Matt Yim on low budgets, tricky schedules and Basic Human Needs

Film | by Mark Wihak


Basic Human Needs
Rainbow Studio 7
Opens April 22

Matt Yim’s debut feature Basic Human Needs comes home to Saskatchewan this month following its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival, with screenings in Saskatoon and Regina. The film focuses on the relationship of Miles and Audrey (played by Yim and Laura Abramsen), drifting 20-somethings whose inertia is interrupted by a crisis brought on by a missing condom. The film is set emphatically in Regina, with an appearance from CBC Radio’s Sheila Coles, the downtown Farmers’ Market and Miles getting yelled at by a random bro in a passing pickup truck.

I worked with Matt when he was a student in the film program at the University of Regina, where I teach. Matt lives in Toronto now, and I got in touch to catch up on inspirations, substitutes for belts, and making a feature film on a $10,000 budget.

Basic Human Needs shares many of the collaborators you worked with on your short films April Doesn’t Hurt Here (2012) and This Huckster’s Paradise (2014), including actor Laura Abramsen, producers Matthieu Belanger and Allan Roeher, and veteran director of photography Layton Burton. You must like working with them.

I started writing for Laura Abramsen after seeing her in a play at the U of R. This was probably five or six months before I ever met her — and for some reason, in all that time, I didn’t realize she sat right behind me in a script analysis class. She takes her work seriously. Her script is full of marginalia that doesn’t make any sense to me, but you can see how that preparation pays off when the camera’s rolling and you look in her eyes and see her thinking in character.

On Basic Human Needs the crew changed every day, depending on who was available. Some days Layton Burton worked with Todd Irving, an experienced camera operator and camera assistant he’s known for decades. Other times, his camera assistant was a film student who’d never racked focus before and didn’t know where the record button on the camera was. He treated each of them with equal respect. That was one of the reasons people were willing to work on our film for free: if you’re interested in trying out different positions in the camera or lighting crew, Layton is really easy to learn from. Everyone feels comfortable around him; it’s okay to make mistakes. I sometimes forget how incompetent I was before I started working with him.

I spent the most time with Matt Belanger and Allan Roeher. Though our tasks were different — I’m writing, Allan’s organizing 50 extras for our grad sequence, and Matt’s securing a banquet hall we want to shoot in — we were working in the same windowless meeting room in the basement of the Callie Curling Club, and making decisions together as a kind of committee. So if I wrote a page that Matt didn’t like, I threw it away. If Allan told us we couldn’t get a certain actor on a certain day, we’d collectively make a plan to make the schedule work, which could involve the three of us pitching ideas for a new scene. We worked very efficiently this way and seldom fought.

You’re quite a cinephile. What were some of the cinematic inspirations for Basic Human Needs?

I remember sitting down with (François) Truffaut’s outlines for Stolen Kisses (1968) and Bed and Board (1970) after writing the first draft of the script, trying to make sure that our film had a strong enough narrative to be compelling without being too heavy on plot. Those films provide a good model for that kind of movie. The same can be said about (Yasujirō) Ozu, especially a film like Good Morning (1959), which is a broader comedy that finds a lot of humour in ordinary life, but never feels banal or boring. Same with Alexander Payne’s films. Laura Abramsen’s character in Basic Human Needs is maybe reminiscent of Julie Haggerty in Albert Brooks’ Lost In America (1985). There’s an awkward dance sequence in our movie that’s weirdly similar to a scene in The Awful Truth (a 1937 film starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn). A photo from that scene sits above my desk, so the similarity is probably not a coincidence. I also remember watching Speedy (a silent film from 1928 starring Harold Lloyd) on Turner Classic Movies and immediately afterwards writing five decent pages.

Apart from doing multiple jobs, how do you make a feature film on a $10,000 budget?

We had to constantly adapt to whatever resources we could get our hands on. I remembered Sheila Coles had jokingly asked to be in the movie during an interview several months earlier, so I wrote her a part as a radio morning show host. But to fit her into the narrative, I had to change Miles’ profession from a technical writer to an aspiring journalist trying to get his stories on her show. Miles’ friend Dan (played by Ian Schneider) is also a last-minute addition to the script, serving an important role in this new subplot as a conduit between Sheila and myself. Most of these scenes were written while we were shooting.

It takes many sleepless nights to make a movie under these circumstances. Throughout the shoot, I had a rolled-up copy of the script tucked into my waistband to prevent my pants from falling down, because after the first week of shooting I’d lost 10 pounds.

Miles and Audrey talk a lot about getting out of Regina, and now you and Laura Abramsen — and several other members of the production team — are living in Toronto.

I think people assume this movie is more autobiographical than it really is. I am definitely not Miles. A friend of mine, Emily Berntson, saw the movie and immediately afterwards said, “I wish I could hang out with that guy.” I wanted to move to Toronto to experience living in a big city and to be more closely connected to Canada’s film industry. Miles and Audrey, on the other hand, tell people they’re moving only because it enables them to avoid making any commitments in life. I suspect they’ll never leave Regina.