Writer, director, editor, and social media publicist Martine Blue’s bold feature debut Hunting Pignut hits theatres this week, following a strong festival run that earned awards and critical acclaim. It’s important for us to leave our Netflix queues or iTunes libraries and go to a theatre to watch it.
While U.S.blockbusters still rule our screens – both theatrical and digital – and the industry swoons over the Toronto International Film Festival’s slew of red carpet premieres, it’s easy for a local low-budget indie with a lesser-known cast to get lost in the shadows of all those Hollywood A-listers and supernova spotlights.
That would be a terrible shame.
What you might not understand is a film like Hunting Pignut needs box office success to help put money back into the public-funded coffers of its financiers Telefilm Canada and The Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation, so more local films can be made in the future.
Another bonus is that people who work in the industry can keep their jobs and continue to pay their fair share of taxes just like you. At ease, internet trolls.
Despite the rapid shift in consumer trends, box office receipts still play a vital role in the evaluation of a film’s success.Hitting a theatre with your hard-earned Canadian dollars to see Hunting Pignut is the perfect way to cast your vote and let your voice be heard. Yes, this applies for ALL Canadian films.
What’s all this babble? That’s not why we go to movies. We go to be entertained. We go to lose ourselves in stories and characters both familiar and unfamiliar. We go to be challenged and emerge from the darkness with a new perspective on life and the wide array of people who live it.
Hunting Pignut is just the cinema ticket for the whole shebang.
Inspired by Blue’s personal family history and gutter punk experiences, this gritty and gutsy coming-of-age film has more in common with the Icelandic arthouse swagger of Ragnar Bragason’s Metalhead than the Hollywood glam of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Taylor Hickson mesmerizes in her first starring role as Bernice ‘Story’ Kilfoy, a bullied and angst-riddled teen on the cusp of sixteen. Feeling trapped by her distant, cash-strapped mother Bean (Amelia Manuel) and her dull existence in rural Black Gut, Bernice yearns to escape. Although Bean is going to school to earn a better life, that’s not enough to ease the scars – both figurative and real – resulting from Bernice’s tumultuous childhood.
When Bernice learns that her estranged father Albert (Ryan Patrick Walsh) died from an apparent overdose, the funeral is crashed by his raucous and riled up gutter punk friends. They’re led by the wild and razor-sharp-witted Pignut (Joel Thomas Hynes) and the more mellow aspiring tattoo artist Maggie (Bridget Wareham). It’s here that Albert’s alternative identity as “Fathead” is revealed.
With Pignut and gang in possession of Fathead’s stolen ashes and Bernice in possession of Pignut’s compelling journal – a visceral punk feast of images and words she first mistakes for her father’s – Bernice runs away on a secret hunt for Pignut and her father’s ashes.
At least that’s what Bernice tells her quirky and OCD-ridden best friend Sinead (Jamie Silkean Pendelton Merrigan). The heart of Bernice’s odyssey is to solve the mystery of who her father was and how he died and discover her own identity in the process.
Once in the city and the grip of Pignut and fellow punks, Bernice faces the usual coming-of-age struggles with sex, drugs, and existential crisis. What makes Hunting Pignut unique is its raw depiction of the gutter punk lifestyle and Bernice’s slow descent into its captivating world, a world more in tune with the rhythm of her emerging self than the one she left behind in Black Gut.
Both worlds are well-executed by the production design team headed by Xavier Georges and costume designer Charlotte Reid. The visual contrasts are a powerful element of the mise-en-scène.
Although Bernice’s PCP-inspired bond with Pignut is challenged by his unshakeable devil-may-care violence fueled by his childhood traumas, Bernice’s relationship with Pignut and Maggie drives the narrative exploration of what family is. Sure, Bernice’s relationship with her mother is also central to that exploration, and Manuel inhabits Bean’s no bullshit personality with exemplary skill, but Bernice’s transformation is what counts. The gutter punks trigger that transformation.
Wareham’s stellar performance as Maggie might be in danger of being overshadowed by Hynes’ possession by Pignut and Hickson’s astonishing range in a breakout role, but it’s Maggie who ultimately forces Bernice to realize that blood isn’t always thicker than water. She’s a vital and multi-layered character brought to the screen with Wareham’s unwavering talent.
These characters are all connected by their shared suffering. This is made clear in a passage from Pignut’s journal that hits home for Bernice: “How lonely am I when the only time I feel at home is when I am on my way somewhere else? The kind of chronic lifelong loneliness that only a mother can inflict.”
This is no tourist-friendly depiction of the vibrant jelly bean rowhouses of St. John’s. It’s a tour through the graffiti-strewn alleyways, forgotten structures, and various squats familiar to gutter punks both local and global.The film’s depiction of injection and other drug use is both realistic and timely when one considers our province’s current opioid crisis.
Although the climax feels slightly predictable and rushed, the succinct use of flashbacks to build dramatic tension and avoid exposition-heavy dialogue is admirable and helps the film achieve a riveting emotional punch.
As stated in my previous story about Hunting Pignut before its local 2016 St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival premiere, Blue confronted her former squatter lifestyle and father’s death from a drug overdose to write and direct this film.
“When someone passes away like that, it’s an unfinished relationship,” Blue previously stated. “They’re just cut off and you can’t see them anymore. He was a singer and I was always looking for signs from him. Sometimes his songs would play, often at the most poignant moments in my life.”
That personal connection carries over into the performances.
“Having the character based off our director and writer Martine made for a very special and tailored experience,” Hickson says. “Many tears and much laughter made our film a one of a kind memory. Being on the east coast for the first time was ethereal and otherworldly. Like a separate country.”
