Freedom of expression manifests itself in Dylan Reibling's work quite literally in the sense that he seems constrained to no style, subject or approach. Partisan (2002), his first short was a gorgeous stop-motion animation relating the crushing political machine to upcoming, doomed politicians.
Record (2009) is a fiction narrative about the power of music to stir memories and ignite fires within that might have been tamed for a long time.
And he just completed his first music video for local band Lullabye Arkestra, a basic, crisp black and white musician's video. Between these eclectic projects, he's also ventured into film installations, a tv documentary, a short mockumentary, and the list goes on. Maybe next time it will be a CGI musical.
Partisan was a student project. How did you develop that first project?
Partisan originally started off as a live-action film. I had written a script and had something like half a dozen characters. I had been workshopping it for weeks, but for some reason, it wasn't working out - it kept falling flat. So I kept stripping away layers - characters, locations, dialogue - until I was left with the originating idea: how power gets centralized in a partisan political system. It was something I felt very passionate about, but it's not the kind of idea that jumps off the page right onto the screen.
A friend of mine had seen a bunch of stop-motion animation experiments I had been working on in my spare time and said, "Hey, why don't you do it as an animation?" And it just clicked. As soon as you don't have to worry about conventions like actors and locations, you can explore ideas on a different level - with symbols, textures, and images - which was perfect for what I wanted to do.
Then came a crash-course in how to actually pull together a stop-motion animation. York didn't have an animation program, so it was a lot of trial-and-error with equipment that wasn't intended for animation. And the thing about animating on 16mm film is that if you mess up, it might be a week before you find out and have to re-shoot, which happened a couple of times. It's a miracle that it turned out at all. I think it might even stand up as a pretty decent film.
How was your move from the school system into the "market" as a filmmaker?
I probably took the most backward route possible. After finishing a bachelor's degree in film production - you know, getting involved in the Toronto film community and actually making films - I moved to Montreal to get a master's degree in film studies. It was something I wanted to do for academic reasons. I'm fascinated by the mechanics of how film works - it's relationship to reality and how ideas can be transmitted through the presentation of visual material in particular ways.
Also, I feel like I should mention that I'm secretly terrified of film. I've always harboured a deep-seated fear of not being understood and so telling a coherent story through cinematic tools seems like this impossible, inconceivable prospect. Which is what lead me to Concordia - plumbing the depths of film theory was a important step toward me coming to terms with film as a viable, intelligible means of communication.
So I went to Concordia and studied things like narrative theory and cognitive theory and eventually wrote a thesis about film ontology. Fascinating stuff, but on a professional level I don't think it did anything to increase my market value. Actually, I wonder if it did the opposite. (Nobody ever uses the word "epistemology" on set. Even "diegetic" is a stretch.)
Did you always set out to be a versatile director? Your films are very different from one to the next.
Definitely not a conscious decision. I wish I had some sort of trademark thing that I do, but my filmmaking process is not very conducive to producing any one specific type of film.
My films usually start off pretty modestly - with some sort of hook, be it ever so small. It could be a narrative hook or a specific image I'm intrigued by. Usually, it's an idea I want to explore - like "how does power get centralized in a partisan political system?" or (and this is from a scrap piece of paper I just found) "time = memory/index". From there, it's just a matter of unpacking the idea and then figuring out the best way to make that idea.
There's a phrase that keeps coming up in the documentary world - "platform agnostic". It's used to encourage seeing a story beyond conventional media formats . I love that idea because it simultaneously focuses the filmmakers attention to a given film's central idea but also opens up worlds of possibilities. I wish the phrase "genre agnostic" had been around when I first started making films. I think it's the way I instinctively work, but it took some time (and a number of abject film failures) to figure it out.
Ugh. Never ask a director to talk about their process!
Your films are quite multidimensional, they tend to play on different sets of emotions and expose subjects on many angles. Partisan is hope and doom, Personal Space is fun and a bit of a thriller, etc. Do you consider that in the development stages?
Not consciously. Maybe it's the film school talking but I'm a pretty analytical person, so whenever I'm developing an idea into a film I just keep unpacking it and interrogating it as much as I can to get to the core of it. The end result is usually details - and a lot of them. Maybe it's those little details that you're reacting to - they hint at different perspectives and interpretations.
Record continues in that direction, as a touching and serious moment in an otherwise funny situation. How did the inclusion of a tough historical past in a daily event come to mind?
Record was based on a true story. During the summer, my friend Grasshopper sells records out in front of his place in Kensington Market, right beside La Palette. He has a ton of great stories about the encounters he has with vinyl-lovers of all stripes: from the casual music fan to the hardcore create-diggers. The event that I chronicled in Record was one that just stuck in my head - it was just one of those tiny moments that speaks volumes about the human condition.
Also, it was a story that involves Russians - who I find endlessly fascinating. I'm a big fan of Russian Constructivism - on an aesthetic level as well as an approach to making art. So Record was a perfect film to cram full of sly nods to Eisenstein. If you ever want to have the nerdiest conversation ever about early Russian cinema/editing/aesthetics, corner me at a party and get ready to go home with your ears in a bag.
You've used the city quite a bit and in different ways. How has it been shooting in the streets? Where would you suggest shooting?
I grew up in the country, so there's a lot about the city that I find pretty fascinating - as a physical space, as a transitory social space, as a geometric backdrop. All of these are pretty effective tools for telling a story. Shooting something in Kensington Market can give it some layers of depth and emotional resonances that you couldn't get from shooting in a studio.
That having been said, while Kensington Market can be very vibrant and dynamic and beautiful backdrop, shooting there on a sunny Friday afternoon in August is a special circle of hell reserved for idealistic young directors and the editors that hate them. We're lucky we didn't have a continuity supervisor on set when we shot Record, because I'm sure they would have had a heart attack - people were locking their bikes to our set, we had about 100 people try and buy stuff from our fake garage sale, and don't even get me started on the nonstop parade of delivery trucks.
You've completed your first music video, in which the emphasis is on the band members. What was your approach to this one?
The Icy Hands video for Lullabye Arkestra was one of the most straightforward projects I've worked on. The parameters were pretty specific - the funding was for a performance-based video, which is perfect for Lullabye because they're such a fantastic live band. The only question was finding the right visual complement to their music. For that, I went to the work of local photographer David Waldman for inspiration. Waldman's high-contrast black-and-white band photography is fantastic - and I think he's done an excellent job of capturing the visceral experience of Toronto bands like Lullabye in a dynamic way. My cinematographer Stephen Chung was very enthusiastic about working in black-and-white, so it was an easy decision.
We shot the video in an abandoned factory here in Toronto. It's one of the most incredible spaces in the city - the combination of beauty and decay is quite stunning, so shooting there was a no-brainer. Luckily some punks had pried open a doorway before we had gotten there, so it was just a matter of lugging equipment in and out of the space. We shot with some pretty lightweight equipment, but the band's gear was another story. I don't envy touring bands.
What are you working on at the moment?
I've got a bunch of projects on the go - including some longer-format projects, which I'm excited about but too superstitious to talk about yet.
The things I'm a bit braver about:
A music video for local band Stop Die Resuscitate - they've got a 7" EP they're putting out on Unfamiliar Records this year that features one of the most haunting songs I've ever heard. So I'm quite excited about working on that.
I've been working with some fantastic animators and programmers to jerry-rig a DIY interactive filming apparatus. If it comes together, we're going to have a couple great projects coming down the line.
Now this is going to seem like the most boring thing ever conceived, but I'm developing a project based on the history of bookmarks that's- You've already stopped paying attention, haven't you?