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Hugh Gibson Interview (The Stairs)

A still from the film The Stairs where a Black man with scars on his face wears a light blue t-shirt and looks upward toward a light.

Hugh Gibson is a Canadian filmmaker whose first feature film, The Stairs (2016), is a documentary about harm reduction practices for drug users and sex workers in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. We sat down with Hugh in his apartment to discuss the film, which premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and will have its theatrical debut at TIFF Lightbox on Friday, October 7th with a special panel discussion occurring on Wednesday the 12th.

On Wednesday October 12th, there will be a special panel discussion of the film following the 6:40pm screening, featuring one of the film’s subjects, Roxanne Smith; Toronto city councillors Joe Cressy and Gord Perks (both head Toronto’s Drug Strategy); and Raffi Balian, Project Coordinator of South Riverdale CHC, which is one of 3 approved supervised injection sites in Toronto. The panel will be moderated by Toronto Star columnist Joe Fiorito.

This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron.

The Seventh Art: I’m not that familiar with the East end of Toronto despite living here for thirteen years.

Hugh Gibson: Well, I’ve lived here my whole life and I had never really been in Regent Park — that I can remember — before going down to see about doing these educational videos in 2011.

Is that how this project started?

Yeah. In spring of 2011, I had just finished A Place Called Los Pereyra (2009). That was one that I produced, a feature made in Argentina. So I was looking to get back into directing, which is primarily what I do, but that film had taken about four years to make. It was a large challenge and I was happy with the result, but you could say I was looking for something closer to home. So when someone called me to say there’s this health agency and they’re looking for someone to do some educational videos in Regent Park, I was like, “Yeah, sure. Cool.” I had probably just finished watching The Wire and I knew just barely anything about what they wanted, but one was a program about sex workers and the other was a program about drug users, and that’s about all I knew. They needed a video about how they service those clients. I wanted to find out more. I had done quite a few video projects over the years that were involving, say, working for non-profits, working with subjects that are maybe under-represented, that kind of thing. I went in for the interview at Regent Park Community Health Centre and they wanted someone to do a video. The first one was about a program that they had called The Safer Stroll, which was safer strategies for sex workers. But they wanted to hire a woman and I said, “That’s fine, I completely understand.” And they said, “But we want a second person to do another video on this other program we have called C.U.P., the Crack Users Project. Would you be interested in that?” So we talked for an hour about what that video might be and how we might go about it and they said, “You know what, we want you to do both interviews.” It was the best job interview I ever had.

Over the course of that spring, I set about meeting a lot of people in that community. One of the first people was Sushi, who you see in the film. Getting to know that community and kind of what they were about, because I had no idea. I spent quite a bit of time there, researching and finding a way in to make something authentic, which is really what they wanted. The whole idea was that the programs they did were harm reduction friendly. What is harm reduction? I had no idea what that meant. It means that they have non-judgmental approaches to care and working with the street-involved community to try and engage them, and provide health outcomes in a way that is different from services you might get at the Salvation Army or other places where if you’re thought to be using, you’re barred. Or where the goal is very overtly to get you off drugs, get you into rehab. These guys were saying there’s another way to do it and that’s to keep the person as healthy and safe as possible under the circumstances. The goal is not to get the person off drugs, they want to prevent the spread of diseases, primarily HIV and Hep C, which are rampant in that community. They have ways of doing it: handing out condoms for sex workers. In the case for users, providing these kits like you see in the film: safe crack kits, smoking kits, safe injecting kits. Providing equipment that is sterile that can prevent sharing of needles, sharing of pipes… a screen to put in a crack pipe, as opposed to other things that people will resort to when desperate, such as steel wool and then inhale that, fucking up your lungs. You see in the film a vile of clean water to put in the syringe and that’s so you’re not caught outside somewhere, resorting to use puddle water or water out of a toilet.

They wanted these videos to show what the organisation did, there’s misconception, and to try and get funding because their funding was threatened. Think back to that time, Rob Ford had just come into office and he was not pro-harm reduction. The Harper government was extremely anti-harm reduction; they tried to shut down Insite for years and among other things, blocked other, similar places from opening, including in Toronto. The way the centre went about it was really interesting and held over into the film I made later: their idea was that the clients would speak for themselves in these videos and basically they saw that I was curious — that I wanted to know more — and I think they trusted I would spend time with the people involved in the programs and that I would see. That would be the best approach. So from the beginning it was not about the head of the organisations saying rehearsed lines, it was me one-on-one in a room with a client — people who had been through the program, who had seen it all and been through street involvement for many years. People who would say in their own words — completely unrehearsed and sharing their experiences — why these things were important to them. That was my way in and their own way to take ownership over their own storytelling. Through doing that, I quickly realised that I was seeing and hearing things that I wondered why I hadn’t see this perspective in other films. There’s so much out there already — some of it very good — about drugs, drug-use, sex work, street life. The Wire is but one of many examples, of which I’m a fan of, but there was a lot of things I was seeing and hearing that I hadn’t before. Then I met [the film’s subjects] Marty and Greg, and I wondered why I have not seen someone like that before. I’m sure there’s a Marty in every city. There’s nothing in this film, although it’s about a specific neighbourhood, that I feel is specific to Toronto. I feel like there’s a Regent Park in probably every city in North America.

Is that why you resisted explaining what Regent Park is in the film? If you’re an international viewer, you may not even know it’s Toronto.

Yeah, I don’t think it matters. There was a temptation, definitely, to explain “This is this place and this is the other place a few blocks away.” Even if you’re from Toronto or especially if you’re not, they don’t know what the fuck Regent Park is and it really doesn’t matter. Is it important in [Frederick Wiseman’s] In Jackson Heights (2015) that this is a block away from this other thing — what part of New York it’s from? I don’t know. The importance is that this is a neighbourhood where this is going on. I wouldn’t extend the Wiseman movie metaphor beyond that, but I think all the issues contained in the movie are particular to this neighbourhood. I felt that way as I was working and I felt this way for a while, because the educational videos actually went and screened at quite a number of conferences for social workers in different countries. They were always received really well, people were commenting on how honest it was and closely it reflected the experience of users. I went to New York last summer and met with this peer group at the Harm Reduction Coalition, which you could say is the main organisation on the East Coast of the U.S. for harm reduction activities. I met with a group there of about twenty or so people of the same age and background of Marty, Roxanne and Greg, and showed them a work in progress cut of forty-five minutes to an hour. I asked them, “I feel like these characters and stories would resonate elsewhere, but I want you to tell me — and be very honest, because if it sucks I want to know now while I can fix it.” They didn’t know me, they had no reason to cut me a break, and I sat and watched it with them and it was fucking incredible. They were laughing through the thing, “I can’t believe he said that, it’s so true.” When Marty has the thing about his Yankees cap, that was very popular, but also a lot of other things. One example would be when Marty talks about his anger issues and how he would say, “Fuck it, let’s fight.” One guy was like, “If that motherfucker isn’t from New York, I don’t know what.” [Laughs]. It was an indication that yes, I was on the right track.

Speaking of the work in progress cut, what was the editing process like for this film? When you’re shooting it, you can’t necessarily be looking for a narrative, but you need to hope that there’s something that makes sense as a through-line.

That’s a good way of putting it, actually. I definitely had things I was looking for from an inception stage. I finished the second educational video about C.U.P. about Marty and Greg, that sort of stuff. When I made that video, I knew there were things I wanted to get into more and that was one of the film’s impetus. These people really want to share their experiences and I want to go deeper. Greg talking about this thing with the police [that is covered in the film], which was still relatively new at that point — that was not appropriate to include in the educational video, but that was something I followed over the course of time. In general, I thought the best approach would be to make this a process-driven film, which means shoot a little, edit a little, shoot a little, edit a little — find it as you go and trust that you have amazing characters. As I learned through doing the other videos, spending time with them and focusing on storytelling, you’re going to find things, it will reveal itself as it went along. Eventually, I reached a point where I know what the film is and I know how it’s going to be structured. In order to complete the film I want, I know I have A, B and D, and I still need C and E. I went about trying to find that, but in terms of an ending… [Laughs] For a long time I wondered what that would be, but I trusted that when it comes, I would know, I would see it. When it happened, I knew that was the end of the movie.

How did you know how it would be structured? It seems like you group certain themes or subject matters, like when all the characters share their upbringing — it comes a bit later in the film. Were you associating subject matter and then how would you decide where in the film it would happen?

