Beachers make a case for independent film

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get asked, ‘when’s Headcase coming out?’,” says Ken Simpson from a chair in Queen Street bar Castro’s, sitting with Alex Jordan and current Castro’s owner Anthony Greene.

Thankfully for Simpson, that day is almost here, and the film, which includes more Beach connections than can be recounted here – which isn’t to say we won’t try – is finally receiving a Toronto premiere at Big Picture Cinemas, five years after a few locals decided to make a mob movie in the East End.

Poster art for Headcase, which opens in Toronto on Friday after a five-year wait.
Poster art for Headcase, which opens in Toronto on Friday after a five-year wait.

Headcase stars Greene as Craig, who agrees to deliver a package for a man he barely knows after being fired from his job. Craig is drawn into a day of “decapitation, bullets and a rising body count,” as described in the film’s press materials. Headcase is dark and a bit disturbing, but there is humour, too – just leave the kids at home for this one, as the film pulls no punches in between punchlines.

Most of the cast and crew haven’t even seen Headcase yet, though it has travelled to a few festivals in earlier incarnations. While on the road, Headcase travelled to the Seattle True Independent Film Festival, the Pittsburgh Independent Film Festival and Vancouver’s Canada International Film Festival, where Ken Simpson picked up the award for Rising Star. The week-long engagement at Big Picture will likely be something of a reunion for the cast and crew, but also a chance for fans of independent cinema to see the kind of quality work that can be done with a little ingenuity, a lot of passion, a group of dedicated volunteers and not much money at all, at least as far as feature films are concerned.

However, the story of the film doesn’t begin with the film that will be projected onto the screen on Friday night.

Flash back to spring of 2008. Greene, an actor and writer, approached another Beacher, producer Jordan, with the script that would become Headcase. Jordan agreed to produce the film, bringing with him Simpson, yet another Beacher with whom Jordan had worked in the past. Greene also ended up financing the film, taking on personal debt to make it happen.

Jordan and the rest of the crew, including co-producer (and yes, also a Beacher) Lara Amersey, set out putting together a cast and crew which would spend several smaller stretches over the course of four months volunteering their time and efforts to create a feature film, on a budget of only $50,000.

“We were truly lucky with the people who came out to work with us,” says Greene from Castro’s, which he now owns and which also doubled as a frequent filming location. (The bar proved so reliable a location that the crew nicknamed it Castro’s Studios, a name which Greene will be using for his production company on an upcoming project).

Jordan and Simpson, who have both worked numerous jobs in the film industry, also pointed out that those volunteers, the majority of whom had zero industry experience, were taking on roles that would normally require years of experience in the industry.

“It’s not like they were getting coffee, they were actively making a movie,” says Simpson.

“All of us took a turn holding the boom,” adds Jordan.

Some of the many East End locations include Fitzgerald’s, Sarah’s Café on Danforth, Queen Street and several alleys behind it, the Glen Stewart ravine and several residences. At one point, unable to find a motel in the GTA that both allowed filming and charged a reasonable rate, the cast and crew pulled up stakes and headed to Barrie, just to be able to film a motel scene on a limited budget.

“We’re lucky that we’ve all remained friends,” says Jordan. “We’re still talking.”

The movie making process was what one might expect – long hours, countless minor problems to be solved, sleepless nights, logistical nightmares and a few hurdles that might have had less dedicated film buffs packing it in and calling it a day. British actor Leon Bearman agreed to do the film and paid for his own flights to Canada more than once to take part, even joining the crew on set to help out on days he wasn’t acting – all to discover that at one point the airline he had flown over on was bankrupt, leaving him stranded in Canada. The process of filming the movie was so intense that it generated more footage than Headcase itself.

“We made a twelve-part, five-hour making-of documentary about making the movie,” says Simpson.

That documentary will be released to donors to an online funding campaign, and the information covered should help many an aspiring filmmaker to avoid at least a few pitfalls the Headcase crew dealt with. Greene, Jordan and Simpson jokingly refer to the process as the “Alex Jordan film school.”

Despite all the hardships, the film is rapidly approaching its local premiere, and for the three sitting at Castro’s talking about the process, the laughter is not bitter, and the dedication to the project is still fully in place.

A still from the filming of Headcase, 95 per cent of which was filmed east of the Don River, according to the filmmakers.
A still from the filming of Headcase, 95 per cent of which was filmed east of the Don River, according to the filmmakers.

“We’re really proud of it,” says Jordan. “It’s possible to make a feature film in Canada for $50,000.”

When asked about upcoming personal projects, Simpson replied, “To work on anything else would be cheating on it.”

So why so long before this theatrical run? Many reason, not the least of which is the three years it took Simpson to edit the film, in between time-intensive paying gigs. But, as with many independent films, the work is really just beginning once the final take has been filmed.

Green points out that the problem with many successful film festivals, such as Toronto’s, is that with success comes increased competition for less spots for truly independent movies. Though Headcase had minimal costs in part because there were no established actors, that lack of starpower can also make it difficult to secure a distribution deal. Jordan said he hopes to work out a deal with one of the cable networks, and is considering digital distribution as well.

“Getting the film made is not the hardest part. It’s getting it out there,” says Jordan.

Headcase will be playing at Big Picture Cinemas, 1035 Gerrard St. E., a few blocks west of Jones Avenue, from Friday, Sept. 13 until Thursday, Sept. 19. For specific show times, visit bigpicturecinema.com. For more on Headcase, visit headcasethemovie.com or follow @headcasethefilm on Twitter.


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