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S PR I N G 20 1 7, M on t ag e
Spirit of Place
by Tim Southam
by Dave Forget CRTC Chair Lets the Mask Slip as He Exits Stage Right in Banff
by Christy Garland People You’d Never Meet, In Places You Might Not Go
Remembering Rob Gray Guild members reminisce about the beloved award-winning production designer
by Marc Glassman
12 18 24 28 34 38 44
CLOSE-UPS F RO M F RAT H O U SE TO A R T H O U SE: TH E BO L D TRA JEC TO RY O F A PRI L M U L L EN B y MAYA G A LLU S T h e u p w a rd t h r u st o f Mu l l e n ’s ca re e r co n t i n u e s w i t h t h e f e a t u re B e l o w H e r Mo u t h. A n a ct o r, p ro d u ce r a n d d i re ct o r, Mu l l e n ’s m u t i p l e t a l e n t s a re ca p t u re d b y d i re ct o r- w r i t e r G a l l u s
C I N EM ATI C SI STERS: TH E SO SKA S TW I ST H O RRO R EVERY W H I C H WAY B y K I M LI N E K I N B . C . ’ s S o sk a si st e r s h a ve m a d e t h e h o r r o r g e n r e t h e i r o w n i n a se r i e s o f e ye - ca t ch i n g f i l m s. Li n e k i n f i n d s o u t m o r e a b o u t t h e m a n d t h e i r w o r k
PRO D U C TI O N D ESI G N ER L I SA SO PER C REATES N EW W O RL D S B y K I VA R E A R D O N I n n o va t i ve a n d o u t sp o k e n , S o p e r i s a r i si n g st a r i n t h e p ro d u ct i o n d e si g n w o r l d . R e a rd o n i n ve st i g a t e s h e r cre a t i ve p ro ce ss
COVER STORY M I N A SH U M : TH E PERSO N A L I S C I N EM ATI C B y D AV I D S PA N E R Aw a rd - w i n n i n g B . C . a u t e u r S h u m sh a re s a n e cd o t e s a b o u t h e r f i l m s w i t h Mo n t a g e’s S p a n e r
IN CONVERSATION WITH... LYN E C H A RL EBO I S: SAVO I R C H O I SI R SES BATA I L L ES I n t e r vi e w e d b y MA R T I N D E LI S LE Fi l m a n d T V d i re ct o r C h a r l e b o i s l e a r n e d h o w t o ch o o se h e r b a t t l e s o ve r t h e co u r se o f h e r ca re e r. T h e d i re ct o r o f t h e a ccl a i m e d f e a t u re B o r d e r l i n e a n d t h e t e l e vi si o n sh o w s T h i s Li f e a n d Mè r e e t f i l l e i s i n t e r vi e w e d . ( I n Fre n ch )
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TH O M F I TZG ERA L D : C REATI VI TY A M I D TH E C U TS b y MAT T H E W H AY S Ve t e r a n A t l a n t i c C a n a d a f i l m m a k e r Fi t zg e r a l d ca n d i d l y d i scu sse s h i s w o r k w i t h Mo n t a g e’s H a ys
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viewpoint All we at the DGC ever ask for is investment in original Canadian content, some of it public, some of it mandated private investment. Without it, Canadian storytellers can’t compete. It was true in the analog era. It is just as true in the digital era. This month I was speaking to a new DGC member who is a veteran filmmaker in another country. He moved to Canada in part because he was afraid that if he kept making films in his country, he would be thrown in jail forever. This filmmaker attends every event and meeting the DGC holds in his adopted city. He is not alone. So many of our members participate in the life of the Guild in so many ways. Yet this filmmaker asked a question that struck me. He asked why, with all it has to offer, Canada doesn’t fight harder for its place on the world stage. Well, Canadian filmmakers fight every day for our identity at home and internationally. But we could use a little help. All we ever ask for is direct investment in what we do. Not in marketing firms, in distribution companies or in a myriad of other third parties. In us, the storytellers. While we sort that out, we deserve to not be attacked by our own telecoms and our national regulator, which has, for the last two years, been actively diverting precious investment dollars to everyone except those who create the content here in Canada. The deck is increasingly stacked against Canadian storytellers: by the CRTC, which seems to have a fundamental belief that Canadian directors are substandard; by a telecom cartel that prefers buying U.S. programming over investing in original content created by Canadians. The day will come when Canadians will be able to play in the international market without hiding who we are. The day will come when telling stories in our many fascinating ways will be seen as a market advantage on the world stage, not something to hide. But as long as Canada’s telecoms and the CRTC proclaim the inadequacy of Canadian storytellers at every turn and enshrine this bias in their every official move, the new DGC member I was talking to last week will have every reason to wonder whether Canada actually feels like taking its place on the world stage. DGC members bring glory to Canada a hundred different ways every year. It’s time our telecoms and the government that oversees them step up and do the same. TIM SOUTHAM PRESIDENT, DIRECTORS GUILD OF CANADA EDITOR
