Flashback to summer 2013: On set North Country Cinema’s The Valley Below

THE VALLEY BELOW

TheValleyBelowonsetPhotobyClaireMiglionicoHOMEGROWN TALENT DREAMS BIG

August 20th, 2013, 10:00 a.m.: East Coulee, Alta. 

The drive from Calgary to Drumheller is a good hour and a half. Add about 20 minutes to get to East Coulee – the hamlet-sized agglomeration of 140 people, now technically part of the Drumheller municipality. It must be at least 25 degrees outside, the sun is blazing hot and the epic badlands surround the seemingly deserted streets of East Coulee. It is completely silent outside; only the sounds of grasshoppers of some sort resonate in the wind. What a perfect place for a film set.

TheValleyBelowtherentedhousebyClaireMiglionicoMake a right from Highway 10, then a left right away, continue on for about 100 m and you’ll find yourself in front of a corner lot where a red and green house stands, the home base for Kyle Thomas’ crew for his new feature-length film, The Valley Below, for the next few days. The crew is returning to the Badlands come November to shoot winter scenes. The film is aimed for a multi-platform release date in 2014.

“As you can tell, this is kind of a light day. No one’s really stressed. Who’s ever really stressed though?” says Alexander (Sandy) Carson, The Valley Below’s Ottawa born-and-raised producer.

The crew is getting ready for a late morning shoot and it’s true: no one really seems stressed. There’s cooking going on in the background, some laughing, more talking, general happiness all around.

Carson is super friendly right away and open for discussion. He seems to be Thomas’ right-hand man, his go-to guy, the one who has the answer to anything related to film. Thomas is sitting close by with his laptop open, planning the day ahead and perhaps answering a couple emails.

TheValleyBelowbowlingalleyshootphotobyClaireMiglionicoCarson shares: “We were having one of those heart-to-heart conversations last night, sitting around, having a couple drinks and saying, ‘Well, we just wouldn’t want to do it if it wasn’t fun.’”

“It” being filmmaking, an art that seems to have taken over Thomas’ and Carson’s souls, no questions asked.

Both are alums of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Montreal’s Concordia University, with Carson holding a BFA in film production and an MA in film studies.

Upon completion of their BFAs, Carson and Thomas launched North Country Cinema, a director-driven media arts collective based in Calgary and supported by numerous film councils, including The National Film Board of Canada and The Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Its mandate is to create strong visual storytelling set in the Canadian cultural and artistic landscapes, something we will surely be treated to with The Valley Below.

“We’re interested in building the brand (North Country Cinema) mainly as a Western Canadian thing. Obviously, Kyle’s family’s from here and we have a lot of friends out here. We wanted to do bring more experimental and personal narratives to this relatively underrepresented part of the country,” shares Carson.

Kris Demeanor

The Valley Below stars Kris Demeanor as Warren and Mandy Stobo (Bad Portraits) as Ada, both returning actors from Thomas’ short film, Not Far from the Abattoir, which inspired The Valley Below, its full-length counterpart.

“[Not Far from the Abattoir] is about personal demons, redemption. It’s about a guy who’s at a bad spot in his life work-wise; his personal life: he’s single, he’s alone, he’s drinking too much. Then, he has a encounter: he meets this girl, Ada. Although nothing really intimate or sexy happens, they have a nice night getting to know each other. And this relationship gives him some new hope to find a way forward,” says Carson.

The Valley Below picks up after what looked like a hopeful open ending roughly three to four years later, says Carson. We find out that these two characters have had a relationship, had a baby, but split up again once they reverted to old habits.

“I mean, as much as Warren is a bit of bum, he is likeable. You want him to succeed and you can tell that Mandy and Kris’ characters still really love each other. So, the film poses a question: can this relationship work, can these people rise above their adversities?” says Carson.

11:30 a.m., The Car Wash: Drumheller, Alta.

TheValleyBelow_onset_photobyClaireMiglionicoThe crew finally drives into town. We’re dropping by an auto shop to pick up a rental truck for a car wash scene starring Demeanor. The crew is setting up in an empty parking lot across the retro-inspired car wash. Demeanor is given directions through a walkie-talkie while he soaks up his pick-up truck across the street.

“I think it’s worth mentioning that a lot of people who are in this film as actors come from different backgrounds,” says Carson.

