“I have never really thought of doing a narrative film until my son Dylan asked me to help him on one of his high school projects. He wrote a script about a fictional town called Redemption where nothing was sacred except blood, money and religion. What eventually emerged was a complete and complex world of a fictional town,” replies filmmaker Steven Hunt. Ottawa Indie Fest spoke to Hunt at his home about his web series Past Redemption.
Steven Hunt, a seasoned director and producer, has worked in Latin America and Africa on numerous broadcast and communications projects. His documentaries on various social issues have appeared on Canadian, European and New Zealand television.
Past Redemption is a 9-part character-driven web series about survival in a small impoverished town, where you can be law abiding and live in poverty, or be involved in petty crime where prospects improve dramatically. It is also the historical birthplace of a major crime family – the Wesley’s.
The web series will have a special premiere screening at the Mayfair Theatre on May 19th at 7pm. It will also appear on line, as nine separate episodes released every second Thursday starting June 2, 2016.
Can you tell me briefly how you got involved in filmmaking?
I worked in radio journalism first. I didn’t like television then because cameras were big and you needed a crew of 5 or 6 people to shoot a simple interview. I really liked the idea of keeping things simple. When I worked in Central America, I was just one person with a radio microphone.
My first documentary that made use of a small camera was “Duel with the Devil” in Guatemala. We followed homicide detectives around in a city that has about 5,000 murders a year. At that time, they only had 15 convictions a year so you could literally get away with murder.
The smaller cameras gave us access to places with little resistance, for example, the gang dominated Pavon Prison, which became the focus of a major human rights case. A few months later it was raided by the Guatemalan army. Our footage became quite valuable, because we were the only people with good footage of inside the prison and interviews with people who were executed by the army.
While the Guatemalan project was for TV, I love filmmaking for the web. It’s quite cost effective. In TV, you still have to spend two years raising money for a six week shoot.
Nevertheless, the web has its challenges, especially if you plan to raise money from the Net because you have to become a master of social media and crowd funding, and a new one for me – merchandizing.
But with the web, you can shoot with good – but not high end – cameras and you have a direct relationship with your audience. If they like it, they tell you – and if they don’t they are not quiet about it either. And it will be seen by far more people than sending it to a series of film festivals.
This web series is a departure for you from your previous documentary projects. How did this narrative series come about?
I never really thought about narrative film until my son Dylan wrote a script for a high school project. It was about a fictional town called Redemption where nothing was sacred except blood, money and religion. Knowing that “Dad” owned professional equipment for my corporate video business, Dylan asked if I would shoot it for him.
I realized two things – my son was actually a pretty good writer and that I really found shooting narrative film a lot of fun. Furthermore, from a craft perspective it is using the same set of skills but in a different way.
In documentary you need to know what your story is about before you start shooting, but the real story may not emerge until you are in production or in editing. A lot of people in documentary will talk about finding the story in the editing process.
In the narrative approach, the story comes first and you know you are in really big trouble if you are still looking for it in the editing suite.
And how did the web series emerge? We just chatted around the dinner table and someone said “so!!”…. “Want to do a web series?” And off to the races we went.
Dylan and I split the script up, wrote different story strings and then re-integrated the story into various stories from the community.
What skills as a documentary filmmaker did you bring to the narrative series?
In terms of the script, I think I brought a sense of reality and what to create with reality, because that is what documentary film is generally about.
In terms of storytelling, I could quickly visualize the story because I’ve written so many stories when I worked in journalism. I didn’t have to learn how to write a script. I had to learn a different script layout format but that was relatively easy.
In terms of efficiency, I brought my sensibilities about news and current affairs with me. In news, you are totally governed by deadlines you don’t have time to worry about if its “award winning.” You need to know what to capture, the quality it needs to be at and be efficient to hit your deadline.
In narrative film, they are used to taking many takes. My approach was – here is the scene, here are the angles we need. We get one good take per angle plus a backup take. If it looked good to me in the monitor we didn’t need a 10th take of it. This might not work for a mainstream TV show but for a web series with a very limited budget it works quite well.
