When educator Joe Shields was first approached by the Campbell River Head Injury Support Society (HISS) to talk about making a short film to highlight what they do, he didn’t know what he was getting himself – and his students – into.
Shields teaches video and audio editing, film production, digital media and English to students in a multi-faceted approach to learning at Carhi Secondary School.
“Headway” is going to be a sitcom-like short film that follows the lives of six people with head injuries as they come to terms with that reality – and each other – around the table of a support group over the course of six weeks. “Think ‘Community,’ but with head injuries!” Shields says excitedly.
“When we were first approached by (HISS), I thought I was looking at a short documentary about how they set up their offices on Dogwood Street, how they put rooms in above it, you know, just kind of documenting their story,” he says. “Instead, in meeting Shelly (Howard, Executive Director of the society), she’s such a dynamic, exciting person, and she said, ‘I want to make something that’s entertaining. Something that’s embracing the fact that these are still people, and they’re people with a sense of humour, and they’re lots of fun, and get that message out using something that’s not just dry.’”
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Howard says, “and you put a documentary in front of someone, and they pay attention for a few minutes, and all of a sudden their eyes glaze over or their phone comes out, or they start doodling all over whatever papers are in front of them. So it’s, like, how can we get the message of brain injury out there, have fun with it, be on the edge of political correctness, and have fun with it? I don’t want a boring little film that will put people to sleep. I want people to be able to laugh. I want to have fun with brain injury”
You would think that would be a difficult line to walk – that line between entertaining and offensive when making a comedy around a topic like head injury.
Well, that’s because it is, but Howard says that no matter how you go about a project like this, it has the potential to offend people. You could offend just as easily with a documentary as you could with a comedy, she says. Even if people get offended, they’re at least going to be talking about the issue and bringing awareness to it.
Shields thinks they’ve been successful in walking that line by making a character-driven story rather than having it centred on the injuries themselves.
“(The characters’) limits are being dealt with in a really respectful way,” Shields said. “We don’t denigrate the fact that they have head injuries. We have backstories about how their head injuries have affected them and what condition they have, but it’s the characters themselves that are flawed. The comedy emerges from who these characters were before they got there, and how they try to get along with one another. They share a common link, and that’s the fact that they all have sustained head injuries, and the reason they came together is the challenges that have entered into their life because of their head injuries, but it’s not the source of the comedy.”
The majority of the filming will actually take place in the Head Injury Support Society on Dogwood Street itself.
“They’ve given us their boardroom as our major location,” Shields says, “and we’ve gotten very, very lucky in that we’re going to have some pros come in and help us with lighting and setting that room up as a film set, and that will add another dimension to the students’ learning, by being able to teach them in a hands-on, stable way, things like blocking and set design, as well.”
In any character-driven project, casting is maybe the most under appreciated, and yet most important aspect. “We need some people that will really get these characters,” Shields says.
As such, on Friday, Oct. 24 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 25 from 2 to 4 p.m., “Headway” is officially being cast. They’re looking for actors to fill the roles of two adult men, two adult women, as well as one male and one female teenager around the age of 17 (or at least people who can pass for that on-screen).
Follow along as the production goes forward by following @headwaythemovie on Twitter, and look for a few “behind the scenes” featurettes to come out throughout the process to see how this partnership is attempting to bring awareness to the issues.