As the official award of the Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Foundation of British Columbia, getting nominated for a Leo is like being on the list for the provincial Oscars.
Getting ready with their gowns, tuxes and acceptance speeches for the yet-to-be announced presentation this year are the creators of two short films tied to Salt Spring: Lucid and Mr. James is Dead.
Lucid, written by Claire Robertson and directed by Deanna Milligan, received four Leo nominations. Filming was done both on Salt Spring and in Victoria, where Milligan now lives. Along with best short film, Leo nods include best directing for Milligan, best musical score for Salt Spring musician Marta Jaciubek-McKeever and best cinematography for Ramsey Fendall (Victoria).
Peter Hoskins and Daniel Irving, two Gulf Islands Secondary School graduates now based in Vancouver, form the creative partnership behind Mr. James is Dead. The action-spy-comedy earned eight Leo nods, the second highest total of any short film this year. Their nominations include best short film, best screenplay and best male actor nods for Hoskins and best directing for Irving and his co-director Josh Aries.
Hoskins, who has an important cameo in Lucid as well as starring in his own film, was thrilled to see so many nominations for both projects.
“I love Deanna Milligan; I love Claire. Amelia McCluskey, Claire’s daughter, worked on our film, and Deanna’s been a huge help to me,” Hoskins said. “They’re doing amazing work and it’s awesome to see Salt Spring represented at the Leos. It’s just really cool.”
Both projects have already proved to be winning ideas. Mr. James is Dead was produced as a result of the Crazy8s festival in Vancouver. The event was created to foster support for emerging filmmakers who have little or no access to funding for short films and to train crew and cast.
Every year over 100 teams apply to have their story idea made, initially presented in a three-minute video. At the end, six winning projects receive $1,000 and a production package to make their short film in just eight days. Mr. James is Dead was one of the six winning films in 2020. Since then, it became one of 21 short films selected by Telefilm Canada to represent the nation at the Cannes Short Film Corner.
Similarly, Robertson took her screenplay for Lucid through Victoria’s Cinespark Screenplay Competition in 2019, which involved a live pitch in front of an audience and a jury. The project won and received a small grant and a loan of equipment to create the film. (This was supplemented with an Indiegogo campaign that raised $10,000 with much community support.)
Hoskins said he and Irving would love to know what the winning formula is, so they could reproduce it in their current projects.
“The success we have had in certain avenues I think comes from a lot of dedication and hard work from not just ourselves but a massive team that helped us along the way,” Hoskins said. “I think we got really, really lucky, and also we got really excited. We were pitching something that was our own, and was unique, and I think the Crazy8s people got excited about it as well.”
Having graduated from Capilano University’s Motion Picture Arts diploma program in 2017, Irving loves the specific tools that filmmaking includes. He is now working in Vancouver’s film industry in the lighting department and has definite plans to direct his own feature one day. In fact, he and Hoskins are currently shopping around a full-length script written by Hoskins with hopes of securing funding. The pair also made the hilarious and beautifully filmed “Untitled coffee short” during the height of the pandemic to show what they could produce without needing a 100-member film crew.
“I think if we had more access and more funding, we’d be making a lot more stuff,” Irving said.
Hoskins and Irving are thankful to everyone on the island who nurtured their growth as young artists. They agree going through the creative programs at Gulf Islands Secondary School — including the music and drama departments and the Gulf Islands School of Performing Arts — had “literally everything” to do with their creative development and current artistic paths.
For Hoskins, being part of the national champion improv team coached by Jason Donaldson was another huge influence.
“The foundation that I, and I believe Daniel, work off of was built primarily and almost exclusively on Salt Spring,” Hoskins said. “There are people on Salt Spring who are amazing, passionate, awesome teachers and loving individuals who [have time for] a lot of angsty teenage art people.
“And then a lot of the storytelling I pivot towards comes 100 per cent pretty much from improv teachings. You get it really well bashed into you that you’re making story on the fly and then you take what you have at the beginning and use it. That’s the toolkit you have and so that’s always been a staple of the stories I like to tell now. And I think that aided in the story we have now coming out so ‘successfully’ as it did.”
Milligan and Robertson’s creative partnership began on Salt Spring with Milligan’s first short film, Cascadia. Robertson came on as a producer and art director after her young daughter Lily McCluskey was cast in the lead role. Fendall first joined the team for Snug, their next short film. The two women co-wrote and Milligan directed.
Lucid, their third project, features highly stylized storytelling and a richly artistic visual landscape, both of which underscore the narrative around protagonist Mia, an art college student struggling to find her voice. When instructed by her teachers to create work “with heart,” Mia (played by professional actress Caitlyn Taylor) is pushed to an absurdly literal interpretation.
The Salt Spring scenes feature some well-known local faces such as Georgia Acken, Keith Picot, Christie Roome and Metta Rose. In addition to the Leo nominations, the black comedy has been named as an official selection at the Short Circuit Film Festival in Victoria as well as Frostbiter (Iceland) and Midwest Weirdfest (Wisconsin).
Robertson set the film in the early 1990s, “at a time when artists, designers and musicians such as Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, Alexander McQueen and Nick Cave were fascinated with the horrific and the grotesque . . . when a whole generation was hooked on grunge and disintegration after the glitzy pop-fuelled ‘80s.”
Robertson based the harsh words of Mia’s teachers on her own experience of bringing her portfolio to be assessed by a consultant when she was trying to get into art school, and taking away only the negative aspects of the criticism. But an art school experience isn’t necessary to be engaged.
“While not everyone will relate to the need to find a creative outlet, the theme of the search to find a valid place in the world where your voice is heard is universal,” Robertson pointed out.
Milligan started her professional screen acting career at age 12, and can relate to the feeling of not measuring up to someone else’s standards.
“You’re always being told, ‘You’re not this, you’re not that.’ You always feel a little bit lacking, and you can lose yourself in that,” she said.
Lucid is the third film project on which musician Jaciubek-McKeever has collaborated with Milligan. She said she sometimes feels they share the same brain when creating ideas for how music can help tell the story. She responded strongly to Lucid’s theme as well.
“For me personally, as a singer-songwriter musician for 20 years, I got a lot of that from the producers and labels I was trying to work with,” Jaciubek-McKeever said. “Back 20 years ago, being different wasn’t good. And I know that really resonated with me.”
When it comes to the look of the film, Milligan and Fendall were inspired by 1970s Italian horror movies with their hyper-stylized colouration and sound.
Lucid indeed moves quickly into horror territory, and Milligan concedes the high blood quotient isn’t for everyone.
“Some people don’t like the horror elements, but every one of our decisions was heart-felt. We couldn’t be concerned about people liking it or not because that makes your decision-making quite muddy. You have to trust yourself,” she said.
Milligan and Robertson report receiving tremendous island support for their film projects, from local businesses to the Salt Spring Arts Council.
“We’re so grateful to the people who sponsored us and the incredible talent we have to pull from as actors,” Milligan said. “That’s the thing about Salt Spring: they’re such great supporters of the communal art project.”