Monday, September 6, 2010

Canada's coolest couple knows how to chill

Until recently, culturally sussed Vancouver couple Terry Miles and Kelly Haigh were probably best known as the brains and beauty behind the unjustly overlooked dream pop threat Ashley Park. That is, before Haigh's knack for blurring the line between cute and creepy in her nightmarish portraits of big-eyed children and their cuddly blood-splattered animal pals was noted by her music scene contemporaries Carolyn Mark, Geoff Berner and Skip Heller who turned her paintings into album sleeve art.
Meanwhile, Miles' lifelong interest in cinema was becoming much more than a recreational pursuit. Making movies might seem like an an odd change in career path for anyone unaware that Ashley Park was the incidental byproduct of Miles' scheme to make a short film documentary with friends about childhood dreams and pastimes. In no time flat, the accomplished indie films that our budding auteur was busily shooting from his own deviously twisted scripts, namely 2008's When Life Was Good and 2009's The Red Rooster, were raising Miles' movie biz profile on the festival circuit and beyond. 

His latest achievement as writer, director, cinematographer and producer is the decidedly dark tragicomedy A Night For Dying Tigers – think Return Of the Secaucus Seven meets The Celebration – which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival [at AMC 3 on Friday (Sept 10) at 8:45 pm: at AMC 2 on Saturday (Sept 11) at 11:45 am;  at AMC 6 on Friday (Sept 17) at 3:30 pm] and looks to be the darkhorse domestic delight in this year's Contemporary World Cinema slate. There's nothing like a little TIFF buzz to make a struggling filmmaker sigh with relief that he's no longer a scuffling musician.
"I’d always loved music, literature, and film," explains Miles, "but I figured if it didn’t look like one of my bands would ever become as popular as Pavement or Yo La Tengo, I would eventually stop touring and write a novel. Ashley Park was on tour in the UK when we hit Cambridge and Oxford and seeing those old institutions made me question everything.
"The lure of 'letters' along with my increasing distaste for dingy basement dives – particularly the smell of those bars during soundcheck in addition to the late night tear down and load up – led me to University. I knew I would always love music, but I needed a change. I didn’t want to be in my 40s still loading gear into a van at three in the morning. Concurrent to this, I was making music videos and writing screenplays. I entered the worlds of university and filmmaking at the same time."
Considering that the Ashley Park's final bow,  Nobody Broke Your Heart (Darling Music), was released in 2006, Miles has made the difficult leap from "former musician" to  "promising director" in remarkably quick and surefooted fashion. That he managed to secure Jennifer Beals as the female lead opposite Gil Bellows (whose brake-out role in Shawshank Redemption helped many forget he was also Billy Thomas on Ally McBeal) for his small budget psycho-drama says a lot about his growing reputation as a gifted storyteller.
"I wanted to write a film for grownups, and I think that's something actors would appreciate. I read A LOT of screenplays, and, quite frankly, most of them are terrible – I mean really and truly awful. After more than a decade of constant writing, I’ve developed an ability to write a good script. Of course, a solid script does not a movie make. It’s just the invitation to the party, not the party itself. I can print up a great looking invitation, but turning that into a decent film involves a great deal of hard work, timing, and luck.
"To me, the film seemed like a good fit for Jennifer. Knowing her work in The Anniversary Party, Roger Dodger and The Last Days of Disco, I had a feeling she would respond to this material. So our casting director sent the script to Jennifer's manager. She read it, loved it, and forwarded it to Jennifer. She loved it and that was that. I’ve always believed if I can get the right actor to read a script, they’ll do it. Getting past the agents and managers is usually the hard bit."
Just having completed the final sound mix for A Night For Dying Tigers, the Moosjaw-born Miles sounds genuinely thrilled to be returning to Toronto for TIFF and drinking in all that comes with it. 
"It’s mecca for Canadian film. TIFF is recognized internationally as a leader in presenting quality films. Also, it’s a lot of fun, and the programmers are really great folks to hang out with and talk film."

