How an ethnically diverse crew from Calgary created a visually stunning film in -30 degree weather while being on a micro budget.
Do you think The Revenant was the only film shot in extreme cold weather of Alberta? Now imagine shooting a short film under even harsher and colder weather conditions while you don’t have the comforts and facilities of a big production. Yes. That’s what the crew of Don’t Walk among the Dead pulled off last winter.
Don’t Walk among the Dead is a short film set in a freezing cold post-apocalyptic world of zombies where human survivors are searching for a safe haven in Albertan mountains. Despite the violent genre it belongs to, the film breaks the stereotypes of the genre. It doesn’t rely on blood and gore. Instead, it deals with intrinsic human emotions, or lacks thereof, when placed under dire circumstances.
That’s not the only stereotype it breaks, there are more. In a male dominated film genre and industry at large, this film has a female main character, played by 17 years old Angela Giffin. “I saw girls drove more than 6 hours to audition for this short film. That says a lot about the opportunities we have in this industry for females. I am very happy to play the lead character in my very first film,” says Angela.
“Being an actor of Aboriginal origin I am often expected to play Aboriginal characters. But my character in this film has nothing to do with my racial origins. That’s one of the reasons I decided to do this film,” tells Julian Black Antelope, the lead actor and the producer of the film.
The ethnic diversity of the film doesn’t stop at Julian. It goes farther. Writer/director Satinder Kassoana is of East Indian origin, First AD Hernan Moreno is of Latin origin, Story editor and Behind the scenes guys Amair and Omar Javaid are of Pakistani origin, Sound recordist and music composer Rachel Soong is of Chinese origin, Stuntman Stephane Legault is of French origin and Lead grip Kaz Nakajima is of Japanese origin. That is the most ethnically diverse crew you would ever see on a small film.
“Julian would laugh his butt off when he saw me and Hernan talk to each other in our strong accents,” laughs Satinder Kassoana, the writer and director. “May be we saw our diversity as our strength. Otherwise we couldn’t pull it off in that weather.”
That must be true. The moment this crew decided they will shoot on 8th and 9th January 2016, they had no idea these two days are going to be the coldest days in last 2 years. Satinder says “All I was hoping for a milder weather so we can shoot with our minimal gear and resources. But my nightmares came to life when I saw the weather forecast.”
Despite knowing what’s waiting for them, Satinder and his team didn’t flinch and arrived on the shoot location amidst a dense fog. The temperature was touching -30 degrees. The Historic Graham Ranch near Dorothy, Alberta was their shoot location. It was an all-outdoors shoot.
“We had only limited number of hours to complete our shoot and the fog delayed our shoot for 3 hours already. But that was just the start,” Julian Black Antelope tells remembering the shoot day.
“When it comes down to -30 degrees with wind chill, and you are shooting with a little shelter to hide in from the wind, it take a lot to focus on your shoot and not on your numbing fingers,” chuckles Satinder.
Extreme temperature threw in one after another challenge in front of the crew and the actors. They had a little time to figure out the solutions and kept shooting without taking any long breaks. Crew Vs Mother Nature went on for next 2 days, and neither side gave in.
“Our batteries died quickly, lights busted with cold and people wouldn’t feel their hands. These were some common issues on the shoot. But the worst was suffered by our actors whose costumes weren’t designed to handle such a cold weather. The girls almost cried and needed to be covered in blankets quickly amid shots,” Satinder tells. “The scene in which Joseph (played by Julian Black Antelope) kills an infected man (played by Stephane W Legault) took one hour to shoot and Stephane almost caught hypothermia lying down in snow during all this time. But he didn’t complain once. We had to rush to him with blankets and crew would hug him to give him some warmth. That was some grit I never saw before.” Satinder remembers with awe in his eyes.
Films, glamorous and larger than life, often are a dream career for many. Though not many realize the process of filmmaking not only demands your absolute dedication but also tries your patience. While big budget films have the luxury of work delegation, small budget films like Don’t Walk among the Dead are possible only when people wear multiple hats to save every buck.
Don’t Walk among the Dead won a grant from Telus Storyhive where more than 200 films from BC and Alberta competed. Although that grant didn’t last long when it came to getting the production ready with props, costumes, makeup and locations. “I didn’t have much money to offer and I was always very honest with everyone whom I hired or asked to help us out. I saw that people help when they see you are really passionate about your thing,” said Satinder when asked how he arranged to create such a high production value looking film.
“There were moments when I thought this is impossible. We can’t complete it like this,” Satinder tells. “But with an awesome producer like Julian, a well-organized AD like Hernan and super charged actors we kept on pushing and completed whatever was humanly possible under this budget and timeline.”
Yes. They did complete a good portion of their script in that brutal weather and cut a 9 minute version out of it. You can see it on Youtube. The film looks stunningly beautiful and with its original background score (by Rachel Soong) it surely touches your heart. But remember that’s not the whole film. Because two scenes couldn’t be shot in the first go.
Anyone else would probably not bother to complete the shoot. Not these guys.
“We didn’t go through all that pain and suffering to leave it half-done. So we went back again after a couple of weeks and shot the rest of the scenes. Now we hope to complete its post-production and send it to as many film festivals as possible,” says Satinder. From as many he means at least 100. That would be a challenge in itself again. But he’s not giving up.
Satinder is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough funds to complete the post production and to send the film to as many film festivals as he can. “A film that’s not seen is never made,” he says with conviction. With a good response from indie film lovers it seems they will make it on Kickstarter.
Getting their work seen by film industry is all they ever wanted when they made this film. As a team, that is their only remuneration and reward.
Julian Black Antelope on set.
Short Synopsis: Struggling to find a safe haven in an ice cold post-apocalyptic world, an exhausted and emotionally confused young girl crosses paths with a deranged survivor who asks her to choose between her sick sister’s life or her own.
Long Synopsis: Set in a frozen post-apocalyptic world two sisters are struggling to find a safe haven somewhere in Albertan mountains. Jasmine, the elder sister falls sick on their way. Now Molly, the exhausted and emotionally confused younger sister have to choose between her sick sister’s life or her own when she meets a hostile and deranged survivor in the woods.
Director’s statement: Don’t Walk among the Dead is my homage to a possibility that seems heading our way in near future. With global warming rising and people not taking their environment seriously, I believe we are on verge of actually living such a nightmare where we will be facing tough choices in order to survive.
The post-apocalyptic film genre always had me gripped. I don’t know what it is about these bleak looking films that pulls me in. But I am sure it was not the blood and gore which is trademark of this genre. I guess it is seeing mankind going back to its primitive instincts. Survival is the top of the list. I always wonder if it can replace other emotions like love and affection. That’s what Don’t Walk among the Dead is all about.
Q: How did you get the idea of writing/making this film?
A: I love post-apocalyptic ‘Mad-max’ kind of films. Last summer I moved to Calgary and was awe struck after seeing the landscape of The Badlands of Drumheller area which screams post-apocalyptic film. While wandering about on dusty road I came across a wooden cabin in nowhere. I drove closer and went inside the cabin. And I couldn’t help thinking about what did happened here, what could happen here and I saw my characters there. That’s when the story started forming itself in my mind.
Q: Why did you choose The Badlands as your film location?
A: Just as I mentioned, I conceived my story there. That was the primary reason. And as an indie filmmaker I am always on lookout for ‘ready to shoot’ locations. Locations that can be easily accessed and add good production value without spending any extra money. The Badlands have all these factors in place. Hence it was my obvious choice.
Q: Tell us something about yourself.
A: My name is Satinder Kassoana. I am the writer/director of this short film. I don’t come from film background. But yet I have arrived here and I couldn’t be happier. I quit a programmer’s job at a Swiss bank in Switzerland, then I dropped out of a 100% scholarship M.E. when I realized it’s the movies I want to make for the rest of my life. That was 8 years ago. Good news. I am finally making films and actually doing pretty great. I also managed to get a full time job of a documentary filmmaker and an editor at a leading production studio of Calgary. Life is good. My last French short film, which was a ‘no-budget’ short film, managed to win Best Short Film awards at 5 international film festivals across north America, including International Film Festival of South Asia Toronto 2015.
Q: Tell us something about you cast.
A: Julian Black Antelope is the producer and playes the lead role in this film. He is a driving force behind this short film. Julian is a Canadian actor of Irish and First nation’s decent who is a series regular on APTN’s award winning hard-hitting drama Blackstone (It’s on Netflix now) and the Canadian crime series Bluff, and has also Guest-Starred on CBC’s Arctic Air and Showtime/Sky TV’s new British-American horror series Penny Dreadful opposite Josh Hartnett.
Angela Giffin plays the lead role of Molly. She is just 17 and this is her first film. But don’t take her lightly. She grabbed this role by out-performing everyone in the auditions. She is pursuing her studies and her acting career.
Brenna Sommer plays Jasmine. After graduating from Archbishop Jordan High School, she took on modeling while saving up in order to showcase her talent at the Vancouver Film School, in the acting for film and television program. Brenna, now a recent graduate of VFS, is ready to show the world what she’s made of.
Q: We heard you had a real ethnically diverse crew. Tell us more about that.
A: Yeah. I think we had the most ethnically diverse crew you would ever see on a small film. We had people whose origins are so diverse that in a way it represented the real spirit of Canada. Some of these origins were East Indian, Aboriginal, French, Pakistani, Latin, Chinese and Japanese. It was a real cultural blast we had on this film.
Q: Did this cultural blast also present any challenges?
A: Yes. It did. The first challenge I remember was ‘understand my accent’. (Chuckles) Even after a decade in Canada I still have a good Indian accent. Hernan Moreno, our AD had his Latin accent. Julian Black Antelope, our producer and the lead actor often would laugh when he sees me and
Hernan talk in our hard accents. Confusion and chaos. But we had a lot of fun on shoot. It was like a pot-luck party where everyone brought something from their culture to the party.
Q: The film looks stunning visually. Did you get a big budget for it?
A: No. It was not even remotely a big budget film. Actually we won $10,000 from Telus Storyhive film contest where more than 200 films competed from BC and Alberta. We put approx. $2,000 from our own pocket. We planned our budget well and stretched it as humanly possible. A lot of credit goes to Julian Black Antelope for planning the whole film so well that we could do it in this budget. Otherwise making a prop rich film, with high end costumes and remote locations with a crew of 25 people wasn’t possible at all.
Q: How did you Julian got involved in this film?
A: Well, actually many things that happened to realize this film seem too true to be coincidences. I get to know about Julian from one of his acting students. I was impressed by the screen presence of Julian. I contacted Julian and narrated him the script over a cup of coffee. Julian instantly liked it. I asked him “I don’t have any money. But I am going to make this film. I don’t know how yet. So please tell me what would be lowest amount per day that you can work with without feeling ‘exploited’” (chuckles). Julian, a great guy that he is, not only accepted to act in the film but also offered to produce it. Soon I entered into the Storyhive competition and won the initial grant. So were in business.
Q: You said something about ‘too good to be coincidences’. What are they?
A: As I told you I stumbled upon this cabin in The Badlands by chance and wrote my story around that basic setup. Julian didn’t know about it. When we got the film grant Julian offered me to look for some locations. Soon I get his call. “Satinder you won’t believe what I found,” he said with excitement. So we met and when he showed me the pictures of the cabin he found, I was surprised that it was the exact cabin I conceived the story at. And to add this, he told me that this wasn’t a real cabin but a film prop that was used for some big TV series in late 80s. Tell me, how bizarre that is. You see a random cabin, you write a story about it, you get to shoot in the same cabin and it actually is film prop.
Q: That sounds like a great anecdote about your film. It really is. Tell us more about the location.
A: Well, the cabin was located near Atlas Coal Mine Museum near Dorothy. It is a part of the Historic Graham Ranch owned and operated by John Barry Graham. Then it was moved to another location based on our request and that might be its final resting place from now onward. John Graham is cool guy who is as generous as he is gracious. He was our location manager. He provided us more than what we asked for and without his support we couldn’t get it done, especially within the small budget we had.
