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East Van experience, with universal appeal

The Drive takes a little neighbourhood, and puts it on the big screen
Arts: The Drive 0827

These days it seems anyone’s life is worthy of a shot on television, thanks to the beast of a machine that is reality TV.

Fortunately, there are still some interesting, creative and original tales to tell, and as it turns out, they are also taking place in our own backyards.

The Drive, an innovative new video-on-demand series showcasing the sights, the sounds and the stories of the iconic Vancouver neighbourhood premieres Aug. 27 at The Rio Theatre.

Local actor-director-producer Nick Hunnings (Smallville, Supernatural, Once Upon a Time) and actress-producer Lindsay Drummond (Fringe) teamed up to form East Van Entertainment – the production company behind the project – a little over a year ago, with an idea to tell a story of the street they’ve called home for close to a decade.

The Drive centers on newcomer Chris, who finds himself in a makeshift family of five, renting a room in a classic craftsman style house in the diverse and unpredictable world of the East Van neighbourhood.

Long considered the epicenter of Vancouver’s counterculture, Commercial Drive is an eclectic 20-block stretch of some of the city’s best offerings. Cuisine from all over the world lines sidewalks nestled between independently-owned businesses, many with decades of proprietorship on this street, home to an ever-rotating cast of characters from artists and musicians to anarchists and young moms.

Traditionally, a neighbourhood of Italian immigrants, The Drive is undisputedly the best spot in town for an espresso, and café culture is a big part of daily dwelling in these parts.

“In essence, it’s really about the cumulative experiences we’ve all had in the community,” Hunnings says in a recent phone interview alongside Kirsten Slenning, a co-producer and actor on the series.

Writer-actor Graem Beddoes’ original script has seen a long gestation period rife with rewrites over the past six years. Filming took place this past spring, thanks in part to a community programming grant from TELUS Optik Local.

The creatively collaborative nature of The Drive is evident, as Hunnings recounts the early stages of the project, and Slenning is quick to point out the learning curve endured as actors stepping into production roles for the first time.

“It was an absolutely huge undertaking for all of us,” Slenning says. “Process-wise, it was a learning experience.”

The quality of the writing is evident in the first 60 seconds of the series, as viewers are literally left in suspense upon a tightly edited, anxiety-inducing introduction to four characters right off the hop.

“It was ambitious to build story arcs in 10-13 minute episodes, and to ask an audience to invest in these characters,” Hunnings says.

“It was a hard balance of not telling the entire story right away, but getting viewers interested,” Slenning elaborates.

A general casting call resulted in a mix of local and international actors, who each explored their characters and brought new dimensions to the story, once on set.

“We really wanted those who suited the characters the best, and we were really lucky to find who we did,” Hunnings says. “You see that in the performances, which are so strong.”

Early on, the team knew they wanted to keep the story, particularly the set, as true to form as possible. This meant including local businesses, whose support was enthusiastic when approached about filming.

Arts: Drive 0827
Source: Kristine Cofsky photo

“We didn’t want to say they were something they weren’t,” Hunnings explains. “[In café scenes], Renzo, [of Renzo’s Coffee] is in the shot, and the baristas are actually employees who work there.”A light sprinkling of Vancouver star power, means familiar faces in those familiar places. Dan Mangan, plays River, a bartender at The Libra Room. Down the street a poetry slam is in full swing at Café Deux Soleils, where resident wordsmith Ivan Coyote is attending with a friend, played by Ashleigh Ball of Hey Ocean!

“I think it’s the smaller details that enhance the authenticity of the story and the more specific, the more universal in a way,” Hunnings says of the aim to resonate with locals, while appealing to viewers outside Vancouver.

“Our love for The Drive is what we wanted to celebrate, and the level of talent of the artists here is woven into the fabric of this community and this story.”

The Drive premieres at The Rio on Aug. 27, and for free on Telus Optik TV on Demand. Get tickets for the screening here.