Rob McCallum: The Story Behind the Storyteller


Rob

Courtesy of Rob McCallum, Pyre Productions

// Angela McInnes

With the exception of Unearthly, a project he laughingly describes as “Canada’s greatest B movie”, most of independent filmmaker Rob McCallum’s feature-length films probe his lifelong passions: Nintendo; He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; the quest to find his missing mother. In his latest documentary, Kittie:Origins/Evolutions, he explores a new fandom in the 20-year legacy of London’s heavy metal sensation, Kittie. I met up with McCallum at a downtown coffee shop to learn more about what it took to tell the tale.

Raised in London Ontario, McCallum graduated from Western University’s film program in 2004. His professors noticed his enthusiasm and offered him the opportunity to make films instead of writing essays in his last year of classes. 20 shorts and several festival awards later, McCallum enrolled in Sheridan College to further hone his skills in writing, producing, directing, and design. In the subsequent 15 years he divided his life between the US/Canada border to run his production company, Pyre Productions.

2015 saw the successful release of Nintendo Quest: The Most Unofficial and Unauthorized Nintendo Documentary Ever, wherein McCallum gleefully documented his friend’s undertaking to collect all 678 Nintendo Entertainment System games in just 30 days without the help of online shopping. The film caught the attention of proponents of nerd culture around the world, and eventually led to the inception of the spinoff series, Nintendo Quest: Power Tour.

McCallum’s more personal film, Missing Mom, was next to win over audiences. Telling the story of the search for his mother 25 years after her mysterious disappearance, Missing Mom garnered numerous honours, including Best Documentary at the 2016 Forest City Film Festival.

McCallum is now on the hunt for a distributor for Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, while completing post-production for Box Art, a series exploring the world of video game cover art. He also works as a producer and writer for Tiny Titan Studios, the London-based gaming company he recently moved back from the US to join.

Indeed, McCallum’s prolific work ethic and talent for crowdfunding has served him well thus far. In the sharply competitive landscape of the Canadian film industry, he suspects his business savvy is largely what sets him apart.

“A lot of [filmmakers] don’t think of it as a business,” he says. “Canada is guilty of this more than any other country – it’s one of the reasons I went to make films in the States, because they see it as being about profit rather than cultural expression, which is going to be inherent to any piece of art.”

McCallum posits that a change in the way Canada showcases its films may be a step in the right direction.

“Canada is doing so much more to promote music than they are for cinema. You look at CRTC regulations, 60% of what we hear has to be Canadian. If 60% of the screens in Canada had to be filled with Canadian content, we’d see an explosion in the amount of quantity that had to be produced.”

Interestingly, the federal government signed off on a $500-million investment to a Canadian Netflix production house mere days after McCallum’s eerily prophetic comment. Considering the experience he gained making his latest release, Kittie: Origins/Evolutions, the accuracy of this insight comes as no surprise.

Kittie: Origins/Evolutions was the first feature documentary McCallum was hired to do by an outside client. In hindsight, there was no one better suited to make the film. McCallum grew up at the same time and in the same city as sisters Morgan and Mercedes Lander, the founders of Kittie, one of the world’s most successful heavy metal acts. He even attended Sheridan College alongside Trish Doan, the band’s late bassist. It was through her that he learned the band was in the process of making a documentary covering their lengthy career. When a prospective director fell through, McCallum stepped up to the plate without hesitation.

He soon found that when rebellious teenage girls form a band that stays intact for 20 years and counting, they amass at least four terabytes of archival footage.

“It took a long time to go through that footage and find the spine of the film,” says McCallum. “The spine is, here’s your golden opportunity that everyone wishes for, how far are you willing to go for it, and guess what – sometimes the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”

Until now, Kittie has been tight-lipped about their origins and evolutions. The high volume of unseen material posed a challenge for McCallum, forcing him and the band to produce two versions of the film: A two-part version of the film with each part covering 10 years of the band’s history, and a 90-minute theatrical cut to be shown at a private screening hosted by this year’s Forest City Film Fest.

The theatrical version will appeal to audiences curious to know more about how the band got their footing, but the denser two-parter has been made especially with fans in mind, particularly those who backed the film’s financial campaign. Exempted pieces of the theatrical cut will later be made available online.  

In varying amounts of detail, both versions essentially tell the same real-life coming-of-age tale about a group of young women dealing with the highs and lows of the music biz in the new millennium. Having conducted interviews in Australia, LA, Atlanta, and finally in London’s own Call the Office,  McCallum was adamant he would limit his narration as much as possible to allow the members to tell their own story from their own words. He also made the conscious choice to neutralize the focus on gender, as it was clear the topic had been picked over ad nauseum in the media throughout Kittie’s history.

“For me it was about a band that made music and this is about what they went through. It’s obvious that most of the people you see on screen are women – this is about women. You don’t need to underline in bold that this is a girl band. Their story is significant regardless of gender,” says McCallum.

McCallum dove headfirst into the project with a vague awareness of what film he was about to make. But as production moved forward and interviews became more personal, he realized more and more that his previous films had prepared him for this unique opportunity. Nintendo Quest was a trial run at making a film marketed to an established fanbase with high expectations, while Missing Mom made him an empathetic interviewer during emotionally charged moments with his subjects.

“Making this film was cathartic for me,” says McCallum. “It was like seeing Missing Mom on some levels but stepping back because I wasn’t a part of it, and that’s why I was able to handle the tenser sessions with this band that had ten members. I could do it delicately and respectfully with everybody involved, without sensationalizing it, which I think was pretty important.”

It is this delicacy and dedication to authenticity that promises to make Kittie: Origins/Evolutions a landmark on multiple levels – music, film, and underground culture. With a head for business and heart for stories, it’s clear McCallum has been through his own evolution to set the precedent for future filmmakers in Canada.

And he’s just getting started.

 

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