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Darren Summersby's passion for the arts turns leads to international recognition for student film

'Even though I had the experience of being on a set, its interesting seeing what the industry is actually like and I don’t think it is for everybody. There’s so much to it and you're learning stuff everyday'

Rooted is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.

The film industry in North Bay is starting to produce more and more homegrown talent. North Bay native Darren Summersby, who is already an award winning director, is part of that crop of young up and comers who are looking to make a name for themselves in the Film and Entertainment Industry, who have benefitted from all the shows and movies that are being shot in our area.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity that northern Ontario has for the film industry,” says Summersby.

“I was very lucky to be exposed to it at an early age because so many of us involved in the arts got to do background work and I actually got a role in the movie Stage Fright, which starred Meatloaf and Minnie Driver and I was on set for 13 days in a supporting role.”

Summersby says it gave him a lot of exposure to seeing how a film set works.

“That helped me a lot when I got to Sheridan College and so many people didn’t have an idea of what actually happens in that industry and I kind of already understood how a set works and it helped me realize that that is what I wanted to do.”

But it wasn’t just being on that set that helped Summersby find that path. He had been part of the performing arts culture in North Bay since an early age.

“I got into the arts doing musical theatre at the age of six, doing Dreamcoat Fantasy Theatre, then Summer Challenge and TOROS,” says Summersby, detailing the different theatre groups in North Bay.  

“From there when all the films started coming up north I got into acting doing and that led me to go behind the scenes when I was on set and that’s where I would get to stick around and see how they were actually filming and learn a little bit more about that side of things.”

Summersby says outside of the local film and television productions, the biggest influence for him was the Media Arts program at Widdifield Secondary School.

“That’s just where my passion continued. I participated in the Skills Ontario High Schools competition where I won gold for Team Ontario and I went on to represent Team Ontario at the Skills Canada Competition which I felt helped me know that I wanted to get into the film industry,” says Summersby.

In a decision that went against both public and professional opinions the Near North School Board decided to close Widdifield Secondary School in 2017 and moved the Arts Nipissing program to West Ferris Secondary School. Summersby says he owes a lot of thanks to the people who ran that program.

“I need to give a big credit to the program at Widdifield. If it wasn’t for that Media Arts program and the teachers there that gave me that support, I don’t know if I would be here,” says Summersby.

“They were always open with rearranging my schedules so that I could meet deadlines and go and compete in festivals and without that, I don’t know if I would’ve realized that I have the passion to do this. They really gave me that support and I think other people need to realize that at the high school level that’s really the time to try stuff out and not be afraid to fail and try new things.”

After graduating from Widdifield in 2016, Summersby enrolled in the Bachelor of Film and Television Program at Sheridan College and says all of that exposure with both Widdifield and the local film and television industry truly prepared him for his years at Sheridan.

“I think a lot of people look at this industry and just see the glitz and glamour and just think that’s all it is,” says Summersby.

“They see the red carpet events and all the premieres and I think people need to understand that, that is not the only thing this industry is about. It's long days and it’s learning patience while you look for that perfect shot. That was actually a big eye-opener as I started creating my own stuff at school. Even though I had the experience of being on a set, it's interesting seeing what the industry is actually like and I don’t think it is for everybody. There’s so much to it and you're learning stuff every day.”

Outside of the hands-on experience, Summersby says the movie that “changed everything for him” is Whiplash.

“I wanted to create something like that. It was at a time where I wanted to be a video editor and that movie won the Oscar for best editing and so that really inspired me to think about doing this as a career,” says Summersby.

“It was also a big influence on what I did for my thesis film because the director of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle, also went on to direct La La Land and that was a really big influence on my short film.”

The short film Summersby made is called What Comes Next and it is what made Summersby an award-winning director.

“It was a short musical film and I pitched the film at the beginning of the year. They pick 20 films to get made and this was the first musical thesis film to get made at Sheridan College,” says Summersby.

“There was some push back from the professors because musicals are extremely hard to do when it comes to the technical aspects of the film and Sheridan didn’t really teach that side of the audio aspect, and musicals aren’t really a well-loved genre, but that just made us push harder for it. We had to outsource to a lot of different sound mixers and one of our professors hooked us up with alumni who had gone on to do that professionally.”

Summersby says it also wasn’t a completely original idea, which helped in the scriptwriting process.

“The movie was adapted from a musical called Island Song by Carner and Gregor. I knew the producers because we did the Canadian premiere of Island Song in North Bay in the summer of 2018, so we had some connection with them. I really liked their music and so I wanted to develop a shorter story, but using the same characters, and expand a bit on their story and they gave me creative free range to do that.”

Summersby says they only changed a few lyrics to make it fit their story.

From that point they had two actors pre-record their songs a couple of weeks before shooting and then on set they played that back while the actors wore earpieces.

“However, they actually sang live on set and that was the audio that we actually used,” says Summersby.

“Typically that’s not big in the industry because you would lip sync while on set, but I thought that doing it this way you would get more of an authentic reaction which was important because it was a very emotionally driven film.”

Summersby says the actors, Paige Foskett & Tyler McKinnon, were “amazing” as they were working 10 hours and singing non-stop.

“We had an open call down in Toronto and they came out and I couldn’t have asked for anyone better,” he says.

The production was shot in December of 2019 and finished in April of 2020 and upon initial review, it wasn’t an overwhelmingly warm reception.

“Some of the professors were really nervous and after we had our first rough cut screening the consensus was that it was ‘just ok,’” says Summersby.

“Once we got our final soundtracks in and finalized everything, it ended up being one of the top three films shot at Sheridan that year. We started to put it into film festivals and we got into over a dozen international film festivals.”

And that’s where the film truly found an appreciation.

“We won Best Canadian Student Film at the Ontario International Film Festival in October of 2020 and accepted the award during their virtual ceremony,” says Summersby.

The film also won “Best Picture” at the New York Movie Awards. Best Film at the Europe Film Festival U.K., and Best Long Short at the Berlin Flash Film Festival, as well as earning several awards of merit at other festivals.

“That felt really good because we put all that extra work in to make it happen,” says Summersby.

“I had an amazing crew that was willing to put in the extra hours to make it happen, so that’s the important thing is that if you all work together and push to make something different, it will get attention.”

If you have a story idea for the Rooted series, send Matt an email at m.sookram@outlook.com