Later the same evening at the Irish Embassy Pub—the official watering hole for Fantasia's filmmakers and press corps—festival co-director Mitch Davis made a point of introducing me to Cinépix alumni George Mihalka (My Bloody Valentine, 1981) and Larry Kent, whose latest film Exley was boasting its world premiere at Fantasia. Kent charmed me instantly with the mirthful glint of his eyes and his warm-hearted receptivity. When I got back to my hotel room at 3:00 in the morning, I instantly flipped open Fantasia's festival catalog to read Chris Alexander's program capsule. Alexander likened Kent to "a kind of cinematic equivalent of a secret handshake" and asserted Exley was "vintage Kent all the way."
Alexander synopsized Kent's career: "South African-born filmmaker Larry Kent is the founding father of Canadian independent film. His landmark, Vancouver-shot 1962 post-beatnik / pre-hippie drama The Bitter Ash was filmed on the fly and was the first Canadian film exhibited in the U.S. It was also controversial, being the first Canadian film to feature nudity and profanity, and its counterculture success birthed a whole wave of Kent-helmed, West Coast 'nouvelle vague'-styled pictures that captured aimless, angst-ridden Canadian youth. After his move to Montreal, Kent unleashed his most important picture, 1967's High, a psychedelic free-for-all of dark drama and kitsch that defined the city circa the late '60s, vying for the same screen space at the 1968 Montreal Film Festival as the Arthur Penn / Warren Beatty landmark Bonnie and Clyde."
Intrigued, and assisted by a bit of luck and fate, Larry Kent and I found time to sit down to talk about Exley. It was the first of several conversations we had at Fantasia, and the shared sense of a friendship. I remain grateful to Mitch Davis for introducing us and to Jaffer Hasan for having the quick wit and team spirit to photograph Kent and I while we were talking.
Naturally, I was delighted when it was announced that SF IndieFest planned a screening of Exley (Saturday, February 18 at 9:30PM and Monday, February 20 at 7:15PM) and a revival screening of High (Sunday, February 19 at 7:15PM and Tuesday, February 21 at 7:15PM), with Kent in person to Q&A with his audiences. It smarts a bit not to be in San Francisco to participate in this celebration of Kent's career but I trust that San Francisco will give him the warm welcome he deserves. On the occasion of that event, I thought now would be a good time to revisit our Fantasia conversation.
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Michael Guillén: I'm glad Mitch Davis introduced us at The Irish Embassy Pub. I have to be honest and say I'm not seen your previous work; Exley is my introduction. That's never a problem for me, however, and I hope it's not one for you. When a filmmaker has a body of work such as yours, it's always interesting to discover how to enter that body of work. Your newest film seems, in some ways, the most obvious entry. Having seen and appreciated Exley, I'm now excited to go back to see your earlier films so I can measure how you've progressed over the years.
Kent: Or regressed!
Guillén: [Chuckles.] Still, I won't know that until I have the opportunity to see those earlier films. For now, I need to depend on your own self-awareness. How would you say that Exley has furthered your creative vision?
Kent: Exley is a typical film for me, but let me give you something of a history of how I got into it. I was teaching improvisational acting for the camera to students at the Vancouver Film School. The head of the department decided that he would like to make a film with the professional actors from the school, the teachers, and they were interested in improvising a movie. Exley is a totally improvised film.
Guillén: You didn't have any kind of a script?
Kent: Yes, we did; we had a 14-page outline. We worked from there.
Guillén: How is that achieved? Were scenes worked out and rehearsed before being filmed on camera?
Kent: This is a technique I've perfected for myself. I'm not saying it would be good for anybody else. But what an actor has to do with my kind of improvisation is to spend a lot of time talking about inner motivation and intention and not to—at any cost!—do a rehearsal. That way you keep the joie de vivre of the scene. You don't spoil it. As long as an actor comes in to the filming with the intention and their inner feelings, they can't do any wrong.
Guillén: That makes my experience of Exley all the more remarkable. As I was watching the film, my first realization was how it was messing up my narrative expectations. I told myself: "You have to let go of all your expectations because you have no idea where this movie is going." Even with thwarted expectations, I remained absorbed. In contrast, let's say, to films that fulfill narrative expectation to a fault, such that I know what's coming, or feel I have seen the film before, and still can't engage. I was fully engaged with Exley.
