Lee Demarbre has worked alongside gangsters, crucified lesbians in Cannes and almost lost his life for the love of his art.
Ask him how he started in filmmaking and he’ll tell you about a job he had in high school washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant run by the Italian mob.
“They were running prostitutes out of the back,” he said, relaxing on a love seat in Bombay Peggy’s on Sunday afternoon. “The head chef cut off the fingers of his assistant and I was promoted to become the assistant of this madman.”
As soon as Demarbre saved enough to buy his first video camera, he quit the job with his fingers still intact.
“I wanted that video camera so bad I almost died for it,” he said with a laugh. “Which brings me to The Dead Sleep Easy — we all almost died making that movie.”
Filmed in January 2007 in Guadalajara, Mexico, it tells the story of a wrestler who turned to a life of crime after killing an opponent in the ring.
Canadian-born Mexican wrestler Ian Hodgkinson a.k.a Vampiro, (who was also briefly the bodyguard for Milli Vanilli), played the lead character.
Along with an actual wrestler playing the lead, real gangsters were cast in the supporting roles.
“One of the producers had never made a film before, so when he read gangster in the script he cast a real live gangster,” said Demarbre. “We didn’t find out until we were on the set with these guys and we saw they were carrying real pistols.”
During the first week of shooting, Demarbre and his crew suffered through a few car accidents, several trips to the emergency room and one of their location scouts was murdered.
But it wasn’t the violence that scared Demarbre.
“I was fearful during that first week that the film wouldn’t get finished and we’d have to go home without a movie,” he said.
“That terrified me because it was the first film I made with someone else’s money.”
The movie that almost got Demarbre killed is the same one that brought the Ottawa filmmaker to the Yukon over the weekend. It kicked off the Dawson City International Short Film Festival on Thursday.
Demarbre has screened at festivals around the world.
In 2001, he brought his film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter — a story about bloodsuckers that are able to walk in the sun only when clothed in the skin of a lesbian — to the Cannes Film Festival. While in Cannes he crucified a lesbian on the beach – a publicity stunt that earned him a distribution deal in the US.
He was delighted at the crowd of 100 that showed up for his screening in Dawson.
“You couldn’t get a crowd like that in Toronto — you don’t see audiences like that. People want to watch movies in the privacy of their own homes,” said Demarbre.
“Literally one in 10 people in Dawson is here watching the festival — that doesn’t happen in any other place in the world,” said festival co-ordinator Dan Sokolowski.
In its ninth year, the festival screened more than 100 films. And there were very few flops in the bunch.
“We’ve received a lot more and a lot better submissions,” said Sokolowski. More artists seem to be using the short format, a trend he attributes to the popularity of uploading movies on cellphones.
Friday evening featured the festivals first outdoor screening. As the mercury dipped below minus 20 Celsius a group of about 60 bundled spectators stood on the snow-packed road beside the ODD Gallery watching films projected on the gallery’s outside wall.
“It was some of the coldest weather we’ve had for the festival and people were outside watching movies — it was just awesome,” said Sokolowski. “We tried it and everybody loved it.”
Former Yukoners Rachel Grantham and Richard Laurence’s movie, Smallfilm, took the festival’s Made In Yukon Award.
“This is just a good film and it’s really raised the bar,” said Sokolowski.
And Calgary filmmaker Karen Hines’ six-minute short My Name is Pochsy, a darkly funny film about a woman who works as a mercury packer (yes that means her job is packing mercury), took the festival’s top honour.
“I feel so lucky to be sitting here in Dawson City in this geographically isolated place and not feeling isolated at all,” she said.
“Filmmaking is really isolating, so coming to a room like this and watching it with so many people is a really good pay-off.”
Meanwhile, Demarbre is off on another adventure. His next film will be a feature-length horror film about a killer filmmaker with adult film star Sasha Grey in the lead.