Frances-Anne Solomon, writer-director
of A Winter Tale, put her actors – including Michael Miller (centre) and Peter Williams – through a rigorous building-up and breaking-down of the script.
Stepping up in a time of sorrow
A child is killed in a drive-by shooting and one social worker can’t stand the silence that follows in fact-based A Winter Tale
JOHN GRIFFIN, The Gazette
Thursday August 30, 2007
A Winter Tale is an intensely powerful story about the reinstallation of moral responsibility in Toronto’s black male community. Its prime movers walk it in real life like they talk it in this must-see fiction feature.
Writer-director Frances-Anne Solomon and featured actors Peter Williams and Michael Miller are in town this week for their film’s three festival screenings. The last is Saturday at Quartier Latin at 1:20 p.m. You want to be there.
A Winter Tale is a human drama torn from today’s headlines about an inner-city community reeling after the murder of an innocent kid in a drive-by shooting.
“People only knew about the tragedy from the outside, from the newspaper articles and outrage,” Solomon explained under the sun on the terrace of the Hyatt Hotel yesterday. “I went inside the community when I started developing this project five years ago.”
Like her actors, Solomon is focused and fiercely articulate, and the way phrases bounce instinctively between them suggests a whole lot of time spent in close proximity.
“I put out a casting call, and 90 men from the community came out for the audition.”
Williams, one of the country’s finest actors, and Miller, a community player looking for the next level in his craft, were two of 14 to make the final ensemble cut.
“I wanted a cross-section, and I got it,” said Solomon, who sent the men to boot camp.
“We developed the story from the ground up. There was a lot of talking. A lot of talking. We taped all our workshops, and watched them to develop language patterns that would be authentic to the individual characters.”
“We were going for the truth,” Williams reinforced. “Even when we had the script and performed it in a theatre, we tore it down again to play in the community centre, with a different kind of audience.”
Then Solomon encouraged her ensemble to throw it away once more, take it to the streets and “refind it” in the black ‘hoods of Toronto, where this film was shot.
She freaked her technical team by demanding the first three hours of every day be spent with her actors, trashing the script, improvising, “keeping it fresh.”
“We knew the story so well, we didn’t need the script,” said Miller. Yet the final film conforms very closely to what Solomon had originally written. Boot camp completed.
“We all prepared together, all knew each other’s back stories – it was like entire lives lived in fast-forward,” Williams remembered.
“It all depends on the integrity of character,” Solomon agreed. “They were going for raw emotion. There’s nothing more senseless than the death of an innocent child. Feel it!
“Violence is a devastating and traumatic experience for human beings. Even for males. Even for black males.”
The deal with A Winter Tale is guys in a support group. It sounds lame, but Williams’s character is a bedrock social worker who has had it up to his eyeballs with the drugs and violence in his community and the stubborn refusal of the men to rat anyone out or admit the real consequences of a dead boy on a sidewalk.
He’s also terrified that the smart kid he mentors – Miller as a dealer and young dad on the lifestyle tipping point – is going over to the dark side and an early, pointless death.
He eventually browbeats six to sit and talk about what has to be done. Because this is the real world, little may come of it. Just maybe, though, it’s a start.
“The experience made me more confident as an actor,” Miller admitted. “It also encouraged me to write myself. I’ve grown exponentially through it.”
“I’ve never had the opportunity to work like this before, at a community level, and so organically and honestly,” said Williams, who lives and works in Vancouver and whose credits include The Chronicles of Riddick and TV’s Stargate SG-1 and Da Vinci’s Inquest. “I honestly doubt I’ll ever experience it again.”
Both correctly laud their director. She, correctly, sends it right back at them. A Winter Tale is the veteran Trinidad-born, Toronto-based filmmaker’s baby, and she has raised it by hand. But it couldn’t have worked without smelling like the truth, like it was bred in the bone. Her cast put that over.
Both she and Williams are middle-aged and successful. Despite all the hard work, they’re still on the outside. Miller is 28, and from the ‘hood. He’s experienced the dope and danger. He knows how easy it is to fall in and drown. “I felt a responsibility to dig in for other members of my community.”
So far, reaction has been overwhelming. It won the award for best Canadian feature at the last ReelWorld Film Festival in T.O., and is on the fest circuit now. There’s a five-city tour planned for February where screenings will be coupled with community discussions, Solomon says, “to talk issues out.”
Miller is off to visit his grandmother in Quebec City today. She’ll be proud to see him.
A Winter Tale screens at Quartier Latin Saturday at 1:20 p.m.