A man wanders through a backwoods Maritime landscape, filled with running streams and fertile grass. This is not the picturesque East Coast of Avonlea or Green Gables, however. The man mutters under his breath, searching desperately through swampy mud pits, and eventually tears apart a pile of moss. Inside, he finds a cluster of larvae, which he hungrily devours. This is Lowlife.
Though it’s not technically offensive or shocking by most standards (“It’s pretty PG, in a way,” says actor Darcy Spidle), the film can only be described as filthy — packed with dirt-covered backdrops and the gooey discharge of marine animals.
Lowlife follows lead character Asa (played by Spidle, a.k.a. Chik White) as he tries to win back his equally troubled companion, Elle (Kate Hartigan), while fuelling his debilitating addiction to the fictional high he gets from wrapping his lips around the slimy opening of a starfish for the sweet psychedelics within. Factor in a rapey drug dealer, an elusive mudman and a spiritually wise talking dog, and you’ve got the year’s most addictively uncomfortable lo-fi horror/weirdo drug comedy.
“There have been a lot of films made out here about the rugged fisher folk of the East Coast, and I think our movie is kind of a re-imagining of an East Coast tale,” Spidle says.
Filmmaker Seth Smith agrees, pointing out that much of the film’s grit is native to Nova Scotia. “I’ve lived on both coasts of Canada, and there’s something grisly about the East Coast side,” he says. “We get more wind here, and the trees are more sculpted and jagged…. I think if we had shot it somewhere else it wouldn’t have looked or felt the same way.”
They’re new to feature films, but Smith and Spidle are no strangers to the world of DIY art making. Smith is best known for fronting the forward-thinking indie duo Dog Day with his wife Nancy Ulrich, as well as his visual work with Paul Hammond in Yorodeo. His love of film, however, received a boost from an unlikely source when Trailer Park Boys creator Mike Clattenburg lent him a professional video camera.
“That kind of acted as the catalyst to get some motivation and actually take on a larger project,” Smith recalls. “The idea was kind of to do something pretty easy, like a 10-minute short for a film festival or something.”
Smith soon linked up with Spidle, a longtime friend and collaborator. The proprietor of the noise imprint Divorce Records and its annual DIY get-together, Obey Convention, Spidle is also a performance artist and musician who had previously made pre-YouTube comedic shorts for an unfinished TV show with Smith. “It might have been called Lowlife as well,” Spidle says. “I can’t remember.”
While both Smith and Spidle are proven risk-takers in the Canadian music underground, the major appeal of making a feature film was its all-encompassing nature. “It has all of the elements of things I enjoy working with, like art, art direction, video and music, scoring, sound design,” Smith explains.
“It seems more significant in a way,” Spidle adds. “An album’s a big job too, but Seth would admit it more than anybody — just the magnitude of the job.”
Smith agrees. “For me it would be like recording an album, you’re doing 10 or 12 tracks and each take you so long. Doing a movie, it’s like every scene is doing an album in a way. So I feel like I’ve just done a box set.”
In the beginning, Smith and Spidle laid out the film’s foundation on a sheet of loose-leaf paper, slowly circling in on the film’s dark themes. “Originally there was going to be no dialogue at all,” Smith recalls. “We got carried away, and we had this camera indefinitely, so as we started writing we were like ‘what if….’ There were a lot of ‘what ifs.’”
The story blew wide open when they decided to give their drug-addicted lead a fictional vice, adding hallucinogenic properties to the tentacles of starfish. Once that was in place, Lowlife’s Maritime slime was born.
“There was a lot we could do metaphorically in the realm of a fantasy drug movie,” Smith explains. “It just gave us a lot of freedom to play around, so we kept on building and building until we didn’t even know where it was going to take us.”
In many ways, it’s actually hard to tell where the story took the filmmakers. While a loose narrative about drug addiction certainly took shape, the idea was to offer something that audiences could wrestle with long after they’d seen it.
“We talked about that a bit,” Spidle says of their intent. “A lot of pieces of art or movies contain some kind of moral tale. If it’s a drug movie, are we saying something about drugs?
“We definitely don’t want to. We kind of leave that whole thing up in the air. I don’t think there’s really a message. I think the movie is about addiction and other forces that control people’s lives. I don’t really think there’s an actual message or any kind of moral statement that we’re trying to make with it.”
For Smith, the story is more conceptual than explicit. “There were a lot of themes and ideas that we wanted to explore,” he says. “I think overall it’s kind of about companionship.... I really like the idea of a romantic relationship between a drug and its user. I kind of thought that would be a nice concept to explore.”
Spidle sums up the whole thing in one sentence: “We don’t feel we have total control over the story.”
MUD AND BUGS
Rather than attempt to control Lowlife, Spidle immersed himself in his character, becoming Asa full-time.
“It felt very personal, it wasn’t like acting,” he says. “You know, I’ve had addiction problems in my life. I don’t know if that’s really what this movie is about, but it felt cathartic to play that character. I also have some weird psychological eating issues, and I dealt with that a little bit in the movie.”
