Opinion » Alta States

Conrad Schapansky – The Man From Carrot River



'All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.'

- TE Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia)

He's a plumber and a gas fitter. Grew up in a tiny little prairie burg in a remote corner of eastern Saskatchewan. Didn't see a mountain until he was 21. Didn't get to Whistler until the turn of the new century. So what gives? How the heck did a 40-year-old mountain-bike fanatic with zero experience in movie-making ever become the darling of Whistler's homegrown filmmaker scene?

I mean, talk about improbable. Talk about forging your own path. Still, spend a little time with this year's 72hr. Filmmaker Showdown winner and it all starts to make sense. Unconventional. Imaginative. Curious. Disciplined. Competitive. Fresh. Funny. Irreverent. Cheeky even. They're all part of the Conrad Schapansky zeitgeist. He obviously understands what hard work's all about. Knows what it takes to get things done. And yet he also knows how to have fun with it all. Maybe that's why he inspires his crew and cast to raise their game along with his.

There's nothing easy about filmmaking — particularly the kind that Conrad's gotten involved with at Whistler. The ultimate all-in team sport, it provides ideal conditions for Murphy's Law to thrive and proliferate. In other words, whatever can go wrong will probably go wrong when you can least afford it. It takes enormous patience to direct a film under these conditions. Unlimited optimism as well. And a vision that can blast through obstacles like a laser through rock.

All this, of course, while working with a bare-bones budget that usually requires a lot more creative solution-making than with conventional big-money efforts. It's like climbing without a rope, riding a new line in scary terrain, swimming out past the reef. Very easy for things to get out of control... fast!

But none of this seems to faze the tattooed filmmaker. It's almost like he enjoys the rush of striding into the unknown. Of not knowing, exactly, how it's all going to turn out. And given that he's entirely self-taught — "Never attended a film class," he says, "Never cracked a book about filmmaking" — it's doubly impressive that he keeps attracting the judges' attention each time he enters a Whistler-based film contest.

OK. So maybe there are only two Whistler-based film contests — the aforementioned Showdown and the inimitable B-Grade Horror Fest — still, director Schapansky is the only movie-maker to have won both! And won them in style.

Did you see his film, Katch Up, at the festival this year? A silent, black and white flic starring Fish Boulton as a washed-up Charlie Chaplinesque snowboarder, the five minute long Katch Up, in my humble estimation, towered over the other nine films competing that night. And for a movie shot, edited and rendered in the space of three days, well, I'd say the production values were pretty dang high.

So who is this guy Schapansky? What makes him tick? And how the heck did the lifelong flatlander ever wash up on Whistler's shores?

"I was born and raised in a tiny place called Carrot River," he begins. Smiles at my incredulous look. "It's a farming town of 1,200 people," he continues. "Right on the crest between the prairies and the Canadian Shield. A great place to grow up..."

Really? "Really," he insists. "Because there were so few young people around, there were no cliques at school." He laughs. "There were no Goth groups to join, you know. No bullies to appease. Everyone was on their own."

He pauses. Takes a long breath. "I see kids growing up in the city, in big schools and stuff. I mean, it's not easy to be yourself — to find your own voice — with all that peer pressure operating. But in Carrot River? You had to find yourself. There was no one else." More laughter. "Seriously though, I spent a lot of time in my head during those years."

But sport was also a big deal for the young Schapansky. And one sport appealed to him in particular. "I played hockey my whole life," he says. "I'm a very competitive guy, you know, and hockey really brought out the competitor in me."

Conrad might still be living in Carrot River, playing oldtimers' hockey and happily transitioning into his middle years, had not a random event totally changed his life's path. "It was a mountain bike video that finally did it," he admits. "I was watching this film and suddenly it hit me. 'Holy crap. That looks like fun. Gotta get me one of those things.'" He smiles. "So I immediately went out and bought myself a Giant Yukon. I think I paid $500 for it..."

The year was 1993. Schapansky was 20 years old. "Well, you know, I took my new bike out to the local gravel pits and stuff," he says. Shrugs ruefully. "But the mountains are a long ways from Carrot River." A big sigh. "Besides, most of my friends kept teasing me about it. 'Where's the motor on that thing,' they kept asking..."

It was time to hit the road. Go west young man, said the adverts. And Conrad heeded the call. Ended up living in Prince George for seven years. "You know how it goes. I got a job at a local sawmill, made good money, bought a house. And stayed. Great terrain for biking there... and with some good people to ride with too."

He didn't make it to Whistler until 2001. And then only because he was visiting his buddy, Trevor Doerksen. But it was love at first sight. "I was, like, 'Wow! This is too much. I gotta live here.'" So that's what he did. He went home, quit his job, packed his bags and moved to Whistler.

But it wasn't sliding on snow that turned him on. It was riding his bike on Whistler's wild trails and crazy lines. "You know, when it comes to mountain biking, this place is about as exciting as it gets anywhere in the world. And I had a real passion for the sport. I mean, a dream day for me back then was getting up in the morning and riding my ass off until dark!" Whistler's newest resident embraced the biker lifestyle with both arms. "Riding was all I wanted to do," he admits. "I had some money saved up, and I sold my truck so I didn't have to work right away," He smiles. "I lived pretty simply in those days..."

And filmmaking? "That's a good story too," he says. "I was volunteering with the WB events department (to get a pass), and one of the women I worked with said 'You should go to this film event tonight. It's called the 72-hour Showdown. And it's a lot of fun.' It was my first year in Whistler. I wasn't going out much, you know. So I thought 'Yeah. Why not?'" He laughs. "I think I got one of the last tickets..."

That was the year Ace Mackay-Smith won the event with her animated Barbie Doll movie — a classic! And the friendly volunteer who steered Conrad in the Showdown's direction? That was Ace's mum, Winnie. "I remember watching Ace's acceptance speech: 'I couldn't do it without my brother Stu', she told the crowd..." He pauses. 'Wow! That totally opened my brain. So much talent in one family."

Conrad was hooked. "Next up was the B-Grade Horror Festival," he says. "And I went out and got tickets for that too. I was in awe, man. I'd seen all these people around town before. I mean, these were just guys hanging out and having fun making films. 'Damn!' I thought, 'I wanna be a part of this...'"

It wasn't long after that local filmmaker Angie Nolan got in touch with him. "She called me up on the phone," he says, "and offered me a leading role in her upcoming movie. I think I accepted before she'd even finished her sentence."

The film — a twisted Romeo and Juliette tale — went on to earn Runner-Up honours at the 2007 Showdown. "I was totally stoked, man. I was vibrating. The night they showed the film I could hardly breathe." He stops. Sighs. "I hadn't made the film — I'd only starred in it. But that didn't matter. I was so excited that week that I could barely sleep at night..."

He premiered his own first film at the 2008 B-Grade Festival — and finished second. The next year he won (he would earn the title again in 2011). So what makes him so good? "I've got a very analytical mind," says the newlywed (he and wife Sabine married last summer). "I listen to the crowd, pay attention to when they laugh, when they gasp in fear." He stops speaking for a beat. "I want to make a film that I like and that I'm proud of, for sure. But I also want my films to captivate viewers. I want their full attention from beginning to end."

And you know what? He usually gets it.

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