One by one, the boyhood dreams of Adrian Halter BFA’10 are coming true. The award-winning filmmaker’s latest achievement is winning the Ruth Shaw Award (Best of Saskatchewan) at this year’s Yorkton International Film Festival for Flat Out Food. The TV series, produced by Halter’s media company, celebrates Saskatchewan food, farmers and chefs.
For as long as he can remember, award-winning filmmaker Adrian Halter loved to play pretend. A creative and industrious young redhead from the small town of Luseland, Saskatchewan (about two and half hours west of Saskatoon), Halter would spend hours making up stories in his head. As he looked out at the expansive prairie skyline just beyond his sleepy little community, he dreamed of one day bringing those stories to life.
“My mom had me when she was really young, so there wasn’t a lot of money growing up,” begins the 33-year-old director and producer behind the highly acclaimed Saskatchewan documentary series, Flat Out Food. “I spent a lot of time with my imagination as a kid because we didn’t have much. I got hand-me-downs from my mom’s two younger brothers. They were a few years older than me and really encouraged my stories. So did my grandmother who was really key to my upbringing. And my dad played a huge role in encouraging my artistic side.”
“I was a huge fan of YTV and, for some reason, I had this urge to make my own movie. I thought, ‘How hard can it be? I can do that!’ So I fleshed out this story about aliens turning cows purple. The only problem was, I didn’t have a camera,” he laughs.
Undaunted, Halter knew that if he was going to make his filmmaking dreams come true, he’d have to work hard for it. So the affable young man with the toothy grin started knocking on doors and putting up flyers at the age of 11, offering his own lawn mowing service. “By the time I was 14, I had saved enough money to buy my very first video camera. I remember being driven into Saskatoon and picking up this new JVC Super VHS camcorder – it was pretty high tech for the early 2000s. I paid $600 for it and it drained my bank account, but it was so worth it,” he recalls. “I still have it on a shelf.”
That single-minded focus and relentless determination has defined the filmmaker’s career ever since. Today, Halter is a sought-after director and producer at HalterMedia, which focuses on visually stunning and profoundly impactful documentaries, both in the corporate and independent realms. His series Flat Out Food was this year’s winner of the coveted 2021 Best of Saskatchewan Ruth Shaw Award at the Yorkton International Film Festival . The TV series, now in post-production for Season 2, celebrates unique ingredients and staple food sources grown and raised in Saskatchewan.
But Halter’s film career, and his successful collaboration with Flat Out Food host Jenn Sharp, almost didn’t happen.
Halter’s trajectory towards film success got off on the right foot, but had an interesting twist along the way. In high school, Halter brought his prized camcorder to parties, demonstrating a natural talent for documentary. With money in short supply, Halter knew the only way to make his dreams – including a two-week class trip to Europe – come true was to roll up his sleeves. He mowed lawns, worked in a chicken barn, bagged groceries, delivered newspapers and participated in class fundraisers like the annual chocolate bar blitz. “I was lucky because my mom worked in a restaurant and would put the chocolate bars up at the till. They usually sold out quickly,” he recalls. That grunt work and ingenuity allowed him to attend the class trip he knew his family couldn’t afford.
“I took my camcorder with me and made a documentary about the trip. I think that sealed my career right there and then,” he laughs. “I was a good student and people thought I might become an engineer, but I was singularly focused on going to film school. I did a work placement at a TV station and remember the teacher saying I needed a backup plan. I said, ‘No – this is what I’m going to do with my life.’”
While Halter shone in his small-town high school as a member of the hockey team and the class valedictorian, attending his first year of studies at the University of Regina was a culture shock. “There were all these students and I didn’t make friends quickly. It was so bad that I remember packing up everything after Thanksgiving and driving back home. As I wrestled with my thoughts on the drive, I decided I should probably go back.”
It was a good decision. While Halter ended up missing about a week of school and two midterms, his return to university provided some new perspectives. “I started making friends and really got into campus life,” he smiles, noting he may have had his worst year academically, but it was a chance to learn some balance in his life after working since he was a boy.
“Getting into film school during my second year was so rewarding because I was with other students who felt exactly as I did about making movies. We all worked evenings and weekends crewing each other’s films.”
It was then that he met his future wife, Becky, who worked two jobs as well as attended full-time classes. “I admired her work ethic so much. She made me want to achieve even more because I wanted so badly to impress her,” he laughs.
Halter says he remembers a film class taught by Professor Sarah Abbott that really ignited his passion. “We got to pick our top three roles for this narrative film and I chose grip (lighting setup/camera support) and electrical. The script was about a young Indigenous woman and her Caucasian partner, and the moment of choice we face when the urge to be violent surfaces,” says Halter. “I was paired with Geoff Yates who was an active member of the local film industry. He was a fellow film school grad and very patient. I remember in school we used small ARRI light kits, and then we got to work with full grip/electrical trucks. I was blown away that they made lights that big. It was definitely a turning point in deciding to work in the industry once I graduated.”
One of his mentors, U of R professor and filmmaker Mark Wihak, says Halter showed promise as a student and has continued to impress throughout his career. “Halter is a really nice guy – he’s collegial and easy to get along with. In school, he always kept an open mind. He was curious and willing to try things. He’s built his own business from the ground up, and every year you can see it grow. That requires a lot of hard work, attention to detail and ambition,” Wihak says. “He also cheered for the Leafs, so he was clearly able to steel himself against difficulties and disappointments, and was ready for the long haul.”
