Cinema studies student savouring the pain/pleasure of making his first feature-length film

July 4, 2022 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Writing and directing his first feature film, Eli Meadow Ramraj predicts — in a half-joking, half-serious manner — that it will all come together through “a series of stressful miracles.”

“My creative trajectory had been leading me here for a while,” says Ramraj, a fourth-year student at the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Cinema Studies Institute, with a double-minor in philosophy and Creative Expression in Society.

Having already worked as a film director, photographer, screenwriter and producer, this is Ramraj’s biggest project to date, and he admits he’s both excited and terrified.

Titled The Only Bar on King Street, shooting will begin in Toronto in October.

“This has been in the works for over two years, but now we've cast, we have our core team, we're in the midst of finalizing our location, finalizing our funding and gearing up for rehearsals,” says Ramraj.

Described as a drama/musical/comedy, the movie is set over a single night and follows a young aspiring comic who enters a closed bar late at night and meets a jaded songwriter-turned-bar owner.

“It's about the relationship they develop, and also about their exploration of themselves through music and stand-up comedy,” Ramraj says.

And this storyline was chosen very purposefully.

“To make a feature film, you immerse yourself in a certain world for about three years,” says Ramraj. “So I wanted to make sure I was immersing myself in a world that I’d be able to sustain and love for that amount of time.

“Working on a story about music and comedy, the process entails developing relationships with comedians and musicians. Those are the exactly the kind of people I want to spend three or four years of my life with.”

With a dialogue-focused script, the two characters explore the need to perform for an audience, and the gifts and consequences of pursuing a life in the performing arts.

“One of the unconventional components of this script is that it seems to start out as any Hollywood movie about a young up-and-coming artist and his struggles and trials and tribulations,” says Ramraj.

“But it's also a story about a broken older man who didn't achieve the success that he thought. He’s trying to understand how he can reflect on his life and see something that isn't a failure, and discover how to do that through this relationship he develops with this younger artist.”

As a young artist himself, Ramraj’s love of film began as a teenager.  

“I've known for a while that my interests lay in storytelling,” he says. “Throughout high school, I wandered through debate and theatre, and I ended up in my last year with an intense love of film.”

That’s when he made his first short film, A Deaf Man’s Symphony in 2019, which he wrote, directed and produced. A story about a theatre performer who stumbles upon his doppelganger, the film was a semi-finalist in the Director’s Cut International Film Festival and played a major role in Ramraj’s being awarded U of T’s National Scholarship.

“Part of the inspiration for that film, in addition to it just being my obsession with performance, actually came from my watching a Toronto Munk debate,” he recalls.  

After graduating high school Ramraj was at a crossroads — go to a traditional film school or attend the Cinema Studies Institute.  

“I chose to resist film school in favour of a more theoretical education,” he says. “Cinema Studies doesn't provide practical training. It's not a production program. It's a theory program, and that's what I was interested in.

“I wanted to reject the notion that to be a filmmaker, you have to go to film school,” he adds. “To me, there's a component of being spoon-fed. Here’s a camera, here’s the equipment, now go make a film.”

He opted for an education that’s rooted in a more academic understanding of film. And clearly this path has paid off as Ramraj was selected as one of 20 emerging Canadian filmmakers and photographers for Canon Canada's inaugural 12-month creative incubator program, Canon Futures, in September 2021.

In addition to his education, there’s plenty of U of T connection to this film.

Daniel Scott Tysdal, Ramraj’s former screenwriting professor, is an executive producer on the project. “I took his screenwriting course last year at Victoria College,” he says. “We had wonderful conversations in and out of the classroom and now we're good friends.”

The film’s lead producer, Violet Mackintosh, is another U of T student. With a strong background in theatre production, she is majoring in German studies, and Ethics, Society and Law.

“The rest of the team consists of professionals and artists,” says Ramraj.

With so much momentum and support, what’s the terrifying part of making this movie?

“It’s the logistics,” he says. “Because I wear a couple of hats on this production, it's difficult for me to think purely in creative terms. Every creative decision is ultimately made in what’s best for the story, and for the characters. But at the same time, I have that voice in the back of my head thinking about what's reasonable, what's feasible.

“The scariest thing for an artist is having an idea that has to die — it's too wacky, it requires too much money, it's just not physically possible. It's finding ways to make compromise feel like a win-win.

Ramraj hopes The Only Bar on King Street will be finished by April 2023 and that it wins over enough audiences and critics to be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) later that year.

“There’s no better place in Canada to celebrate filmmaking than TIFF,” he says. “To share this story with fellow movie-lovers and have the work of this amazing team recognized would be a great joy.”