Through the use of sound, stage, and film, writer/director/actor Steven McCarthy transforms his creative concepts into transcendent works of art. Having founded his own production company, Candles are for Burning, and being the lead singer of the Toronto based funk band, The ElastoCitizens, McCarthy shines in all forms of the artistic process. In his debut short film, o negative, McCarthy explores the various aspects of addictive behavior with the juxtaposition of unresponsive dialogue and a forceful soundtrack.
From theater and film to music and production, your growing career spans over the course of several platforms. How did you get started, and when did you first become interested in pursuing an artistic career?
Oh boy – how far back should I go? As a kid growing up in Sault Ste Marie my parents enrolled us in every sport and every kind of class. I loved drawing and reading more than anything, and making my own little one man shows to those old Disney read-along tapes. Then in grade ten my mom suggested I audition for a musical of “Oliver.” I fell in love with the idea of creating with a group, of telling a story together. It felt important to me and I loved the misfit circus that was the theatre scene – you were welcomed in regardless of age, sex, colour as long as you worked hard and loved and cared for the show you were a part of making. That’s still what I love most. That group creative enterprise. Then I got accepted into the most prestigious drama school in the country and then my parents accepted it a teeny tiny bit.
What inspires your creative drive in developing various works of art and media?
I love making things with friends. I’m writing a screenplay for the first time, a feature, and I’m really feeling how lonely it is. It feels necessary to be on my own a bit but I long for the day when I can be part of a group collaboration again. My band has 10 people in it and the last play I made had 26 actors. I love crowds I guess. I love parties. We did have a huge ‘Dirty Dancing/Rocky Horror’ karaoke “beergarita” party for the wrap of ‘o negative,’ so I guess that’s something.
o negative is the first film from your own production company, Candles are for Burning. Can you talk to us about both the benefits and the hardships in producing your own independent short film?
Well, I didn’t really make it easy on myself. I didn’t do the ‘trying to get money, applying for grants’ kind of route. I had just acted in a film, so I had a bit of money for the first time in a while, and then I just begged, borrowed, and stole from everyone, for help and direction. I asked everyone I knew, who had made films guerrilla style, out for a coffee and wrote down all their advice. The main thing is that I drew on friends who believed in me. We lived in my pal’s house with his family during the shoot up north – I’ve known Eric Haapala, my producer, since we were in kindergarten, and we both did our first plays together. My Director of Photography, Cabot McNenly, and I had been friends for 8 years – he shot a film I was a lead in, and he’s shot plays, band stuff, all sorts of things for me. When those two said yes I knew somehow I could make it happen. But everyone was a volunteer. It still cost me – much more than I initially thought – but then again if you knew all the ins and outs you’d never take any chances. Once we had the production done, and could show people what it was looking like, I had a lot of support in post-production, at Poste Moderne in Montreal and Redlab here in TO, as well as some great pals who offered a bit of money to help me finish without going completely broke. Once you can show people what you are making you can find allies to get you to the finish line. Plus when you’ve already put your money where your mouth is you get taken a lot more seriously. No one is going to care about someone if they haven’t taken the initial risk themselves. At some point later on in the process I did realize this might be the one and only time that I would have absolutely no one to answer to but myself for every single decision.
In your short film, o negative, you present the audience with an alternative take on dependency, and the ways in which addiction plays into desire. How was this idea manifested, and what intrigued you to include vampire mythology?
Alyx Melone, my girlfriend, and I went to see a bad 80’s vampire film at our local cinema, and in the bar after I looked at her and I said, “You would make a great vampire. Someone should put you in a vampire movie.” That was a year before I wrote the script. It was kind of just a joke between us for a long while. We riffed in the bar that night about what the themes would be and what movies we were inspired by. Alyx put “o negative” in magnetic scrabble letters on the fridge, but neither of us can remember where that title came from. A few weeks later, I drove up to the Soo, and noticed some of the old motels on Hwy 17. I pulled out my little recorder and spoke the images that would form the first two little scenes of the movie. A year later I wrote the script. Two months later we shot it. A couple months after that, we were accepted into TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). That was wild. For something that was just supposed to be a little experiment to dip my toe into filmmaking this journey has been much more than I expected.
