“Meet the Makers” is a series of in-depth interviews to meet the filmmakers and the films of the Willson Oakville Film Festival. Answers are edited for clarity and space.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
CAT HOSTICK, Director/Writer/Producer: Cat is a director-producer-writer, is co-owner of North Film Co., and is an actor (“Orphan Black”, “Suits”, “Heroes Reborn”, “Reign”, and “American Gothic”).
RUSS De JONG, Executive Producer/Director of Photography/Editor: Russ is a director of photography, steadicam operator, and is co-owner of North Film Co.
ABOUT THE FILM, THE MEANING OF LIFE
A talented but starving young musician, FINN FABER (Tyler Shaw), has 6 months to make his music career take off or he will be forced to go to law school at the will of his father. When he gets a job as a therapeutic clown entertaining sick kids at a hospital, he is assigned to a 9-year old leukaemia patient, SOPHIA HILL (Sadie Munroe), whose own struggles help Finn learn that dreams never die.
THE INTERVIEWER: Cathleen MacDonald
I caught up with Cat and Russ just before they were to leave for Los Angeles to attend the world premiere of their film, The Meaning of Life.
CATHLEEN: Let’s start by talking about the inspiration for your film, The Meaning of Life. What drew you to this story?
CAT: A lot of things but one thing is the idea of art and music as therapy. I grew up as an artist and I was a working artist for years – as a painter, before I started making movies. I always felt it was so therapeutic. Before, when I was struggling with an autoimmune disease, I found that working with art and film helped pull me out of it compared to other medications. I realised it was really mental stuff that was causing the autoimmune disease or was bringing on the symptoms. I think that art and music are so therapeutic and I’d like to see more funding for it in the healthcare system.
RUSS: We wanted to create a positive story and The Meaning of Life has the emotional aspects.
CATHLEEN: Let’s get to one of my favourite questions. Who did you make this film for?
CAT: Honestly, I didn’t make it for anyone specific. It’s a story that came to me. I believe that you should never make art for someone. I find that your audience will find you. This movie is relatable for a lot of people. There are a lot of people who’ve struggled with cancer; there are a lot of people who have kids, who love the arts and music and have changed their lives with it.
RUSS: And it’s for anybody who’s looking for inspiration or help in finding some alternatives to health or other problems or emotional challenges in their lives.
CAT: And it’s about ‘the meaning of life’. A lot of people wonder what that is. This is a story that interprets that. The character finds their own meaning of life through the story.
CATHLEEN: Let’s talk about those emotions. What are the themes and emotions in this film?
RUSS: It has a lot of moments of inspiration and moments about challenges that people can experience in their lives – to use art as a catalyst to work with, to deal with, to learn and to build from, your problems in life.
CAT:It’s a movie that emotionally stays with you. I think that for many people it’s hard not to shed a tear.
RUSS: It’s funny too, though. We watched it ourselves and there are moments that still crack me up; and that was a surprise because we didn’t set out to make a comedy. It really is truly a drama with some sad and emotional moments but there are definitely some comedic moments.
CAT: Yeah. I find that the best movies are the ones where I’m still feeling it and thinking about it days later. I’ll remember how a movie made me feel sometimes long after I’ve forgotten what it was about. So, in my work, I want to make sure I hit home like that in terms of emotions. That’s what I’m trying to do as a director and as a writer – trying to pull the emotions out and let the audience empathise with these characters.
CATHLEEN: Let’s talk about the young protagonist, Finn, (played by Juno nominated recording artist Tyler Shaw). Help us understand why he’s stuck in his life. What’s holding him back and why does he need Sophia?
CAT: Finn has parents who love him; they want the best for him and I think it’s how it is for a lot of people in the arts. It’s a tough shot to make it. He wants to be a musician and his father wants something else for him – law school – and that creates conflicts. But Finn learns to see the bigger picture in music than just the possibility of fame. It’s like why I make movies. I don’t want to make movies just to make movies. I can use movies to teach new things. I want to help people and this is a medium where you can to do that. Finn is similar. He’s stuck in life because he doesn’t know enough. When he encounters Sophia, he learns what life is really about and even what being a musician is about. You don’t need a million people to make your music matter. A song can change one person’s day. Finn learns that, through his music, he can help Sophia.
CATHLEEN: Tyler Shaw, as Finn, appears in his first role as an actor. He did an amazing job. Tell me about working with Tyler as a first-time actor.
RUSS: Yeah. This was his acting debut.
CAT: He’d done music videos and appeared on shows but yeah, this was his first gig as an actor. You know what? Tyler is a natural. When we auditioned him, it was over Skype because he was so busy touring and we had to go to camera in a few days. I was asking a musician to play a musician because I wanted it to be real – not an actor playing a musician. He was perfect for the role. And the music, obviously, was amazing. We’d be blocking (planning) a scene and there would be a song in that scene. So, while we were blocking, he’d go away, write a song and then came back with it, and the song would fit perfectly in the scene like he’d worked on it forever but in actual fact, he’d made it, just like that.
