Feature Films

"We did what we thought we had to do," says Mike Jones, one of the directors of Newfoundland's first feature film. "We knew that you needed a camera and you needed actors and you had to cut it together."

The Adventures of Faustus Bidgood

With that knowledge, Jones, his brother Andy and a large cast and crew set out to create The Adventures of Faustus Bidgood, the making of which would be an adventure in itself. A huge and unwieldy project, it began with an eight-hour script and practically no budget and took almost ten years to complete. By the time it was finished a generation of Newfoundland artists had been introduced to the business, and the creative process of making feature films.

Newfoundland had been the site of previous features, such as The Viking (1931), The Rowdyman (1972) and Orca: The Killer Whale (1977). But those films had been made by outside producers and crews with minimal local involvement. Faustus Bidgood was the first full-length movie created and completed by Newfoundlanders.

The Jones brothers began writing Faustus in 1977. Later that year they assembled cast, crew and equipment and started shooting selected scenes with Andy Jones playing the title role. Work continued sporadically until 1979. After a three-year break, additional shooting and post – production began in 1982 and the film was released in 1986. Aside from the lack of money, resources and expertise, the lengthy production time created further challenges. "There's a scene where Andy gains 20 pounds," says Mike Jones. "He knocks on the door and when the door opens inside he's put on 20 pounds, because it had been shot six or seven years later."

The final product is a dense and surreal black comedy. It follows a day in the life of Faustus, a gormless and unwitting minor bureaucrat who is scorned and ridiculed by his co-workers. A dreamer capable of spectacular fantasies, Faustus becomes the first ruler of the Republic of Newfoundland, which has been established after a revolution.

Opinions of Faustus Bidgood vary widely. But it has gained a reputation as a cult film and it probably exceeded the commercial expectations of many. Because of the shortage of money, many of the cast and crew were given shares in the film in lieu of salaries. At least one crew member reported that his shares returned enough money to pay for a new stove.

Finding Mary March

If Faustus was the creation of artists trying to find their way in a new medium, Finding Mary March (1988) showed that Newfoundlanders could make a feature film the way it is conventionally done.

Finding Mary March.
Finding Mary March tells the story of a photographer's search for Beothuck burial sites.
Reproduced by permission of Ken Pittman, Red Ochre Productions.

Production of Finding Mary March began shortly after Faustus was released. Written and directed by Ken Pittman, it was shot in 30 days and completed for a scheduled release date. It has been described as the biggest film workshop ever held in Newfoundland, in that it taught a fledgling film community how to make a feature according to the "industry model." Mary March also follows a more conventional plot line than Faustus, telling the story of a photographer's search for Beothuck burial sites.

Growth and Maturation of the Film Industry

By the late 1980s the first generation of Newfoundland filmmakers had built a considerable body of work in short films, documentaries and television. The Newfoundland Independent Filmmaker's Cooperative, which had a hand in just about every film made at the time, was providing training to new filmmakers. Local crews were becoming more technically proficient, producers more adept at finding financing and developing ideas, and directors, screenwriters and actors more ambitious and comfortable with the medium. The growth and maturation of the local industry would be brought to bear on feature films, which began to appear more frequently.

Ken Pittman's second film, No Apologies (1990), is a story of long-simmering conflicts that emerge as a Newfoundland family gathers for a funeral. Mike Jones directed Secret Nation (1992), the story of a woman who uncovers evidence suggesting a conspiracy to rig the 1949 confederation referendum. Pittman's Anchor Zone (1994) is a futuristic story in which a crumbling seaport town has been taken over by a giant corporation. John the Baptist arrives in Newfoundland and creates a stir in Extraordinary Visitor (1998). The director, John Doyle, re- worked the story after making a short film of the same name in 1982. Film festival screenings, network television broadcasts, limited theatrical distribution and a growing respect for Newfoundland movies helped these films reach wider audiences than either Mary March or Faustus Bidgood.

No Apologies.
A scene from the making of No Apologies, a story of long-simmering conflicts that emerge as a Newfoundland family gathers for a funeral.
Reproduced by permission of Ken Pittman, Red Ochre Productions.

Cooperation with Outside Film Crews

Another important trend was the increased cooperation with outside film crews and producers. Gordon Pinsent returned to the province to make John And The Missus (1987). John N. Smith of Montreal came here to direct Welcome To Canada (1989), based on the true story of Sri Lankan refugees who find sanctuary in a Newfoundland outport. These films combined cast and crew from Newfoundland and other provinces.

The trend has continued recently with The Divine Ryans (1999), produced by a Halifax company but shot in St. John's, and Misery Harbour (2000), which combined financial support, actors and production crews from Newfoundland and Scandinavia. Though not exclusively "local," these projects tell Newfoundland stories and make extensive use of the province's talent and expertise. With filmmakers entering into more such ventures, the "Newfoundland film" becomes harder to define.

Misery Harbour.
Misery Harbour, though not exclusively local, tells a Newfoundland story and makes extensive use of the province's talent and expertise.
Reproduced by permission of Ken Pittman, Red Ochre Productions.

Many recent films have been produced with funding and broadcast commitments from Canadian television networks, though this does not necessarily preclude a theatrical release. Such arrangements represent another trend in the Canadian film industry, with the lines between "feature film" and "television film" no longer clearly defined.

Future Trends

Two Newfoundland directors made their first feature films in 2000. Rosemary House, with a lengthy resume of documentary and short film work, directed Violet. Mary Walsh stars as a woman convinced that death is near as she approaches her 55th birthday. Lois Brown directed The Bingo Robbers, the story of a couple, their failed attempts to pull off a successful armed robbery and their compulsion towards self-analysis. The Bingo Robbers is the first Newfoundland feature to be made using digital video. The format is cheaper and more efficient to use than traditional celluloid film, suggesting changes that could help make Newfoundland filmmaking even more accessible and productive in the future.