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Kerilie McDowall talks about her Documentary

From Canada to New York City, performing with jazz greats like Dave Brubeck to Mose Allison, here's a glimpse into the zone with multi-award winning, Vancouver Island Bassist and Producer Rick Kilburn. In the Zone: Rick Kilburn is a short documentary film, directed by Kerilie McDowall.

A professional jazz guitarist, instructor and music composer in the 90’s in Vancouver, McDowall is a York University Bachelor of Fine Arts music graduate. Her area of study was New Music Composition and Classical and Jazz Guitar Performance. McDowall has 17 years of guitar instruction experience and 35 years of music industry expertise. McDowall sits on the Polaris Music Prize jury, judged the JUNO Awards recently and in 2016-18, and judged the DownBeat Critics Poll for several years. In 2016 McDowall won the Black Women & The Arts Awards Stiletto Woman of Distinction Award and was Nanaimo Magazine’s Celebrity of the Month. She volunteers hosting on SHAW Spotlight television programs and just completed five years of volunteer television directing training in March 2020, including working on a mini-documentary short film project as a director/producer training with SHAW staff mentor Producer Todd Jones in directing, filmmaking and film editing. The end result was McDowall's first short mini-jazz documentary - In the Zone: Rick Kilburn, Vancouver Island Bassist and Producer, made possible by SHAW Spotlight TV with much grateful thanks to Todd Jones and the wonderful SHAW Spotlight volunteer and staff team.

The team received an honorable mention at the Independent Shorts Awards that led to an invite and to 2021. The doc placed as finalist in jellyFEST Film Festival, #Hollywood, #USA. It is a selection of the Montreal Independent Film Festival. It is our pleasure to interview Kerilie McDowall.

How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?

I was very fortunate a few years ago to be asked by local Nanaimo film director Brian Morelan to be his continuity supervisor for a science fiction film he was working on, Splicer’s Daughter, that is still in editing for special effects and finishing touches. I really enjoyed that work and it got me immersed in the world of local filmmaking. Brian has a kind and gentle approach with people and was always very supportive and had noticed with some of my social media posting that I had an eye for detail. We met at Shaw Spotlight and realized that we both truly loved science fiction and had a long discussion about it. Then he called me up a few years later about his film. I was shocked that he still had remembered me, it was a surprise when he asked me to be his continuity supervisor. It was a very positive filming experience and he set a great example for me as a role model as a director and filmmaker. Brian has always been wonderfully supportive and I feel happy to know him.

Explaining how my filmmaking and directing got started is also a fun story. Generally, it was music that got me interested in starting to film, and that will come as no surprise to people that know me. Due to my passion for jazz music, I directed my first made-for-TV/YouTube mini-documentary about multi-award-winning jazz bassist/producer Rick Kilburn, “In the Zone: Rick Kilburn.” Before this, I had directed a past television segment with Nanaimo bluesman guitarist David Gogo at the local wonderful program the 7-10 Club charity. Music themes always resurface; I produced a television episode as the guest host on Coast Connections with the Nanaimo International Jazz Festival and I have produced short jazz guitar-playing segments, performing as a guitarist/TV host, too. Most of this has taken place on Community Producers for Shaw Spotlight.

For the past five years, I have additionally hosted at Shaw Spotlight on television regularly interviewing community guests with other hosts on a program The Show on Shaw. I feel blessed that many of my guests on the program are my favourite charities that I enjoy assisting in the ways that I can on television. There is some history. I had been first introduced to performing as a violinist in school, then with public speaking competitions, eventual piano, and guitar-playing, and later performing as a lead character with a theatre play that toured the school circuit when I was a teen. Being in front of a camera started with playing a small part in a Toronto pantomime film as a child, so TV work and directing was a natural evolution of those experiences and my radio and Vancouver guitar performance and bandleading work.

I am a music graduate, a former Vancouver jazz guitarist of ten years and my area of study focus was Jazz and Classical Guitar and Composition. Filmmaking had been on my bucket list. I had been wanting to make a film for a few years. I had been a volunteer live-radio host and producer/engineer for 17 years. It led to me becoming a paid international jazz music critic. I had a volunteer podcast called Rhythm’a’ning that ended up as #1 on Player FM on Google during past years, I found that out shockingly in 2013, it was the first time I had even looked it up. I have made a major move from radio over to volunteer television work, as it is more satisfying and challenging. I am very happy exploring filmmaking and editing at this stage of my journey.

