Charles Wilkinson's Oil Sands Karaoke, the second film in a trilogy of documentaries exploring energy extraction and its environmental impact, has several screenings at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. He spoke to the North Shore News about his latest project.
North Shore News: You've done both dramatic features and documentary filmmaking - what's the difference in the two approaches for you? Charles Wilkinson: That's a good question and a complex one. Drama was the direction everybody said the industry was going towards and documentary was dead. I started out making documentaries but it was so hard to get anything financed whereas with drama it was relatively easy which is kind of the opposite case now or at least it's levelled out a bit.
I noticed watching at the film fest this week when you go and watch a drama everything that's on the screen has been created by one or two or three people and you just watch it as such but when you go see a documentary you kind of apportion the blame - because it's real, you're looking at real people. You don't say that director's stupid or that writer's stupid you tend to focus on the people themselves and I'm personally more comfortable with that. I'm not interested in being famous I'm just interested in people.
North Shore News: What drew you to the Oil Patch in Fort McMurray? Charles Wilkinson: On our last film, Peace Out, we ended up in the Oil Patch as it was about resource extraction in the Peace River corridor and of course the Peace River flows north and goes into the same watershed as the Oil Sands so that's where we ended up.
North Shore News: How did you find Bailey's Pub and the people you profiled? Charles Wilkinson: By accident. Bailey's Pub was the only place we found in Fort Mac at the time that ran karaoke regularly. I connected with the bar manager and he was the coolest guy. He bent over backwards to help us get started so when we got up there we went to one karaoke night after another. It's a little like shopping I guess. You look for people who really sing well and who really enjoy themselves on stage and are not just up there on a drunken dare. You talk to them and find out who has a story that sort of represents the place well. We rejected anybody who didn't work in the Oil Patch because we wanted it to be about that. Gradually we gathered people together and were extremely lucky to find talented and interesting people to work with.
North Shore News:
Truck drivers who can sing. Charles Wilkinson: Go figure. Brandy's just a tiny little girl and she drives the biggest truck ever known to man. She drives a truck with a load larger than a loaded 747. I worked out the truck could carry the equivalent of 300,000 cans of beer. It's crazy she just gets in there and drives away.
North Shore News: When did you shoot the film? Charles Wilkinson:
We were up there most of last summer and last fall and we've been back quite a few times.
North Shore News: What was the filming like? Charles Wilkinson: It was challenging in a lot of respects. The stuff in the bar that's challenging because I'm not sure there is such a thing as a 'non-rough' bar in Fort McMurrary. It's a resource town. Any environment where there is a lot of alcohol involved you want to pay attention - and we're small we're a two-to three-person crew and there we are with all this complex equipment. We don't want to get it smashed. And all the rights stuff - asking everybody if they didn't mind being filmed that was complicated and a little bit nerve-wracking but also a lot of fun obviously. When you see the film you can see it's a lot of fun. The out and about stuff - people in Fort
McMurray or any resource town for that matter tend to be pretty suspicious of anyone with a camera. They expect they are there to do a hatchet job that media frequently does on oil and gas. It took a long time for us to overcome that.
North Shore News: How do you overcome the suspicions? Charles Wilkinson: By being straight and honest and by showing that you are there for the long term and you're not just there to take cheap shots because the typical media experience there is a team will go up for two or three days usually following some kind of celebrity and they'll do all the usual shots. They will go out at night and try and shoot somebody who looks like a prostitute or a drug dealer and then they'll go out and fly over the mines, pick the worst one and film that and then cobble it together. We didn't do that. We were there for months and we told people as clearly as we could that that wasn't what we were after. We were after something a little less superficial. And they could tell by our questions - we didn't go in there asking, "Well how do you feel about destroying the planet?" We were much more interested in the personal side, the social side rather than the political side and I think that became clear after about a month of filming.
North Shore News: Bailey's is an escape from the reality and loneliness of Fort Mac with karaoke as the glue that holds everything together? What was involved in using the 24 songs we hear in Oil Sands Karaoke? Charles Wilkinson: That's incredibly complex. It would be a waste of time filming them singing stuff that you can't get. We had music co-ordinator in Toronto Michael Perlmutter, who's nothing short of a genius and he was working with Universal Canada and he made a package deal so we didn't have to negotiate with each individual songwriter and/or publisher. We were constantly updating lists of the songs that we could have. I would call Michael and say one of our guys loves singing "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action" can we get that and he would go, "Oh I don't know man." He would come back and say, "We got it." It was like a treasure hunt. One of my biggest disappointments was Brandy's best song - Alicia Keys' "Fallin." She nailed it out of the park and it was amazing but we couldn't get it. It's not repped by Universal. For us to get the full rights to use 24 hit songs was nothing short of a miracle and it makes the movie so entertaining. Can you imagine how lame a karaoke movie would be if there was a bunch of songs nobody had ever heard of? North Shore News: Karaoke and Fort Mac make a strange mix - how did the screening go there? Charles Wilkinson: It went incredibly well. We got a standing ovation. They had a karaoke contest and Q&A after and people kept coming up to us and saying how happy they were somebody made a movie that wasn't just a hatchet job. They saw we were critical and trying to understand how they got there, how they do what they do and how they feel about what they do.
North Shore News: Oil Sands Karaoke is the second film in a proposed trilogy - can you tell us something about the concept? Charles Wilkinson: The first one was Peace Out and it was basically asking the question "Are we ripping up our natural world for energy?" and the answer was "Yes." And this second film is a film that works within a context the context is that everyone who doesn't have their head under a rock knows about the Oil Sands and will have a strong opinion about it one way or the other but the real question is "Given how perilous a situation we seem to be in we seem to be frozen? How come we can't do anything about saving the world?" The answer in Oil Sands karaoke is we're all concerned about saving our own worlds. That's what we focus on rather than saving The World. The third film is going to be a positive one - it's how we can deal with this stuff in a reasonable and happy and productive way so that our lives get better.
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