The Globe and Mail

by Gayle MacDonald

(This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on July 10, 2002.)

Now that's a studio apartment

We've all been there. Bored silly with what feels like a dead-end job, and sorely tempted to just pack it in. Stay home for a day (or two or five). Rent some movies, read some books, or simply doze the hours away until life seems, well, more livable.

That lure of self-imposed seclusion and escape is the focus of a new film by Toronto-based filmmaker Kent Tessman, who has written, directed, shot and edit a spare, clever little comedy called Apartment Story about a regular guy (the lead character's name is just that, Guy) who one morning can't bring himself to leave his 15-by-nine-foot bachelor pad.

So he stays in. That bad day stretches into a week, and eventually more than a month. And Guy (played by David Bajurny) adjusts smoothly to his own exile. He never leaves the apartment, except to draw fresh air from his balcony. He orders groceries and beer by delivery, day trades on his computer to make extra cash, downloads porn, washes his clothes by wearing them in the shower, exercises on a stationary bike, spies on his libidinous next-door neighbour and develops a not-so-healthy obsession with the chap's girlfriend.

This low-budget film, which airs tonight on Bravo! And cost a measly $2,000 to make, is smart and wickedly funny at times. It's also a truly unusual take on an agoraphobic lifestyle that seems, at first, incredibly liberating, but by the end, proves to be as unfulfilling and mind-numbing as the nine-to-five grind had been.

Seated at a tiny table at the midtown Starbucks where Tessman wrote the lion's share of his script, the 31-year-old York University film-school graduate explains that his movie is basically a four-walled journey of self-discovery, with the hero swinging between the lows of depression and the highs of manic self-improvement.

"It's not high concept," says Tessman. "It was written as light and quirky, but people have told me they find it disturbing too. It turned out a little bit darker than I thought.

"But at the core, it's a comedy. It's a fable. It's an extreme version of that day we've all had, when you just don't want to go out and face the world. When you look at the doorknob and you don't want to turn it. Guy's not an agoraphobic. But I guess the film does explore that urban malaise where you wake up one day and you're not sure if you're doing something that matters to you. You're supposed to be on that road to fulfillment, but you're not. I just asked the question, 'What's wrong with tuning out for a while?'"

Cinematic confinement is not a new theme. Alfred Hitchcock did it in Rear Window (1954). André Gregory deftly exploited the technique with My Dinner with André (1981). And Don McKellar delved into it in CBC-TV's quirky Twitch City. Tessman says he opted to shoot his movie in his own third-floor, one-room apartment at St. Clair and Avenue Road because, well, he didn't have the cash to make it anywhere else.

"I was sitting at this very patio, drinking a frappuccino, looking for an idea that was doable and something that was interesting. And I was making a list of locations I could use, " he recounts. "And I realized the one place I could get 24/7 access to was my own apartment.

"The idea took hold, and the story started to form. I wrote it in about one month, on this patio, because my apartment wasn't air-conditioned."

It took Tessman about four weekends to film Apartment Story with a digital camera and a year to polish it off (he also did the soundtrack).

He found the actors through the CBC's Talent Resource Centre. The other cast members include Allan Hawco and Michael Kessler (as Guy's buddies) and Martha Schabas and Catherine Wachter (as Guy's love interests).

The cast didn't get a salary, but Tessman appeased them with subs, pizza and Swiss Chalet chicken. "We all knew we were doing a low-budget, independent film. The whole point was to hopefully come away with a good little show that would get all of us some attention."

When he finished his film last September, Tessman, who hails from Innisfail, Alta. (population 5,000), mailed his flick to all the major production houses, distributors and networks. Bravo!'s decision to snatch it up was a coup for Tessman.

"I feel ridiculously fortunate," he adds. "It alleviates my worst fears that it may not have been very good."

Tessman graduated from York in 1994 (after film school, he got his MBA at York too), and the aspiring filmmaker spent the remainder of the 1990s doing a variety of jobs-bartender, bouncer, computer-software consultant, temp. His modus operandi was, basically, to work long enough to save enough to head down to Los Angeles, where he pitched a variety of screenplays.

"You can't exaggerate the Hollywoodness of Hollywood," says Tessman.

"It's endless fun. There's valet parking everywhere. How can you not like that?

"But it was also humbling. I didn't realize how big the pool is-how many fish there are, and how much material is being developed, until I got down there. It puts things in perspective. It's really hard, trying to get someone to say okay to your script. And it can be draining."

In early 2000, Tessman got tired of banging his head against the studio walls, and headed back to Toronto, put pen to paper, and set about making his first feature-length film. It was an arduous task, but the kind of exercise Tessman says he had to do in order to get his name-and his talent-out there.

"Doing this was like a little mini film school all over again," he says. "I don't aspire to do it all myself again. It was a small-scale thing, but even as small as this movie is, it's hard to keep your mind on all those things, everything from sound to sandwiches. It would be nice next time to have a crew. And I'd like to take the daring step out of one room."

Asked if the leading character bears any resemblance to himself, Tessman just shrugs and smiles.

"I hope not. I've never been quite that sedentary or paralyzed by the world around me," he says. "And I've never spied on my neighbours like that."  

This excerpt is copyright © 2002 The Globe and Mail




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