Jim Brown (left) and Gary Burns try their luck with another hybrid doc.
THE FUTURE IS NOW! written and directed by Gary Burns and Jim Brown, with Liane Balaban and Paul Ahmarani. An eOne Entertainment release. 92 minutes. Opens Friday (June 24). See listing.
Gary Burns and Jim Brown are playing with reality again.
After the success of their first docu-fiction hybrid, Radiant City - a look at urban sprawl that fudged its locations and used actors as interview subjects to better portray the homogenous nature of the Canadian exurbs - they're back with The Future Is Now!
The day after their Hot Docs premiere, the Calgary-based duo - filmmaker Burns, whose dramatic features include The Suburbanators and waydowntown, and broadcaster Brown, who hosts CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener - sit down at Café Pamenar to discuss their experience launching the hybrid at a festival dedicated to pure documentaries.
"I was surprised how many people stuck around for the Q&A," Burns says. "It's the first time we've actually had people going, ‘What the hell is this?' You know, there were some angry people."
"You always get one of those guys at CBC open houses," adds Brown. "They have a lot of buttons on, and a pen in a holder so they can make notes. He was one of those."
I can see how that might have been an uncomfortable confrontation. An update of a 1949 French documentary, Life Begins Tomorrow, that similarly bent the rules of the documentary format, The Future Is Now! mixes fictional characters played by Liane Balaban and Paul Ahmarani with cultural figures like the poet Christian Bök and the architect Shigeru Ban.
The success of Radiant City gave the pair "a free make-a-film card," according to Brown. But the decision to make another film that straddles documentary and fiction - and to seek financing from both the NFB and Telefilm - made things a little confusing.
"We didn't go through [Telefilm's] docs thing," Burns explains. "This was a drama. And then the NFB was ‘No, it's a doc.' So there was a bit of fussing, but it wasn't that difficult, because Radiant City did pretty well. It's always like that; you have a success and it's easier to get people excited or jump on board."
Sticking to the template of the original film brought its own challenges.
"If we'd come up with the idea ourselves," Burns says, "obviously it would be a completely different film. We really mirrored the original quite a bit. Even just the tone, you know, is crazily naive for 1949. If you were in 1949 watching this, you'd think, ‘Okay, this is straight - this is how things are made and this is how they're delivered.' But now it just seems super-corny."
And then there was the matter of securing the interviews. Things didn't always go according to plan - as Brown, Ahmarani and their cinematographer discovered when they flew to Paris to interview Shigeru Ban.
"We arrived at our hotel at 11:30 in the morning," Brown says, "and he'd just been rushed to the hospital with kidney stones. So we were in Paris for one day. We shot one scene of Paul at an outdoor café, just sipping an espresso. I think it's the most expensive shot in Canadian documentary history."