Atlantic Filmmaker Focus: Geoff D'Eon

Nova Scotia producer Geoff D'Eon

The Atlantic Film Festival is a champion of Atlantic Canadian filmmakers. In keeping with this promise, every month we profile some of the most incredibly talented people in the filmmaking industry today. This month, we look at producer Geoff D’Eon.

Geoff’s documentary, Bounty: Into the Hurricane recently won the Best Documentary Award at the inaugural Screen NS Awards. The film also won for Best Atlantic Documentary at the 2014 Atlantic Film Festival.

Geoff D'Eon

DOB:  16-08-52. That’s pretty old. I saw the Beatles live on stage. Twice. Bite me. 

Where are you from? I was born in Yarmouth NS, but when I was 5 years old, my family upped and moved to London, England where my mother was originally from. I ended up living in and around London for 20 years. Essentially, I was a Brit with a Canadian passport. After that, I was a nomad for 5 years, living in Quebec, The USA, Central and South America, British Columbia, all over the place. For most of my life I never felt like I was “from” anywhere, which was liberating but strangely unsettling at the same time.

Where do you currently reside? In Halifax. I love it here. No plans to move. I might have given a different answer in March though. The winters here are getting ridiculous

What are you currently working on? Right now I am up to my eyeballs directing and writing a one-hour doc about human longevity and immortality, for Tell Tale Productions and CBC TV. It’s about life and death re-imagined. I find the subject matter occasionally creepy, but always challenging and engaging. July and August I will spend most of my time indoors in an edit suite. I will be the pale-skinned, pasty-looking guy surrounded by tanned-faces on the patios of Argyle Street. I am also in post-production of the Ha!ifax Comedy Fest, which my company shoots for CBC TV. 

D’Eon on Filmmaking
What first got you interested in film? My dad had an 8mm Bell and Howell film camera. He shot the family movies. Weeks later, the yellow Kodak envelope would arrive in the mail, containing the processed film. We would gather in the living room, put up the screen, and turn off the lights. You never forget the sound of an 8mm projector clicking away in the dark. The images on the screen were magic to me. At seven years old - I was hooked. I have all those home movies to this day. Every one of them, in their original cans. They tell the story of people I love.

Was documentary filmmaking your first choice, when deciding a career path in film? Not really, it just evolved. I started in TV journalism, doing daily news reporting. I adored it. Every day, we’d shoot and edit a fast, tight 2-minute film about something that just happened in someone’s life. Later in my career I switched to Arts and Entertainment shows, but I always enjoyed the story-telling aspect of the job the most. CBC Halifax was good to me. Any time I had a decent idea for a documentary, they encouraged me to do it and gave me the resources. I was incredibly lucky that way. These days, documentary is my main interest. My goal is to get better at it.

In your opinion, what makes a great documentary film? Story, story, story. There has to be a good story, one that unfolds the way good stories always do, with tension and surprise, and pay-off. And the story needs to unfold through interesting characters. I worship at the altars of ‘characters’, ‘story’ and ‘focus’.

What is the most challenging part about making a documentary? For the producer, it’s about finding a home for the piece, lining up the resources and budget, and putting the right team together. For the director/writer (which is what I prefer to do), it’s about spinning a yarn that keeps audiences engaged. It all comes back to story telling, letting the story unfold as organically as possible. And in the end, it’s about letting go, because the allotted editing time is used up and there’s a delivery deadline to make.

What advice would you give an aspiring filmmaker? Watch lots of films, preferably good ones. Oscar nominees and short-lists are handy. HotDocs too. There are thousands of great documentaries available online. Watch them analytically: what works? what doesn’t? why? When you’re ready to get up off the couch, find a story that grabs you. Then recruit the best damn team you can. All their talents will make you look good. And then just get out there and do it. Enjoy it. You’re not curing cancer, you’re telling a story. In the end, you have to trust your instincts - and your editor.

About Bounty: Into The Hurricane
Where did you get the inspiration for making Bounty: Into the Hurricane? The producer and I are both sailing nuts. We just love stories of the sea. The Bounty story had it all: Nova Scotia history; strong characters; a catastrophic weather event; a terrible mistake; a life-and-death drama; and a heroic rescue. Really, this was a story that screamed out “Pick me!”

Where was the film shot and how long did it take? It started out as a short doc for CBC’s Land and Sea. But there was so much great material we couldn’t fit in, and so we pitched it to CBC as a longer piece, and they went for it. CBC has an incredible archive of Bounty-related material, beginning with the ship’s construction in Lunenburg. So we shot interviews in Halifax and Lunenburg, and a couple of locations in the USA. It was a fast shoot, pretty straightforward really.

What was the biggest challenge in making Bounty: Into the Hurricane? I suppose it was the reluctance of people to go on camera, to be interviewed. There is a $90million lawsuit connected to the sinking, and the loss of life. That has had an unmistakable chilling effect. No one from the ship’s organization would talk. They still haven’t, to this day. Most of the crew are still loyal to the skipper, even though he damn near killed them all. So it was difficult to persuade survivors to go on camera. Eventually, we found one living in San Francisco who was willing to break the silence. But we were stymied for a long time.

Was there a moment during the production of the film that you’ll always remember? There at least was one interview that gave me chills. It was a young Coast Guard helicopter pilot describing how her job that day was to hover over the sinking ship, while her crewmates hoisted up survivors. She was multi-tasking like crazy, watching for monster waves, keeping an eye on the fuel, coordinating communications, keeping the nose of her aircraft pointed into a freaking hurricane. At times, her chopper was less than 20 feet from the wave tops. She’s risking her life to save people in distress. One mistake, and it’s all over. She’s 28 years old, and is as professional as anyone I have ever met. For her, the Bounty rescue was all in a day’s work. I was super impressed. Still am. I am so grateful there are people like that in the world.

Bounty: Into the Hurricane recently won Best Documentary at the inaugural Screen NS Awards. Can you tell us about that experience? Recognition from industry peers is the best kind of recognition. There were other great docs nominated that night, made by really talented teams of people. So we were lucky that the judges picked us, for whatever reason. But the real story of that night was the vibe in the room. The entire industry had just been through an emotional and political wringer, with the whole film tax credit fight being so fresh. People were battle-scarred, bruised and bloodied. But this was a night of defiant celebration. So much bravery, creativity and talent packed into one room, it was amazing. I’ve never been prouder to be part of the film and television community.

D’Eon on the AFF
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Atlantic Film Festival.  What does the Atlantic Film Festival mean to you?
I’ve been going to AFF since 1982. You could say I’m a regular. For the past 6 years, I’ve had a pretty special vantage point from which to watch the film festival develop, as an AFF Board Member. I know exactly how much effort, attention to detail and pure passion goes into making the AFF work year after year. The staff are completely dedicated. The volunteers are so generous. If you are any kind of film-lover, it all makes complete sense. These past few weeks have been rough for local filmmakers. These are difficult times, and no matter what you’ve been hearing about so-called deals and agreements, the local industry is a lot less secure than it was previously. But I’m confident that next September the Film Festival will be a cultural bonanza, as it is every year.  The screen community is resilient and creative and will always be with us. AFF will continue to be a signature event. No matter what, I will be there, sitting in the dark, watching the magic show unfold. The only thing missing will be the clicking of the projectors. Digital has put an end to that. Lord knows what the next 35 years will bring. But whatever it is I want to see it!

Thanks for spending some time with us Geoff, and congratulations on all of the success of your film!

If you’d like to watch the award winning documentary Bounty: Into the Hurricane, you can watch it online as part of CBC TV’S Absolutely Maritimes series, HERE