Funding And Filmmaking
Nerd-epic’s helmer gets a crash course in moviemaking
by Paul Dechene
ROYAL SASKATCHEWAN MUSEUM
Is it wrong to start an article like this with a spoiler alert?
The thing is, my favourite scene in Dungeon Crawl: The Movie involves a (spoiler alert!) flaming Viking boat on a lake, so I had to ask writer/director John Johnstone V how he pulled it off.
Just getting to the location, he tells me, was an adventure. As they were driving out, the van towing the boat broke down but when they sent a back-up truck to fetch it, they came back with the wrong boat.
“Because God knows there are Viking funeral boats broken down by the side of the road all the time,” says Johnstone.
By the time they had the right boat and were ready to shoot, there were only 20 minutes of sunlight left. And then...
“We had the boat set up, tested the pyrotechnics, and it farts. It doesn’t light. So I rush out onto the water with a gas can of lighter fluid and just douse the whole thing and run back up the beach like a fat, hairy David Hasselhoff. Run there, scream out ‘Action!’ Boat lights on fire. Looks very nice. Then we go in for a close up and the boat sank.”
The subtleties of torching replica Viking long boats is just one of the many skills Johnstone picked up while directing Dungeon Crawl, his first feature. And while he says he learned a lot in film school, actually making a movie is an education in itself.
“Directing’s like sex,” he says. “Nobody can teach you to be good at it. The only way to learn is to do it. So it’s all hands on.”
For instance, he’s been forced to learn a lot about the money side of the business as even a small film like his can run up a surprisingly large budget. He started out financing the film by borrowing from friends and family.
“I talked everybody into it saying, ‘Oh, I can make a movie for $6,000. In four months.’”
And did he?
“Ahhh. No. It kind of snowballed a little bit. But by the time we realized we’d under-budgeted by a lot, we were too far in and we just kept borrowing money. I really have to give credit to SaskFilm. We applied for the filmmaker’s program there; they’ve been awesome in helping out. They helped provide the finishing funds.
“All the people at SaskFilm know me and are slightly annoyed by me,” he says.
And you have to wonder what the SaskFilm people thought of the movie they were helping along. It’s about as nerdy as you can get.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
The film revolves around five friends who are preparing for a Dungeon Crawl tournament — “Dungeon Crawl” being a thinly veiled spoof on the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.
But Johnstone says his film isn’t intended as a satire of nerd culture.
“The whole movie is very nostalgic for D&D because I hadn’t played it in a while. When I first started in university, every Monday night we used to sit in this empty club and play D&D. But it’s been a few years. I’ve been kind of busy with the amount of work.
“But the whole movie is kind of like a love letter to those years that I miss,” he says.
With Dungeon Crawl under his belt, Johnstone says he’ll be taking some time to roll out an Internet marketing campaign, tour the film, present it at gaming conventions like GenCon and DragonCon and, with a little luck, he’s hoping it’ll be accepted at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“But first we have to lick our financial wounds,” he says.
After that, Johnstone says he wants to keep making movies. But the main problem with that is the dire state of the film industry in Saskatchewan.
“Like most people in the industry in this province, we’re all kind of holding our breath right now,” he says. “A big part of the success of this movie was William F. White [International]. They’re the local lighting and grip equipment company. They gave us a sweetheart of a deal and all the advice. We’d shoot a scene that wouldn’t look right and we’d return to them; they’d show us how to light it better.
“They’re closing shop,” he says.
“The industry has died down, I think, 70 per cent in the last year and a half. Our tax credit isn’t competitive enough and it hasn’t adjusted quickly. Our industry is hurting.
“It’s really scary,” says Johnstone. “For my sized budget, I can’t afford to ship in the lighting gear from Winnipeg.
“I don’t want to move but, unless things change, I may have to.”