By Ryan Pike
Many people dream of the glitz and glamour of filmmaking, never realizing that the road to Hollywood is long and treacherous. Too many aspiring filmmakers to count have abandoned their dreams amidst the murkiness of that path, but Robert Cuffley isn’t one of them. The Calgary-based writer/director turned a youthful fascination with film into a career making movies, including the upcoming Walk All Over Me. Cuffley’s path to becoming a filmmaker began in Grade 8.
“I took some of my brother’s toys and lit them on fire and shot it on Super 8,” recalls Cuffley. “That was the first thing I ever did. Then I went to the film program at SAIT and started doing stuff on weekends–short films–and then after I graduated I started shooting commercials and music videos and kind of went on from there.”
Following up on his experiences, Cuffley crafted a pair of short films–1996’s Eyes for You and 1999’s Soother–before making the jump to feature-length projects with 2002’s Turning Paige. Starring Da Vinci’s Inquest’s Nicholas Campbell and Ginger Snaps’ Katherine Isabelle, the drama was a breakthrough for Cuffley, garnering multiple Genie Award nominations and a pair of awards at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The adjustment to a longer production laid largely in dealing with a larger budget.
“When the budgets go up [and] something goes wrong, heads roll,” remarks Cuffley. “Whereas with short films, something goes wrong everyone just goes, ‘eh.’ But if it’s a movie and there’s a budget involved, there’s more at stake–more accountability, I guess. So, pressure on me as a filmmaker just makes me all the more cognisant that I better have my shit together.”
Cuffley followed up his success by directing an episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest and eventually making his second feature film, Walk All Over Me. He explains the five-year gap between features was the result of the long process of acquiring funding. When the film finally came together, the title of the film had changed–once titled Alberta Bound, a play on the song and tourism marketing campaign, the film was re-christened Walk All Over Me.
“A lot of Canadian filmmakers and American filmmakers for that matter make films for their own country and never stop to think, ‘how is this going to play in Spain or outside of Canada?’” says Cuffley. “The distributor convinced me. He said, ‘Alberta Bound, very good title, yes it’s cute and people are going to get the irony, but ultimately nobody in the States is going to know what that means, nobody in Europe is going to know the phrase, so to speak.’ That’s why we called it Walk All Over Me.”
The concept of juxtaposing an innocent person in a dark world appealed to Cuffley. From there, he crafted Walk All Over Me, featuring Leelee Sobieski as a young woman who unwittingly becomes embroiled in the world of dominatrixes.
“I really liked this idea of there being this world and then taking an ingenue, someone really naÃ¯ve, and having him or her step into this somewhat darker world,” shares Cuffley. “Leelee Sobieski, who played Alberta, she really gravitated towards it because she hadn’t done anything like that. I just liked playing with that innocence stepping into a puddle of danger and just watching her try to get the hell out of it and seeing what happens.”
A SAIT graduate, Cuffley respects the time and dedication it takes to pursue higher education. However, he notes that often a film career is launched through hard work outside of the classroom rather than inside it.
“Go to school if you want, it’s expensive to take film in post-secondary, but mostly just go shoot something,” advises Cuffley. “Go make it, cut it together–if you’ve got a Mac you can get Final Cut Pro–and then enter it into a festival. It’s amazingly cheap, you can make a short film for $100 and lots of time, but the actual outlaying of cash [is small].”
Now that Walk All Over Me has been completed, Cuffley has two films he’s developing–one large-budget and one low-budget. He recommends that young filmmakers keep plugging away, even if they have to do so for several years to get projects done.
“The advice I would give is to just stick it out,” reflects Cuffley. “Because the long gestation between projects kind of makes a lot of people go, ‘it’s not worth it,’ and they go on to other projects but the people who stick it through, the most stubborn people, can usually sometimes get films made.”
Walk All Over Me opens Fri., Dec. 7 at the Uptown.