Shooting the Musical is part mockumentary, part homage to west coast indie movie making; but ultimately it’s a musical about a high school shooting. (Yes, you read that right.) It all began as a passion project for writer/director Joel Ashton McCarthy. The Capilano University alumnus’ first feature was the irreverent documentary Taking My Parents to Burning Man, McCarthy confessed that “as soon as I finished up that film I was terrified I would be pegged a documentary filmmaker and not a narrative filmmaker so I decided to jump right into production of my first narrative feature.”
The film was made on a shoestring budget of just $5000, an eleven day shoot spread out over a number of weekends when the 150 volunteers who helped out on this film were available to shoot, and to accommodate McCarthy’s travels as he was promoting Taking My Parents to Burning Man on the festival circuit.
Looking back now, McCarthy describes that period of his life as overwhelming and an exhausting time. “It was irresponsible and crazy but somehow when you have little means and you have enough drive, you can still get what you want” McCarthy says, pointing out the silver lining. “It made for a really fun creative process. It was almost like summer camp. No one was very serious, we weren’t putting pressure on each other.”
I want to be a part of the revolution that pushes Canadian film forward and finds an audience where people in Canada are supporting films made by Canadians and around the world.
Sleep deprivation and zero financial funding also led to hallucinatory bravado and racy humour, McCarthy elaborates on the effects of these combined circumstances. “When there’s so much more money on the line, people feel a lot more pressure. But there was nothing on the line; we were making a film that no one would even fund! So if we were going to do a film with no funding, then let’s do a film that no one would fund! That gives a chance for a story that wouldn’t be told to get out there. I thought it would be a shame if we went and put all that effort into something too safe.”
“I was reading a few articles about ideas for making your first feature and Mark Duplass said that your first feature should be self-indulgent because you’ll write it better. I took that to heart and I made a very self-indulgent film.” McCarthy continues, describing his creative process.
Much of McCarthy and his film school friends are laid out in Shooting the Musical. McCarthy delights that “I got to have my sense of humour unfiltered on the big screen.” McCarthy and his crew were well aware they were pushing boundaries and that not everyone might agree with their jokes, but McCarthy stands by his main character, the morally devoid Adam who is both manipulative and scheming with classmates, friends, and priests alike. He confesses, “A lot of characters were based on people I know, or I’ve written for people I know”
McCarthy explains how life imitated art when production started. “We were into production, and we still hadn’t locked down a school. We were getting denied from schools. I guess they didn’t want a movie that had any reference to a high school shooting in the school. There may or may not have been a fake script written to gain extra access to things we didn’t have access to.”
Lack of money also meant that the production was without all the proper permits and insurance. “On 3 different occasions we had cops chasing us out.” McCarthy admitted. He laughs in hindsight about how police came to the door to break up their house party scene, as they tried to explain “It’s not a real party, we’re just shooting a scene!”
Another close brush with the law came during a scene where fake policemen were chasing a guy in his underwear down the street. “That caught real cops’ attention, but luckily during that scene we didn’t have badges on the cops so we couldn’t technically call it ‘impersonating an officer’.” McCarthy describes the close call.
It was irresponsible and crazy but somehow when you have little means and you have enough drive, you can still get what you want.
Some may object to this type of renegade filmmaking, but for McCarthy, it’s part of the mentality that one shouldn’t have any excuse to hold back from creating. McCarthy noted at a school reunion that many of his former classmates are not working in the film industry. “It was really sad that next to none were actually content creators.” He laments. “Anyone’s that got an iphone or a DSLR can just shoot something, but it just wasn’t the mentality that everyone had.”
McCarthy used his lack of funding to his advantage not only in creating a fun environment for his actors and crew, but he also adopted a mockumentary format because the genre purposely strives to appear low-budget. “The reason why I did the mockumentary was because if you make a cheap film that looks cheap, people will feel it’s cheap. But if you make a film where the genre itself makes it so that you should make it look cheap, then it could look cheap but not feel cheap. Look at any mockumentaries where they have millions of dollars of budget, they still make it look cheap. They have a team of people trying to make it look like it was shot on a little consumer camera.”
McCarthy has optimistic views for Canadian cinema. After Shooting the Musical premiered at the Whistler Film Festival, a number of Canadian companies have stepped up to support them. McCarthy returns the love to fellow Cannuck filmmakers, he’s also quick to point out “some of the best indies that I’ve ever seen in Canada are still very much undiscovered, and have smaller audiences.” He has an appreciation for those who aren’t afraid to veer off the track of ‘safe content’, which he is a bit tired of seeing getting so much of the nation’s available funding. He reasons “I don’t think that many people want to put their money on a movie about a high school shooting musical, which is fair. But I know a lot of great filmmakers in Canada that aren’t making very safe content, but aren’t really getting the resources to find an audience.”
Funding or not, McCarthy forges ahead. He is currently working on his web series “Average Dicks”, a weekly series with a new episode available every Sunday. “Very high brow” McCarthy jokes, “It’s a canvas I can force myself to create something every week.” In the meantime he is also debating a few script ideas for his next feature, for which he hopes to get some funding this time. He leaves us with some parting words about his ambitions. “I want to be a part of the revolution that pushes Canadian film forward and finds an audience where people in Canada are supporting films made by Canadians and around the world.”