The Limits of Spoken Words: Interview with Richard B. Pierre and Winnifred Jong

Charlie Chaplin’s silent classic The Kid (1921) screens at Bell Manor Park on August 22nd to wrap up Toronto Outdoor Picture Show’s summer-long Dynamic Duos series at parks across the city. In The Kid, Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character takes an abandoned baby under his wing, and The Kid becomes his partner in crime as he grows up. Alongside The Kid at this screening are two short films that highlight the benefits and challenges of broken communication and silent exchanges, Winnifred Jong’s short film MILK (returning to the TOPS screen for the second year in a row) and Squeaky Shoe, directed by Richard B. Pierre. MILK depicts a miscommunication during a phone call between a grandmother and granddaughter. Squeaky Shoe follows a man who sets out to fix his one squeaky shoe before discovering that two squeaks are better than one.

We spoke with Winnifred Jong and Richard B. Pierre about their short films.

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TOPS: This year’s festival theme is titled Dynamic Duos. MILK is about a comic misunderstanding between a grandmother and granddaughter. What made you decide to focus on this particular family relationship, which is surprisingly rare in film?

Winnifred John (WJ): MILK started with the premise of the misunderstanding. Since it's also based in language, I felt there was truth if it was between a Canadian-born granddaughter who is trying to communicate in Chinese and an immigrant grandmother who misinterprets the tones of her granddaughter's phone call to comic effect. The desire for the two to have a meaningful relationship is frustrated by their misunderstanding. The dynamics in Asian families always extend past the nucleus and there's often multiple generations living together. So in a very short time, MILK is 88 seconds long, I was able to convey a complex, yet common, family relationship in many immigrant families. 

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TOPS: Richard, was it liberating or challenging to have such a limited and precise creative palette in Squeaky Shoe?

Richard B. Pierre (RBP): A lot of movies and TV we watch are dialogue-driven and when they're really well done they can be fantastic, but much of the time it feels as if as an audience we're stuck watching a filmed play (not that there is anything wrong with talkie theatre). So for me, making a dialogue-free film was liberating, without a doubt. I think as a filmmaker you should always be forcing yourself to use dialogue as sparingly as possible and craft work that communicates visually. Also, not having to do 300 takes because of sound issues was an added bonus.


TOPS: If you could make a film about a real-life duo, who would it be?

WJ: I would love to make a film about Yoko Ono and John Lennon. See how I put her name first? Although I know Jean-Marc Vallée is set to direct a biopic on them, I'd love to know where the focus will be. There's so much to explore. 

RBP: It may sound corny, but I think the Obamas. I'm in awe of their commitment to changing the world. Either them or Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart (for the same reason, obviously).

TOPS: Who is your favourite cinematic duo, and why? 

WJ: One cinematic duo that was so affecting and inspiring was the father/son pairing in the film Life is Beautiful. It showed the power of family and love in the face of horrible circumstances. I think I'll have to watch it again! 

RBP: This is a skill-testing question. So many duos come to mind: Kirk and Spock, Paul Rudd & Jason Segel in I Love You, Man, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in the Bad Boys franchise. But I think for this interview, I will choose Shaun and Ed in Shaun of the Dead, because there's just something about their bond that is relatable right from the opening scene of the film. And by the end of the movie, you can't believe that you have that much of an emotional connection at the end of a zombie comedy. That's movie magic and I think the best duos create that feeling every time.

MILK and Squeaky Shoe screen August 22nd alongside The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921) at Bell Manor Park.