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The Blogmaster 2000 Interview: Filmmaker Andrew Wall

(This is the third in a series of interviews of creative peoples that we admire and of whom we think highly. This interview is with Andrew Wall, independent filmmaker from Canada and all around awesome guy. We first met Andrew when he submitted one of his short films to the Gangrene Film Festival, our annual agency creative event, and we have been friends ever since.)

Blogmaster 2000: Hi Andrew and thanks for doing this interview. As I have said before, we feel like you are part of the Gangrene Family, a Canadian part, but a real part nevertheless, and we always get excited when you submit a new film for the festival. The Long Wooden Tobagganist is one of my favorite all time films we have ever screened.

As we discussed briefly when I reached out to you about participating, the goal of this series of interviews is to connect with people we genuinely admire and try to dig in a little bit to get a better idea of what drives them (you) and how you got here from there. So, if you are ready, here we go…

So…. SCTV or Kids In The Hall?

Andrew Wall: That’s a tough one, but I would have to say SCTV. While the Chicken Lady and Monsier Piedelourde (Mr. Heavyfoot) will always have a special place in my heart, I think SCTV gave me my deep love for all things comedy. Even the bad SCTV sketches are great to watch. To see such a phenomenal cast back in the day trying different ideas out, even if they totally fail, is really cool.

Blogmaster 2000: I would have to agree, the pure joy of comedic discovery and invention is all over SCTV, and as much as I love Kids In The Hall it just never reaches that height of silly inventiveness that SCTV had. So, real quick your Top 5 Sketch shows of all time.

Andrew Wall: I would have to say for shows it would be Monty Python’s Flying Circus, SCTV, Kids in the Hall, Benny Hill and Wayne and Shuster. Wayne and Shuster is a Canadian comedy duo that go way back up here and was pretty much the first sketch com I ever watched. Very clean and avoids controversy. It was quite the contrast to Benny Hill which I would watch on PBS. I would often make my parents guests sit and watch VHS recordings of each. I knew to always finish with Benny Hill because at that point my mom would step in and shut down the show. I would have to make #6 a little show called Picnicface. Picnicface had its first season up here in Canada this year. It was very quirky and a few of the episodes were kinda lame, but there were a couple that were absolutely hilarious. Really caught me off guard at times and I was gasping for air and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Mark McKinney of Kid’s in the Hall was an executive producer. Sadly it was cancelled. The troupe blames politics at the network and a changing of the guard. Hopefully someone else picks it up.

Blogmaster 2000: My top 5 are: Monty Python (it isn’t really my favorite, but it gets pride of place being the first one that I loved), 2) SCTV (completely formative and the most influential show of my youth, along with Gilligan’s Island), 3) The State (if only for one sketch called Porcupine Racetrack), 4) Kids in the Hall (I wish they would make another feature film – Brain Candy is hugely underrated), and 5) Fridays (just out of spite for how lazy SNL can be for multiple seasons in a row before remembering they are a comedy sketch show).

I think the most important thing that Sketch Comedy has taught me is that it is never just about the punchline. You gotta have everything that comes before it to make it a real punchline. What do you feel was the biggest lesson that you took from your lifelong love of the form?

Andrew Wall: Getting out of a skit before its dead. That I think is the most important lesson. Great characters and great scenarios can suddenly turn bad. You can see on Saturday Night Live where they’re filling time, the joke starts to die and it just keeps going and going. It’s at times awful and why I rarely watch SNL anymore.

I think you also need to not kill your characters by over using them just because they’re hot. SCTV did that to a certain extent. Bob and Doug Mackenzie would be a fine example of almost consuming an entire season, or part of.

Of course Little Britain throws all that out the window and not only uses the same characters repeatedly, but the exact same gag over and over. Yet somehow I still laugh, every time.

Blogmaster 2000: Who did you want to grow up to be like? Are the characteristics that those people had that inspired you as child reflected in the people that you admire today?

