Chemical Engineer turned Filmmaker tells the untold story of life and layoffs in the field.
By Krystle Holdegaard, photos provided by Gillian McKercher
Circle of Steel debuted at the Calgary International Film Festival this past September. The film follows a young engineer in the field during the massive layoffs in the oil and gas industry in 2014 and 2015. With confusion and uncertainty circling the industry, local writer and director Gillian McKercher’s goal was to bridge the gap and tell the story of what it’s like to go through layoffs in the field and show the impact layoffs have on so many people on a personal level.
In a bigger sense, the film has a few key messages it hopes to get across to viewers. Her first goal was to relay show that professional ambivalence among millennials is a major issue that companies need to address. Her second goal was to show that people are worth sympathizing with, regardless of their background. Her final goal was to prove to people that they shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
McKercher has always had a passion for film, but her family was unfamiliar with what it meant to work in the arts. As both of her parents are geologists, McKercher took it upon herself to go to school to become an engineer. She graduated in 2013 from the University of Calgary with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and started working in the industry at ConocoPhillips, at which she previously interned as a student.
Always knowing she wanted to make a film, McKercher knew she had to fall upon on personal experiences unknown to the average person to create a good story. After working as a Project Engineer, McKercher moved into a different position that she wasn’t happy with, which ultimately pushed her to seriously pursue her passion for film. With talk of layoffs looming over her and her colleagues, McKercher started working on a script about the industry and layoffs…. And suddenly she was the one who experienced being laid off and took that as an opportunity to be more focused on the project.
Although she didn’t go to film school or have a film background, McKercher wanted people to know that she was serious about the project. Basically starting over in a new career, McKercher didn’t know how to properly write a story and didn’t have a support system or mentor to show her how to do it. “Being an engineer, there are so many resources and so much mentorship available,” explains McKercher. “As a filmmaker, I didn’t have access to that [community] yet.”
There were times when McKercher struggled with the script,as she was focused on telling her personal story in the industry. Once she received some advice from a friend who told her, “If it’s not a documentary,you don’t need to follow your life,” she was able to pull characteristics from other people that best fit the story, and created the characters you see today.“It not only came from my experiences, but those of my friends, colleagues and people who I’ve heard about.”
The biggest turning point in the project was when she received some advice from local filmmaker, Ted Stenson. He graduated from the Master of Fine Arts Theatre program at the University of Calgary with a degree in playwriting. “I shared the script with him, he gave some really good feedback, and then I continued to write and send him the script,” McKercher recalls.
Throughout the process, invaluable insight and support also came from experienced personal like Executive Producer Gary Burns and Producer Guillaume Carlier.
As the script moved forward, the characters started to develop into their own people, and as they developed, a variety of themes and emotions were sewn in.
Unlike other industries, going out into the field is a different experience that not many people know or understand. You are out in the middle of nowhere spending 12 hours a day with people you probably wouldn’t spend so much time with under any other circumstance. The crew you work with transforms from just colleagues, to a tight-knit family that looks out for each other.
One of the most difficult traps McKercher found herself in was focusing on the main purpose of the film: what it’s like to go through layoffs. “I would often find myself getting trapped and thinking ‘Oh, well it’s just a privilege to even have a job.’ It was a roller coaster of emotions. Going through layoffs gave me an uneasy expectant feeling, and made me want to paint a picture of what it’s like. The most universal thing about the film, which many people can relate to are the questions: ‘Am I happy where I’m working?’‘If I don’t get laid off, is that a good thing?’ or vice versa, ‘If I do get laid off, what am I going to do?’”
The next step was to secure funding. Most Canadian independent films receive some form of government support through organizations such as TeleFilm or the National Film Board. “I attempted to go through Telefilm, but I was unsuccessful. I also attempted to go through Women in the Director’s Chair, but I was unsuccessful there too,” says McKercher.
When asked if she thought about raising money through crowdfunding she remembers how her level of experience affected her decisions.“I didn’t go through Kickstarter because I felt that I was very untested. A lot of the reasons that I was rejected for funding previously was because people thought that I was too inexperienced, or that my story was too ambitious for the budget.”
It was not until she applied for the Calgary Film Centre Project Lab (which was run through the Calgary Economic Development at the time) that she found success. She received 65 per cent of her funding through Project Lab, 30 per cent through the Screen-Based Production Grant through the Government of Alberta, and the rest through private investment.
Once the script was where she wanted it to be and funding was in place, McKercher made the decision to hire local talent for the production of the film. Because of budget limitations, she had to cast locally,but says “it turned out that we were very fortunate that we could find a lot of the people who we needed locally.”
While comparing the film industry in Calgary to Toronto, it got McKercher thinking about the industry that started the project. It got her thinking about the context of oil and gas and how it drives innovation. “There are thousands of people all over the world, doing the best of their ability,working together and being competitive as well. Whereas the film world here is very small, and it’s not to say that it’s not passionate, or innovative or competitive, but it’s just so small.”
She also received “thousands of dollars in kind” as the crew that worked on Circle of Steel also worked on productions such as Fargo,Wynonna Earp and The Revenant. “So the quality of the crews is world class,” she exclaims.
McKercher and her team shot the film in 16 days, over the course of three weeks, and could not have happened without her first assistant director, Emily Renner Wallace. “She has worked on so many huge productionslike Fargo and Wynonna Earp, so she brought the professionalism from multi-million dollar television shows to our project. She is the reason we could do 16 days as effectively as we did.”
For the music, Fiver (a musician named Simone Schmidt, from Ontario) was contacted before the film was funded to write a song. “The song during the opening credits is an original song that was written for the film.One of the weaknesses as a director was that the music always came last, so it was always the weakest link. My goal with this project was to follow examples like Lord of the Rings and Tron and incorporate music right from the get-go,” McKercher recalls.
The rest of the music features artists from Alberta. “We actually have so much good music in Alberta, and I think people just don’t think to use it. I wanted to use musicians that I had met, and felt it felt representative to use music from here. ”
The film was shot at CL Ranch, (which has hosted other productions such as Heartland, Hell on Wheels and Shanghai Noon) and areas in and around Calgary, and the editing and music recording was done at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta. “It was our first time doing it, so we didn’t know that our timeline was really fast to shoot, and then to edit it and then to finish it. Considering the editing process, applying for festivals and marketing, I never knew before I did it that most people don’t do it in such a short amount of time. It’s not really industry standard to make a film, like we did, in under nine months.”
Since the oil and gas industry is a hot topic politically, McKercher did her best to make this film more about humanizing the industry and less about the politics. “Often times, people are forgotten about. It feels like a huge organism that is very opaque, with companies and political parties attached to it. But actually, it’s a huge ecosystem of thousands of people who are affected on a very personal level. So if you can humanize the story, it makes it a lot easier for people to talk in a way that is not as vitriolic,” she explains.
Circle of Steel won the Audience Favourite award at the Calgary International Film Festival, was the closing feature film of the Reel World Film Festival in Toronto and was nominated for an EDA award at the Whistler Film Festival. The film will available online in 2019.