Has Vancouver ever produced anything quite like Afterparty? Michelle Ouellet’s feature is almost entirely improvised—that’s not so unusual—but there’s a seductively modest and low-key groove to the film.
It’s a ballsy start for a young director, setting a film in a single location and letting a bunch of thirtysomethings yak at each other. The arc bends low, little is resolved by the end—the premise here being that Charlie (Graham Coffengs) brings a bunch of old high school pals (and a few fresh faces) back to a swanky West Van pad after his brother’s wedding—but there are big truths among the little chills.
“Mike Leigh was a huge influence,” says Ouellet, calling the Straight from her West Side home and explaining that she and her nine principle actors—and there isn’t a weak one in the bunch—expanded on their own incipient middle-age lives to find their characters.
With everybody roughly outlined, Ouellet had her team improvise the shit out of their new personae at a rehearsal dinner. Out of this came a 40 scene outline—but not much more. When we see Christina Sicoli’s endearing space-case Moon recite some questionable “beat poetry” in the movie, we’re treated to her own spontaneous (and very funny) act of creation.
“That was just one line in the outline,” says Ouellet. “It was: ‘Moon has an idea.’ That was totally from her twisted mind. While we were shooting I remember thinking, ‘I never could have written this.’”
Meanwhile, there was a lot of necessary improv on the other side of the camera. “It was crazy,” recalls the director. “Everybody was talking at the same time, our sound guy didn’t know who to boom, our camera guy didn’t know who to film. The cast, the crew, and myself, we figured out the rules together.”
Eventually they all found the right pocket over the course of a chronologically planned, six-weekend shoot. In one of the best scenes in the film, wantonly obnoxious Bruce (Nicholas Carella) gets cock-blocked by New York actor-writer Tracy (Ali Liebert) as he tries to wheel 22-year-old caterer Hailey (Emma Lahana). There’s a fabulously painful ring of authenticity to the situation, right down to the woolly, hand held camera moves.
“The crew got really good by the end,” says Oulette, “anticipating who was talking and understanding the dynamics of the characters. That scene was like a dance, where everyone was working together. It’s one long take. It’s not perfect, but the edge and the feel that it has? It adds another quality to the discomfort.”
When Afterparty gets its hometown premiere at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival on Saturday (March 8), it’ll also mark the local debut of Sociable Films, a “boutique film production company” launched in 2011 by Ouellet and her Afterparty star, Ali Liebert. It’s hard to imagine a project better suited to their aims. Ouellet and nine of her friends turning their shared life experiences into drama? What could be more Sociable than that?
“It was produced cooperatively, and the aim of Sociable Films is to build community,” explains Ouellet. “And we want to say yes to ideas that excite us. Not just stories, but also processes. This was something that was almost entirely process-based. We weren’t trying to make something for any other reason than to make it. For the story, and for the experience itself.”