By Kellie Underhill
I wish I had money! A few weeks ago when I first met Stephen McKinnon, president and founder of Canada (East) Films in Miramichi, this thought crossed my mind at least a dozen times during the hour we spoke. When I met him again last week, within the first five minutes I couldn’t keep it in any longer, I blurted out, “I wish I had money!”
Why does Stephen inspire this normally non-materialistic frugal editor and writer to suddenly start wishing for gobs of cash? Well, it’s really very simple—he’s working on a major film project that will boost the economy, bringing jobs and some pretty interesting people to my hometown, and I would love to help him make it happen.
About four months ago I started hearing rumours on the internet about a big Hollywood movie that might be shot in New Brunswick called Timekeepers. That was pretty exciting in and of itself, even though I couldn’t find out any details so I thought New Brunswick was merely the location, that the production would be driven by people from “away”.
So imagine my excitement when I learned the truth, that not only would this film be shot mostly in Miramichi, but a fellow Miramichier is the driving force behind the whole production—Stephen McKinnon!
Stephen grew up right here in Lower Newcastle. His father was a west coast boy in the air force who met and married a local girl when he was stationed here at the former base in Chatham. When cutbacks forced him out of his chosen profession as a heavy equipment operator in the Arctic Circle, Stephen followed his father’s footsteps into the military trying his hand first in communications research, before finding his niche in photography and videography. Following his retirement from the Forces he formed Canada (East) Films and began pursuing his lifelong dream of working in the film industry.
Known for always being a bit of a comedian while growing up, writing down ideas and scenes came naturally. But he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t think of himself as being a writer. He’s a storyteller, a guy with a lot of creative ideas. This despite the fact that Stephen wrote the novel Timekeepers on which the film is based. He always knew he wanted to turn the story into a film but he never gave a thought to writing the screenplay himself. Instead he wanted to hire the very best screenwriter he could find to bring his characters and story to life, someone he didn’t know on a personal level, someone who would be brutally honest and totally objective.
That’s when a Texan named H. Scott Hughes caught his attention. Stephen admired his work, so he sent him the story, and the rest, as they say, is history. Hughes loved the concept and signed on to write the screenplay. For the past three years dozens of daily emails have zipped between the two as together they’ve reworked the script.
The way Stephen’s face lights up when he talks about the ideas that Hughes has brought to the table, the changes they’ve made to script, you can tell they’ve got a strong bond and partnership. It’s really a beautiful thing to see. You always hear so much about writers being less than enthusiastic about the treatment of their book adaptations into film. But Stephen loves every change that Hughes has made (and some of them have been pretty big) and he’s excited that the script just gets stronger and stronger.
And I’m excited too! Timekeepers is not the typical type of movie that you might expect to be filmed in Miramichi. It’s not about the river. It doesn’t help preserve our unique culture or highlight our history. It’s a science fiction adventure with special effects and action scenes, think Indiana Jones and The Mummy with the cool element of time travel. It’s good old fashioned fun with no other purpose than to entertain!
Stephen always loved suspenseful movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s films, movies that kept him guessing right until the very end. He vividly remembers sitting in the movie theatre watching director Brian De Palma’s Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel and starring Sissy Spacek. At the end when the hand pops out of the grave, everyone in the theatre jumped and screamed, and Stephen thought, “Wow! That’s the way to make a movie!”
And what’s wrong with making a movie purely for entertainment’s sake? In the United States that wouldn’t even be a valid question, they’ve based a whole industry on entertainment. But in Canada it’s a slightly different kettle of fish. Private investment in film is certainly not unheard of, but a bit more rare than south of the border. So filmmakers here often look to government grants in order to get their movies made, and the criteria in order to be eligible for those grants usually insists on something uniquely Canadian. And that’s wonderful! I’m all for preserving our culture, honouring our history, celebrating our distinctly Canadian humour. But … what’s wrong with making a movie purely for entertainment’s sake? That’s the question Stephen poses and my answer is, “I can’t think of a single thing!”
I’m not the only one who’s excited, Jim Lavoie of Bulldog Publicity has said, “Timekeepers just may be the most action driven script I have ever read, this grabs you by the collar and fires you into a cauldron of SiFi Nirvana … Strong characters, great cadence, plot all in a screen script revision from the novel Timekeepers written by Stephen McKinnon! The screenplay adaptation was written by the renowned H. Scott Hughes. With Suzanne Lyons at the helm, this may well be the mold breaker for Canadian Film.”
I haven’t had the opportunity to read the script (only a handful of people have, it’s kind of top secret), but nevertheless I tend to agree with Jim, it seems to me this film is already breaking new ground. I mean when was the last time you saw a world class crew of actors and filmmakers working on a full-length feature film of the Science Fiction/ Drama/ Western genre in Miramichi? When was the last time you recognized a movie star on the street in Miramichi who was here to work and not vacation? I’ll tell you when—NEVER! Well, not in my lifetime anyway, I can’t claim to know everything that happened here before 1969.
