TORONTO - Four years ago, when former Vancouver film stuntman Kirk Caouette was looking to write a film based on a story in his own backyard, he came across well-known homeless street busker Andre Girard playing his guitar and singing for passersby.
"He playing his heart out and nobody was watching him or listening to him, or giving him any attention or any spare change or anything," Caouette, who is also a musician, recalled in a recent telephone interview.
"And he got up and walked away about 40 minutes later penniless."
That night, Caouette wrote a song called "Dream With Me," about a lonely street busker who hopes a beautiful woman sits down and falls in love with him.
The tune became the basis for his new independent film, "Hit 'n Strum," which opened at a Cineplex theatre in Toronto (Yonge and Dundas) on Friday.
Caouette wrote, directed, produced and starred in the drama that's run in several international film festivals and been a hit at Fifth Avenue Cinemas in Vancouver (it's also been screened in a shelter there on the Eastside).
He plays Mike, a homeless street busker who survives a hit-and-run car accident committed by lawyer Stephanie (Michelle Harrison) in Vancouver's gritty downtown Eastside. When Stephanie sees Mike singing and playing guitar on the street after the accident, she attempts to make amends and the two form an unlikely friendship.
Caouette's personal friends Dana Pemberton and Kelly Richard Fennig co-star as Mike's busking buddies. Richard Fennig was also a production assistant.
Caouette embarked on the project after taking a break from his 15-year stunt career that saw him working on films including "Watchmen," "Snakes on a Plane," two "X-Men" features, and "Fantastic Four."
"It's a great job but it's a really hard job," said Caouette, who specialized in extreme sports and as a martial artist.
"One of my best friends (fell) like 40 feet onto concrete and shattered every bone in his body and he lived. I've just been around it so long. I just wanted to find something different."
As Caouette wrote the film's script and original songs, he prepared for the role by losing weight and growing out his beard and hair, which he also stopped shampooing. He also spent quite a bit of time on the Eastside, busking and getting a sense of what it's like for those living at the street level.
Caouette said he did that for about five months.
"I went down and collected pop cans and tried to make money to eat lunch," he said. "I slept in a back alley once, not overnight but just about."
Caouette had trouble finding funding for the production, though, so he paid for it all with his own credit cards.
"The biggest problem was that I was attached to it, I think," he said. "As if someone's going to give a stuntman money to make a music movie. It's not going to happen."
Three weeks before he planned to shoot the project, he hit another snag: his director backed out.
"So my acting coach convinced me that I should just direct it myself. In the end, I'm actually glad I did," said Caouette.
"The director pulled out because we just didn't have the resources. He just didn't see it as being something that could ever come off even remotely good with the resources we had."
Some local businesses stepped up, providing space for the cast and crew to get ready in, or offering props. Friends and family members also lent a hand.
For one poignant scene, in which an ailing Mike collapses on the street, the crew decided to shoot hidden-camera style from afar with a long lens to capture real passersby. To their shock, nobody stopped to help him.
Girard died last year of cancer in his 60s and never got to see the film.
But Caouette said he did get to form a friendship with him during development of the project.
"He believed that filling the streets with beautiful music was his job in life, it was his destiny, his goal, his dreams," said Caouette.
"He thought putting a smile on a kid's face was more important than having a nice condo or a nice car, and he really did believe that. He was really inspiring."