By Dan Rankin
Since he began touring with Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia in 2012, visiting such places as Washington, D.C., China and the Middle East, DCVI grad Jonny Thompson has been using his downtime wisely. When he’s not dressed all in black, manipulating puppets to bring much-loved children’s stories to life on stage, he spends his time writing scripts.
This year, along with friends he met out east while enrolled at Dalhousie University’s theatre program, Thompson produced two short films based off those scripts. His most recent short, titled “Don’t Forget to Step,” was recently accepted into the program of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival, which runs Sept. 17-24 in Halifax. His film will compete with eight other entries in the “NextGen Shorts” category, for first-time filmmakers.
He spoke to the Independent this week during a visit to St. Marys before heading back to Halifax.
Thompson first began writing and shooting his content several years ago, in the form a comedic web series with his roommate. He said it was “something for fun,” but also seemed like a good idea because “The more diverse you can make yourself, the more chances you have of getting on sets, working with people in different factions, and eventually worming your way into whatever you want to do.”
For Thompson, what he wants to do is direct a feature film. However, as he was unable to actively pursue that goal while on the road with the theatre company, he focused on writing. As soon as he was back in Canada, he collaborated with a friend on his first short, “Man Vs. God,” which he describes as, “Super Simple. Just me and the camera.”
“I just wanted to do something for practice and get it done,” he said. “I wanted to get on camera and edit it and learn, so I could figure out what I needed for the next time.”
It was around the time he began working on that first piece, last September, that he met Taylor Olson – the star of “Don’t Forget to Step,” and the person behind the true story that inspired that film.
“Don’t Forget to Step” tells the story of Rick, an average college student whose past drug use catches up to him when he has a stroke. In hospital, Rick has to learn to accept the help of his nurse, Helen, on his road to recovery.
“The story is actually loosely based on Taylor’s life,” Thompson said. “When he was about 21 and going into third year, he suffered from a stroke over the summer. A lot of what he had to deal with in the film is similar to what he had to deal with in real life. He had to teach himself how to walk and talk again before he went back to theatre school in the fall. His big thing was that he just didn’t want help. I wanted to take that and use it as the basis of the story.”
The two sent re-written drafts of the story back and forth to each other over the winter while Thompson went back on tour, with Thompson eventually crafting the script they would shoot early in 2015. While Thompson was away, Olson reached out to some of his contacts around Halifax including Chelsea Comeau, who served as director of photography and editor for the short. Canadian actress Renée Clark, who has appeared in Mr. D and Trailer Park Boys, was tapped to play Helen, the short’s other big role.
This spring, they conducted the filming over the course of two days, including one day in an empty wing of the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. While he spent most of his time behind the camera, Thompson’s hand appears briefly in a flashback sequence, so along with “Directed” and “Written by,” he is also credited as “Bystander.”
Tommy Johnson Pictures, Thompson’s production company, managed to make the short for a budget of a mere $2,000, which he called “ample” compared to what he’s heard other Atlantic filmmakers achieve.
“Some people can do a film for like $50 if they know the people and everyone is willing to work,” he said. “But I was able to get some money together and pay people even just a little bit for the day and for their work. It’s just one step closer to becoming as established as possible, and to show that I’ve worked with money on grant applications.”
He’s grateful to the project for introducing him to more aspects of what it takes to create a film, and for leaving him wanting more.
“This was a really dramatic piece,” he said. “My next one I want to be a comedy, and go from there. I’ve been talking to Taylor about a feature film, but it depends on us getting the funds to do it. If we can, then we’d hopefully shoot it next summer. If we can’t get the funds together, maybe we’d push it off another year.”
Whatever happens, he has set a goal for himself to begin filming two shorts per year to build up a personal database of content. He may also submit “Don’t Forget to Step” at other festivals as well, depending on its performance next month. He’ll be competing against a short produced by Olson called “Behind You,” which was also accepted in the category.
Win or lose, Thompson won’t have a lot of time to focus on the festival, as soon he’ll be embarking on his sixth tour with Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia, including stops in Chicago, Texas and Louisiana.