But if Stephen McKinnon turns his dream into reality the answer to those questions next summer and the summer after that, and the summer after that, and so on, will always be, “Just the other day” or “Just last year.” Because he’s confident that if he can make Timekeepers here, he’ll be able to make a feature film every year from then on and possibly even begin shooting a television series here.
“Hollywood North the Second!” he exclaims. And why not? Film is big business in Hollywood, New York, Toronto, Vancouver … why not here? In this age, unlike any other before, it’s possible to do pretty much anything, anywhere.
Did you recognize Suzanne Lyons name mentioned above in Jim Lavoie’s quote? If not, let me tell you a bit about her. She is the Executive Producer on Timekeepers and also a fellow Miramichier, born and raised in Millbank, though she’s lived away for a good many years now and is based out of Los Angeles, California.
With over 25 years experience, Suzanne knows the film industry! She literally wrote the book on independent film producing. She’s produced or executive produced at least eight feature films, including the BAFTA Award-winning comedy, Undertaking Betty, starring Alfred Molina, Naomi Watts, and Christopher Walken; the comedy Baily’s Billion$, starring Dean Cain, Tim Curry, and Jon Lovitz; and the action thriller, Jericho Mansions, starring James Caan, Genevieve Bujold, and Jennifer Tilly.
When she launched her book, Indie Film Producing: The Craft of Low Budget Filmmaking, earlier this year we published an article about it and her. You can click here to read it, but suffice it to say Suzanne has the heart of the Miramichi and the Hollywood business sense—definitely a winning combo!
Stephen first met Suzanne a few years ago when he was getting Canada (East) Films off the ground. It wasn’t easy, he had to start from scratch buying his own equipment, and he soon realized that shooting training videos and the like in the military and making films were two very different experiences. So he learned the hard way, through trial and error, all the while taking workshops through the NB Film Co-op to help hone his craft. Suzanne gave one of those workshops. Soon he was flying off to Los Angeles to take her more intensive course through the Flash Forward Institute she co-founded. Stephen references the binder notes from that course, as well as Suzanne’s book, religiously.
To have someone of Suzanne’s calibre on board as Executive Producer is very exciting!
But maybe movies in general just don’t excite you much—that’s okay. Because what really excites me about this film, which should excite anyone who lives here, is the positive economic impact this will have on our community.
It’s true that Stephen is committed to hiring the very best people, like Canadian director, Stephen Reynolds, for example, whose name you may not immediately recognize but perhaps you’ve heard of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Haven, or Combat Hospital, to name just a few of the numerous projects he’s worked on. The actors and actresses in discussion for the leading roles have impressive film credits to their names already, especially in the Sci-Fi genre (think The Chronicles of Riddick, 300, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World).
But Stephen is also committed to using homegrown talent whenever possible. There will be jobs for locals both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Out-of-towners will need a place to stay. Everyone involved will need to eat. Any equipment or supplies that are needed will be purchased locally if at all possible. A production of this scope and magnitude will bring in an awful lot of revenue to local businesses in a very short time, roughly two months. And if the first film is successful there are already plans to continue the series, so it wouldn’t be just a one-shot deal but we could see a whole film franchise grow up right here in our own backyard.
There’s only one obstacle stopping all this from happening … that old saying, “It takes money, to make money.” Timekeepers has a pretty conservative budget by Hollywood standards of just a few million dollars, but they still need some private investors to come on board in order to make the magic happen.
Stephen knows he could move the film out of province and find investors in Ontario, Alberta or British Columbia very easily, because they’re used to making movies out there, they understand the gains to be made, but he really wants to keep the revenue in New Brunswick. It’s his dream to create this financial opportunity right here, where it’s really needed.
There are many different levels of investment opportunities offering some extra perks like Associate Producer credits, walk on or speaking roles, an Executive Producer chair on set, and so on. But these are just perks, a show of thanks for your support, in essence investors own a share or shares of the film. So when the film makes money, the investors make money.
And given how hot the genre is right now, and how much industry executives are loving films that can be serialized, and the world class talent interested in working on this movie, and how low the budget is to begin with, and that nobody makes a dime until the investors have been paid back their initial investment … I’m thinking the investors on this one are definitely going to make a healthy profit. Yes, any investment is risky, and I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but I really don’t think this would be any more risky than playing in the stock market (and these days, maybe even less so!)
And that’s why meeting Stephen McKinnon has me wishing I didn’t live week to week, that I had some savings, because if I had money he could count me in! I was so inspired the day I spoke to him about writing this article that on my way home I bought my first lottery ticket. Now THAT was a risky investment! And unfortunately there was no return on my four dollars, so I’m still wishing I had money.
For more information about Canada (East) Films or Timekeepers visit their websites, like their Facebook pages (Timekeepers / Canada-East-Films) or follow them on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about becoming an investor email email@example.com or telephone (506)773-6521.
Kellie Underhill has been the Editor of Bread ‘n Molasses since its inception in 2003. A member of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick where she once sat on the Board of Directors, Kellie particularly enjoys working with writers at the beginning of their careers to help build their skills and even more importantly, their confidence.