Programmer Profiles is a Calgary Film blog series that brings you into the life of our esteemed programmers. Through this series you will gain insight into the lives of the hardworking people who spend their days hunting the latest and greatest film releases. They are our tastemakers and curatorial geniuses, and they all have a story to tell.
The Programmer Profiles continue with a special spotlight on Guy Lavallee, our New American Cinema and Music On Screen programmer. Guy has years of experience in independent music and a certain zest for American horror which has lent to his expertise in these categories. His good nature is evidenced by his proclivity to loosen up with a glass of wine while making selections for the festival, and we couldn't be happier with the result.
Tell us a little about yourself.
A born and raised Winnipegger, I’ve also lived in Calgary, Toronto, and Edmonton. Not being a native Albertan, I have no bone in this whole ‘Battle of Alberta’ fight, so I can say without any trepidation that I currently live in Edmonton, and I enjoy both of Alberta’s biggest cities equally, and for different reasons.
My first job, at 14 years old, was in a movie theatre – a beautiful, majestic, 1000-seat beauty in the heart of downtown Winnipeg called The Odeon. It was an old vaudeville theatre, built in 1907, and converted to a movie theatre in the 1940s.
After high school, I worked in the music industry for many years – both on the label and the retail side (basically, my entire 20s were spent in dingy bars - chain-smoking, drinking too much, and watching every ‘up-and-coming’ band I could possibly see). When I was in my late 20s, I figured it was probably time for my "year off after high school" sabbatical to end, so I finally enrolled in a film & television production program in Toronto. I’ve been working in production ever since – first at the Toronto Star’s in-house production facility, then many years in the creative department at CityTV, and now at CTV Edmonton.
In addition to my super fun day job in television, I’ve had the absolute thrill of working as a Film Programmer for 10 years now. In addition to programming New American Cinema and Music on Screen for Calgary Film, I program and run two film festivals in Edmonton: NorthwestFest (documentaries) and Rainbow Visions (LGBTQ films).
Name a film that changed your life and why it’s important to you.
This is always an impossible question to answer because different films have impacted me in different ways, and for different reasons.
The film that changed my life was Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE – a 1974 rock/horror satire that was a complete and utter flop upon its release, but was a box office smash in Winnipeg, playing to sold-out crowds at the Garrick Theatre for over six months. It was basically THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW five times a day, but not at midnight. I’ve probably seen PHANTOM 20 times; my vinyl copy of the soundtrack is worn out from being played so much; I jumped for joy when it was finally released on DVD; and jumped even higher when the beautiful deluxe BluRay edition was released a couple years ago. This really started my voracious appetite for movies, made me want to work in a movie theatre, made me start collecting movie posters (at one point I had over 1000 original movie posters in my collection), and generally made me want to watch everything I could get my hands on. Especially horror films.
Working in the arts is a labour of love. What makes it all worth it?
Watching a ton of submissions or going to other film festivals. Finding that gem of an unknown indie, by an emerging filmmaker, that you can’t wait for people to discover. Programming it. Meeting the filmmaker. Watching the audience respond to the filmmaker’s work. Having a great Q&A, because people loved the film. Celebrating with the filmmaker. Bumping into the filmmaker at another festival, a year later, and getting the biggest bear hug like you’re a long lost family member. Having an amazing new friend for life. Repeat.
That’s what makes it all worthwhile.
What do you do when you’re not watching movies?
HAHAHAHA! On the rare occasion that I’m not watching a movie I’m hanging out with my wife and/or two young kids. My wife and I also love to travel – making it back to Winnipeg once or twice a year, but also to Austin every March for SXSW, Toronto usually once a year, and then every other year a big trip like Vegas or Iceland or California. We’re not ‘the all inclusive resort, sit on the beach’ types. We’re city folk, through and through.
What’s your number one piece of advice for filmmakers trying to get into the festival? What makes a film stand out?
I can’t really answer this, because that’s trying to create a general ‘rule’ for something for which rules don’t really exist. I just want honesty – like I feel like you made this movie because it was literally the most important thing in your life to tell this story. Believe it or not, that passion comes through on screen.
The other major – and I think more important – piece of advice I’d have is a total cliché, but I’m going to say it anyway. If your film doesn't get in to this festival, don't give up!