So for the past five years, I have been volunteering as a television host, producer, and director at Nanaimo, British Columbia’s Shaw Spotlight, the local television station in my Vancouver Island community. John Mackenzie at Shaw Spotlight discovered I had an ability for directing; for some reason, it was just extremely easy for me to operate a lot of the studio television equipment right from the beginning. It led to me directing the television show Coast Connections for five years pre-COVID as a volunteer under supervisor Cameron McLean, producer Todd Jones, and the Shaw Spotlight team.

Being lucky to receive excellent mentorship from such an incredibly talented Shaw Spotlight team and an exceptionally gifted TV director, editor, and producer like Todd Jones, I had the chance to develop my television directing, producing, hosting, and editing skills. The In the Zone: Rick Kilburn film production and editing took place in my spare time when I was not freelancing as a writer/publicist and operating my guitar teaching business Canadian Online Guitar Lessons. I was also working as a music critic and writer for the globe’s top international jazz magazine, DownBeat, and as an invited juror for one of Canada’s top music prizes, the CBC’s Polaris Music Prize; both a major time commitment. I additionally was judging the JUNO Awards.

The current 2021 TV volunteer work at Shaw Spotlight is a great time and it’s so much fun. I really love this team, they are like a second family to me. The Shaw Spotlight volunteer and staff team are amazing people and are truly incredible to work with. Directing, producing, and hosting has been a wonderfully interesting challenge and a way to give back in certain ways to my community. It is a terrific and very special team to be part of.

What was the inspiration behind the making of your documentary film?

Firstly Rick Kilburn himself. I felt that Rick Kilburn was especially inspiring after having written an article about him for INSPIRED magazine. Kilburn has a certain wisdom about him that comes from years of life experience and from being in the challenging music industry, and he possesses an outstanding all-around cleverness, period. That became very apparent working with him. His gift as a bassist and producer is remarkable and his humbleness makes him a standout, given he is amongst the most talented and gifted jazz producers in this country. I could not believe what came out without a thought from him organically during his jazz bass solo improvisations for the film. It was beautiful to experience during filming. He has a natural gift for the bass. He was playing with the rock band Chilliwack in his teens and started young playing with iconic jazz piano great Dave Brubeck and many of the other greats of the jazz world. Famed US jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and other well-known jazz artists used to come to Rick’s house when he was a child. I got him to talk about it and it was an honour to hear him share stories and emotions about those experiences. I had really had no idea that he had so many wonderful stories to share and now there may be enough unused footage on film to even get started on a book. Kilburn has a wealth of interesting information to share.

It was a podcast radio interview on early 1930s/40s women in jazz with American documentary director Judy Chaikin in 2013 that led me to hope to create my own Canadian documentary jazz films and to also finally think of trying out some television work. In live-radio the visuals are not there, it’s a type of drama that appeals mostly to the imagination. I wanted to finally try bringing in and filling in the images and visual aspects of my production work.

Making the In the Zone: Rick Kilburn short film was for me testing out the water to see where it could go with experimenting with the initial first step process of short filmmaking. I created a short film targeted simultaneously for both YouTube and TV due to Shaw Spotlight broadcasting formats. It’s been a fun experience so far.

What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?

There are so many other good filmmakers out there. The competition with so much Canadian talent is very similar to the competition you see in the music industry, but filmmaking normally involves a higher expense budget. What I love is the beautiful mosaic of films from all over the world being made with thought and care. It is a global community of storytelling and art that I am proud to be newly part of.

How difficult is it to fund documentary films?

I have recently started looking at grants and can already see that most grants are very minimal for what is needed for a documentary film with a budget. I think it is often wise to go in with a partner or a business donor. Judy’s film had funding from jazz fan Hugh Hefner. There are many interested in filmmaking projects and especially the world of jazz in North America and globally. I have not tried to fund a film yet. Thanks to Shaw Spotlight I had everything I needed for the mini-doc, all of that experience has been very rewarding. I have been very fortunate. The only expense I had to pay was the food for the crew and people on set for our filming days. And staff cameraman Stas Bobkov and volunteer cameraman Doug Tombe were so creative filming with their experimental shots, really fantastic. It is important to give people the freedom to have as much space as possible when they are creating. I always had tried to do that with bandmates as a jazz bandleader, too. It creates excellent and surprising results.

Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?

