Sarah Goodman was looking for a project to break into the feature film industry from documentary. She “wanted to get the transition underway as quickly as possible, so [she] picked a project that was small in scale.” Walking on her street one day, Goodman came across a photograph “plastered to a telephone pole on Argile St.” from around 1912. “The street looked virtually the same except there was a horse drawn carriage, but the houses looked the same. It was uncanny how similar the street looked. And I just thought: how many stories have happened on these porches over all these years?”
This thought led to the creation of Porch Stories, a film that weaves together three main stories with little interstitial moments of the passersby on the street. Many of these “little snippets of conversations as people walk by are almost verbatim things” that Goodman heard from her porch and other public places like parks and cafes. The rest “are improvised with friends [she] had come and walk by.” Balancing multiple coherent narratives with all these little moments proved to be quite challenging. “There’s defiantly a lot of acrobatic editing work to make the [interstitial moments] fit. It’s not like it’s a fast paced film, but you still do need to keep up a pace. There was always sort of a fear of things getting too slowed down by cutting away from the main story. We tried to integrate a number of [these moments] into the character’s stories. There were a number of them that were conceived in the edit” to make the final film flow.
For the look of the film, Goodman “wanted the film to be extremely Toronto, to capture the atmosphere of what life was like on my street. I’ve always been really interested in capturing a certain milieu of how it actually is. This time it was really about the fabric of the neighbourhood and how it’s changing. The hipsters are moving in, the Portuguese folks have lived there for a really long time, and I wanted to explore how those worlds collide and cohabitate and the way people talk. It’s shot in black and white and that’s kind of an homage to Toronto.”
I wanted the film to be extremely Toronto, to capture the atmosphere of what life was like on my street. I’ve always been really interested in capturing a certain milieu of how it actually is. This time it was really about the fabric of the neighbourhood and how it’s changing.
A big part of the film’s nostalgic look is courtesy of cinematographer Maya Bankovic. According to Bankovic, “the timelessness was definitely a factor that Sarah wanted to capture, she was talking about the film’s basis a lot and we wanted to make sure that we could zero in on the nuances of the performances, so we just felt like black and white was a good choice.” The film was shot on a 5D Mark III, a small compact DSLR, which initially made Bankovic apprehensive about the quality of the final image on the big screen. But “in terms of the pace of the shoot, it was really nice to have a small camera package and something that allowed us to keep going. It was so collaborative to tell you the truth. We had done a ton of prep so we knew going in exactly which scenes were going to be hand held, which would be very formal and on sticks. Sometimes things would change in the moment, but we had kind of made a lot of those decisions ahead of time, so it really gave us room to change things on the fly in a way that we were comfortable with because we weren’t making anything up as we went along.”
The aspect of open collaboration was one of the main things that drew the two principle performers Laura Barrett and José Miguel Contreras to the project. Due to the micro-budget nature of the the film, Goodman was unable to hire professional actors and so decided to “source out people who were not actors at all, but who were very competent in another field that might lend themselves to doing well. That’s why I looked at musicians.” Both Barrett and Contreras are well known musicians on the Toronto music scene. Goodman knew Barrett through a friend and Contreras was suggested to her by someone she knew. According to Barrett she “got the impression from Sarah, the accurate impression, that this was kind of a swirling project that involved a lot of real elements, and that interested me because I didn’t get the impression that everything was set in stone. It’s more collaborative that way and I like that feeling of fluidity and change.” Contreras became interested in the project after meeting with Goodman, “we really hit it off.” Contreras was also interested in the collaborative aspect of the project “It’s a cool process, which really explains my involvement in it. I was slowly seduced into the process. I live for process. It’s how you’re going to get into the magic.”
The timelessness was definitely a factor that Sarah wanted to capture, she was talking about the film’s basis a lot and we wanted to make sure that we could zero in on the nuances of the performances, so we just felt like black and white was a good choice.
To get her performers ready for the screen, Goodman ran a community theatre workshop with all the actors. “That sort of helped everyone connect across these language barriers or age barriers, and cultural differences. Everyone was really a team and learned sort of the basic process of putting themselves in a scene. I think it was certainly helpful for getting ready to act.” It was through this workshop process that the details of the story began to take shape. Barrett’s character was initially a visual artist and Contreras’s character began as a Jamaican. After their casting, the script morphed to reflect their backgrounds (Contreras’s character became Chilean to reflect his own heritage) and make use of their musical talents. “All of a sudden we were musicians and we used to be in a band together.”
Barrett and Contreras’s musical talents were also put to use creating the soundtrack for the film, which features the unusual combination of Spanish guitar and kalimba. Initially the music was only featured when their characters onscreen were playing, but in the edit room it was discovered that “when the music comes on, the movie really makes sense.” There had been a lot of improvisation on set, and much of that music made it into the film as background music. Both Barrett and Contreras describe the process of creating the soundtrack as fluid. “There’s a simpatico spirit between me and Jose musically that meshes really well with our characters.” explained Barrett. Contreras then spoke about the way he and Barrett worked together. “Laura and I do have this weird sort of musical connection. A musical conversation sort of developed, we had written a couple of riffs. She had a riff that we were jamming on and I had a riff so we knew what was going on while they were filming. We didn’t give it much thought, it just happened.” “The musical language is one that I think transcends boundaries and different social groups, so the fact that we were allowed free reign to explore what we could make musically with our different instruments made it so we could just jam. You don’t really have to talk so much, you just make it. It’s really fluid and effortless.” From these riffs that were developed on set, Barrett and Contreras recorded some extra music to fill out the film’s soundtrack.
The final result is a film that fulfills Goodman’s desire to make a film that is “extremely Toronto” by integrating and collaborating with the cities diverse artistic community.