In Montreal, roommates of varying backgrounds, from actors to musicians, always surrounded Carson and Thomas. As musicians and photography buffs, the melding of different artistic disciplines into one big film project just seemed to be the perfect way to “explore the limits of film itself,” says Carson.

“Kris is a writer and musician, Mandy is a painter. We have lots of actors that are coming from the theatre. It is a multi-disciplinary project in terms of the influences that are coming into the work,” he says.

Thomas, who saw Demeanor perform live in the past, approached him for the role of Warren.

“I thought that somebody who had a musical career, had been on tour, had slept in the back of a van could bring that sensibility and way of life into the character. That was my first instinct,” says Thomas on picking Demeanor for the role.

Stobo, on the other hand, came in as an audition. Coincidentally, Stobo’s character is also a painter.

“She came in and the performance was just so good. It just seemed that this role was her in many ways but I didn’t know her [beforehand]. It was strange, she said she sunk right into it and I guess it happened a bit by chance,” shares Thomas.

3:00 p.m., Back to East Coulee 

TheValleyBelowPhotobyClaireMiglionicoSara Corry, the production manager, has cooked a massive meal for everyone. There’s salad, macaroni and cheese and chili. The boys are hungry.

There are a total of 13 crew members with a key team that includes Cameron Macgowan as producer, Sara Corry as co-producer/production manager, Mike McLaughlin as cinematographer, Bobby Vanonen as production designer and, of course, Kyle Thomas as writer/director/producer/editor and Alexander Carson as producer.

“I think having a smaller crew is good because [everyone’s] more engaged. I mean, there’s a bunch of us doing multiple tasks, everyone’s always busy, you feel more connected to [the project] and, you know, we’re living in a house here together and eating meals together,” says Thomas.

“It was different from any other film we ever worked on because it was so dedicated to the characters and getting to the heart of the scene without relying heavily on production which can eat up a lot of time and money,” he says.

According to Carson, Telefilm Canada provided a $120,000 grant for the film to be made, following some conditions.

“It’s important to our funders that we pursue innovative digital distribution avenues,” shares Carson.

Carson says they’d still want to go down the traditional festival release route with a digital release around the same time.

Either way, The Valley Below and the filmmakers of North Country Cinema are to watch for. They’ve grown exponentially over the last two years and have been getting a lot of recognition, including this fall’s TIFF and CIFF film festivals.

Visit northcountrycinema.com for more info. The Valley Below is set to be released in 2014.

Joe Perry and Mikaela Cochrane as Henry and Kate

Archive: Calgary indie songstress Samantha Savage Smith releases sophomore album

photo courtesy of cbc.ca

January 12, 2015

CALGARY — It’s hard not to love local heroine Samantha Savage Smith. Her persona is down-to-earth, she sings sweetly and strums gently, releasing feel-good, gentle indie rock songs that more often than not leave you with chills.

When she’s not jamming in her basement or recording an album with local producer Lorrie Matheson, she’s jamming in Nordic nations with Icelandic songsmiths or touring with her band. Despite all this, she remains easy to talk to; she emits a completely genuine love for music, one that is deeply rooted. Indeed, Smith began singing at age nine and playing guitar at 11. She says once she figured out how to play a few chords together, she started writing “bad crappy songs” and playing them for her mother and brother. Although Smith went on to play in bands in high school, her self-doubt became crippling until Matheson stepped in: he heard some of Smith’s demos and worked with her to develop and record her debut. She was just leaving her early 20’s when her debut Tough Cookie was released, first on Western Famine, then by Toronto’s Arts & Crafts for wider distribution.

With much more musical experience under her belt, Smith is now releasing Fine Lines, her sophomore album on Winnipeg indie label Pipe & Hat. The album delivers a more refined, evolved “grown-up” sound that stays true to Smith’s indie folk-rock identity. It’s still very authentic, yet charming and better defined.

“I would say the songs are more complex now. I have personally put a lot more thought and effort into them,” says Smith, admitting the writing process took much longer than that for her previous album.

Fine Lines offers more than love and heartbreak, she says.

“It’s about life challenges, my own personal challenges with myself. It’s grown because I’m older.”

Smith and her band mates recently wrapped up a two-week Canadian tour promoting Fine Lines. It stretched out east as far as Winnipeg, passing through Saskatchewan, going all the way west to Victoria.

“We tour in a mini-van. It [gets] tight,” she says with a laugh. “It’s long drives; you’re driving for eight or nine hours every day at least, sometimes 12.”

