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EDITOR'S NOTE: This series of profiles of some of the creative Nova Scotians working behind-the-scenes in the film and TV industry at home and abroad was begun before the COVID-19 outbreak. We are running it now to highlight the talents of those who will be working to help get the cameras rolling again once things are under control, either with years of experience under their belts, or just getting started in the world of media production.
When Halifax-based film and television art director Matt Likely first heard that director Robert Eggers was considering making his gothic cinematic nightmare The Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, he thought it was too good to be true.
Likely had seen Eggers’ previous feature The Witch, and loved the care taken to make its 17th century New England setting come alive. He was also aware that its production designer
Craig Lathrop was an old friend who’d hired him on three previous projects, including the 2007 thriller Stuck, shot in Likely’s home town of Saint John by the late horror maestro Stuart Gordon.
Then came Lathrop’s phone call in November of 2017.
“He told me a little bit about the project and that they’d be scouting some locations in Nova Scotia,” recalls Likely. “He had all kinds of questions for me, he had never done a show here, so he was asking about local crews and whether there’d be enough people to do a project of this size.”
Lathrop told Likely they were planning to build a 70-foot lighthouse, and were looking for the perfect rugged coastline to place it on. Even with his enthusiastic sales pitch for Nova Scotia film crews, Likely thought it was still a longshot that The Lighthouse would come here, but that soon changed.
“Then Craig and Robert Eggers and some of the producers came in December, and toured some of the locations with Nova Scotia location manager Shaun Clarke,” he says. “He took them to Yarmouth and they looked at Cape Forchu, and they loved it.
“The harshness of it, the vista, all of it.”
In January, Lathrop returned and he and Likely were working on a budget, “trying to figure out a way to build this damned lighthouse.
“It was a combination of all kinds of different elements to build it, but Craig had a good idea in mind when he came to town, he’d been thinking about it for a long time, but he brought me in as the art director and I brought in more of the local crew like Kevin Lewis as the key scenic artist.”
Working on an Academy Award-nominated feature film is exactly the kind of thing Likely dreamed of doing when he had his first major assignment; as a graphic artist on the locally-shot remake of the 1970s figure skating romance Ice Castles in 2001.
He jokes that he didn’t even know how the film industry worked when he first got hired, working his way up from designing signs and building props to designing sets, “coming up honestly through the industry” to eventually becoming an art director.
His role is to help to match filmmakers’ visions for their projects in the sets and other constructions required, usually on a budget and working with locations that often need to be altered or dressed accordingly.
Likely says the most fun thing is to design and build sets, either in a studio or on location, starting from scratch to provide a unique background for a given scene, with a distinctive visual look.
“You’ve got more freedom,” he says of that approach. “There are always budgetary concerns, but at least you’re custom-making something for the script and making all the choices from the ground up.
“You’re choosing the trim for the door, or the type of wallpaper, the colour of the walls or the ceiling height. All of those choices dictate the kind of space you’re going to have.”
Following The Lighthouse, upcoming Halifax-shot projects bearing Likely’s stamp include the cryogenic lab he built for Seth Smith’s horror/sci-fi hybrid Tin Can and the post-apocalyptic streetscapes he sketched out for the miniseries based on Clive Barker’s Books of Blood.
“I’ve been lucky,” he says. “We had problems with the tax credit situation in 2015, and a few of my friends have moved away to work in Toronto and Vancouver. I had just bought a house here in Dartmouth and I wanted to make a go of it here.
“I had been working my way up through the art department, getting to design and art direct some smaller projects, and then I had the great fortune to do production design for Weirdos, for (director) Bruce McDonald, and I was almost pinching myself at the time.”
There was a lot about the Cape Breton-shot Weirdos that attracted Likely, from the fact it would be shot in black and white to the 1970s era it was designed to evoke. Soon after he’d be assigned to a project even more unhinged, the CBC-TV comedy series Cavendish, about supernatural happenings in a small Prince Edward Island town, dreamed up by former members of the Picnicface troupe.
“I felt like once (co-creators Andy Bush and Mark Little) saw what we could do, they were upping the ante each time,” he says of the series that presented a different challenge with each episode.
“Whether it was creating a wax statue of Fred Penner or an edition of the Necronomicon: The Book of the Dead. It was just one thing after another, and I feel so lucky to be able to work with such talented people.”
On and off the set, Likely works hand-in-hand with construction coordinators, scenic artists, set builders and props masters. “The craftspeople I’ve worked with here are incredible,” says the art director who was amazed at how quickly things moved for The Lighthouse once it was a go, and Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson were slated to star as the film’s two combative “wickies.”
“But I was most excited by the thought of what we were going to build, it was all beyond what I had ever managed as far as being an art director goes,” he says.
“It just came together so well. We did it, we had paint drying just before the camera started rolling, it was unbelievable.”
With Tin Can and Books of Blood about to see the light of day, and the Stephen King-inspired mini-series Jerusalem’s Lot waiting to begin production once things return to normal, Likely calls The Lighthouse a game-changer that should continue to build momentum for the film industry. “We needed a win, basically,” he says.
“Even without the Oscar nomination for cinematography, the popularity and the reception of the movie in terms of the reviews and so on were huge for us. We’re always wanting to prove ourselves here, and maybe there isn’t as strong an opinion about the industry here as there would be somewhere more established, in Toronto or Vancouver or the States.
“But for a film like that to come here, which required all these skills and trades to not only deliver what was required but to have it be praised so highly after the fact. That sort of thing is huge, and certainly builds confidence for anyone who wants to come and film here.”