/Interview by Natalia Dukhovnikova/
We talked with Lee Foster (director) and Dave Poulin (producer) about their film ‘Black Bag’. It is meant to honour the men and women who sacrifice so much to keep the world safe, and at the same time offer a word of caution in regards to who we trust to make decisions and why.
The whole film is imbued with an atmosphere of tension and importance. But what secrets does this story keep? Will it be continued? And why is it important today to tell stories like this? — read in this interview.
How did it come to your mind and what was your inspiration? Why exactly this idea?
Lee: Growing up I always enjoyed war movies and was drawn to military characters and scenarios. I’ve always been a big fan of Tom Clancy’s work, and upon reading Rainbow Six, and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down (and seeing Ridley Scott’s movie) I was fascinated with the detail and aesthetic captured – and how throughout the reading and viewing experience I didn’t just get to experience these events but learn about the social, economic, and political influences of the times.
I do think that film is a special and unique form of art, because it allows so much information to be delivered to the recipient both consciously and subconsciously. We don’t just get to tell a story, we also get to paint a picture, and move our audience with our score. Film is this amazing amalgamation of wonderful talents and ideas, that when executed correctly can educate, inspire, and even change the way people view the world.
Lately we’ve seen a great deal of controversy and distrust towards the leaders and institutions that are supposed to represent and protect the interests of their people. We’ve seen officials in every level of governments around the world use their power for personal gain, abuse their status and manipulate their positions. Normalizing dishonesty and vapid morality in our leaders is a terrifying idea, and with infrastructures like the American Military Industrial Complex that take ‘national security’ and the armed forces and contort those ideas into “for-profit” enterprises, the opportunity for corruption and conflicts of interest seems inevitable.
People also seem to be generalizing more often – designating and judging entire demographics or careers. When power is being tested or asserted, it’s very rarely the guys making the calls that suffer the consequences – it’s normal people trying to make a living or trying to make a difference. I wanted to show this “black bag” operation from the ground level. We owe a huge debt to those who serve and have served – and we owe it to them to both remember the people behind the uniforms, and to carefully select who we elect to be the stewards of their lives.
If film has the potential to educate and change how people think, then I wanted to make a movie that challenges some of those growing societal norms that seem to be eating away at the bedrock of our communities. I wanted to tell a cautionary tale while also telling an exciting story in the same vein as the movies and books I love so much.
Dave: For myself, being a part of this short was a challenge and a lot of fun.
From a young age, I would consider myself a bit of a military enthusiast. My love for action movies and tactical video games grew and eventually introduced me to such games as Tom Clancy’s, Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell. The more I learned, the more I became fascinated. Movies like The Rock and Navy Seals eventually pushed me to want to experience even a small portion of that world, so I joined the Navy cadets in my teen years. Sadly, not being able to commit at such a young age, I got out of the cadets after 3 years but the appreciation never faded.
Many years later while working at a silly video rental store, I met my now best friend, Lee Foster. I learned very quickly we had a lot of the same interests when it came to movies and games and also learned that Lee was an aspiring filmmaker. He invited me to be a part of a small series concept he had and since then we’ve worked on several projects together. Over the years of growing closer and sharing our love of military style video games and action movies, we continued to share ideas. Leading us eventually to this project, Black bag.
This short has a larger vision behind it that actually pays homage to a few franchises such as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow six and Splinter cell and that is something that helped push us to come up with a story that could tie it all together. In today’s world, with everything going on in our government and military (especially in the United States) this just felt like the right time to touch on such subjects as uncertainty, doubt, fear and confusion towards the people pulling the strings in our government and military. The right time to remind us to have love, empathy, compassion and appreciation for the men and women that fight the battles on the front line.
What emotion did you want to evoke in the audience with your film?
Lee: I want people to leave the film sad, angry, and maybe thoughtful of the choices they make. In a world where people seem to vote reactively, I would hope that it would give viewers pause to consider the type of person they vote for, and the type of person they want in charge of the military. Who do you trust with the launch codes? Who deserves the immense responsibility of controlling the lives of our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters in the Armed Forces?
Dave: I would like people to walk away from the film feeling entertained of course but outside of that maybe a little stress and frustration. I want them to want to ask questions. To themselves, to each other and mostly to their people in power. Is what we’re doing even right? Do we have the right people making the right decisions? A lot can change with the push of a button or the pull of a trigger. I want the audience to appreciate and consider those facts.
