Somewhere deep in the low-rise sameness of the Burnside Industrial Park is a building no different from any anonymous business space. Except this one is filled with lights, cables, monitors, flimsy wooden-walled rooms and a group of children having the time of their lives.
This is the interior set for Summerhood, a summer camp movie based on the real-life experiences of writer-director-actor Jacob Medjuck. Medjuck attended Camp Kadimah, a long-running Jewish summer camp in Barss Corner, NS, for 16 years, first as a camper and then as a counsellor. Having gone to Vancouver for film school, the 29-year-old worked for a time as an animator for Dreamworks and Disney. This is his first live-action feature film.
“Have you seen my kids?” he asks, just as the crew breaks for lunch on the second last day of the shoot. “They’re dirty,” he jokes. The fact he calls them his kids is a good indication of how close he feels to his actors, most aged between 8 and 12 (among the adult leads are SCTV veteran Joe Flaherty and American character actor Christopher McDonald). The shoot has been a month long, with 22 days on location at Camp Kadimah, the place that inspired the story. The cast and much of the crew actually stayed in the camp for the three weeks. Reality and fiction cross over at multiple points here.
The story involves a kid called Fetus, because he’s little, and what should be his last summer before “the pubes come and it’s all over.” This is his last chance to have fun as a boy without worrying about girls. Then he gets a crush on one, and his loyalties are split.
Lucien Maisel is a 10-year-old from Brooklyn. He plays Fetus.
“He falls in love with a girl, and it gets in the way of the plans,” he says. “So that happens. He loses all his friends. But in the end it’s a good movie, I get my friends back, kiss the girl”—he takes a deep breath—“and do the whole thing.”
“That was his first kiss in life,” says Paul McNeill, 29, a director and Summerhood’s producer. “He stressed about it. He wrote 20 pages in his journal, he called his dad. Afterwards, he started pumping his fist on the ground, screaming, ‘I did it! Yes!’”
McNeill and Medjuck are both from Nova Scotia, though didn’t meet until film school in Vancouver in 2002. “I went to Dartmouth High, he went to QEH,” says McNeill. McNeill cast Medjuck in a student film he directed called Boy Wonder, about superheroes. McNeill credits many of the Camp Kadimah alumnus as both inspiration for the story and investors in their film, which is being produced entirely independently.
“They rallied behind the project,” he says. “Their stories are the ones Jacob heard around the kitchen table. He took those stories from 40 or 50 years of camp, added his own, made up a few more, and combined them, and the investors all feel like they’re part of it.”
Medjuck, whose parents met at the camp, has no illusions about the danger of the undertaking, making a feature film, or how lucky he is. “They tell you don’t work with children, boats or animals,” he says over his lunch. “We have all three. It’s a first-time feature, independently financed, single producer. We have creative and financial autonomy. We answer to our own poor taste.”
Maisel is already a veteran actor, Summerhood being his second movie. He’s pleased to be in Halifax to make the picture.
“It’s really open and nature-y and, um, not so populated,” he says, with a distinct Brooklyn accent. He enjoys being around all the other kids on set. “It’s like a vacation,” he says, admitting that he often hides from the on-set tutor so he can avoid schoolwork. The life of an actor on location is starting to have its effect: Maisel has been in Nova Scotia since late September.
“I’ve been here so long, it feels like home,” says the child actor, suddenly serious. “I went back to New York for two days because I had a bunch of auditions, and it felt like a new place. I’ve been here so long I’m starting to say ‘eh,’” he deadpans. “Soon I’ll have a liking for hockey.”