Mermaid" opened Nov. 17, 1989 to $6 million at 994 theaters ($6,068 per theater) and went on to gross $84.4 million domestically, making it the year's 13th biggest film. Its success ushered in an era of animated features that have playability to adults as well as youngsters, something we now take for granted, but which was quite unusual in 1989. Disney's new Broadway musical version of "Mermaid" starts preview performances Nov. 3 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York and opens Dec. 6. The show is currently being fine tuned while playing in Denver.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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