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The Close Up: Behind the scenes of Ottawa’s film and television scene

By Katie Marsh on April 2, 2011

The Close Up is a series of  interviews by Apartment613 film blogger Vera Grbic with Ottawa-based film and TV production staff. In the upcoming weeks, Vera will bring you more interviews with local production crews, with the idea of getting a behind-the-scenes look at the local TV and film culture. We’re starting off with the top of the film production food chain: the director. Ottawa director Matt West gives us the scoop.

Born and bred in Ottawa, Matt West is a success story in Ottawa’s TV and film world. At different times, he’s called himself cameraman and editor, but has been known for years as one of the most sought after television directors in Ottawa. Having made an award-winning short film (his film ‘The Funeral… Again’ has won acclaim from Hollywood’s Dances With Films festival, the Strasbourg International Film Festival and won “Best Canadian Short Film” from the Prince Edward Island Int’l Film Festival), he’s also stepped into the bounds of filmmaker – something he says you can’t call yourself until you’ve actually made a film. He’s also one of the youngest successful directors in the city, having started directing at 28 and
working his way up from self-professed “young punk director” to a status of respect amongst his peers.

Having had most of his professional experience in Ottawa, Matt tells Apartment613 why he’s been able to make it as a director here, and just how Ottawa fares as a director’s and filmmaker’s haven.

Photo courtesy of Matt West

Apt613: How did you start off as director? Did you go to school for it?

Matt West: I started off editing. I went to high school at Glebe Collegiate, and they had a really old-school tape-based editing machine in the early 90s. That was sort of what got me interested. After Glebe, I went to Algonquin and then still was pursuing editing, though I wanted to direct. And after Algonquin, I got a job with a film company [Distinct Features] as an assistant director. I had an opportunity to direct an episode of “The Great Canadian Food Show”. It went really well. That’s kind of where I got started in directing lifestyle television. Overall, I’ve done almost 500 episodes of lifestyle television, with the end goal of getting to drama. It’s a long road, and I’m willing to ride it to make my dream come true.

Apt613: Do you think starting off as an editor has made you a better director? Does the whole jack-of-all-trades approach help?

MW: For me, since I started off as an editor, I know exactly what I need when I’m directing. So yeah, as an editor, it’s really helped me as a director because it’s made me think, as I’m directing, of what I need in the edit suite. Some directors who don’t have that experience don’t necessarily know when they have something. It definitely helped train me, anyways.

Apt613: So tell us about the film you wrote and directed, “The Funeral … Again”.

MW: It won an award for best Canadian short at a film festival.  It had a world premiere in L.A., which was cool to go to. What also was great for me was this firsthand look at other films from around the world. It gave me a good chance to compare. This is a good example of Ottawa – I mean [the film] was all done in Ottawa, and done with Ottawa people. And it really did compare with everything that was there.

Apt613:  Is Ottawa conducive to a career like yours? Obviously, you’ve done well for yourself.

MW: I think, you know, Ottawa isn’t a big market for TV. But it is a market. And there’s a lot of very talented individuals – from camera, to DOPs, to grips, you name it. Ottawa is full of really talented people that could get jobs all over this country, all over the world. Ottawa’s been really great to me. So, I think it’s a really great place. Film wise, it’s growing. It’s not a Toronto, a Vancouver or a Montreal. I don’t know if it ever will be.

Apt613: But do you think that’s necessarily a bad thing?

MW: You know, people can have more opportunities in Ottawa that they might not get out of the gate or early in their careers in other cities. I had an opportunity to direct, you know, because another director wasn’t available, and I just asked. If I was in a bigger market, with more people available to choose from, I might not have had the chance. There are a lot of talented people in Ottawa, and I think it’s not as big a market at Toronto or other cities, but I think that where you can benefit is you get to move up faster in your career in Ottawa. If you’re good at what you do, word spreads really quickly. And so you’re going to have a lot of opportunities. … You can be a bigger fish in a smaller bowl in Ottawa.

Apt613: Are there any other factors that separate Ottawa from other cities as a TV and film town?

MW: It’s not a big city. But, the cool thing about living in Ottawa is that you have Gatineau, Upper Canada Village, the downtown core, the suburbs, and wilderness all like 15 minutes away. So, one of the advantages to Ottawa is that you can set multiple film locations in the city and not travel too far to get what you want. Which is something that makes Ottawa an attractive town [to film in].

Apt613: Do you think that Ottawa has been able to attract talented filmmakers? Does it have the possibility to grow?

I think it has the possibility to grow, for sure. I think a lot of people from the city have left the city to do bigger things, but there are a core group of people that are in the city. One of the downsides to Ottawa is that producers from other cities look at Ottawa as a corporate town. Government videos, that is the big thing in Ottawa. It was either news, or corporate videos where a lot of people got their experience from [previously]. Certainly in the last 10 years, companies like Mountain Road Productions and Knight Enterprises have started doing lifestyle television. By them starting that here, it really enabled people to get better at their craft. Distinct Features, where I got my first crack, that was the company that was striving to do films in Ottawa.

Apt613: You went through Algonquin’s broadcasting program. Do you find that there is enough educational backing in Ottawa for people who want to direct?

MW: I graduated in 1999 from Algonquin. I think it’s still the same today [but when I was there] Algonquin was really triggered towards news, and there was a little bit of creative work with drama or documentary-type storytelling. I think that the program needs to change a little. I think that if we’re going to grow as a city and bring in new talent, the program needs to look at having lifestyle TV series as a focus for the programs, and also really focus on doing drama. In the age now where we have HD, and Algonquin has a lot of equipment, there’s really no reason why they can’t change the program. … Because we have a lot of people in the city that are going to be retiring in the next 10 years, and right now there’s not a big pool of younger kids to fill that void. With the more and more stuff that’s going on, we’re attracting people from Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver. What would be great is for people from Ottawa or Algonquin to start filling these shoes. The talent is just slim pickins’ right now.

Apt613: What about organizations like IFCO or SAW, how do they help?

MW: A long time ago I joined IFCO, but because of how much I work I never had the time to stick with it. I think it’s great, I think it gives people an opportunity to make movies, and for a real low budget it gives people the opportunity to be creative. For what I do now, I’m not really using IFCO or SAW.

Apt613: Do you think Ottawa prefers film or is the city moving toward digital and HD?

MW: I think film is really organic. When I shot my film I shot in Super 16, and a great format is 35 mm. To me, it’s all about the story. But I think film is sort of gradually being put on the backburner. I think technology is going to be the future. When I was younger I was all, “Ew, I don’t want to shoot on this new technology, I’m a big fan of the organic”. But at the end of the day, when it comes to picture quality, they’re both neck and neck.

To learn more about what Matt is currently working on, check out “All For Nothing”, the W Network series he’s directing for Ottawa’s Mountain Road Productions.

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