Late last fall, filmmaker Trevor Anderson met with his sound guy to record narration of his new film The Little Deputy.
They spent the entire afternoon on the first take, before deciding to throw it all out and do it again. And again. And again. Nothing was working. The one voice that was clear to him was that of Werner Herzog, one of the world’s most acclaimed documentary filmmakers, telling Anderson that his previous voice-over work was flawed.
The two had met at a film school run by the Oscar-winning German director, which Anderson describes as a “a three-day master class that happens in whatever city in the world [Herzog] happens to be in, whenever he feels like it.” Anderson attended the 2012 class in L.A. Orientation was held at a pub, and that’s where Herzog, pointing to his heart and looking Anderson straight in the eyes, told him that his last film, High Level Bridge, was “very accomplished filmmaking.”
That part made the blurb on Anderson’s website, explains the 42-year-old Edmonton artist, sitting on a bench in Constable Ezio Faraone Park, surveying the river valley on a recent afternoon. The part that didn’t?
“The narration should be deadpan.” Herzog argued.
Anderson’s face goes blank as he imitates his own confusion: he thought the narration was deadpan. Apparently not enough for Herzog, whose own bone-dry voiceovers are so infamous that parodies are widespread, including in Dreamworks’ Penguins of Madagascar. So Anderson was determined to heed Herzog’s advice on The Little Deputy, a take on the Western with Fort Edmonton — which originally sat in the downtown perch currently occupied by the Alberta Legislature, not far from his Grandin home — filling in for the O.K. Corral.
Like his previous films, it’s a personal documentary about life in Edmonton, with a dash of big-budget Hollywood genres. His 2012 short The Man that Got Away, which won a short film prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, was a musical about his chorus-dancing great-uncle, while The Island, from 2009, used fantasy elements and tropical-themed animation to respond to homophobic “fan mail” Anderson received—all the way from the U .S. of A.
The Little Deputy begins in West Edmonton Mall’s old-timey photo studio, with flashbacks shot on an old RCA camcorder, and over the ensuing seven minutes travels back to 1880s Edmonton, as Anderson tries to recreate a real childhood photo as an adult. This, at least, is Anderson’s spoiler-free summary. There are at least two big reveals in the film that he doesn’t want ruined for audiences ahead of time. Anderson, who also serves as director of programming for the filmmaking non-profit FAVA, began his creative life in theatre.
“[Don Iveson] rode his bicycle down to Fort Edmonton Park, like the super-mayor he is and we put a big fake moustache on both him and his wife.”
After moving to Edmonton from Red Deer in 1992 to study at the University of Alberta, he produced Fringe Festival shows and directed five seasons of the improvised soap opera Die-Nasty. He’s also been an ongoing presence in the city’s indie-rock scene, drumming for the Wet Secrets, whose music videos he also directs. (For 2014’s “Nightlife,” Anderson even coaxed Joe Flaherty into reprising his cult SCTV character Count Floyd for a lovingly made-in-Edmonton clip.)
Yet it’s Anderson’s short films that have brought him the most widespread attention and honours, not despite their specificity—he describes the films as “pretty local, pretty gay” — but because of it. The High Level Bridge, for example, is a sharp and provocative short about suicide. It screened at the Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest, and generated positive reviews from the likes of the late Roger Ebert and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Like the rest of his filmography, it drew from personal experiences. That is, lost friends. But, most notably, it threw open the door for a much-needed discussion about the bridge’s dark side. Soon after The High Level Bridge premiered, the veil of taboo started to slip, leading to in-depth media coverage, public engagement and a recent decision to install a $3 million barrier.
The Little Deputy marked his return to Park City, Utah, for another run at Sundance this past January. It played to four full houses, plus 100 high-school students through the Sundance Institute’s Filmmakers in the Classroom program. “It was very well received,” he says.
The movie came together quickly. He cobbled his crew together in September, shot everything over three days, and less than a month later, it was finished. A staple of the Edmonton arts and culture scene, Anderson, says that ramshackle, can-do spirit is one of the things he loves most about the city. “It’s that right size of a city,” he says, “big enough that there’s stuff happening, but small enough that you either know the person you have to get to, or you know the person who knows the person you have to get to.”
That sense of community spirit also helps explain how Anderson convinced Mayor Don Iveson and his wife, writer and teacher Sarah Chan, to play extras in the Fort Edmonton section of the new film. “[Iveson] rode his bicycle down to Fort Edmonton Park, like the super-mayor he is,” recalls Anderson, “and we put a big fake moustache on both him and his wife.” Chan’s whiskers, he adds, were all her idea.
Another familiar name in the credits is, of course, Werner Herzog. But it’s not for the voice-over lessons. Because after countless takes at the narration, trying everything and sounding like everyone from Snagglepuss to HAL from 2001 in the process, Anderson finally thought, What would Herzog do?
“He would say to put everyone and everything out of your mind, and to follow your instincts. So I went in and did the voiceover as authentically and truly as I could.”
“And it sounds just like the f—–‘ High Level Bridge,” he says, laughing. “It’s the exact same goddamn voiceover that he criticized in the first place.”