Since 2002 Jamie Travis has delivered some of the most original, beautiful and stylized short films in this country. Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner (2002) set the tone with the story of three children facing the relentless eating schedule of their obsessive mother while desperately looking for an escape. The film had humor, sorrow and killer set designs.
He repeated the feat a couple of years later by starting his The Patterns Trilogy (2005-2006), a melancholic love story occurring in the confines of gorgeous interiors, extrapolating to dream sequences to later come back to a jarring reality.
In the same period he created The Saddest Boy in the World (2006), in which a depressed and lonely suburban child is off beat with the rest of the kids.
His latest, The Armoire (2009), features a young boy trapped by his secrets and the disappearance of his best friend. Now also venturing in music videos and commercials, there is absolutely no doubt about the future of his work and it's most probable quality.
You've now directed several successful short films. Did it begin through film school?
I studied film in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia. My first film there is a bit of an embarrassment for me. It's called Diary of an Insomniac and you'll never see it! It was a good teeth-cutting experience, however. My next film marked the beginning of me as a filmmaker. That film was Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner (2003) and it was my graduating film from UBC. Its premiere at TIFF made it seem all the more real for me (this whole filmmaking thing) and I've never looked back.
In your films, the art direction is what catches the eye first, soon to reveal elaborate characters. How do you feel the characters' environments contrast or complement them?
The relationship between character and environment is central to all my films. Often it's the environment that precedes the character in the scriptwriting process. The idea for The Armoire came from an unquenchable desire I have for recreating early 90s suburban decor and exploring its darker aspects. The film is very much about isolation and escape. As with Anderson Children and The Saddest Boy in the World, the environments become expressionistic embodiments of the child's mind.
You play with tragedy, humor and mystery quite freely. Children are put in extreme situations that can be darkly funny, yet they are desperate for an escape. What is it with sad children?
I love the conventions of mystery and tragedy. We as audiences are so familiar with these genre tropes that we let ourselves go in them, make ourselves vulnerable to surprise. And surprise, for me, is everything. Children provide an opportunity for surprise--since anything dark or borderline adult confronts a taboo. You would never show a kid hanging himself! You could never show preteen boys engaging in sexual experimentation! In my films I've been able to play with these taboos in ways that have excited me.
It's not so much the sadness of children that interests me but their mechanisms for coping with isolation, hypocrisy and mediocrity. I like pure characters that can see through the flaws of an imperfect world. Children automatically provide this purity.
The nature of the sadness seem to stem from loneliness. (There are three Anderson kids, yet they go through life by themselves. Michael and Pauline in the Pattern Trilogy meet in dreams and only talk to the camera separately.) How do you develop these interactions or lack thereof?
It's funny--when I was making The Armoire, I realized how this was the first time I really let the actors interact. The Anderson children keep to themselves. Pauline and Michael only interact through the formal convention of the split screen. It all comes down, again, to my overriding desire to contrast people through their environments. Of course, then, they must be in separate environments. Patterns 3 became an exercise in keeping Pauline and Michael apart.
You use music as precisely as you design sets. It becomes an integral part of it. It is punctuated, and several of your characters sign. How do you see these inclusions?
I often use music in self-conscious, genre-referencing ways. Patterns 1 certainly borrowed from Bernard Hermann, and this lent a sense of anticipatory chill to the rather mundane story of a girl waiting for the phone to ring. Patterns gave way to Patterns 3, a full-on balls-out musical. Here, the approach was for a sometimes-epic, sometimes-melancholy evocation of impossible love. With the sad children films I have leaned toward self-consciously maudlin little tunes, music as precious as our little protagonists. I have often said that every movie should have a musical number and I stand by it!
The Armoire has been the most satisfying musical project. My composer Alfredo Santa Ana and I have really gotten to know each other over the course of three films and so we click. The Armoire combines the bigness I love--Ligeti, Bartok and Penderecki are influences--but also plays with the self-consciously sentimental. In a story of two preadolescent choirboys, I couldn't resist a borderline homoerotic musical fantasy. In the end, it is music that saves Aaron from his hostile surroundings. The choir solo that has been passed from Tony to our hero Aaron finally gets sung in the film's close and becomes an anthem for disenfranchised children everywhere!
You have also directed music videos for Tegan and Sara. It must have been different for you to start from someone else's creations. How did this work out?
Tegan and Sara have given me loads of control over the videos I have directed for them, especially for Hell but also for Back in Your Head. I love working with a fixed starting point--in this case, a song. The girls tend not to want videos that explain their lyrics in a literal way, so I am left to explore tone and flights of fancy. With Hell, I got to unload a series of preoccupations that keep cluttering my head.
I think I am done with sad children. And shorts--for now. I am busy directing commercials these days with Brown Entertainment. I love working within 30 seconds and I love working with such talented crews; and, strangely enough, I love working within the constraints of a client's needs. It's soul-saving in a way to take a break from your all-encompassing, often highly personal filmmaking endeavours and craft a perfect little 30 seconds to sell a product. That said, my livelihood lies with my future feature film project--in development and top secret.
Writing by Magali Simard