Amy Lam on ‘Bugs,’ Life of a Craphead’s feature-length debut
Since 2006, Amy Lam and Jon McCurley’s performance art partnership Life of a Craphead has been responsible for – among other things – renting out videos they rented from Queen Video, filling the Yonge-Dundas intersection with actors pretending to sell things, and proposing a “stress ramp” that directs anxious Torontonians into Lake Ontario. Their newest work, Bugs, is their feature-length film debut: a satire that reimagines Toronto as a bug garden run by an unaccountable family. It screens at the AGO Dec. 11, and beyond that, Life of a Craphead is looking for experimental art film festivals to submit it to.
Long Winter: Tell me about Bugs.
Amy Lam: It is a feature length movie that we’ve been making for the last five years, since 2011, and it’s a satire about a bug society. All of the bugs are played by actors, so it’s live action, and it’s in this kind of stylized world that was designed by an artist, Laura McCoy. The plot is very complicated, but essentially the plot is about the bug prime minister, who’s retiring. His name is Shay, and he has to choose who’s going to take over – who’s going to be his heir. He’s chosen one of his three nieces, who’s named Gaston, but Gaston is overly ambitious and has all these really bad ideas, like Gaston thinks that she should make political campaign videos that are in the style of Jackass or something like that to be edgy and provocative. And then he also has this other niece, Dan, who’s more idealistic and is in conflict about her family and the role that the family has in the bug garden, because they’re the most powerful family, and then basically what happens is there’s other bugs in the bug garden who are anti-Shay and anti- this powerful family, so that’s where the conflict follows.
So is it kind of like King Lear for bugs in Toronto?
[Laughs] It’s not, but I guess there are elements of Shakespeare in it, because one of the things that is in the movie that was inspired by Macbeth I guess is there’s a bug oracle that Shay goes to for advice, and when we were writing it, we were like, “Oh yeah, this is like the witches in Macbeth,” but no, it’s not like a version of King Lear.
Well, we wanted to make a kind of Disney-style movie. There’s things about Disney movies that are very clear. They create these kind of seamless worlds, and then the story is generally the same: there’s an arc, and then there’s change at the end. We kind of wanted to flip that a bit. So in our world we have a world of bugs like in A Bug’s Life, but the world isn’t seamless at all. Everything’s shot in Toronto, and there’s a beach in the movie, but the beach is at Dundas and Lansdowne, or the oracle is actually the faces of the Hakim Optical. So you really see what is actually the reality behind the movie. And then in terms of the story, we were thinking about Disney stories, and we wanted to do kind of the opposite. So in the story, generally what happens is nothing changes, or there’s change, but it’s a failure. But we also thought it would be funny… in that it’s difficult to make a movie. One of the problems or difficulties is that everyone’s dressed like a bug, so they all have these wigs and they all have this antennae and this eyebrow which makes them all look the same, which is hard for people watching the movie because it’s hard to tell apart the characters. So that’s kind of a problem we created for ourselves.
How did you work around that?
We tried to do things in post-production. When we made it, we didn’t really think it would be an issue, because we know who all the actors are, so it’s easy for us to distinguish, but in post we’ve added things like titles and overlays to the movie to help people kind of understand it easier
What’s special about Bug Toronto? Is there special bug infrastructure?
It’s pretty much the same as Toronto [laughs], it’s just that everything’s kind of in the wrong place or it’s in an unexpected place. So there’s a FedEx/Kinkos in the movie, but it’s in the bathroom of the AGO, or there’s a police station, but it’s the Palais Royale, and then inside the police station is actually the inside of Double Double Land. So it’s kind of misaligned.
What could normal Toronto learn from Bug Toronto?
Oh my god [laughs]. Good question. Hmm. Well, I guess in the movie Bug Toronto’s kind of like… it’s not a worse version of Toronto, but it’s kind of an exaggerated version. So the things that are worse are worse. So in terms of the political structure of Bug Toronto, it’s run by this one family, and they make these bad decisions and they’re not accountable to anyone, which is how it feels sometimes in Toronto Toronto, so I don’t know if Toronto has something to learn from Bug Toronto, necessarily, it’s a little bit like it’s a funnier but also more dystopic version of Toronto.
Who else is involved in the project?
So Jon McCurley and I wrote it and directed it and edited it, and… then so many people were involved – I think more than a hundred people over the course of the project – but one of the people we worked with the most was Laura McCoy, who’s an artist who designed everything in the movie and made all the costumes with Zoe Solomon, who’s another artist, and then the actors are… some are non-actors or they’re first-time actors, and then some are professional actors or theatre people. So Gwen Bieniara who’s the main character in the movie [Dan] has done performance before, but it’s her first time in a movie, and then Liz Peterson plays Gaston. Liz is a theatre actor, but she’s been in other art films before, and then Glenn Macaulay, who plays Sexy Bug – who’s kind of the villain of the movie – is a comedian. There’s a bunch of comedians: Kayla Lorette… But Jon said at the screening on Friday, lots of times what happened would be we needed someone to play somebody and then we would ask them to bring a friend. So there’s cops in the movie and one of the cops is Jessica Valleau and then she brought a friend, Connor Crawford, so they have this kind of dynamic between themselves that comes through in the movie as well. And then the guy who plays the prime minister, Shay, is Jon’s high school drama teacher [Gerry Campbell].
Is there any improvising going on in the movie?
Yeah. The first time we shot it – because we shot it over three years – the first time we wrote a script it was more scripted, and then we rewrote it and reedited it, and then the second time we would still write a script and have a structure for scenes and stuff, but there was lots of room for improvisation. Which is partly why editing took us so long. Because we were cutting between things that we couldn’t cut between.
Would you say it took this long because it was your first full-length, or because you were working on other projects at the same time, or…
It was kind of a mix of both. We were doing other projects, but also it took a long time because we didn’t know what we were doing. The first time we shot we thought we would be finished in six months or something, and afterwards, it was like, “Woah, this isn’t gonna work. We need to shoot more, we need to write more,” so yeah. I guess it also took long because we didn’t have that much money to do it. So all of the editing we did ourselves whenever we could.
How do you see this project fitting in with the rest of your work?
It’s interesting. We’ve done other narrative projects before. We did a play in 2009 called Double Double Land Land, and then we did something in the Netherlands which was called Storytelling Cube, but I don’t know if that really counts. I mean, our projects are really different in general. We run this show, Doored, which is more of a curating project; and then we do performance pieces which are different, like those are more like the work that was like the [AGO] retrospective in 2013, more conceptual – you look at a photo and then you look at a short piece of text and it’s more about the idea of those two things meeting, whereas this narrative is 74 minutes. It’s pretty long and there’s lots of different things in it. The way I see it… it was really a challenge for us to finish it, and it was a challenge for us to make it, and it’s our first time working in film so it’s out of our comfort zone a bit because we’re used to doing performance, you know? But we want to do more.
Do you have other ideas for films?
We actually first started writing the film in 2010 and we were gonna write two and shoot two at the same time, which is totally insane, but the first ideas for those… I had a dream that I made a movie called Invisible Bitch, so I was trying to write the script for this movie where a woman turns invisible and then she has all these problems, but the invisibility was denoted not by like… it’s not like The Invisible Man or whatever, but just denoted in a different way. So the character would be painted a different colour or something. But I don’t know if we’re gonna make that. And then Jon was working on a story about the biggest asshole in the world meets the second biggest asshole in the world, and then we had this other story about a house that’s like an infinite… the world is basically a house, so everything is in a room. But I think the next movie we write… something that’s interesting in Bugs is every character’s a bug and then old people play young people, so Kayla Lorette in the movie plays an older man, but she’s not made up to look like an older man. You wouldn’t even know really that she’s supposed to be playing an older man, other than her name and the way that she talks to… she’s friends with the prime minister. So we were like, “Oh, we can do these things where we cast people against what they are or what they present as,” so we kind of tried to ignore things like gender or age and stuff like that, but we’ve been talking about it and we want to actually make another Bugs movie or another movie set in the Bugs universe, but it wouldn’t necessarily look the same. The production design – the bugs – wouldn’t necessarily have to look the same, but it would still be in that universe. We were just thinking it would have to address the actual identities of the actors or actually address the gender and race and age kind of issues. In this first movie, we just kind of tried to ignore it or say that it doesn’t matter, you know? “Anyone can play anyone,” but I feel like in a new movie we would kind of deal with that stuff. Also in the movie there’s a group of birds who live in the bird country beside the bugs, and so there’s this conflict between them, but it’s not like an allegory for race or for nation, it’s left really vague, it’s left open ended. So I feel like in another movie we would deal with the birds more, and the differences between the bugs.
