TFS Filmmakers of the Month: Matt O’Neil, Ryan St. Pierre and Steve Shilson

The cast and crew of "Softballs"

It’s probably fair to say that anyone who’s ever watched a movie has had that moment when they’ve sat through a particularly terrible Hollywood offering and thought, “I could do better than that!” It’s also probably fair to say that, despite the number of crowdfunding solicitations that seem to pop up on social media sites, most of us have never actually attempted to turn their sure-to-be award-winning idea into an actual finished product.

Matt O’Neil, Ryan St. Pierre and Steve Shilson are in that minority of people who decided to try their hand at making their personal movie dreams a reality. Funded entirely out of their own pockets, the Windsor-based trio produced Softballs , a mockumentary that cost them less than $1000 to complete and incredibly enough, has sold out eight shows at their local movie theatre. The ninth and final (sold out) screening is set for tonight.

Toronto Film Scene talked to writer/co-director/co-producer Matt O’Neil, co-director/co-producer Ryan St. Pierre and co-director/co-producer/cinematographer/editor Steve Shilson about their foray into independent filmmaking.

TFS: What was the genesis of Softballs ?

Ryan St. Pierre: Matt developed the script after becoming a huge fan of Christopher Guest’s Best in Show . Growing up a sports guy the idea to make fun of the guys that try way too hard at recreational sports was a no-brainer.

I became involved five years ago when Matt approached me with another script he had written. He asked me to review it and tell him what I thought. When I told him I loved it, he asked if I was interested in helping him make it a reality. We collaborated with another one of our good friends, and amazing cinematographer, Steve Shilson. We began the crazy adventure of being “filmmakers.”

TFS: How did you find the actors and crew?

RS: All crew were friends and family willing to give us a hand; some with experience, others without. The script was actually written with several people already in mind. Some of the characters were based off quirky friends and others were written with actors from our previous film in mind. Many characters fell into place just as we had hoped, and for the rest a small casting period occurred. We contacted either people we knew or people we had heard about and did invite only casting for a couple months until the all the pieces of the puzzle were in place.

Steve Shilson: I’ve always heard “write what you know” ever since first becoming interested in filmmaking, and this couldn’t have been followed more to a tee. Matt wrote specific parts for people we knew so people shared very similar characteristics with their on screen characters. Though most of them had minimal acting experience, we were able to get very natural performances out of them by playing to their strengths and basically just letting them be themselves on camera. . . it made for a lot of great standout improv moments through the movie.

TFS: How long did the production process take?

RS: From start to finish we worked on this film for two years. However, we began our journey five years prior to the completion of Softballs . Our first film was titled What the f in Tofino , and after three years of work we made the decision to learn from our experience and move on to a new production. Since What the f was never released we kind of look at Softballs as a product of five years of work as opposed to two. Without our previous experience we wouldn’t have ended up with a product that we did.

SS: The production process from script to final cut took about 18 months, which we’re really proud of. Getting it done while having to work around a whole baseball team cast worth of schedules, and full time jobs of our own was no easy task. And during the editing process, for me, meant that any spare time I had in life over that 8 month period was dedicated directly to editing.

The cast and crew of "Softballs"

TFS: What were the main challenges of the shoot?

RS: The most challenging aspect of making a film with no budget is not being able to pay your actors and in turn, not being able to ask as much commitment. All of our cast and crew had others jobs, families, and responsibilities to tend to. Trying to schedule a shoot that didn’t impede on anyone’s schedule was our greatest challenge. Some shoots required 40 people to commit a full day and if just one of the important people couldn’t make it, the whole day needed to be rescheduled.

TFS: What was your favourite memory from the shoot?

RS: It’s truly hard to put my finger on just one moment, as there were countless scenes ruined because I couldn’t help myself from laughing. The camaraderie behind the completion of every scene was an amazing experience. I was able to build some new friendships and strengthen some old ones. The entire experience was something that I will have forever and am genuinely thankful for.

TFS: Once the film was completed how did you go about getting it screened?

RS: We started by contacting a locally-owned theatre near our hometown, Lakeshore Cinemas. They were more than accommodating in helping us set up or first screenings. With the capacity of their auditorium in mind (200 people), we decided to book three shows. They sold out. We were shocked by the overwhelming response to book more as hundreds of people didn’t have a chance to purchase tickets. We decided to book two more. We sold those two out in a week. Before the first screening hit in September we had 8 screenings sold out that spread over a two week span. We were amazed.

After an excellent response from the hundreds of people that were able to see, we began receiving requests for another show. We decided to try to move our grand finale to a bigger auditorium. We have now officially sold out a 400 seat theatre at Cineplex Odeon Devonshire.

TFS: Why do you think the local audience has embraced the film the way they have?

RS: Well I know a large portion of people are friends and family of those involved, however, with approximately 2000 ticket sales, I like to think that to movie has gained momentum based on the fact that it’s actually a pretty good movie.

The story of men trying to hard at any recreational sport is an age old story that was dying to be made fun of. If you aren’t one of those guys, you know that guy. I think we have a genuinely relatable story with fun characters and some good laughs.

Matt O’Neil: We had a lot of local support. Many people were impressed with knowing that a film made in Windsor with a very low budget made it to the big screen.

SS: We knew our family and friends were interested to see it, but once the trailer was released online and tickets went on sale, we started realizing that word had gotten out and people were talking.   This should be a given, but creating a hype machine on Facebook was something we put a lot of time into. We released daily exclusive content, and made people feel like they were not only supporting, but were also part of the process. The response was so amazing. And before we knew it, we had 8 theatres sold out with a demand for more. Which is why we’re doing this Cineplex Odeon screening, a 400-seat theatre that just sold out yesterday! We’re so excited, it was made this entire journey so worth it for all of those involved that put their heart and soul into it.

TFS: What are your next steps with the film?

RS: The truth of the matter is we are kind of struggling with how to progress our film. With no real connections within the film community we are feeling a bit stranded. We will, however, continue to do our best to show this film to as many people as possible.

SS: We’re definitely still weighing options. Frankly, we’re very open to taking any avenue that gets Softballs out there.

MO: We are finding it very hard right now to figure out our next step because we have very little to no experience with this.

TFS: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? Do you have a favourite filmmaker who inspires you?

RS: I can honestly say the thought may have never crossed my mind if Matt hadn’t approached me five years ago. The reason he asked me to read it is because he knew that I enjoyed creative writing although I had never fathomed the idea of script prior to that.

I have become a very big fan of Christopher Guest since trying to educate myself in the mockumentary genre. I also have a large amount of respect for Quentin Tarantino for his ability to make a movie feel like a Tarantino movie. It’s not easy to achieve uniqueness in today’s vast film community.

SS: I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was about 11-years-old, making home movies with friends. I took heavy interest in editing very early. My parents bought me video editing software for Christmas in 1999, this was a HUGE deal for me back then. I’ve had a growing interest ever since, accompanied by thousands of hours practicing and making plenty of mistakes. As for favourite filmmakers: Christopher Guest for his style; Danny Boyle for his ability to do things people tell him he can’t do; and Kevin Smith for keeping it fun and continuing to flip the bird at the big budget filmmaking “system”.

MO: No, and Judd Apatow.

TFS: Any plans for future film projects?

SS: There are a few completed scripts, we just need a bit of time to finish putting our energy into getting Softballs out there, then I’m sure we’ll sit down and start talking about our next project. Plus, I think we need a little time to push reset here and regain our energy to undertake such a big project again. We’ve always said, if we’re going to do it we’re going to do it right.

For more info on Softballs , check out the official Facebook page.

 


Kristal Cooper has been a film buff since the age of two when her parents began sneaking her into the drive-in every weekend. Since then, she's pursued that passion by working for the Toronto International Film Festival and the Canadian Film Centre as well as spending many a happy hour inside Toronto's wonderful theatres (she still mourns the loss of The Uptown). She is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture and feminist issues, and continues to slog away at her day job as a small cog in the giant machinery of the Toronto film community.

3 Comments

  • Reply January 24, 2013

    Stefanie melissa

    Great article!!

  • Reply January 27, 2013

    Willeck

    Typo: Matt O'Brien, i think you meant "Matt O'Neil"

  • Reply January 28, 2013

    @ScullyTom

    The boys may be relatively new to film making – but they do not show it. I was fortunate enough to have worked on this film with the three of them and I can honestly say that these guys are amazing.

    They accommodated so many different needs and wrangled so many volunteers with professionalism. The sheer fact that so many volunteered for long shooting days shows what kind of guys they are. Cheers boys – you made a fantastic film!

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