published on Saturday, July 3, 1999 - 22:54:02|
To make a movie about a time when child labour was commonplace in Canada, the first thing the makers of Pit Pony needed was, well, child labour.
When 10-year-old Ellen Philpotts Page auditioned for a part in the TV movie Pit Pony her father's chief worry was keeping her hopes from getting too high. Soon Dennis Page had a bigger concern - ensuring his daughter didn't return from a holiday in Cuba with anything resembling a suntan.
Ellen had been cast as Maggie MacLean in the film set during late winter in turn-of-the-century Cape Breton. "A tan just wouldn't cut it", recalls Page, a Halifax advertising executive. "We really had to lather on the (sunblock) 45."
For Ellen, the casting was a dream come true. Surrounded for a month by people who were "really nice" to her, the experience met all her expectations. "I love movies. Jim Carrey is a hero of mine, and I want to be an actor," she says. "It was the most fun I ever had in my life."
A central theme in Pit Pony (CBC Sunday December 14, at 8 p.m.) is child labour in Nova Scotia coal mines. It's the story of young Willie MacLean who, with the friendship of a Sable Island horse, overcomes his fears and goes work in a Glace Bay coal mine to support his family.
Ironically, however, making such a film requires a good dollop of child labour. More pleasant than coal mining to be sure, but still, a demanding piece of business for kids and especially for parents.
"It's a strange thing," says Gary Vermeir, branch representative in Halifax for the ACTRA performers guild, "It seems the entertainment business is the only industry where child labor is legal."
Well, not exactly. Child labour, in fact, is legal except in certain conditions and settings typically set out in provincial labour standards codes. Under Nova Scotia law, for example, industrial production, is out of bounds, and so are billiard halls, hotels and even theatres. The particulars vary by province but their intent is to protect a child's safety and ensure that his or her schooling continues without interference.
Layered over these provisions are several pages of rules particular to the film and television industry and spelled out in the ACTRA union agreement. The agreement, for example, sets out special provisions for notifying kids when they will need to work late, limits to their hours in a working day (eight) and arrangements for a tutor if they are kept out of school.
Most importantly, the ACTRA requires that a parent or guardian accompany all kids under the age of ten. Says Vermeir: "I spend a lot of time telling parents it's not just their kids who are being hired, it's the parents too."
Kids worked on the Pit Pony set in a number of capacities. Along with Ellen Page, Ben Rose-Davis (Willie), Anna Wedlock (Sarah) and Jonathan Langlois-Sadubin (Simon) were cast members. Steve Murphy Jr., on the other hand, worked with his dad as an animal wrangler - someone who controls horses on the set - and was a riding double for Rose-Davis in a scene when Willie falls off Gem.
Grant Rogers of Beaverbank, NS, appeared as a photo double. In some shots taken a long distance from the camera, he stands in for Rose-Davis. For example, in a beautiful early sequence where Willie runs down a snowy hill from school to see Sable Island horses arriving at Glace Bay Harbour, it is Rogers, not Rose-Davis playing Willie MacLean.
"It was really fun," says Rogers. "The person with me hid behind the tree and I had to run down the hill. The first time I did it I fell, but luckily that won't be in the movie. And the other time I ran down the hill, luckily, with no falling."
Like most other kids on the set. Rogers was surprised that movies aren't filmed in order from the beginning to the end of the script. Instead, the order of shooting depends on which scenes need to be shot at one location, before moving on to the next.
The most onerous job for any kid during the making of Pit Pony was Ben Rose-Davis's portrayal of Willie MacLean. The role required his presence in almost every scene of the movie, which created some special challenges for the production.
The film industry operates on 12-hour days because of the economics of mobilizing a large production crew and their equipment. However, under child labour rules, Rose-Davis could work no more than eight hours. So in some cases adult cast members would continue giving their lines on camera from a "reverse angle" after Ben had finished for the day and gone to the make-up trailer. "That's a more difficult performance for an actor," says Gabriel Hogan who, as Ned Hall, plays many scenes opposite Willie MacLean.
One of the production's most emotional moments came when Rose-Davis did his final take late one evening last April. Producer Andrew Cochran halted the action to make a short speech about Ben's professionalism throughout the rigorous shoot, and Rose-Davis was presented with the harmonica that Willie MacLean receives from his brother John early in the film. The cast, crew and onlookers numbering more than a hundred, gave him a resounding ovation, and director Eric Till joked that finally it was okay for Ben to go "off to the pub."
Asked if he would encourage others take an acting job, Rose-Davis has some practical advice: "I'd say they should think about it.' he says, aware now of the time commitment and disruption to school and regular activities. "If it was a small part, then I would say go ahead and try it, but for a main character I'd say think about it."
Cochran says that when casting a child, as with any actor, the "look" for a certain part is important, and after that you want intelligence. "We saw hundreds of boys for that part, and some were enormously appealing on the screen, and gut-wrenching when you heard them say some of the parts, but (with Ben) there was just that inner strength, and he's just a really, really smart kid. Intellectually, he could understand what was going on Willie's head, and that's what an actor has to do."
The best of young actors, says director Eric Till, are usually untrained. "We look for absolute naturalism in their manner in their performance, in their confidence" says Till. "You can't rely on technique and you can't rely on the performers to bring technique to help solve problems. With young actors," say Till, the director must " hold that child's hand, guide them through and not lose his rag, and be very patient."
Like adults, child actors only find out the night before exactly which scenes will be shot the next day. With a production crew of 75, a cast of 30 and up to 150 extras, movies like Pit Pony are major logistical exercises, and it is often uncertain until one day's progress is known that the next day's schedule can be confirmed.
A "call time" tells each actor when they should be on set. A team of assistant directors charged with making the schedule work, ensure that actors are in the right place at the right time, beginning with wardrobe, then hair, make-up and finally, to the set, where the unspoken rule is always "hurry up and wait."
While waiting, kids hang out with one another, catch up on their school work, and enjoy a steady supply of "craft service". That's the industry name for the snacks and "substantials" brought to the set at regular intervals before and after the day's main meal, which is prepared by a separate caterer. If a film crew is an army, as many describe it, then the analogy holds true for that military observation that armies march on their stomachs.
There's also a lot for a child to see while waiting. As the filming proceeds, work continues elsewhere in the studio to prepare for future action: carpenters build sets (or coal mines), set painters transform them with colour, special effects people test plans their next rock fall, and props people prepare the somewhat less appetizing meals that will appear on-camera. Everyone tries to stay warm. Pit Pony was shot during an unseasonably cold and windy spell during March and April.
"It was a wonderful experience," says Dennis Page, "But I don't think we truly realized what we were getting into." With Ellen's mom Martha Philpotts also working full-time as a teacher, schedules got turned upside down during the month of filming, and when the action shifted to Cape Breton, Page ended up taking a week off work to be with his daughter.
With these realities in mind, industry veterans like casting director John Dunsworth urge that parents carefully consider their decision to have a child join a film production. "The first question I would ask," says Dunsworth, "is whether the kid wants to do this work, or whether it is some vicarious dream of the parent. "
For Ellen Page, the motivation was clearly her own, and she feels she's gained a lot from experience with Pit Pony. "I used to be very shy" she says, "and now I'm not." Until recently, for example, Ellen resisted doing her Jim Carrey imitation in public despite coaxing from her mom. "I still don't like doing it front of people," she says. "But now at least I'm not too shy to do it."
Six months after Pit Pony's filming, and after a summer to think about it, Ellen and her parents decided she should register with a talent agent and consider future acting jobs. A star, perhaps, is born.