Former university professor Will Dixon, who taught Halter screenwriting, producing and production, chuckles at the Maple Leafs reference. As a long-suffering Leafs fan himself, he agrees Halter has the kind of personality that can see things through to the finish line, despite setbacks. “You simply could tell by his interest and inquisitiveness, his burgeoning talent and grasp of the TV medium, that he was going places.”
Halter says Wihak and Dixon both inspired him to be a better filmmaker. He graduated with his BFA in Film Production in 2010 and incorporated his production company, HalterMedia, the following year.
Halter made a point of keeping in touch with Dixon, who, by that time, had left his teaching position to work for Rogers Media Inc. at Citytv in Regina as a program manager and production executive. Dixon explains, “Halter would call me for coffee once a year to catch up and pick my brain to try out a few TV pitches.” One of those pitches included a non-scripted reality TV series about Maritime workers relocating to the Prairies and working in oil rig camps. That series never really got off the ground, but Dixon kept encouraging Halter not to give up. “His drive and persistence definitely made a difference in the long-term when his Flat Out Food series proposal came along.”
Halter was eager to learn the business from the ground up and took advantage of every opportunity available. He worked on a number of TV shows at the Saskatchewan Soundstage during Regina’s film heyday; he was a set dresser for InSecurity, a series produced by Vérité Films, the company behind Corner Gas.
“I always thought I would hone my craft here, impress the right people, then move to Toronto. That was always my trajectory, but life has a way of making other plans. The local industry changed significantly after the tax credit was axed. Then my wife Becky and I had our first son in 2014, our second son in 2017, and our daughter in 2020. Suddenly making it big in Toronto was no longer a priority. What became more important to me was being able to be a good dad and a good husband.”
Halter decided to focus his creative energy on corporate and real estate videos, and lent his talents to a number of organizations. He served two years as vice-president on the board of SaskCulture and ran youth video workshops. One of those corporate projects was TV commercial content for the Canadian Western Agribition.
“At the time, Jenn Sharp was doing social media at Agribition as a former Leader-Post/StarPhoenix reporter, and we started talking,” Halter explains. “I was working on a story about a former financial worker from Vancouver who was blind and had moved to a cabin in rural Saskatchewan to create a refuge for former criminals and drug addicts. Jenn and I thought about collaborating and working together on this documentary, but the project fell through.”
Halter says he knew he and Sharp had great work chemistry, so the two started brainstorming how to turn her book, Flat Out Delicious: Your Definitive Guide to Saskatchewan’s Food Artisans, into a TV series. Sharp’s book takes readers from Saskatchewan’s southern grain fields to its northern boreal forests, and features interviews with small-scale farmers, city gardeners, beekeepers, ranchers, chefs and winemakers to tell the story of Saskatchewan’s unique food systems.
It was a match made in foodie heaven.
“I had started working on a pitch about unique foods from all over the world, but it focused primarily on the ingredients. Jenn’s book took a more holistic approach, focusing on the people who grew and sustained these ingredients, and it was based entirely in Saskatchewan. I could almost see the cinematic potential,” he enthuses. Halter made a pitch to Dixon at Citytv and received development money to create a demo reel and a production proposal.
“Everything was greenlit, and then the COVID-19 lockdown hit in March 2020,” Halter explains. “We had a pending application for money from CMF (the Canada Media Fund), but everything was in limbo. Our window for filming green grass was waning, so we decided to film anyway before fall and winter set in and our landscape changed. Thankfully, HalterMedia was able to access a federal loan from CEBA (Canada Emergency Business Account), which I then lent to the production to get things off the ground.”
Halter and Sharp proceeded to film that summer, along with cinematographer Adam Burwell, camera operator Preston Kanak, camera assistant Joel Tabak, field producer Rigel Smith, and production sound mixer tBone. The crew worked long hours capturing the diverse culinary experiences of “the land of the living skies,”’ showcasing field-to-plate stories about farmers, food artisans and chefs. With unique drone shots and plenty of golden-hour light, Flat Out Food looks and feels more like a National Geographic series than a food show.
“It’s Halter’s creative vision and attention to detail that’s made Flat Out Food the beautiful cinematic experience that it is,” says series host Sharp. “He not only has a creative eye, but he’s also an avid home cook and gardener who’s been watching food documentaries for years. I knew this series would be special. Halter’s always striving to put out the best quality work possible and it shows.”
Dixon couldn’t agree more. “Viewers have reacted so positively to the Saskatchewan subject matter and excellent production values. I believe it was our highest-rated new home-grown original documentary series we commissioned last year, and it was great to see the program recognized by the Yorkton Film Festival.”
After a successful first season, Halter and his team spent this past summer shooting Season 2, which is now in post-production. Halter says the company will never lose its commercial and corporate work, but definitely plans to grow its capacity for documentaries. “This year, we aired four hours of docs on TV. I hope to more than double that by 2024.”
While he still hasn’t made that movie about aliens creating purple cows from his childhood imagination, he has explored the unlimited possibilities of the delicacies Saskatchewan has to offer.
“I made the right decision to build my career at home,” he smiles. Viewers of Flat Out Food couldn’t agree more.
To watch Flat Out Food, go to www.citytv.com/show/flat-out-food.