One of the perks of local film festivals is the opportunity to see the familiar faces of returning artists. This year, The Vancouver Island Short Film Festival (VISFF) welcomes the return of award-winning filmmaker-multitasker Todd Jones showcasing his fifth short film, a twisted dark comedy “At Death’s Door”. When asked about the beginning of his love of filmmaking, Todd Jones travels back 20 years in memory to his student days in a TV production school.
“One of our big assignments was to make a 30-minute drama movie. I was in charge of cinematography and lighting, and as I watched my friend direct and saw how much effort went into producing 30 minutes of film, I said to myself I would never ever direct a movie. How could anybody do that to themselves? It’s kind of funny, because now I love directing movies.”
Jones’ filmmaking journey is firmly intertwined with his work as video journalist and his 19-year experience of TV production at Shaw TV in Nanaimo. His videography portfolio includes news clips, commercials, and sports shows among many other forms that also influence his style as a filmmaker.
The first discouraging brush with film quickly diminished when the channel allowed Jones creative freedom and room for innovative approach to producing both one or three minute news stories and 30 minute shows.
“I did small things and was successful,” he says. “And I didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing.”
The desire to expand and try different things led Jones to turning one of his main projects, a popular sports show Locker Room into a one hour television film The Final Locker Room (2000), his first longer work which generated an unexpected number of viewer responses.
“I really enjoyed getting that feedback,” Jones recalls. “When you know you’ve touched somebody, that you somehow affected their life and made them laugh, and created emotion, it gives you the courage to create more.”
The positive experience inspired Jones to make and produce a series of action comedies with explosions and body parts flying around.
“At Death’s Door” is Jones’ fifth short film. Based on a short story written by Jones’ studio colleague and long term collaborator Derek Johnstone, who wrote four of five Jones’ films. (More on the story in the VISFF teaser on page 15.)
Jones was inspired to shoot “At Death’s Door” when he discovered a new technology. The heaven’s gate scenes were shot using a set with a white curve wall, which prompted Jones to learn how to think and visualize in a new way.
“But it’s always the same and always different,” he summarizes working in TV and film production. “My job is to always make the scene look as good as possible. Whether I’m shooting a news story or a film scene, the same rules apply. Great composition, great lighting; everything has to help tell a good story.”
But along with the desire for creative self-expression and to tell stories, every filmmaker is firstly an artist striving to speak to audiences, and Jones admits he finds the biggest fulfilment in watching other people watch his work.
“I sit down in an audience and wait for that moment when you bring up emotion in people. When they hear the joke and laugh at it, (snaps his fingers and whistles), you got it, it works! And you get this emotional high.”
Filmmaking also helps Jones to direct the constant, and sometimes even overwhelming, stream of ideas in his head into a coherent piece of work.
“I call it exorcising a demon. I have to get rid of all the ideas, express them in an artistic way. And I don’t like to play it safe. I like to push the buttons and cross boundaries.”
That’s why the newest film incorporates a considerable amount of visual effects and CGI post-production, the highlight of which is a decapitated head rolling right in the front of the screen.
Jones’ ability to turn such moments into a joke stems, again, from years of working on humorous sketches and entertaining stories for Shaw.
“Somehow, I do stuff that makes people laugh and give me feedback on, so I keep doing that,” he says. “I find comedy is easier to do because every scene ends with a punch line.”
Jones’ films, including comedies Death Point (2008), Toy-tal Recall (2009), Detective Fawkes & The Victim’s Vixen (2010), and a sci-fi psycho thriller Close Your Eyes (2012), as well as the newest “At Death’s Door,” study various aspects of death as a mood-setting element.
“Someone always dies or is trying to kill someone else,” he says. “I don’t know why I find it funny. Even my wife, when she watched me edit my first film, said it’s not funny. But then she saw the audience laugh.”
Black comedies with physical violence can be, nevertheless, entertaining.
“When you do it right, it is funny,” he says, naming director Robert Rodriguez as his role model in finding a humorous tone in dark comedies with physical violence. He tries to emulate the “Desperado feel” in his work. Similarly to Rodriguez’s production style of working with the smallest crew possible, Jones also prefers to work with a very small number of dedicated people and multitasks as a writer, director, and editor, because he says a small crew has a better chance to produce and finish work on deadline and more efficiently.
“I do short films because I don’t have time to do features,” Jones says, although he is apparently toying with an idea for a longer film. “Short films are fun, and independent. I don’t have to get approval or make a company happy, I decide what to do and how I want to do it.”
As a viewer, Jones likes to see what other filmmakers can do with a small amount of screen time. “In two hours, you can watch 14 different styles and stories, technologies and experiences and executions,” he says about the advantages of film festivals. That and the positive audience response makes Jones a regular visitor, contestant, and a multiple award winner at the VISFF. He admits the last four titles were done specifically for the VISFF. “But even if I don’t have film in the festival I go there every year and see what’s out there to get inspired.”
“At Death’s Door” will screen at the VISFF on February 6 and 7.
- VISFF shortlist
- Interview with shortlisted Steff Gundling
- Satyr Players return for annual VIU theatre festival