Andrew Wall: That’s a really tough question. What kind of question is this!?!  I had two much older sisters so it definitely wasn’t them. I suppose I really admired Colonel Potter from MASH. I loved how he could go from yelling and making things happen to a quiet moment where he truly cared about people. I was kind of a latch key kid so most of my ethical and ability to empathize with others came from late night re runs.

Today it would be hands down Donald Sutherland. The vast amount of unbelievable work he’s done, including The Simpsons, speaks for itself. Sutherland has had so many epic roles and played such a diverse bunch of characters. Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes is one of my favorites of all time.

If I could work with anyone it would be Donald Sutherland. I guess that wasn’t really the question.

I did admire Charles Colson, when he was still alive. Really enjoyed many of his books and thought his journey from the halls of power to eventually preaching and writing was fascinating. Let’s add Rush to this pile. (I know, I know the Canadian band.) To see how they have spent their lives doing what they love and creating what they love is awesome. You have to appreciate that, whether you like the music or not. I’ve got tickets in October when they come to Winnipeg!

I also admired JR Ewing growing up. Who couldn’t like his stop at nothing attitude.

Blogmaster 2000: I like that you have Colonel Potter from the MASH series and Hawkeye Pierce from the MASH movie both listed. When you say Rush, are you into the whole band or are you more of a Geddy Lee fan or of Peart or Lifeson?

Andrew Wall: I love the whole band now, but never really liked them until I watched the documentary “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage”. I gained a huge appreciation for who they are and their relentless devotion to their craft by watching that doc. I actually bought a whole bunch of tickets to when they’re up here in October. Somehow I offended a few people by asking if they wanted to go. Rush seems to have that reaction, love or hate, from people.

Blogmaster 2000: I find it interesting that you mention Charles Coulson as an influence – someone most people don’t know or have already forgotten. Which brings up an interesting question that I have always debated: how well do people of faith fit into the film industry? Obviously you are not in the center of showbiz, very much independent, and in a sense working firmly in middle America (including Canada in that broader definition of America), but have you found it welcoming or not? I used to think (early on in my career in Florida) that it was easier to jump from the Adult industry into the mainstream than it was from the Faith markets. Thoughts?

Andrew Wall: That’s a very hard question to answer. For the most part I think the crews, broadcasters and everyone else around me would not be categorized as faith based… with the exception of a guy up here from Utah!  I’m also kind of on the fringes or in the shadows of the Winnipeg film and television industry, weirdly because I am so busy and fully employed I don’t really have time to get out there and do all the industry parties, workshops and even the local film festivals. I barely know the other filmmakers in town.

Professionally I’ve stumbled into situations or entire television series that I probably wouldn’t have gotten into on my own volition, but as an editor you sometimes get surprises. It’s tough not to get involved in projects that don’t necessarily reflect your faith. It’s almost impossible. My mantra is “The F word isn’t a punchline” and mostly directors look at me like “How quaint, the editor doesn’t like the F word.” I try to take something positive or learn something out of each project regardless. I think someone of the more conservative shade might not have the tolerance to ride along. At the same time I’ve also been on uber conservative sets for Christian shows that have made me uncomfortable as well.

It’s ultimately why I started writing and creating my own stuff. There was a point I realized being in this industry I was going to have to keep moving forward with my own stories and projects or else end up eventually being stuck in other people’s shows that I wasn’t really thrilled about. I just want to create something that expresses my faith, which is ultimately my story, and is positive rather than negative.

It’s kinda like (I just realized I hadn’t quoted any West German Chancellors yet in this interview) how Helmut Kohl explained the building of the European Union being like a bicycle. You have to keep moving forward or else you lose balance and crash. I honestly see my work and my faith as that bicycle. I’m good as long as there is some continual forward momentum. At times I’m not always exactly doing what I want to, but always pushing and working hard on my projects, whether in the evenings or weekends when I’m busy with other stuff.

