Coleman interview more than 40 people for the film, including René. (All photos courtesy of Stephen Coleman).

How a first-time filmmaker became part of Ottawa’s homeless community

Tonight, Stephen Coleman is hosting a screening at Ottawa City Hall of his film Project Cold Days. The film is an in-depth look at some of Ottawa’s homeless people and their daily struggles. Here Coleman offers a behind-the-scenes into what it took to make the film over four years.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

I was suffering from severe depression and I was abusing drugs that were given to me by my psychiatrist. It got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed. One day it got so bad, I had to call my mom. We went for a walk and there were brief moments where the weight of that darkness subsided and so I decided that I was going to walk every day, no matter what.

I started noticing the people on the streets. Rather than look away, I looked at them very closely. I imagined this curtain opening behind them and showing everything that happened in their lives for them to get there. That’s when I thought these would be really good stories to tell. I learned very quickly that I couldn’t just show up with a camera. It actually took two years of spending time with homeless folks, of volunteering in the shelters, to get to a point where I was part of the community. I had no clue how to make a film, but I approached with what Jerry Seinfeld called “dumb boldness”. You’re so naive when you’ve never done something, you don’t realize how impossible of a task it’s going to be so you do it anyway.

Why did you choose film to tell this story?

It’s the best medium we have. It’s the most visceral, it’s the most hard-hitting. I love the idea of visual storytelling. And the winter in Ottawa is spectacular visually. A lot of us don’t appreciate it. During those times of despair, I’d look a the snow falling through the lights and see how beautiful it was. There are people out here living in it and I wondered what it looked like for them. I also wanted people to have a voice. Enough people takes photos of the homeless but how many really give them a microphone?

You said that you had never done this before. What did you learn throughout this process, both from a storytelling perspective and being with homeless people for an extended period of time?

Everything in my life became about how to make cinematic film. I would go out and shoot and sometimes the footage would suck, but I always had my camera with me. Doing it in the streets, you don’t have the opportunity to make mistakes like you would in a studio. If you make a mistake, it’s over. You’ve blown it and you can’t get that footage back. So, it forced me to learn really quickly.

What I learned when dealing with homeless people was confidence. It’s like I was a new kid at school and I went and sat at the cool kids’ table. I sat there until they thought, “This guy isn’t going away, I guess we’re going to have to accept him.” The interviews in the film are really about me sharing my story with them and showing that I had empathy and understanding, and that they could share with me. I started narrowing down the people I wanted to have as the main characters and I basically started living with them. The camera faded away.

How did you decide on who to follow?

For one, I just liked Peter. He was also quite lucid and the main characters had to be lucid. A lot of people on the streets are in a rough state and they couldn’t be main characters because that’s exploitative. It wouldn’t be right.

Another character, Phil, I kept bumping into him. He’s so well-spoken. He could shoot up some drugs and describe exactly what he’s feeling and he could do it in this really existential way. He would blow me away every time he spoke.

A screenshot of Project Cold Days.

You talked about his a little bit earlier, but was it hard to get people involved and interested in what you were doing?

At first it was. I released three trailers and each time the community would find out about it. That helped convince people I was serious. It’s a small community in Ottawa. The three big shelters are all within a couple blocks of each other so people find out. As it picked up steam, more and more people were interested.

It’s a significant amount of time to pour into a project, what kept you going through the hard times?

I’m very stubborn. A lot of the pain I was suffering through, it was better for me to suffer on the street, to be freezing cold and to be physically in pain. I ended up in the hospital a couple of times. It was better than going back to that depressed state. I was out living my life and connecting with human beings and grew to love it even though it wasn’t fun all the time. That’s commitment and those hard times shaped me in a really good way.

Must make it that much more rewarding, as well.

Exactly. A lot of people questioned if I was going to exploit the homeless but when they see the film they don’t question it anymore. I’m not some film studio that wanted to do something on homelessness and sent out a camera crew for eight hours and called it a day.

What’s something that happened that was unexpected?

I didn’t realize how painful it would be that the biggest challenge would be my own group of people that were involved in the film. People will say a lot about what they’re going to do or what they want to do but when it comes down to actually doing it, they’re not there. There were nights where I’d be filming this person and told them a friend was coming with food and coffee, and they wouldn’t show up. It was so humiliating because these people were looking forward to it. This happened a few times. It really hurt.

Phil is one of Project Cold Days’ main characters. In the film, he says he’s been on the street since age 13. Since then he’s lived in Toronto, Montreal, Québec City and Ottawa among other cities.

Did you have a message going into it that may have changed throughout the filming?

The original message was really to focus on homelessness but it turned into a film about mental health and addiction because those are the root causes of homelessness. It’s a little more existential.

Who are you trying to reach with the film?

I shot it in a very cinematic way so even if you’re not interested in the subject matter, it’s still a beautiful piece of art. I have an original score. I spent over $30,000 to have a Grammy award-winning composer work with me. It’s also a very simple story; it’s just this is this person’s life. I know a lot of people will say this about their film, but I think anyone can enjoy it.

Based on the film’s Kickstarter page, which raised about $5,000, it says you didn’t receive any other funding, is that right?

I had to fund the film completely myself. I was a full-time engineer and I had a fair amount of money. By the end, it cost about $100,000 to put together. I left my full-time job because the film got so big. Artists give a lot of themselves and don’t expect a whole lot in return, and 99 per cent of them don’t make any money.

So would you say you’re done with the project?

Right now, it’s more about nurturing rather than the creation process. Now I get to share the film with people and that’s the best feeling ever — to see people respond and talk about it and say it moved them. That’s why I love doing screenings. There’s something cool about coming together as a community and enjoying a piece of art together.

What are some of the lasting effects the film might have on the people in the film like Peter and Phil or the larger homeless community in Ottawa?

Film is an empathy machine. When someone walks by a homeless person, they immediately put up every barrier they have, they look away and shimmy as quickly as they can because they don’t want to feel what that person is feeling. The film forces you into empathy; maybe they’ll want to connect with humans a little bit more. That’s my hope.

What’s next for you?

I can’t officially announce anything yet but there are big things coming in terms of a national broadcast, film festivals and awards. Right now, I’m focusing on bringing the film to as many people as possible in the smartest way.

In terms of my next film, my work is very inspired, so I have no idea for the next one. I tell people that since this is such a heavy subject matter, my next film is going to be a romantic comedy. I need something light after this, but I definitely want to keep making documentaries.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

If interested in going to tonight’s screening, visit here for details and tickets.

Francis Tessier-Burns

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Freelance writer and photographer. Ottawa-based. These are my words that can’t find a home. Feeling generous?: