Writer-actor-director Charles Officer explains his debut film, Nurse.Fighter.Boy
Last Updated: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 | 3:13 PM ET
By Matthew McKinnon, CBC News
This story originally ran during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
Five summers ago in the Mojave Desert, Charles Officer gripped the wheel of a rented RV and pitched his first feature film. The Toronto director and actor had just been to Burning Man, Nevada’s annual fiesta of id, with a troupe of colleagues and friends. On the way home, actor-producer Ingrid Veninger (Only, Gambling, Gods and LSD), who was riding shotgun, asked to hear his biggest ideas.
“I’m not about a lot of big words. A lot of my film work is silent or observational. I find there’s so much value in the visual details.”
-- Charles Officer
Officer told her an urban love story about three interlocking characters, each one inspired by members of Officer’s own family and community. The first, a beautiful nurse, would represent his mother and sisters, the women who had been the caretakers of his youth. (He’s the youngest of four children.) A fading fighter would stand in for absent fathers and male role models — guardians in theory, if not always practice. Officer would draw on himself for the third character, the nurse’s son, a stargazing boy who believes in magic. The nurse’s incurable illness — sickle cell anemia, which Officer’s sister Hannah has borne all her life — would drive the film’s conflict. Could the boy’s spell of protection bond them to the fighter in this world and beyond?
Once Officer finished his tale, Veninger offered to produce the project on the spot. Some 60 months later, their dreamy, lyrical Nurse.Fighter.Boy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Mongrel Media purchased domestic distribution rights last summer and Rezo Films, an independent French distributor, locked up N.F.B 's foreign rights. What’s left is a deep bow from director Officer, who has now placed himself with the likes of Anita Doron (The End of Silence), Richie Mehta (Amal) and Sarah Polley (Away from Her) on Canada’s list of hot emergent feature filmmakers.
Nurse.Fighter.Boy stars the mighty Clark Johnson (Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire) as a disenchanted boxer and street brawler named Silence. He plays opposite Canadian actors Karen LeBlanc (ReGenesis, This Is Wonderland) as the nurse, Jude, and 12-year-old Daniel J. Gordon (Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, ’Da Kink in My Hair) as the boy, Ciel.
Officer’s direction is unhurried and deliberate. He paints scenes from a palette of reds, yellows and greens — lushly filmed by cinematographer Steve Cosens — to stress the film’s moods. The script, written by Officer and Veninger, has sparse dialogue throughout. Silence meets Jude when she bandages his wounds in an emergency room; neither of them says much, although he holds her with a probing stare. Ciel phones Jude during her work breaks, holding his handset to a turntable while he plays her favourite records. Roots reggae and soul songs accompany Jude’s bicycle rides through the alleys of Toronto’s east end, the neighbourhood of Officer’s youth.Jude (Karen LeBlanc, left) meets Silence (Clark Johnson) while cleaning his wound in Nurse.Fighter.Boy. (Steve Cosens/TIFF)
“I’m not about a lot of big words. A lot of my film work is silent or observational. I find there’s so much value in the visual details,” says the 32-year-old Officer. He is half-sitting, half-standing in the lobby café of Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts. There’s a silver stud in his nose and wild sideburns on his cheeks.
In October of 2007, after Officer had finished shooting Nurse.Fighter.Boy — but before he knew it had been selected by TIFF — he accepted a starring role in a Calgary-Toronto co-production of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun. He was to play Walter Lee Younger, the civil rights drama’s bamboozled protagonist. Late last summer, Officer and his castmates rehearsed at the Young Centre for six days a week. He attended the TIFF premiere of Nurse.Fighter.Boy, but the company flew to Calgary before his movie screened again.
Teenage Charles wanted to be an architect. He focused on sculpting during his foundation year at the Ontario College of Arts and Design (OCAD), but left the school to play professional ice hockey in the U.K. It was a brief stay: upon being drafted by the Calgary Flames, Officer moved from England to Salt Lake City to play for an NHL farm team. “I was 18 years old, riding the bus through Mormon towns, terrified by the idea of being a minor hockey player. If I didn’t make the NHL, this was my life?” Officer says, cringing at the memory. While in Utah, he developed tendinitis in his wrist. “The injury didn’t heal, or I didn’t allow it to heal,” he continues. He tried playing for a team near Toronto before quitting the game altogether.
During a second stint at OCAD, Officer saw an ad for acting classes on a bulletin board. He ripped the poster down and carried it in his portfolio for the next two-and-a-half years. When he finally enrolled, he found himself among a group that included Sarah Polley, Ingrid Veninger, actor Scott Speedman and director Clément Virgo. “I didn’t know who they were, because I wasn’t from a film background,” he says, with an elbow bouncing on the back of his chair.
Officer wrote his first script during a summer session at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. It was for a short film called When Morning Comes, about a drug-addicted father and his young son. The project premiered at TIFF in 2000.
“I made When Morning Comes to find out if I liked filmmaking,” Officer says. “If it didn’t get into [TIFF], I don’t know if I would have pursued [directing].” His sophomore project, Short Hymn_Silent War, received a special jury citation for best Canadian short at TIFF 2002. (The film was nominated for a Genie in 2004.)Ciel (Daniel J. Gordon) is a child obsessed with magic in Nurse.Fighter.Boy. (Anna Keenan/TIFF)
“The time I’ve taken to make shorts and travel a bit, to do some episodic TV, has really helped me gain the level of confidence that I needed to approach Nurse.Fighter.Boy,” he says.
Officer credits his mother with shaping his ideas about storytelling. “She was instrumental in training my imagination. When she presented stories to me as a boy, she allowed a sort of magic realism to happen,” he says. “Magic is not just for Harry Potter. It exists for the people in my films, too.”
In Nurse.Fighter.Boy, Ciel casts spells inside his hidden realm, a crawlspace he accesses through a hole in his mother’s wardrobe. His conjuring does not cause events to happen, but seems to influence their outcome. At first, Ciel directs his incantations only towards Jude, but extends his power to Silence as they both learn to trust one another. Does the boxer win a savage street fight of his own accord, or is it Ciel’s magic that carries him through?
With N.F.B in the can, Officer has a pair of major projects in his pipeline. He’s developing a feature documentary about Harry Jerome, the Vancouver sprinter who ran the 100-metre dash in 10.0 seconds in 1960. (“It’s a film about a black man who ran fast and how he was misunderstood by the Canadian media,” Officer says.) His other ambition is to write and direct a fictional feature about subterranean World War III survivors who return to the Earth’s surface.
In the meantime, he will allow himself a moment’s pause to reflect on his present fortune. “For Nurse.Fighter.Boy, we were blessed with the casting, the cinematography, the weather we had during shooting. We were lucky, I’m thanking God,” Officer says, rapping his knuckles on a wooden table.
“You can believe and believe and believe all you want during the [filming] process, and people can say ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’, and get behind you, but you’re the one going through it. That’s the adventure and the terrifying part of being a director — but it’s where I’ve felt the most alive, being on that set.”
Nurse.Fighter.Boy opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Feb. 6.
Matthew McKinnon is a writer based in Toronto.