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Whose Line Is It Anyways? The Uncensored Oral Story Behind BAGS

The absurdist indie short film composed of Vancouver music scene mainstays is making waves at film festivals around the world.

by Maggie McPhee

A small crew composed of close friends cram into the lead actor’s one-bedroom apartment to shoot a film about roommates gone haywire. Their screenplay was lifted from horror stories they’d all lived. The actors were encouraged to improvise. They filmed non-stop for a week. As the protagonist’s sanity unravels against the untenable nightmare of a days-long party raging in his shared living room, the crew contends with their overcrowded set and scenes mirroring their worst anxieties. 

The result, BAGS, is saturated with too-real tension. As director/writer Mitch Ray says, “an eerie and uncomfortable bleed between art and life began to take hold, and although unplanned, its effect on what unfolded on camera was undeniable and uncanny.”

Ray and his crew have been working the Vancouver music scene for the last decade. During that time, Ray sated his filmmaking appetite by starring in and directing music videos. Kevin Keegan, who plays the early-rising, bike-commuting Jamie, sings and plays guitar in hard rock outfit Dead Quiet. The film itself features tracks from local musicians, including Prado, 1800HaightStreet, and Baptists. 

The team’s shoestring budget didn’t limit their ambition. Ray worked with cinematographer Robert Zawistowski to hone in on a visual language that alluded to the honesty of John Cassavetes’ camera and the surreal-yet-real style of Paolo Sorrentino. Production designer Taylor Bourque created referential posters to decorate the apartment and promotional materials inspired by Saul Bass. These references are rooted in the inimitable world of Vancouver’s rough-around-the-edges music scene and Ray’s incisive vision.

RANGE caught up with the cast and crew to learn more about the making of BAGS during its festival tour. Their collective perspective approaches the short film from all angles.  

How did you get involved with the project? 

Kevin Keegan, actor/producer, ‘Jamie’: My man Mitch asked me to jump and I said, how high?

Mark McGee, actor, ‘Korey’: Kevin messaged me in early 2022 saying he was working on a short film with a couple of buds and wanted to know if I’d be interested in taking on a supporting role. Kev sent me the script and following my first read through it, I didn’t need to be convinced—I was in. I did, however, still feel extremely nervous and anxious at the thought of acting in front of a bunch of strangers and cameras, having never done anything like this before. Kev reassured me he wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t have total confidence though. Knowing I’d be working with him directly for most of the film definitely put me at ease. 

Shakila Keyani, actor, ‘Tuesday’: Because of the big homie, Mitch! We’ve talked about lots of projects over the years and I was honoured to be part of his vision.

Mark McGee stars as Korey in BAGS.

What about the project appealed to you? 

Mitch Ray, director/writer: It’s honest and hopefully unique. As absurd as the narrative becomes, it’s always grounded in reality because it’s based on real situations — often involving the actual people who worked on the film.

Rob Zawistowski, cinematographer/producer/editor: Indie productions are frequently constrained by rigid schedules. There are tight production windows and tighter budgetary restrictions. Most projects are therefore meticulously planned, shot-listed, or even storyboarded to ensure a day of production is as efficient as possible. While this efficiency can produce some high-calibre, polished-looking work, specifically in terms of cinematography, it often doesn’t allow the breathing space for creativity on the day. What appealed to me about BAGS, is trusting a strong script, and the people in the room, and allowing for the looseness and exploration to develop scenes as they evolved. It created an organic, unpredictable, and exciting result on location, which I like to think translates well to screen.

Keyani: I love that it rides the line between surreal, funny and an uncomfortable reality. It tells the truth.

Kevin Keegan stars as Jamie in BAGS.

How did you prepare for your role? 

McGee: Early on, I meticulously read over the script, initially assuming I’d have to memorise not just my own lines, but most of everyone else’s as well, while also assessing how to approach the character of Korey. Fortunately, after my first consultation with Mitch a few months prior to shooting, I was relieved to find out that there would be lots of room for improvisation, which took a good deal of the pressure off. This allowed me to relax to some degree and focus my attention on tapping into the free-loading, shithead roommate within and channel the essence of who I imagined this Korey character to be.

Keyani: The role I was given was meant to facilitate the dialogue for everyone, meaning I got to improvise most of it. Mitch gave me space and encouragement to trust those improvisational instincts.

Shakila Keyani stars as Tuesday in BAGS.

How would you describe the energy on set? 

McGee: There was such an abundance of positivity and support throughout the shoot. Pretty much non-stop laughs in between takes as well. I was really vibing on the spontaneity in the scenes that ignited a collaborative creative spark—everyone was just feeding off one another, tapping into a stream of consciousness kind of flow that just continuously and effortlessly rolled on. It was an incredibly profound experience. 

Keyani: The energy on set was a bit of a party, and sometimes contemplative for me, I think we all pushed ourselves to different degrees and that really worked.

What’s a favourite memory from the process?  

McGee: I’d have to generalise and say the entire week of shooting is something I will never forget. As this was my first time acting, getting to witness and experience the film-making process first-hand—observing how the film crew functioned both as a team and individually; watching Mitch and Rob map out scenes mentally, talk it out and then bring the ideas to life; witnessing Kevin get into character and execute his parts flawlessly once the cameras started rolling—it was incredible to be a part of and frankly quite a task to be taking all of this and trying to focusing on my own role simultaneously.

Keegan: The opportunity to fully commit to a character and really experiment with a variety of performances. 

Director of photography Robert Zawistowski on set during the filming of BAGS.

What do you hope audiences get from seeing the film? 

Ray: I hope it makes people uncomfortable and emotionally confused. I enjoy the notion of people applying their preconceptions to certain aspects of the film and then subverting those expectations in a way that compels them to reassess what they were thinking in the first place.

Zawistowski: I’d like to see people connect with it. BAGS is an amalgam of pieces of our past lives. There is a lot of darkness here. There is a lot of posturing. At its core, there is a desire for some level of catharsis that characters do not fully know how to reach. I think everyone experiences this or has some of this frustration at their core. The catharsis of the film is the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Therein lies the power of dark comedy. 

BAGS screens August 23 at the Fox Cabaret and November 2 at the Lido.