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Pushed to breaking point

Written by gaytourism

In his first feature-length film, filmmaker Yan England gives us the story of Tim — a shy sixteen-year-old athlete — who is both brilliant and talented. But the pressure Tim faces pushes him to the edge, and the consequences are explosive.

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I caught up with filmmaker Yan England for a behind-the-scenes look at the film.

What was your inspiration for this story?

I’ve been acting since I was eight-years-old. Over the years I’ve done a lot of work in different high schools across Canada – talking about acting and directing, but also about following your passions and dreams. Through that, kids would trust me and tell me their stories.

1:54 is the story of Tim, who’s a 16-year-old boy who has been having trouble in school because of Jeff and his gang of bullies. Tim’s a senior now, and he’s had enough, he wants to become somebody. He doesn’t want to be a ghost in his school anymore. He’s got a great talent for running, and Jeff is his nemesis who also happens to be a state champion, so Tim figures — “This is how I’m going to do it. I’m going to try to beat my nemesis on his own turf and go to Nationals.” I wanted to use that basis to propel Tim into the world.

Everything that happens in the film is true and has happened. That being said, it’s not the story of one kid, but a composition of true stories told to me by many kids and the bullying that I experienced at school.

With 1:54, I really wanted to go into the world of these kids objectively, so as to take Tim’s point of view and bring the viewer into his world, into what he’s living and what he’s going through.

What was the production process like?

The film was four years in the making. It took three years to write —  I went through a bunch of different drafts, and had psychologists read the script to make sure that the film was as real and authentic as possible.

Prior to this, I’ve made short films, and I didn’t know if I could write an entire feature film. The person who convinced me to finally do my first feature was Stephen Spielberg.

It was at the Oscars, he had been nominated for his film Lincoln. I wanted to just have 30 seconds with him to say how much he has been filling my imagination since I was a kid — I’ve seen all of his films, and what he gave me as a kid filled my imagination, and really inspired me. So, I was at the Oscars, my mom was accompanying me, and throughout the event I would see him in this place or that place, but I was too scared to go and talk to him. After the ceremony, there was an amazing party for all of the nominees and winners and the presenters. As soon as we stepped into the party, I told my mom —  “You know what I’m going to do?” and she said: “Go find him.” I walked around the party, and when I found him he was in a discussion with Daniel Day Lewis. So, I waited about 20 feet away or so, crossed my arms, and just stared at him, waiting for my opening. Eventually we had a good five minute chat. It was amazing talking to him about films. At the end of the conversation, he looked at me and said — “Alright, now go make movies.”

That moment was one of the most important moments of my life. That night, when I went back to my hotel, I knew I was going to write my first feature and that it was going to be 1:54. Three years later, I had the script.

What was the casting process?

I started writing the film with Antoine Antoine Olivier Pilon in mind for the character of Tim. I’d seen him in another film, and also interviewed him for another project — when he was about to do a bungy jump. Tim’s a very shy person, but when he was about to jump I saw a different guy, he was standing tall, he was ready to take on the world. Right from that moment, I started writing the character of Tim with Antoine in mind. He later went on to star in Mommy for Xavier Dolan, who’s a fantastic director.

Sophie Nelisse, who plays Jennifer, was in The Book Thief directed by Brian Percival. When Sophie came into the room for the audition, she was amazing. We were doing the scene where she slaps Tim’s face. I wanted a very strong female personality, and when she came into the room she was so in character and slapped Antoine so hard you could see her hand imprinted on his face.

Then Lou-Pascal Tremblay, who plays Jeff, is a very sweet boy — the total opposite from his character. I saw him in a bunch of different films and met him before as well. Every time I saw him act, he always disappeared behind his character, and when I saw him in the audition he was it, he owned it, he really became Jeff.

What were some of the unexpected challenges you encountered, writing and directing your first feature-length film?

For the championship scene, the track season had ended when we were filming so there weren’t any more track championships. We had to create one. My track team helped by bringing in people from all across Quebec.

Filming in a real school was definitely a challenge as well, but I think it improves the film.

My actors had a ton of physical challenges too. They had to train and run so much. They were physically exhausted, and in many cases emotionally exhausted too.

Is it your view that young people today have a harder time with bullying than previous generations because of the role that social media plays in our lives?

Bullying has always been there — it existed before social media and will exist after social media is gone and replaced with something else. But I think social media has definitely affected it. Ten years ago, when you were a victim of bullying, when you went back home after school you had a break, there was a pause until you went back to school the next morning. Nowadays, it follows you in your back pocket wherever you go, and it can always be there. Also, it’s not just one person who sees it, hundreds of people can see it. People you don’t even know can see it.

When social media didn’t exist, when it was only twenty people laughing at you in school, it was still really hard and you took it personally. Now, it’s the same thing, but it can also go to 1000 people in a matter of seconds. Once a video is on the internet, you can’t take it back. It’s basically there forever. People can take that video and republish it under a new title and spread it even further. That’s how quickly things can get out of hand, and plenty of adults are unaware of it.

Bullying has evolved, but the thought process about it hasn’t. The it’s-just-a-joke mentality has always been present. Maybe for the bully it’s just a joke, but to the person on the receiving end it’s not a joke at all.

There’s some moral ambiguity with the character of Tim. Was that difficult to achieve through the writing and filmmaking process?

In high school, you don’t have all the answers. I’ve heard some people say Jeff is homophobic, or a gay hater, and I say he’s not because he doesn’t know Tim is gay. Tim didn’t even know he was gay himself. He’s questioning himself, which is part of the high school journey. Some people will question themselves throughout the whole high school experience. But, the problem is that there’s a part of the high school experience where you don’t want to be different. In college, you want to be different and find your individuality, but in high school you want to be like your friends.

High school is a part of life where you question yourself. With Tim, he realises he has feeling for Francis, and he betrays his best friend at one point and it weighs heavily on him. It was a subject matter that I really wanted to address in a very honest way.

What response have you had to the film so far?

It’s been very positive. People have been shocked and stunned. I don’t think they anticipate the story. When you think that it’s going one way, it goes a completely other way. They feel Tim’s pressure. And then, the ending stuns people with where the story goes. It has created a dialogue which is amazing.

People have been asking why there isn’t any music in the end credits. It was a choice we made, because we wanted to leave the audience with all of the emotions they were feeling. When you play the end credits with music, it gives the audience a chance to release the tension or energy, and I didn’t want that with 1:54. I wanted to leave the viewer with all of it.

Parents always ask, why didn’t the parents in the film do anything? I always point out that they tried to. Tim’s dad did try to talk to him many times, but he didn’t know how. There are plenty of ‘Tims’ in the world who, when you try to talk to them, you get shut down. That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep pushing the discussion, and it shouldn’t feel like a catch-22 that you can’t do anything. You have to open up a dialogue, even if you don’t know how, and I’m so thrilled that this is the reaction the film is evoking.

What do you hope that people feel when watching 1:54?

I want the audience to really get into Tim’s situation — total immersion. I want the audience to be Tim, and go through what he’s going through. I want them to feel the extremes that he is being pushed to.

1:54 is distributed by Breaking Glass Pictures.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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