A GROUP OF ACTORS GATHER AT A THEATRE CLASS ONCE A WEEK. They collaborate on
exercises together, repeating what the other actor says, or seemingly wants to
hear. They critique each other’s monologues. Because they are actors, they hit
on each other.
Their abrasive acting teacher, Leo (who pushes his students to help himself cope with a fractured relationship with his teenaged son), gives the class an assignment: walk around the city of Toronto wearing animal mascot costumes. It is stupid. It is ridiculous. It is sublime.
This acting exercise, proposed by a person out of touch with his emotions, is not designed to help the actors create new sense memories, or to get them to access their spirit animals. It’s just a stab in the dark at making life meaningful, the same kind of willful risk that drives someone to direct an independent film. The plot of The Animal Project, a new feature by Toronto filmmaker Ingrid Veninger, (in theatres June 6), is a microcosm of the movie-making process. It’s a story about pushing boundaries towards self-emancipation, and it’s conclusive proof that Veninger is a brave new hope for Canadian cinema.
Before The Animal Project—which was well-received at 2013's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and is appearing in Canadian theatres thanks to a distribution deal with Mongrel Media—Veninger had made three independent features, usually casting her family members to make the most of her limited resources. In her 2010 film Modra (her second festival hit), she used several of her Slovakian relatives, including a 96-year-old great aunt, to recreate a world for her teenage daughter to encounter in their family village. Veninger filmed her last feature, i am a good person/i am a bad person, in between promoting Modra at European film festivals, grabbing furtive shots in locations like the Champs D’Élysées.
Pushing boundaries, or simply doing something stupid for stupidity’s sake, seems to be an overarching theme in the four DIY films Veninger has made in just under five years. In i am a good person/i am a bad person, she cast herself as Ruby, an independent filmmaker touring festivals while her daughter begrudgingly tags along with a secret: she’s pregnant. Ruby pushes all the boundaries—picking up guys in European discos, willfully flaunting her sexuality in plain sight of her embarrassed daughter. Later in the film, she dons a sandwich board in Berlin with the title of the film on each side, looking for stranger’s reactions. It’s a costume with symbolic meaning, the same way the mascot costumes supposedly represent the actor’s “freed” selves in The Animal Project. Does willfully pushing yourself as an artist make you a “good” or a “bad” person? What are these artists trying to prove?
With The Animal Project, Veninger has transcended her DIY approach for the first time. She’s making a film with professional actors in Toronto, which could be a sign that she’s moving her craft towards a conventional style of filmmaking. But it’s clear that Veninger is still working with limitations that inspire her. The Animal Project is a tribute to the inherent weirdness of actors—their quirks and foibles, their tortured relationship to their own ambition. It is a tribute to people who want to be someone else.
In the film, the idea for the Animal Project comes from a dream. But in reality, it came from a short Veninger made in 2003, in which she filmed her eight-year-old son Jacob wearing a bunny costume in downtown Toronto, giving people hugs. Naturally, a rabbit suit and a red balloon look great on an eight-year-old boy. But take the same costume and put it on an insecure ingénue making direct eye contact with strangers outside Honest Ed’s and the effect is decidedly more unsettling, especially in a city known for its fear of intimacy. In 2012, Veninger cast eight actors to star in an independent film that would shoot three days a week for three months. At this point, there was no script. The actors participated in a unique audition process in which Veninger asked them a round of deeply personal questions. They could either lie or tell the truth, but they needed to do so convincingly. Many actors found the interview tough, but eight personalities stood out and inspired the screenplay that would become The Animal Project.
Veninger developed a script that allowed the eight actors to feel out their boundaries while wearing fuzzy mascot costumes in a city. As the actors collide with each other, their teacher (played by a nuanced Aaron Poole) tries to communicate with his teenaged son (played by Switzer, sans rab- bit ears), despite the crushing truth that their relationship has changed. There’s something twisted in Leo’s need to force adults to act like children when he can’t relate to his own kid. In the emotional climax of the movie, he tries to keep his son awake through a concussion. It’s only when the two are forced to stay up together that Leo begins to listen to his son.
In acting for film, the smallest gestures are magnified, especially in close-up. Great actors are often more powerful in their reactions. It’s where the camera likes to rest—on someone’s face taking something in. The Animal Project relishes in well-crafted close-ups, minute moments of intimacy in an actor’s room or at their day job (Veninger shot in the cast’s real life apartments and workplaces). It might have been the only film at TIFF this year in which a character (the babely Hannah Cheesman) sits on the toilet of their own volition.
During an extensive montage nicely put together by the editor Jonathan Egan, the actors run wild around the city in their mascot costumes. But one (Ray, played by Emmanuel Kabongo) sits in a pigeon costume on the steps of a church, amongst his real life brethren, contemplating life. I guess he might be going method—but the whimsy in this moment runs deeper than that, proof that Veninger’s unconventional style allows even a cast of professionals to find new depths to their work.
It’s hard to be an actor. Every day you have to convince people you’re something that you’re not.