Filmmaker Justin Simms answers 20 Questions

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Josh Pennell
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Filmmaker Justin Simms. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

By Josh Pennell

The Telegram

For anybody who has or is struggling to find their niche in life, Justin Simms might be considered a lucky guy.

The award-winning writer and director was struck by the filmmaking bug in his mid-teens and his only quest since has been to get better at the craft rather than get over it.

“Really, it’s been all film all the time since then,” he says.

He’s won both screenwriting and directing awards for his short film work.

His first feature film was the film adaptation of the award winning novel by Joel Hynes, “Down to the Dirt,” which won best feature film at the Atlantic Film Festival. It also won best screenplay, which Simms also had a hand in writing.

Simms is a director for hire, as well as a writer of his own material.

Currently, he’s working on a documentary for the National Film Board of Canada on Danny Williams.

“It’s been a really interesting experience so far, and I think it will be a surprising little film.”

His latest completed work was directing the film adaptation of the Kevin Major book “Hold Fast” which will screen soon at the Atlantic Film Festival.

josh.pennell@thetelegram.com

What is your full name?

“Justin Stewart Simms.”

When and where were you born?

“I was born in Labrador City, 1973. We moved out of there while I was still an infant and I’ve never returned, but certainly that’s something that I want to do at some point in time.”

What is your profession?

“I’m a writer and director.”

What is the toughest thing about your profession?

“I think it’s that you have to start from scratch every time when you make a film. And these things can take two and three years to make. At the end of accomplishing this great sort of a thing you find yourself back at square one. A friend of mine told me once a really cool custom in Japan; when somebody has accomplished something that they’ve been striving for for a long time, it’s customary in Japan to wish them condolences versus congratulations — which I totally get.

What has been your greatest act of rebellion?

“I don’t know that it has happened yet. When I was in Grade 6 ... I went and rewrote what all of my grades were and turned the 60s into 80s and stuff like that. And invariably a month or two later it was caught.”

What are you most scared of?

“The only thing that I can think of is that I heard one time someone say that the only thing that can stop you is fear. So I try to not let fear play too big a role. One of the good things about getting older is you fear less. I’m turning 40 in October so I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of stuff.”

What’s been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome to succeed as a filmmaker?

“Making films is generally a series of these mini-hurdles and they kind of all add up to the giant hurdle, which is the film itself. So in terms of being a filmmaker, probably the biggest hurdle is that there’s never just one. From the writing of it to the funding of it to the filming of it, it’s kind of a series of creative challenges.”

What is your biggest regret?

“Like the (rebellion) answer, I don’t know if I have it yet. We all have regrets, of course, but I don’t think I have anything that I would classify as a turning point in my life. I’m lucky enough that when I was 14 or 15 is when I wanted to be a filmmaker. I can’t really say I have a whole lot to regret.”

What has been your greatest accomplishment?

“I like to think that my best work is in front of me. One thing I will say is that last year I was able to buy my own house for the first time. I have to say that has made a tremendous difference in my life in terms of my self-esteem and just where I am right now. I’m really happy about that.”

Which of your films are you most pleased with?

“That’s always a tough one. I’ve been asked that one a few times and it’s always impossible. It’s like the old cliche that it’s like picking your children. I will reiterate something that I feel very strongly about is that I’m improving.”

What is your most treasured possession?

“My house. After paying for it, it’s, like, the only thing I possess.”

What’s your favourite food and why?

“My girlfriend Willow makes delicious chocolate lava cakes. And they’re pretty decadent and chocolaty amazingness.”

What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you?

“I was on a flight one time and I had to walk up to the back of the plane to use the bathroom and one of the stewardesses had one of her carts in front of the bathroom door. So she reached across the cart and pulled open the door. What she couldn’t see because she had the door in front of her and what I could see was that there was a woman in there on the toilet, clearly using the bathroom. And I couldn’t communicate to the stewardess what was going on and she couldn’t really see. And this poor woman...”

Who has been your biggest influence?

“Honestly, I would have to say my mom and dad. I’m an only child and they had me when they were really young. They were just kids themselves, so my dad has often said that the three of us grew up together, which I think is true. And they’ve just been unwaveringly supportive of me my whole life.”

If you could be an animal which one would you be?

“I’m a cat person. A cat has it knocked. And I’ve often remarked that I think I’d make a really good cat.”

What have been your greatest and worst years?

“All that I can really think is that there have been more good years than bad ones. It’s a hard thing to judge. Sometimes you have to be removed from a certain year to really know if it was a good year or a bad year. I try not to be super specific in my memories of that kind of stuff. It’s a real challenge to stay in the present. I’m an emotional guy, too, so you know my opinion of what’s a good year or a bad year for myself is probably the worst opinion you could possibly ask for.” (laughing)

What makes a good film, in your opinion?

“We often forget that it’s still about the craft of storytelling and so that’s the thing that’s always turned me to watching movies, and certainly making movies is the love of storytelling. Any movie that can pull me into its story and get me thinking about its story and nothing else — like not watching how it’s constructed — that’s generally the sign for me that it’s a really good film.”

Can you still simply enjoy movies when you watch them or are you thinking about how they were made?

“It’s part of my DNA now to be naturally focused in on how something is constructed. When you watch films and they pull you into their stories past that … . Sometimes I’ll come to the end of a film and it will be kind of like snapping back into reality and I realize, wow, I haven’t been thinking about how the film is put together, not a thing about my life. I haven’t been thinking about anything, and that’s a great feeling. But it happens very rarely with me.”

What’s your life motto?

“I’m not really a motto guy any more than, say, the next person, but my folks always had a little motto between themselves that they tried and are still in the process of trying to (inflict) on me. It’s “Be mindful.” That’s it, but it’s kind of profound in its own way.”

What do you like most about making films?

“The older I’ve become, I’ve learned part of the reason I love it so much is I like being part of a team. Making films are very intense periods of time and you rely on an awful lot of people to help you make a film. I get a real rush and a real joy being with a group of people and we’re all committed to a common goal.”

Organizations: National Film Board of Canada

Geographic location: Japan, Labrador

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