Saint John shoot 'important moment' for N.B. film industry: producers

For weeks, Saint John played host to one of the province's first major film projects in a decade, and its producers hope that there are more coming.

Unseen, a New Brunswick/Nova Scotia co-production directed and written by Halifax filmmaker Taylor Olson, wrapped filming on May 22 after 21 days in the Port City and surrounding area. It's still a "very small, independent film," according to Sandy Hunter, one of three producers, but he said the budget of more than $1M puts it as the largest English-language feature film in the region in the past 10 years.

"It's something that we've all been working for for many years," Hunter said. "This is set in New Brunswick, so I think it's a great calling-card for the province in addition to being a great film. It's a moment where we can demonstrate to the broader national market that New Brunswick has the ability to produce a film that can stand side-by-side with anything produced in the rest of the country."

Olson also stars in the film, which depicts "unseen homelessness" through a swim coach who lives out of his van. The film is co-produced by Hunter's Cazador, Inc., based in Fredericton, Saint John's Stephen Foster of Hemmings Films and Britt Kerr, of Halifax-based Brass Door Productions. It's being distributed by Vortex Media and will stream on Crave, with a goal of festival premieres in 2025.

"We're really happy to be able to shoot this in my hometown, for sure," Foster said. "We've been pushing a resurgence of the film and television sector quite heavily over the last four, five years."

The film has funding from the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick governments, as well as Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Media Fund and Screen Nova Scotia, as well as Vortex and Crave.

Hunter said the last major Telefilm-backed feature of this type was Still Mine, shot in 2011 in St. Martins. Hunter said there have been large-scale TV productions, including CBC's Race Against the Tides, and smaller features in the $250,000 range, as well as French-language features.

Foster, also the president of industry group Media New Brunswick, said the industry has been rebuilding since the loss of the New Brunswick Film Tax Credit in 2011. The province now supports the film industry through a program including production incentive grants.

"We're starting with the remnants of an industry here. The majority of folks left when the tax credit left, and now we're trying to rebuild the foundation," Foster said. "But it's a good thing, I think we've got a lot of New Brunswickers, a lot of Saint Johners who are thrilled to be doing this in their home province."

While N.B. currently has a "very small piece" of the film pie in Canada, there's a lot to be gained, Foster said, with the industry generating US$13.4 billion in revenue in 2022, according to the Toronto Business Development Centre. Foster said filmmakers need to be on the same footing here as in other provinces, and so far the current government "has listened to us," including the removal of caps on funding for projects over $3 million.

Foster said the key is to "consistently be shooting content," and pull together more productions. "The only way we can make this sector work is if our crews are working full time, they can't just do a four-week shoot and call it a year, they need to have work after that."

An initiative called Crew Up NB is also seeking to "identify, train and connect" film and TV workers in the province in order to meet demand for future projects, including leading job fairs, workshops and networking events. The initiative is being run by a group of N.B. producers led by Vanessa King, and held an open-house event May 25.

Hunter called the shoot "an important moment," saying there are film people in New Brunswick who fly elsewhere to work or do commercial work. "I think coming together to do a high-quality, creatively rich and, we think, world-class film ... it's demonstrative of what the filmmaking community in N.B. can put together."

But for director Taylor Olson, "it's so much more than that," Hunter said.

"It's a meaningful story, it's beautifully shot, it's got great music that we've licensed," he said. "There's many reasons that it's important."

Making it real

Hunter and Foster both say they first came across a film by Olson called Bone Cage, an adaptation of a stage play about a young man in a rural community working as part of a clear-cutting operation. Olson, a "great director," had been working with Hemming Films' sister company Hemmings House Pictures shooting commercials.

"I really fell in love with this film, it's a gritty film, and it's sad, but it resonated with me so emotionally," Foster said. "I had no idea it was Taylor's film a couple of years later when we were hiring him."

Hemmings Films, the Saint John company owned by Foster and founder Greg Hemmings, was looking for projects, and Hunter suggested Olson. When they approached Olson, he told them he had an idea based both on the current housing crisis, and own experiences volunteering in downtown Halifax as well as living out of a van for a summer when he was 19.

"COVID hit and there was someone I had met downtown down near Neptune Theatre, a man who was houseless who I had just gotten to know a little bit," he said. "I saw him a few months into COVID, and he was gaunt, it seemed like his mental health wasn't the same.

"All of this just added up to this story about a young dad who's a swimming coach who's invisibly houseless who is trying to keep a relationship with his daughter through this."

Olson and Foster also spoke with unhoused people in Saint John to get an understanding of the specific aspects of the housing crisis in the area, as well as speaking to groups like Fresh Start Services, Outflow Ministry and the Human Development Project.

"It's an opportunity for empathy. We talk about statistics all day long, but they're numbers," Olson said. "What we're hoping to do with the film is create connection between the audience and one person's fictional experience in this world, and hopefully that creates empathy for people who are living rough or houseless, and maybe that can create small amounts of change."

Hunter said the process began in 2020, and shopping the film at festivals ended up getting Vortex and Crave on board. They partnered with co-producer Kerr, who Hunter called an "ace," and put together their Telefilm and Canadian Media Fund applications.

When they were picked last year, it "got really real," Hunter said, and they accelerated work on assembling the team and the script, with a short winter shoot in January before the full 21-day shoot began last month, wrapping up May 22.

The shoot

Saint John announced street closures on Prince William Street and Peel Plaza, and the crew also did two and a half days of shooting at the Canada Games Aquatic Centre as well as shooting at Parkway Mall and elsewhere in the area.

"What's interesting about Saint John is the access to locations is pretty unbelievable, people are really excited to open their doors to us," Olson said. "It's got this really industrial sort of thing, but there's a lot of kindness, and you can put that on screen."

Foster said the aquatic centre was a "pivotal part" of the shoot, both in terms of its size and the logistics, which included the Fundy Tides swim team. Hunter, who spoke after day 14 of shooting, saying the start of the shoot was the "trickier" part of the schedule.

"The crew is fantastic, we've got some of the best people from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick working on the production," Hunter said. "Everyone is thriving, it's been grueling hard work, long days, running around to a lot of locations, but ... I would say we're a pretty well-oiled machine."

The crew involves some locals from Saint John who "have the contacts, the home-court advantage," and some people in Toronto to fill specified roles, said Hunter. "It takes a village, or a province," Hunter said.

Other actors include Parveen Kaur, who starred in NBC sci-fi drama Manifest, Windsor, Ont. child actress River Price-Maenpaa and Christie Burke, who had appeared in the Netflix miniseries Maid. Kevin Fraser is the director of photography, and Dominic Fegan is the production designer.

When asked about the impact on local businesses from the production, he said they were housing more than 30 people at the Holiday Inn, as well as operating three vehicles and "multiple runs to Home Depot for supplies.

"It's an active business ... there is a hospitality impact, in terms of lodging and food, and then ancillary costs," Hunter said. "In a smaller city like Saint John, a vibrant film-making scene and industry could be a game-changer."

Foster said the weather had co-operated well enough, adding that because it's a "slice-of-life" movie they can work with a little rain.

"To be able to do it in Saint John, it's lovely," Foster said. "As someone that's done a fair amount of travelling, it's lovely to come back to New Brunswick and see how good you do have it."

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal