Published on July 20th, 2016 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Scott Parker
Since its formation over 75 years ago, The National Film Board of Canada has offered Canadian filmakers a supportive platform to bring their cinematic visions to life.
One of those filmmakers is Scott Parker, who has taken taken his Prairie upbringing and filmmaking ambitions to create The Grasslands Project, a 10-part short film series that chronicles the lives and issues that the core of the Southern Prairies.
With The Grasslands Project now available for viewing on the NFB website, we spoke to Scott Parker to learn more about how this project came to be and his experiences as a Canadian filmmaker.
Can you start by telling us a little bit more about you and your film?
My name’s Scott Parker and my family has deep roots in the Prairies of Saskatchewan. My father and I still own our family homestead from 1902 (although we no longer farm it). I have been a traveller, adventurer and filmmaker for 30 years. I have been lucky to work on a wide range of projects during that time, and received the benefit of many generous filmmakers’ wisdom. Although I used to work on commercials, television series and music videos, I now focus my efforts on small films for social-change organizations, as well as documentaries.
The Grasslands Project is a series of 10 short documentary films produced through the National Film Board of Canada’s North West Centre in Edmonton. Producer David Christensen wanted his studio to produce a film featuring rural life in the southern Prairies. As we discussed it on a fall morning, I suggested the best way to learn what stories are important to people in the south is to go and ask them. This led us to develop a community engagement tour (of nine communities) in order to determine what the important stories of the Southern Prairies were. We decided we’d create an anthology of short films, giving us the ability to tackle several different story streams. These stories are a gift from the people of the southern Prairies, and they are deeply rooted in that region.
Can you walk us through your filmmaking process from the conception of the film to the completion?
This process is a unique one. During our community consultations, we logged every single idea that was offered (we had hundreds!). We then looked for common themes that emerged. A lot of people spoke about the disappearance of small family farms, the struggle for small towns to remain vibrant, the battle to keep businesses operating. . . We then used the resources and expertise of the National Film Board to tell these stories. I saw myself as less an auteur filmmaker and more as a translator, taking these authentic Prairie stories and turning them in to short films. We needed to make films that would reflect the stories that were so generously given to us.
Another unique aspect of this project was the crew size. It was 1. Originally, we had looked at bringing in small documentary crews (usually 3 people – sound, camera and director), but I had all the contacts with people and had built a lot of trust and goodwill. Bringing in additional people would have been tricky. Because I have been fortunate to have worked with so many generous filmmakers, I have a good knowledge of camera and sound, and I’ve been directing and editing for 30 years. David and I made the decision early on that I would be the sole filmmaker. I did have a lot of help, though. The NFB team at the North West Studio office in Edmonton provided terrific administrative and technical support, and I hired local production assistants when required. Additionally, I had the incredible Kristin Catherwood (prairie girl, folklorist, writer, workshop leader, logistical wrangler, etc. etc.) working on the project. Kristin was primarily our social media writer, but she was invaluable for many other aspects of the project.
I was shooting films while I was editing other films. The Grasslands Project headquartered itself in Eastend, SK, and it was in the living room of a little 60-year-old house that most of the editing happened. Yet another unique process with these films was that nearly every main character saw the films before they were finalized. We wanted to make sure we got their stories right, so we asked for their input. I think because we worked so hard in capturing these stories, and really listened to what people told us was important, that had a big bearing on how subjects originally reacted to the films. They thought we’d done a great job telling their stories, and that was very satisfying.
What should audiences expect from The Grasslands Project?
This is a series of short, intimate sketches of contemporary prairie life. People opened their homes and hearts for these films, and it shows. Audiences can expect to see authentic and powerful stories from a part of Canada that is rarely represented in the media.
What was the biggest challenge for you in making this project and how did you deal with it?
At first, I thought the biggest challenge would be creating authentic stories . . . creating films that would reflect how people felt and how the landscape felt (as the two so strongly influence each other). However, once people got to know what The Grasslands Project was all about, they gave their time and energy to the films and really ensured that each film would be authentic and honest.
In reality, the biggest challenge was shooting 10 films over 160,000 sq. km. When the sun is rising at 5 AM and setting at 11 PM, and you’re shooting and travelling for weeks at a time, the workload catches up to you. We were also holding community filmmaking workshops, and we did 12 of those. So it was a lot of long days, and then there was still all the editing to get done. It was quite stressful sometimes as the workload would get in the way of the creativity, but fortunately I had many colleagues that helped keep me going in the right direction. I wouldn’t trade a moment of the experience!
From your standpoint, what is the current state of the Canadian film industry and how can it be improved?
From my personal standpoint, I think we will see an exciting shift from traditional, linear documentary to more socially active and engaged storytelling. The Grasslands Project is part of that shift, as we worked hard to include our audience in the creation of the films.
Working on films has never been an easy way to make a living in Canada. But amazing people make their lives in this industry and pass on their knowledge to the upcoming generation. We love what we do, we love to tell stories, and I in particular love to tell the little forgotten stories that are hidden away at the end of remote, long roads all across this country. Canada is a story machine.
Who are a few of the Canadian filmmakers and films that you appreciate the most?
Colin Low is my hero. He pioneered community engagement films with his incredible work on Fogo Island in the ‘60s, and is responsible for a library of seminal Canadian work. Gil Cardinal is also an influence and an inspiration, and he really helped me understand some of the nuances of making a compelling documentary. I’ve been fortunate to edit most of Rosie Dransfeld’s films, and have learned the subtleties of cinema vérité . . . Well, I’d say I understand them more than have learned them. I’ve learned a lot from craftspeople too, so many people who have been so generous to me, learning the craft of editing, of shooting, of directing, gripping, lighting, sound. People in this business are generous.
What’s the most rewarding element of being a filmmaker?
I get inside of peoples’ lives. It’s incredible to learn so much about people and their stories when you’re making a film. The process is so open and honest. So many amazing people have let me in to their lives and shared their stories and emotions and trials and victories. The film Life Out Here is a terrific example of that (in many ways ALL of The Grasslands Project films are…). We met rancher Joan Hughson at a community engagement meeting in Foremost, AB, and Joan talked about what it takes to be a rancher out in that landscape. Joan and I worked together to coordinate the filming of Life Out Here, enlisting three other amazing ranchers and farmers, all women. These four women sat down and developed the themes the film would touch on (family, hard work, the future, isolation) and then they interviewed each other. It is incredibly touching that they were all so forthcoming with their stories, and the resulting film (which they and I are very proud of) has brought many people to tears. I can’t imagine any other career where I would make such rewarding connections over a few days, and get to create a record of that connection!
What advice do you have for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
- 1st, there are dozens of great courses and schools that can help you get started in this business. It’s great to learn as much as you can about the process, and get some practical and theoretical experience early on. There’s lots of people looking for work on film crews and in documentary, and having some education (if you don’t have any experience) is very valuable.
- 2nd, make films, but don’t just make crappy films. It’s so easy to make a little short film now! Back in my day (yes, way back when) we had to buy film and get it processed and everything was really expensive. Now, you can shoot a freaking little film with your PHONE.
- But 3rd, because technology makes filmmaking so available to the masses, many people make really lousy films. Don’t be that person. Think before you shoot. Think about the story you are telling. Why should your audience take precious minutes or *gasp* hours out of their lives to listen to the story you made? Life is too short to make lousy films. Well, maybe people think my films are lousy, but they can go jump in a lake then.
What film-related books and authors have been influential in your creative journey?
For this project, two books were really important as an esthetic touchstone: Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner and Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning.
Wolf Willow reflected the toughness of the Prairies, the battle and the beautiful life lived out there.
The Perfection of the Morning is more about isolation and culture and being out on that massive unforgiving landscape yet feeling like you belong.
Another influence would be Suds Terkel’s Working. This is a masterpiece of taking mundane, unimportant little stories and giving them their moment and really showing that no, our little lives are not mundane and they do matter.
Where can people find out more about you and your film?
Easy! Roll on over to nfb.ca/grasslands and watch the films. If you don’t like them though, remember you’ll have to jump in a lake!
Watch Life Out Here in full:
Thanks to Scott Parker for speaking with us!
For more about The Grasslands Project and other NFB projects, please visit NFB.ca!