|Photo: Josh Madson|
Speaking to Connor Jessup about his new film at TIFF, I had to constantly remind myself the well-spoken actor and filmmaker is but 17-years-old.
(Yes, for those keeping count, that's a full 10 years younger than me. Probably you too.)
Raised right here in Toronto, Jessup speaks of his career in entertainment with ambitious clarity.
"I always had been into drama and acting when I was young – and I mean young-young, like four or five," he tells me of his beginnings.
Getting an agent at 11 led to his first acting gigs, and today he's featured on the Steven Spielberg sci-fi drama series Falling Skies.
Though he admits high school's getting in the way of attending too many TIFF screenings, he managed to find time this week to attend the TIFF premiere of Amy George, an independent film he executive produced at 15. (Find other screening times here).
Connor and I chatted last night about his involvement with the film, learning to produce low-budget, and how Hollywood's hijacked TIFF.
Tell me about your film Amy George, which made its TIFF debut this week.
Amy George is an independent film that I executive produced when I was 15. It‘s a coming of age story that follows a 15-year-old boy who wants to be an artist, but he’s kind of obsessed with this image of what he thinks a true artist is. And so the whole movie is basically a coming of age story about a boy struggling with that, struggling with all the things young boys struggle with.
How did you become involved with the film, and what was your role as executive producer?
The filmmakers – the writers and producers of the film – they’re quite young. They’re in their mid-20s, recently out of film school. They were teaching a course at the arts camp I was at a couple years ago. And so I met them there, and when I first heard of Amy George, it was still in the early stages. And like six months later I saw them again, and we talked about it again ... and I read the script and I just thought it was wonderful. I thought it was really quite unique and incredible.
I, at that time, not only did I like the script, but I was actively looking for a way to learn about filmmaking behind the camera, and learn more, especially about making a low budget movie. So I gave some money to the film. It’s a very low-budget film. The budget is around $10,000, which is very low budget for a feature film. It’s low budget for a short film even.
So we worked on set with maybe four or five people, maximum ten people on set everyday, most of them doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. And over the course of the month we managed to make this movie. While we were shooting, during production, I pretty much functioned as a camera assistant, a general go-to crew member on set. So the amount I learned doing that, just taking it all in and absorbing the atmosphere, and watching the different elements come together, it helped me develop as both an actor and a filmmaker.
The film revolves around a teenager struggling to be an artist. As a teenager breaking into acting and filmmaking, what challenges have you encountered?
The challenges of an actor, especially a young actor, is that you have to deal with a lot of rejection. You have to go through long stretches of time without doing anything. You have to have a very strong sense of self.
As a director, as a filmmaker, it’s very different. There’s different ways you can get involved. You can either work your way up, you can start as a grip or a camera assistant. You work your way up to the point when you get hired. Or you can do what the directors of Amy George did, which is actually my preferred way. They wrote a script they knew could be made for a very small budget, and then they set out to get private donations from friends, family, people like me.
And they made the film for a small budget, which is admirable, but obviously it poses difficulties -- everything from trying to make sure the locations come together, to the fact that they really had to do 40 jobs by themselves, which is a ridiculous amount of work. Everyone did a lot of jobs, very few people got paid, long hours, hard work. Casting was very difficult, especially when you're working with non-union actors, because you don’t know if you're going to get the people you want, so that’s very stressful. So basically the process of the production, there’s hundreds of things that could go wrong. We’re just lucky we all persevered, and here we are at TIFF.
How has reaction to the film been thus far?
Everything I’ve read in terms of reviews has been very positive for the most part. It’s very gratifying for all of us. It screened for the first time at TIFF Tuesday night. All three screenings at the festival are sold out. So it’s sometimes hard to judge reaction just based on being there, but from what I can tell it’s been very positive, people are very into it.
|Photo: Josh Madson|
In recent years the media has tended to really focus on the big-name celebrities attending the festival, like Brangelina and Madonna. Can you speak to the importance of TIFF as a festival that supports smaller independent films like Amy George?
In my eyes that’s kind of what a film festival's for. A lot of film festivals in recent years have kind of been hijacked by Hollywood. They’ve kind of got hijacked by the big stars. which is fine, because it’s a great way to see great movies. But a lot of these movies are movies that are coming out very soon in theatres or already have distributors or always had distributors.
What I think a film festival is for, at least to me, is to give films that wouldn’t otherwise have a voice or wouldn’t otherwise have a medium, that voice. And so movies like Amy George, independent films that are still looking for a distributor, looking for an audience, festivals give them a way to show themselves. Because for a lot of independent films, film festivals are critical. So when I go to TIFF and when I got to other festivals, I always try to stay away from bigger films, and go to the ones I might never get to see. If you look at all those 200-odd films that are playing at TIFF, a lot of them are movies that might never come out on DVD or might never come out in our country. The opportunity we have to go see these films from other countries, from low-budget filmmakers, is incredible.
Switching gears a little bit, can you tell me about Falling Skies for those people who haven’t seen the series?
Falling Skies is a science fiction drama. It takes place after an alien invasion, the show picks up six months afterward. Only about 20 percent of the population’s left, the government's been wiped out, military's been wiped out, and all the remaining population is kind of banning together. Noah Wylie plays Tom Mason, the main character, and I play one of his sons Ben. And Ben, at the beginning of the series, he gets kidnapped by the aliens. The aliens are kidnapping teenagers, so my character’s taken. And one of the main plot points at the beginning of the show is my father and my brothers trying to find me and then rescue me. So my character ties in to a lot of the mysteries on the show.
The show's been picked up for a second season. Any idea what's coming up?
It has been renewed for season two, it will probably air again next summer. But at this point I don’t really know much because we don’t start shooting till the end of the fall, so I haven't seen any scripts. So at this point I can speculate but it’s worth as much as anyone’s speculation. But I’m excited to see what they come up with.
Were you a fan of sci-fi before getting this show?
Yeah, huge fan. Throughout my entire life I’ve been a huge fan of sci-fi. Movies like E.T. and Close Encounters and Blade Runner and 2001. All of these movies were a huge part of my childhood and adolescence. And TV shows like Lost, Fringe and Firefly, Battlestar, all of these are big parts of my life. So yeah I consider myself a big fan of sci-fi, and now I get to work on a show with Steven Spielberg.
And I understand you also shot another film earlier this year. What can you tell me about that?
Bye Bye Blackbird is a Canadian indie that I shot in the spring of this year. We’re hoping it will premiere at Sundance next year, but if not, other film festivals next year. And I play the lead who is a troubled youth, he is a goth, he gets into some trouble. He gets accused of the school massacre like Columbine. And he gets sent to Juvenile Hall, and basically the story’s about how life changes after that and how his personality changes after that. It’s a really interesting, gritty, realistic story.
Many people in the business twice or three times your age would love to be in a series produced by Steven Spielberg, or executive producing their own films, and you're doing it. Do you have specific career aspirations you're pursuing, or are you enjoying just seeing what happens?
There’s definitely an aspect of playing it by ear, just based on where I am. But at the same time I do have aspirations to be a filmmaker, I think that’s where I see myself in the future. Because it’s such a passion, I can’t see myself not doing it. And in my eyes, making films is kind of the best way to feed that passion for film. Although I love acting and I’m definitely going to continue acting, I certainly see a future in filmmaking.