Interview with Filmmaker Don Duncan (A SIGN)

Don Duncan’s short of A SIGN was the winner of Best Cinematography and Best Performances at the September WILDsound FEEDBACK Film Festival.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video for A SIGN:

I recently interviewed director Don Duncan about his award winning short film:

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to make this film?

Don Duncan: Essentially, I wanted to tell a fable of redemption. During the process of writing the script, I was looking for ways to convey a journey of loss and renewal of hope… but I wanted the journey to be one that was experienced extra-verbally. I wanted the main character’s moment of redemption to be a solitary experience, with no dialogue, and I wanted it to be on her own terms, in her own home. In addition to this, several areas of interest wove themselves into the story. I was interested in the notion of sexuality and sex work among older generations; and in the power of the gaze and how it can demean or ennoble. I was also interested in the power of imagination and how people use it to overcome loss.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this film?

It took a year and a half, from my initial idea to the final touches of post production. A good year of that period was spent developing my ideas, writing and rewriting the script and getting to the core of what I wanted to say and how I might say it visually.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words?

Hope returns

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

The biggest obstacle I found to making this film was the school structure and mindset within which I made it. The film school I was a student at provided the budget, which was the practical life spring of the project. But the same school, its conservative and dysfunctional ethos, and its lack of faith in young talent made the process of finding my voice and testing it very, very difficult at times.

5. Your actors, especially the lead, were exceptional. Perhaps that’s why the audience voted them for best performances at our festival. Where did you find your actors and how much rehearsal/prep time did you do to prepare?

I was very fortunate when it came to the actors I worked with. Sebastien Peree, the casting director, and myself found Sophia (who plays the lead role) via one of the actors we had auditioned for the role of Georges. That actor saw the script and thought of Sophia immediately. When she auditioned, she gave a performance I had not imagined beforehand and one that made me think and explore the project in a different way. I immediately trusted her understanding of the story and I think she trusted my vision also. Our collaboration was a very rich experience for me. Similarly, Simon Andre, who plays Georges, was much older than the Georges I originally had in mind but in his audition, he gave a performance that was so tender and lost that it made me see the film project in a new way also. As a result, I feel that actors that unsettle ones hypotheses in an intimate and intelligent way are very much worth looking closer at.

6. What were your initial reactions when watching the Toronto audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to see real people react to the film. All the feedback I have had so far has often been either critical or negative (in the case of many professors at my school) or effusive (because I have been present in person at many of the projections). The WILDsound audience could speak freely and honestly and so their impressions were a joy to see. I was also over the moon to see that many in the audience seemed to have grasped and engaged with the main story arc but also with some of the sub-themes of the film. I took a risk by making a film that is somewhat open-ended and one which depends more on visual and musical communication rather than verbal communication. I am delighted to see that, for some in the audience, this paid off.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

In terms of number of times, it must be one of the Christmas TV film standards on Irish TV like Mary Poppins or The Wizard of Oz! A film I discovered in recent years that I keep going back to (and one which influenced me a lot in the making of “A Sign” is “Climates” by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

8. What is next for you? A new film?

Yes! I have two projects in development (in my head and in my notebooks). The first is a short film about a middle-aged man who is trying to find a way to truly love his aging father before his father passes away. On his journey to revisit and overcome childhood violence suffered at the hands of his father, he rediscovers a musical tune he composed when he used to play piano as a kid. By exploring the tune and developing it further, he manages to get to the place inside himself that hurts and find some kind of peace.

The second project is a feature film, based in a fictive present-day united Ireland where Dublin has been left to ruin and and in that ruin and decline a bunch of social outcasts create their own paradise.

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Watch the best of the September 2015 Film Festival

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By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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