The Animal Project, a new feature film by prolific Canadian indie filmmaker Ingrid Veninger, began as a leap of faith.
To begin creating the film, Toronto-based Veninger met 100 actors, one at a time, with no script in hand, no concept for the plot, and no characters.
“The project was born out of a desire to work with trained actors, as opposed to family and friends, who I usually work,” Veninger says. “This was an experiment in the unfamiliar.”
As such, the initial one-on-one meetings with the 100 actors were not typical screen auditions or interviews.
“The actors would randomly choose books and read aloud from them. I watched them listen to music, I watched them being quiet in the space,” Veninger says.
Through that process she was able to narrow the actors down to 10.
The second series of meetings were structured with specific activities.
“We sat together in silence for 10 minutes, then the actor could ask me anything for 10 minutes, then I could ask them anything for 10 minutes,” Veninger says. “They could lie or tell the truth, and anything they said could be used in the film.”
The final cast committed to the film before the script was written, or before they knew what their roles would be.
Veninger operates with a “nothing-is-impossible manifesto.” With her core cast of eight and a production crew of four, the film started to take shape.
The Animal Project premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
The story goes like this: Leo (Aaron Poole) is a widower, a single dad, a struggling acting teacher, and a frustrated theatre director. Like many parents, Leo has a rocky relationship with his teenage son (Jacob Switzer, Veninger’s son).
In short, Leo is dissatisfied.
After an inspiring dream combines with the memory of a film he made of his son in better days, Leo decides to shake things up. He invites his young acting students to do something called The Animal Project – whereby they will wear furry mascot suits and become animals in the real world.
According to Veninger, the on-screen interplay between the actors and the “real world” can give viewers the impression that the filmmaking process was more improvised than it was. In fact, the script was tightly crafted.
“There are 113 scenes in the screenplay, and five scenes required spontaneity from the actors,” says Veninger, who wrote, produced and directed the film. “One (scene requiring spontaneity) was when the actors wear the animal suits out in the world – so, the real world and the fictional world collide. Viewers can’t tell what is controlled and what is uncontrolled. When people think the performances in the film are improvised, that’s a testament to the actors.”
These kind of performances are also testament to the success Veninger achieves through unconventional ways of fostering working relationships.
“There is incredible chemistry between Aaron [Poole] and my son,” Veninger says. “I asked them to paint my living room together to break the ice and for them to get to know one another. A lot of the film was shot in my house, so it made sense to have them prepare the space together for the shoot.”
The collaborative relationships she built with the actors shine in the film.
“(Collaboration requires) trust, respect – it’s terrifying, painful, emotional, frustrating: all those things that make you bother in the first place,” Veninger says. “Your world transforms in small and significant ways that you can’t imagine before you survive the process. But you wind up with something beyond what either person imagined.”
The Animal Project screens at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 10, at The Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse. Veninger will be in attendance.
She then heads to Dawson City to mentor micro-budget filmmakers in the Shortwave Video Challenge, which is part of the Dawson City International Short Film Festival. For the challenge, participants create a 5-minute video in eight days, with minimal resources.
Applications to participate in Shortwaveclosed on March 24, however, all are welcome to attend Veninger’s Micro Budget Filmmaking on April 12. For more information contact Dan Sokolowski at (867) 993-5005 or FilmFest@kiac.ca.
For more information about the screening of The Animal Project go to www.YukonFilmSociety.com.
To read more about the film and the many accomplishments of the director, go to Veninger’s website www.PunkFilms.ca.