“I’ve always liked community theatre” muses director Aaron James as he chats with me over Zoom from his Calgary office, “I’ve always had this idea where I wondered if we could do that with film”. Few would argue that the work of school teacher-turned-filmmaker Aaron James doesn’t reflect the places where they’re shot and the people who help make them, including his legendary debut feature Hank Williams First Nation which took Albertan and Canadian theatres by storm back in 2005.
I’m chatting with him this month about his latest work, Guitar Lessons. A deeply personal work from what I can gather, the film centres on the relationship between a Métis teen (Kaden Noskiye) and an over-the-hill country star (played by real-life country singer Corb Lund) in High Level, AB, where the former seeks the titular guitar lessons from the latter. A simple set-up to be sure, but the film is layered with rich renderings of small-town and First Nation life, which paradoxically lend a sense of both home-grown and universal appeal. I’ll let the man himself tell you how it all came to be:
When I scheduled this interview, I hadn’t realized that you were the same guy who made Hank Williams First Nation back in 2005.
That was a trippy experience for me because you did a scene right outside the Princess Theatre in Edmonton where I was watching it!
Yeah, that was so fun. We played at the Princess Theatre for seven weeks when we opened there. I remember doing the Q&A, many of the actors were there that night so that was trippy for you and I both!
I also noticed that you put a poster for Hank Williams up in the background during the pawnshop scene of your latest movie.
In fact, that was one of our producers Jared Snyder from High Level who is a local up there and ran around and did so much for getting locations ready for us. That was his little easter egg. He hung a copy of the Hank Williams First Nation poster in the back of the pawn shop that we were shooting for Guitar Lessons.
Then also, I had a couple of fun experiences in the release of Guitar Lessons going around to small theatres, a couple in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan, that actually had Hank Williams First Nation posters signed by me (and) kept in their projection booths, so that was pretty cool too.
If I recall correctly, the tagline on that poster was something like “Finally, a Canadian movie that doesn’t stink”.
(Laughs). We had a few different tags. That one was rather short-lived. The other one was “Snowmobiles, moose meat, and good country music”. Sure, we take tabs at CANCON, less so today. Still, we’ve got a ways to go with our Canadian content.
Can you tell us about the genesis of Guitar Lessons?
I was looking for a job for my kid. I’ve got a teenager who wanted to work at Tims and I know somebody who owns a Tim Hortons in High Level, AB. I phoned my friend up and said “Hey, how do I get my rotten kid a job working at Tims in Calgary?”. And she was a fan of Hank Williams First Nation. (She) asked what I was doing and I said I wasn’t doing very much and she said “You know, it’d be fun to shoot a movie up here”. So she introduced me to a Métis woman from the community there named Crystal McAteer who serves in many capacities, one of them being the mayor!
From there, we started getting serious. Crystal read a script that I had been working on. She asked for some changes and I made the changes and she took it to her council and other councils around the community. They started raising money and putting together people, introducing me to everyone in their region and within a matter of months, I’m up there shooting a little movie.
You mentioned you already had a script before all this. What was the inspiration for this story?
When I started talking to the High-level people, I had a short story. I had been working in Los Angeles, but my family lives in Calgary, so I’d been going back and forth lots. During the travel restrictions, I had to stay on one side of the line or the other, so I picked Canada.
But then, I didn’t have a lot to do. Y’all don’t have a lot of work for writers and directors in Western Canada! So another friend of mine who’s a high school principal in Wabasca, a Cree community where I used to teach years ago, laughed when he heard I was kicking around. He said come substitute teach for a month. I’ve got a teacher who’s sick.
So I went up there as a substitute teacher and while I was there, I had a rotten kid in my Grade 9 social studies class named Leland who didn’t do much work and was a thorn in the side of most of the staff, and especially the vice principal. But he had a bit of a twinkle in his eye and I kinda liked him.
And then I started really liking him when he googled me and found out that I’d done some interesting things and been a musician in my life. He then started dragging back and forth an old piece-of-junk guitar to classes and asking me for lessons during the breaks. So these kind of reluctant lessons started happening.
So I wrote a short story called “Guitar Lessons” and when the High Level people and Crystal and the crew up there asked me what I was working on, this was fresh. So I told them about “Guitar Lessons” and then I turned the short story into a script.
How did Corb Lund become attached to the project?