There was lot of playing around with orders. Definitely it was a deliberate choice to group the “origin stories” as I refer to them. Trial and error is the easiest way to put it. Another thing that was challenging and time consuming in editing, because of the volume of material and because a lot of it was in my opinion very strong, there were a lot of ways you could go about structuring the film. There were a lot of different types of films I could have made with this material, especially because it was so loose from the inception stage. It was focusing down, cutting and tweaking, but definitely there was a lot of moving different parts around. It was a long process.

I found it interesting that those origin stories aren’t at the beginning; it seems like that would be easier. The fact that it’s delayed almost seems like as an audience member you develop a familiarity with the characters without the bias of knowing that information.

Yeah, certain things I thought were important to come first: establishing what harm reduction is or a time-frame for the movie, putting the 2011 material for the most part together at the beginning. I definitely tried starting with 2011 a few times. I felt that the personal stuff worked better later on and it was more important to establish other things earlier: who they are in their own present, as opposed from starting out from their own beginning. I notice this in watching a lot of documentaries over the years while editing, the way of establishing the main storyline at the beginning and then going back to get context for the people involved. Not that I wanted to replicate that model, I don’t think that I did, but it was interesting to me that so many followed a sort of pat structure — mostly American, almost uniformly the big American films that you would see at Sundance, Hot Docs or on Netflix, which was where I saw them.

I imagine that you’re worried about what you present and how it contributes to an audience psychoanalyzing the subjects, reading potentially too much into anything, and I’m curious how you decided what to include in representing the subjects. For instance, with Marty you had maybe the most access and a good scene for this is the one with his hats and t-shirts — you get an idea of his character outside of drug use and the community, someone who likes to collect.

That scene ended up serving up quite a lot of purposes beyond what I may have intended at the time of shooting. It was a way into showing where he lives and what’s important to him now, what his coping mechanisms are, you might say. How he measures his own progress in terms of tangible things. But also in terms of structuring the movie, I thought it was great to have funny scenes and that was among the funniest ones. I like the Spring Breakers element to the t-shirts and the shoes [laughs].

I find for a film like this a thesis is kind of important at a level because it’s a subject matter that you’re showing people that they may not have seen before, but you also don’t want to ascribe a specific meaning. Was that something that you’re worried about — the degree of how obvious things are or not, because you’re so close to the material?

Yes, I’d say that I was really concerned with that stuff and in fact always am. I always end up wondering, sweating the details so to speak, maybe over-thinking things. That’s something I’ve heard on more than one occasion. Maybe it was [producer and documentary filmmaker] Alan [Zweig] who said toward the end, “All those details you think are so important, people aren’t going to give a fuck.” He may not have used those exact words, but I think it goes back to establishing the neighbourhood specifics. Some of those details aren’t that important. In terms of being overly didactic, some of the reasons I wanted to make the film in the beginning were more overtly about showing people this issue, more issue-based as opposed to character-driven. That was something that happened more in editing, focusing more on the storytelling aspect and characters, slowly stripping away — it was long editing process — those scenes that were very good, I felt, but were less about themselves than… maybe there was an element of being too preachy. For example, there were a number of scenes about homelessness as an issue: Roxanne saying that the city says they can’t give out sleeping bags because it promotes homelessness. A statement like that fits in with the movie and ideas of harm reduction — there’s opposition to give out crack kits, “Aren’t you condoning drug-use, condoning illegal activity?” There’s certainly an argument that exists for that, but those scenes felt too preachy and too removed from the experience of the characters — even when it was Marty talking more about living in the stairwells. Or he was talking about housing in Toronto and how they have these condos coming in, but what happened to moving all the people back in that they moved out, or where is the mixed-income housing? Stuff that is very important to me personally and was very compelling if you see it in an isolated case, but it was a challenge in editing and I stripped it away in the end.

One thing that occurred to me the second time I watched it was that while these organisations have given the opportunity for these people to have steady employment and participate in bettering their community, it also keeps them in a space that can trigger drug use. It seems that that idea is strong by the end, but it’s subtle because there’s no scene where someone says this and that’s when I was considering the balance.