Touring, though, is something Smith enjoys.

“The first week is kind of the hardest because you’re not in it quite yet,” she says of the “weirdly” long days that come with touring the vast Canadian landscape. By the time they get to play their set, she says, they wrap up and are on the road again.

Right before touring begun, Smith found herself in Iceland once more for the annual Iceland Airwaves music festival. She was invited back for a second round of a collaborative talent exchange called EMBASSYLIGHTS. The collective includes Calgary musicians Mark Andrew Hamilton from Woodpigeon, Smith, Clinton St. John and Laura Leif, alongside two of Reykjavík’s most intriguing songsmiths Benni Hemm Hemm and Prins Póló. The idea stemmed from Woodpigeon’s Hamilton, who wanted to focus on collaborative song writing.

“We met up with [Hemm Hemm and Póló] in Reykjavík, sat in their room for three or four days and wrote an album. We played a show our first night in Reykjavík and on the Sunday, we recorded all of it [within] the day,” she recalls.

Iceland is all too dreamy, a Mecca for the musically curious and hungry. It was Smith’s second time in the territory. She describes the music scene there as similar to the one we have in Calgary, only much bigger.

“[At Iceland Airwaves]there’s [around] 250 bands and only a small percentage of international bands [who] can only go and play once. They never do repeat acts and showcase mostly all Icelandic bands,” she says.

Back home, Savage Smith took part in the PEAK Performance Project Alberta, a radio competition that saw Edmonton’s The Wet Secrets take home the winning prize of $100,953 after months of boot camps. Although the experience came with some downsides, including a few scathing assessments of her musical approach, it was a learning experience she valued as it forced her to “question quite a bit of things you haven’t been really been forced to think about.”

“The actual competition itself is really hard work. You do the showcases, there’s this crazy final report you have to [hand in]. You have to meet deadline and figure out how to prioritize. It definitely takes it out of you,” she describes.

The experience was ultimately positive as it got Smith deeply considering her focus.

“I’m stoked,” she says. “It [got me] to want to move forward and do my own thing.”

With Fine Lines, Smith went back into Arch Audio, Matheson’s cozy Inglewood recording studio. Two main elements shifted; meaning Fine Lines is a different beast than Tough Cookie.
Firstly, lyrically, Fine Lines moves away from the personal intensity of its predecessor, although Smith swears her songs still come from a very personal place.

“[Although it] may be a disconnected experience from myself, I’m still writing about myself,” she says.

Her song “Kids in the Basement,” for example, is about making music.

“It’s the highs and low of doing that, the grassroots of trying to be a musician, what you give up for it,” she says. “It’s pretty obtuse in what it can mean because it directly doesn’t really need to be about anything. I don’t know if they intentionally do, but I want songs to rather give a sense of feeling than have a direct message,” she describes.

Secondly, although Matheson had quite a bit of studio input on the songs for Tough Cookie, pre-production differed this time around. It was co-produced by Smith and band member Chris Dadge, with whom she demoed the songs at home. The end product features contributions from an array of Calgary indie musicians, including members of Snailhouse, Woodpigeon, Lab Coast, Friendo, Ghostkeeper and Chad VanGaalen’s band.

She says the overall experience was relaxed and “a lot like recording with your pals.”

Being Calgary born-and-raised (as well as clearly having a strong support group from local musicians), means Smith loves cities like Montreal and Toronto but calls Calgary home.

“I had a lot of hometown love and support from people which made a huge difference for me,” she says of her decision to stay in the city. She describes the music scene here as having a great community vibe.

“There was a point where you had heard of all the bands in Calgary but now you have to keep up to it, “ she says. “It’s good because that just means the scene is getting bigger.” That being said, she decries the increasingly high rents, which make it difficult for any artist to live in the city.

“ I used to live in Vancouver and the rent was crazy, but now in retrospect, the rent is the same!” she says.

Smith says there’s a certain appeal in moving to bigger cities, but ultimately, Calgary is where her heart (and couch) are to stay, even if it’s for logistical purposes.

“[Calgary] is my home base,” she says. “When it comes down to it, if your band is prepared to tour a lot, it really does not matter where you live. The idea is you’re on the road and are constantly present in all those cities anyway.”

She finishes, “And then you can go back to wherever you want to chill out on the couch.”

The release party for Fine Lines is January 23 at the Palomino Smokehouse and Bar.

Story published here