Six men, two dories and the North Atlantic

Although Gordon Whittaker had reluctantly said no to The Disappeared, he remained convinced that – especially in the industry’s new world order – it could not only be commercially viable but also, and perhaps more important, culturally significant. “It’s still all about telling local stories that resonate.”

And the story of a disaster at sea is, of course, a quintessentially Atlantic Canadian story.

Ten years after Mitchell’s inspirational encounter with that old fisherman on the Sambro wharf, The Disappeared will finally premier this month at Halifax’s Atlantic Film Festival.

Though the Festival has long since become part of the international film circuit – Toronto, Venice, Cannes, Sundance, Berlin – it has not lost its initial commitment to celebrate, promote and encourage Atlantic Canadian filmmakers.

In the past five years, in fact, 17 other Atlantic Canadian-made feature films have had their debuts at the Festival. Supporting the local industry, says current Festival director Lia Rinaldo, “remains the true heart and soul of the Festival.”

By the time This Disappeared’s production team returned to Telefilm in the spring of 2011, “it was a better project,” says Whittaker. “They were further down the road on casting, they had stronger interest from broadcasters and the overall confidence of the team they’d assembled and their skills sets spoke loudly and clearly.”

Telefilm not only came on board, they also increased their share of funding from what was originally 40 per cent of the $1.25 million budget to near-their-maximum 48 per cent when Film Nova Scotia provided less than expected.

That said, there were, as always, compromises. They couldn’t afford to shoot for 20 days so they settled for 15, meaning they had to make every scene work – and quickly. And they had to switch from their plan to use digital cameras because they were concerned the havoc the weather might wreak on them But shooting 16 mm film added to costs.

Much of the $700,000 budgeted for the shoot itself ended up in the local economy. “We hired boats, marine crews, we bought gas and stayed in hotels,” Mitchell points out. “I think of it as a loop. The money goes out, and it comes right back in [to the local economy].”

“The Nova Scotia crew was amazing,” adds Holt. “They understood the limitations, but they wanted to be there because of their loyalty to Shandi and their belief in Shandi’s script.”

At a more practical level, he adds, many of the crew were already experienced with marine shoots because they’d worked on big Hollywood productions like Titanic and K-19. “They knew the tricks.”

By the time filming began, there was a fourth producer, veteran Nova Scotia line producer Giles Belanger. “He knew everyone and he had excellent relationships with suppliers,” Holt says, “so he was able to strike deals we’d never have been able to do otherwise, and that helped make the budget work.”

Despite its low budget and the usual beyond-anyone’s control issues – “one night when were shooting, recalls Mitchell, “it rained 120 mm. We shot through it, but I’ve never been that wet my whole life” – Mitchell allows that there’s nothing sweeter than the collaborative process of actually making a film.

“The night before we started shooting, I was a broken mess. I couldn’t imagine shooting one scene, let alone the 17 we had planned for the first day. But then, in the morning, you walk out there feeling invincible. You’re going to lead everyone into battle and come back victorious.”

She did.

But completing filming is one small triumph in a seemingly never-ending war. Post-production – editing, sound design, etc… – eats up more money and time.

After its regional showcases this fall – The Disappeared will get a second coming-out screening at Newfoundland’s International Women in Film Festival in October – marketing will begin in earnest.

Depending on the audience reception – and hopefully, awards – they’ll arrange screenings in coastal communities around the region (another new-old distribution wrinkle to get around the stranglehold the big distributors have on traditional cinema screens), submit the film to more film festivals, travel to Berlin and Cannes to negotiate with international distributors who’d previously expressed interest but wanted to see the finished product first, and… and…

Although The Disappeared’s production team will know soon enough whether their film is considered an artistic success, it will probably take another three to four years of hard-slogging before they can tally whether all their hard work has resulted in a commercial success.

“The business end is hard, hard,” Mitchell admits. “It’s soul breaking. If you stopped to work it out, you probably make 10-cents a week…”

Would she do it again? She laughs. “Right now I just want to read.” But she pauses, adds: “It’s the magic. That’s what makes you want to come back.”

To the reality.

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