Lights, camera, action: Ottawa’s Kevin Reeves composes a film about the power of music

Madighan Ryan plays Sarah MacDougall. Beethoven's ghost is played by Lee-Pierre Shirey.

Ottawa’s Kevin Reeves is a pretty eclectic guy. He runs a choir called Seventeen Voyces and is heavily involved in the classical music scene in town. He has written operas and he is an adept caricaturist. Now he’s made a movie called Sarah MacDougall Meets the Ghost of Beethoven. It will be screened for the first on Friday. Before the unveiling he answered questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. You are a choral conductor, a cartoonist or caricaturist and an composer. When did you add film to your repertoire?

A. I started shooting film when I was 10. My favourite director was Alfred Hitchcock, whose theories, form and aesthetics I use to this day.  When Hitchcock was a guest on the Mike Douglas Show, my mom actually wrote a letter to excuse me from school so that I could watch him on TV.  Around the same time, my parents owned a Kodak Brownie which was a regular 8mm camera that you had to wind up. It had no batteries.  One of the first things I shot with it was Niagara Falls from a helicopter.  The pilot saw I had a camera, and without warning, practically turned the helicopter on its side so that I could shoot straight down.  (I was thankful when drones were invented).  I graduated to Super 8 and I started making slapstick comedies and a bizarre little sci-fi parody, employing my fellow choirboys from St. Matthew’s.  Gerald Finley even starred in one of those early pictures, as a very competitive magician who ultimately turns his nemesis into a tiny green worm and stomps on him.

Q. You have also written an opera on Grey Owl. Explain.

A. I finished the opera Devil in Deerskins a few years ago, and it’s one of the things for which I’m most proud, not just for its size and scope, but because the music came straight from my northern heart.  It has epic, universal themes, is both poignant and funny and is a bizarre little footnote in Canada’s history.  It’s essentially the love story between Anahareo — a Mohawk girl from Mattawa, and Archie Belaney, the Englishman who made his way to Bear Island, Temagami, when he was a young man, so that he could become a Canadian Indian. I’ve based the opera on the book Devil in Deerskins — Anahareo’s autobiography — with best wishes from her daughter, and Grey Owl’s descendants, who are friends from North Bay. I was recently accused of cultural appropriation because, obviously, I’m neither female or Mohawk, but I believe I come by the material honestly, as the story has been an obsession of mine since I saw a photo of Grey Owl on my grandmother’s cottage wall when I was a child.  (I also paddle a canoe which is most certainly cultural appropriation). Of course, the story of Grey Owl in itself is a giant shining beacon of appropriation.

Q. Compare writing music to creating and directing a film?

A. That’s a very good question because as one can imagine, the two are very similar.  Although one is aural and the other is visual, the two languages share many of the same temporal building blocks.  My strong suit in film is editing, which I really enjoy, because it’s rhythmic and contrapuntal.  Both mediums also share myriad possibilities of form and structure. Car chases are like fugues and many movies are structured like Da Capo arias. These are very simplistic examples, but the exhilaration of the cinematic or musical language really comes to the fore when something complex and engrossing is created and completely sucks in the audience.

Q. What is this movie about?

A. In a nutshell, a 12-year-old disenfranchised girl is visited by the ghost of Beethoven because he can’t stand the way she is destroying his music at the piano.  Both her mom and her music teacher have failed to raise her musical interest level.  Meanwhile, her friends have been trying to lure her to the soccer field or to practice gymnastics — without much response. It’s the power of music and Beethoven’s bombastic belligerence which shakes  Sarah out of her doldrums and leads her into a local piano competition where she plays his Moonlight Sonata. Sarah is rejuvenated by these life experiences and is finally able to celebrate with her friends on the soccer field.

Q. Why did you pick this subject matter?

A. I can’t really remember, as I wrote the script in my 20s, but I imagine because it combines classical music and film about youth.  For me, it’s a great teaching tool — educating young people in an effortless, yet entertaining way.  There was a television series from England I watched as a kid called Peanuts & Popcorn which was a compilation of short independent films. The stories were well told and the whole budget was on the screen.  They were produced with integrity and artfulness and I never felt they were trendy or patronizing the way a lot of youth TV is today.

Q. Who is in it? Where was it filmed?

A. Madighan Ryan, a 13-year-old who attends Elmwood is the lead.  She understood the part perfectly and knows her way around the piano, which was a huge bonus.  She also plays the bassoon.  Her friends in the film are classmates. Headmistress Cheryl Boughton gave me permission to shoot in and around the school, and Angela Boychuk, the arts instructor, wrangled the young actresses for me. 

Beethoven’s ghost is played by Lee-Pierre Shirey — a singing colleague at Notre Dame. I told him 16 years ago that I wanted him for this role, but Madighan wasn’t born yet, so we had to wait. Lee-Pierre is perfect for the part, and as the months passed while I was editing, I really came to believe he was an actual ghost.

One of my friends, and former alto in Seventeen Voyces — Valerie Pereboom — plays Sarah’s mom. Valerie is an administrator at Carleton, but I once saw her in amateur theatre and thought she was a natural.

Julian Armour, who needs no introduction here, plays the girls’ music teacher — a pivotal role.  It’s not often a character in a movie can play the cello for real.  I can neither confirm nor deny that his character connects in a romantic way with Sarah’s single mom.

Some other well-known musical figures have cameo appearances namely: Andrew Ager, composer; Michel Guimont, conductor and Matthew Larkin, organist.  I had a lot of fun figuring out how and where they should fit.

Aside from Elmwood, we also shot at Ashbury College, St. Matthew’s Church, Southminster United Church, and Valerie’s kitchen. But most of it was shot in my living room, around the piano, where Beethoven coaches Sarah, yelling at her frequently.  For nearly a year I had seven windows covered in black, like a studio, so that we could control the light for the piano scenes.  We even had to simulate a massive lightning storm. 

Q. How long have you been working in it?

A. We started filming last June and intensively in July because once Madighan went back to school, we knew our shooting dates would be sporadic.  She’s one of the busiest humans I know, and as filming wore on, we watched Madighan grow about half a foot.  At least her voice didn’t change like a boy’s does … that happened to me once in another movie.

Two fellows who were absolutely indispensable were Peter Polgar and Shad Young, both first-rate photographers.  The three of us were the crew.  We took turns doing the lighting, audio and camerawork, and I think our particular strengths cross-pollinated with one another. 

Q. How did you fund it?

A. Out of my pocket.  Once I had bought all the equipment, which included a camera, tripods, lights, a slider and jib arm, the filming was on a veritable shoestring budget. The biggest expenses were the excursions to Tim Horton’s to keep the crew happy. The beauty of working in the digital age is that you can film forever and it doesn’t really get any more expensive. Conversely, if I had shot on film, I’d have had to remortgage my house.

Q. I know you are screening it Friday. Where and when?

A. De La Salle high school’s auditorium at 7 p.m.  It’s at 501 Old St. Patrick St.  There’s plenty of parking, and admission is a free-will offering.  The cast and crew will be there, so there may be a Q & A afterward.

Q. What do you hope happens with it?

A. I’d like to see it appear on any one of these stations:  Local CBC, TV Ontario, or YTV.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.