Continuing our look at the 2012 Filmmaker Magazine 25 New Faces of Independent Film I chatted with Director Ian Harnarine. The NYU grad/professor gave us a real personal look at his Caribbean background with his short film, Doubles with Slight Pepper. Click thru for our interview with the talented director.
Interview with Ian Harnarine:
1. Trinidad to Toronto seems like a heck of jump, do you know why your parents decided on Canada? Were you able to travel back to Trinidad often as a child or was Toronto your main stay? Do you mind if I ask what part of Toronto you grew up in and did it influence your choice to apply for York University after high school?
There’s a lot of reasons to be honest. My father came from a fairly large family (well over 14 brothers and sisters) and most went to school at Canadian Missionary Schools in Trinidad. My oldest Uncle was a fairly smart guy and continued on in higher education in Canada. He settled in Ottawa and was the trailblazer for the family. My father actually migrated to Chicago before coming to Canada to study (he was an early computer programmer). One winter he decided to visit his brother in Ottawa but he got stuck in Toronto due to a snowstorm. He always told me that he fell in love with the city then and wanted to move there.
Also, during the late 60′s and early 70′s there was fantastic Canadian Prime Minister named Pierre Trudeau (some would argue the best Canadian Prime Minister ever!), who really stressed immigration as a national policy. It triggered an era of massive immigration from all over the world, especially the West Indies.
Growing up we’d always take family trips to Trinidad to visit family, both on my mother and father’s side. Of course, with such a massive extended family, people would always stay over at our house in Toronto too. So growing up, Toronto was always home. With that being said, Toronto is one of the hubs of the Caribbean Diaspora, so you can always find authentic restaurants and grocery stores selling anything you could get in Trinidad.
I grew up in an area of Toronto called North York, which is where York University is located. In fact, I used to walk to school most of the time. With that being said, I can’t say that location was the biggest influence in my decision. For me, it was their approach to multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary work that really intrigued me. That and the bit of scholarship they offered me!
2. Speaking of York, how ironic is it that you didn’t get accepted into their film program?
Ha! It’s easy for me to laugh at it now. But to be honest, I wasn’t ready then. I consider it a stroke of great luck that I wasn’t accepted, because it really allowed me to experience so many other things that influence my stories now.
2 continued. Was grad school always a must for you, or did you really see the potential of your physics learning while at York? Was the move to Chi Town a fun experience.
It seemed that grad school was inevitable. In undergrad I got to do research with some great Professors (Scott Menary and Sampa Bhadra) that allowed me to work at DESY, which is the German equivalent of CERN. I got to live in Hamburg which opened my eyes to the world.
3. On your blog you gave a wonderful recap of,then senator, Barack Obama’s now famous speech at the Democratic National Convention. Can you talk about how Chicago has changed you and specifically how being there when our President was first garnering attention?
Chicago was for me, where I really grew up. I was on my own for the first time and didn’t have to answer to anyone. I got to really learn about myself and what it is that I wanted to do. Of course, Chicago has an incredible cultural scene in terms of music, comedy, film and I fully immersed myself in all of it. It gave me a confidence to live my life the way I really wanted to. I also had an awesome group of friends that were supportive and not the typical physics grad students (a la The Big Bang Theory, which is still a fairly accurate depiction of physics grad school life).
Of course, Chicago & Illinois has always been known for it’s corrupt politics – but the people in charge (from the Mayor to the Governors) have such a passion for where they live – it can never be denied. I remember watching Obama give that speech and everyone knew how incredibly profound it was. I remember being struck by how beautiful his stories were, but how he was able to draw these huge conclusions about life and how he views America. It’s something that still inspires me to this day.
3 continue. Even though you’re now in NYC, do you have any favorite places you miss in Chicago,or Toronto for that matter?
I don’t get back to Chicago that much, but I miss the everyday friendliness of people. It’s such a laid-back city. I also miss the Art Institute of Chicago, which really inspired me. On a more basic level, I miss a good hot dog and slice of pizza! Chicago destroys NYC in pizza and hot dogs. Yeah, I said it.
Toronto reminds me of New York in so many ways. It’s got the same cultural amenities, but it’s on a much more do-able scale. The thing that I miss most about the city though is the tons of Friends and Family that I still have there. I get back there pretty often and with Facebook, twitter, gchat, Skype etc… it’s not too difficult to stay in touch with the people I care about most.