Q: Tell us about the challenges you faced to make this film.
A: I believe true art is always very easy yet very challenging at the same time.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: I mean, when you have a clear vision about your art, it flows itself, at its natural pace. You don’t have to show your craftiness to get it out. But at the same time, mostly this ‘vision’ is out of your comfort zone. It demands you step out of your comfort zone and get it. That is where the real challenge lies. We had the same case. My story and script flew out naturally but to execute it I had to take a few big steps out of my comfort zone. The first challenge was to make it possible to shoot a 15 minute long cinematically superior film under 10k. Even after I put in mine 2k to make it happen, it took a lot of planning. Again, Julian was an awesome producer. Then the real challenge was to shoot the whole thing within 2 the coldest days of the year. All outside. On a location that didn’t had much shelter or facilities.
Q: The coldest days? Did you intentionally plan that?
A: No. We fixed our shoot days weeks before based on availability of everybody. It was just a day before the shoot day when I saw the weather forecast. It didn’t look good. All I was hoping for a milder weather so that we can shoot with our minimal gear. But that’s not what we got. Those two days happened to be the coldest in last two years. We arrived on the location in a dense fog and about -30 degrees. We planned that we need at least 7 hours shoot time each day to complete all the shots. But this dense fog did eat up all the natural light were counting on and reduced our shoot time considerably. Due to this extreme cold, our gear was jamming, batteries were dying and lights were busting. We had to think of the solutions for all these problems on the spot because now were had only 5 hours to shoot instead of 7 hours.
Q: How cold it was? (Anecdote)
A: I guess it was around -30 or so with wind chill. That was a lot for an East Indian like me (chuckles). We had to throw in ‘hot-paws’ in our socks and gloves to feel our fingers. The worst was endured by our actors. They had to remove their gloves for each shot and their costumes weren’t designed for such a cold weather. The scene in which Joseph (played by Julian Black Antelope) kills an infected man (played by Stephane W Legault) took one hour to shoot and Stephane almost caught hypothermia lying down in snow during all this time. But he didn’t complain once. We had to rush to him with blankets and crew would hug him to give him some warmth. That was some grit I never saw before.
Q: That seems really a tough job. So did you guys complete the film?
A: With our awesome crew we could complete that much that we could cut a 9 minute film of it. You can watch it on Youtube. But due to above reasons we couldn’t shoot all the scenes. This 9 minute version is missing 2 scenes. Hence we went back after a couple of weeks and shot the rest of the scenes with our own money.
Q: So where does it stand as if now?
A: The film is sitting in the post production. We don’t have funds to get it done yet. We are working on it. But we will complete it the way it was meant to be.
Q: So what’s your plan to do that?
A: We are running a Kickstarter project to raise money for the post-production as well as we are raising money so that we can send this project of passion of ours to as many film festivals as we can. We didn’t go through all this pain and suffering to leave it half-done. Hence we are seeking indie-film lovers’ support and help to finish what we started. We are very hopeful that we will make it.
Q: Do you think people would help your project?
A: I believe people help when they see that you are really passionate about your thing, and are willing to put in all you got for it. We have made a film that is visually stunning; especially under the budget and conditions we made it. That’s a proof that we are committed to our passion. I believe in that that’s what I did while making this film. I would honestly tell people I would hire or ask help from, what I can offer that and what they can expect from this film. People listened, saw my passion and helped me. So I believe the same strategy would work again. I am very hopeful.
Q: That was very genuine approach I must say. Would you like to say anything else before we close this interview?
A: Yes. I want to thank each and every one who made this film possible. Here are few names I remember now; Hernan Moreno, Amair and Omar Javaid, Stephane Legault, Mark Legault, Sophie Legault, John Barry Graham, Alex Moir, Kaz Nakajima, Laura O’Grady and Allan Thrush from Spotlight Productions Calgary, Lovedeep Punia, Bobby Kailey, Ralamy Kneeshaw and Jade Brunes.