Whitehorse rolls out red carpet

Don’t go to the bathroom at the wrong time. This was Eric Epstein’s advice to moviegoers taking in Whitehorse’s inaugural…

Don’t go to the bathroom at the wrong time.

This was Eric Epstein’s advice to moviegoers taking in Whitehorse’s inaugural International Film Festival, which kicks off Wednesday.

He’s got an ulterior motive.

The local actor/director has a role in The Big White, a feature film shot in the Yukon staring Robin Williams, Woody Harrelson and Holly Hunter, which will screen at the festival’s opening gala.

The Big White was a big production, but Epstein played a small role.

“You can hear my voice for about 20 seconds,” he said.

“But you only see me for about five.”

So, if you take an untimely bathroom break, you’ll miss him.

When Epstein heard a Hollywood feature would be filming in the territory, he sought an audition.

And, after a callback, he was cast as a minister.

“I was very excited,” he said.

So excited that he was up at 2:30 a.m. on his big day, getting ready.

By 4:30 a.m. he was on a shuttle heading to the White Pass.

It was bright and sunny, but the scene they were shooting required a raging blizzard, and fake snow was blowing around the set.

After breakfast, Epstein was ferried into rehearsal where he met Williams and Hunter.

“Robin Williams performed a lot on set,” he said.

“He’d go into his stand-up comedy vein and say something funny just before we’d be going into a take.

“So, it was hard to get back in character.”

Although Epstein had a page of script and enjoyed some improvisation with Hunter and Williams, his favourite bits of the scene were chopped.

“My favourite gag between myself, Robin Williams and Holly Hunter, with me swearing, and her mishearing, was cut,” he said.

During the 18-hour day, Epstein got some great feedback from the other actors, including some praise from an academy award winner.

“It was a day in fantasy land,” he said.

Unfortunately, The Big White never made it to North American theatres, although it did show in Europe and Australia.

It didn’t test well in L.A., said Epstein.

“It premiered at a horror film fest in Germany, and there was talk that it could go to Cannes, but the tone didn’t get set right.

“It was compared to Fargo, but it didn’t have nearly the same style as the Cohen brothers.”

An off-beat black comedy that is more of a drama, The Big White features an Alaskan travel agent (Williams) who tries to remedy his financial problems by claiming a frozen body found in a dumpster is his long-lost brother.

Throw in a couple of hit men, who need the body back, a wife (Hunter) who’s psychosomatic Tourette’s syndrome will be cured by a move to Hawaii, and the return of the lost brother (Harrelson), and there’s the plot.

“It’s quite fun,” said Epstein.

“And it’s better than a lot of films that have been released — maybe it will get some good reviews on DVD.”

The Big White proved the territory has the capacity to handle big Hollywood films, said Yukon film and sound commissioner Margarita Ramon.

There were 250 Yukoners working on that film, while 15 years ago there were only two or three Yukoners in the film industry, she said.

But more importantly, indigenous Yukon productions are beginning to surpass location work from Outside, said Ramon.

“And this is really our long-term goal.”

Right now there are three TV series in development in the territory, including a six-part animation series by Tlingit filmmaker Carol Geddes.

And the CBC mini-series Northern Town, shot last year in the territory, is set to air this summer.

“If I have my way, we’ll have a thriving film industry in the Yukon,” said Ramon.

And the International Film Festival should help.

“We’re bringing Hollywood media and journalists from across Canada and Europe here for the festival,” she said.

“So we can show them who we are and what we have to offer.”

Film producers are also coming from France, Australia, England and the US, said Ramon.

And these producers have the ability to co-produce local films and bring film work to the Yukon, she added.

During the festival, the film commission is organizing a cruise for local filmmakers and visiting international producers so they can network and get to know one another.

“Sometimes, in the small festivals, that’s where the real miracles happen,” said Ramon.

“Filming is really about who you know and who you want to work with, because you spend years of your life in one project, so you need to get to know each other and meet face to face.

“That is why we are bringing filmmakers and producers here.”

And, throughout the festival, they’ll be hosting workshops and answering questions.

The commission is also going to give visiting producers tours of the White Pass and Dawson to promote Yukon locations.

The festival will focus on First Nations, the environment and independent films.

“This reflects very much who we are in the Yukon,” said Ramon.

“We have amazing creativity coming from the First Nations and their storytelling tradition; we have a very strong environmental community, since we have the last pristine land left in North America and we have the independent spirit — Yukoners always find the resources to do things on their own.

“So, the festival reflects that.”

More than 30 local and international films will be screened at the festival and all workshops are free and open to the public.

The festival opens on National Aboriginal Day with a lineup of six, free First Nations films showing at the Trappers Bar at the Westmark Klondike Inn, beginning at 1 p.m.

For more information on tickets, scheduling and the film lineup, go to www.yukonfilmfest.com, or call the Yukon film and sound commission at 667-5400.