In celebration of the NewFilmmakers Los Angeles screenings at Sunset Gower Studios this month, we're conducting a series of Q&A Features and this week we're bringing you our featured Filmmaker Spotlight:
Name/Position: Neil Christopher/ Director, Writer
Film: Amaqqut Nunaat: The Country of Wolves
Tell us a little bit about your project and how long you’ve been working on it.
I have been researching Inuit myths and legends for about 13 years. At first, my search was a personal one, but very quickly it became the focus of my professional life. For the last 6 years I have been working with Louise Flaherty and my brother, Danny Christopher, to establish an Independent publishing company (Inhabit Media) in the eastern Arctic of Canada. Our goal was to gather Inuit folktales, oral history and knowledge before the storytellers and knowledge holders passed away. We have been recording this information and have adapted many of these ancient stories into children’s books and various publications.
About 2 years ago, Louise and I wanted to try a different approach and decided to adapt one of these legends to an animated film. We felt that this format might have a greater appeal to a contemporary audience. So, we started examining some of the stories we had been working with, and we ended up choosing a story introduced to us by Mark Kalluak. Mark was a gifted storyteller and a very respected elder in the Arctic. He had received the order of Canada in the past, and was one of the people responsible for helping standardize the orthography of Inuktitut (the Inuit language). So, it seemed fitting that we would work with Mark on our first film. As we explored this traditional story, we found various versions of this folktale across the Arctic. So, for the animated film, I created a screenplay that borrowed from all the regional versions we encountered. Amaqqut Nunaat: The Country of Wolves is the result of our collected work.
Sadly, I should add, that Mark Kalluak passed away before he was able to see the finished film. This sad experience reminded us all of why we began this work of recording the Inuit oral traditions, and motivated us to keep working.
Is there anyone you'd like to thank for helping out with this film?
As I mentioned before, Mark Kalluak needs to be acknowledged for his help on the film and his pioneering work of gathering the Inuit folktales from the Kivalliq Region of the Canadian Arctic. Also, Louise Flaherty, my friend and colleague needs a special mention, as it is her tireless work and patience that keeps us moving forward and ensures we are asking the right questions.
And, I believe everyone on the film would agree, that Dan Gies, the film’s animator, needs a special mention. Dan came into this project will more experience than anyone on the creative team, and he sensitively guided us on through the challenges of adapting this ancient Artic story to the medium of animation. I cannot say enough about Dan’s abilities, creative vision and cultural sensitivity. Amaqqut Nunaat would have been a very different film without Dan sharing his gifts and knowledge with us.
How does it feel to have your film part of the NewFilmmakers Screening at Sunset Gower Studios?
I am honored that the NewFilmmakers’ jury selected Amaqqut Nunaat to be part of their program. I am very excited to showcase this work for a Los Angeles audience. This story not only represents my first attempt at storytelling in this medium, but it also introduces this audience to a very different storytelling culture and the traditional belief system of Inuit from the eastern Arctic.
When I arrived in the Arctic many years ago, I was immediately captivated by a belief system and a cosmology that was so different than any I had been exposed to. In my youth, I had read and re-read the Greek and Norse myths, and folktales from around the world. So, when I encountered Inuit folktales, I knew this was something unique and unknown to Southern Canadians (and most of the world). I really hope the Los Angeles audience enjoys this introduction to Inuit traditional stories.
What inspires you?
At the moment, I guess I would have to say that I am inspired by the indigenous stories from the Arctic. This landscape, perhaps on the most inhospitable in the world, has beauty many will never experience. In the North, weather and the seasons, still dictate the cycles of life…even in the modern world. We still huddle in our homes, when the blizzards come, and our winter days are still dominated by darkness and cold. Modern house and electric lights can only do so much. Up here we still exist at the mercy of forces greater than us.
So it makes sense to me that the legends and myths of the North are as powerful as they are. The more I explore this landscape and Inuit oral history, the more numinous and magical the world becomes. And, in this modern world with all its current problems, a little magic is a very welcome gift.
Who are your influences and who do you admire?
I am grateful to all the great storytellers of the world (past and present). Stories, in all mediums, enrich our lives and help us distill meaning from events. I remember reading once that “politicians use facts to tell lies and artists tell lies to show the truth.” I guess I would say that I am grateful to all of those artists and storytellers who entertain me with lies, and help me find meaning in the chaos of my life.
What lessons have you learned from the industry so far?
I am still very green, and have not been working in film for very long. Consequently, I am making mistakes and learning constantly. I guess I consider myself more of a storyteller, than a filmmaker. I am student of stories. My first screenplay of Amaqqut Nunaat was long…too long and way too wordy. I was more experienced at writing books, and I had to learn how to tell a story in this highly visual and auditory medium of animated film. With the help of Dan Gies, I began cutting pieces of dialogue out of the film. Sounds and images took the place of word. I had to learn to “paint’ with these new brushes. Amaqqut Nunaat was improved by me backing away from simply telling a story. I think this experience has made me a better filmmaker and storyteller. Now, when working on my next projects, I am challenging myself to remove unnecessary scenes and dialogue. My next animation film will be a lot tighter.
If you could collaborate with anybody, who would it be?
Guillermo del Toro. From what I understand, he is a filmmaker that loves and studies folktales. I think we could create something very interesting together.
What is the toughest experience you've ever had to overcome?
I am instantly drawn back to my memories of a past (and unfinished) film project. Several years ago, I decided to work with friends to make a low-budget horror film based on an Inuit mythology being. The film project involved four things I would suggest avoiding or at least considering carefully – (1) children actors - Children get cold, hungry, bored, and tired quicker than adult actors (in my experience). (2) Animals - Animals can be unpredictable and don’t always follow on screen directions (and they tend to constantly look at their handlers). (3) Foreign language – I wanted the film to be in Inuktitut (Inuit language), however, many of the actors (and myself) were not fluent in Inuktitut. This required us to get language coaches and added a level of complexity that I would have rather avoided on a low-budget shoot. (4) Cold weather – shooting in the Arctic is incredibly unpredictable and the cold makes everything more difficult (from equipment freeze-ups to low moral).
I realize now that my first film project was far too ambitious and it almost killed me. After that project died, it took me about 4 years to even consider doing another film. Amaqqut Nunaat is my first attempt after that failed project.
What is the best piece of advice someone has given to you?
With your filmmaking, tell stories you love and want to share with the world. A film (or book, or any such undertaking) takes so much life energy that if you are not passionate about what you are doing I don’t know how you could ever complete it.
What advice would you give to new filmmakers starting out in the industry?
Have the confidence to listen to the advice of the people you respect and truly consider their suggestions. But, at the same time, have the confidence to listen to the quiet voice inside of you. After I get advice or feedback on a film, I need to take a few days to honestly consider it. Usually, my first reaction is an emotional one that is more about ego and insecurity. I need to distance myself from my work every once and a while, to honestly consider suggestions and critique.
Where can we expect to see you next?
Amaqqut Nunaat is still touring film festivals. After Los Angeles, I am in NY and then Mexico. I think we have about 6 more months of touring this film. I am currently working on three more animated shorts. I hope to have my next animated film finished in about 6 months.
Let our readers know where they can find more information about you and your projects.
If you are interested in learning more about Inuit myths and legends, check out Inhabit Media Inc. (www.inhabitmedia.com) or “like” Inhabit Media on facebook, as we constantly post updates. As well, we started a film/animation company called Taqqut Productions (www.taqqut.com) that should be up and running in the next two months.
For more information, visit: http://www.newfilmmakersla.com/