By Rebecca Spence, Arts Editor
Local comedy group Picnicface have emerged from limbo.
“We were definitely in a rut,” says Picnicface member and former Dalhousie theatre student Brian Macquarrie. “And whatever comes after a rut is what we’re in now.”
Earlier this month, the Comedy Network confirmed they would produce 13 episodes of a Picnicface sketch comedy show, an idea that had been in the works for the past two years. The concept for the show was stuck in development for so long that the members worried about the fate of their funding: Was the network having a tough time convincing CTV—its parent company—to fund the project?
“It gets hard to justify doing a weekly show when there’s nothing coming next,” says Little. “You get to the point when you’re like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’”
But the group was blown away when the deal finally went through.
“It’s wonderful says Mark Little,” one of Picnicface’s founding members. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
It happened to be Little’s 28th birthday last Thursday when we met for our interview, but his incessant smile had everything to do with the show.
“I think I twirled Mark around like a Southern belle,” says Macquarrie.
Little and Kyle Dooley started Picnicface as an improv duo in 2005 when they moved to Halifax to attend Dal. The duo became a trio when King’s College student Evany Rosen joined in 2006. The group gradually expanded through Halifax’s amateur stand-up scene, adding Macquarrie, Andrew Bush, Cheryl Hann, Bill Wood and Scott Vrooman. Once they began performing regularly at Ginger’s Tavern, they transitioned from improv to sketch comedy. Bush, who was writing for Canadian TV shows such as Odd Job Jack and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, introduced the other cast members to creating their own videos and presenting them in their sketches. This multimedia strategy ultimately set the stage for the group’s Internet stardom.
Picnicface first garnered international attention in 2007 through a clip-art video called Powerthirst. Little and Vrooman created the mock advertisement for an obnoxiously aggressive energy drink and uploaded it to Funny or Die, a comedy video website co-founded by Will Ferrell. When Ferrell declared Powerthirst, along with another video the group made called Near Death Experiences, as two of his top three picks of the week, the video blew up. The video now has over 21.4 million views on YouTube and still receives multiple comments each day. Obsessed Powerthirst fans made their own spin- off versions of the video, and College Humor even commissioned Picnicface to create Powethirst 2: Re-Domination.
“It’s great because it’s not like really being popular,” says Cheryl Hann of their Internet fame. Hann, 24, says she has resolved to lead her life without anybody actually knowing who she is.
Macquarrie realized the true impact of Powerthirst when one of his friends in Australia heard the video referenced by one of her friends. “When you reach someone on the other side of the planet, that’s so amazing,” he says.
Three years later, Picnicface’s filmmaking endeavours are still the talk of the town, but instead of a 90-second clip-art video, it’s a feature-length film called Roller Town. Bush, Little and Vrooman spent two years writing and developing a script that parodies the roller-disco genre of the 1970s. Roller Town features Little as Leo, a roller- skating whiz who is forced to defend his town from being taken over by the new age of arcade gaming. The film also stars Kayla Lorette as Leo’s love interest, as well as the other seven members of the Picnicface cast.
Most of the film’s interior scenes were shot at the Olympic Gardens at the corner of Hunter and Cunard. They also shot in Dartmouth using the Halifax landscape as a backdrop, in Point Pleasant Park, and along the waterfront after Hurricane Earl tore through town.
The cast emphasizes that, even though the movie was produced in Canada, they don’t sell out with jokes about Canadian stereotypes.
“There are no maple leaf flags all over the place. There’s no beaver fucking another beaver. It’s a movie that was made in Canada and that’s all,” says Macquarrie.
Roller Town recently wrapped its 20- day shoot, and the movie has entered its first stage of the editing process. Little says they hope the film will be done by the time the Toronto International Film Festival rolls around (pun intended) in Sept. 2011. While Little and some of the other cast members often think about moving to Toronto and pursuing comedy there, they all recognize how important Halifax’s role was in making sure the movie was made.