There has been a bad precedent set by many Faith films out there recently, many I would argue are simply preaching to the choir so to speak and ultimately just polarize Christians. So I have felt apprehension by people in the industry when you tell them that you have a Christian themed script, like all the sinners are going to have something bad happen to them on page 1 and everything is going to turn out perfect for the Christian characters. It’s a bad rep that is a stereotype. Some of the Christian filmmakers and films out there don’t help it.

So in answer to your question, I think that you can be in the mainstream, not always being totally comfortable, but can’t run around judging or condemning everything around you. You really need to keep moving forward in your own projects that reflect you and your faith. My hopes and prayers are that eventually for me those will overtake everything else and I won’t have to think “This rock band feature documentary has the F word eleven times and there are four hundred cigarettes smoked on camera.” when I’m editing for someone else.

Blogmaster 2000: I produce a weekly Stand-up Open Mic show in Salt Lake City. It takes place in a 21+ venue (a bar) and the comics really revel in the thought that it is uncensored. It gets really raw. I try to be a relatively hands off producer with this, because ultimately Open Mics really are just practice time for new comics. My hope is that as they mature and become more comfortable and confident in their craft that they will realize on their own that shock value for shock value’s sake isn’t art or craft. Lecturing them doesn’t do anything, but generally the ones with talent and the right work ethic figure it out pretty quickly. I don’t know if that is a real question, I guess I was trying to give some context from what I have experienced and I was hoping you could give a POV based on your professional experience if you see it the same or not.

Andrew Wall: It’s frustrating to see young comics trying to emulate some of the successful comedians out there by simply being crude. I’ve sat few a few nights, after an intern or friend of friend asks you to come out for support and been mortified by the garbage coming off the stage. I’ve tried to be honest, but they’ve never seemed to get what I’m tried to say. Perhaps “That was frakin awful!” would get through. Is it a swear if it’s a BSG reference?

I’ve been lucky enough to see how the comedy beast works to a certain degree. I even sat in on a conference call with a network exec that said “Throw in more swears!” simply because they wanted to play to a younger audience. I think they were dead wrong. But hey… that’s what they do because that’s what they think they should do. Kind of like the young comics.

Blogmaster 2000: Did you have dream job as a kid?

Andrew Wall: Making television. I loved shooting VHS movies with my cousins. Endless horror films with little story and lots of fake blood.

Unfortunately I grew up in a family of nurses, MBA’s and an engineer, the kind of people that didn’t always understand creative brilliance. I also attended a Mennonite school that didn’t really appreciate the horror or comedy genres either. So my silly dream and imagination got put on hold after graduating high school as I went on to pursue a degree in Economics with a minor in Theology.

Blogmaster 2000: All of my old VHS and Super 8 films from when I was a kid have disappeared over the years or rotted in a sweltering garage at my parents. Do you still have any of those VHS movies in a box somewhere? And can we see them?

Andrew Wall: If only we had an archivist in the family! Slowly trying to digitize the old VHS… can you give me a week and I’ll see if I can get something up?

Blogmaster 2000: You have exactly one week starting today.

It would be interesting to discuss a bit growing up in a religious community while having tastes and aspirations that were a little bit outside of the mainstream, and how did you reconcile that to find a balance?

Andrew Wall: I grew up in many worlds. Elementary school was public and so I was exposed to many types of films at friends’ houses. For whatever reason my buddies were obsessed with horror movies and the local rental place seemed to care less that a bunch of ten year olds were renting Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and The Thing. Naturally my parents were mortified whenever we tried watching that stuff at my house. Comedy however seemed to be fine and acceptable in the house. Although occasionally my mom would censor even some of the classic 80’s comedy. Of course when it came to movie making it was almost all out horror. My films, sometimes collaborations, always would start with someone dying or being killed and then coming back to life to get revenge. I think we did 3 – 4 of those every summer.  We had  my younger cousin Colin play the female roles, otherwise we wouldn’t let him be part of it. We did a horror movie based on my eccentric great aunt one summer. She basically comes back to life in a summer dress, hat, gardening gloves and kills the rest of the family with pitchforks and pruning shears. Years later I was almost disowned by my uncle.

High school was private and Mennonite. For the most part it was a kinda of square environment. I had to seek out friends that were into Monty Python and SCTV or initiate them. Thats how I met my good friend Dave Rabsch, narrator for The Long Wooden Tobogganist and Nazi Newspaper Reader #2 in The Paper Nazis. We had a deeply spiritual moment watching UHF together for the first time. Spatula City. No need to say more.

I don’t think a lot of the girls in my high school got my humour. I remember being scolded and told to grow up many a time by some of the girls. I got revenge on them all by masterminding the 93′ water balloon bombing of the student staff BBQ. Many good friends were lost to suspension that last week.

So then college. Sadly no one came along and said “Hey… you know you can make films for a living. Creativity is ok.” Bible school did have a theatre group that actually travelled, but it was always viewed as dorky so I made fun of them. I put my creativity into hanging girls stuffed animals with suicide notes from their dorm room light fixtures and getting police cars to chase me onto bible campus. Clearly my suppressed creativity was not a good thing. It was years of un-balance, you could say.

There were years of doing low budget commercials, corporate video and even a few funeral videos. I think people thought I was crazy. But now, some people really embrace what I’m doing and see where I’m going with things, especially in the faith/church community. It’s nice to have people come up and say “What are you working on?” or “When’s your next short coming out?” because they truly like my work and support me. I still get some family and friends that ask “how are you’re little videos coming?” or “are you making a living at that yet?” because that can’t possibly be a real career. My older sister recently introduced me as “My brother Andrew, I’m not really sure what he does but he could maybe explain it.” But I get to think up cool stuff and make it into film and television everyday.

Blogmaster 2000: I love that you learned early on to show Benny Hill last. The Thames Television sting still fills me with a huge feeling of nostalgia for staying up late to catch bikini clad old British men running around in a park to the haunting melody of Yakety Sax.

What do you see was the turning point in your professional life that has gotten you to where you are now?

Andrew Wall: I had been working for a few months on contract with a production company on a boxing reality series as editor. I did sneaky things like show up early and worked real hard to make my production overlords like me. Then I stepped out for lunch one day, my phone rang and I was asked to work on this other “thing” they had going. Without even understanding what it was I said “sure”. A month later I was cutting for a series on the Comedy Network, I had never actually cut drama or comedy before, and working under Kelly Makin, of Kids in the Hall directing fame. It was like going to film school and getting paid to spend six months with someone like that. It was so much fun to work so hard in that environment. Making comedy too!  From that point the comedy filmmaker in me had been awoken.

Blogmaster 2000: That is pretty awesome, plus it speaks to your willingness to being open to opportunity, which I feel is one of the most important components in finding success in a creative field. Or any field for that matter. Have there been any other instances where something completely unexpected dropped in front of you and changed up your whole plan but still got you closer to your goal?

Andrew Wall: Yeah… like today. Bwahahaha. I’ve learned to take things in stride because this industry is so weird. Out of nowhere, because of a combination of availability, good references and a bit of talent I’ll have either a phone call or a conversation where a door will open. It’s happening more now. In the last year I’ve had a couple of those “Would you be interested in directing” conversations that leave me a little stunned. One big gig, with a fairly big star, kinda exploded spectacularly before we got to camera. Or should I say I got to camera. It was almost a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it just didn’t work out. That was for the best and some of the things I’ve been developing and working hard on have started to come to fruition anyways. There will also be more phone calls… like the one I had today! But I’ve learned by watching others that until that moment you walk on set or start the first interview many crazy turns can happen so don’t stress too much.

Blogmaster 2000: How would you describe your creative process – is there anything that you do or a process that you have that helps get you into the right mindset to work?

