TORONTO - Emerging filmmaker Chelsea McMullan's to-do list for the Sundance Film Festival includes an odd item for a Canadian: Buy a parka.
Of course the chatty writer/director already has winter gear, but McMullan's impending U.S. debut has her mulling over the best way to make a splash with her musical documentary, "My Prairie Home."
"I need a more fashionable one," reasons McMullan, noting that her promotional strategy may also involve impromptu busking and plastering stickers at various venues.
The B.C.-bred director heads to Robert Redford's prestigious indie showcase riding a wave of homegrown accolades: "My Prairie Home" nabbed a nomination for best feature-length documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards earlier this week and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle recently declared it best Canadian documentary.
She'll be joined on the circuit by several Canucks shopping movie shorts: Genevi�ve Dulude-Decelles' father-daughter story "The Cut," Fran�ois Jaros' "Life's a Bitch," Yan Giroux's "Mi nina mi vida," Danis Goulet's "Wakening," Chris Landreth's "Subconscious Password" and Alix Lambert and Sam Chou's U.S.A./Canada co-production "CRIME: The Animated Series (Marcus McGhee)."
More Canadians will be chasing attention over at the more grassroots Slamdance festival — which features projects made for less than $1 million. Entries include Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart's narrative "I Put a Hit on You," the Canada/U.S./Denmark co-production "Copenhagen" and Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman's documentary feature "Elliot."
Pat Kiely's "Three Night Stand" hits Slamdance's "bold and daring" Beyond program, while Canuck shorts in various categories include Ian Lagarde's "Daybreak," Mihai Wilson's "OVO," Drew Lint's "Rough Trade" and the doc shorts "Glass Eyes of Locust Bayou" from Simon Mercer and "The Chaperone 3D" from Fraser Munden.
Clark and Stewart — who are married — say they're fully aware it's an uphill battle to get their film noticed.
"Only one or two films are going to generate a good chunk of the buzz," says a pragmatic Stewart, a former copy writer who cut her teeth at the Canadian Film Centre.
It helps that "I Put a Hit on You" boasts some star power: Sara Canning of "The Vampire Diaries" plays a woman who drunkenly orders a hit man to kill her boyfriend after he rejects her marriage proposal. Aaron Ashmore of "Veronica Mars" portrays the boyfriend, with most of the action consisting of two people in a room.
Clark and Stewart say they crowdsourced about $30,000 to help fund the 12-day shoot. They applied to both Sundance and Slamdance, but were glad to have their first feature-length film land at what's considered the more low-key of the festivals.
"We feel like that is where it belongs because of the nature of this project and how we did it and put ourselves on the line and crowdsourced it and all of that stuff," says Clark.
"They seem to be all about that and have some street cred."
The duo says they plan to hang out on street corners to flag people down and tell them about their movie. They're also making toques that say: "I put a hit on you" and their five-person posse will all wear Canada Goose coats.
Meanwhile, pre-Slamdance preparations were a bit of a scramble for "Elliot" directors Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman, who were scrambling to deliver their film — about an amateur filmmaker who dreams of becoming a movie star — to the festival.
Belliveau and Bauckman shot, directed, edited, wrote and co-produced the $50,000 venture, which proved to be a minefield as they delved deeper into Elliot's fantasy-filled world.
"Initially everything seemed larger-than-life and Jaret and I would be asking ourselves, 'Can these stories be true? How much is embellishment?' " says the 28-year-old Bauckman, from Moncton, N.B.
"As we got to know him more we noticed that it wasn't as much little white lies or whatever, it was actually that Elliot was living in a fantasy world. We were just thinking about the dangers of living in a fantasy world because as artists, as creators, we're all dreamers, we all try to dream big but there is a point where it becomes dangerous," adds the 32-year-old Belliveau, also from Moncton.
Over at Sundance, McMullan will be making the rounds with her film subject in tow, transgender country singer Rae Spoon.
"My Prairie Home," slated for the World Cinema Documentary Competition, centres on Montreal-based performer during a tour of the Prairies, with stops including a roadside diner, a gig in Winnipeg and a dinosaur museum in Drumheller, Alta.
It includes an exploration of Spoon's fractious upbringing, and McMullan says it wasn't easy getting the singer to open up over four years of shooting.
"There were a lot of vulnerability exchanges that needed to happen between the two of us for Rae to trust me," she said.
"That obviously put a lot of pressure on our relationship as well because we were friends but I also think you can't really make something worth making unless you push someone past their point of comfort."
The NFB will stream the film for free at NFB.ca on Jan. 26 and 27 while a special screening in Toronto on Feb. 4 will include a live performance by Spoon and a Q&A with McMullan.
"I kind of am really interested in sort of hybridity and melding the surreal with the real and playing with ideas around that so that's the kind of the language I'm trying to develop in my own work," says McMullan, who leaves for the fest on Saturday.
"I really wanted to do something different and I think someone as gender-defying as Rae needed a film as genre-defying to sort of pay tribute to that."
The 29-year-old will be joined on the trip by five crew members as well as her dad, sister and uncle (Brian McMullan, mayor of St. Catharines, Ont.), all eager to cheer her on.
"It's kind of a game-changer, it's such an important festival, especially in North America," she says.
The Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday and runs through Jan. 26 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah. Slamdance begins Friday and runs through Jan. 23, also in Park City.