If you picked up an Atlantic Film Festival guide this year and perused the selection of Atlantic Shorts programs, you probably saw the name "Jeff Wheaton" a lot. Aside from his own film Construct + Conflict, Wheaton had his name attached to four other Atlantic Shorts as a cinematographer. He is humble and good-natured when asked about what it's like to be somewhat ubiquitous at the AFF.
"This festival, it was a rare treat to be working with what I think of as being a new group of voices," he says. "All the things I worked on this year (including Corey Bowles' The Scavengers and Jason Eisener's Treevenge), I loved all the scripts. That's the clinch to being brought on to something, is thinking as you read it, 'Yep, I want to be a part of that.'"
Winding up a two-week vacation, Wheaton happily talks about filmmaking in Halifax, for more than an hour on a sunny Saturday morning. "It's probably one of my favourite things about filmmaking," he says, "is that collaborative problem-solving process.
"An idea shows up on a piece of paper, and everybody who reads it sees a completely different movie. As collaborators, you are trying to figure out what you can do and what you can't."I've done a lot of workshops with kids, through ViewFinders," Wheaton says (he also served as an instructor for AFCOOP's One Minute Film program), "and what I try to teach is, not so much how you make a better film, but, that you'll make a better film if you learn how to communicate."
Wheaton's own directorial credits include a short called Enough, 2007's The Lullaby of Mike Bossy and this year's Construct + Conflict, a short documentary ruminating on the theme of violence, made via AFCOOP's Frame X experimental film program.
"I like working with filmmakers who ask, 'What do we have access to?' and build a movie around that."
"I think what it was, was being able to break away from the industrialized structure of filmmaking that I had learned over the years," he says about his experimental process with Construct + Conflict. "It was an opportunity to step into the unknown and be ready to adapt to whatever situation came up. There was an interview part, and I had a question ready and then had 10 people show up who weren't interested in the question!"
So what is the difference between being the cinematographer, in charge of the cameras and the lights, to being the director and in charge of the movie as a whole?
"I think it is just learning respect of the position and learning to give respect and learning to demand respect," he says. "It's a leadership position and, you know, part of it is in vision, part of it is how you communicate, part of it is taking responsibility and being able to share responsibility. That's probably what I learned the most.
"Taking that step forward isn't just some right that you feel is there for you. A lot of people gather around you to help you and you have to respect that and respect what these people bring. What makes working out here in Halifax so fun is we work with the resources we have and try and figure that out and I like working with filmmakers who are willing to do that, who ask, 'What do we have access to?' and build a movie around that. It is always about the story; what does this story need to tell it and what doesn't it need? A good story doesn't need a lot."
Wheaton says he's interested in simple storytelling. "It'd be great if we could do a big costume drama out here, with special effects and all kinds of stuff---you can't really do it, but you can do it if you simplify your story. You know, sorting out how your camera is going to tell that story by going 'OK, we can't have any wide vistas, but if we keep it down to a tight composition we still get the point across.'"
With that, Wheaton hits upon, arguably, the overarching theme of Halifax filmmaking---boundless ideas buffeting up against limited resources. He articulates the stubbornness it takes to keep making movies and probably explains why he keeps getting hired: "I just think there is always a way."