Where did you find actors for your film?
Lee: Many of the actors in Black Bag I’ve worked with before – often more than once. Steve Kasan and I go back to 2013 when we worked on a webseries called Asset together. Since then, I’ve casted him in several projects including shorts and feature films – most recently In its Wake in 2018. I met Rob Notman while working on a movie in 2016 called Get the Sucker Back and have casted him in several projects. Paul Chiusolo was a newcomer for me on this project – though I would work with him again in a heartbeat. Sergei Fomine doesn’t act very often but is one of my oldest friends and was my roommate when I first began working in the industry.
Dave: Lee being the awesome person that he is has made many connections in the industry and we’ve been lucky enough to make some great friends along the way as well. Friends that share similar passions and interests. In my experience working with Lee, he has maintained an amazing balance between professional and personal relationships that has made it easy to continue working with a lot of the same people and group of friends. Lee and I had many discussions as to who we thought would best suit each role. Realizing we had a list of some talented and reliable people, it made our decisions that much easier.
How big was your team when working on this project?
Lee: We kept our team pretty small throughout the production process because we were shooting in July of 2020 – right in the middle of the second wave of COVID-19 here in Canada. It was challenging having so few people on set to help, and maintaining the proper safety measures to ensure everyone would feel comfortable. The challenge only made us all better filmmakers and inspired us to find creative ways around problems.
Dave: I think we had just under the recommended number of people in doors at one time, following protocols and guidelines made for possibly one of the most interesting sets/projects I’ve been a part of.
Did you find any problems during this film production?
Lee: Our biggest challenge the day we shot was that it was raining a LOT. We had to set up tents outside to house and protect our lights and then contend with leaks and flooding around our power cables while we were shooting. That and the global pandemic.
Dave: Well, outside of making sure our cast and crew were comfortable with being on set due to COVID-19, that day we were dealing with one heck of a rain storm. It was relentless. We had lighting and other equipment that needed to stay outside so the challenge was keeping everything dry and preventing leaks and flooding into the basement we were filming in.
And how long did the film production last?
Lee: We shot the entire movie in one day with the cutaways of Rob Notman as the drone pilot about a week later. Post-production was a long process because the movie was fully self-financed and so we had to spread out the expenses as we completed the film. We couldn’t have done it without getting huge favours from friends (for example our amazing original score from my good friend Gagan Singh and our awesome colourist Mike Donis).
Dave: Luckily we had everything planned and well organized. Lee and I had put together all of the wardrobe and set design the night before, completely self-financed. With everyone’s schedule being all over the place, we had to make due with pulling this off in one day. With the exception of a seperate very small shoot for some cutaway scenes.
Lee, why and how did you decide to become a film director? And you, Dave, how did you decide to become a producer?
Lee: I love movies. Movies have been a huge part of my life. Growing up I would watch movies with my brother and friends. My Grandfather used to record movies off the TV onto blank VHS tapes and categorize them in this blue book. I remember sitting on his lap and going through the pages reading the titles while he told me about each movie from memory. I’m actually surprised it took me so long to figure out I wanted to make movies because as a kid I used to sneak my parent’s Hi-8 camcorder and film my action figures to tell exciting stories to my friends. I would tie threads to them and drag them around to simulate them walking and moving and my brother and I would do all the voices!
Dave: I’ve been a fan of movies and the military and tactical genre for some time. Growing up, I’ve found many ways of expressing my artistic vision. I used to do a lot of sketching. Mostly action scenes and heroes. Eventually growing into another small hobby, action figure photography, where I was once again able to create the vision I had loaded with action and cool characters. learning a lot about continuity and lighting in the process. The older I got and the more involved I became with Lee’s projects, the more I knew I had a passion for it and needed to take a bigger part in it.
Have you studied cinematography anywhere?
Lee: I studied Film and Cinema at the University of Toronto as well as History. I credit my prof. Garry Leonard with helping me discover and focus my efforts in the film industry.
Dave: I have not had any form of formal education when it comes to film. Just some fairly basic photography knowledge and a passion for film and movies.
In your opinion, is education important if a person wants to create films?
