Atlantic Filmmaker Focus: Bill Niven

Halifax producer Bill Niven

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 Halifax producer Bill Niven.

Bill's most recent project Book of Negroes, is a 6 part series (partly filmed in beautiful Nova Scotia) airing Wednesday nights on CBC. Don't worry if you missed an episode, you can watch them online, here!

We caught up with Bill recently to talk about filmmaking and his role in the production of Book of Negroes.

Bill Niven 

Birthday: I’m a Baby-Boomer!
Where are you from? Sydney, Cape Breton
Where do you currently reside? I’ve lived and worked in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Paris, Los Angeles and New York but Halifax is home now.  I’ve been back since 1995 and hope I never have to leave.
What are you currently working on? I'm still doing follow-up on projects from as far back as 2002 – they never go away!  Reading scripts and going over ideas for new projects with my partners. We just got a development deal on a TV horror series (by Jay Dahl) with eOne – so that’s pretty exciting.


What got you first interested in film? I graduated from Dalhousie University in Philosophy and worked at a bunch of different jobs in my 20's.  But I always knew I wanted to be in the arts. I was a keen photographer – had my own darkroom etc – and got a (non-paying!) gig on Paul Donovan’s first film as a stills photographer – and that gave me the bug.
When did you first decide film production would be a career path for you? There was no eureka moment or master plan. As sometimes happens in life, a path opens up and you go for it. Telefilm Canada was opening an office in Halifax, back in the 80s and I lobbied hard to get the job there. Thanks to some good references and luck I got it. That eventually led to working at Salter Street Films (now DHX) and then out on my own as an independent producer.

What, in your opinion, makes a good film? It has to start with the screenplay – a good story well told. You also need the magic that the director, actors and crew bring to it. But I ask myself all the time why Canada has not ever had a real world-wide break-out. An industry friend of mine in LA said to me: “No one ever gives your writers up there the hard notes.”

Is there anyone you would really love to work with, that you haven’t yet? I think we are surrounded by great talent here in Atlantic Canada – but I would really like to have the money to option great books. I read Bel Canto a couple of years ago and inquired into the film rights: they had been snapped up at the manuscript stage by someone from Los Angeles. And, even if they had been available, I couldn’t have afforded them. Would love to get the rights to The Son (best book I’ve read this year) or a gentle but lovely story like The Elegance Of The Hedgehog.

What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker? YouTube and cheaper cameras are changing everything but I think the basics still apply. Don’t rush to do your first feature. Do as many shorts as you can - to hone your skills working with actors and scripts and crew.

What point of development did you get involved with The Book of Negroes adaptation? What inspired you to get involved? I got involved in September 2012 – two years before we finally went to camera.  I read in Playback that Damon D’Oliveira and Clement Virgo had secured the film rights. I had read the novel a few years before that and had been enthralled by it. Knowing the story, I had a feeling they would want to shoot in Nova Scotia – Clement is a stickler for authenticity. So I figured they might want to have a producing partner on the ground here. I emailed Damon, on the spot – and, thankfully, he had enough confidence in me to bring me in. It is by far the biggest project I’ve ever worked on - so it was a challenge and turned out to be a great experience. 
What was the biggest challenge faced in bringing The Book of Negroes to the small screen? Even though it was the biggest budget I’ve ever worked with, it was still hair-raisingly difficult to get it shot on-budget. Everyday some new crisis would appear. But, that’s pretty normal on any shoot. That’s where it pays off to be working with experienced producers and a great cast and crew.
Interestingly, Lawrence Hill told me that he and Clement not only had to cut a lot of material to fit the book into the mini-series – but they had to write new material to make the cuts work!
I was a little anxious about working with the behemoth eOne – but they turned out to be a dream to work with.
Of the many shooting locations for the series, which one was your favourite and why? In Nova Scotia, we shot in 5 locations: Fortress Louisbourg, Shelburne, Lunenburg, Bissett Park and Oakfield Park. The logistics involved were a Gordian knot for our production team. Each location was perfect in its own way. Louisbourg is, of course, spectacular. I’m determined to shoot something else there – and am looking for projects. Shelburne is a terrific place to shoot a period piece thanks to The Scarlet Letter burying all the phone and light wires. That is a great asset that Shelburne can take advantage of.  
What was the highlight of filming part of the production in Nova Scotia? It was a privilege to help bring the story of the Nova Scotian black loyalists to the screen. I hope a lot more people get to know their story – and about how it resonates today.
How many members of your production’s cast and crew were from Atlantic Canada? About 100 crew members, 25 actors and 968 extras.
How important was it to hire locally? It’s critical. Our crew members and cast are talented and experienced. The more we hire locally, the more we build infrastructure – to keep the industry healthy and vital. It’s great to work with people that you have worked with for 10 or 20 years – it’s our community. And it’s great to see younger people coming in and moving up.
What is your favourite memory of producing The Book of Negroes? Our last day of shooting was at Oakfield Park. And the last scene was when Aminata escapes from New York and finds herself alone in the woods. It was midnight and pitch dark by the time we got it set up. The lead actress, Aunjanue Ellis, had been working intensely all day and must have been exhausted. As we began the scene it started to pour rain. She was tired and wet – but what a pro! It didn’t faze her in the least. She just kept going – and nailed the scene.

You can watch The Book of Negroes Wednesday nights, at 9pm|9:30pm NT, on CBC. You can catch them online too!
Thanks for the time, Bill. Fans are loving The Book of Negroes!