A stage production called ‘Descent’, also written and directed by Ed Gass- Donnelly, was the first incarnation of what would later become This Beautiful City. Aaron Poole played the character of Johnny in the stage version and was eager to work with Gass-Donnelly on the screenplay as producer and story editor. The two have been long time collaborators.
Using ‘Descent’ as a framework, Gass-Donnelly and Poole began working on the screenplay for This Beautiful City by reshaping the dialogue and further exploring the areas of the city that Gass-Donnelly had derived inspiration from – areas that would soon become the setting for the film.
“I wanted to make a film that embraced the specificity of the neighbourhood I live in. I have always been inspired by stories of normal people who are pushed to extreme behavior,” notes Gass-Donnelly. “There is a mystery involved in humanizing extremity that I find compelling. But I’m far less interested in the salacious details of extremity than I am the emotional consequences and the journey that leads people to them.”
Knowing Lee Kim’s background in film as a producer, director and actor, Poole approached him with the screenplay. “The creative elements of the script were compelling with characters that were rich in emotion yet completely understated,” says Kim. “There was a very European sensibility to the story and characters, one that pushed the boundaries of what we are used to seeing in Canadian cinema.” These elements combined with Kim having seen Gass- Donnelly’s award-winning short film Pink, solidified his commitment to the project as a producer.
Gass-Donnelly, Poole and Kim committed to a production date for the film, despite a number of unsettled technicalities. “We were a train with no brakes…the spirit of that commitment carried us through the obstacles that face an independent production,” says Gass-Donnelly. “The start date always loomed on our calendar…we never wavered. People responded to that tenacity. Our confidence inspired them to help.”
The film has really been the little engine that could.
Most remarkable, however, is the transformation undertook by the performers. Aaron Poole, who offers a stunning performance as Johnny, lost over 30 lbs and had a tooth surgically removed for the role. Now THAT is commitment.
“To shoot this film in another city or another area of the city would be a betrayal to the film itself and to Toronto, whether the characters are fictitious or not,” notes Kristin Booth.
Shot and set in Toronto, specifically in the transitional West Queen West and Parkdale areas, these neighbourhoods became vital in shaping and contextualizing the varied mix of personalities found in the film. Many of the characters in This Beautiful City were influenced by real people living and working in and around these beautifully gritty neighbourhoods.
“This film is a love letter to Toronto,” says Aaron Poole. “But Ed (Gass-Donnelly) is in love with the whole city, the one who wakes up in the morning without any make-up, not just the airbrushed, “world class” city we read about all the time.”
The west side, downtown neighbourhoods embody what This Beautiful City seeks to expose in its narrative: the clash and contrast of two different classes in a space that forces them to be neighbours and the unavoidable interaction that ensues within these constraints.
By shooting on super 16mm film, Gass-Donnelly chose to capture an organic realism fitting with the roughness of the story. In this case, the technical weaknesses of the medium offered an emotional parallel to the narrative. The raw impact of the characters’ journey is fully felt through the unfiltered communication of this handmade aesthetic
Gass-Donnelly used photographs from Nan Goldin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ as a reference. He wanted to achieve an emotional impact and color palate similar to the photographs in Goldin’s work. Gass-Donnelly and cinematographer Micha Dahan were also inspired by overexposed highlights and a hand-held aesthetic.
“The world of Johnny and Pretty is completely hand-held and the world of
Harry and Carol is static. When their lives begin to collide, there is also a visual sense of the two worlds melting together,” explains Gass-Donnelly.
This Beautiful City has the mixed look and feel of a raw documentary combined with poetic photography. “We shot a lot with obstacles in the foreground, soft focus, blown out windows and highlights. Visually, I wanted to celebrate beauty in dark, dirty, and unglamorous environments. Which is ultimately what the film is all about.”
The production signed FemBots as music supervisors for This Beautiful City. Long-time music video collaborators of Gass-Donnelly’s, the band contributed original music to the soundtrack and worked with Gass-Donnelly to attract contributions from other prominent artists from the local music scene including Bryan Webb of The Constantines, Buck 65, Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above 1979, Amy Millan of Stars and Broken Social Scene, Jewish Legend, Sunparlour Players, and more.
“We were inspired by Toronto’s DIY (Do It Yourself) music scene. Here was an example of a grassroots movement achieving international status on their own terms. As an exchange and a thank you, we wanted to include some of this great music in our film project.”
The director also recognized the parallels between the music of many of the bands and the visual aesthetic he was striving for. “We wanted to work with these talented artists on an organic level to compose original music for the film’s soundtrack.”
FEMBOTS (Music Supervision) began as a home recording project of Dave MacKinnon and Brian Poirier. Their debut, Mucho Cuidado (2000), featured songs written and performed on power tools, toys and broken down thrift store instruments. Their critically-acclaimed second release, Small Town
Murder Scene (2003), pushed the weirdness and angularity of their debut into the background and adopted a more atmospheric approach that bridged the gap between the extremes of their sound. They began work on a third record at their Junkshop studio in the spring of 2005. The resulting album, The City, unveils a rich, authentic sound that builds upon the FemBots earlier work while moving in new directions. At its heart, The City is an homage to the band’s hometown – its victories and failures.