Macquarrie says the city’s support has been “absolutely amazing” and when the question of whether it would be possible to make this film in a city like Toronto is raised, he immediately blurts out: “God no.”
“Halifax has taken an ownership of us,” he says. “We’re their sketch group.” When the producers were recruiting background actors at the beginning of September, about 100 people committed themselves to work for free.
“The fact that everybody showed up and roller-skated and ate hot dogs is awesome,” says Macquarrie, 28. “I wish I could thank everybody individually.”
“It was an awesome thing to be a part of because everyone wanted it to work and everyone wanted it to be the best movie it could be,” says Hann. “Nobody showed up with less than the most positive attitude … The extras were singing disco songs and clapping and keeping everyone excited.”
Of course, the biggest challenges that came with Roller Town were, according to Hann: “money, money and money.” So Haligonians’ unpaid contributions went a long way in stretching every last bit of Telefilm’s $800,000 funding and ensuring the production’s success, since paying the crew and actors ate up most of their budget.
“When you first hear that (you’re being given $800,000) you’re like, ‘Holy shit, that’s more money than I’ve ever dreamed of,’” says Hann. “But in the film world that’s like someone throwing you a crisp fifty and saying, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’”
Picnicface did manage to find more ways to save money. For instance, Hann donated her own clothes to the costume department. “So at least my shirt’s in this scene,” says Hann, whose IMDB credits for the film include ‘Vomiting Girl’, ‘Dance Instructor,’ ‘Johnny’ and ‘Patron.’
The group’s other fundraising efforts ranged from emailing pictures of Cheryl and Evany kissing a puppy to the people who donated $1, all the way to Mark Little changing his middle name to your full name if you donate $500,000. Their most popular moneymaking scheme by far was selling rap videos about the donor for $50 a pop. At press time they have completed about 30 in total, and still owe about 25 more to supporters. Their largest single contribution came from a guy who donated $1000 to have his picture put in the credits saying that he died in the movie.
Bush came up with the creative fundraising venture after hearing about a collaborative art project called The One- Second Film, where American filmmaker Nirvan Mullick offered to put people’s names in his movie’s credits for $1. The film is structured around one second of animation, followed by one hour of credits listing everyone who participates.
In addition to fundraising, Picnicface’s moneymaking schemes have also helped create a ton of awareness for the movie—buzz that they are worried they may lose by the time the film actually comes out.
But now, armed with plans for their own TV show that will begin production in Halifax next May, the cast is confident that this will help them in ramping up energy around the movie’s release.
They have several months to write their material beforehand, and their plan now is to write 45 minutes of material a week that they can use in their weekly Sunday night shows at Joker’s to gain feedback from their audience. By the time they go into the writers’ room in April, they will have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
“We want to test material,” says Macquarrie. “We’ve got four months for trial and error.”
Little is ready to embrace bloopers and take risks with their material.
“Mistakes are gifts,” he says. “The only way a mistake can be a mistake is if you treat it like one.”
The group hopes to have the cast playing themselves in the show so that they can make it likeable and relatable for audiences.
“Anything that people can relate to will automatically make them like it more,” says Hann. “And once you like the cast it becomes easier to forgive them.”
The Picnicface cast is also excited at the prospect of writing their sketches with veteran comedian Mark McKinney, who helped form The Kids in the Hall in 1989 and performed on Saturday Night Live from 1995 to 1997.
“I love Kids in the Hall,” says Hann. “If this is anything like that show I would be happy.”
“We haven’t actually tried for a while now and I feel really bad about it, but we were too busy to try,” says Hann, who is finishing up an honours degree in philosophy at Dal. “And now that trying is directly linked to how busy we’re going to be in the future, we need to try. And we want to.”
Little calls this whole development “the storm after the calm—a positive storm!”
“I can’t wait for the next four months,” he says, still smiling. “I can’t wait until Sunday. I can’t wait.”
See Picnicface test out their new material at Joker’s Comedy Club every Sunday at 8 p.m. Cover is $5.