Alex Gray: Well, I’d always been a kid who was into movies and TV, but when I was around 16 I watched a double feature of Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now – Heart of Darkness being the documentary Coppola’s wife made of the production of that film. Something about seeing everything that was necessary to make that, film and it’s general looseness and dangerousness – as opposed to the masterful control of all elements evident in The Godfather – fascinated me, and compelled me to want to make work. I wish it was something more arty like The Seventh Seal, but it was Apocalypse Now that gave me the bug. I originally picked up photography as a way to “practice my eye” for what I thought would be a filmmaking career, but ended up dedicated to photos for the next 15 years, before making my first “serious” attempt at film making.
DD: And who would you pick as some of your favorite filmmakers?
AG: Well, David Lynch is a fairly early influence both in films and in general as an artist, I was introduced to his work at the right time for my budding creative interests. I’m also a huge Dario Argento, and Andrei Tarkovsky fan. I suppose the commonality of these artists is the ethereal and magic quality of their work, masters of atmosphere. I’m a fan of so many film makers, and I’m sure I will regret not saying someone but these are the guys who spring to mind, and who’s entire body of work I have sought out.
DD: I know you’re really into Mario Bava and Brian de Palma. What is it about them that you like?
AG: Bava I got into through Argento. Both in my love of films as well as music (particularly rock and roll) I have always wanted to follow and find the roots of what I love, and in Italian horror, most roads lead back to Bava. He made the first Giallo film, laid down what would become the formula for American slashers in Bay of Blood, inspired the naming of Black Sabbath from one of his films, was an influence on Alien with Planet of the Vampires, and on and on. Being a lover of genre films as I am, it’s cool that he made so many different kinds of films. De Palma I have always liked, the big stand-out for me being Phantom of The Paradise, which I absolutely adore. The wardrobe styling, production design, and catchy tunes are endlessly enjoyable for me. It’s one of those films that I love more every time I see it. Blade Runner is like that for me too.
DD: How did you start getting into making music videos and filmmaking?
AG: A lot of the stuff I’m doing now stems from the Explorer short science fiction film I made. I had recently launched my solo photography business after the end of a long artistic/business partnership (Alex vs Alex with Alex Ioannou), and Explorer was both my first attempt at something like film making, and my first new creative project after a break from making anything. I was unemployed at the time and by the day of filming I was down to something like $4 and 3 cigarettes, I had rented way more gear than I even had time to attempt to use, and put myself $700 in debt, but I was hell-bent to make the thing regardless of obstacles. I was way too over ambitious on that one, and learned quickly to give myself more time and be more aware of my constraints. Explorer has a Super 8 section in it, and I fell in love with the look of the 2k-5k scans that have become available in the last couple years. My friend, and frequent collaborator Jesse Crowe commissioned my first music video for her band Beliefs, and insisted that it be Super 8. It went well enough that I have only shot Super 8 since.
DD: How is it filming on Super 8?
AG: Nerve-wracking, but that’s a big part of the excitement. I never feel completely confident that I’m doing it right, and from the moment I hear the tension release as the reel runs out, to when I see the completed scans, I retrace all the steps of making the thing to think of what could have gone wrong or could be better. I shoot with a Nizo 801 Macro, an absolutely beautiful camera with a telephoto lens, macro setting, an inter-valometer for slo-mo and timelapse, a wide angle adapter, etc. It allows me a lot of flexibility while shooting. It’s basically on permanent loan to my collection from a dear friend who bought it for one specific project he was doing and hasn’t had need of it since. I’m able to make a lot of my art due to the support, help, and resources of friends and believers, and I’m eternally grateful to the countless number of them who spring to mind. I buy the film at LIFT, and process and scan at Niagara Custom Labs, though I have also used Frame Discreet for scanning. I’m totally in love with the meeting of old and new technology that is the result of the hi res scans that are now available for Super 8. Although the special quality of actually projecting them can be argued, I think Super 8 has never looked better than it does now in 2-4k; you see every grain. I took a course at LIFT a few years back with John Porter, an amazing artist and filmmaker who has worked with Super 8 since the late 60’s, and made hundreds of films. I was lucky enough to see a few of them, as he doesn’t scan anything and only projects his own films himself to best preserve the originals. I had been shooting Super 8 with my friends casually for a few years at that point, but that course gave me what I needed to start to understand how to really handle the format. I’m lucky to live in a city with so many filmmaking resources available to allow anyone to learn and shoot almost any format of film or digital they want regardless of obscurity.
DD: Can you tell me about your music videos and if there are any influences?
AG: The Beliefs video for their song Colour of Your Name was my first. I’ve worked photographically with my friend Jesse Crowe from that band many times, and I feel like the video is a natural extension of those photo shoots. It was the first time I used artificial light in one of my films, using continuous versions of the strobe lights I use for portrait photography. I’m not sure about any direct film references I had in mind in this case, the whole thing is really just an exercise in camera movement and lighting. I wanted my contribution to be simple and clean, and to be able to focus on Jesse’s performance. It’s a portrait film of her I guess, if that makes sense.