My three are:

Shaw Spotlight mentor Todd Jones. Todd has taught me a lot about the world of filmmaking and television and has been great to work with. I admire his awesome films. They are always so witty, clever and his sense of humour is just so beautifully executed at all times. Todd’s editing and special effects are phenom. He has done a lot of spectacularly complex live directing for The Show on Shaw and he works with the television team so admirably and is always positive and hilariously comical. I want to be like Todd, why? Because he is brilliant and he just is such a great problem-solver to have on a team. And nobody can direct sports like hockey, lacrosse, or soccer like him, he has the fastest eye for it, seeing him directing live in action in the sports mobile is completely unbelievable. Total admiration. He has taught me a lot about filmmaking, editing and directing during the past five years and I am grateful.

US Film documentary Director Judy Chaikin: It was truly astounding that Chaikin had created such incredibly detailed work. I found myself catching new details and nuances every time I watched her film, The Girls In The Band, and that had completely fascinated me. The American jazz documentary film was exciting to someone like me wanting to document Canadian women in jazz and their history. I recently had the chance to let Chaikin know that she had inspired me to create a short film and try out some TV work. She suggested paying it forward and to me, that sounds like a good plan.

…and Shaw Spotlight’s John Mackenzie: John was the staff person at Shaw Spotlight along with Annette Lucas who noticed that I was capable of directing television, the equipment especially. It is not a skill that everyone can master very easily. I think the reason I was able to do it was due to my decades of guitar playing. It seems like jazz improvisation and guitar soloing are very similar to television directing. Why? It involves taking the best of the moment and being immersed in the moment while looking ahead (like reading music), operating gear/equipment and making adjustments as you go (like playing guitar), and making many multi-tasking decisions at once working with your team and crew (like a jazz guitar solo with interplay with bandmates). What was great about John was his easygoing and friendly nature that made you want to work with him (just like Todd). John was there at the beginning encouraging me to give the directing a try and then allowing me to develop it a little. That led to me enjoying five years of television directing, so I am very grateful for his kind words of encouragement that started me off in a completely new direction.

How did your film go into production?

One day in May 2019, Shaw Spotlight supervisor Cameron McLean approved and gave the ok for me to go out to film with technical staff person Stas Bobkov on camera. I was very excited about having the chance to test out filmmaking and was trying to think of the best interview subject for a short mini-doc film, and who that might be in my circle. Rick Kilburn kept coming to mind as I had been very inspired by his brilliant bass-playing, production, and engineering work when I was a radio producer. I had recorded a music demo with him twenty-three years ago with my quintet and sextet as a jazz guitarist/leader and had always admired his work. It took a lot of work to convince him to do the short film because he is very humble and he’s also very busy as a jazz producer and bassist, always with a project on the go. Somehow I convinced him to agree to the project and then we filmed. Then finally came the real challenge, learning how to edit thanks to Todd Jones. Then it was me getting down to the many hours of editing work while learning technical tips about the craft of editing from Todd Jones. Other staff like talented producer Jocelyn Matwe, and technical whiz Stas Bobkov assisted me sometimes, too. The editing took place with a lot of coffee. Veggie samosas for lunch also helped to keep me going through my longer solo editing sessions. I started off knowing nothing about Premier Pro and ended it being able to edit independently while seeking recommended advice and answers to my questions as needed from Todd. That was a very special situation to be in.

I had started off with a script and an interview. Then I chose the shots. I managed to get the editing work done over ten months on Premier Pro in my spare and somewhat sporadic shorter moments in dribs and drabs due to a busy schedule. Finally the mini-documentary, Rick Kilburn: In the Zone, was born and completed on March 10, 2020, and released by Shaw Spotlight just days before Canada was shutdown with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. That was pretty close. It almost didn’t happen.

Please tell us about the most interesting aspect of producing your documentary.

The inspiring solo bass improvisations that Kilburn performed live at his home in one take for the film were amazing and effortlessly organic, so perfect for the documentary. Kilburn has spoken as a master musician about using the self while performing as a vehicle for spirit and that just makes sense. Many musicians understand this concept. I think that the greatest artists consider spiritual expression in their work like Kilburn. You know some of my jazz heroes like John and Alice Coltrane, their spiritual journey was the central focus of their lives. For atheists the spiritual transcendence while performing, it’s perhaps viewed as self-expression.