A Night For Dying Tigers trailer

Of course, while Miles is hanging out in Toronto, Haigh isn't sitting at home in Vancouver with her sidekick Frances (The Singing Dog) dreaming of pancakes. Well, not all day at least. She's already planning the follow-up to her stunning new Country Western Star (Darling Music) album – a thriller-chiller of a solo debut.
From her sweetly sung backing vocals and unobtrusive keyboard parts that coloured Ashley Park's recordings, it's doubtful anyone might've suspected Haigh might be harbouring a cosmic country musical marvel she could knock out on her own Emitt Rhodes-style but that's precisely what she did with Country Western Star.  Not unlike the way her partner Miles maintains control of his movie projects, Haigh composed and arranged the songs, played all the instruments, recorded and mixed the whole shebang at home and then painted the suitably disturbing cover art for the lovely gatefold CD package she designed. It would be a remarkable feat for an accomplished veteran to pull off but this kinda grand slam home run for Haigh's first at bat is truly exceptional. 
"When Terry had lost his passion for making music and decided to make films instead," says Haigh, "I still wanted to record. I'd been thinking about doing an album for the past few years, but didn't know it was something I could just do on my own.
"I have these animal spirit guide cards, and one day I pulled the antelope. The antelope's message was 'Do it now. Don't wait any longer. Take courage and leap! Your sense of timing is perfect. The time is now, the power is in you!" I thought, 'Holy shit, antelope – you're right!' Twenty minutes later I went out and bought myself a new Mac laptop with garageband software and got right to work."
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Haigh's recording is the song writing process. Not unlike the "sky songs" which Bukka White described as coming to him from above, Haigh says many of the twangy tunes that tell the story of Country Western Star simply turned up fully-formed in her dreams.
"Country music is the happiest music for me," she explains. "It takes me back to being a kid, laying on a vast sea of cream shag carpet on a Sunday morning, listening to the voices of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner in the morning while mom was making pancakes.
"I've always loved those country & western star ladies like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. They were never embarrassed by heartache, or too ashamed of their own personal trials to share them in song. I would dream of being just like them, singing at the Grand Ole Opry. Of course, the days of fancy gowns and big hair have passed, and I'm far too shy, so I decided to live the dream of being a country western star at night, in my sleep.
"Suddenly, one by one, these songs started coming to me. I would lay in bed, half asleep, hearing them over and over, almost like they already existed some place. They lived in my head, playing on the magical jukebox in my mind each night until I decided to write them down and record them."  
There were a couple of songs written while Haigh was at least partially conscious, including the intriguing Eight Point Suicide. That was the tune, according to Haigh, which got the recording project underway in earnest.  
"It was written in waking hours on a drive to Tofino on New Year's Eve during a blizzard. I was sure we'd go off the side of a cliff and die. The experience made me think about a girl wandering into the night to intentionally jump off a cliff. Then I imagined a lone stag, having a similar idea, only coming out into the middle of the road to end it all.
"When we finally made it to the cabin in one piece, I sat down and wrote down all the words and chords. It was the first song I ever wrote in my life. At the time, I didn't know I'd ever record it."
Now that the album is finished and available for sale through her site (see links below), Haigh is focusing on her next recording project for which she has half the material ready to go. Apparently she has no burning desire to turn her Country Western Star dreams into performing reality. Although true to her macabre sense of humour, Haigh confesses that she wouldn't be against a bit of posthumous cult worship.
"I have this silly secret dream where long after I'm dead, someone discovers my album and wonders why no one has ever heard of my music before. Then a cool label reissues it and Country Western Star becomes wildly popular and even gets pressed on vinyl!"

Terry Miles
A Night For Dying Tigers @ TIFF
Kelly Haigh
Ashley Park

1 comment:

  1. What a fun story ... I am a huge fan of both Kelly and Terry s work. Visiting their house is like a visit to the Adams Family... They both also have a great sense of humor ...the kind that makes you wet yourself in a hysterical fit that causes the loss of muscle control... you have to read Kelly's blog on her website...the fact that she travels with a stuffed dog in her handbag is a bit worrying though.