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Returning to the Past: Trevor Anderson on The Little Deputy

Little Deputy 01

By Tom Ue.

Trevor Anderson was born in Red Deer, Alberta, and is now based in Edmonton. His short films include “Rugburn” (2005); “Rock Pockets” (2007), which received the inaugural Lindalee Tracey Award at Hot Docs; “DINX” (2008); “Carpet Diem” (2008), “Punchlines” (2009), and “The Man That Got Away” (2012), which premiered at the Berlinale. Both “The Island” (2009) and “The High Level Bridge” (2010) screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. “The Little Deputy” (2015) is his latest. The short film was selected as one of the 2015 Canada’s Top Ten Short Films.

What inspired this film?

It’s a true story about a photograph that hung in my childhood home while I was growing up, which is the photograph that you see at the end of the film.

Gender coding plays a central role in this film. Can you talk a bit about that?

In the story, I explain that my father and I spent an awkward day together when I was about ten years old. We went to the world’s biggest shopping mall, in Edmonton, and we went to an old-time Western photo parlour to get our portrait taken: they dress you up like cowboys to take your photo like it’s the Wild West. The photographer mistook me for a little girl and held out a dress.

For me, time froze. I wanted to put on the dress but I didn’t know what my father’s reaction would have been. In the moment, I said I was a boy and the photographer quickly dressed me up like a little deputy.

Years later, I realized that it might not have been too late to get the photo I originally wanted, so I told my mother my idea. And she said if I set up the photoshoot, she’d bring my father.

One of the things that I liked most about the film is the colour scheme with which you created the passage in the West Edmonton Mall. Can you tell us a bit about this?

We shot the 1980s West Edmonton Mall section on a VHS camcorder from the 1980s. We got it off the internet specifically to shoot that sequence. We were shooting in 1980 VHS format and we increased the dual tone to give it a little more 1980s.

There’s a great change in style when we see the Wild West. Can you tell us about that?

Little Deputy 02For the second half of the story, I wanted to change horses midstream and go for the highest production values that I could—as a way to contrast the simple VHS footage of the first half. Kind of create meaning: I felt disempowered as a kid in the 1980s in the first half of the story, but now I have much more power as a professional adult artist so I can change my life story.

I think it draws attention to the power of cinema itself to change one’s life story.

We got the biggest production we could. Even the mayor of Edmonton has a small role walking by. We had a steam train; we had horses; we had as many extras as we could get.

What are some of your influences for this film?

I never know how to answer the question of influence.

One has to ask this with a film with so many Western elements.

Right. True Grit (2010), I think. I was looking at True Grit, especially the arrival in town of the tough female protagonist.

You wouldn’t see it necessarily but we were looking at Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), just the oblique framing strategies.  At first, we were avoiding faces in the first couple minutes of the film. That’s just an internal reference.

The first half of the film was set in 1986, and the second half in the present. Do you think that things have improved for our understanding of gender?

Well the second part is actually set in 1886, but I do know what you mean. 1886 is also, in a way, the present, this thing we were doing with time. Certainly, I agree with you that it’s more present than 1886. It’s about us playing 1886. Has it improved? Yes, I’d like to hope that it has improved.  I’d like to think that it’d be easier for a kid to put on a dress than it was for me in 1986, but at the same time, you never know and it all depends on the kid and it all depends on the specific relationship that kid has with people in their life. It’s always hard to become oneself. I think puberty is famously hard for everyone. But outside of that, I think awareness of LGBT issues is more widespread than it was in 1986.

In 1986, you really only had that one moment in which you can choose to put on that dress or not to put on that dress.

Absolutely, that was the whole thing. The moment took everyone by surprise. It took me by surprise, my father by surprise. Time just stopped. Here before me was a great moment of decision: what was I going to do? I remember feeling I had a lot of time to think. Maybe if I put on the dress, I’d get away with it. Maybe my father won’t know what to do and will just play along with it. I remember feeling that in the moment I wanted the photo of me as the kid in the dress, and I knew that as an adult I would want the photo me as the kid in the dress.

It was a very strange outside-of-time awareness moment that I had. I started calculating and scheming how I was going to get this photo. I had no idea what my father was going to do: I had no idea if he was going to be angry. This was forbidding territory. This is an open-secret between us that we don’t really talk a lot about. Here it was offered to us on a hanger by a friendly man in the photo store. I chose the safe route as a kid and went back and revisited that decision as a professional adult artist.

Would you have chosen differently?

How do you mean? Would I have chosen differently if…?

If you had a second chance?

No, I don’t think so. You mean, if I went back knowing everything that I know now? Probably not. I think the decision was the decision. My decision of who I was at that time and place and that’s important to honour and not regret.  If I made it in that moment, it was probably the right decision for me.

But an idea that I am exploring is that you are not locked by these choices. Even years later, even beyond the grave, you can find different forms of closure and change.

What’s next for you?

I am working on a feature. I am writing a feature about two big erect penises in space.

[Laughs] Can you tell us more about that?

I am going to start there. I will make a short version of that and I am going to develop it into a feature film. That’s all getting rolling now. I’d like to start from a place of true story and explode into a fantasy sequence based on movie genre. I’ve made a musical about my uncle’s life; I’ve made a Western about my father; and now for the feature, I’m going to go for a horror film about my fear of dating.

[Both laugh] I will look forward to that.

Awesome! I hope that I can do it justice.

Tom Ue writes for Film International. His bestselling edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films. He has recently completed the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists (Gale, 2015). Ue gained his Ph.D. from the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London and he is presently a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.

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