4. Why did you choose NYU after committing so much of your education to physics?
I was at a point in my physics career where I had lost my curiosity. Which to me is one of the most fundamental and driving motivations that a scientist should have. All of my colleagues loved what they were doing and they were great at it. So after a lot of soul searching and with the support of my friends and Professors, I applied to NYU.
It seemed to me that the aesthetics of the industry are very aligned between East Coast & West Coast and it usually comes out in the styles of filmmaking. West Coast is more Studio and Hollywood system. East Coast is the independents and more grittier storytelling. From my research and from the films I liked, I favored the grittier, real-life stories that seemed to be made by NYU Alumni, so I applied there.
5. What pushed you to make such a personal film for your Master’s thesis?
The entire curriculum at NYU is designed to nurture very personal storytelling. It’s encouraged by the Professors too. Tell the story that no one else in the world can tell. It took me along time for me to let loose and really write from the heart.
5 continued. You’ve talked about how your own father’s illness impacted you into writing the script. Is there a moment in the short itself (or maybe from the script) that directly pays homage to your father or did you try and keep those elements out of the work? Or in other words, did shooting ever bring up memories of your dad?
I can’t say that there is anything specific in the film that I had direct experiences with. However, the hospital scenes were tough to shoot, because towards the end of my father’s life he was in and out of the hospital a lot, so I had spent a lot of time by his bedside. Couple that with Errol Sitahal being about the same age as my father, and it definitely became tough at times.
There are some elements in the script that didn’t translate well to actually shooting. Some were very specific – but I choose to not talk about them as they are really personal to me.
5 continued. Is there a significance with your choice of food title?
I like the “two-ness” of the word. I like the idea that the title doesn’t really make sense to people unless they know exactly what doubles are (or they’ve seen the film). Truth is, I love doubles and it’s something authentic to Trinidad. But to me in the film, it’s used to symbolize the family – it’s also what bonds them.
6. When did you first meet Spike (side note – Spike visited my Alma mater this past year and was so inspirational – have to share my post on it with you. – http://pearlsnapdiscount.com/2010/11/12/spike-lee-at-unt/)? How did you relationship with Spike blossom, was there a specific moment or was he really impressed by your script?
Nice article, just checked it out!
I met Spike when I was in my 3rd Year at NYU, when I was a student in his class. He holds office hours where students can go and bring their scripts, their previous films, whatever – he’ll look at or read anything.
Our relationship blossomed before the short film, it was when my classmate (Jon Malkiel) and I came to him with the Time Traveler idea. But when I came to him with the short film script, he gave me some great notes and always watched different cuts of the film and said exactly what he thought. That type of experience is priceless.
6 continued. What is the teacher/student relationship like at NYU and now as a teacher yourself do you approach your students differently?
It’s a very relaxed and supportive environment. Like I said earlier, I believe it’s really about getting each individual student to look within themselves. A lot of the teachers are working professionals, so they all know what it’s like to get a film made – all of the trials and tribulations!
I like to think that I offer a realistic perspective to the students when I teach. I’ve worked on a ton of student films and low budget productions, so I think I have a good idea of what to expect and I try to pass that on to the students. I was literally in the exact same spot a few years ago!
7. Along with Filmmaker Magazine’s recognition of you in their annual 25 Indie list, the film itself has garnered accolades of its own. Can you talk about the Genie Awards, TIFF Best Short Film win, and Caribbean Tales organization and the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’s Award of Excellence.
CaribbeanTales was really a starting point for me. It was through them that I became aware of and part of the Caribbean Filmmaking community. That organization has been groundbreaking in trying to build an industry in the Caribbean and get the films to the world.
For me, just getting into TIFF was a major milestone. TIFF is a festival that I’d attend growing up. In fact, my dad and I had gone to the premiere of Spike’s “4 Little Girls” doc many years ago. Going to that festival, I always wondered what it would be like to have that massive audience looking at your film. So it was a big thrill just to be selected. Winning the award was a massive surprise. I wasn’t expecting it – especially considering the amazing films it was up against. So to win in my hometown at that Festival, which I’ve had a long history of attending is something that I will always remember.
The Genie Award was also mind-boggling. I mean, growing up I’d watch it every year! It’s so much fun to get all dressed up and be part of such fancy events. Once again, I didn’t even think I’d win – it’s a complete cliche to say “it’s just an honor to be nominated”, but it’s so true. I remember when I was giving my acceptance speech, I looked out over the crowd and there’s David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen staring right back at me. It was then that it really hit me “THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!”
