North of 60 Interview: John Bean

As Eric Olssen on "North of 60," he was a fish out of water--or at least, a city fish in wilderness
waters. Now he's back in the city and moving in exciting new directions.

John Bean (formerly known as John Oliver) and business partner Colleen Clandening own
e Scape Movieworks, a digital film production and training company in North Vancouver.
Montreal journalist Hélèna Katz interviewed Bean in March 2001 in Vancouver about his current
projects, including an eight-month film-making training program that e Scape offered last year
to members of the Squamish Nation in British Columbia's Squamish Valley.

First Nations projects

HK: You worked on a show where most of the cast was native and you ended up teaching First Nations people how to do film making. I was curious whether it was an accident or whether it's intentional that you seem to gravitate towards First Nations.

JB: Good question. I personally don't believe in accidents. Working with the Squamish Nation students, I would say that the fact that they knew me probably helped to a degree. The question being do I find myself gravitating back to that culture. Very good question. I guess I'm supposed to be to some capacity working in that community would be the best way I can describe it. Was it intentional? Probably not consciously, but I just seem to gravitate in that area.

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HK: You mentioned that the Squamish Nation knew you. Why was that?

JB: Well, from the TV show. It seems to be a well-known show in native communities.

HK: On the show viewers learn through your character a bit about aboriginal culture. What did you learn?

JB: I felt there were a lot of parallels at the time between the character and myself in that experiencing very similar, not similar situations but understanding. The same process the character was going through, I was going through. So I think there was a parallel experience for the two of us. [chuckles]

HK: Parallel in what way?

JB: Parallel in the sense that my character was new to the community as was I. Art imitates life.

HK: Moving to the Squamish Nation program, the students all learned about film making and the process that goes into it. What did you learn?

JB: The question is what did I not learn! [laughs] Reaffirmation of personal passion that I have for the process, the creative process would be the umbrella. Inside that, you learn a lot about being in a facilitating position to a degree. You learn about what you know and what you don't know and how to communicate that. Very evolutionary in a sense. It reaffirmed for me how I feel or why I enjoy the creative process, and sharing that and seeing others pick up on that and do work and find their own stride within that. It feeds itself.

HK: Are you planning to do a similar program in another aboriginal community?

JB: Oh, absolutely. We're still very much involved in and have talked on many occasions with other native communities that have heard about our program. We have sent information out so we're still very much pursuing that.

Digital film making

HK: How did you get involved in digital film making?

JB: Well the digital side of it came out of a choice that we made when we were first discussing how to best deliver this course. We had done the template for it in terms of the program itself, what we were going to do in that program. So the decision to go digital was actually a natural sort of decision that came to us.

HK: Natural in what way?

JB: I guess it was meant to be. I don't know. [laughs] A lot of this came together through almost an osmosis. Myself initially, and learning about this medium daily because I don't come from a technical background, nor have I really explored that area. Very early on, though, some of the people we were discussing this project with were instrumental in bringing the digital technology to our attention.

HK: What was it about the digital format that appealed to you?

JB: It was extremely cost effective. It was accessible, new. What it offered and continues to offer is quite phenomenal. Just overall it made total sense.

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HK: How does it change the film-making process?

JB: It was a perfect fit for the program that we had developed in terms of introducing all the basic components of movie making as we called them, and then applying what the students had learned towards their own productions. To do something in that time frame of three to four months, to do all that would be basically unheard of in any other medium. To be able to edit, you can sit down and do that on the computer with software. Just the whole flexibility it allows from start to finish. I mean your screenwriting is there. Writing a screenplay on a piece of paper isn't going to be affected by the technology you choose. But having said that, from that point forward it has an amazing effect on the time, what you're able to do.

HK: How do you see it changing the industry?

JB: It has already. I guess my feeling about that is that it's leveled the playing field a lot and it's made those opportunities available and affordable that didn't exist prior to that. Which means a lot of it--if not all of it--really consists of funding, raising money and finding money and investments. There's great ideas out there, but money seems to be the driving force. So now it's being done and evolving more and more effectively daily. What you couldn't do a few years ago, you can do today.

