A movie about two homeless men and a baseboard heater has returned to Winnipeg, two decades after it was filmed here.
Directed by Terrance Odette
Runs Jan, 14, Jan. 21 and 28 as part of Restoration Tuesdays
Heater, written and directed by Terrance Odette, is playing weekly at Cinematheque this month as part of the theatre's Restoration Tuesdays series.
The film was shot in Winnipeg in the late 1990s and while the city was meant to be a stand-in for any urban centre in the Great White North, there's plenty of local nostalgia in the 85-minute flick.
Billed as a "road movie without the Chevrolet," Heater follows Ben (Gary Farmer) and The Man (Stephen Ouimette) as they try to return an unopened baseboard heater for some cash in the middle of a frigid winter. The journey takes them through downtown, with its lamp posts adorned in Christmas lights; past the Three Wise Men display atop the Osborne Street entrance to the Great-West Life Assurance Company building; and on to the former Eaton's store at St. Vital Centre.
During filming, Odette, who grew up in Kitchener, Ont., wasn't hampered by Winnipeg's landmarks.
"There was a real advantage to me coming and not knowing Winnipeg and seeing it differently than someone who lives there — they will always see a certain corner from a certain angle," he said, speaking with the Free Press over the phone from his home in Hamilton.
Heater was Odette's first foray into feature films. He decided to pursue filmmaking in his 30s and got his start making country-music videos, which is how he connected with producer Richard Findlay.
"(Richard) said he would produce it if I wanted to do it in Winnipeg," Odette said. "I said sure, there's homelessness everywhere."
The script was inspired by Odette's wife, who was working as a nurse with Toronto's homeless population at the time.
"She worked these clinics and people would offer her things for sale, like steaks and drugs and guns, anything. And somebody offered her a baseboard heater," he said. "I thought that was just ironic and I just had this image of this guy walking around a cold city with nowhere to plug in his baseboard heater."
Farmer and Ouimette's characters were inspired by the kind of down-on-their-luck buddy types seen in Waiting for Godot or Of Mice and Men. Odette learned a lot from both of his leads, whom he describes as "very, very different people."
"Gary’s much more of what you would call a natural in his acting. Stephen is very much a studious thespian, a creature of the theatre, so he knew everybody’s lines and Gary barely knew his own, but he could pull it off because he’s just a natural," he said.
"For me, first time directing a narrative, I was smart enough to stand back and let them do their thing."
The movie was shot on 35mm film and had a tiny $350,000 budget.
"Back then, $350,000 had to get you film stock and processing and transfer, so take $100,000 and throw it down the toilet," Odette said.
The shoestring budget meant shooting handheld with sparse lighting — something that added to the gritty esthetic of the film — and working out of a beat-up tour bus that served as crew transportation, equipment storage and craft services. The Winnipeg film crew and its actors — many of whom are still mainstays of the city's theatre community — gave Odette a peek at Winnipeg's tight-knit arts community.
"Everybody working on our crew were artists in their own rights, they had their own discipline outside of making a living working on some independent film for a few weeks," he said.
Heater never found a Canadian distributor so it was mostly screened at film festivals and in the United States when it was released in 1999. Odette was "dumbfounded" when the movie won best screenplay and best new director at the Vancouver International Film Festival that year.
He has released three more independent feature films — Saint Monica, Sleeping Dogs and Fall — in the years since.
Odette got Heater restored last year on an equally small budget, around $300 all told. The elements of the film had been donated to Archives Canada, which provided him with a 4K scan of the prints free-of-charge, and the movie's original director of photography, Arthur Cooper, agreed to do the colour restoration for a bottle of scotch.
The freshly restored version captures Odette's vision better than the original release ever did.
"It never looked like the 35mm print, so it had a much darker look, it was muddier, high contrast," he said. "It actually feels like seeing it when it was released on film."
Odette, who works part-time at an independent cinema in Hamilton, is happy to see Heater playing in a small, locally owned theatre.
"If you don’t have places like Cinematheque in Winnipeg or the Playhouse in Hamilton, you don’t have venues for our own product, our own Canadian feature films," he said. "My intention is to get it to play in the six or so independent theatres in Canada."
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.