Lee: Education is vital for the act of creating film or any art. That being said, “education” can mean a lot of things and to discredit people telling stories from their personal experience, from their lived life or career experiences would be a disservice to the work. Film requires many people with many types of education and experience to be good, let alone excellent. Formal education can be helpful, but I would say lived experience and the education you earn through day-to-day activities and work are more important for telling a compelling story.
Dave: Education/knowledge of your craft is essential. Sadly I have no proper film education. I had many other ways of making sure I had creative input. In the end, I was fortunate to have Lee working beside me with his vast knowledge and experience to help guide and teach me as we chipped away at this and other projects before this one and since.
What do you think, is it real to change the world/situations/minds through this art – cinematography? Have you seen the progress, being so many years in this industry?
Lee: I think anyone and anything has the potential to make a difference if it’s done well and appears at the right time. That difference isn’t always lasting, and it might not have the reach that we always hope for. I mean, your work probably won’t change the world for everyone, but maybe you can change the world for one person. I know people who stopped drinking because of a movie. In 2008, Blood Diamond impacted how all of Hollywood purchased their jewelry. Movies can have small personal impacts, and can also change entire industries.
Sometimes these changes are lasting and sometimes they take forever to become evident. We need to stop thinking of history as an arc that ends “now” because that implies that if we can’t see the results in this moment, then nothing has changed. We’re only privy to a tiny window of history and we can’t even begin to comprehend all the impacts our works can have. All that matters is that we keep trying to do better, to educate, and to improve the lives of everyone in our global community.
Dave: Personally I haven’t spent that long in the film industry, but I firmly believe that art has an incredible ability to change opinions, situations, point of views etc. An incredible ability to make us feel emotion and open our eyes to something more. Something deeper. I would like to see myself as being an artist my entire life, in some form or another. In that respect, I can say I have many years under my belt.
Some of the most memorable and mind altering pieces of art I’ve seen were while I was on a trip in Derry, Ireland. A monument called Bloody Sunday Memorial. A beautiful granite obelisk to commemorate 14 civilians that were shot dead by the British Army on “Bloody Sunday”, January 1972. This monument is surrounded by moving paintings and graffiti on small buildings and structures that remind the locals and visitors alike of what happened and what has changed since that dark day.
Are you working on new projects now? Maybe a new project together?
Lee: Yes! First and foremost, we’re kind of still working on this. Black Bag is only the beginning. This sort of film is kind of a “cold open” for a feature-length movie and we have a really amazing script that continues the story as a young NSA agent investigates the mission and seeks justice for the guys who died. We’ve done a ton of work preparing and planning the rest of the movie and we’re hoping that getting Black Bag out there might help us find the financing we need to finish it.
Dave: Life has changed a lot over the last few years with COVID -19 having affected me a great deal financially. As I’m aware so many others have experienced. I’ve had to make changes to day when it comes to work so I can continue to keep my head above water. That keeps me busier than I’d like it to, leaving me with little time for projects such as these. However! This project isn’t even complete. As I mentioned in a previous comment, this project has a bigger vision. Definitely more to come between Lee and myself. I will always find a way to make time. My passion for this form of art will be life-long.
What disadvantages do you find in your job? And then what do you like about it?
Lee: I love making movies. I love working in a creative space, I love new challenges every day and meeting amazing people. Like most art, it’s hard to make consistent income and find financing for projects. I wish there were easier ways to create, and clearer distribution pathways for completed projects.
Dave: Sadly, film and making movies is not my job or my main source of income. I work as a personal trainer/physical educator and have a separate side job to help pay the bills. The only real disadvantage to that, however, is I don’t have as much time as I would like to have anymore for projects such as these. When they come around, boy are they worth it.
Why did you decide to take part in various film festivals?
Lee: We wanted to get our story and our message out there and share it with the world. We’re really proud of this movie and we hope people like it. We really hope for the chance to tell the rest of the story!
Dave: When Lee mentioned to me that he wanted to submit our work to some festivals, I was of course on board. Any opportunity that we can get to have our artistic vision seen by others, let alone appreciated. I think I speak for both of us when I say, we will always be on board.
Would you like to work in big feature films as a director and a producer?
Lee: Of course! I’ve produced a couple of Feature Films in the past. Nuptials just screened at the Cyprus International Film Festival and is going to be screening at the Austin Revolution Film Festival in February. I also directed a horror movie called In Its Wake starring Elvis Stojko that should be available on DVD/Bluray and streaming early next year. I’d love to keep making more movies with bigger budgets and really explore creatively.
