The fate of Kirk Caouette's entire film depended on whether he could successfully take a hit from a speeding car.
The former Whistler-snowboard -daredevil-turned-Vancouver stunt double had devoted himself to the production of his feature film debut, Hit 'n Strum, based on a song he wrote after observing a homeless busker named Andre while drinking a double tall Americano at a coffee shop. He penned the script and its accompanying soundtrack, took on the role of director and lead actor — then began to dread the hit.
"I got smoked. It was intense," Caouette says. "I can't lie. I'd been a stuntman for a long, long time. I couldn't get someone to do this for me or I'd be the laughingstock of my community. It was a very stressful day for me because I had my whole film riding on it. If I would've gotten injured, if I would've gotten a concussion, blown my knee, or had to have taken three or four days off, or gotten road rash on my face — especially that. We were shooting out of sequence. We still had lots of things to shoot before the car hit, so that was really nerve-wracking."
Luckily, the stunt went well. It was a pivotal scene in the story, which chronicles the unlikely relationship between Mike (Caouette), the downtrodden busker, and Stephanie, a well-heeled Vancouverite, after she slams into him with her vehicle then peels off. It isn't until later that she realizes the victim was a street musician she had routinely ignored.
"I went down to the Downtown Eastside and I started busking all the time," Caouette says, explaining his preparation for the role. "I (grew) a big beard and shaggy hair and I tried to fit in with the locals. These guys didn't know who I was. They thought I was a busker, and I am a musician and a busker, but the line between reality and fiction was getting blurry for everybody."
That was especially true for one particular scene when the director of photography decided that, instead of blocking off the sidewalk to shoot, they would incorporate passers-by as extras. "I sat down on the street and started playing," Caouette says. "I played three songs, getting deeper and deeper into this moment, trying to feel it in my body. I was actually really sick that day, so it was perfect. I started to collapse. I hit the ground and not one person slowed down or stopped. Then a janitor for the Seabus station (comes along), I hear this broom and dustpan and I open up my eyes and this guy is sweeping around my body."
The insight into the lives of downtown eastside residents gave him a deeper compassion for their plight. So did a series of tragic events. Andre, the man who initially inspired the film by singing, seemingly invisible, outside Starbucks, died of exposure recently. Two other buskers who were filmed for the closing montage also suffered the same fate.
"The whole film is an homage to the voiceless musicians on the street," Caouette says. "We've had such an amazing response from the busking community in the downtown eastside. They had a private screening down there for them. It's been really, really positive. And everyone who watches the film, after, they never walk by a street musician again without noticing them and that's the goal."
Music, as you might imagine, also plays a prominent role in the film. In fact, Caouette explains, the entire plot stemmed from that first song he penned, called Dream With Me, imagining a busker longing to fall in love. "I sit here all alone," he sings. "The street it is my throne. I walk and I don't run cause I ain't got no place to be right now."
Adds Caouette: "As I was going along through the script I wrote a couple other tracks for certain moments in the film. I took a bunch of old material and adapted it and changed the words. The script and the music were wrapped around each other by the end of it."
The songs, which share a "classic singer-songwriter" vibe, helped forward the film's plot, Caouette explains. The movie's tagline? "Two Lives. One Accident. Ten Songs."
Plans are also underway to release a soundtrack album. "The music is kind of the driving force of the film," he says. "It brings the life. Vancouver is a very grey city and it's very superficial and the lead character, Stephanie, she's a very typical person in Yaletown or Gastown. She drives a nice car and talks on her cellphone a lot. When we start the film it's grey and then the music brings life. With every music number, the film becomes brighter."