A Conversation with Firearms Expert/Film Director Dave Brown

Dave Brown has been the only name in firearms safety on Manitoba film sets for about twenty years, but last year he switched gears to direct his first short film, the twelve minute romantic comedy Chump Change. The film screens Sunday, November 6 at 7pm. Tickets are only $10 and are available at the door.

Two other short films will screen, the hilarious Cougars of Winnipeg from Alf Kollinger and Adriana O’Neil, plus the MANITOBA PREMIERE of the amazing film Pick from Calgary filmmaker Benjamin Ross Hayden.

Uniter: I’ve known you for a long time now, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the story of how you got into the business.

Dave Brown: I’ve been a professional firearms trainer for many years. I do a lot of work with commercial clients, government agencies, police and military. At one point in time when the film industry was quite young in Winnipeg and one of the actors (in the film For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, Callum Keith Rennie) had a scene where he was firing a sawed off shotgun. So they found out I was working at a shooting range and they asked if they could send down an actor to do a little bit of coaching with blanks, and what I didn’t tell them was that I had very little experience so I went out to the range that day and fired a couple of blanks. Then the same prop master came up to me about a year later and said ‘we’re shooting this big movie about FBI agents and there’s guns every day and we’d like to have you work on set for the whole movie.’ I thought, ‘that kinda sounds like fun, I don’t know much about movie making.’

So I showed up the first morning and wondered how I was going to tell where they were making this movie, but I turned the corner and there were thirty semi-trailers and two hundred people running around like crazy and lights. Right away they just dropped me right into it. So I’m ready to do some safety briefings and I’m looking at them and I said ‘okay, what am I supposed to do?’ and they look at me and say ‘you’re supposed to tell us, you’re the gun expert.’ So I literally wrote the book on firearms safety in Manitoba as I went along. Never worked with anyone else in film, didn’t know how they operated. In films we do things that we’d never do with a real firearm, we point guns at people all the time. We make sure that they’re empty of course. You work with directors, learn what directors want. If you’re very experienced you’ll learn never to say no to a director, directors don’t like that. If I’m experienced enough, I can find a way to do it. If I don’t have the experience, I’ll say it’s dangerous. I know exactly what’s dangerous, this is my career. I test guns all the time and I know exactly the line and the limits. I never tell the director the actual limits, I always triple them. When the director says ‘this is what I’d like to see’ I say ‘yes we can do that, but let’s try it this way’ and it works out fine and no one’s hurt and I’m happy and the director’s happy.

U: So you are ready to screen your debut short film, Chump Change. Are you satisfied with how it turned out?

DB: We still compromised and make mistakes. I’ve been in the film business twenty years but I’m still a rookie as far as this is concerned. You make rookie mistakes.

We wanted to accomplish certain things. We wanted to challenge the audience and tell a story quickly. Because of the background of Amy acting and working on small film projects and me working on everything from small to big projects, we always like to tell new young filmmakers what to do or what not to do, we wanted to prove it to them. Especially young filmmakers today that worry so much about the camera and they research the heck out of it. It’s not the camera dude, it’s the STORY. You could tell a good story on a two thousand dollar pro-sumer camera, which is what we did.

Because you literally spend virtually twenty years standing behind the camera watching directors and actors work, you get a view of what to do and sometimes what not to do, although I’ll never tell those stories, I had a pretty good idea going in on if I was going to be a director this is how I’m going to direct. I didn’t really go in with the idea that I’d like to be a good director or it was going to be a career or anything else. I just wanted to do it just to do it, period. So I brought in Alf Kollinger, and I’ve shot his movies as a cinematographer so he shot mine as a cinematographer and it’s always fun we always work very well together. One of the things I told Alf at the very beginning was ‘I’m going to want to be behind the camera, but don’t let me behind the camera’, like just kick me out of there. We’re going to set up a monitor and all it’s going to be for is to check framing. Once I’ve seen the framing and it looks cool, kick me out. I have to trust my camera operator to give me the shot that I want, because I’m there for the actors. To me a director is the traditional definition of a director, they’re there to direct the actors. I needed to be on set with the actors. I wasn’t going to be buried in video village - there was no video village - it was me on set with the actors, literally a foot away from the camera, on set the whole time. I thought first of all that the actors would be a little bit bothered by that because a lot of them are used to literally the director being fifty feet away. Number one, they had no problem with it and number two, they really appreciated it. When you’re working with really good and professional actors, if they have a concern or something, they know enough not to say it out loud or yell or stomp their feet or go off to the trailer, they know to talk to the director and get the problem solved right away. When I’m two feet away it’s easy to do.

The funny part is that at the end of the day I turned out to be not so bad a director. According to the actors they really liked it.

U: What role did Amy Simoes take on this film?

DB: (Amy) was co-writer and co-executive producer. We financed the film totally on our credit cards. Didn’t have anyone else paying for it. That was probably the hardest job was hers, because a day or two before we shot she had to drop the executive producer role and put on the acting role, which is a hard thing to do because there’s still lots of work to be done and things to be paid for and arrangements to be made. She had to let all of that go and concentrate on her acting. She’s really good at it. As far as I’m concerned it paid off.

