In this special series, Halifax Presents speaks with local filmmakers to learn more about their film shorts, playing at this year’s Atlantic International Film Festival.
I wanted to make a film that revelled in its authenticity – regional accents, nicotine stains, warts and all. – Colby Conrad
In this first Q&A, director and screenwriter Colby Conrad talks about his film Escape the Usual, which screens as part of the Reel East Coast Shorts Gala on September 17 and online from September 18-24.
The 2023 Atlantic International Film Festival runs September 17-24. Visit atlanticfilmfestival.ca for a complete listing of films and tickets.
This interview has been edited.
Tell us about Escape the Usual. What can audiences expect?
Escape the Usual is a tall tale following a day in the life of three teenage boys in rural Nova Scotia in the spring of 2002. It’s a look into the underbelly of Nova Scotia and the challenges youth face growing up in these really beautiful yet immeasurably isolated communities.
How did you find the story/What was your inspiration for the film?
I grew up in rural Nova Scotia. I feel like there’s a certain energy emanating from the sea and the soil there that I’d never seen adequately captured on film. That, coupled with a sudden tragedy suffered by a childhood friend, had me ruminating on my youth. In that place of reflection, I wound up writing a feature-length screenplay. I plucked a few scenes out of that script, did a little finessing to create some narrative cohesion, and out came this short.
I’d also been working as an actor in film/TV and began noticing an influx of productions coming to town that were setting their stories in idyllic, rural Nova Scotia, then promptly casting actors from Toronto and the U.S. to play these very specifically Nova Scotian characters.
I wanted to make a film that revelled in its authenticity – regional accents, nicotine stains, warts and all. We shot the thing in my hometown and cast kids from the local theatre program. I wanted to provide them an opportunity I never had but always dreamt about growing up.
Why this particular film now?
I think the film industry in Nova Scotia has unbridled potential. Storytelling is engrained in our culture, and we have this tremendous untapped reservoir of artists and unique characters to draw inspiration from.
I feel like, over the past few years, the world has begun to realize what a treasure this place is and the potential it possesses. I wanted this film to be celebratory of that while simultaneously refusing to shy away from the realities of what it’s like to grow up here.
Ultimately, I suppose, in a way, this film is kind of a love letter to my younger self—a reassurance of sorts to let him know that he matters.
What was your biggest challenge in making the film?
Time and money. I think that’s probably pretty universal for any filmmaking excursion. We were really fortunate to have received tremendous support from the community, with over 50% of our budget crowdfunded—the rest we paid out of our own pockets. We only had a weekend to shoot, which was wildly ambitious in retrospect, but we got it done thanks to my incredible team.
What will surprise audiences about your film?
I’ve intentionally been being as vague as humanly possible in talking about the film because I want audiences to be surprised. Some of the best movie-going experiences of my life have been when I went into a movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. I’d like folks to come into Escape the Usual and have that kind of experience. I promise you’ll be entertained.
What do you hope audiences walk away talking or thinking about after seeing the film?
I hope they walk away wanting more. This short functions autonomously as its own entity, but it’s a proof-of-concept for a much grander, Stand by Me-esque story I’ve already written and am dying to tell.
In terms of emotional resonance, that is entirely up to the individual. The test screenings yielded a wide variety of responses, each as valid as the other. There are some heavy themes to grapple with – isolation, masculinity and the cyclical nature of trauma – but I also think it has a lightness and sense of humour. It runs the gamut of human experience. I hope it allows audiences to reflect on their childhoods and feel a sense of empathy for others.
What’s next for Colby Conrad?
My main focus right now is trying to get the feature-length version of this short made, so I’ll be obsessing over that for the foreseeable future. I’ve got a few other short ideas ruminating and another feature-length, but I am 100% all in on Escape the Usual for now.