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Interview: David Winning

By Marco Freitas and

There wasn't much local film production in Alberta until David Winning began shooting low-budget genre thrillers in the late 1980s and early '90s. Winning's first feature, 1987's Storm, was based on his earlier short Sequence (1980). This twisty tale of revenge, set in the Albertan woods, became a video store staple thanks to a distribution deal through the Cannon Group, who picked up the film--but only after Winning agreed to pad out the feature with 23 additional minutes.

It took Winning until 1992 to get his next feature off the ground. Killer Image, starring Michael Ironside and M. Emmet Walsh, shows a marked evolution in Winning's craft, with a more complex and lurid plot involving dead hookers, incriminating photographs and, again, Alberta woodlands.

Winning has since moved on to a successful career as a director of feature films, TV movies and over 60 TV episodes for more than 15 different series, including Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Friday the 13th: The Series.

During a email interview with correspondent Marco Freitas in November 2010, David Winning discussed his early success in Alberta and the unique freedom of low-budget filmmaking.

What made you want to get into filmmaking?

I fell in love with movies after my dad gave me a Kodak Super 8mm camera for my 10th birthday. I've never really wanted to do anything else. I've been fortunate enough to find a way to turn a serious hobby into a serious career. Never looked back.

What films or filmmakers have inspired your work?

DW: Marathon Man was one of the main reasons I started making films.  But my influences are many -- mainly Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter.

There wasn't many feature films being made in Alberta in the mid-1980s. Can you describe what the scene was like at that time?

In the 1980s, Alberta was mainly used as a location for U.S. productions. The indigenous feature film industry, such as it has become, hadn’t taken hold yet.  I was paying my bills as a PA, an office runner and an extra on Superman 3, which was shot in Calgary the summer before I filmed Storm.

Why did you decide to "remake" your short film Sequence into Storm?

My goal at the time was to trick myself mentally into tackling something that was daunting to me as a 22-year-old: making a full-length feature film. My theory was not to think of Storm as a feature, but as five 20 minute short films linked together. At the time it worked for me, and seemed “do-able."

There really is no direct connection between the films other than the general theme of peril in the wilderness. Sequence was a Twilight Zone-style episode about a crazed mechanic in the deep woods, who keeps living out a murderous fantasy involving his deceased girlfriend. Very negative, very black and hopeless; the perfect product from a brooding teenager in the 1970s.

What was the shooting of Storm like? It took several years, correct?

Storm was shot at the end of summer, 1983. We did 20 days in the woods of Bragg Creek, Alberta with a crew of five and a cast of five – a very small bones production. We shot all day until the sun went down five days a week. I remember it being kind of like a great summer camp project. I had saved money to buy enough physical 16 millimeter raw film stock to shoot at a meagre 3:1 filming ratio – and did a lot of praying. I had some great help from the local film community in Calgary. We hired cameraman Tim Hollings, who was then working at CFCN television as a news cameraman, to be the Director of Photography. Storm was actually filmed with the news department’s 16mm Arriflex BL. Per Asplund was the soundman -- and later also editor of the new sections -- also a veteran of local news and documentary work. My friends Stan Edmonds, now a big makeup artist and teacher in Vancouver, and Michael Kevis, at the time, a London Film School student, filled out the rest of the crew. Bill Campbell was the film’s editor and took several years putting it together painstakingly with me.

Some additional filming occurred for a week the following summer; specifically the opening campfire sequence and Lowell’s nightmare involving some university campus chases and the like. In 1987, the production regrouped to add the additional running time requested by the distributor. The film was eventually blown up to 35 millimeter for theatrical release.

What was your reaction when Cannon asked you to add 20 more minutes of footage?

I recall the negotiation period as being kind of tense. After two bleak years trying to sell the original version, Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus essentially bought the movie based on the Globe and Mail rave review by Jay Scott. It was only after the deal was struck that they realized the film's running time was a bit under 90 minutes. Desperate to not lose the deal, I suggested they advance us a small portion of the sales fee and we would shoot additional material to make it “feature-length.”

C:  How do you feel about the finished film?

I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I felt we were better filmmakers in 1987 than 1983. I think the new material was much more adult and even contemporary. I liked the writing I came up with, in particular the 1946 winter sequence with the truck and dog. But at the same time, the original was much more quirky and cohesive. The new sections unfortunately were placed early on the in the film to develop a little back story about the two lead characters Lowell and Booker. Ultimately it may have suffered because it tended to drag the opening reels. Stephen Godfrey wrote a great review in the Globe and Mail expressing similar impressions. The reality of the business is crystal clear; the film would not have been distributed without the additions – but those additions needed to be more seamless…

Francesco Lucente made The Virgin Queen of St. Francis High in Calgary right around the same time as you were working on Storm. Did you know him or were you aware of that production at the time?

