An Interview With Writer/Director Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw-Writer|Director
Robert Shaw-Writer|Director

Who is Robert Shaw?

I’m an observer. I think empathetic, observant people tell strong human stories because they understand character. I am a student of human nature, and always have been. I love portraying both the best and worst aspects of human nature. My character are always based in reality, on people I have met.

My male lead character, Case, is based on–surprise, surprise!–me in my twenties. I was angsty and lost, as young people often are, and always looking for some gateway to happiness. I wasn’t to find that gateway until I reached my forties.

My female lead character, Nellie, is based on both my lead actress, Victoria Murdoch, and my wife, Allison. Nellie’s kindness, emotional reserve and quirkiness are borrowed from both these important people in my life.

As far as straight-up biography goes, I grew up as a semi-delinquent in Kitchener, a wild weed of a boy, directionless and full of melancholy. I spent ten years and a lot of (my parents’) money trying to “find” myself in university. Of course I didn’t really find myself until I got out of university. I always was a terrible student. Now I am a student of life, an observer who has come to realize that as humans, we have much in common, and we have little in common. Our differences as people define us as much as our commonalities, and it is both the universal and unique that fascinate me.

Unhappy Happy
Reggy Sy as “Connie,” Martin Lindquist as “Case,” Melinda Michael as “Stephanie,” Aaron Michael Reilly as “Cary,” and Cara Chau.

What is the story/thought/idea you’re trying to tell with Unhappy Happy?

Life sucks and then you die.

But if you can figure out a way to love life, and more importantly, love your life, then you have a fighting chance at being happy.

That happiness is a state of mind is probably one of the least groundbreaking philosophical thoughts that one could have. Yet every day I am stunned at the number of people who are deeply unhappy, who are dissatisfied with their relationships, their status, their wealth, their possessions, and their lifestyles. They live for a future that may never come.

The character of Case and his younger brother Cameron embody both sides of this unhappiness/happiness divide. Case blames his unhappiness on what life is denying him. Cameron is happy for what his life is like at present.

I think we should all live in the present and savour what is beautiful about life right now, whether that’s a good laugh, a juicy burger, a silly romantic comedy, a run by the lake, or saying “I love you” to someone and meaning it.

Unhappy Happy 11b
Ryan Anning as “Cameron,” and Martin Lindquist as “Case.”

What were the challenges/lessons learned from directing your first feature?

I made a lot of mistakes–a LOT of mistakes–while making Unhappy Happy. Don’t be your own producer (if you have no producer experience); don’t be your own editor (see producer note); don’t make a film without a marketing strategy; don’t spend your own money; don’t skimp on the look of your film; don’t expect festivals to embrace your work just because you are a true independent with a unique film made with a lot of chutzpah.

And yet I went into this with eyes fully open, completely aware of my shortcomings as a filmmaker, and where I was dangerously cutting corners. But I didn’t care. This would be my film, told my way. There would be mistakes made, many of which I was aware of while I was making them.

But filmmaking, like life, is a compromise. You are always trying to balance time, budget, energy, resources and your personal life around the impossibility of making a coherent and watchable ninety-minute movie. Something has gotta give, and I didn’t beat myself up about some of the compromises that I made.

So actually, one of the biggest challenges that I faced was trying to not be a crazy perfectionist (which I normally am) about every aspect of making the film. This would be a project completed with a certain budget, with a certain time frame, with certain limited resources. And I was OK with that.

Other than that, the pre-production and shooting itself went very smoothly. Boringly smoothly. If you surround yourself with talented, generous, smart, professional people, stuff gets done. We had no divas, no catastrophes, no giant blow-ups. And that is mostly due to having the right people around.

Unhappy Happy martin
Martin Lindquist as “Case.”

You’ve mentioned that you’ve spent the majority of your life trying to understand what happiness really is… Have you found it? Was there something specific that helped in the realization?

I doubt I’ll ever fully understand what happiness really is. It is a mystery that keeps on perplexing. Yet it will always be something that I pursue.

I think I have a way of being mostly happy right now that works for me. It’s about appreciating what you’ve got. It’s about the glass being half full, and not wasting energy complaining about the empty half. It’s about shedding the toxic people from your life and deeply loving those that love you deeply. It’s about finding balance in everything. It’s about loving yourself. And most of all, it’s about having the right attitude. The right attitude enables happiness.

The event that really made what is important in life crystal clear was when someone very close to be got cancer. Life became very, very precious. The B.S. in life became very unimportant. Instead, we appreciated the heck out of all the little beautiful, enjoyable things and moments in life. They are all around us, happening all the time, if you just open yourself up to them. They are happening right now. Stop missing them.

The funny thing is, we always did love the little things in life, even before cancer. Cancer just made them even more precious.

Alana Yorke composer-music supervisor
Alana Yorke- Composer|Music Supervisor

Music has a pretty big role in the film as far as setting up scenes, opening the film, etc. How did you go about finding the music/artists? Was there something specific you already had in mind, or did it just happen?

The music in my movie was a family affair. The composers/music supervisors were my wife’s cousin and his wife, Ian Bent and Alana Yorke, two talented musicians from Halifax. Ian is an amazing keyboardist who plays with the band Acres and Acres. Acres and Acres has had multiple East Coast Music Awards nominations. Alana Yorke is a singer/songwriter with a unique voice and sensibility.

One day I mentioned my film while we were in Halifax having a family dinner, and Ian offered to score my film, just like that. Alana wasn’t initially involved, but she was soon making major contributions as well. They worked together really well as a team–which I assume serves their marriage nicely as well!

I am almost too specific when it comes to the type of music I want in my films. It took a leap of faith to allow Ian and Alana the artistic freedom to put their own stamp on our film. I initially edited my film like a madman, achieving picture lock in just two weeks, in order to give Ian and Alana enough time to put music to the movie. We were under time pressure to make a few important festival deadlines.

The cut I gave Ian and Alana had a temp track of music from various sources which matched my sensibilities and tastes. The temp track included music from Cinema Paradiso, The Cider House Rules, Shrek, Elf–a real mishmash.

Although I was fond of my musical choices, I assured my composers that I was open to whatever they were inspired to try. I gave them my own music spotting session notes with suggestions as to tone, energy and emotion. Ian and Alana mostly ignored my temp track and worked only from my notes in creating their soundtrack.

Ian and Alana ended up writing several original pieces for the movie, but they also contacted a number of really great indie bands and singers from Halifax and got permission to use their music. I was pretty surprised by the sheer volume and variety of music that the movie had once it had been scored and supervised. I didn’t originally conceive my film with an extensive sound track, but I love every little bit of music that is there now. The music adds this incredible, powerful emotional layer, and I’m absolutely thrilled with the music in my film.

Ian Bent (Composer, Music Supervisor)
Ian Bent- Composer|Music Supervisor

If you could scream 1 thing out to the masses what would it be?

Two things….

STOP SUPPORTING BAD, SOULLESS FILMS!!! I’m not saying that my film is Citizen Kane, but it was made with some love. If you keep going to see crappy films, they’re going to keep making crappy films. Raise your standards. Demand better stories, better scripts, better acting, better directing and demand that at least one person involved with each movie inject some soul into it.

BE HAPPY NOW!!! The secret to being happy is not much of a secret and it’s in this interview, and it’s in Unhappy Happy. Figure it out. Be happy now.

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