So it's giving people opportunities, existing companies and individuals and first-time people the ability to now go out and make a production. Whereas you couldn't before because of the money constraints involved. I'm not saying that digital technology makes you a great film maker. As far as I'm concerned, you still have to know the fundamentals and how to apply them. It's a new set of tools.

HK: What made you decide for e Scape Movieworks to focus on digital?

JB: It was a natural progression from the training we ran in the Squamish Valley where we were using digital. We were in the digital realm and it really showed us the magic of the medium and it suited where we were at.

HK: Are you just focusing on feature film or on documentary as well?

JB: Both actually.

HK: It's hard to raise money for documentaries.

JB: As it is for feature films. [laughs] The money exists. It doesn't mean that it's not out there. It's just revolutionized the process. I heard one person say it puts the craft back in the hands of the craftperson. So be it. You still have to go out and do it. Right? Here's your bike. Now if you want to ride it you have to go out and ride it. You've still got to go out and pedal. What was the question? [laughs]

HK: What I was asking was whether you could see your training as being just for feature film or whether you could also see yourself training documentary makers.

JB: Yeah. Let's put it this way. We could train people in movie making whether they want to apply that to documentary, feature, episodic, whatever they so choose. Basics are the basics.

HK: You've got your own scripts happening?

JB: Yes. I've been writing one for too long and Colleen has a final-draft full-length feature film that we're seriously looking at producing ourselves. It's a very good story.

HK: Have you finished your script or are you still working on it?

JB: Noooo, nooo. I'm going to go home tonight and finish it. [laughs] It's two generations now and I'm too old to play these characters.

HK: It's been that long?

JB: It's taken a while.

HK: What's it about? Can you tell?

JB: It just sort of a basic character-driven [film]. It's not an action movie. It's based on four people. The main character's relationship and all the idiosyncrasies around that.

HK: What kind of movies do you prefer?

JB: Good ones. Imaginative. Good question. I like movies that inspire, that make you think, say something, sometimes purely entertaining. I like when they up the standard in terms of making you think. Something that's canned doesn't do much for me, probably because I've watched too many movies in my day. Why do we go to movies? We know it's not real but we sure buy into it. Maybe sometimes it does feel real because there's an incredible ability to transcend and there's an alluringness to it and a lot of supposition. It's safe but provocative at the same time--but not all.

Back to this whole digital movement that's going on, yes, it could flood the market. It creates more opportunity for everybody. Does it mean it's all going to be good stuff? I'll keep my opinion to myself. I don't think it necessarily works that way. It's a canvas. There are more canvases now, there's going to be more artists around. So it's really a very exciting time.

"North of 60"

HK: You were talking a minute ago about people watching something and feeling like it's real even though they know it isn't. I know for some fans of "North of 60," they felt like Lynx River was a real community and all those people were their neighbours.

JB: Oh, but it was, though. It was real. We never went home. It was the original "Truman Show." It's good to hear that. To hear there was that believability. Done well, it suspends our belief.

HK: Why do you think it was real for people?

JB: I think it was done in a way they could relate to it in the type of show that it was. It had its humanistic moments, it was about people, it wasn't fancy. They had a snowmobile chase but that was it. They tried to keep it as authentic, initially anyhow, what I recall of the show. I think they kept it at a level that people could identify with, because if you were to go interview police officers, there's been a lot of cop shows over the years. What goes on in an hour episode on a police show won't happen in a 20-year life.

So [on "North of 60"], people were now exposing that [the uneventful] day-to-day is OK. We don't have to do climbing tall buildings every five seconds to get a rush. Communication, two people sitting having a good conversation, can be very stimulating. I think there was that element in the show from what I recall. The human side, the vulnerability and the isolation, the relationships. Human beings aren't linear.

HK: What was it like for you to suddenly be at the center of a show that meant so much to people?

