Toronto native Jamie Travis has been making short films for more than a decade. When he finally made the leap to features (his debut For a Good Time, Call… premiered at Sundance and will hit cinemas this fall), he gave shorts lovers everywhere a wonderful gift by releasing all his previous work online. SotW contributor James McNally spoke to him recently about his influences, whether personal childhood experiences informed his stories, and how feature filmmaking differs from directing short films.
So I recently discovered you’d uploaded all your shorts to Vimeo, which is fantastic news for lovers of short film. Why now? Is it because your first feature is coming out soon? I hope it doesn’t mean that you’re leaving short filmmaking behind?
My films had finished the festival, TV and DVD circuits… so naturally the internet was next. With my feature coming out in September, it seemed like the right time to get exposure for the undervalued art form of short filmmaking. Or more specifically, my short filmmaking. Okay, so it’s one final desperate plea for people to see my art-driven shorts before my commercial raunch-com comes out, okay? There, I admitted it. Am I leaving short filmmaking behind? Well, my mind is definitely on features at the moment. But if my next strong idea happens to work best in short form, then a short it will be!
Your short films have so far been neatly organized into two trilogies. Were both always planned as trilogies and how did that structure help you when writing the films?
The trilogies were never planned. They just sort of worked out that way. Patterns was the film I was least satisfied with—it was more coldly formal than what I wanted to put out there. So I made Patterns 2 and 3 to redeem the errors of the first—to make a whole that was warmer and more humorous and that utilized formal devices with a tongue more firmly in cheek. The original Patterns left the audience with so many questions, and so I wanted to give some answers. Of course in the end, there were only more questions. But it was a musical, so people got distracted and they abandoned their need for narrative clarity.
With the sad children films, I found it was a theme that I kept returning to. [Why the] Anderson Children [Didn't Come to Dinner] was a lead up to [The] Saddest Boy [in the World], and then I remember wanting to make The Armoire because I couldn’t have my sad child films end in such a dark way. With The Armoire, there is a light at the end of the tunnel of adolescence. In my own dark way, I wanted to give some hope to the sad children of the world!
The sad children theme seems to have a lot to do with being picked on (for being gay?). There’s a sense of isolation, of having no friends or maybe just one. Did that come out of any of your own experiences as a child?
The films are not biographical, but of course they are rooted in my own experience. I remember being a happy child but I was definitely isolated. My mother always called me a snob, but really I was just critical about everything and everyone around me. And I don’t mean in the caddy sense. As long as I can remember, I have taken a pretty anthropological stance in life. As an adult, I’ve learned to engage and observe at the same time, but as a child I was more of an isolated observer.
There’s humor in the very formal nature of your filmmaking and your fascination with rituals. Would you consider Wes Anderson and Peter Greenaway influences? You’re certainly kindred spirits.
I get asked about the Wes Anderson influence often. I remember being dazzled by his strong and very specific visual voice when I saw The Royal Tenenbaums at an influential age. But I never sought out to emulate him. Peter Greenaway I consider more of a direct influence. I remember when I first saw The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and I was just blown away. When Helen Mirren walks from the greens of the kitchen to the reds of the dining room to the whites of the bathroom and her outfit changes colors from space to space… well, this just floored me. That balance of seamless storytelling with cheeky formalism left a lasting imprint on me.
You recently completed your first feature film (For a Good Time, Call…) and it’s also the first time you are directing someone else’s script. What was it about this particular script that convinced you it was the right one to mark your move into feature filmmaking?
Quite simply, I loved the script and I really connected to it. I had been reading scripts for five years and had never connected with anything. When you know it, you know it. I remember laughing out loud and getting sad at the right parts. I remember loving the characters and the world and the tone. And I loved that it was so female driven. As a viewer, I’ve always been more interested in female stories. For a Good Time, Call… was also the first script I had read that I knew I was right for. I really did know I was the right person to direct it. It helped, of course, when I met the writers Lauren Miller and Katie Naylon, and they were clearly game for my voice and for a really fruitful collaboration.
What’s the biggest difference between directing a short film and a feature?
For me, it was the speed at which I had to work. We shot this film in 16 days. I have never worked so fast. We had no choice but to plow through everything, and I really learned to trust my gut and not second-guess myself. Some context: my first short film, Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner, was also shot in 16 days. The best difference for me was making something that was truly character-driven. My shorts are so formal, and it’s all about the director’s voice imposing itself on the characters. With For a Good Time, Call… it was all about letting these characters breathe and letting the style/tone/voice support them. I hope to do projects in the future where a stronger directorial voice (with tongue-in-cheek formalism) can work in tandem with a great story and great characters. But the best version of this film required a subtler authorial voice. I don’t mean to make it sound like the film has no style or voice. It does. You’ll see!
What are some projects real or imagined that we might be seeing down the road? And I’ll say it again, I really hope that you’re not done making short films!
I have a feature project that I am circling and that I want more than anything. Anything! But I can tell you no more about it. I will get back to writing soon—and whether this leads to a feature or a short, we’ll see.
Interview by James McNally. @toscreenshots