Andrew Wall: I don’t have a very good attention span. So when I’m stuck in a boring conversation my mind races to entertain itself. Whether chatting at a wedding or even having a few pints with my friends, I tend to start throwing story concepts out there, the more ridiculous the better. From that point, if it gets good response, I usually do a quick and dirty one page outline with silly sketches and key lines. That will go in my “Crazy Creative” folder in my Dropbox. Every few months I go through and read scripts or outlines. It’s fun to rediscover ideas. Sometimes the people I initially threw the concept at, the boring people, bug me about the idea and I go to my Dropbox and dig it up. If after all that time the concept makes me still laugh I start writing. From there the script goes to my wife, a few friends and my producer. I also find scheduling things or ordering props, like the $500 casket I’ve got coming right now, is a great motivator to keep things moving forward. That’s for my next short… not like I have time for shorts, but with the Church booked and the casket ordered I guess I better get on it.

Blogmaster 2000: I write jokes for stand-up comics occasionally on the side and generally my most favorite jokes that I have written come up when I am in a boring conversation and my mind starts to make it interesting for me and I just start firebombing it. Who is your producer and how long have you two worked together and how does that relationship break out?

Andrew Wall: I’ve had to produce my own comedy shorts with the help of my wife, Johanna. She’s uber talented when it comes to putting together awesome craft services or staging the 3 family gathering dinners for The Table. She also comes in handy when you need four 5′ x 12′ Nazi banners sewn up because most of the online options are too pricy or being sold by actual Nazis. Johanna also helps me manage all the details, like finding caskets and getting relatives to show up as extras. She’s also good at not asking “What are all these cases of beer on the Mastercard?!” when I’ve decided to treat the crew.

My producer for my documentaries and upcoming dramatic projects is Kyle Bornais. We kind of hooked up through a mutual acquaintance who knew I had no idea how to manage tax credits and numbers. Ultimately Kyle made it all happen and my first documentary about Manitoba and the Cold War was made. When Kyle’s not producing my stuff I work for him at Farpoint FIlms as an editor which has been very beneficial and paid the bills. It’s been something like 4 years now. There’s the old saying “The devil you know” but I’ve really appreciated his talents and friendship. He’s a clever monkey, I would say one of the best in Canada, and is also incredibly supportive. We have a lot of fun and its great to have those days when your ideas are appreciated and you get a green light or you get positive feedback or get an email that your work has won an award. Especially when you are creating something, having a producer like Kyle watching the larger picture and always there to gently threaten a broadcaster holding back on a license or somehow manage to find money for not one but two days of ridiculous Nazi re enactments is always cool.

Blogmaster 2000: What do you see as the single most formative moment that has created the “you” that exists today?

Andrew Wall: That game of Russian roulette in Saigon… no wait. That was The Deer Hunter. Wow these questions are tough. I guess it was when I lived in Calgary and was designing kitchens for new homes. The market was so crazy hot and everyone was stressed. It was one endless out of control rat race. I also was making way too much money for a 25 year old, but working 60 hours a week.

One morning I had a client that insisted on a 7am appointment because he had a plane to catch or something like that. There I stood in the showroom waiting and watching the sun come up on the mountains with a moment to reflect. I actually had an hour to reflect because he never showed.

I couldn’t help but ask myself if my creative abilities were really meant to just help people choose granite or laminate and then find just the right spot for a kitchen wine rack in their overpriced poorly built homes.

A month later I got in my car and headed back home. Started doing corporate video and low budget commercials and absolutely loved it.

Blogmaster 2000: Ha!! You designed kitchens for a living and were rich. That is awesome! Do you ever wake up at night after a particularly long and difficult edit session and wish for the days you spent agonizing over just the right trim to go with the flat top stove?

Andrew Wall: Never. Working in film and television (both doc and drama) has taken me around the world and given me so many unique experiences. Many of those experiences even include editing footage and getting to know events and people intimately through the footage. It’s weird when you meet people in person, that you’ve been editing over and over, and you feel like you know them and they stare blankly. While I’ve had the chance to interview high ranking Generals (both Canadian and American) as well as billionaires, I think one of the most impacting experiences was a former convict who did 16 years in jail for murder. His life was changed by a fellow inmate who taught him how to read while he was doing his time. His life after jail is now dedicated to relentlessly helping kids avoid the life he once led. Those kind of people you never forget. Of course I did walk into Hulk Hogan in the bathroom at Rolling Stone Magazine last fall. I was a shooter on a documentary. That kind of experience you never forget either!

