Two years ago, Jon Chan had a steady job in printing and lived in his gorgeous new studio apartment in Chinatown, complete with ultra-chic poured concrete floors, high ceilings and an actual, real-life concierge.
Then he was invited to be an extra on a local indie film set. It was a nightclub scene, and at the last minute Jon was asked to don a tank top and play the bouncer. With just over a dozen extras, some impressive camera work and a lot of skillful editing, that room was transformed into a very convincing packed nightclub. Jon, a lifelong film aficionado, was hooked. He asked around and learned that the director, Melanie Jones, had graduated from the directing program at Langara College’s Film Arts department (LCFA). Within a few weeks, he had quit his job, rented out his apartment, moved in with his parents and applied to the very same program. He got in.
His previous experiences with post-secondary education were something of a mixed bag; after studying visual arts at UBC, Jon enrolled in creative writing courses at Capilano University, then moved over to BCIT to get his diploma in Graphic Communication Technology. But at LCFA, he found his calling.
By the time Melanie’s film premiered at the Whistler Film Festival the following year, Jon’s short film, Glass Eyes, had premiered at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Best Canadian Short Award.
Jon had made a few short films before LCFA, but the technical elements involved in creating a believable world for the dark science fiction drama Glass Eyes raised a whole new set of issues.
“As a fan of sci-fi, I feel like it either goes really well, or really poorly,” Jon said. “I didn’t know if we could make it happen at our experience level and with our budget…but I had worked with Emmah [writer/producer Emmah Bishop] before and I knew what she was capable of, so I wound up getting really excited about taking on that challenge.”
That excitement produced a short film that won the Glass Eyes team awards for both Achievement in Directing and Achievement in Cinematography at LCFA’s end-of-year internal screening. The latter award is not given every year; only when the faculty feel that one of the student films truly merits it.
Skillful directing and beautiful cinematography weren’t the only two things that caught the LCFA instructors’ attention, however. Jon laughed as he recalled the rehearsal in which actor Alicia Rusu’s stage slap with co-star Jesse Irving got a little too real.
“I told Alicia, ‘Really touch him, wake him up.’ And she decided to throw a fastball. It was like a thunderclap!” When it came time to actually shoot the slapping scene, the instructor insisted on being present to make sure that Alicia wouldn’t unhinge Jesse’s jaw.
The accidental violence is all the more hilarious when you discover that Jon was also warned that his sets were too much of a “love-in”. On a professional film set, cast and crew are working under immense pressure, often with tight deadlines, huge budgets and possibly even their jobs at stake. The result is a high-stress environment in which courtesy is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of efficiency. By contrast, when I visited the set of Jon’s latest indie project, The Boyz Make A Movie (co-directed with Chris LaSwisse), all I saw were happy, hardworking people.
“Every time Chris and I work, the goal is to narrow the gap [between indie and studio film quality],” Jon explained. “I’m always trying to chase that…but hopefully never at the cost of treating people less than respectfully.”
His primary role model for positive on-set work environment is award-winning horror/gore film collective Luchagore. “They’re the epitome of independent local film,” he says, his voice taking on a dreamy quality. “When I’m on their sets, the magic is real. They’ve made me realize that you can do it on your own.”
Jon’s ultimate dream is to help Vancouver develop its own distinct cinematic identity. Like many local filmmakers, he’s tired of seeing his city play every other city but itself in movies and television. As Jon points out, when a crime drama is set somewhere like New York, the “New York” aesthetic and tone are immediately recognizable. AMC’s drama The Killing, comes close to what he’s thinking of, and even that one, despite being filmed in Vancouver, is set in Seattle.
“Everyone has an eventual feature in mind, that they can’t make anytime soon,” he says. “I’m working on one that I hope can accurately represent Vancouver’s unique cinematic identity. A distinctly Pacific Northwest feeling that makes the region integral to the film and its story.”
If his track record is any indication, that feature may be coming sooner than he realizes.
The Boyz Make A Movie is scheduled for release in summer 2016.