Growing up in Melville, Saskatchewan, Neil Champagne was surrounded by people who aspired to be hockey players. At six years old, Neil was asked at a friend’s birthday party what he wanted to do when he grew up. His answer was simple: he wanted to make movies.
Not coincidentally, Champagne’s family was heavily influenced by the arts. His father was a jazz musician who owned a Super 8 camera and his grandma lived in New York City and worked as a vaudeville performer from time to time.
“As long as I can remember, I always wanted to make films. My dad is a movie buff, so growing up I wasn’t watching The Little Mermaid, I was watching Casablanca,” says Champagne.
Believing in the powerful emotive force that a film can have on an audience, he set out to live his dream.
“For better or worse a film can move you, and I think it’s a very powerful thing to have control of, to help motivate people to do or feel something,” he says.
Trying to build a portfolio for himself growing up, he would shoot ski movies for his friend – a ski coach who would get him out to the hills to capture every moment. His passion progressed from there.
“I wanted to go to the US for school, but couldn’t afford it at first,” he says. “So I went to the University of Regina for a year and a half.”
Eventually he applied and received a scholarship to the film academy in New York City.
“I was in New York for four and a half years and I loved it,” he says.
“Culturally, it’s the first place I ever felt I fit in. As close as my friends were in Saskatchewan, I was always a little different. When I moved to New York, I thought this is where I belong,” he shares.
During his time there, he worked at places such as the Producers Guild of America and the Tribeca Film Festival.
“It was overwhelming at first, but you have to gamble in life if you are really going for something bigger than yourself,” he says.
“What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You’ll fail and then end up exactly where you were 10 minutes ago. You live on.”
After his time in New York, he decided to make another move, and went to finish his schooling at York University – into which he talked his way after missing the application deadline. After spending two years finishing up his undergrad, and spending every summer at UCLA, he ended up making the decision to move to Calgary in order to be the leader in his own creative initiatives.
“I kind of hit a wall where I was still freelancing for all these people and it was life-changing for me. I learned a lot, but I didn’t want to be freelancing for other directors, I wanted to be in their shoes. I was too ambitious to be complacent,” he says.
Since then, Champagne has written a pilot alongside producing partner Conrad Sun and works remotely for Motion Theory and Specialized Media.
His latest endeavour? A short film called Microwave, which recently won second prize for Best Screenplay at the Alaskan Film Festival.
“Microwave is a screenplay I wrote three years ago,” says Champagne. “It’s about sibling rivalry, loss and dealing with that grieving process, and just coming to terms with something that is bigger than you and your sibling. The project is personal enough for me that I want to share the story.”
Champagne has learned a lot over the years and has realized it takes patience to be in the film industry.
“It’s a marathon: that’s the most important thing that I have learned over the past eight years,” he says.
“You’re not going to have success overnight, you have to be committed to the fact that you’re investing in a 10-year plan. Above all, you have to know that this is what you want to do.”
By Kaila Sept
Photo: Provided by Neil Champagne