Jay Dahl doesn’t have many compliments when he talks about his home province.
“I always wanted to make films,” he says. “I’m from northern Alberta, so that possibility just did not exist. There’s no such thing there as the arts, I guess.”
Dahl isn’t someone who’d let that keep him from getting what he wants. He’s a man of varied interests: Prior to his pursuit of cinematic glory, he studied genetics for four years (“I wanted to be a doctor, of all things.”) and spent the better part of a decade teaching English in Asia. Since moving to Halifax five years ago, he has made about a dozen short films, including Boyclops, Don’t. Don’t Break Up With Megan and The Wedding Video, which earned him the most promising new director award at the 2002 Atlantic Film Festival.
Last year’s nine-minute Backjumping, a hilarious satire on extreme sports that involves jumping on the backs of unsuspecting people, was the hot short to see at the 2004 AFF, and went on to show at festivals around the world, winning awards at five of them.
“There were all these celebrity names that saw it and liked it in London”—at the 47th British Film Institute London Film Festival—“Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes and Bernardo Bertolucci,” says Dahl. “I had a certain colour pass that only got me so many velvet ropes in, so I still couldn’t meet anybody, but it was still really exciting.”
Backjumping has been cannibalized for his newest project, a pilot for a potential CBC series, called Cheap Draft, Bad Language, Fast Cars, Women and a Video Camera. Shot in and around Halifax in September, it’s the story of three guys in their early 20s, narcotized by what Dahl calls “the fog of testosterone.”
Mike, played by Jefferson Brown, is an aspiring filmmaker. In the pilot, he wants to win a contest put on by an extreme sports show, so he and his buddies Cam and Legs (Dahl regulars Dax Ravina and Mark Day) spend some time exploring what makes them really scared, figuring that if they could replicate that anxiety on screen it would make for a great extreme sport. Their fears range from babies to deer to an aggressive martial artist neighbour named Pham.
Dahl admits, as wacky as it sounds, this is the part that is most autobiographical.
“I think I’m a born bullshitter,” he says. “But I really did live next door to a guy, and I was 15 and had long hair and a Led Zeppelin jacket and I wasn’t scared of anything except when he’d scream at me to stop looking at his house. He was insane, and he’d chase us and it was so scary.”
When Mike, Cam and Legs realize what they have in common is the running, the screaming and the fear of getting the shit kicked out of them, it drives them to invent “backjumping” in their efforts to be pummeled on film. Eventually they resort to dressing up in sasquatch costumes.
Dahl says if the show gets picked up, every episode will have the filmmaking trio trying different ways of achieving instant fame through their video camera.
“When you look at Trailer Park Boys, those guys just want to retire, and get successful,” he says. “It’s very much our show as well, even though we went to great lengths to make it different. What Cheap Draft really is, is guys making dumb decisions. Always choosing the path of least resistance, the path that will get them drunk and get them laid.
“The series arc is that they continually fail to ever get anywhere. You’re not going to learn anything watching Cheap Draft, we’re just going to make you laugh.”
Dahl says he owes much of his own success to his decision to come to Halifax, a place where there is support in the filmmaking community as well as readily available sources of financing.
“We’re really lucky here. We’re the centre of four provinces, and we’re cool, but we’re still small. I’d never get a meeting with the head of Telefilm in Toronto. Right now in Toronto there’s 5,000 Jay Dahls trying to do stuff, here there’s two dozen of us.”
Cheap Draft airs January 3 on CBC.