Minimal crew, improvised dialogue, a child actor, and the bustling city of Toronto. These are the parameters set for Dominique Van Olm’s short about her younger brother’s first solo visit to Toronto. Little Brother charts the transitional time of adolescence when childhood ends and independence comes into fruition. It’s a beautiful short and we were fortunate enough to speak to Dominique ahead of Little Brother’s online premiere.
Where did the idea for Little Brother come from?
My brother Dexter and I are 13 years apart, so growing up I would cast him in a lot of the films that my friends and I would make. I quickly realized that Dexter had a natural on screen presence and understood the filmmaking process. Nowadays, we rarely get to spend time with each other as we live on opposite sides of the country, so the idea for the film came from thinking about how I could connect and hang out with my brother and make something together again. When we went into production, Dexter was 12 years old and had never left his home city, so I pitched the idea of flying him out to Toronto to spend the week together and make a film documenting the trip. He was really excited and with the support of our mom, he was brave enough to make the flight all by himself.
Did you have any cinematic influences for Little Brother? Other films or filmmakers?
Right now, I feel like there is a big push towards how reality is represented through cinematic language. I really liked the shooting style of films like locally made Sleeping Giant, Tangerine and Fish Tank, but my DP and I also watched a lot of documentaries. There is a great community of filmmakers in Toronto, so I feel constantly inspired by the work that is being made here.
How did you prep Dexter for this and get him to a place where he felt natural with the camera?
What always surprises me is that Dexter is so natural in front of the camera. The intention for an anti-narrative film didn’t lend itself to a script per say, so Dexter and I rehearsed by having weekly phone calls leading up to the shoot where we talked broadly about the film and ran through the different scenes and people that we interact with. It helped get us on the same page and get comfortable with the whole idea before we started filming.
I approached the story as more of a documentary or process based piece, while keeping focused on the narrative arc I was after.
The first scene of the film was the first time Dexter and I saw each other right after he arrived from the airport, which helped set the tone and get him familiar with the process of what the next four days were going to be like. It was completely natural and like the entirety of the film, it was unscripted. Other than that, we had a small crew of close friends, a couple of whom already knew Dexter, so that helped a lot as well.
I’m really interested in the practicalities of the filming? What was your method of production when capturing the footage and how big was your small crew?
The method of production was unique in the sense that I approached the story as more of a documentary or process based piece, while keeping focused on the narrative arc I was after. The final script ended up reading more like a treatment without written dialogue, but was helpful in guiding our discussions and communicating with the crew.
The edit was really like the first draft of the film and I think that’s why it took me so long to cut. As the work was quite personal, I brought in a Consulting Editor, Ian Sit, who was a big influence in shaping the story you see now. My Composer Dillon Baldaserro was also key in helping to solidify the narrative arc through his score.
My production crew was small and consisted of an AD, a cinematographer and a sound recordist who was also the producer. Everyone wore many hats. Being a five-person team allowed us a lot of flexibility to respond quickly to our surroundings while keeping the performances intimate and the production discreet. Focusing the camera on Dexter at all times allowed my DP, Julia Hendrickson, to capture his experience and perspective as we moved around the city, which also helped me figure out the blocking along the way. Everything was in the moment.
Also production-wise, what did you shoot on and how did you record audio?
Being discreet and flexible was a big consideration for the cinematography. We shot on the Black Magic Pocket Camera and used a hand held gimble to stabilize our shots. My Sound Recordist, Darren Snowden, went undercover using an old purse of mine to hide his gear. All of the dialogue was recorded on lavs. We couldn’t have a boom as it would draw too much attention to what we were going for. He gave the DP and 1st AD earbuds to listen in on the dialogue and have the ability to communicate with one another discreetly without having to rely on being in close proximity. Pretending like the crew wasn’t there was really helpful in capturing the relationship between Dexter and his surroundings.
I’m currently writing my next short film while finishing post on another documentary I directed called Zone Rouge, which follows a group of French bomb de-miners as they clean up unexploded ammunition left over from WW1 and WW2.