"We weren't planning to shoot here originally, but Moncton stands in for any suburb in North America."
Michael Melski laughs down the line from the New Brunswick set of Growing Op, his feature directorial debut. It's day seven of a month-long shoot, happening mostly in Moncton, and he sounds confident and relaxed for a guy at the helm of a movie budgeted at almost two million dollars. Best known locally as a playwright (Two Planks and a Passion's Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad, Eastern Front's 2006 opener Corvette Crossing), Melski wrote Fido, director Andrew Currie's 2001 film Mile Zero and has also been writing short films (Home Game, The Fence) and writing and directing television (Blue Murder, Robson Arms) for more than a decade.
"It feels like it's the right time," he says of the film. "I've certainly paid my dues in short films and television, and accrued a lot of wisdom from that."
He began writing Growing Op in 2004 while working on Robson in Vancouver. "When I was driving to and from set I would hear on the radio about grow-ops getting busted," he says. "I thought one interesting paradox is having this wild behaviour in the middle of staid suburbia." So he began crafting the story of a teenage boy (Steven Yaffee) coming of age in a house of weed.
"Interestingly though, as things have evolved, the whole suburban grow-op thing has taken off," he says. "Every city, every province, every state, every country has an issue with this. I think the film is going to speak to not only the phenomenon, it's gonna touch on this hot-button knee-jerk reaction that a lot of conservative types have about the nefarious things that go on in their midst."
Melski had another film in development, a bigger, more expensive script, and it was travelling the same path of Growing Op, until Melski found himself in the position of having to choose a project to take to camera. Thom Fitzgerald, who came on as executive producer at the beginning of the year, advised him to go with Op.
"Rick Warden and I were co-producing and we felt like having an executive producer certainly wouldn't hurt in the final funding stage," says Melski. "I didn't think Thom would respond to it aesthetically because it's so different from what he does—and does well, I might add. To my surprise, he loved the script and this was at a time when I was still committed to the Toronto film. Thom's suggestion was "Make this your first film. It doesn't have the market demands that the other film is going to put on you. It's a good, small film.'"
The movie could serve as a launching pad for its young lead, Steven Yaffee (the cast also includes Rosanna Arquette, Rachel Blanchard, Alberta Watson and Daniel MacIvor). "His star is really rising.We're getting him at a great time. He's like a young Tobey Maguire—his instincts are so bang-on. The camera loves him and he's got that mixture of sincerity and being funny without trying. We were trying to get Michael Cera from Arrested Development and we had a lot of interest from his camp but" then there was a little film called Superbad. "But it worked out for the better—Steven knows what this opportunity represents."
The final third of the film will shoot at a studio in Tracadie, NB (who knew). "The town of Tracadie offered us some incentives," says Melski. "It's part of a great reception we're getting in New Brunswick, not just at a provincial level but also a municipal level. People really want film here. The reception here at all levels has been superlative."
Growing Op is scheduled for a 2008 release. Whether it's released under that clever name—or ends up on screens under a more generic title like, oh, thinking like a film executive, a fair guess could be Growing Up—remains to be seen. Melski laughs knowingly at the suggestion. "The distributor has brought it up," he says, "but they haven't insisted yet. I'll put it that way."