Look at it this way: I have nine slots in the New American Cinema series, and hundreds of films vying for those nine slots. I don’t even want to talk about some of the films I didn’t accept for my lineup this year, because it absolutely killed me having to narrow it down to nine (as it does every year). My short list was 40 films. I LOVE movies. And I love filmmakers. Believe me when I tell you – I truly want to be able to say yes to more films, but as with every festival – it comes down to time and space.
So don't give up. Just because you didn’t get into one festival doesn’t mean your film isn’t worthy. A lot of times it just comes down to finding a balance – I don’t necessarily want nine thrillers or nine rom-coms, you know? So your drama or comedy or coming of age film was probably awesome, but so were the other eight I was considering, and I could only pick one.
What’s the most moving thing that’s ever happened to you on the job?
At last year’s festival, I programmed an incredible music documentary called the AMERICAN EPIC SESSIONS. I had seen the film and briefly met the filmmaker at SXSW earlier that year, and I immediately knew I wanted this film for Calgary. It was our first year screening at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, and this film was an absolutely perfect fit for this venue. But it was our first time screening at this venue – not a traditional movie theatre – and we weren’t sure what to expect. The filmmakers arrived, were blown away by the National Music Centre … and then saw the non-traditional space the film would be screening in, so they spent a good hour making sure the audio mix was just right. After all, for a film all about the creation of music, the audio was literally the whole story.
The filmmaker paced. Saw the massive lineup of people who came to see the film, and wondered if they were all there to see his film. And then: the screening.
This Calgary audience applauded after every performance in the film. The film had screened at numerous festivals leading up to the Calgary screening, so they had seen this film with a lot of different audiences. This was the first time an audience had clapped after every performance. The film ended up winning both the 2016 Audience Award and Discovery Award for best first feature.
Needless to say, the experience these filmmakers had in Calgary is one they’ll never forget. Nor will I.
What’s your filmwatching routine?
I have Apple TV and WIFI connectivity laptop to TV, but 99% of the time I watch screeners on my laptop, at my dining room table. I have a large window directly behind me that allows a cool breeze to come in; I can overlook the living room and kitchen from where I sit; and I just find sitting at the table (as opposed to sitting/laying on the couch) keeps me much more alert and attentive.
And I always have a plentiful supply of snacks available – anything from popcorn to almonds to cheese, olives, and crackers. And at some point, I’ll usually switch from coffee to wine.
I also try to attend at least one or two other film festivals each year – SXSW is a must each spring, and TIFF is an old favourite as well.
Any hints on what we can expect from your programming selections at this year’s fest?
In the New American Cinema series, you can expect a little darkness, a little light, one of the most unexpected coming of age stories I’ve ever seen, and most of all, you can expect to see some remarkable women, both in front of and behind the camera! I’ve rarely been as excited to announce a film series as I am about this year’s New American Cinema series.
In Music on Screen, the one thing I’m most excited about this year is that every film in the series is so completely different from the rest! From themes, to subject matter, to filming style, to genre of music – it’s probably the most diverse group of music films I’ve ever programmed, and I can’t wait for audiences to discover these incredible stories and incredible musicians.
The United States has the world’s largest and most popular film industry, historically centred around big budget Hollywood productions. Today, the industry is shifting and independent cinema is gaining a larger presence, where does your programming fit within this spectrum? What do you look for when programming the New American Cinema Series?
My programming for this series is almost exclusively focused on new and emerging filmmakers, for those are the filmmakers whom I think film festivals can truly help the most (just ask Lena Dunham – after TINY FURNITURE premiered to a rapturous response at SXSW, she became an overnight sensation), and those are the films and filmmakers I want audiences to be able to discover!
I also feel that in an era where the multiplexes are filled to the brim with superhero movies and franchise films, giving a voice and an audience to new and emerging filmmakers has never been more important than it is today.
And while the TIFFs and Sundances of the world may get all the national press, don’t kid yourself - the importance and prestige of getting into a festival of the size and scope of Calgary is incredibly valuable to any film. It’s also really important to us, because those filmmakers are going to turn around and tell their filmmaker friends just how kick-ass Calgary is, and those filmmakers may then submit their films to us. And it just grows from there.
Guy's selections for Music On Screen will be announced on Wednesday, August 23. Two of Guy's New American Cinema selections, SMALL TOWN CRIME and THE LIGHT OF THE MOON were announced as part of last week's First Wave Film Announcements. The full lineup of films will be announced on Wednesday, August 30.