Fifth Town Films: Loving the Landscape

Sonja Smits

Independent filmmakers Ryan Noth and Tess Girard work on a tight budget out of a converted barn, but with encouragement from one of Canada’s best-known actors, they have made a feature film that explores love, loss and landscape.

Ryan and Tess are back home in Cherry Valley. They’ve finished post-production of Drifting Snow and are taking a break from their latest projects. The young filmmakers spend a lot of time working in faraway places – including Canada’s far north – so it feels good to be back home in the County.

Tess and Ryan moved to Prince Edward County in 2012. They found an affordable house with a barn that could accommodate a studio and an editing suite and slowly began to renovate. But there were bills to pay, so they moved into a small summer kitchen for days at a time so they could rent out the house. “The house made more income than we did and kept us afloat in the early days,” says Ryan cheerfully. “But that’s just the reality of our business; it ebbs and flows.”

They travelled back and forth from Cherry Valley to Toronto for work, until Historica Canada commissioned them to produce a documentary about Inuit artist, Kenojuak Ashevak. “That gig, plus assistance from PELA CFDC (the local Community Futures Development Corporation), enabled us to set up our own production company and rely less on Toronto,” says Ryan, and Fifth Town Films was born.

Fifth Town’s short films and documentaries have enjoyed success on the international festival circuit, premiering at TIFF, SXSW, Rotterdam, Buenos Aires and all over the world. Their first feature length film debuts in Toronto in April. Drifting Snow is produced, written and directed by Ryan and shot by Tess and stars renowned Canadian actors Sonja Smits, Jonas Bonnetta and Colin Mochrie, among others. The title is borrowed from those ubiquitous Ontario road signs that warn of Drifting Snow, Winter Hazards, Reduced Visibility, concepts that inspire the film’s storylines. Snow itself has featured often in their past work, including The Road to Webequie, a documentary about a remote northern community, which won the Audience Award at the Melbourne Film Festival. Are they especially attracted to winter? “No,” Tess laughs. “I’m attracted to amazing stories and beautiful landscapes, to sparseness and big skies, but I go where the wind takes me.”

Ryan wrote and directed Drifting Snow, but when he works for others, he mostly produces and edits. “I can shoot, too,” he says, “but I’m lucky to have Tess because she’s a wonderful cinematographer and makes our films really sing visually, and,” he adds, “I edit most of her films.” In 2017, he shared in the glory of a Toronto Film Critic award, for helping to edit his friend Hugh Gibson’s documentary The Stairs. “It was voted Best Canadian Film, not best documentary,” he says with feeling, “best film. And we worked on it right here in the house and barn.”

Said barn is a thing of beauty with church-like windows, a blue tin roof and multiple skylights paid for with that summer rental money.

Ryan, who studied film at Queen’s University, knows he chose a hard row to hoe. “You don’t go into film-making in Canada to get rich,” he says wryly. “We do it for love.” Tess agrees, “We do commercial work to help finance our personal projects, and we apply for grants, too, because art has to be subsidized or no films would get made,” she says. “This is our career, so we find ways to make a living and still be true to our art.”

Since wrapping up Drifting Snow, Tess has been working on a film commissioned by the CBC; Prison Farm tells the story of the controversial, dismantled and now restored food-growing program at Kingston Penitentiary. The CBC will pay Tess to make a broadcast-friendly film, suitable for a general audience, but after she has delivered the finished product, she will revisit her footage and produce a director’s cut on her own dime that will be more suited to film festival audiences.

Drifting Snow’s star Sonja Smits is best known for her long-running lead in Street Legal and roles in films like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. The male lead is played by musician Jonas Bonnetta. Improv giant Colin Mochrie is also in the cast. The film was shot almost entirely in Prince Edward County and, despite Tess’s protestations that they don’t always shoot in the cold, they all nearly froze their butts off making it.