Dave: I would! It was at one point in my life a bigger desire to pursue something of a career in the film industry but things have changed so much in my life to see that as being a realistic option for myself. Lee is my closest friend and I will always support his work and help in any way I can. Especially with this project and others he invites me to be a part of. I find it incredibly flattering and an honor even, to be included or be a part of anything Lee is working on.
If a window or door opened for me in this industry, I think I would have a very hard time turning down that kind of opportunity.
Would you like to go abroad and try to make films in other countries, for example, in the USA, Hollywood?
Lee: That’s the dream. The idea of seeing the world while making movies is what I have dreamed of since I was in school. I’d love to film in the mountains of Japan, or the Sahara, or in the beautiful subways in Moscow. There’s so much world to see and I want to see all of it – being able to share it through my art would be a dream come true.
Dave: Bouncing off the last question, I would have to say, yes. I will continue to work hard on these types of projects with Lee when they come around and I’m hopeful and excited to see what kind of opportunities are presented to us in the future. Seeing the world and being able to create artistically in such a way, does sound like a dream.
Do you agree that any film always needs to be filled with serious problems and ideas?
Lee: Of course not! I think movies need to have something to say, but it doesn’t always have to be serious or dark. One of my favourite movies is Mike Judge’s Office Space. It’s a really funny, silly movie, but it has a message. It tells us to think differently in how we perceive work and responsibility and to find what is fulfilling to us personally – not what we’re necessarily expected to do.
Dave: I don’t. Art comes in many forms and expressions. I like to be surprised and like the feeling of unpredictability. If there is a message of some sort and it makes me feel something, I’m happy to have sat through it or experienced it.
In your opinion, are there enough opportunities today for young creators to put their ideas in life?
Lee: Yes and no. I think we need more meaningful ways for people to express themselves. Everyone nowadays can start a YouTube channel or Instagram and publish their work for the world to see. That’s a great thing – the problem is that when everyone has a voice, it’s harder for the individual to be heard, especially those people in marginalized communities. I think we need to find better ways of allowing people who have something important to say, speak. We need a platform that doesn’t have as steep an initiation cost. Making movies is really expensive, and even submitting to festivals costs money and that immediately makes it harder for folks with less financial security to participate and get their stories out there.
Dave: That’s a tough one. I think I feel like there isn’t enough drive anymore to make anything with enough originality or substance. Too many people are just trying to push out their idea as quickly as possible to make a buck. I know that’s a pretty severe generalization and am more than aware of the amount of talent and quality out there in our younger aspiring filmmakers. Maybe I’m focusing too much on the idea of a “TikTok” generation.
I think we need better ways than social media platforms for young creators to have their voice and artistic visions heard and seen. If the individual or group of individuals can find the right avenue or source (such as festivals) to display their work then my hat goes off to them.
Are you pleased with the feedback that you are getting from the audience about your films?
Lee: So far, we’ve been getting really amazing feedback for our project, and we are so thankful and so proud that people are enjoying it. I don’t use a lot of social media to be honest – I don’t have time to dedicate to hashtags and followers. I’d much rather spend my time creating!
Dave: We’ve been very happy with the feedback we’ve been getting. Again, we’re fortunate enough to know some great people that we’ve been able to show this project to, and we’ve been happy with the reactions so far. We decided to reach out to the right people as well as try our hand at some film festivals. We’re happy to have this opportunity.
If you had an opportunity to work with any favorite directors, who would be these people?
Lee: Oh man, it’s hard to narrow it down. I would want to work with Kathryn Bigelow on a Rainbow Six movie, I would want to work with Michael Bay on a Mech Warrior movie, and I would love to work with Darren Aronofsky on an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
Dave: I believe Lee and I have had this exact discussion before and would probably even gamble to say that we have a similar response. Kathryn Bigelow, director of movies like, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty brings an incredible level of realism to her movies that make me feel like I’m right there in the thick of it. I love her vision and ability to execute it. I’ve been excited to see everything she has directed and have had the thought of her being the right person to properly put together a, Rainbow Six movie. A couple others that pop into my mind would have to be Michael Bay and Antoine Fuqua. High level of admiration and appreciation goes to all the names mentioned.