Facing new frontiers in Canadian filmmaking

Wayne Clarkson’s perceptions of the landscape of filmmaking changed the day he and the Canadian Film Centre were approached about a film involving three teenagers, a road trip and Kurt Cobain.

“We turned it down because we couldn’t deal with the idea,” he said.

As Director of Telefilm Canada and the Canadian Film Centre, Clarkson’s resume also boasts a stint with the Toronto International Film Festival.

He recently spoke to film and broadcast students at Centennial College and didn’t hesitate admitting he’d made a mistake by turning down the independent film.

“(I didn’t realize) it’s all about what’s available through the Internet,” he said. “It’s literally a project that challenged the status quo in every way.”

The film, deadend.com, is based on the true story of three Canadian teenagers who drove to Vancouver to commit suicide as a tribute to Cobain, and it was unlike anything Clarkson had previously encountered.

If fact, it was Clarkson’s own son, Wyeth, a Canadian Film Centre graduate, who approached him with the idea in 2002. Clarkson initially expressed interest in the project.

“What I thought about was, what did those kids think of every day as they got closer to Vancouver?” he recalled. “I (thought), what a great idea!”

It wasn’t until Clarkson learned that the film would incorporate raw uncut footage they had posted the Internet that he retreated.

Wyeth Clarkson informed his father that it would be shot digitally and would consist of a cast of non-professional actors ad libbing their lines.

The real deal-breaker for Clarkson, however, involved the online aspect. His son and co-producers decided to chronicle the making of the film on their website, including automatically downloading scenes they filmed throughout the day without any editing or censorship.

One particularly graphic scene involved one lead actor, a street youth from Halifax, actually shooting heroin on camera.

“All the rules and regulations that we had designed, couldn’t cope with it,” Clarkson said. “(Wyeth) and his corporate partner started up their own company and shot it themselves.”

After his initial skepticism, Clarkson realized that such controversial scenes were marking a turning point in the film industry. The graphic depiction of a teenage boy actually high on drugs left a lasting impression.

“It has a rawness to it that’s amazing,” he said. “It demystifies everything I’ve seen in Hollywood.”

After witnessing the success of deadend.com at various film festivals around the world, including Toronto and Sundance, Clarkson realized the importance of the film to Canadian cinema.

“What I learned from that is the impact that digitization, digital media and the Internet is having on the whole idea of film,” he said. “It says so much about the future.”

Clarkson encouraged aspiring filmmakers to tell stories that matter to them and to challenge the boundaries of conventional cinematic storytelling.

“That’s movies today,” Clarkson said to the students assembled around him. “There’s nothing to stop any of you from doing that kind of thing in Canada, with Canadian talent, with a Canadian idea and travel the world (with it).”