RUSS: Yeah, he really had raw talent from the get-go. And from a production standpoint, we had only 10 days to shoot this film. With such a short timeline, it’s one thing to work with actors who are seasoned and can nail a scene, so that production can move efficiently, but inexperienced actors don’t always get it right away. So, you have to work with them to pull out what you need and it’s a major concern, and risk, when we were on such a tight timeline. I’d worked with Tyler on music videos and I saw something there that suggested a natural talent but he was still inexperienced, so we couldn’t be certain about getting our movie shot in only 10 days. But Tyler nailed it.
CATHLEEN: This film features another talented young actor, Sadie Munroe, playing the challenging role of a child who’s battling cancer. Tell me about how you worked with her.
CAT: We looked at many kids for this role and I wasn’t really drawn to anyone and I thought, “I’m not going to find Sophia”. Then I watched Sadie’s audition tape and she was crying – there was one emotional part where she’s crying and I started crying and I thought, ‘Ok, if you can get me in an audition tape like that,’ then she was the one, for sure. She had a personal experience that she could draw upon; someone she knew who had been going through cancer treatment. So, I think she could empathise with that, even at her age. And she’s a professional actor. She has a reoccurring role on “Working Moms” (CBC).
RUSS: Sadie wasn’t necessarily what we were looking for originally, in terms of a ‘look’. We had already cast the parents, so we were looking for a child to match them. But Sadie is a redhead and just has different looks, overall. Because she was such a strong performer for the role of Sophia, we had to backtrack and recast the parents so they would look like they’re related.
CATHLEEN: Cat and Russ, you both bring so much to the film. Cat, what informs your work as a writer-director? What do you draw upon?
CAT: My goal as a writer is to put something on the screen that teaches my audience something, or that’s maybe controversial, or we haven’t had enough of a dialogue about. This movie is about how to heal your own emotions, first – confronting your mental and emotional health – not just the physical. I also come from an acting background so a lot of my work is dramatic – emotional. I’m always thinking, ‘How does the movie make the audience feel?’
CATHLEEN: Russ, you were the Director of Photography. How did you use the camera to tell this story?
RUSS: We did many things that you wouldn’t normally see in a movie shot with our budget and short schedule. We wanted the movie to have some ‘wow factor’; to have – just from a camera standpoint, a bigger look with long, steady moving shots. The movie starts off with that vast, continuous shot starting 30 feet in the air, then comes down and follows Finn into the house and through the rooms – all in one shot. This relates to the movie because it was important to have moments, without cutting up the shots, so we could get into the scene emotionally – to just let the actors draw us in. So, we have longer moments in the hospital where we let the actors build up their conversations continuously, without cutting back and forth. It feels more real, like you – the audience, are part of the story. From a lighting standpoint, the lighting follows the mood – lighter or darker. Again, keeping it natural but also giving it a more polished look with camera moves that many films on our budget, aren’t as capable of creating as we are.
CATHLEEN: You mentioned how the audience is a part of this film. What do you want the audience to take away from The Meaning of Life?
CAT: I want to provoke a conversation. I think a lot of us don’t know what the meaning of life is; that it’s often an unanswered question. So, I want everyone to watch the film, take away Finn’s meaning in the story but also think about, and assign, their own meanings to their own lives. Along with that – the music and art therapy – confronting the emotional along with the physical. I want a conversation to start around that.
RUSS: I want people to take away the importance of the emotional and mental elements when it comes to healing. I hope people can be inspired to make a difference in their own lives.
CATHLEEN: When the audience sees the film, they’ll see in the end credits a big shout-out to the town of Oakville. Tell me how Oakville had such a key role in getting this film made.
CAT: Well, we love Oakville.
RUSS: Yeah, we live here.
CAT: We wanted to shoot here a-hundred thousand percent. We know Jeff Knoll, who is a councillor for Oakville and the owner of film.ca, and Jeff was a huge contributing factor to The Meaning of Life. He helped us get everything in place. Many people here in Oakville were so welcoming and helpful when we needed locations and anything.
RUSS: As a producer, Oakville was the first choice. From a logistical point of view, we live here, our office is here, all our resources are here. It made sense. Oakville has amazing parks; amazing locations, amazing resources. When we first started looking, we found some things but the ball really didn’t start rolling on this movie until we met with Jeff Knoll and he helped us find some key locations. There are a lot of people who helped bring this movie together but we couldn’t have done this without support from the Town of Oakville and especially the help from Jeff. We had as many as 4 location moves in one day. You can’t even park in Toronto in that time. But here in Oakville, people stepped up and helped us at every turn.
CATHLEEN: Finally, can you share something that you think people should know about The Meaning of Life that we haven’t already covered.
CAT: Yes, this might be something that people in Oakville will be interested in and that’s the fact the we shot in the old Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital; the one that just shut down. When we were shooting there, so many people said to us, “Oh, I used to take my son there when he was sick,” and other stories like that. It touched so many people. It was abandoned at the time and we were walking through it and saw a tree sticker on the wall. The painting of ‘the tree of life’ is one of the symbols for our movie, so it was synchronistic.
RUSS: For me, there are a number of things that I want people to know. This is Cat’s first feature film and I think she did a great job. And the fact is – it’s hard to create art but it’s especially hard to create it under the restraints we had – the time and the budget. When people watch this movie, they won’t realize how much went into it or how quickly it was pulled together.
Interview by Cathleen MacDonald
Cathleen MacDonald is a writer and filmmaker.