Kent: That's wonderful.
Guillén: So you're saying that Shane Twerdun, the actor playing the title role, is actually an instructor at the Vancouver Film School?
Kent: Yes. He was reluctant to do the movie; but, we knew each other and are good friends. We've spent a lot of time talking together, and then we spent even more time specifically talking with the other actors about their characters. He knew everybody. He's a terrific collaborator, a confrere as they say in Québec. He had a lot to do with this film being made. He helped contribute to a wonderful experience.
Guillén: He has a load of charisma that helped carry the film. Now in the little bit of time that I had to research before watching your film this morning, I noted that you had a reputation for being one of the first—if not the first—Canadian filmmaker to show explicit nudity.
Kent: Oh, yeah.
Guillén: The nudity of the lovers in Exley's opening sequence struck me as quite sensual for being so relaxed, and thereby quite beautiful.
Kent: Thank you.
Guillén: But a scene so natural could not be accomplished without the fearless commitment of your brave actors, who reveal so much of themselves. How do you work with them to achieve such honesty and relaxation?
Kent: The actors have to have a complete trust in you as a director. We developed much of that previous to making the film. That's also one of the reasons we didn't audition. The film had been pre-cast and everyone knew everybody, which reduced their jitters about having to "save" themselves since they knew the film was going to be improvised. But the beauty of improvisation is that you can't lie. Either you're going to do it or you're not. You can't lie. But even though Exley was 100% improvised, we know how to fashion a scene so you don't get caught with endless "uh ... uh ... uh." Both the director and the actor have to completely understand that the inner monologue and the intention have to be there as well as focus. The intention is: "What do I want?"
For example, here we are engaged in an interview so what do I want? I want to impress, right? So what's going on with the inner monologue? With everything I have to impress you—if I'm clearly in that thought—I'm going to do my best to impress you. I'm going to do what's needed for the scene. And I can do that as long as I keep my intention and my inner monologue going. The minute I don't, the minute my focus goes, everything goes.
Guillén: Working off a 14-page outline with your narrative being largely improvised by actors under your directorial guidance, was your intention to shift tone through the course of the film? Exley starts out urban, gritty, and natural, and then it becomes fabulist and surreal where you're not sure if the protagonist is experiencing a dream or a state of psychosis; you're not sure if these things are really happening to him; but, you're also not sure if it really matters. Ultimately, I decided it didn't really matter.
Guillén: Which is when I finally relaxed and decided to go with the ride to see where it would take me. By that point, the actors seemed so naturally embodied in their characters that it provided grounding for their becoming involved with unbelievable situations.
Kent: That's incredible. I really appreciate it. That was what we ultimately needed to do. You absolutely understood the film. In my mind when we were shooting the film, I had three acts. The first act is nouvelle realism or Italian neo-realism with an almost documentary feel. In the second act there is, as you say, surrealism or a magical realism. And the third act, for me, is romantic. Exley finds love in that final scene.
Guillén: It's interesting you say that because I had jotted down a note while watching the film to ask you about how you have Exley going through all these stages or phases or expressions of sensuality / sexuality, playing his machismo against this tenderness that exhibits itself in the death scene. And now you're telling me that you consciously intended that scene to be romantic?
Kent: It was very conscious. For me, Exley is a romantic movie, which might seem strange to say. Exley finds real love in this movie.
Guillén: At a festival like Fantasia, which is oriented towards genre, can you define which genre Exley belongs to? Is it a romance? Is it a hybrid? What do you consider Exley to be? Why does it fit within this festival?
Kent: In the end I consider Exley a fantasy, though I don't really know.
Guillén: But that ambiguity is what makes it interesting. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting to see here at Fantasia. I was expecting monsters, or sci-fi, or lots of action, but not an improvised fantasy trifurcated by tone. Much of that experimentation was complemented by the film's jazz score. Can you speak to that? Why jazz?
