When someone is searching for a career path, the advice that is often given is “follow your passion”, “give it your all” and “do what you know”. It is evident that Canadian film director Alan Powell has followed this advice to the letter. Powell first began his career in Toronto, Ontario, with acting. In 1991, he launched PNA where he was a voice over agent, producing and directing voice overs for a vast array of clients. In 2005, Powell founded his creative and video production service company, Facilitator Films. He has directed programming for such television channels as The History Channel, The Biography Channel and FX. He has also worked on educational projects for the Centre For Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children.
Powell is an accomplished short film maker, producing a number of short films that have earned him nominations and awards from film festivals in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. In 2014, he was a contestant on the CBC program, Short Film Face Off, in which he advanced to the show’s final round.
Now living in London, UK, and working on his newest short, ‘As One’, we reached out to Powell to learn about him, his work, and his thoughts on the Canadian short film industry.
Short Film Fan: At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to become a film maker? Were there any family, friends or teachers that encouraged you to pursue this career path?
Alan Powell: I was an actor first, then a voice over agent for 10 years. Then, I returned to acting. At that point, I found that I started to become very frustrated with the acting process mainly because the directors hadn’t a clue how to direct actors and/or they had no creative vision or statement they wanted to make with the script. And here I was – I knew what the material was saying and I was passionate about channeling that; but, there is only so much I could do as an actor to affect the final product. That’s when I decided that I needed to direct.
Once I made the decision everyone I knew was supportive of me. Mind you, one friend (more like one of my kids’ parents’ friends) had said to me about ten years ago something to the effect of ‘it’s going to be difficult because you’re older now’. I had no idea what he meant by that and I thought he was just being negative. But now, 10 years later, I realize what he meant. Basically, I had to start all over. Build new contacts, create the relationships and wait for those relationships to develop over time. As those contacts continue to flourish in the industry, more opportunities arise for me.
SFF: As your website and CV state, you’re passionate about telling ‘emotionally driven stories’. What fuels this type of storytelling?
AP: Experience. 🙂 Everyone, at some point in their lives, goes through their own ‘ring of fire’; an emotional journey or experience that changes their life forever. When it happened to me, it was so overwhelmingly powerful and so awesomely life changing that I realized this is what my life is about. It’s about being true to ourselves and the struggle; the sacrifice to make that happen. For me, directing actors in emotionally driven stories is a constant reminder of that. My ongoing fuel is staying authentic and true to myself so I can always bring my A game to every project.
SFF: You’re originally from Toronto, Ontario, but you now call London, England home. How do these two cities compare in terms of making and screening short films?
AP: This could be just my experience, but I found the London film community to be more active in their outreach to support short film. For ‘Phone Box’, I had people coming to me and saying I want to help; in Toronto, I found it a little more challenging to get people on board. I’m talking more about the early years of my career in Toronto in 2005. It could be that in Toronto, I was just starting out; compared to landing in London in 2013 and already having two shorts playing festivals worldwide to critical acclaim and each picking up multiple awards. Ultimately, I think the short film communities in both cities are equally supportive. It just depends on your level of experience and success as to how quickly people will jump on board to support you.
SFF: Your short films include ‘Across The Hall’, ‘Sunday Punch’ and ‘Phone Box’. These films have been seen internationally and have garnered you awards. How do you account for this success?
AP: Being true to my voice and listening to my heart. I don’t take on a project unless the theme resonates with me, affects me, makes me emotional or gets me passionate. That’s the reason I direct and sometimes write because whatever is on the page has to be said and I’m the one to say it. It’s part of me – of who I am. If I feel that strongly about it, chances are the target audience will connect to it as well. I also think that the emotional journeys of the characters in my films are universal. Everyone has experienced similar emotions and can relate it back to their own life in some way, shape or form.
SFF: Can you tell us more about your newest project, ‘As One’?
AP: It’s the second short film that I’ve written (‘Sunday Punch’ being the first). It’s actually based on a storyline from a film I wrote and directed in 2009 that didn’t get much exposure. I pulled a storyline from that film and developed it further. Basically, it’s about a 50-something, twice-divorced, single woman whose loneliness becomes unbearable on the evening of her daughter’s wedding. I let the idea brew in the back of my mind for almost three years before I decided to write the script. It was originally set in Toronto; but now that I’m living in London, I decided to set it in a classic black cab as it drives the private wedding party through central London on its way to the civil ceremony. The story unfolds in the cab as it picks up each passenger. Very excited about this project, as the lead character speaks to a feature film I’m developing about the power of denial.
SFF: What specific challenges do you face as a film maker when producing a short film?
AP: If you’re fortunate enough to have an awesome producer on board (which is a challenge finding in of itself), then you don’t have to worry about producing at all. You can focus on the creative challenges. Mind you, a producer will tell you that raising funds is an extremely creative challenge. But for me, if I’m producing, it’s always about the money 🙂 . The projected budgets never match the actual budgets. So you end up with the mammoth challenge of convincing people to work for low rates or to offer their services ‘in kind’. This speaks to the above answer about “how do I account for my success”; you have to be incredibly passionate to convince others to jump on board your project for no or very little pay. It’s true about the old adage ‘ask and ye shall receive’. There’s also the risk of using up all your favours; but, if you’re loyal to the people you work with and you have a solid relationship and you give them paid work, then chances are they will want to do their best to accommodate your non- or very low-paying passion projects.
SFF: In your opinion, why do you think people like to watch short films?
AP: I can speak to why I like watching short films – because they’re short 🙂 . We’re inundated with films on the internet. I like that I can get a powerful message in a short time. During the day, I may watch a short because I have 3, 5, 10 or 15 minutes to spare. I rarely watch feature films in the middle of the day. Features are for my evenings. If we’re talking about industry reasons, short films are an excellent tool to pitch ‘proof of concept’ for feature films and TV series.
SFF: What are your hopes and predictions for the short film industry in Canada?
AP: I would like to see the return of the Calling Card program and more funding opportunities for short films that speak to feature films. In England they are very methodical and supportive with their schemes and lottery funding in the arts. Each scheme feeds into the next. At the end of it, they spit out a feature film director. I would like to see more dovetailed funding programs in Canada that support the director at each stage rather than leaving them at the curb side after a successful application to fend for themselves.
SFF: Do you have any advice for any up-and-coming short film makers in Canada?
AP: Get lots of feedback on your scripts before you shoot. Seek out mentors who you know you can learn from and make you a better filmmaker. After you’ve shot and edited, get feedback on the fine cut too. It may scare you or make you anxious that someone may tear your film apart or your script apart but you want to make excellent films, don’t you? That’s how it’s done. Rome not only wasn’t built in a day, it was constructed with the help of a community. Choose your community and ask them to help you construct your Rome! Oh, and make sure you have an excellent sound recordist!
We wish Alan all the best in his production of ‘As One’. A funding campaign for the film has taken place on Indiegogo’s site: http://igg.me/at/asonefilm and we look forward to seeing this film in the future.
For more information about Alan Powell , visit: http://www.alanpowelldirector.com/
You can also follow him on Twitter: @alan_powell