Of course, the award from the Government of Trinidad & Tobago was so gratifying. This is the land of my family and to be recognized for contribution to the overall culture is something that I’ll always cherish.
Hundreds, thousands of filmmakers go their entire careers without getting these prestigious awards, so I’m so humbled and grateful for all of them.
8. You worked on God of Love which garnered the highest of praise with its Oscar win. How awesome was it to see Luke’s unique and awesome speech?
Seeing how everything came together for Luke was so cool. From the pre-production meetings, to shooting to see it get all of the accolades was inspiring. When they announced it at the Oscars my wife and I LITERALLY jumped off the couch and screamed our heads off.
What’s even more special about it is that the good guy won. Luke is just such a nice person. You can’t help but feel happy for him because he worked so hard on that film.
Above all, it made everything seem attainable. It makes you believe that as long as you make a good film, despite budget, people will see it and appreciate it.
8 continued.You worked as sound mixer on the film, can you talk about what it is about audio/sound you love so much? Does your love of working in the sound arena of film, mingle in with a love of music? If So, what type of music do you like?
For me, sound is the perfect mixture of science and art. There are so many choices that you can make with respect to sound to really affect an audience and help tell a story dramatically. It can be incredibly technical, but in the end it’s just a tool that a director can use.
I absolutely do love music. Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time anymore to devote to discovering new music as I once did, so I depend on a lot of friends to give me recommendations. I listen to anything and EVERYTHING.
From death & doom metal, indie rock, rap, hiphop, classical, jazz, old blues, Parang (which is the music that’s featured in my film’s soundtrack), reggae, soca, calypso.
Basically, as long as there is some sort of sincere emotion in music, I love it.
9. Even before you made Doubles, you and Jon Malkiel bought the rights to Author David Chariandy’s award-winning novel Soucouyant. What is it about this novel that first gripped your fascination?
The book struck a personal note with me. It’s about dealing with a parent’s dementia. It’s about growing up as a first generation immigrant in Toronto. It also has a lot of Trinidadian history in it. Most importantly, it’s just a beautifully written story of family. I know the characters, I know the setting – it just spoke to me. I asked Jon to read it because we don’t have the same background – if he felt the same way as I did, then the story would truly be universal. He read it and felt just as touched as I did.
9 continued. You and Jon share sound credits on Graduation, can you talk about your partnership and mutual love of the novel?
I believe Graduation is a film that we worked on (Jon’s also a really good sound mixer too!) for a classmate of ours. We didn’t have anything to do with that in terms of the writing or directing.
9 continued. When are you hoping to start working on the film for Soucouyant? Are you close with Chariandy and/or do you hope to involve him in the process of adapting his story?
We are still in the process of adapting it. The story is told non-linearly and it’s a matter of working out how to translate all of the facets of the story into cinematic storytelling.
David Chariandy has been amazing. He’s given us so much freedom and trust to explore his material. David teaches out in Vancouver and I was able to go out there and meet with him and his beautiful family. He’s so eloquent and warm – just as his writing is.
10. I’ve read about how you got the writing job on Spike Lee’s upcoming Time Traveler film before you started on Doubles. Can you expand on what this project is about and if you’ve had communication with its author about the project.
Time Traveler is an adaptation of Ronald Mallet’s book of the same name. The author is a Professor of Physics at UConn and he’s trying to built the world’s first time machine. Basically, when Ronald was a young man, his father died really suddenly. He decided that he would devote his life to building a time machine so that he could go back in time and save his father from dying.
It’s the unbelievably true story of determination and science. Most of all, it’s a Father-Son story, which is what we’re all interested in.
The book is very well written and a lot of high level science is explained really simply. It really is a terrific book.
I do know Professor Mallet quite well and we’re in touch regularly. In fact, he came to my wedding last year! If you google him, he’s fairly active online so you can find out what he’s up to.
11. What about a feature length version of Doubles? Any other ideas your open to discussing?
I am also writing that feature film right now. My original draft of the short was actually quite long and took place both in Trinidad and Toronto. I pared it down considerably to make the short, but now I’m revisiting the original idea and really developing it even more. I’m really excited about it, because I love the characters and there’s so much of the story that couldn’t be explored in the short. Once again, it’s a world that I know so it speaks to me in my heart.
For more on Doubles with Slight Pepper check out the Facebook page.