I knew Frank but not very well. I think I met Frank when Storm’s editor Bill Campbell was cutting one of his first short films. There weren’t many of us tackling features in the early '80s in Calgary so we certainly were aware of each other. Stacy Christensen, who plays the virgin queen, also plays Lowell’s love interest Cobi in Storm.

You've done a variety of jobs on films besides directing, including editing, writing (Killer Image), producing (Storm), cinematography and even acting in bit parts. What part of the filmmaking process is your favourite?

I really love directing and editing the two areas where you have the most control over a project. The loneliest would have to be writing this area also has a lot of control, but it's also very solitary and unforgiving. We are our worst critics when we write.

How did Michael Ironside get involved in Killer Image?

I learned a valuable filmmaking lesson making Killer Image. Starting in 1986, we struggled for four years to get the film made. But then Michael Ironside read the script in 1990, liked it and, less than a month later, we had the money and were in production.

There are other factors, but this business is primarily driven by stars. People go to see movies because of who’s in them. That’s why if you have the next Harrison Ford or Johnny Depp movie, it’s pretty much funded instantly – nobody cares what’s it’s about. 

Killer Image features lots of footage of Calgary, was it your intention to have some Canadians recognize the setting?

Well, I’m certainly a proud Calgarian, but we didn't go out of the way to shoot specific Calgary skylines or obvious prairie settings. Although the massive Glenmore Reservoir, where the film begins with the body being dumped, is a favourite location. My dad used to sail with me there when I was a kid.

Tell me about the "infamous" scene in Killer Image with the roller coaster ride with the dead prostitute--it looks like it would have been fun to shoot.

The roller coaster is the Corkscrew, at Calaway Park, located about 20 minutes west of Calgary. The theme park runs seasonally, so had been closed for a few weeks for the winter. Being smart (?) I chose to shoot this sequence on day one of the schedule on a very cold September night in 1990, my first time working on set with Ironside and John Pyper-Ferguson, who played Max. It was extremely cold but we were juiced on adrenalin – we were finally shooting our second movie!

I remember it was a very scary climb up the rickety first high slope of the coaster to place a camera on the stairs to shoot the approaching cars. It’s quite wild to have the run of a park like that, put stuntmen on a moving roller coaster struggling with a unlocked safety bar, and so forth.

That sequence turned out to be a good place to start, as they next day we moved to the woods of Bragg Creek,  where almost all of Storm was shot seven years earlier. But this time it was covered with about a foot of early snow – it looked like a winter wonderland. I was very nervous, but the crew spent a few hours spreading peat moss and knocking snow out of trees so we could keep filming. M. Emmet Walsh was only in town for four shooting days, so we didn’t have the luxury to wait for better weather.

C: In most of your work, the main characters are often reluctant heroes, not strictly good or evil, as is usually found.  Is this deliberate?

It's been the nature of the material. Audiences today are just so sick of the stereotypes. They have a hunger for something different and to see new characters in new situations. I don't believe that every story has been told — there is always something new under the sun.

C:  Rick Stevenson's 1999 Canadian co-production, Question Of Privilege, looks a lot like a thriller that might have been directed by you --  it was shot in Alberta, has Michael Ironside in the cast and has similar pacing to your style. It was made by folks you've worked with in the past -- it was produced by Bruce Harvey and photographed by Bruce Worrall.

Yes, the same group went on to do a few sequels to my 1997 film One of Our Own. I wasn't involved in that film; I think I was booked.

Which of your films is your favourite?

My favourite thriller is Exception to the Rule. Rosanne Milliken, a Vancouver producer, deserves the kudos for scoring such a great cast.. I had Sean Young (Blade Runner), Eric McCormack (Will & Grace), Kim Cattrall (Sex and The City) and William Devane, 20 years after he was so evil in Marathon ManException to the Rule was a big hit at the Houston Film Festival in 1997; we won first place gold.

C: What was your favourite part about making films in Canada?

It was a time in my career where I felt I had total autonomy, which is something I reflect on often. When you shoot movies this low budget, you really have carte blanche on how you spend what little money you have. I’ve had good reviews and bad; you have to ignore both. These movies can’t compare to blockbusters and --  love them or hate them -- at least they got made and I learned from them. You spend the rest of your career clawing to get back to that time of independence, before the whole creative process became a committee. I’m trying.

So you found it difficult to adapt to being a director-for-hire for the films you made in the United States, such as Turbo: a Power Rangers Movie and Profile for Murder?

It's a bit of a gearshift to become a hired gun on projects, but at the same time, episodic TV doesn't have the headache of trying to raise money or any of those other battles. My first love is always going to be feature films, and having gone through this incredible learning curve of working for other people this past decade, I'm looking forward to getting back  into independent production this year.

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