I think this approach sometimes frustrated the actors because we moved on quickly. But the actors were really prepared – they knew their lines and could discuss the characters and what motivated them. So my job was a lot easier.
And I think it worked – though that is for the audience to determine in the end.
Is Pass Redemption based on a real town and what about the Wesley family?
No it’s all fiction.
That was really the idea. We wanted people to look at the series and say is this place real. We wanted to create a feeling that you’re watching a real environment and real conflicts that happen between the different characters.
Some stories especially from the Bunny Diaries may be inspired by real stories but it’s all fiction. The diaries refer to the “Bunny Farm,” a derogatory term people from Redemption call a bar past Redemption that has a number of young women who seek out the company of older men with money. Their personal stories are told through parallel Vlogs by the actors in character about their life choices based on their quite marginal existence and limited opportunities.
Nevertheless, a lot of thought has gone into figuring out how a town would be affected if it has been totally dominated by crime or in this case a fictional crime family,
This is where I think, on reflection, how my Guatemalan documentary influenced this project because “Duel with the Devil” dealt in part with how crime can totally permeate community life and rip its social fabric. .
I recently showed a portion of Past Redemption to some friends in Guatemala and they immediately connected with the concept. It’s a concept that shows up in Latin America of “Narco Literature” and how crime has totally corrupted society.
We are also big fans of TV programs such as “Justified” and “Longmire” and “Breaking Bad”, which also deals with these issues on different levels.
What are some of the challenges in producing the series?
The first challenge was to make sure we had a doable script. It`s easy to write a script if you have a $100 million budget, it`s another thing to try to do it with no budget. So we actually had to put it in a context that we had no money for the production except for food and out of pocket expenses. Therefore, we had to simplify the script.
The cast of 28 actors and 15 extras and a crew of 20 donated their time to the making of the series. This also meant that a majority of the shooting took place around Low, Venosta and Kazabazua, Quebec as filming in Ottawa would have been too expensive. We also rented a little bit of equipment, a couple of jibs and things like that.
Since I am real believer that the set has to be considered a character, it meant we had to knock on doors to get permission to shoot without any price tag associated with it. Overall, the people in Low, Venosta and Kazabazua were wonderful allowing us to use their homes or business for nothing more than a thank you. Probably one of the most wonderful things we learned was how friendly the people in that area were.
Nevertheless we had to change one scene because we couldn’t get access to all the type of places we needed in the original script.
During production there were also a number of key challenges.
A big problem was getting up to the Low area and back to Ottawa. So we’re always carpooling because it’s an hour away. And then we would be up there for 12 hours so it usually turned out to be a day long (and sometime night) commitment.
Organizing was another major challenge. I was the primary organizer for most things that sometimes included making sandwiches when it couldn’t be catered.
Moreover, there were always new people on crew with little experience because they were all volunteers. So I’d have to break away from the shoot to explain, for example, how to put the jib together or how a light worked. Nevertheless, I was always grateful that they came, because once they knew how the equipment worked they were really consistent in their support on set.
I was also floored by how good the actors were to work with and how generous they are with their time. There’s a lot of talent in this community. As well I quickly found that some of the actors wanted to understand the other side of the camera. They became an important resource, were consistent on set and were invested in the quality of the shoot. So they became a big asset in production.
Another big challenge was getting it right. So we kept it technically very simple. We used a Canon 5D with dual sound and a backup camera which we only had to use once.
We only had one big technical error. I had never shot from a rig outside a moving car. So we rented some gear but we didn’t record it properly and the sound was a major problem. For the reshoot, we brought in my colleague on corporate videos, Dave Johnson to get it right.
A special screening of Past Redemption series takes place at the Mayfair Theatre on May 19th at 7:00pm while individual episodes begin airing on the web on June 2nd.
Further information about the series and screening details can be found on the Past Redemption website.
And for more information about Steven Hunt and his previous productions check out the SDC Video Production website.
© 2016 Ottawa Independent Film Festival