I’ve been friends with Corb for years and he’s played small parts in other things I’ve done. I’ve done a couple things in the States where he came down and played the cop.
He’s just a buddy and a great guitar player/enthusiast. Of all the people I know who are at that level of their career, he’s the only one I know who still takes guitar lessons. He’s the multiple Juno award-winning star guitar player who’s still perfecting his craft and loves the instrument.
He’s also always had an interest in acting and studied some acting in New York City with David Mamet at his famous school, so Corb has been a closet actor for years, so I got the chance to bring him outta the closet on this one.
I understand you worked with a largely local High Level cast and crew.
It was fantastic. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have much time. My first experience in the dramatic arts was with community theatre at the Peace Players in Peace River, AB. I’ve always liked community theatre where the pharmacist plays Hamlet. I think that’s cool.
I’ve always had this idea where I wondered if we could do that with film. Are we getting to this point where the equipment is so accessible…and we are!
So I’ve had this idea in the back of my head about community film and that’s kind of what this is. I took a handful of crew who knew what they were doing up there with me and the same thing with actors, four or five who knew what they were doing. And we filled literally every other position with local yokels.
A lot of people know that on a film set, it’s kind of like a farm, like a drilling rig. If your head’s up and you want to do this, if you want to be here, you can kind of learn your job in about three days. A lot of the jobs, not all of them. I know the union guys are gonna go nuts when I say that, but there’s truth to what I say. That’s how they learn their jobs too.
Even acting. I’ve always had good luck working with first-time actors. So many of our cast are from extensive auditioning that went on in the region and finding local talent. And a lot of our crew were first-timers.
You shot this back in 2021. Were there any particular challenges shooting back in pandemic times?
Yeah, sure. But it was rural and it was a lotta wide open space. We shot in September and right then it hadn’t clamped down as hard as it was about to. We were really fortunate that we kind of just got finished when some of the more serious mandates and obstructions came in.
So we were able to pull it off. We did lose a couple actors. We had Gary Farmer cast in the role of Bruiser. Gary liked the script and he was working on Resident Alien in Vancouver. He was to fly in and two days before he flew, he found he (couldn’t) because of the restrictions. So we lost Gary Farmer in our film over that. But we filled it with a local yokel, William Auger who is a heavy-duty mechanic in the region and has become a fan favourite in the film. He did a great job.
High Level is pretty far north in Alberta. Almost hitting the Northwest Territories!
It really is! On one of the days off, some of our crew from the city got together and just for fun, drove up to the NWT border. They were stopped by crossing guards and because of the pandemic, they weren’t able to go in. But they stuck their toes across!
Did you do post production in Alberta as well?
Yes. My editor Mason and I did most of the post in Calgary.
You were quoted in a recent article in Mountain View Today saying that Alberta’s government film incentives tend to help below-the-line personnel on Hollywood productions rather than Alberta’s own writers and directors. Can you expand on that?
We did get a little bit of money from the “Made in Alberta” grant. It’s a small grant for small-budgeted films and we were grateful for that.
I choose my words carefully when I talk about these things. As a writer and director, we have to acknowledge that having The Last of Us shooting in Calgary is exciting and causes economic stimulus and it is a good thing for a lot of below-the-line crew people. Creatively, for above-the-line artists, it’s a little hard for us to see so much attention and energy and money going to pay Hollywood to come shoot their shows here, where we pretend to be Boston or somewhere else.
So I’m not against those things and I understand it’s done all over the place. When I get the chance, I do like to make the point that I think we should let Calgary play Calgary sometimes. We need to encourage writers and directors to (tell) our own stories and not just work the below-the-line jobs on some other country’s stories.
So not to be unappreciative of IATSE and the crews, but I do try to make the point that it’s not culture or art (and) it’s not us telling our stories. Right now, that’s where the great bulk of Canadian film investment goes to paying Hollywood to come shoot their shows up here and we get to pretend to be Denver or some place. There’s room to change the balance of that ratio.
You seem to have a unique theatrical release strategy for this movie where instead of premiering in a film festival, you premiere in small towns and expand outward.
Man, we’ve played I think over 70 tons in all four western provinces now. Our release pattern is “make it up as you go”. We finished the film and played it in High Level at the Flamingo hotel lounge because we don’t have a cinema in High Level, that was September 23. People came and loved it. The closest small town that has a cinema is Manning, AB. They’ve got a single screen there and they said “Hey, that went over well. Why don’t you come down here?”.