As the pre-launch buzz grows around Drifting Snow, people ask Ryan how he managed to get a Gemini-winning actor for his first feature film. He says simply, “I asked her.”

Sonia Smits Photo
Sonia Smitts

Sonja Smits and her husband Seaton McLean, co-founder of Atlantis Films, own Closson Chase Winery in Prince Edward County. Ryan cold-called the winery saying he thought he had a good role for her…she offered to read my treatment and later called to say she found it very lyrical and wanted to come by to talk about it.”

“Sonja Smits was a positive force; she encouraged us to keep Drifting Snow mysterious instead of over-explaining.” RYAN NOTH

Ryan and Tess scrambled to tidy up the barn.Sonja arrived, they talked and she agreed to do the film. “From that moment she was constantly encouraging of my vision, even when I wasn’t totally clear on it myself,” he laughs, and she brought friends onboard – craftspeople and actors.

Sonja Smits was a positive force. “Her energy and determination helped us get this film made,” says Ryan. “Despite working in -30°C and doing her own makeup and wardrobe, she was always happy and fun to be around. She was even involved in post-production, offering notes on the edit, encouraging me to stick to my vision and keep Drifting Snow mysterious instead of over-explaining.”

The male lead, Jonas Bonnetta, is a singer/songwriter with Toronto band Evening Hymns, whose striking looks and magnetic presence belie the fact this is his first acting role. Ryan credits Jonas with helping him nail down his idea for the film which he had been chasing for years. Like Ryan, Jonas is inspired by landscapes and wilderness and he understood the concept of a film that tells a story through images and sound as much as through dialogue and action.

Drifting Snow was written from Ryan’s own emotions and experiences and inspired by the suspended sensation of travelling in a car along Ontario’s highways and rural roads, “As a kid, I loved that transient feeling, staring out the window as the world drifts by.” That feeling pervades the film, and he connects the sensation to the characters’ lives and losses, triggering memories and flashbacks. He is candid that the film is as much about landscape as people. “I put people in the landscape as an excuse to film locations I want to explore… “It’s not an action film. There are elements of traditional storytelling, but also a lot of seeing, feeling and listening. I’m going more for an Alice Munro, alternative cinema vibe.” Engaging, quiet and beautifully shot with intense performances and a hypnotic soundtrack by Jonas Bonnetta, Drifting Snow  is also a bit of a love song to Prince Edward County.

With no big backers, Ryan had to be resourceful. His camera assistant, Kelly, lives four doors down, and the grip, Doug, just across the road. “We were lucky to have them,” says Ryan wholeheartedly. “They had the skills and the work ethic and they totally got the indie nature of the production, pay-wise. With a tight budget you call in friends and favours, and I’m so grateful to people like Stew Jones for painting, Rebecca Hunt for producing, Kelly Diamond who lent us her house and came up with props, not to mention great locations like Mad Dog Gallery and Stowaway Vintage. We got help with food and drink from Parsons and Midtown Breweries, and Closson Chase, of course, and we made friends with the Glenora Ferry crew.” The County offers a wealth of evocative landscapes, even below that drifting snow.

Since moving from the city, Ryan and Tess have learned to keep bees and chickens, uncovered the history in their house, restored the barn and explored all the back roads. Does Prince Edward County inspire their work? “Of course,” says Ryan. “You can’t help it. We both have a penchant for exploring and capturing our surroundings, even if we don’t always know why we’re filming something at the time. We can look out our window and stare at the creek and savour the seasons. We walk the shorelines and see old barns on their last legs.” Ryan has knit those experiences into the fabric of Drifting Snow.

The film premieres at Cineplex Yonge/Dundas, in Toronto on April 29, around about the time Ryan and Tess haul their gear back into their beautiful barn, and it will play at Picton’s Regent Theatre on May 7, 8 and 9. Until then, you can check out their award-winning work at fifthtownfilms.com.

Story by:
Janet Davies

Photography by:
Johnny C.Y. Lam