By Liam Lacey
The winning feature film at Sundance's alternative little sister Slamdance Festival last January, the Canadian-made drama Dim the Fluorescents is free of most of the quirks and shocks that have come to define indie films. It's an alternative to alternative. The script — by director Daniel Warth with Miles Barstead and which takes a Noises Off backstage drama examination of a couple of millennial actor/writers — is unabashedly stagey in a good sense, exploring its characters' different kinds of performances, onstage and in life.
Like Illana Glazer and Abbi Jacobsen's Broad City, the film celebrates female friendship at the bottom rungs of the showbiz ladder, by young women feeling the clash between artistic aspiration and mundane grind. Unable to get mainstream work, actress Audrey (Claire Armstrong, of Alias Grace fame) and writer Lilian (Naomi Skwarna) have come up with a side hustle: They create dramatizations as corporate teaching tools. Whether the issue is a dissatisfied customer, a problem employee or a traumatic work accident, they pour themselves into the mini-plays with a disproportionate intensity.
Scroll down to read our interview with filmmaker Daniel Warth
The pair’s dynamic is complex. Lilian — whose accountant dad supports her writing habit — is the steady one. Audrey is the drama queen. Traumatized by a broken relationship, she's on anti-depressants, which she supplements with booze; the rigours of auditions and rejections aren't helping her self-esteem. As the more troubled character, actress Armstrong pulls out the stops, especially in the last 20 minutes. Skwarna plays the lower register, as the concerned friend.
Dim the Fluorescents is a film that takes risks, and hits a few off notes. Performances vary in quality, there's an over-cutesy side plot about a teenaged apprentice and some of the pokes at the artsy social milieu feel familiar. But it's uplifting to discover a debut film so open to showing both its artifice and heart on its sleeve.
Dim the Fluorescents. Directed by Daniel Warth, written by Warth and Miles Barstead. Starring Claire Armstrong and Naomi Skwarna. Now playing at Toronto’s Imagine Cinemas - Carlton Cinema.
INTERVIEW: DIM THE FLUORESCENTS FILMMAKER DANIEL WARTH
Debut filmmaker Daniel Warth, now 30, spent most of his time since graduating from Sheridan College's film program working in post-production, while making three short films, and for a while, shooting corporate seminars of the kind depicted in Dim the Fluorescents.
On one of those occasions, in 2011, he recalls "I happened to find one particularly harrowing scenario in which the actors were sobbing. It was very heavy, all done in this little office boardroom with an audience of six. Once the tearful scenario ended, it suddenly went to ‘And that's why X and Y principles are important...’ I thought it was such as strange experience. I was intrigued by the combination of these worlds, of theatre people working in an office environment and bureaucrats shaping drama, and how the actors approached the scenes in an atmosphere not at all conducive to drama but still tried to give their best performances."
He thought of it in context of a couple of classic performance films: John Cassavetes' 1977 drama, Opening Night, and the 1948 ballet drama The Red Shoes, films where "a performer pours her life into a role."
As Dim the Fluorescents plays with different on- and off-stage performance registers, the camera-work too, plays with different styles, conventional and fairly static in the earlier scenes to a more fluid, anxious style as the film progresses.
"It was a conscious effort to kind of create a style and slowly erode it as their lives fall apart," says Warth. "We kind of end up breaking all the rules that we set up in the first half. Which is a fun thing to do creatively and a challenging thing to do because we shot the film over three years."
Three years? That meant a degree of commitment that would have been impossible with a busier stars and crew but the long gestation had advantages. He had met actress Claire Armstrong when he did a casting call for a 2013 short film, and was "blown away with her as an actor." He continued to see her in every performance he could, while shaping the film for her.
“We were writing it with Claire in mind from a very early stage. I had been thinking of the film as a character study but then I started working with Miles, he had this idea of the story of a duo, an actor and a writer and I liked it."
The discovery of his second lead, the aspiring writer Lilian, was serendipitous. Warth had known Naomi Skwarna — who acts but primarily writes about theatre and the arts — in high school and he thought she might be a useful model for the character of Lilian. When he met with her to discuss the character, he realized she "really just embodied Lilian. In the performance, she makes it so different from herself, but only in a way that she can do."