Mix equal parts fantasy and talent, a heaping spoonful of artistic vision and what do you get? Sean Wainsteim.
The Toronto-based writer and director recently won a Much Music Video Award (MMVA) for Best Director for Canadian rock band You Say Party’s video Lonely’s Lunch. While thrilled with the win, he’s now looking to branch out from short-form film to concentrate on directing feature films.
Wainsteim, who will be 36 on Aug. 22, is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and highlighted his grandparents’ in a short film called Esther and Leib, which is up for an award for the RBC Emerging Filmmakers Competition as part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September.
The four-minute short film was both an artistic homage to his grandparents and a directorial challenge, since Wainsteim and his competitors were all required to record their projects using portable high-definition cameras and then edit their work on a minimal budget.
He said his grandparents are like many survivors who came to Canada post-Holocaust. “They jumped borders, took a slow boat to Montreal, and from there came to Toronto.”
Working on their story caused him to rethink his methods about how he makes films, he said. Creating “honest” material that resonates both for him and for filmgoers is now his focus.
“I just wanted to do something that felt true and honest to me and shoot and edit the movie as raw and as natural as possible,” Wainsteim said. “That’s not to say that a movie like Die Hard isn’t honest, it totally is. But I hope that the love comes across” in Esther and Leib.
He said that growing up in a close-knit family with survivor grandparents also played a role in shaping his directorial style.
“I grew up listening to horrible stories that kids probably shouldn’t hear. But I’m grateful for all my grandparents’ dark and true stories. It’s probably why I was drawn to the darker fairy tales in my youth,” he said. “As a kid I’d sometimes go to bed thinking Nazi storm troopers would come bayonet me in my bed at night. It was terror.”
Wainsteim’s family is an eclectic mix of nationalities. His mother is French and his father is Brazilian.
“They met in Israel on a kibbutz. So I’m a French-Brazilian Jew,” he said, laughing.
He’s always known he wanted to create and his experience attending the Ontario College of Art and Design helped solidify his directorial impulses.
Some of the early influences that sparked his imagination include reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy of books, listening to Grimm’s fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland and the stories of Maurice Sendak.
“I see some of the illustrations in those books now, and it all comes flooding back,” Wainsteim said.
He added: “Growing as a kid in the 1980s, man, it all had an impact. From watching The Goonies to Robocop to Return of the Jedi.”
While his parents weren’t initially thrilled with his career choice, they’ve since come to understand he can make a living at it and that it makes him happy, he said.
“They’ll be reading this in The CJN,” he said, laughing. “It took them awhile to ‘get it,’ and they still wonder what I’m gonna do when I’m older. But for me, if I’m not creating, I’m done. That’s it. So I’m happy to keep going.”
Wainsteim said he was never drawn to pursue a career where he knew how his professional path would turn out.
“Kind of like the philosophy of [French artist] Marcel Duchamp, who said that if he could visualize something and knew how it would turn out, why bother doing it? Likewise, I was in high school and realized that I could go to university, become a lawyer and know I could do that, but I didn’t know if I could be an artist. So I went to art school,” he said.
He joked that for the first few years of art school he dreamed of building robots “that would chase people” around art galleries.
But after four years, he realized he’d been doing a lot of filmmaking and knew he was now an artist.
The theme to most of his work was always “nostalgic fairy-tale stuff” and inspired by memories of having frequented libraries as a child “and poring through books of illustrations from around the world.” He also cites memories of attending puppet shows and children’s theatre shows. That is where the “magic” in his work is rooted, Wainsteim said.
Over the years, Wainsteim has worked on numerous projects for many people and won many awards. He eventually started his own boutique animation, effects and design company with some friends.
After co-running that company for a few years, he felt the need to branch out yet again as his life was becoming predictable again. That’s when he decided he needed to make a serious attempt at being a filmmaker to test his limits and create his own films, not just “client-driven” videos and projects.
“So I took off to Asia for three months, because it was cheaper than therapy,” he quipped. “I didn’t know whether I’d end up buying a small restaurant in Thailand or what. But I knew I needed a creative recharge, some time to think… to figure out my path.”
Now that he’s won his MMVA Best Director Award and has received the accolades and attention that come with it, Wainsteim is eager to try and capitalize on this moment.
“I’ve surrounded myself with likeminded people… who believe in the stuff we’re creating without cutting corners, who believe in the process. I want to be making films.”
Wainsteim said he hopes to have one or two feature films “under my belt” within the next five years.
He said his first film could be any one of four or five projects currently on the burner.
“It could be anything from a horror-comedy to a kid’s fantasy film. I just have to see which one is ready to eat first.”
TIFF recently accepted Wainsteim into its Telefilm Canada-sponsored 2011 PitchTHIS! initiative. It’s a competition where participants attempt to sell their movie ideas to a jury of industry professionals. The winner gets a $10,000 prize to help develop their film concept as a feature film.
“I'll be pitching the feature version of my fantasy short film Lost for Words,” Wainsteim confirmed.
Lost For Words is his “love letter to a time I spent in the library as a child… that led to a lifelong fascination with storytelling and storytellers.”
To view the trailer or for more information on Wainsteim, visit www.seanwainsteim.com.