From holes dug in his pock-marked backyard, an elderly poet struggles to complete his final manuscript and find his final resting place.
Daniel Stewart's narrative directorial debut was the film that almost didn't get made. Shut down first by a snowstorm, then the pandemic, the crew rallied together a third time to complete British Columbia's first ultra-low-budget short filmed during COVID-19 shutdowns.
Daniel Stewart is an award-winning Canadian producer and director who is respected for his creative approach to production. His work has been seen on the Discovery Channel, OLN, MTV Europe, ABC, The Lifetime Network, CBC, MTV Japan, CBC, METV, FETV, Channel 24 (Israel Music Channel), MuchMusic, and CTV. Daniel is the director of this short Canadian narrative which competed in the seasonal edition of MIFF.
The project is produced by Julia Kochuk, Daniel Roe and Daniel H.A. Stewart. It is our pleasure to speak with Julia who is not only the producer of the film but also the writer of the project.
Julia is a writer, editor, producer & practitioner of Imagination working and living in Vancouver.
What inspired you to write the script of The Hours Before Sunrise?
In university, I had a poetry teacher and celebrated Canadian poet, Tim Lilburn. There was a rumour that he used to dig holes in his backyard and lie down in them, contemplating life and what it means to die. I was always fascinated by these rumours and always had a picture of Tim Lilburn lying in the ground in the back of my mind. So that was the inspiration. Oh, and I got in touch with Tim when I was working on the screenplay, to ask him if the stories that inspired the script were true. He said, " The rumours about me digging holes in the backyard and lying in them are amusing but not true, though I did dig a root cellar one summer and wrote about this exercise.”
What makes you fascinated with the cinematic language, screenwriting and what was the first film project that you worked on?The first film project I worked on in a professional context was educational content for an organization called Alpha. I started off as an assistant and a production coordinator, then worked my way into producing. I was lucky enough to be able to write here and there on some projects under the director I was working with then, and writing was always my goal. As an indie filmmaker, my production background speaks into the writing process—it’s almost like a puzzle: what story can we tell with what we have access to? How can we create a world that works within the confines of what we have? I think cinematic language is one way to get around practicalities of budget and timeline. How do we show a good story? Often, this comes across in dialogue or visuals—I love playing with the puzzle that is a screenplay to make it work. With this project, I got to work with a team to make poetry and the written word translated into the visual world: how to convey emotion, someplaceness, abstraction into what can be seen.
You also worked as the producer of the project. What was the most challenging aspect of producing a Canadian independent short film?The most challenging aspect of producing this film was doing so during Covid. We went to film very early in the pandemic: March 2020. We were scheduled to shoot the week everything shut down. So we postponed, thinking we’d be able to pick things up in a few weeks. As everyone knows, this wasn’t the case. So we had to wait until the world opened up and come up with COVID safety plans and work with the Union to make sure our actors and crew were safe. It was challenging, because we didn’t know what we were doing. We had to adapt a lot of the script to make sure we were social distancing. Then the Canadian winter shut us down a second time with a surprise snow storm in temperate British Columbia. We had winter footage we had to abandon, a dog we had to cut from the film, as we couldn’t get him again when we finally went to shoot a third time…We had to call in a lot of favours and adapt often. And editing also proved difficult, as we were all in different cities, trying to view cuts and send notes. Our team had to work hard to maintain cohesiveness and momentum. I’m curious how the film would have looked had we all been in the room together throughout the edit. But I love that, for us, it’s a sort of timecapsule of the last three years, even if the viewers don’t know that. The other challenging part about producing a Canadian indie film is just not knowing where or how to get funding. A lot of what we could find out there required we already have made some shorts and a lot of us were relatively new to this genre.
What draws you to writing scripts?
Like I mentioned before, I love the puzzle of scriptwriting. As the writer, you have to think visually, while making sure the language and characters and story work. And all the while, you have to wear a “producer’s hat” and keep in mind what is possible within the confines of your budget. I also love what a team effort it is. In other modalities, I get the opportunity to work with an editor, but with film, I get to work with a whole team to bring the story from script to screen. Getting the opportunity to produce this film meant that I could speak into a lot of the creative and logistical details, which was quite a unique experience. I got to work with the director, Daniel H.A. Stewart, to tell him how I envisioned the story and characters in my mind. And I had to let a lot of that go too, so the director’s vision could come to life. How and when did you start studying screenwriting? I’ve always been involved in theatre, acting, and writing—for as long as I can remember. Formally, I started studying screenwriting in university. I attended the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing program and graduated with a BFA in 2013. I now write mostly short films with some filmmaker friends, Derek Janzen and Matt Kingcroft, as part of an independent production company, Foyer Pictures. We’ve mostly been making shorts and music videos.
Do you ever plan to direct one of your scripts or would you like to be more involved as a producer or just a writer? I am currently writing a short film that I hope to direct this summer. I’m toying with the idea of acting in it too, but that may be too much for my first foray into directing! So perhaps I’ll try to pace myself and do one or the other first. We’ll see! It’s fun to work with some talented friends and get to experiment and make good art.
What is your next film project as a producer? Are you currently working on another project? I’m currently working on mostly indie films—in the process of workshopping a few scripts that we hope to shoot this summer.
What were some of the challenges of writing your script and the research that went into it? One thing that was a challenge is that I wanted to inhabit the mind and voice of the poet, Tom (played by Terence Kelly). As a poet myself, I found it a challenging and interesting exercise to try to write poetry in someone else’s voice—as if I was also acting while writing the poetry for the script. I wanted the poetry to match the tone of the film: for it to be pastoral and spacious and mysterious. But I also wanted it to be accessible and not feel over-the-top. Another challenge was how to make a short about poetry engaging. The whole team and the Director (Dan Stewart) and the DP (Darryl Augustine), really brought a sense of poetry and beauty to the visuals. And the cast, Rebecca deBoer (Sarah) and Terence Kelly (Tom), brought so much to the performances. We didn’t really know what to do with the poetry. It went through a few renditions: we tried adding stock footage over the poetry sections, but it felt too busy, and considered animations (but that was already done with the film Paterson). Then we decided that the audience could just sit in the poetry and be still in it and go to a contemplative place with Tom. We decided to try to translate the experience of reading poetry onto the screen.
What is your cinematic goal in life and what would you like to achieve as a writer and a producer of The Hours Before Sunrise? In my life, in film and beyond, I want to continue growing into confidence in taking up space. I’ve had to learn how to be present in a room, especially in rooms where I have been the only woman (and a small woman). I’ve been thankful to have worked with teams on which I’ve always felt valued and equal and that my voice mattered. I’ve had to learn how to trust that for myself. So I think that’s all to say, I hope I continue to develop my voice as a writer. I want to tell stories about people who don’t always find their way into stories. As a producer, I want to get things done efficiently, while being kind. And with The Hours Before Sunrise, I hope our team back into a room all together and have a good celebration—we haven’t all been in the same room since we wrapped! We all deserve a beer or two.