When you’re directing a film on a $120,000 budget, it helps to be working with friends. When image arts 2014 graduates Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley embarked on their first feature-length film, Cardinals (which premieres at 2017 Toronto International Film Festival), they stacked their crew with collaborators they met in film school.

“We worked with a lot of Ryerson people on the film—not just for that reason, but because they’re insanely talented,” said Moore. “Being friends first matters a lot on a lower budget, because you need to have trust. You need to trust that no one is wasting time and money, and you need to trust that if you do run into opposition, everyone’s going to have your back.”

Cardinals tells the story of Valerie (Sheila McCarthy), a middle-aged woman who returns to her suburban home after a prison sentence for killing a neighbour in a drunk driving accident. As she struggles to resume her normal life, she finds herself pursued by the neighbour’s son Mark (Noah Reid), who suspects there’s more to the accident than Valerie admits. Tension (and a certain amount of dark humour) simmers under the surface in the film’s sterile, alienating suburban landscape—an evocative hodgepodge of the towns where Moore and Shipley grew up.

“Aidan grew up in Stratford and I grew up in Kitchener and they’re both very specific towns that have particular things that they’re notable for,” said Moore. “With Stratford it’s the festival, with Kitchener it’s Oktoberfest, and beyond that, there’s sometimes a general malaise about living there in such close proximity to a thriving metropolitan area.

“I think we wanted to capture something that wasn’t the ‘nosy suburbia’ that you see,” Moore continued. “Our experience growing up in these towns is that people tend to keep to themselves. This was a story where it’s about someone returning to their community, but we wanted to play against the trope of returning to a smaller town where everyone everywhere is in your business.”

Cardinals’ entire key creative team are all recent Ryerson image arts graduates: producers Marianna Angotti and Kristy Neville (2013), director of photography Jackson Powell (2012), production designer Thea Hollatz (2014), and editor Daniel Haack (2014). “Ryerson brought us all together,” said Aidan Shipley. “It puts you in a group with like-minded people, and it gives you deadlines. To have those deadlines and multiple projects to play around with, you get to find out who you work best with and why, and what kind of stuff you’d like to make. They gave us the freedom to try everything. Everyone got a chance to try every department until you got to find out what your specialty was.”

“One of the strengths of the faculty is you get to make the most of your time as a student to take risks and experiment,” said producer Marianna Angotti. “We don’t have that type of freedom in the same way with the same resources outside in the industry.”

Cardinals is one of the first films supported by Telefilm Canada’s Micro-Budget Program, and the first project to be sponsored by Ryerson University for the funding. The $120,000 budget posed creative challenges as well as opportunities. “We knew we didn’t have to have a lot of money, and we shaped the story accordingly,” said Shipley. “Our advice for younger filmmakers is: be aware of how much money you have and be honest with yourself about what you think you can accomplish.”

“It takes a lot to pull any film together, let alone a film where you have a small amount of money,” said producer Kristy Neville. “Beyond budgetary challenges, we had all sorts of issues with fluke snowstorms or just trying to find a German Shepherd. It’s not easy—it takes a lot of people who have believed in you for a long time, and that takes two strong directors at the helm.”

 “A lot of favours as well,” added Shipley. “We shot at my parents’ house, Grayson’s parents’ house, Kristy’s parents’ house, my high school, my sister’s neighbour’s house—just a lot of people who were willing to lend a hand.”

For Shipley, the key lesson is to stay malleable. “In everything from preproduction to shooting, there are a million things that can go wrong. If you’re too set in stone for what you’re trying to accomplish, that can be a real burden. Any time a wrench is thrown in, take it and make it work.”

Cardinals screens at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 9, and 17. For tickets, visit TIFF.net.

In addition, two other Ryerson alumni will debut shorts at the festival. Dan Browne (image arts 2005) premieres Palmerston Blvd., an experimental film that depicts a bay window captured over the course of a year. Kazik Radwanski (image arts 2009) returns to the festival with Scaffold, about the routines of Bosnian-Canadian construction workers. Both films appear in TIFF’s Wavelengths section.