Remembering: Versus Ivan

A reclusive web-programmer is forced to confront the threatening concept of change when the food packages he receives in the mail each day mysteriously stop arriving.

Fourteen years ago, a film school graduate and his friends turned this unique elevator pitch into Versus Ivan, the first feature film to be produced in the NWT.

In a year when Kirsten Carthew’s landmark film The Sun at Midnight is still criss-crossing the globe and Jen Walden’s debut feature Elijah and the Rock Creature, is mere months away from release, we thought it would be good to look back upon the plucky beginnings of feature filmmaking in our territory.

We caught up with Versus Ivan writer-director Chris Gamble by email:

NWTPMA: Can you describe how you got into film?

Chris Gamble: When I was younger, growing up on Dagenais Drive, there was a whole group of us kids who would shoot movies on a Canon camcorder. We would edit them between two VCR’s and have fake Academy Awards for all of our movies each year. So I really have positive associations with filmmaking from a young age.

When I was older I loved creative writing and eventually found my way into writing plays in high school. This evolved in screenwriting in university, and it’s the medium I’ve worked in most since graduating.

A still from Versus Ivan. (Courtesy of Chris Gamble)

NWTPMA: Did you make any films before Versus Ivan?

CG: In university I made several short films, as well as wrote and directed a variety of theatre.

NWTPMA: What made you decide to make a feature film, and why specifically did you want to make it in the North?

CG: In university I majored in film and theatre. With graduation looming, I knew that I had a unique opportunity to bring together some close, trusted friends from university, with my hometown. I think I had a pretty good idea of how little I actually knew, but I also realized that the most valuable education I was going to get after graduating was to go out and put all my passion into a project. I had the good fortune of being surrounded by many wonderful friends in university who had that same willingness to get on board a wild and crazy project for a summer in Yellowknife and see what we could make of it.

In terms of shooting it in Yellowknife, it was never really a question for me for several reasons. The first was that I wanted to make a film in Yellowknife, because it was the place that I was from and the place that I loved. Even though the film isn’t necessarily Yellowknife-centric, I just always imagined Versus Ivan being set there. I think the personality of the city comes through.

On top of that, I knew that I had the support network that I needed in Yellowknife. There are so many wonderful people who are willing to contribute their time, passion, and creativity to a project if they see you truly believe in it. As a first-time feature filmmaker (I was twenty-four at the time), I had probably bitten off far more than I could chew. Being surrounded by such a wonderful support network was a huge relief and allowed me to focus on getting the film made.

NWTPMA: How did you go about finding funding for your film? What was the budget?

CG: Our budget was $86,000 on paper, although a lot of that was in-kind support and deferrals. Full credit to my brother and co-producer Sam for pulling much of that together. In terms of actual cash in hand, I believe our budget was closer to $36,000. This came from grants from the NWT Arts Council and the Government of the Northwest Territories, as well as some very generous investors who were willing to put their own money in the project.

NWTPMA: Nowadays, we have the NWT Film Commission, WAMP and the NWTPMA. What film resources were available in Yellowknife when you made the film?

CG: WAMP was around when we shot Versus Ivan, thought I would say that it is in its infancy compared to now. Otherwise, I don’t recall there being a lot of film organizations in place.

NWTPMA: Can you give us a synopsis of Versus Ivan?

CG: A reclusive web-programmer is forced to confront the threatening concept of change when the food packages he receives in the mail each day mysteriously stop arriving.

NWTPMA: What made you decide to write it?

CG: I was fresh out of university and knew that I had a unique opportunity to make a film at that time in my life. I was really inspired by the some of the more mainstream indies at the time, like The Royal Tenenbaums and Punch Drunk Love, which I think had a fairly big influence on my writing.

Before Versus Ivan I’d written and directed a lot of theatre and a few short films, so it was also an opportunity to try my hand at writing and directing a feature. It gave me an opportunity to experience both and see if my passion lay more in directing, writing, or both.

NWTPMA: Where did you shoot the film?

CG: The film was shot entirely in Yellowknife.

Robert Butler as Lennie in Versus Ivan. (Courtesy of Chris Gamble)

NWTPMA: Was it a challenge finding a crew to help you make the film? How did you address that?

CG: The film was comprised entirely of cast and crew from Yellowknife, and people I knew from school. I believe in the end we had more than seventy people from Yellowknife who contributed in big and small ways. I think our poor production designer could have used more help, but this was mainly due to the ridiculous number of locations that I had written into the script.

NWTPMA: How long was your shooting schedule?

CG: Our shooting schedule was for seventeen days of shooting over a twenty-one day period, with some very ambitious and long days. We ended up extending it to eighteen days of shooting over twenty-two days to do a few pick-up shots with the leads.

NWTPMA: Did anything interesting happen during the course of making your film?