Sound appears to be a key component to both your personal and professional life. Throughout the entire film, there are only two instances in which dialogue is spoken. What influenced your decision to omit language, and replace it with a forceful and driving soundtrack?
Well, I’m a theatre director, and I have a ten piece band, and so I work with words, plays, lyrics quite a bit. For me, film is at its most intense when it becomes a bit like a dream-state. So I figured if I was going to make a film I would fully exploit film language. I didn’t really think I was writing a script at first, just a bunch of cool evocative images and dynamics between people. Then I decided it would be a game of suspense. I had a good writer friend see how close I was to it being a silent film and encourage me to do away with a scene in which there was a big chunk of dialogue.
As a theatre director, music and sound is very important to me. I could do away with costumes, lights, set, everything else, but I would never lose sound design. It’s the only thing that actually goes inside the audience; it’s the fabric that connects the audience and the actors, and puts them in the same room, or in the case of the movie, it’s what puts them inside the emotions happening on screen. I had been tremendously impressed with Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and loved Mica Levi’s score. My composers, Gordon Hyland and Sam McLellan, are expert classically trained musicians, and they taught me about Levi’s influences, and we jammed a lot together. I wanted acoustic instruments that were made strange. The strings in the bath scene are actually Sam’s playing her double bass 5 different takes, but we’ve pitched it up in midi so that it sounds like desperately fragile, high violins. Also, Aaron Mirkin, who did the sound design, was a great collaborator and a lot of times the three of us jammed together using sound design in strange, rhythmic ways – like the sound of the wind outside and the sounds of the 18 wheelers – while sometimes we’d use musical sounds to replace and add to the sound design. And vice-versa. The sound mixer for our 5.1 mix said he’d never seen people jam and collaborate like that in a mix. For me, with all my band experience and theatre experience, that kind of collaborative spirit just seems normal. I felt proud of us.
A sense of mystery and vagueness seemingly play a major role in o negative, as none of the characters are ever given a defining name. How do you think this impacts the narrative of your story?
I’m a great believer in the notion that the more you tell the audience the less they engage. David]Mamet says it best in his book ‘On Directing Film,’ but essentially the audience lives through the hero of the tale. As long as you make them accountable to the logic of the tale, the audience will go along with the logic of the character, no matter how strange it might be. The audience loves to complete the story, to imagine the reasons a character is doing something, to fear what they might do next. I’ve had people tell me this film is the most disgusting thing they’ve seen, and I’ve heard people say that this is an absolutely beautiful love story. Both of those are true. I don’t supply the motivations or the why. To a large degree the film, and any good film, asks you to bring your own imagination and history to it. Myths don’t tell you why a character does something. Fairy tales neither. Why does Jack climb the beanstalk? Because that’s the story.
Having worked in almost all aspects of filmmaking, from acting to directing to writing, which do you find most rewarding?
I love collaboration. Wresting out the heart of a scene or a story with a great, impassioned collaborator for whom storytelling means the world. That’s what I live for. It doesn’t matter in what capacity. I love teaching for that reason, too. I love finding out what the deepest reasons are for the acting of a scene, or writing a play or a movie, and making that scene or moment or play the best it can possibly be. So much of what I see in bad acting or flawed writing is because it’s not communication, it’s advertising. People want so much to be liked, to be approved of. We all have that need, and its based in fear. But if we can get past that, and remember why we got into this in the first place, then maybe we can get back to changing people, and the world, one story at a time.
What upcoming projects should we be on the look out for from you?
I’m currently writing the feature screenplay for “o negative.” I just co-wrote and starred in a short film called “We Forgot to Break Up” for Motel pictures. I have a great role on a new show on Lifetime called “Mary Kills People,” as well as starring in two very exciting short films – “Death and Faxes,” and “Rape Card.” If it all goes well, I’ll have a whole whack of films in festivals next fall. Oh, and I just had my premiere of my first translation, “5 Faces for Evelyn Frost,” at Toronto’s largest non-profit theatre, Canadian Stage Company. Mostly I write, have coffee dates, auditions, and go to the beach while my dog swims in the icy waters of Lake Ontario.