Published Jun 18, 2015Sarah Goodman's Porch Stories — a film festival favourite that's having its theatrical release this Friday (June 19) at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto — didn't start out as a movie involving musicians and music. For the award-winning documentarian's first-ever dramatic feature, she wanted to depict life as she saw it in Toronto's West End, an area known as much for its young and creative crowd as for its ever-changing culture and increasing gentrification.
"Because I'm rooted in observation as a documentary filmmaker, I was just really interested in capturing everyday life as I saw it on my street," she tells Exclaim! "The idea of porches seemed to be a great container to explore ideas of neighbourhood and women and indecision and do it in a way that was doable on a low budget."
So when it came time to cast the film, Goodman came up with a unique and beneficial way to keep costs down. "I thought, 'Why don't I look for people who are actually professional performers who are really excellent at what they do, just not necessarily actors?" she says.
Enter Laura Barrett and José Miguel Contreras, two veterans of Canadian indie music who have respectively entranced listeners with their powerful performances, on record and live, for years. (Contreras with By Divine Right; Barrett as a solo artist and with bands like the Hidden Cameras and Sheezer.)
Although their characters weren't originally envisioned as musicians, their involvement would come to shape and define the plot, sound and overall feel of the film.
Porch Stories tells the story of Emma (Barrett), a former musician and part-time librarian about to move into a new home with the man she's supposed to marry. That is, until Gabriel (Contreras), a former bandmate and wayward soul, passes by her porch one day and inadvertently throws a wrench into her plans.
The idea for the film originally came from Goodman's time spent working from home. She'd take breaks on the porch of her old apartment (which doubles as the main setting for the film): "I'd like to have that kind of half-interaction with the outside world and hear these little snippets of conversation as people walked by. Sometimes one line can have a whole world kind of painted, depending on what the person says."
Goodman became obsessed with "how much could be said with so little, what is said about the fabric of the neighbourhood and the changing neighbourhood," and wrote the story around that.
But after casting Contreras and Barrett in the film — two first-time actors who hadn't acted since starring in Grade 5 and Grade 7 school plays respectively — the narrative began to change.
Based on their chemistry and backgrounds, it was decided that Emma and Gabriel would play former lovers who, as Contreras describes it, came of age in a "2005 classic '80s band from Toronto." To suit their characters' origin stories, the two — who had never performed together before — began sculpting songs that formed their backstory (one of which, "You," was recorded in the studio for the film's soundtrack in the style of their former fictional band) and began jamming in-between takes during late-night filming sessions with a flamenco guitar and kalimba.
"Before you knew it we had created a sort of musical conversation," Contreras says.
Their impromptu performances slowly made their way into the film's soundtrack, after an early cut of the film had songs spliced into it from B-roll and outtake footage of the pair performing on set. It worked so well that they later recorded a number of the film's tracks in studio. The songs were released this week by Hand Drawn Dracula, just in time for the film's release.
"It really fits the film," Barrett says. "The film is not loud. It's sweet and quiet."
Her collaborator, onscreen and off, couldn't agree more. "Whenever the music is on, the story becomes magical," Contreras says.
See (and hear) for yourself by catch the film at TIFF Bell Lightbox starting this Friday (June 19) and listening to the soundtrack in full here.