Magazine article American Cinematographer

An Economy of Sarcasm

Magazine article American Cinematographer

An Economy of Sarcasm

Article excerpt

Writer/director Gary Burns and cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin target teen angst and small-town monotony in their wry comedy The Suburbanators.

SHOT IN THE WESTERN CANADIAN city of Calgary on 16mm for less than $30,000, The Suburbanators is a dryly humorous look at life within an anonymous neighborhood photographed by Patrick McLaughlin for writer/director Gary Burns. After making its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, the picture was recently invited to screen at Sundance.

McLaughlin initially became interested in cinematography after a long-held fascination with still photography. After gaining experience at local television stations, he applied to the motion picture production department at Concordia University in Montreal. There he met Burns and shot several shorts for the filmmaker. Following graduation, the cinematographer worked freelance in Calgary while training in the camera department with IATSE Local 669.

McLaughlin also served as an assistant to the recently-deceased Hugh K. Gagnier, ASC on an independent feature shot in Canada. "It was a very difficult shoot because of the budget, but I learned a lot from him about both cinematography and professionalism," the cameraman relates.

Pleased by their prior collaborations, Burns contacted McLaughlin to photograph The Suburbanators. Explains the cinematographer, "It follows the same patterns as our previous shorts, Happy Valley and Beerland, which were sarcastic comedies about middle-class guys flitting around the suburbs."

No real story curve exists in The Suburbanators, but the tracthome and shopping-mall locations and culture-deprived characters provide a target-rich landscape for Burns' satiric senibilities. "Basically, I spent 10 years doing nothing in the suburbs," recalls the 35year-old filmmaker of his youth. "We just drove around and drank beer." And it was this "non-experience" that inspired many of the film's funniest moments as we encounter seven young men, examined in three intertwining yet separate segments: Al and Bob, going through the mundane chore of getting a haircut before heading off to see their local drug dealer; Carl and Eric, also off to purchase a fresh stash after inadvertently insulting a girl they'd intended to flirt with; and Kareem, Salah and Roger, Arab musicians with only a nominal command of English making their way to the same haunts.

Regarding the "action" driving the film, Burns muses, "Young guys looking for dope can be amusing at times, but, as in real life, it is a banal pursuit. The film is, in actuality, anti-drama."

This minimalist approach carried over to the rest of the production, as McLaughlin explains, "The composition and lighting needed a neutral look, to reflect the generic subjects and locations. We didn't want to slap the viewers into feeling certain things about the characters with a specific aesthetic.

"Fortunately, our film doesn't rely on an extravagant, bigbudget look. And I think that's a trap that a lot of low-budget filmmakers fall into, trying to make a 16mm feature that looks like Blade Runner for $70,000. So there's no movement or lighting in The Snburbanators for its own sake."

Kick-started by a grant of $20,000 from the Canadian Film Council, the picture was completed over 35 shooting days under the watchful eye of producer John Hazlett - who also covered as second unit cinematographer and stand-in sound recordist. Admits McLaughlin, "We shot with an Arri SRI because that's all we could afford: camera, matte-box, batteries, magazines and a 10:1 Zeiss zoom. …

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