By Colin Gallant
CALGARY – Gillian McKercher attended a youth camp held by the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers at age 17, and by 23 headed into the oil and gas industry as a recent engineering grad. Now, 27-year-old McKercher fetes her proper introduction as a career-ready filmmaker with a feature length debut inspired by her experience working in (and being laid off from) the oil and gas sector.
McKercher’s credits alternate between northern field work as an engineer and experimental film shorts; musical mini-docs and working on $200 million energy contracts. Rather than gaze towards her shoes inscribing her initials on celluloid, McKercher’s tender and relatable debut feature casts a wider net on human dignity, reckoning with identity and the conflation of human life with commodity-based industry.
Her darkly comedic drama, Circle of Steel, was worked on in an “active” capacity since January 2016. While the script had long been stewing in her mind, it wasn’t until McKercher received a $100,000 grant from the Calgary Film Centre that a breakneck execution of the film’s production came to pass. The funding came through in May 2017 and completed a $160,000 total made up of an Alberta Production Grant, accounting for roughly 30 per cent of the budget, and a personal investment making up the remaining five-or-so per cent.
The film was shot in just 16 days (plus weekends) from November to December 2017. Its shooting time isn’t unheard of for an indie feature, but for it to be released under one year later is far from a common case. Although there was an agreement with IATSE, the film professionals’ union, ensuring no unreasonable measures were taken, McKercher attests that “A lot of people worked a lot harder than what they got paid [to do]. It was a passion project for a lot of people besides myself, and we were really lucky.”
Key figures in McKercher’s orbit include the roster of her cooperative production company, Kino Sum, lead actress Chantelle Han (playing the role of protagonist Wendy Fong), executive producers and mentors Avi Federgreen and Gary Burns, as well as others.
McKercher said she knew she found the right person to take the lead when she met Han at an event dedicated to artist networking and funding. Though she asked around for references, McKercher says she “offered [Han] the job without even seeing her demo reel.”
While McKercher drew from her experiences and the oil and gas industry members she got to know on the job, Han had to bring something different to the table. “To serve the story, not everything could be true to my life… The story had to be number one,” she insists.
In the bleak existential comedy protagonist Wendy is forced to reconcile her uncertain future, where as McKercher was always torn between energy and art. That conflict was McKercher’s “pressure cooker,” and her layoff somewhat serendipitously cemented her filmmaking ambition. For Wendy, a more acutely existential despair takes the fore.
Without the same extracurricular preoccupations, the toll of the film’s events lands Wendy in a different place than her creator. It also grinds down upon the stellar ensemble cast in an equally sympathetic manor.
McKercher’s film also incorporates an almost-entirely Albertan soundtrack. Her collaboration with Simone Schmidt (who records for the film as Fiver) on the promotional track “Show Me the Mark” aside, the musical moments of the film all come from acts based in Calgary and Edmonton. Some among them are Carter Felker, Dextress, Faith Healer, Marlaena Moore and composer Rebecca Bruton. Past McKercher collaborator Amy Nelson also provides the song “Educated Woman”, used for a poignant karaoke performance by Han. You can also see “Educated Woman” come to life in a different McKercher-Nelson collaboration at the Alberta Music Seen screening at Calgary Film. This event spotlights Albertan-made music videos that cross musicians and filmmakers from the province to naturalistic effect.
Circle of Steel screens at the Globe Cinema on Tuesday, September 25 at 7:00pm and at Eau Claire Cineplex at 11:00am on Sunday, September 30. Alberta Music Seen takes places at Studio Bell, the home of the National Music Centre, on Wednesday, September 26 at 7:00pm.Alberta Music Seen, Calgary film, Circle of Steel, Eau Claire Cineplex, Globe Cinema, National Music Centre, Studio Bell