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Film

Montréal filmmaker Tyler Gibb: an e-nterview

Posted by Andrés / August 25, 2009

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He made his debut at Fantasia in 2007 with Minushi, a feature-length animated film that took him four years to complete. He accomplished this by his lonesome, which serves as a credit to his adaptable nature considering his latest project Refrain is not only live-action and collaborative, but has multiple facets beyond just a film that are cooperative in nature - a far cry from his lonely computer cubicle. I was lucky enough to catch him during one of his cubicle moments and conduct an online tête-à-tête in order to reveal a little more about this film, premiering Friday at the Montréal World Film Festival.

20090825_refrain2.jpgBriefly, Refrain is the story of Riya, an aspiring singer-songwriter who finds solace in the creation of beautiful music to mask the violence of her reality: she is a victim of spousal abuse. With the support of her friends and the courage inspired by her music, she hopes to one day end the cycle of violence that leaves her bruised and bloody in the bathroom every night. The subject matter is tough, but the mellow accompaniment is sure to act as a catharsis for the audience - listen to the free downloads on Gibb's website. The tuneful voice you hear is that of lead actress and real-life composer Vidya Lutchman.

Beyond the bounds of a film and original soundtrack, Tyler also began The Refrain Side Project, in which he invited other artists to re-imagine and remix the songs available for free download. The results were plentiful: Montréal calming pop-rocker Katie Sevigny and experimental indie pianist Nir Blu, among others, took part. When asked how much further he could take his burgeoning collaborative alter-ego, his answer was that perhaps the film itself could be remixed, à la Tracey Fragments. Why not? Here's what else he had to say:

(AC) The word "refrain" has a few main definitions. How does the film inform the title and what were other possibilities you may have played around with?

(TG) Titles for my work either come instantly to me or are the bane of the entire scripting process! Refrain fell into the latter category. The working title for the film was "The Great Big Emptiness" which really spoke to "the void" - of fear, loneliness and the unknown - that is referenced in the movie. "Refrain" eventually bubbled up as not only a more positive sounding name but it also had a richer connection to the other themes in the movie. Namely music which echoed the chorus - the repetition - of the lead character's daily life. There was also the word's other meaning, which would be to "stop," in this case violence. So yeah, ultimately you get your money's worth from that one word.

(AC) You called Refrain both a movie about music and the cycle of violence; how does the film address and incorporate both these themes into a cohesive whole?

(TG) The story is a parable for the struggle that most independent artists face simply to be heard. Putting the lead character of Riya in a situation of conjugal violence where she is literally oppressed into not being able to make music was the ultimate way I could describe that. But I didn't want to treat that element of the story lightly because frankly cyclical violence doesn't get talked about a lot unless a mainstream pop music singer gets knocked around by her boyfriend. So addressing the cycle of violence became as important to me as talking about the creative struggle as I wrote the script. But music is a great theme that way; it defies boundaries and can be woven into any subject matter.

(AC) Music: obviously a primary element of the film. Vidya Lutchman, the main actress of the film is also credited as the composer. How did you meet and decide to collaborate on this project? How did you benefit from her input?

(TG) I met Vidya about twelve years ago in a video store. We've lived together for the last ten. I can't speak for her but sufficed to say we've both seen our share of creative struggle in our respective - pre-selected - fields: Music and motion pictures. When I started brainstorming the movie Vidya was my sounding board - she always is. Once I got into the drafting process it meant writing lyrics for the songs that "Riya" writes in the movie. I handed them off to Vidya who instantly got back to me with melodies and structures for the songs. Vidya has an uncanny ability with melodies. We fed off each other back and forth like that until we had the eight songs that Riya (played by Vidya) performs in some capacity in the film.

(AC) The narrative of the film revolves around a woman abused by her husband, and who finds an outlet in her music. You also link to Women's Helplines on your website. Was there any research (either personally or professionally) in particular you did in order to understand what abused women go through emotionally?

(TG) I'm going to bet that we've all known somebody who's been too close to some form of abuse and I'll leave the personal research at that. Before writing any script I do a fair amount of research - usually for the purposes of filling in incidental blanks about subjects that I'm not entirely familiar with. I happen to love psychology and actually write pretty elaborate biographies for my characters. Most of the details in these backgrounds never make it into the scripts but I do it to lay down a psychological profile of the character that I can then draw from (I also shared these profiles with the individual actors playing the roles). So the research I did would have been on the psychology of anybody who has suffered through a violent upbringing. Then I applied those perspectives to Riya and to the leading male character of Ash, played by Brad Carmichael.

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(AC) What do you want audiences to take away from Refrain?

(TG) Other than a load of free music available on our website tylergibb.com/refrain? All I can hope for is that people can be swept away for a little while. Feel some empathy and maybe, if we've done a good job on the movie, talk a little more about things that don't get talked about. That would be a start.

(AC) More than just a film, Refrain is also the root of a free downloadable soundtrack as well as the Refrain Side Project. Successfully luring many local artists to remix and reinvent songs from the film, what do you see as the next step to this experiment?

(TG) Well the experiment seems like a great success to me - if for no other reason than the resulting music is fantastic. And the Side Project is still open to anybody who would like to contribute so on that level the next step is sort of up to any independent musicians out there who have yet to introduce themselves. Maybe somebody will come along and want to remix the film itself?

(AC) You are an animator, writer, director, and have now dabbled in musical collaboration. How has this latest project transformed you as an artist, and in what direction do you see yourself going next?

(TG) Well I used to make animated movies, by myself, in my spare room. Refrain got me out and working with other people which was better than I could have imagined. I think the biggest surprise for me was just how much people (film people as well as random strangers) just really love to help out a film production. There's something kind of special about that so this has all made me pretty enthusiastic to do it again. I've got a couple projects in the works, one is live-action but will also draw on my old stomping grounds of animation and the other is going to spin heads in the streets of Montreal.

(AC) The Montreal World Film Festival has as its goal to attract and cultivate new filmmakers from around the world. How has your experience been with festival organizers? How do you feel Canadian film, REFRAIN in particular, differentiates itself to films from other countries?

(TG) I'm very grateful to the organizers of the WFF for selecting to show Refrain three times at the festival (Aug 28th, 29th and 30th). I can't speak for the festival itself but I think we're in a world where it's increasingly simple to get your hands on films from any region of the planet either by visiting a video store or clicking a mouse. So the role of film festivals - which used to fill that purpose - is changing. Some festivals are turning to a more commercial approach. I think that others, like the WFF are going to have to focus more on not only bringing the foreign to our city but also to find films that are in some way different from the others. So I'm not sure whether Refrain differentiates itself from films from other countries so much as from films that are a bit more conventional.

* * *

Thumbnail image for 20090825_tylergibb.jpgYou can watch Tyler Gibb's Refrain at the Montreal World Film Festival on three separate occasions: Friday, August 28th at 5pm, Saturday, August 29th at 10am and Sunday, August 30th at 7:10pm. All screenings are taking place at the Cinema Quartier Latin just off St-Denis between de Maisonneuve and Sherbrooke. Tickets are available online and you can read more about the film at Gibb's website.

Images, video and answers courtesy Tyler Gibb. Thanks!

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