Darryl Dorge is our second lead. We brought in some really good actors and to me, again, being the sort of traditional director, your movie is made in the casting room. The vast majority of the movie is done right there. I tell everybody that it’s nothing. Anyone could direct. I walked in, I just said to them, ‘do what it is you actors do and tell me when you’re done’. I called ‘action’ and ‘cut’ every now and then just to remind people who the director was, but I didn’t really do anything. I had a really good crew that I could trust, my lighting person was Rob Rowan who is obviously one of the most experienced lighting technicians in town. I gave him all of these lights that we borrowed and rented or bought and said ‘this is your kit, you gotta work with it’. He’s used to working out of the back of two semi-trailers.

That’s how we treated everybody. You’re professionals, you know what you’re doing, you know what we want, you know the direction we’re taking the story. Just do what it is you do and tell me when you’re done.

As you know, every actor is a little different. Some of them you do literally have to hold their hand and give them a couple of things. I’d never be the type of director that said ‘be happy, be sad’. I want to tell a story, I want to talk about the characters. In my movie, it’s only twelve and a half minutes, there’s quite a character arc. I want them to take me through that character arc the way I envisioned it, but if the actor gives me something even better, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

I had a really strong cast. I didn’t have any actors that I would’ve had problems with because I’m not experienced enough a director to know how to solve individual problems on a set.

U: Some people might think that making a twelve minute film won’t allow you to tell a whole story, but I’ve seen three minute films that do it. With twelve, you can even work in the three act structure.

DB: To me, twelve minutes is the perfect length. You can do the three act structure. You eliminate stuff that is fun but it’s fluff. Why would you have an establishing shot? Why do you need to see the outside of a warm, little, piano jazz bar, which is where this is placed. As soon as the guy walks in the door, you can see right away this is a piano bar. It’s obvious what it is. Any scene that doesn’t move the story forward, it’s gone. As a director that’s helping out with the editing, a lot of editors see each scene as their baby and they don’t want to get rid of it and they spent three hours on this. I’m not like that. If we spent three hours on this scene and it didn’t work, it’s gone. Amy and I edited it together. She’s got a really good idea of what makes a movie good. Didn’t mean we didn’t argue about things. I remember the discussion was going on about the music - music is a big part of our film. We fight back and forth a little bit but at the end of the day we always got a better product because of it. We really respected each other’s eye and view.

We did traditional type of Hollywood stuff. Just before the credits roll we have a crane shot as the character is walking into the street light.

U: You shot this film about a year ago. Why did it take so long to get the film finished?

DB: Right after we did our film, before we even did the final scene, Amy went off to Australia for six months to join the circus. We couldn’t touch the footage for six months. I was thinking of a few ideas but I needed her to be sitting there throwing ideas back and forth. So it sat in the can for six months.

U: You mention that you shot the film on an everyday camera. Why was that important to you?

DB: We’re filming on mini DV tape. We were not going to use a DSLR because it’s trendy and everyone knows about shallow depth of field. Shallow depth of field is only one element of controlling the viewers attention. There’s the acting, characters, story. I want to film on a $2,000 pro-sumer camera in HD and prove to people that you don’t need a DSLR to tell a good story. We used the lighting to control the exposure instead of the other way around.

We made some mistakes. We made some decisions that when we started editing I said ‘I don’t know if we shoulda done that.’ We had priorities when we shot which were the character and the acting. We’re not worried quite so much about crossing the line (of action). If anyone in the audience says ‘they’ve crossed the line on that shot,’ then we’ve lost them.

U: One thing I like about the filmmaking scene in Winnipeg is that it truly is a scene. I’ve been on set with you and you’ve been on my sets, and people really help each other out here. Instead of moving away and hurting the scene, it’s nice that some people stay and help out other filmmakers.

DB: It’s very unlike Vancouver or Toronto. Developing and maintaining those relationships is so important. People that are newcomers, this person always works with that person. You know what? They got along well together and they can produce and they trust each other and to me that’s the biggest part of it, for an inexperienced director like me, it’s trust.

U: Being a first time director, but also being a guy who has been on set a lot, do you have any words of wisdom for the kids and kiddos out there?

DB: Start off small with a three minute or six minute film. Don’t make a feature. Part of that is protecting your relationships, so if you burn everybody you know on a feature, you’ll probably never make a film in this town again. Start off small and in ten years from now you’re going to look back on your first film and it’s going to be a piece of crap. Do you want a six minute film that’s a piece of crap or an hour and a half film that’s a piece of crap? A year out of your life or a week out of your life? Your first one is not going to be that good.

I’ve been helping so many people out over the years and I’d say ‘oh, if you’ve got the budget I’d like to get this much’ and pay for my time. People appreciate that you put a lot of time into your career, for me it’s a livelihood. A lot of actors it’s part time. If people don’t have the budget, I’d rather be here then not be here and make sure my friends are safe. I don’t do that too much anymore these days. I can’t afford to give anything away for free anymore.

After a while you get frustrated with especially inexperienced people who just say ‘you’ll get a copy of the film and a credit and we’ll feed you’. You look at ‘em and you go ‘you don’t know who I am, right?’ (laughs). I once worked on this horror picture up in Selkirk called The Plague and Bill Butler shot it who shot Jaws. One day on set it was his 80th birthday and this movie was his 80th credit on IMDB. I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to have the same number of credits as your age in years. Wonder if I would ever reach that milestone in my career. Well, I reached that years ago (laughs). I’m getting up to 80 credits or so on IMDB. ‘I’ll give you a copy of the DVD and a credit’ and I say ‘tell you what, keep the DVD and the credit, I don’t need it’ (laughs).