Blogmaster 2000: If the future of the whole world depended on the one perfect decorative item for a new build kitchen and you were the only one that could make that call. To save the whole world. What would you say?

Andrew Wall: Wine rack. We could all sit back and… NO! Wait. A kitchen island that has not only a lower eating breakfast bar, so the kids can eat breakfast or do their homework on the sunny side, but also a raised bar so the kids can have sundae parties feeling like bike people at a real bar or the adults can have real cocktails and watch the cook on their gas range making stir fry (on the island of course). Then there would be a lower granite counter area where the wife, not that she ever bakes or cooks, can roll out cookie dough and pastry for Sunday brunch with guests. Throw a second dishwasher, for the wineglasses and a big open wine rack so you can watch your vintages go bad in the sunlight. I kid you not that’s what the rich people (or people who didn’t understand they’d be paying of their mortgage till 3020) of Calgary had me put in their homes on occasion.

Surely an island like that could save the world!

(Did I mention the vegetable sink?)

Blogmaster 2000: What has been your favorite most rewarding personal project (this can go back as far as you want) and why?

Andrew Wall: It’s a toss up between my short The Long Wooden Tobogganist and a documentary I did called The Paper Nazis: Winnipegs Nazi and Facist movements of the 1930’s. It was great to see the response to both of them, although I always felt that there weren’t enough laughs in Nazis and not enough people took the Tobogganist serious enough.

Blogmaster 2000: Like I said before, I just flat out loved Long Wooden Tobogganist. I would love to see Paper Nazis, it sounds pretty interesting. At mediaRif, we feel like the fact that we do Gangrene should be a plus in drawing in clients. But honestly, it isn’t always that way. There is a certain type of person/client that simply cannot see past their own expectations. They see this weird, goofy, family friendly, non-traditional film festival and can’t get their heads around it. Having said that, we are glad to use it as a filter, because the clients that catch the vision are a joy to work with. Do potential clients or financiers find your range (from comedy to serious Documentaries) a plus or do they struggle with it?

Andrew Wall: I live a bit of a bipolar filmmaking life. I love comedy, but I love documentary (history especially) as well. Documentary pays the bills, but who knows where the next few years are headed.  I did have some dealings with the Canadian Human Rights Museum during the unveiling of The Paper Nazis. One of the people there couldn’t believe that the Long Wooden Tobogganist they watched online could be the same filmmaker. Having lots of historical stuff and different types of ideas accumulated from documentary work swirling around in your head sometimes makes very fertile ground for comedy as well.

Blogmaster 2000: What other projects, that you are free to talk about, do you have on the table currently?

Andrew Wall: I’ve got a comedic feature that officially went into development this week. It’s about a Christian rock band that goes off the rails. The script is a lot of fun with a great message. It’s scary when a script editor is hired and you begin talking schedule and crew. Gulp!

Other than that I have a short film called The Death of Elma Epp scheduled for a late August shoot. It be off to Gangrene as soon as it finished.

Blogmaster 2000: Fantastic. I remember talking about that project with you at Gangrene last year. That is very exciting that you have started moving forward on it. I can’t wait to see it. And the Death of Elma Epp sounds like another Gangrene hit.

Andrew, thanks so much for taking time with me on this interview. You are a friend and scholar and someone we genuinely think the world of, and we really feel you are part of the family.

Andrew Wall: Gangrene is the best comedy festival out there. It’s been awesome getting to know you all… keep your eye out for the Shärt International Comedy Film Festival up here in Winnipeg in 2013. It’s the largest steel sponsored comedy film fest in Canada!!

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