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TIFF 2017: Nova Scotia filmmakers get creative amid budget constraints

Most of the films playing the Toronto International Film Festival this week – or at least the ones you will be hearing about from now until December – faced no real struggle to reach the screen.

Sure, it was probably quite cumbersome to accommodate the schedules of Emma Stone and Steve Carell to make Battle of the Sexes. And it must have taken Paramount some convincing to allow Alexander Payne to play Honey, I Shrunk Matt Damon in his new comedy Downsizing. But for the Oscar-tipped movies grabbing the most headlines out of TIFF, we are talking about a specific class and concept of "struggle." Movie stars and award-winning directors may not always get their way, but they have the ear of the industry and the rapt attention of the media. They are doing, and will continue to do, just fine.

It is a different story for someone like Seth A. Smith, director of the new and brilliant horror film The Crescent, premiering at TIFF on Thursday night. Canadian filmmakers are certainly used to doing more with less, and any homegrown talent who dreams of putting his or her vision on a screen knows it will be an upward battle foreign to any of their Hollywood contemporaries. Yet Smith's journey to TIFF represents a do-it-yourself endeavour that even his Canadian peers might consider excessive – but that is just the nature of the game when you're a Nova Scotia filmmaker.

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The province's film and television industry took a massive hit in 2015 when Stephen McNeil's Liberal government cut a crucial film tax credit, breaking an election promise and sparking an exodus of talent from the region. The government replaced the credit with the Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Incentive Fund, and the industry has since experienced a rebound, yet it is still a challenge to get a local production off the ground. This goes double if you're a genre filmmaker like Smith, whose work is a twisted blend of surrealism and sentimentality.

"We had another film that was ready to go that essentially never came out. It's getting better now in Nova Scotia – it's not perfect, and we have some ways to go," says Smith, whose only previous credit is the low-budget "feel-bad hit of 2012," Lowlife. "But this climate has also pushed people to take a different approach and challenge themselves, and a challenge sometimes makes for good art."

To that end, Smith and his team – including partner Nancy Urich, who produces his films, and screenwriter Darcy Spidle – turned to crowdfunder Indiegogo to help push The Crescent through its post-production costs. In addition to helping with finances, the move opened up an unexpected marketing avenue.

"When you're making a film with no money, you can't afford publicity and marketing, but here we're having a dialogue with our audience and they're invested in the film right away," Smith says. "It helps at this budget level to have the support of a community built in."

A sense of community seems to be crucial to both sides of the audience-filmmaker exchange, with Smith eagerly name-checking fellow Nova Scotia directors Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), Ashley McKenzie (last year's TIFF selection Werewolf) and Cory Bowles (Black Cop, also playing TIFF this year). While their aesthetics and narrative tendencies vary, they share a taste for riskier projects that might not survive the restraint that comes with higher budgets and the accompanying stakeholders.

"Films with a lot of public financing, they tend to be a bit safer," Smith says. "The smaller films like us, we can push boundaries and get super weird."

The Crescent certainly hits a level of heightened bizarreness. Focusing on widow Beth (artist Danika Vandersteen, in her first on-screen performance) and her toddler son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) as they head to Nova Scotia's South Shore to piece their lives back together, the film is an eerie remix of early David Lynch and even earlier David Cronenberg. It is also, delightfully and perversely, a family affair for Smith, given that the two-year-old Woodrow is his and Urich's own son.

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"It was very important that Danika created this safe environment for him, and we didn't want it to be a lot of work for him. I wanted it to be a fun activity, and he is a born entertainer," Smith says. "In the end, we have a well-produced, high-end home video."

The Crescent plays TIFF Sept. 14, 11:59 p.m., Ryerson; and Sept. 15, 6 p.m., Scotiabank

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About the Author

Barry Hertz is the deputy arts editor and film editor for The Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Executive Producer of Features for the National Post, and was a manager and writer at Maclean’s before that. His arts and culture writing has also been featured in several publications, including Reader’s Digest and NOW Magazine. More

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