I’m really glad you picked up on that, because I had to be satisfied with it being something left unsaid. It was something that I was wondering about through the whole thing. Why don’t they just go do something else? Why put yourself in a situation where you might be triggered? I guess I’m content to let the audience wonder that themselves. Maybe I shouldn’t offer too much in the way of explanations. I guess what’s clear from the film, hopefully, is that they want to give back and they enjoy being part of that community. If they’re separated from that community, it’s like what Roxanne says about going to school. She could furnish yourself for $100 at 3 a.m., she knew all the pimps and drug dealers, but when she went to class, she was just another person in class and she didn’t know how to deal with it. I think that line summarises that question. I think that it applies broadly. It’s their community and they feel comfortable there, where they feel they can make a contribution. Even Greg, why doesn’t he go to the suburbs? He won’t feel comfortable there. I wonder if another unspoken thing — it may be a stretch — would be that one of the values of harm reduction, by employing people who are users as a first point of contact, is that clients who come in know that they aren’t going to be judged or rejected because of their lifestyle. Which is a big problem, that’s why a lot of people who are street involved don’t go see doctors. They wait until an infection becomes something that they have to go to emergency for and it clogs up the system. They live with a lot of stigma and discrimination. Maybe it’s that comfort, the same comfort you would get from talking to one of your peers and being around that community that you’re used to — maybe that’s why they don’t gravitate elsewhere. At least the people in the film, that’s not to say it doesn’t happen to other people who do move on.

The interstitial shots that you’re using, they’re obviously in that area, but how did you decide what you’d shoot? There’s a lot of stairs, quite literally, but there’s also ones of nature. What purposes do they serve for you?

Some of it was to show the passage of time, especially in the case of the construction. I knew that Regent Park was an area that was rife with change and contradiction, complexity. The area was going to be completely transformed, it was happening before my eyes, so I wanted to capture some of it. The fact that they were building these stairs across the street from the Health Centre, it’s like, yeah, obviously I’m going to film that [laughs]. That just came up by spending time there and there’s a lot more that I didn’t use. I liked the construction, I thought it reflected things — not even that I can verbalise what they mean to me, but this idea of transition, which the characters are going through in their own lives, the city, that neighbourhood is unrecognisable now from when I started five years ago. Marty, when he’s watching a building coming down, where is his place in all this? Or Sushi looking at the condos earlier in the film. “I put in an application to move there,” then looking at the clouds going by. Is something passing them by because they’re a little older? Maybe there’s something there that I latched onto there, it came over time. It’s aesthetically pleasing, as well. There’s a bit of Pedro Costa there, too, seeing buildings come down. Definitely thought of that throughout, how could you not?

The nature is in the section of Roxanne talking about growing up in a small town with the Mennonite community. That came from going there one day and looking around for stuff. Like a lot of the movie it wasn’t planned. Actually, the water flowing by that looks like the bayou or something or the bugs, when she’s talking about feeling helpless. There’s her story about her dad the firefighter and her brother’s a pyromaniac. I went to the area she grew up in and found the fire station, thinking so literally, looking for b-roll. I saw the firehouse and it was boring, Roger Deakins couldn’t make it into an interesting shot, but there was little park behind it. I wasn’t even going to shoot the fire house, it wasn’t going to be in; I was the one editing that scene. I looked around this riverbank area, it was nice to walk around. So much of what you’re doing in the movie is looking for unexpected moments, that was my M.O. in terms of storytelling or looking for locations, asking characters what they can tell me that no one knows about you or understands about topic x… you get the idea. This was part of the editing process, too, if I a scene or one line didn’t come as a surprise to anyone, why put it in the movie? Mostly I would take it out. It applied to shooting that scene: you know that they’re talking about fire, you’re thinking about shooting a fire truck, why not shoot water instead? Filming the flowers, it’s a very sad moment, a sad story — how can you extend the idea by filming the beautiful farm fields, which are impressionist image with the sun and mist, something beautiful to contrast a sad story? She grew up in a beautiful area, but even there there was a misery lurking underneath everything.

What about the shot of the white-out?

The white-out was filmed on Rosedale Valley Road. There was more to it originally, the idea of Rosedale Vally Road. I knew that I wanted winter imagery, especially to emphasise the ideas of homelessness and sleeping outdoors — why people would sleep in stairwells. Initially, the white-out was a much larger part of the film. There was a lot of actually phenomenal imagery in that same snowstorm. That particular shot was going through Rosedale Valley Road and I give credit to Cam Woykin, the camera person. I was driving and he stuck his hand out the window with the camera. I think maybe we discussed it before, to keep the camera out there during this winding shot along this road and let the camera be covered in snow. I was quite happy and his hand paid the price.

There are a few moments in the film where the soundtrack drops completely. I found that interesting because it’s rare to have the absence of all sound in a film. 