Are you the kind of person who likes to be busy with multiple projects at the same time, or would you rather be focused on one over a set period of time?
It’s a little bit annoying to do multiple things at the same time. You always have to stop what you’re doing and work on something else. But we wouldn’t have been able to make the movie without doing Doored, I think, because through Doored we met all these people and Doored is a collaborative thing that involves 30 people each month, and so working on the movie it was really useful and helpful to have a group of people who we had worked with before who could help us with different things on the movie. So I think ideally we wouldn’t have to work on so many things at once, but it is a big part of how we’re able to get stuff done, because a lot of our stuff is based on friends helping us.
This isn’t your first time working with the AGO. What do you get out of working with a large institution like this?
Yeah. Now we have a relationship with the AGO – or some kind of relationship – where they’re into presenting the things that we do because it helps us reach… first of all if we didn’t have the AGO we’d probably have to rent the Royal or something and it would cost more money. But it’s nice because it… it does what the AGO does, which is, it legitimizes – to a certain extent – what you’re doing; it kind of gives it a context and people can understand it as art. When you make art that’s really hard to see where it acts as art, if you’re presenting it… like, originally we had ideas like, “Oh, we should screen Bugs in a parking lot,” like on the side of Shoppers Drug Mart or something. But the movie itself is so crazy and so confusing that if it were in an even more confusing place it would just be unintelligible. So it helps to have it at Jackman Hall and have that kind of frame around it. When we first started working with the AGO in 2013, going into the retrospective because we were artists in residence there, we had just heard things about how difficult it is to get stuff done there because it’s such a large institution and there’s so much bureaucracy, so we went in really defensively. We were very organized, and we decided to do something that we wouldn’t have trouble with; we decided to print photos and put them on the wall. We didn’t decide to do a performance of blowing up a car or whatever; we tried to do what we thought would be not easier, but would just not take all of our time to fight the institution about. So that’s just one thing about working with the AGO. It’s good – there’s many things that are good about it, and then there’s also other things where you have to be aware of the context of the AGO itself, as this institution with all these different departments and rules and stuff.
Where does Bugs go after the AGO?
We’re submitting to different festivals this month. So we’re looking at festivals that are more experimental art film festivals, and then it’ll be online at some point. But we’re not sure when.
What’s next for you? What does 2016 have in store for Life of a Craphead?
We’re in a show at U of T, at the Justina M. Barnicke [Gallery]. We’re curating a performance series there. So it’s a show that is gonna be kind of a Toronto survey show that’s curated by Sarah Robayo Sheridan, who’s the curator there, and it’s themed around the changes that real estate development have caused in Toronto, and it’s all Toronto-based artists. So what we’re doing is we’re curating a performance series that’s happening with the exhibition itself, so there’s gonna be two performances on two Saturdays in February and March that we’re curating, and then we also have a work in the show. And then we’re doing something with the CAFKA Biennial in Kitchener-Waterloo in June, and then we’re also working on Doored, so we’re gonna do Doored every month until it’s over, which is 30 shows. Now we’re at 22 shows. I think in 2015 we only did three Dooreds, maybe. Three or four, which is because we were too busy, but we’re gonna try and do one every month. And then this year I guess we’ll start writing another movie.
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