The next one I made was Art Show’s video for Lucky Child which fed from a lot of influences. I wanted to bring German Expressionism to Cyber Punk, or at least that was my original idea for it. It might have become something else along the way, as things often do with me. The wardrobe styling is heavily informed from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with a bit of Rock n Roll thrown in. The location selection would probably come from Eraserhead and Stalker with an eye to the industrial, I also knew right from the beginning that Toronto Dominion Centre by Mies Van Der Roeh would be the opening shot as it’s always been my favorite building in the city and another influence on the video. I tried to move from more of a polished financial district look to the industrial portions as a symbol of the class dichotomy in this imagined future society. I became fascinated with Citizen Kane before the day of shooting – and coped the megalomaniacal credit style from Welles when crediting myself in it, as well as the font style - and reread selected William Gibson short stories as narrative reference. I had a bit more of a budget with Lucky Child and so was able to more fully realize an idea with it than with most other pieces, and was able to shoot more film than is often the case.
DD: What about the new music video your working on?
AG: It’s for my pals in the punk band Hellbent. They’re a DIY band, so we made a seriously DIY video. It’s a 1min and 20sec slasher film heavily inspired by my love of giallo films and the first wave of American slashers. I’m proud of it particularly for the constraints it was made under; I only shot one roll (3 1/3 min) of footage to edit down into the video, we shot it in two hours at one location and did it with a $150 budget, not including the leather trench coat I bought that was essential to the killer’s look. Turned out pretty cool, and the guys are quite happy about it.
DD: I know you’re around Kensington Market a lot, and you’ve talked about some of the shows that were shot there. Can you elaborate more on your relationship with the neighborhood and how you think it’s been filmed over the years?
AG: I got my first downtown apartment on Beverly St. when I was 19 (Summer 2002), and almost simultaneously my friend Dean Horn opened his clothing store on Nassau. Dean was a huge early influence creatively, as I would spend hours drinking coffee, asking him annoying questions, and watching him make incredible clothes. I continue to marvel at his ability to be effortlessly creative with anything he does, and he had a big aesthetic influence on me. Although I had been through the market before, it was this introduction to Nassau St. – which at the time felt totally tucked away from the rest of the market - and to I deal Coffee that formed the start of my living/hanging in Kensington. It sounds overdramatic, but at the time, it felt like the place I had been looking for my whole life, and the first place I felt almost entirely accepted. A lot of my still cherished friendships, had their beginnings at I deal and the Nassau St. of the early to mid 2000’s. From there I spent 10 years living in the market before being driven to Dundas and Markham by rising rent costs. I worked at Ronnie’s from 2007-2011, which was a wild time with a ton of stories attached, and I’m still in the market almost daily drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and seeing the many friends who live and work there.
In terms of Kensington as represented in media, I’m not sure anyone has captured the real core elements of what makes Kensington what it is. I guess Twitch City by Don McKellar would be the closest I have seen, though admittedly it’s been years and I’m due a re-watch.That’s probably my favorite thing Don has done, although I think The Red Violin is pretty spectacular. We’ve got a statue for Al Waxman from King of Kensington, but other than the show’s opening credits – which are great –, and the fantastic theme song which I’m a huge fan of, there’s not much there. Everything other than the intro is shot in a studio, and it kinda comes off to me as a cheap, dry, Canadian attempt at something like All in the Family but without the “balls”. I have an idea for a feature film set in Kensington that is my dream to make, but whether that ever happens, and if it’s truly representative of the place, remains to be seen. I’m also aware that the Kensington I originally imagined it taking place in is quickly changing into something different.
DD: And what about your music projects?
AG: We’re a 5 piece space rock band called Explorer, the seeds of which formed around my good friend Joe Roth and I creating the music for the Explorer film. Joe is a film editor and has edited basically everything I have shot, he’s also a musician and producer, and my song writing partner in the band. After really liking how the film score came out, we started writing and demoing songs in that style, found the rest of the guys we play with, and started rehearsing. They’re the best bunch of guys, and great musicians – much better than myself – and it’s the realization of a long dream to be playing with them in my first “serious” band. Our first show was covering Alice Cooper at Death to TO last year with our friend Matty Dee, and we have since released our first EP, and been performing our original material around the city. The Explorer film, while being a big sacrifice and stress at the time, was the start of both my new film and music projects, for which I’m very grateful.
DD: Can you talk a bit more about your music taste? You’re always playing cool music at the bar you work at.
AG: Well, admittedly I don’t listen to much modern music, but I’m a fan of many genres of Rock n Roll from the 50’s to the 80’s, and a devotee to rock in general. Explorer has been a great place to – pardon the pun, but – explore these influences from Buddy Holly to Glenn Danzig and everything in between. Rock music, and the culture and history surrounding it has been one of my biggest, if not the biggest passion of my life, and comes into play with anything I do. A lot of the art I make comes from songs or is closely attached to a song and it’s usually, but not always rock.
DD: And finally, do you have any new projects in the works?
AG: I have another Super 8 music video in the works that we’re hoping to shoot this month. I’m also going to try and shoot a personal short film, that’s inspired by some of the French New Wave stuff and examines some of what I find amusing/fascinating/ridiculous about modern life in downtown Toronto. I have a bunch of film projects I’d like to realize in the future, I’m always plugging away at photography, and the band stuff is going well, just trying to keep it all up. I feel like life and certainly downtown Toronto have presented me with so many telling narratives, both happy and sad (a lot of sad), and I just hope to be able to explore and perhaps do justice to some of them in all the stuff I make.