Witness the otherworldly body of work of Toronto-based filmmaker Jamie Travis. With an obsessive precision, Travis has reflected the lives of his sad, often isolated characters in stunning, refreshing and unusual ways.
In a series of short films, Travis has built a reputation as a filmmaker who continually surprises with a distinctive style and wacky plot twists. With an obvious penchant for design, his films give great surface — but they are far from skin deep, offering deeper meditations on public and private lives, artifice and reality, imaginary fictions and truth.
Travis’s latest short, The Armoire, won an honorary mention at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and this week is the opening film at Montreal’s queer film fest, Image+Nation. Travis spoke to Xtra.ca about his off-kilter imagination and the thinking behind The Armoire, another Travis film in which a child protagonist attempts to cope with daunting emotional roadblocks.
Xtra.ca: What first drew you to filmmaking?
Jamie Travis: Adventures in Babysitting, Annie, The Parent Trap, Death Becomes Her and The War of the Roses. These movies messed with my obsessive little head and so I had no choice but to become a filmmaker.
Xtra.ca: That’s quite a list of primal influences! What is generally your source of inspiration for your film ideas?
JT: Desperation to make something else. I plunge myself so heavily into each project that I often come out stripped bare and terrified that I’ll never make something again. This fear is good for me, I think — though I hope to make films in a more relaxed manner now that I am in my 30s. I used to find inspiration in knick knacks and queer little objects. My films have always had interior design at the forefront. Often story ideas come from design ideas. With The Armoire, I wanted to make something that took place in a sitcom-style suburban house — a giant living room with the front door on one side and the clean diagonal of a staircase along the back wall, a couch placed square in the middle of the room and an adjacent kitchen. I wanted to exploit this space for its theatricality while at the same time transforming the purpose of the space for drama. It’s funny how these iconic spaces transplant the reality in your head. No house in the world looks like this, but its falseness and its immediate, perhaps subliminal connotations, made me want to exploit it.
Xtra.ca: What was the specific inspiration for this film?
JT: First there was the sitcom house and retooling its purpose for dark, confessional drama. Then there was the personal angle. Aaron’s story is not dissimilar from mine: the lacklustre suburbs, isolation and perhaps ingrained superiority as a child, a propensity for histrionics and a preference for fictions. Aaron’s armoire is indeed a symbol of not only his burgeoning sexuality but also of his burgeoning selfhood. He is at what I consider a mysterious age, eleven. He engages in adult-like behaviour before he can comprehend it. I did the same and began engaging in sexual experimentation at a young age. This film is my attempt to communicate the complexity of this situation and of this age. I wanted to make a comedy — and a mystery — out of the sexually curious 11-year-old’s psyche.
Xtra.ca: There’s obviously such a strong connection between The Armoire and your two last movies…
JT: Yes. It is hard to talk about The Armoire without connecting it to my previous films Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner (2003) and The Saddest Boy in the World (2006). Together, the three films form a trilogy I playfully call The Saddest Children in the World. All three feature children — first seven-year-olds, then a nine-year-old and now an 11-year-old — in compromising situations that can only be survived through imagination and artifice. With The Armoire, I wanted to soften the satire and turn the accusatory finger away from the poisonous suburbs and toward the self, toward Aaron. This final sad child film is the most complex of the three films, and I wanted to embrace that. I also wanted to take the arguable darkness of the first two films’ conclusions and with The Armoire, provide some hope for sad children everywhere. I think I did that.
Xtra.ca: Your films often deal with child characters. What’s the intrigue there, for a writer?
JT: I can’t seem to get past my childhood. My stories often pivot around the discrepancy of reality and memory. When I think back to my childhood, it is impossible though enjoyable to sift through my experiences, both real and fictional. There are lies I used to tell that I am only now realizing were lies. I invented a stalker, got the police involved, everything. The mystery of The Armoire is built around something that is halfway between a lie and a repressed memory. In children I find fertile ground for my current ruminations.
Xtra.ca: You have a very unique visual style. What would you say your main influences are?
JT: Sitcoms. Peter Greenaway. Jan Svankmajer. Childhood photos. I have an almost insane need for symmetry. Sometimes, as with The Armoire, I try to mess it up a bit and loosen the style, but in the end those shots get cut out. My rigid, analytical mind requires austere images. I can’t help it.
Xtra.ca: There’s such a prejudice against the short film format — the feature film format is usually privileged over it. Do you see greater hope for more exposure for short filmmakers, given the popularity of the internet and sites like YouTube?
JT: People, myself included, have tiny attention spans. Of course the market for short films is growing. The problem is that people want to watch free stuff online and movies, both feature length and short, require money. Or at least the kinds of movies I want to make.
Xtra.ca: What would you say the main way your sexual orientation informs your filmmaking practices?
JT: That is a hard question to answer. My sexuality doesn’t dictate my creative decisions. My personality does — my fixations, my obsessions. I share with many other gay people a familiarity with longing and isolation, a history of repression and a love for self-conscious theatrics. But then again, I share these things with a lot of straight people.
Jamie Travis will be at the opening night screening at the Image+Nation Film Festival in Montreal, where his short The Armoire will kick off the event on Thu, Oct. 22.