Learn to Swim, Thyrone Tommy’s feature debut, received huge buzz and critical acclaim at TIFF 2021, and is back at the Lightbox starting this week for TIFF’S Canada’s Top 10 series.  We spoke to Thyrone about the origin of Learn to Swim, his experience directing his first feature, setting a love story within Toronto’s contemporary jazz scene, and the projects he’s excited to tackle next!

Tell us about the origin of Learn to Swim.

The film began as a conversation in 2017 between myself and my co-writer Marni Van Dyk while we were attending the Canadian Film Centre. We spoke at length about my experience with past love and loss and the guilt and grief that come from that. As part of a class project, we made it into a 13-minute short film (also called Learn to Swim) but felt that we hadn’t quite confronted that actual experience. So we decided to expand it into a feature-length film.

Tell us about shooting a love story within Toronto’s contemporary jazz scene.

We shot the entire film in Toronto and I’m super proud of that! So many institutions and locations I’ve frequented opened their doors to us and allowed us in their space. Iconic performance venues like The Emmet Ray, 918 Bathurst, and Adelaide Hall. Orange Lounge on Queen West, where countless records have been made. Sakai Bar in Little Portugal, and Mahjong Bar near Ossington. I think Torontonians will like seeing the familiar texture of their city on screen. 

Learn to Swim is your feature directorial debut, and it’s a very impressive one! How did your previous shorts prepare you for embarking on your first feature film?

Both Mariner and Avalanche were ambitious short films on their own. One was shot on Super 35mm film, with children and archery, and one was shot partially underwater and at my old marine college, so they were such great lessons in scale and orchestration and that really helped when I began working on Learn To Swim. We also assembled such a great team who had the experience and fearlessness to try all the things I imagined, and some of them have been with me this whole time. So we’ve matured as filmmakers together. 

Thomas Antony Olajide in Learn to Swim

The music in Learn to Swim was almost entirely composed specifically for the film. Take us through that process.

All the music performed in the film is original and written for the movie. Chester Hansen and Leland Whitty wrote a majority of the songs for the band in the film and worked with another Toronto singer, Meagan De Lima (who plays Nia), to craft the main song Selma sings. It was such a fluid collaboration, but also an unnerving one as we hadn’t shot a single frame yet. So you’re making these very bold decisions about what something will be beforehand, which isn’t the way you usually build films. It was tricky finding music that seamlessly worked with what we created but that’s when having good producers that support your vision comes in handy!

What can you tell us about your newest project, Black Life, A Canadian History?

The project traces the history of Black Canadians and their lives and contributions to the fabric of this very country. I’ll be taking on one episode of the series, with athletics and sports being the central focus. I’m really excited for everyone to see what we’re making. 

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