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Love letter to a departed friend

Vancouver’s arts community felt a huge hole in its soul when beloved stage and screen actress Babz Chula died four years ago after a long battle with cancer.
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Inspired by Ben RatnerÍs long-time comradeship with actress Babz Chula who passed away in 2010, Down River is a film about mentorship, friendship, living life to the fullest, and ultimately letting go.

Vancouver’s arts community felt a huge hole in its soul when beloved stage and screen actress Babz Chula died four years ago after a long battle with cancer.

Before she exited stage left at age 63, Chula, a kind of showbiz den mother, inspired dozens of actors and artists in her orbit, including longtime friend and colleague Ben Ratner.

The Vancouver-based actor, filmmaker and acting teacher was so inspired he made Down River, a veritable valentine to Chula that doubles as a meditation on friendship, creativity and letting go.

“This is a way of survival for artists left with unresolved feelings,” says the writer-director, who will do a Q&A after tonight’s 7:15 festival screening at the Odeon. (See review.)

READ MORE Coverage of the Victoria Film Festival

“You try to cointain all that chaos into 90 minutes, and so much of the film was already written in many ways.”

Ratner, 49, was motivated in part by a beautiful letter Chula wrote to friends, family and artistic colleagues, which his wife, actor Jennifer Spence, read at an Arts Club Theatre memorial event.

Spence plays Aki, an eccentric 20-something painter. She’s one of three young women who adore and depend upon Pearl, their older, free-spirited friend and mentor, played by Helen Shaver.

Pearl’s other proteges are Fawn (Gabrielle Miller), a talented but troubled actress, and rock musician Harper (Colleen Rennison), a human train wreck who needs to get her life back on track.

“I had a lot of experience being married to an actress myself, so that material came from characters who are gypsies and don’t necessarily know where they’re going to be tomorrow,” said Ratner.

His own notable acting credits include roles in the dark, bittersweet comedy Moving Malcolm, his feature directing debut (which he showcased at the festival here in 2004); Bruce Sweeney’s Last Wedding, Carl Bessai’s Sisters & Brothers, Fathers & Sons and Repeaters, and in the TV series Smallville, Kingdom Hospital and as chief of staff Sam Berger in DaVinci’s City Hall.

“I was very inspired working with so many actors and actresses. Actors are often portrayed as successful or flaky. A lot of people don’t understand being a working actor doesn’t mean you’re set up.”

Ratner drew upon that to flesh out Fawn’s conflicted character. He based Harper’s storyline on Molly, a heart-wrenching song about unrequited love (which earned a Canadian Screen Award for Rennison, lead singer for No Sinner). Rennison, who played Chula’s daughter on screen when she was a girl, sang that song and others to Chula during bedside visits in her final days.

Ratner’s labour of love was shot on a shoestring, guerrilla-style, mostly in the Vancouver neighbourhood where Chula lived for years with her husband, Larry Lynn, the film’s cinematographer.

Completed with Telefilm Canada funding that exceeded its shooting budget, Down River was “in the can for under $60,000.” His cast checked their egos at the door and worked for $100 a day.

Down River has the look and feel of a film made for much more, however — a quality Ratner credits largely to Lynn — despite having to use a crew of student volunteers for much of the work.

“Larry was very clear from the beginning,” Ratner said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to make this look like one of those run-and-gun shoots.’ It was important there was an esthetic.”

Down River also features some of Ratner’s own abstract art pieces that are criticized in one scene by a manipulative art gallery owner played by Brian Markinson.

Working with Shaver, who is flat-out remarkable as the knowing, middle-aged free spirit facing challenges of her own, was a “character-building” experience, Ratner said.

The Canadian screen veteran, who in recent years has been working mostly as a director, was determined not to merely impersonate Chula.

“Helen brings lots of opinions and turbulence, but I am so very grateful for that experience,” said Ratner, who was impressed by her willingess to “sit in a folding chair in a hallway between scenes.”

Ratner, who wanted to give his star room “to do her own thing,” said being taught by Shaver how to “lovingly detach” was one of the lessons he learned about directing from her.

“Every day you get on a plane, and then you take this turbulent flight,” he said. “But when you get there, it was really worth it.”

While having Shaver on board was a big plus, Ratner said being able to cast Jay Brazeau, who has often played Chula’s husband, as an admiring neighbour was as much of a blessing.

“Jay has played my dad three times, and he’s a dear friend,” Ratner said. “He’s like the fireplace in the movie. Jay’s scenes are the warm scenes. There’s a little glow that comes off Jay. He brings such heart and vulnerability to everything he does.”