CG: During one scene, our lead attacks another character in a back-alley. Liam Karry, who was not only our lead (Ivan), but also our stunt coordinator, had choreographed a particularly realistic looking fight. During one of the shots we had to film it from a security camera POV, meaning anyone not in the fight had to be well back from the fight. Halfway through our first take a good Samaritan happened upon the fight scene through an alleyway that we’d neglected to block off. He yelled at Liam to stop and started rushing towards them to break up the fight. Fortunately the crew appeared from their hiding spots before he reached Liam, and he realized we were shooting a film. As Liam later described it, “When I saw the look in his eyes, I genuinely thought he was going to kill me.”

The weather was incredibly cooperative for the film. Over all of June 2004, there was about five minutes of rain, and it was during one of our indoor shoot days.

Liam Karry as Ivan in Versus Ivan. (Courtesy of Chris Gamble)

NWTPMA:  Were there any unforeseen setbacks?

CG: Not so much setbacks as day-to-day problems that I think come with making any film. There was one day, after six or seven days of straight shooting, when we moved to a new location (Ivan’s apartment) and the location simply wasn’t working. I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the location since the props and furniture had been moved in. We spent several hours in the morning shooting and it just wasn’t working for me. On top of that, I had a brutal toothache. At that point we had a crew meeting and decided to call it a day. Full credit to my location manager, first AD, and producer for reworking the schedule to accommodate the scheduled change. Lying in the dentist chair later with some time to reflect, I was finally able to figure out what the hurtles were. After our fairly insane shooting schedule, sitting in a dentist’s chair with some time to silently reflect was actually a bit of a luxury. After passing on my thoughts to the production designer the next day, I showed up on set and everything really clicked for us. I think on top of that, everyone just really needed that half day to regroup.

NWTPMA: How did you release the film? And where did it play?

CG: The film had its premiere in Yellowknife in December 2004 at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, with several screenings. The film festival premiere was at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

NWTPMA: What kind of response did the film get?

CG: Our world premiere was in Yellowknife at the Northern Arts and Cultural Center in December 2004. The audience was incredibly supportive, laughed at all the right parts, and genuinely seemed to enjoy the film. It was such a positive experience for everyone involved in the film. Our festival premiere was at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, which was hugely rewarding as the few crew not from the Northwest Territories all attended Queen’s University in Kingston with me. The film was sold out, with another great audience. The energy and excitement was just so palpable, and the independent cinema in Kingston asked us if they could program and screen the film a few months later.

Unfortunately, after that there was not a lot of pickup for Versus Ivan. Looking back, I can appreciate why as it’s a strange concept, and many of us were first-timers doing the very best we could to make a film. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, but as I’m sure many filmmakers do, in retrospect there are things that I wish I could go back and change, or advice I wish someone had given me.

NWTPMA: How do you think the process of making Versus Ivan would be different if you were to try to make it in the NWT today?

CG: We shot Versus Ivan in the summer of 2004, just as high definition prosumer technology was becoming a possibility. We wanted to shoot something that looked like film, but on our budget it simply wasn’t feasible. However there was an 24FPS SD Panasonic camera with an anamorphic lens adaptor that shot gorgeous footage for what was available at the time (and within our budget). I remember the first time we reviewed test footage, we were all in awe of how filmic it looked considering it was digital video. Fast-forward to 2018 and almost any phone out there can shoot at a higher, better quality than what we were able to shoot at the time on our budget.

We spent a chunk of our budget to get the opening shot from a helicopter, which was a low-fly over of a frozen Great Slave Lake in March. Today you could get the same shot for a fraction of the price with a drone, and our poor actor wouldn’t have to get buzzed by a helicopter.

As well, I think we also only had one person on set with a cell phone. At the time it didn’t really seem like an inconvenience, but trying to make the same film now without using cell phones to communicate with crew off-set would probably seem like a real pain, especially given how spread out we were around Yellowknife. I can’t imagine how it would happen in a larger city without the benefit of a production office.

Funding opportunities in the Northwest Territories have also come a long way since 2004. At the time we were able to get some grants from the Government of the Northwest Territories and the NWT Arts Council, but there were no tax credits at the time. I think the film industry in Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories has grown in leaps and bounds, especially over the past ten years.

Poster for Berkshire County, a horror film written by Chris Gamble and released in 2014. (IMDb)

NWTPMA: What have you done since making Versus Ivan?

CG: Shortly after Versus Ivan I attended the Canadian Film Centre for their feature screenwriting program. In 2012 I wrote, directed, and edited a cycling documentary called Chasing Ninth, and in 2014 a feature horror film I wrote called Berkshire County was shot just outside of Toronto. Since then I’ve been working on several screenplays and a few other writing projects.

Berkshire County (written by Gamble), is available for streaming on iTunes, as well as DVD