Kent: That necessitates some context. Though I live in Montreal, I am now working a lot in Vancouver. That's where I started my career. I made the first four feature independent films in Canada in the sixties in Vancouver. But then I moved to Montreal; but, for me, Montreal is an alien society as far as filmmaking is concerned. They don't love the English. I went back to Vancouver for their festival in 2002. I made Exley in Vancouver, was there for the editing, but then the producers ran out of money. They had gone back and forth about the score and I absolutely insisted that we had to have a jazz score. Otherwise, the film would lose a lot. We needed a score that had strong rhythm because I think the story has a rhythm.
Guillén: And a changing rhythm at that, just like jazz.
Kent: Yes, that's what jazz is all about. And jazz is improv. So that's why the score is how it is. I think the jazz works very well.
Guillén: I'm part of that demographic of audience member who is growing older but can still remember what cinema was like in the late '60s through the late '70s, the decade in which (as Dave Kehr puts it) "movies mattered." I can remember how films hit the culture back then. They don't do it the same way now. As a mature filmmaker, what is this like for you to have witnessed the shifting role of cinema in relation to the culture at large? How has that felt? What's it been like to work through those changes?
Kent: First of all, thanks for the "mature". You could have been honest and said, "Hey, you're getting old, babe." But the answer to your question is both funny and ironic. I think I'm in a better position than almost 90% of my contemporaries. The reason being, I've always been a loner, an outsider. It was during the last portion of my career in Vancouver that I found that people sort of loved me because suddenly my age was for me and not against me. I'm talking about the artists, the actors, and the filmmakers in that realm, right?
Guillén: They recognize pedigree?
Kent: [Laughs.] Thank you. They do. That's right. The other part is that—because I'm not an establishment figure—it's almost unimportant that I be an iconic figure. I cannot be in tune with young people who are trying to make their films. I'm not young. What I do have is something that is uniquely mine. You either accept it or you don't, y'know? But that's always been the way with my work.
Guillén: Just as a writer has to find his own voice, a filmmaker has to find their own vision. To wrap up here, you were part of yesterday's onstage panel paying tribute to the maverick producing team John Dunning and André Link. Can you talk a bit about your involvement with Cinepix?
Kent: First of all, I admired them because they were very much independent. Those two came at the right place and the right time. They created Québec cinema in a funny way. I don't think Québec cinema really wants to believe that because they were naughty boys making dirty movies, etc., etc. But I don't believe they were "the Roger Corman of Canada." That's a demeaning thing to say of them. They were far more creative and had their own voice. John Dunning very much had his own voice. I made two films with them. They were making genre movies and—if you take a look at my work—I would imagine that, if you were going to hire me, that's where you would want to put me. But ironically enough, my only love story and truly original chick flick was for Cinépix.
Guillén: So with you they were working against type?
Kent: Yeah! They suddenly saw something different in me.
Guillén: Which underscores their brilliance?
Kent: Yes. They were very very good and important for this country. Canada is so uptight. It was wonderful to see a producing entity like Cinépix and it's too bad that age caught up with them. They're not being replaced.
Guillén: It strikes me that the culture betrayed them. As an older cinephile, I wrestle with nostalgia, looking back to the decade when movies mattered, and wondering why no one seems as courageous anymore?
Kent: Back in 1967, I believe, I made a film called High. We won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. San Francisco really liked me in the '60s. Shirley Temple was the head of the film festival at the time and she was very upset that High won an award. You'll recall that 1967 was the height of Haight-Ashbury.
Guillén: I was actually talking to Robin Hardy yesterday and he reminded me that The Wicker Man's U.S. distribution rolled out from the Lumiere Theater in San Francisco. I was in my 20s at the time and I remember that marketing campaign and how the film hit the city and how it grew from there. Experience has shown me that there is a particular time and place when these films can work. How do you think the audiences at Fantasia are going to accept Exley?
Larry Kent: This will be the first public view. I have no idea. But I never do. When you make a movie, there comes a moment when you don't know anymore. You have to let it go. It's that first audience, the first people that see it, that begins to tell you if it's working or not. I'm anxious to find out. Chris Alexander, who wrote the notes for the festival catalog, really liked the film and your reaction to it is great and I appreciate it.