Getting to know Kilburn over the past months I learned from him by osmosis. His wise words, acceptance, humbleness, and patience towards life kept resurfacing and his purposeful avoidance of social media permits him a sense of peace that we all truly deserve. I left the film project with huge respect for Rick. When he said, “The pursuit of music is basically the pursuit of oneself…a very spiritual undertaking,” that resonated with me and sums up how I have felt when performing music or hosting on TV/radio or teaching music to children. It becomes a spiritual pursuit. Hearing Kilburn encapsulate it like that so wonderfully was a highlight for me and is the most interesting aspect of the film for me as a director.

I think that having a sense of continued balance throughout regular life became a challenge after the film was released in March 2020 with the onset of COVID restrictions. Rick’s solid approach to countering any negativity coming into his realm is as wise as any sage, and it’s been fantastic to observe the calm and patient approach he has had with the film release since the onset of COVID.

I also worked as a publicist for a community multi-faith spiritual centre for five years pre-COVID. It was a rewarding experience and my way of giving back in certain ways to the community. I don’t think that you need to find spirit necessarily by going to church. I think spirit is everywhere. In your backyard, in the forest, by the ocean, or lakeside. People who can bring their focus of music merged in with their spirituality have always inspired me.

How was the film received by your audience and film festivals and what is your plan for further distribution of the film?

Audiences have given good feedback on social media and YouTube. The response has been positive. I have only just started to think of approaching many other film festivals due to an overly busy schedule and COVID restrictions.

The short documentary due to being made for TV and YouTube simultaneously did not always suit a category at the many regular film festivals that focus on true cinema. The short received an Honourable Mention at The Independent Shorts Awards for Best Web and New Media and I was an official selection as Best First Time Filmmaker-Female at ISA. This led to an invite to the jellyFEST Film Festival where the mini-doc was chosen as a finalist for Best Short Documentary. Since then the film has been selected by the Montreal Independent Film Festival.

I hope to distribute the film globally at festivals that I like and are best suited for my project and continue with social media, and some publicity. Connecting with others within the industry for their feedback where possible is something I am pursuing now, as well as considering and being receptive to new funding sources for future filming. I enjoy collaboration and look forward to the developing of and exchanging of ideas.

What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution of independent documentary films?

I would say choose your categories at film festivals wisely and respond to the film festivals that approach you. Even if there are a ton of them from obscure places. It is polite to respond to all inquiries. Once you have had the chance to be seen at the festivals of your choice (due to regulation restrictions for premiering at certain fests) permit festivals who liked your documentary to use your film. Get it out there if it already is available online like mine is. And network and have fun doing it.

What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?

I paused directing and filmmaking due to COVID mostly, but now that I have more me-time I have many current ideas for films ranging from personal to music and new jazz-related and business projects. Focusing on just one idea is problematic in that I have to choose my ultimate focus right now and have not made any definite final decisions yet. I would say to other creative people and filmmakers to remember that it is one of the first steps. It is important to choose your focus and then not get distracted from it.

I have focused on music as the central theme for most of my life. Whether it was the violin, the guitar, being a jazz radio host, jazz radio podcaster, TV host, concert producer, writer, or music critic, all of it has led to my current path. I still enjoy teaching the guitar, too, and writing, so I have been lucky in that I have many creative passions to explore. I would love to make a Canadian jazz film documentary.

How can documentary films change the world and have an impact on society?

Many film directors have had a lot of courage to express important messages through documentary film work that is crucial to implementing social justice and change. The problems of hegemony like systematic racism and discrimination are causing harm and damaging, irreversible trauma to regular people. I look forward to the alternative press’ viewpoints and excellent research carried out by filmmakers, writers, and journalists in helping to create positive change.

Global poverty caused by COVID-19 is causing problematic fascism to rise. Governments need to adjust priorities and recognize that they need to support their populations financially and supportively as needed to prevent anarchy and complete collapse. I look forward to hearing from honest and ethical filmmakers who seek justice for all and are seeking out solutions to global issues and are generating discussion through their important work.

Why do you make films and what makes you fascinated with the language of cinema?

I started to make films because I enjoy the creative processes and wanted to bring the world of film into my music realm. Having a creative idea that stems from the imagination realized on to the medium of film is very similar to composing music. It is very satisfying to have a creative idea take on a life of its own.

The language of cinema is very potent. Which is more powerful the writer’s pen or the director’s camera? How do you nail it down? Cinema encompasses writing and the camera, music, human stories, documenting, emotions, human relationships. Would I rather watch a movie or read a book these days? I admit it, I think with my first choice it’s always going to be the movie over the book. Realistically music always wins out before everything else, but to me, filmmaking is a potent art form for encouraging the discovery, development, and expression of ideas.

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