To prepare for the role, Spidle only stopped short at actually ingesting starfish goo, taking every other aspect of the character to heart.
“That was my goal,” he says of his method. “I’ve never really done a whole lot of acting. I just really tried to live this guy’s life. That whole year, I just got away from doing my label, I cancelled the festival I do out here, just because I wanted to get out of that whole administrative mindset.”
It wasn’t just a rearrangement of priorities, however. Spidle soon found himself willingly sleeping in the woods and, in between filming, maintaining Asa’s bald-on-top hairstyle. “I had to hold him back a couple times because he has a real appetite for punishment,” Smith says.
Truth be told, he was hungry for more than mere punishment. “I was eating mud and bugs and stuff like that,” Spidle half-boasts. “I ate some June bug larvae. Even the scene where I was eating out of Kate’s mouth, we put some live crickets in there so it was grosser. You can kind of see it in my eyes — I tried to distill a sense of discomfort in my body, just so it would kind of come across.”
Living as a creepy slime eater eventually did take its toll on the actor, but he saw his time in the film as one ongoing project. “I’d come home and feel sick for the week,” he recalls. “The physical discomfort was something, but it was exciting. We filmed it chronologically, so I was living this guy’s life as it went on. I think that really helped instead of kind of going back and forth and losing the fluidity of the story.”
DIY OR DIE
The film’s organic development in the planning stage, combined with the fact that Smith and Spidle had unlimited access to Clattenburg’s camera, meant that, for better or worse, they bypassed the fundraising phase. Instead, they paid for the whole project out of pocket. Thankfully, they were able to make it for practically nothing.
“A feature film for $5,000 is kind of unheard of,” Spidle explains. “Seth is a smart guy, he figured out everything we needed to do.”
Drawing on Polanski, Hitchcock and film noir for aesthetic inspiration, the use of black-and-white footage also helped with penny pinching. “We could get away with more,” Smith says. “The slugs, for example, were made of latex and clay, and it’s harder to tell that they’re not real in black-and-white. It seemed like it would be the best idea for our budget.”
Once the film was complete, they were able to recoup their losses via an Indiegogo campaign, where Smith found a financier in his own family. “My stepmother actually donated to our little funding campaign, but she said ‘I’m not going to watch the film.’”
While Spidle’s fundamental Christian family could also do without a viewing of Lowlife, both he and Smith have been shocked by the warm reception the film has received.
“The first showing we had, we were pretty terrified, and that was amplified because it was our hometown and everyone knows us here,” Smith recalls. “If people read it the wrong way, I’ll be forever known as a pervert or something and have to move away.”
Surprisingly, their Halifax screening only had one woman walk out during the first starfish-sucking scene, a fact that, once you’ve seen the film, may come as a surprise.
Better yet, the film also won the audience award for best feature at the Atlantic Film Festival. That came with a $10,000 prize intended for post-production — double their total budget. Of course, the film’s already done, so that’ll go towards one of the many scripts they’re currently working on.
CREEPING THE COUNTRY
Smith and Spidle’s ability to work on a shoestring budget is, without a doubt, related to their background in the DIY music scene. Booking tours all over the world and releasing countless albums has taught them self-sufficiency and how to make ends meet. It’s a far cry from the thousands and even millions of dollars often thrown at so-called “indie” projects.
“We’re outsiders,” Smith admits. “I definitely feel that vibe when we’re at festivals, where people are getting grants and have million-dollar budgets to make their films.”
That’s not to say they’re alone in this brave new world of cheap feature film production. “It’s a lot easier to make films these days, and every film festival we get into they’re like ‘Oh, we’ve had more submissions this year than we ever have before.’ I think it’s because programs are more accessible, cameras are cheaper and kids are smarter. It’s pretty easy to do this stuff these days, which is great. You can make a film for $5,000 or even less if you do it right.”
The music world also taught them to show off their work without any official distribution. The result is a one-weekend, cross-Canada screening fest showcasing Lowlife on 23 small screens across the country from November 16 to 18. There are showings in every province and territory, ranging from bars and art galleries to a few actual theatres. Calgary’s showing, which takes place on Sunday, November 18, will happen at Broken City.
While they’ve met nothing but praise so far, the mass of people attending this weekend’s screenings are bound to have mixed reactions to the film’s bizarre narrative and gross-out drug scenes. Like the experimental noise music that provides the soundtrack for the film (including choice cuts from Burzum and Calgary’s Black Mould), however, Spidle and Smith can only expect a polarized reaction.
“I think it’s a love or hate movie,” Spidle explains. “We definitely wanted to have a snuffy feel without falling into the stereotypical moves that movies make to disturb people. We were trying to do it in a little bit of a different way, doing certain things that make people uncomfortable that maybe haven’t been seen before…. I kind of hope that some people storm out of theatres.”
“I do think it’s the kind of film that has replay value,” Smith adds. “I think that’s better than a film that’s wrapped up like a present at the end, where you don’t really think about it. There are enough of those movies out in the world.”