Josh Melrod and Ujon Tokarski

Major Arcana
First-time director Josh Melrod and first-time actor Ujon Tokarski brought their film Major Arcana to Raindance 2018 for its world premiere.
We sat down with the pair to discuss cabin building, the film and the unusual way that Ujon became its star.

by Alex Plant

What’s it like being at Raindance?

Ujon: Totally new experience. It’s my first time in London. The buzz of being part of a film festival and taking this project we did in Vermont on a world tour is just fantastic. It’s a whole new experience for me. Every day is something different.

Josh: I think it’s great for the movie, because it’s a young festival. I know it’s an established festival, but it gives off a youthful vibe. Which I think is great. And just the slate, you can just see that it’s celebrating these smaller movies. There are so many great movies being made and it’s hard to crack Toronto, Venice and Cannes if you don’t have that person in your movie, or attached to it. This festival feels like it’s a very high quality lineup.


Where did the idea of the film come from?

J: I sort of fell into film editing and knew pretty early on that I wanted to tell a story of my own. As an editor you see all of these mistakes people make. They’re too ambitious, especially first-time filmmakers. They try to do something that’s beyond their budget or they overwrite a script. You see all of these mistakes people make and I was really cognisant of that, so I was waiting for a story to pop into my head where there wouldn’t be too many characters. Where the story was sort of contained and there wouldn’t be locations where we’d need tonnes of extras. So I was just driving through Vermont and I had watched this documentary about this guy, Dick Proennekke, he’d been in the navy, he was a machinist. He retired, moved to Alaska and built a log cabin and he filmed himself doing all this stuff. It was always fascinating to me. I loved how capable he was. I had that in my head and I was on this drive and Vermont is so beautiful and there’s all the trees. I don’t know exactly where the story came from, but I had some substance abuse problems and I’m sober now and it just sort of came to me. The idea that there would be a character that would be really at home in the woods, really capable and have this incredible skill. I think it’s really fascinating to see someone inherently capable. And I thought about relationships and drugs and alcohol and by the end of this two hour drive I had this story.


Ujon, this was a very stark portrayal of a character and a very demanding role. You were already a carpenter by trade, but did you learn anything new during the process of building the cabin in the film?

U: From a consulting standpoint we started talking the process of building very shortly after Josh had decided to cast me as a carpenter. I know the construction coordinator, so I got to be a part of the whole process. There’s always something new to learn in the building trade, but I think the biggest place that I learned the most about building was how to build a story into a film. I had no acting experience prior to the film. Josh gave me an opportunity to learn something completely out of the realm of my profession, so it was all new to me.


Josh, what attracted you to Ujon for the part of Dink?

J: We knew each other a little bit. We live in the same town and we had mutual friends. I knew he was a local carpenter. I was editing a movie and writing the script, and while all that was happening he was either building a bannister for our staircase or painting our house. Every so often I’d take a break and I’d go out and I’d shoot the shit with him. He’s a natural storyteller and he was personable and I knew that he could build. And he looked the part, as I had envisioned the character, if he grew out his hair and got a little scruffier looking. At a certain point I said “Have you ever acted before?” and he was like “Uhhhhh…” So I said “Have you ever built a cabin?” and he was like “Oh yeah, I can do cabin building!” So it started with that conversation. I also knew that the role was maybe well suited for a non-actor. It seemed like a good fit, but it was a long while before I was comfortable with him. It’s a big leap of faith. But I’m really happy that it worked out.


In the film, Dink’s project of building the cabin is an escape from the world and the other troubles in his life. Do you have projects like that?

J: It’s so obvious to me now, but it wasn’t until we actually got into production that I realised that making the movie was my cabin building. Building a cabin is ridiculously hard. And I found myself doing this huge project, within a huge project.

U: I’m sure there are things in my work life that I can relate. But honestly, but what drives me and spurs me forward to self improvement is raising children. I’ve got three boys from 14 months old to 15 years old. Just that constant struggle of doing your best and inevitably screwing something up that you then have to go and repair. It’s always about self improvement, because it’s not just about you anymore, it’s about crafting a life that others can live comfortably within.


What’s next for you both?

J: We’re gonna do our North American premiere at the Austin Film festival next month. I’m writing another movie. We literally finished this movie two weeks ago, the sound and the colour. I haven’t had really a moment to regroup. Depending on how well this is received… a lot of that will play into how much enthusiasm that fills me with to try and do it again, because I would love to.

U: I’m excited to run this out and see where it goes because I am literally along for the ride. If I have an opportunity to do more film I certainly wouldn’t hesitate, because I think there’s a lot to learn. But I’m going back home to build. I’ve got a work list ten miles long and people want to me build their houses!

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