The directors and writers whose shorts receive Academy Awards nominations have proven promising filmmakers. It’s looking like Yan England will be no exception. His short film Henry is nominated in the live-action category and centers on an aging concert pianist who’s slowly losing his memory. England has been a successful TV and film actor in Canada since he was eight-years-old and is ecstatic about his nomination. Henry is only his second film, if you can believe it. I had the pleasure to spend an evening with Yan at Swingers Café in Los Angeles. On Superbowl Sunday it was empty, and we were able to rant about film while others did about football. Over a cup of tea, I learned what inspired him to create a film about Alzheimer’s and how he made it all happen.
ATW: Tell me about the moment you found out about your Oscar!
England: I’m a host on radio station in Montreal, Canada. I knew I was going to follow live on Oscars.org for the nominations. My family came in, and we started watching live on the Internet while I was on the radio. All of the sudden, I hear my mom; she yells and starts crying, and the last name is “Henry, Yan England.” I couldn’t even believe it. I’ve been watching the Oscars since I was 5 years old. It’s so surreal; you see it on your television and think, wouldn’t it be awesome if one day I could get the chance? So I guess it’s going to happen now this year! You’re extremely happy and crying and hugging your family, and you don’t know what to do! You go through a series of emotions.
ATW: They released the shorts in theaters on February 1st, which is amazing! I had some friends who saw Henry in Dallas. We were all so surprised when we looked you up! This very young guy is making this movie about this very old man. So where did the seed of this story start?
England: It’s in honor of my grandfather. He lived ten lives in one. He was born in England and was a part of the intelligence service in the Second World War. He was stationed in Italy, and he met my grandmother there. He fell in love, and then he became a film producer in Italy, moved to Canada and he had this beautiful, amazing life. When he was 92, I went to coffee with him and my mom in Montreal. He looked at us and he asked us if he had been a good man. It’s in the film now; it’s the last line. That’s where it all originated. I realized that for a man who had lived such a beautiful life, he couldn’t remember so many parts of it, he couldn’t remember if he had been a good man…
ATW: And that’s ultimately what matters the most.
England: Yes, what mattered was have I done good things? Sometimes I was his grandson, an hour later I could be a man he had met during the Second World War in Italy. That’s what it is with Alzheimer’s, with dementia. You’re traveling through souvenirs, memories and all. I wanted to explore Henry, from his point of view; try to figure it all out through the love of his life, which is Maria in the film.
ATW: I enjoyed that when watching the film, I saw you as a director/writer and then Henry all in one. You’re his consciousness, and he is his body; trapped. There’s a duality. Everyone has his or her own view of what Alzheimer’s is. After you made this movie, how did your ideas of the disease evolve?
England: Well, a lot of things did. First of all, the whole movie came from pocket. I paid for everything. But I called people that I knew from different productions I had worked on over the years.
ATW: Your cinematographer is great! Claudine Sauve! You worked with her on your first short Moi.
England: She’s very talented, and she jumped in! They’ve all given me their talent and towards the purpose of this film; to the passion of cinema. Overall, it took me a year. I had fifty-something people working with me at different stages over the course of the year. This isn’t counting the extras! That scene that happens in Italy, they’re all friends of my sister's and family and what not. There’s also this amazing actor Gerard Poirier who plays the lead role. He’s had a sixty-year-old career and is huge in Quebec. When we shot the film, he was 83 years old and he’s in every single scene. We were shooting from 6am into the night and every time I would ask him, ‘For the rehearsal, stay put, relax, I’ll go through the motion” and he’d say ‘No, no, no little boy. Just give me time to walk to the first position, and I'll be good.’ He is the definition of professionalism. If you look up ‘professionalism’ on Wikipedia, it will say his name.
ATW: Is he a theatrical actor? He has such a presence. He could play King Lear!
England: He’s done it all! TV, film and tons of theatre. Also, you know, people say You’re nominated for an Academy Award! The way I see it, it’s the film that’s nominated. That’s the beautiful thing about cinema. If you take one person out, the film wouldn’t be what it is right now. I’m 100% sure about that. You can have the best script in the world. If the actors aren’t good, it’s not going to happen. Everyone has an important job. From the gaffer to the director, cinematographer to the producer; everyone is there to make a great film. I mean, I’m not talking about mine, but just in general. Everyone comes together and says Let’s make this thing!
ATW: How did the process of the script start?
England: I wrote a few drafts, and then I worked with a script doctor. I believe at some point you’re too close to your story. You need this bird’s eye view that will read it and ask you questions. If you don’t have an answer, it’s not 100% clear. It took the script further. And then there was a time I was off set for a month and a half in 2011 and I knew I needed 5 days to shoot this film. There was a lot to be shot in a short amount of time. My mom kept telling me That’s great you want to make a picture about your grandfather, but you know that’s big. It’s a complex story that you’ve written. And I’d say I know, but I want to do it! And she’d say I know, Yan, but I just want to make sure you know it’s big. But we worked really hard on scouting locations. I wanted it to feel like it took take place anywhere in the world.
ATW: I definitely felt that. It was universal.
England: Great! Ya, it’s just the same as making a feature film. That part was scary and on the first day of shooting, I got there really early, at 4am and people were calling in at 5. I see trucks coming in, and these were the trucks I had rented with all the equipment. I see them 1, 2…and I’m wondering if there’s another shoot here. And then I’m like Oh, this is mine! And the stress started coming, but then everyone showed up and it was just a team effort.
ATW: You’ve been many different members of that “team,” being an actor for most of your life. There are moments in your short that have brilliant specificity. When Maria touches Henry’s face at the end! How did you construct these certain moments, what is your process when interacting with the actors?
England: There wasn’t a lot of improve. They had the script, certain things had to be explained, some concepts needed to be thought out so the actors would understand what was going on. First of all, I let the actors do it. The actors make a choice, they run with it, and we’ll go with that. It’ll be the core of what they’re bringing to the table. They were usually pretty much right on. It was mostly about tweaking. With Formula One cars, you tweak one little thing and another and another and at some point you get exactly what you need. It’s what you do with your actors. But definitely don’t be afraid to tell them when it’s good. Actors don’t have that perspective because you can’t act and be like I’m good at the same time. As a director, you can talk to one actor, and that actor needs only one word. Others, psychology wise, you need to approach them differently. Every actor is different. And that’s what is so much fun as a director! It’s all about adjusting all the time.
ATW: The question I always love to ask is about your writing nest. Do you have a certain place you have to write or environment?
England: First of all, I need to shut down phones and the imessage or what not. Once you jump in, you don’t want any distraction. And music, I write with music all the time. I put music on and see if it’ll trigger something, a note or something. Mainly I write in my room at my desk. But it’s always a place I can [he exhales in yogi fashion].
You’d never guess Yan wrote in such a simple, clinical setting, because his energy is wonderfully colorful, although the music explains a lot. He speaks in a lyrical nature, using his hands to communicate and in moments where he’s passionate about the subject he’s discussing. It’s not hard to see he’s an actor. But it’s just as easy to believe in his future as a director and writer. It seems Yan already has a devoted team of fellow filmmakers, an enthusiasm for storytelling and the work ethic to take him to the Academy Awards and beyond.