When asked about what attracted her to Bernice, Hickson pointed out the character’s “need to discover more about herself. Her persistence and hard-shelled attitude overlying a soft, sincere and authentic little girl just trying to be something bigger than her pre-determined mold.”
Pignut’s shell is as tough as crocodile skin and he also packs a ferocious bite, but Blue was careful to mine his emotional depths for the necessary contradictions that give all great characters their longevity. Hynes sears the screen with his red-hot performance and inhabits Pignut like De Niro inhabits Travis Bickle. Hynes also committed himself to a similar level of method acting to prepare for this role.
“Listen, I’ve always felt an alignment with the outsider and the outcast,” Hynes says. “I’ve BEEN one and in lots of ways I’m STILL one. So fuck ’em all. But I walk through the world with my share of compassion for the homeless and the hungry and the marginalized. I love addicts, alcoholics, scrappers, and freaks. And mostly I love survivors. Because I’m a fucking survivor.”
Although Hynes admits he didn’t have much respect for the gutter punk culture before this film, that all changed once he dug into the script and what makes Pignut tick.
“When I searched myself, with respect to taking on this role, I realized I looked upon them with a lot of judgment and dismissal. So I guess part of the attraction to this particular role was an opportunity to challenge my own ignorance. And by disappearing into that guy’s head, I was able to see the world through a new lens. What’s not to be attracted to?”
“I put on his clothes and kept them on for the duration of the shoot. I let myself get fucking dirty. I slept in the woods and ate berries and one day I even went dumpster diving behind Coleman’s in Mount Pearl. I washed my face in Tim Horton’s bathrooms.
“I put on his clothes and kept them on for the duration of the shoot. I let myself get fucking dirty. I slept in the woods and ate berries and one day I even went dumpster diving behind Coleman’s in Mount Pearl. I washed my face in Tim Horton’s bathrooms. I roamed the streets in the nighttime in these ragged combat pants with my hood up and my face covered in tattoos and a big matted beard and I watched people cross to the other side of the street rather than interact with me. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t welcome in this restaurant or that convenience store.
“People tossed coins and cigarettes at me, gave me advice, shouted at me to get a job. Cops snared me in their spotlights. And I came to realize that I’d never quite been THAT kind of outsider before. And it was awesome. It was a fucking awesome job.”
From the beginning, the film as a whole was branded as a gutsy indie scrapper with a passionate punch, and that attitude never waned through Blue’s unwavering commitment to building and then connecting with her audience through an outstanding and ongoing social media campaign. If you haven’t already, follow the film’s and Blue’s Facebook and Twitter feeds and take heed.
That’s how it’s done in the 21st century, kids.
That commitment was key to the film’s successful festival run, and veteran producer Paul Pope of Pope Productions, who produced the film with Ruth Lawrence and Heidi Wagner, understands how important that commitment is for today’s varied distribution models.
“Festivals are like market research,” Pope says. “If you don’t do well, it follows that people will not by tickets. Our successful festival run is why we are having a theatrical release.”
Now the team is working with Toronto-based marketing firm and distributor Agency 71 for its theatrical release and gunning for packed houses, more praise, and an international release. Pope was careful about who he trusted to release this film in the most effective way.
“Changing consumer habits are putting pressure on all distribution plans for independent films,” Pope explains. “This is now a fact of life. We chose Agency 71 because they understand these challenges and our release pattern is based on current consumer behavior. Unfortunately, many distributors are still releasing independent films the same as five years ago, which does not work.”
Ever the champion of her film, Blue also played a vital role in hooking Agency 71 via a meeting with the company’s distribution arm co-president David Miller.
“Paul contacted David Miller about our film and then I met up with David at the Whistler Film Festival and chatted more in person with him,” Blue says.
“Our whole goal at Whistler was to find distribution, so when Paul couldn’t make it out there, my husband Isaac and I jumped into high gear and researched the attending distributors, looked up their company track records and their personal pictures, and we developed a strategy for approaching specific distributors armed with all our promo materials at networking events.
“We became really good at it, like a crazy promo tag team. It was exhausting along with promoting our film screening and attending all the great panels and events Whistler has to offer, but totally worth it now.”
That’s also how it’s done in the 21st century, kids.
As Martine explains, “It’s really hard to push indie features that don’t have big marketing budgets, so the filmmaker has to work harder and be more creative than ever to get folks out to their screening. I’m considering tap dancing in front of Cineplex at Yonge & Dundas to promote the Toronto screenings.”
As for local screenings, Hunting Pignut opens this Friday, September 15th, at the Avalon Mall. Pope and a bunch of the cast and crew will attend that screening for a Q& A with the audience.
During the local launch, Blue will be in Toronto doing the Q & A – and perhaps a free pregame tap dancing show – at the Yonge & Dundas Cineplex.
The film also opens in Toronto and Halifax on that date, with special sneak screenings on September 13th across British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario.
There’s also a special screening at the Burin Cinema on Thursday, October 5th. You can catch Blue for a Q & A there, or in New York City at Blue’s old C Squat stomping grounds on Saturday, September 23rd.
“I really hope audiences get out there and see this unique little scrappy flick, made right here in Newfoundland with a stellar cast of renegades in their own right,” Hynes says.
“My own performance is one of many. Lots of brave and gritty performances from all the actors. And it was a brave and gritty script. Give yourself an opportunity to challenge your own misconceptions about a subculture that, like it or not, is a very necessary spoke in the wheel of mainstream society. After shooting this flick I like to think of the gutter punks as the living manifestation of our moral consciousness.”
Bravo to all. Get out and see it.
And yes, Joel. Fuck me, too.