The one at the end is advance of the photos of Greg coming up and it seemed like a natural choice to me. We were specifically saying in sound editing that quieter is better — go subtle, go low. A good reference point at that point in the process would be Gates of Heaven (1978), the Errol Morris movie. It’s one I came back to late in the editing process, I had not been thinking about in production. I revisited it and had a great respect for it. The fact that there was no music in it — outside of one scene near the end where the character is playing guitar to the camera — and that very frequently there is no sound or the bare minimum of ambience during a montage of gravestones or photos. It’s a very pared down approach that I’m sure had to do with the resources available to him, which is perfectly legitimate, but what you do in those circumstances. I was certainly aware of all those things when I was making this film and tried the best that I could to turn what could be disadvantages into an advantage. One case would be editing the film thinking there would be no music, assuming it from the outset and going quiet. When you have a lot of Marty talking — I would make the joke that he has two volumes: shouting and screaming. When you have so much of that, I think that it’s good to have those quiet moments. I was going for a subtle, understated approach in a lot of cases.

It’s interesting that Marty’s voice is very quiet when he’s using. Maybe it’s the audio mix, but he’s almost hard to hear in that scene.

I thought that it fit, yeah, I liked that. There were little sounds that happened at the time, like the cuckoo clock or whatever his clock sound is or the screeching of his chair when he goes into his closet and you see the t-shirts that he had talked about before and we cut. I like those little sounds. Not a sound thing, but also him polishing his coaster in that scene. I tried to find certain cases where I could use sound creatively. During the white-out scene, there’s ominous, non-diegetic sound. The other one that I liked was the scene where Marty is cutting his potatoes mid-way through the movie, not the first time, but after you see the fridge. We used the sound of the chop, chop, chop and off-screen there is the drip, drip, drip of the faucet. I thought we could emphasise [the dripping], bring the sound up and it would emphasise his feeling of isolation, loneliness and maybe powerlessness. There weren’t a ton of opportunities to do that, but that was one of the few.

Have Marty, Greg, Roxanne and Judy seen the final cut film? 

Greg, Roxanne and Marty have seen it numerous times now. Judy still has not, she’s going to see it [at TIFF Bell Lightbox]. Judy had some really nasty health problems, she had a minor heart attack recently, so she was unable to go to TIFF and go to the screening before that we had privately where they saw it for the first time. Sushi has just gone through a serious health thing, as well, so she hasn’t had the opportunity to see it and I’m hoping she comes. Norma, you see her just a little, she’s seen it a couple times and other people from the community have seen it. They really embraced it. I had a situation with Los Pereyra where some of the subjects reacted extremely negatively toward the film in a very public way and that kind of made me nervous about over-thinking about how they might react — certain scenes that they might pick apart. We filmed for so long and the film’s so raw, I didn’t want to assume that they would respond well or like it. You never know, but it was really, really positive. “How can we do press with you? How can we do the Q&As? You’re not going to have a third Q&A at TIFF? Come on, you have to have one.” I remember Marty thanking me for including certain things, like the photo of his dad or his cat. They were happy with that stuff.

Was there anything that wasn’t included that they thought would be in there?

I thought that they would bring more stuff up. With Roxanne there’s a lot of… she’s had a very colourful life and in terms of focusing down the narrative, no one else that applies to than her. I don’t think it would have made sense to get into some of the other storylines about her past, her travels and her involvement with going on tour with famous rappers and things like that. Another scene was about working in Vancouver when [convicted serial killer Robert] Pickton was at his height and knowing people who had disappeared. It’s very strong material, but in the end I decided that it didn’t fit. So maybe she wondered, but I think she got it, understood why I focused so much on what I did. ❏

Our interview with Hugh Gibson was conducted in September of 2016 and is part of our TIFF 2016 coverage, along with interviews with Jonas Mekas, Cristian Mungiu, Angela Schanelec, Ruth Beckermann, Eduardo Williams, Albert Serra, Sergei Loznitsa, Adrian Sitaru, João Pedro Rodrigues, and Matías Piñeiro.

By Christopher Heron

Christopher Heron is one of the co-founders of The Seventh Art. He's conducted over 60 long-form interviews for the publication, while also writing and cutting several numerous video essays that investigate formal traits in films and filmmakers. He received his MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, where his work explored cinematic representations of urban space with special attention paid to the films of Pedro Costa and Tsai Ming-liang.