JB: I'm thinking of the first interviews, it was very new. I was very secretive, or felt like I was secretive. Nobody could know about my personal life and what my children's names were. I think I've come a little further than that.

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HK: Why? What changed?

JB: I guess I've loosened up.

HK: So I can get you to say just about anything.

JB: You could try.

HK: I'm just kidding.

JB: You wrote all these questions down?

HK: Yeah. Why?

JB: That's great, but that's not fair though. You've got notes. I don't.

HK: Well that's the whole point of the interview. [chuckles] You've got to be spontaneous.

JB: Yeah. I know.

Future projects

HK: Right now you're focusing on digital film making in terms of the training. What other projects do you have that you're planning?

JB: We'll be making some of our own feature films, perhaps looking at episodics for Internet distribution. The training component of e Scape is great in a lot of ways. When we do our training component we're actually applying the same knowledge and skills that we would to ourselves to do our own productions. So it's complementary in that sense, and because of that we see ourselves as a production and also working in co-production.

People approach us and they have something in development, whether it's a screenplay or they've done some principal shooting. We want to make ourselves available to align with other individuals or companies that are out there. So we really haven't limited ourselves at this point. It really leaves a lot of doors open. Personally, I would love to direct the piece I've written of course. I love that creative process. I really do. I think it's a lot of the pure essence of what it's about for me.

HK: You were mentioning you'd really like to direct. Having worked in front of the camera doing a series, would you ever do one again, or are you thinking "been there, done it"?

JB: If the right vehicle or project came along, I like to think that I would be open and responsive to it. One of the attributes of being in this company, a founder of this company, is allowing me not to have all my eggs in one basket as an actor. It would be interesting to go back to acting--not that I've left it--just to see how I've sort of grown as a person, because that's what you bring to your characters. It would be sort of interesting to see where I would be at.

HK: I've just lost my train of thought.

JB: I can do that to people. You'll be forgetting your name by the time we're finished!

HK: I have this sense that you're trying to keep or capture that childlike curiosity about the world and about people.

JB: I never thought of it that way. It could be. Fundamentally, if you've ever travelled--we're travelling all over now--you sit down and have a coffee with a total stranger you find a lot of similarities and commonalities that exist, and I think that we have to individually experience stuff to come to our own conclusions. Way too much today I think we're spoonfed. I don't need someone to tell me if a movie is good or not. I think a lot of it has been lost.

Fundamentally people do get along. We wouldn't still be here if we didn't. Is there still an innocence? Yes, I would hate to lose that or get jaded and not trust anybody. Boy, that would be pretty lonely. You use discretion. I think a person would be wise to use discernment, but definitely stay open. Film does that. Film is universal. Emotions are universal. You get along, you don't get along and sometimes you work through it.

HK: You're surrounded by all this technology, yet you don't use e-mail.

JB: Right. I never said I was technical.

HK: Where do you draw the line for yourself in terms of the role and the place of technology in your life?

JB: I don't think I do consciously draw the line. I'm definitely not averse to it. I haven't had time to open my e-mail. [chuckles] Here's the thing. It's like some people prefer to drive than fly. All this technology, it's like a new set of tools. There's still going to be film. I don't feel hypocritical in any sense. I never said I was a technician or technically inclined. The people who work with us are brilliant and maybe they would rather do that than stand around a camera.

HK: I'm just wondering if it's a conscious thing because you said to me at one point "I return phone calls, I write letters, I don't use e-mail." I wasn't sure if that was a conscious decision.

JB: No. I just forget it's there. I don't have a computer at home. What I'm saying is everybody's different in terms of [some] people can sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day and some people wouldn't bother for eight minutes. I'm not adverse or opposed to it in any way. Of course not. I have a book at home that's kind of a beginner introduction to digital movie making because I've never said at any time that I was a genius when it comes to editing. I'd like to take a course myself. But I'm not the technician at e Scape. We have those people.

HK: Thank you for your time.

Back to Patty's "North of 60" page

Text and photos (c) copyright 2001 Hélèna Katz. This interview may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.