It’s also a film-within-a-film that explores Tait’s somewhat painful odyssey during the nearly ten years he spent making his 1999 animation short debut, Pictorial Forest. That film, a kaleidoscope of imagery, showcased Tait’s technical skills: he used a combination of traditional cel, rubber puppets and computer animation. The project, which soon morphed into a drama about the making of the animated short, was so arduous and overwhelming, it very nearly forced him to leave his dreams of filmmaking behind.
“In July of 2005, I awoke very early in the morning with a vision; a voice told me that if I continued shooting the making-of film and trying to market it in Canada as a drama, that it would crush me and I’d lose everything,” recalls Tait. “So I held on to Pictorial Forest, knowing that I could package it along with a feature about its making and actually leverage it better that way. I realized that with the 2010 Olympic games coming, all these unique stories were happening now, and they were just there for the taking. So from that point forward, I picked up my video camera and I went out and shot the politicians, the activists and the stories. I got the back-story of Vancouver leading up to the Games, in conjunction with my own story within that landscape.”
Along the way, Tait learned some important lessons about indie filmmaking in general and succeeding in Canada in particular.
“It’s always been a struggle for Canadians, especially in the English-language market,” he explains. “I wanted to create a monument to the Canadian situation and say, ‘This is what we’ve been going through all this time, and this is why. In the digital world, everything moves very quickly, and the tangible process where you actually make things has changed. The Vancouver scene I came out of is predominantly a service industry, and what came up on the fringes very strongly is the independent sector. It’s a very passion-driven sector of independent artists who are not driven by money. There’s no money behind it, just passion and equity.”
Tait says he made Vancouver Vagabond because “it was something I had to say. It’s a creative, challenging film that was a catharsis, a process of trying to get a hold of my world and have control over something that I have very little control over. Plus, I had this enormous resource of material – old video, film, my dad’s old photographs – and you’ve got to work economically, as a filmmaker, so I made something out of it.”
Like many up and coming Canadian filmmakers who rely on their own resourcefulness, Tait notes in his film that he didn’t have the right connections or the right tools, and raided his mother’s make-up box for supplies. And contrary to many mainstream films today that seem to have more product-placement than content, Tait’s philosophy is refreshingly grassroots.
“I didn’t get into this field so that I could be a manipulator of peoples’ consciousness. I really wanted to turn people on with my movies, animation and special effects,” he says. “I saw the transition in the 80s and 90s, from that handmade animation into the digital age where now, none of it’s special. It’s too perfect. The effects of the past had a greater respect for people, I think, because they’d never seen them before and everyone knew that it was handmade. The effects looked and felt handmade on the screen, and they had that weightiness. Digital stuff is so light and airy and alien: there’s this strange detachment that occurs between the audience and the screen.”
Tait interweaves his personal story with an insider’s look at politics, the economy and other social issues, and manages to balance the film’s narrative with strong production values, while also making his audience work a little to make sense of what’s on-screen.
“It gels and all the stories come together, in a sense. They all have parallels,” notes Tait, adding the first time he heard the film’s soundtrack, he was so moved he burst into tears. “It’s not only a challenging film, but it’s difficult to describe, because it’s so many things. (Film festival organizers) want to tell an audience ‘It is this’ and fit it into a very particular category so it’s easy for people to wrap their minds around. But Vagabond is just so many things.”
Vancouver Vagabond is also the first in a planned trilogy, adds Tait. “I’ve taken a small sliver of many different stories, and put them together to try and set up interest in the trilogy.”
Through his hard-knocks experience as an indie filmmaker, Tait has made an important realization.
“You’re either born with passion or you’re not. It’s not something I can get rid of. If anything, I’ve often thought of it as being quite a burden. The passion can drive you crazy, but it can (also) drive you to engage in motion picture, art or painting,” he says. “The artists who drive the machine don’t really make much money, unless they’re well-branded and become stars. Until you get to that point and become commercialized, it’s more of a struggle and a burden than anything; a weight that we carry.” In his film, Tait’s voiceover notes that, “all children start out as artists and over time, they leave it behind”. Yet, Tait has proven to be an exception to that rule.
“I’ve been a producer for the past five years, but underneath it all, I’m still this artist that comes from the colorful background of the arts world, and wanting very much to go back there,” he says. “I think the art and the passion are still inside me, but the greatest lesson that I have learned as my role shifted from an artist to a producer and organizer is to work with people that you know and trust.”
Tait was thrilled to win an Indie Fest award, and says he plans to leverage it while promoting his projects. “Of all the awards I have won, I have had by far the greatest response to the Indie statuette,” he says.
(Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based writer and television producer. LINK)