So we just went there with a thumb drive and figured out how to plug it into their fancy Christie projector and played it. I think we were their #2 movie of the year in Manning. We were behind Top Gun: Maverick. After that, it’s Guitar Lessons! Then Black Adam, Wakanda Forever, and everything else.
Then Peace River wanted it and Camrose wanted it, then Slave Lake and High Prairie, so all the little towns. What you quickly learn about theatre owners is that they don’t watch movies, but they do sit up nights and watch everybody else’s numbers.
All the (box office) numbers are recorded into a database and small town theatre owners are always looking for a title that will draw. They don’t care whether it’s Black Adam or Guitar Lessons, they wanna know who will put more bums in seats.
We were beating Wakanda Forever consistently in places like Wetaskwin, AB and North Battleford, SK. So all these little towns were just calling us. There’s two or three bookers in the east who book a lot of these small towns and they just started booking us.
(My editor) Mason and I figured out how to be a distributor in short order and now we’ve done this about 70 times. Somewhere in the middle, Landmark (Cinemas) called us and that was a big day. We kinda had to join the big leagues when we played in Spruce Grove at their Landmark Theatre. Then we got into Edmonton and Calgary and then Cineplex called. Then we had to really step up our game again and get used to the Cineplex way (of doing things). They booked it coast-to-coast from St. Johns to Vancouver Island on about 70 screens across the country.
We’ve done well. We played for four of five weeks in Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and the bigger markets on the prairies. As of Feb 24, we’ll have played 100 towns in Canada and according to Rentrack or whatever it is, we are the highest-grossing Canadian film released in 2022.
And you employed a similar release strategy for Hank Williams First Nation back in 2005.
It wasn’t really by design. We finished the film and I was in the same situation as I was with Hank. We didn’t know what to do with it and nobody really wanted it. We sent it to a few people in Toronto and they were like “Nah, we don’t know what to do with it”.
So we just played it in our own town and then the next town and the next town. So this is twice now that I’ve found that cinema theatres are actually the easiest place, if your product draws an audience, that’s the place to get into, man.
I’d encourage Canadian filmmakers to actually go for the thing that we’re always told in Canada you can’t do. We’ve got it drummed into our heads that theatrical (release) is what you can’t get. We’re having the exact opposite. We’re the #1 Canadian movie at the theatres and have done over $100,000 already and we’ve got most of our releases coming up in ten days. We can’t get a TV or streaming sale yet, but our theatrical has been a raging success.
This whole release strategy sounds book-worthy.
I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve got a title already: How Not to Make a Movie in Canada.
What do you hope audiences take away from Guitar Lessons?
I love the film and I’m so glad we made it. It’s all been audience-driven, our success. We don’t have any money or any distributor even. But the audience loves it. You know, film is a wonderful thing to go enjoy that experience in a room full of strangers. So I just want that.
With my first film, Hank Williams First Nation, I remember a big ‘ol Cree grandmother, a Kookum in High Prairie, AB came up and gave me a big hug and she said “I’m 78 years old and that’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen my people, my language, and my land up on the big screen”.
So we as Canadians are not used to seeing ourselves on big screens and that’s one of the things about Guitar Lessons. It’s not the greatest movie in the world, but it’s pretty darn good. And what we do well, we do really well. One of the really special things about it is Canadians can see themselves up on the big screen in a way we’re not used to.
I noticed on iMDB that you have an upcoming film, Leaves on the Ground. Can you talk about that?
That’s a film about a woman moose hunter who’s got a bunch of kids to feed and parents to look after. She goes out on a moose-hunting trip to bring down the “Great Canadian Moose”.
It’s done in a very artful and tasteful way. I’m really happy about it. We just finished the scoring and editing on that and that’ll be ready for release soon.
Also, I’m working on trying to get a streaming service for independent Canadian films going. It’s called Moovi.com, so check that out. We’re looking for content, other films, and filmmakers. I think something has to change and (we) need a way to monetize the stuff we make. Because there is no money in theatrical, even though we kinda figured that out, we’re not making any money at it.
Guitar Lessons opens wide across Canada on Feb 24. This author can heartily recommend it!