editor’s note Most issues of Montage have a theme, and this one certainly does. Working, as always, with a crack team of advisors at the DGC, we came up with a ruling idea for the summer 2017 issue: inspiration. The artists profiled here are intensely creative. We wondered, what inspires them? Even in the current political climate, which seems to be working against the expert makers profiled in this issue of Montage, our subjects remain inspired and are themselves inspiring. Mina Shum, Charles Officer, April Mullen, the Soska Sisters, Christy Garland, Thom Fitzgerald, Lisa Soper and Lynne Charlebois are all Guild members. They’re practical, innovative and work tirelessly to make the best content
All contents are copyright 2017 DGC. All rights are reserved and contents, in whole or in part, may not be reprinted without permission. Points of view expressed in Montage do not necessarily represent those of the DGC. The publisher assumes no responsibility for advertisers’ claims, unsolicited art, photographs, manuscripts or other materials. Printed in Canada by Thistle Printing, Toronto, Ontario
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possible on any film or TV show. Each of them is fighting to create Canadian content in a limited market. They are working positively, even if confronted with a deficit of diversity or gender equality, and fight to preserve their integrity as Canadians in all film shoots. They are creative in every situation, whether it be on a personal project or working as a hired gun. As editor of Montage, it’s a challenge to get the best writers for each artist. I’m very happy with the results this time and hope you’ll feel the same way, too. As readers, you know that an article is worthwhile when you find out something revealing about the person who is profiled. If you feel greater empathy for them, then all I can say is, “job done.” Kudos, then, to our veteran Montage writers Matthew Hays, David Spaner, Kim Linekin, Kiva Reardon and Martin Delisle. We welcome to our pages Maya Gallus and Daniel Glassman, who offer incisive looks at April Mullen and Charles Officer, respectively. Montage is a product of the DGC but the majority of the work is created by very few hands. Thanks, then, to our gifted cover photographer Christopher Chapman, visual researcher Nick Gergesha, copyeditor and transcriber Tyler Prozeniuk, proofreader Daniel Glassman and David Donald, who helped with some final design touches for this issue. We’re grateful to the vision of Montage’s Guild advisors Tim Southam and Brian Baker, Warren P. Sonoda and the amazing team at the DGC—especially Ian Gillespie, Anne-Marie Stuart and Dave Forget. Speaking as the editor, I am happy to leave the final and largest thanks to my long-time partner in crime at Montage, the endlessly inventive art director Alexander Alter. It’s our hope that you enjoy this issue. MARC GLASSMAN EDITOR
CRTC chair lets the mask slip
as he exits stage right in Banff By DAVE FORGET A defining fight is brewing in the Canadian cultural sector. It’s a tale worthy of our best storytellers, replete with twists and turns; stakes both public and private; and an epic reveal, unmasking the identity of an arch-villain in Act III. Our adventure begins with former Montreal mayoral candidate turned Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly. Fresh off a year-long consultation, Mme. Joly is set to undertake an unprecedented restructuring of Canada’s largest and most economically successful cultural industry—film & television—by year’s end. A worthwhile initiative, long overdue, the depth, breadth and risk in this endeavour cannot be overstated. By Christmas of this year, the federal cabinet will weigh in on the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcaster spending on original television production in French and English—about a dozen TV series along with countless feature films, documentaries, kids’ shows and special events—and either rescue or condemn grant programs MuchFACT and Bravo!FACT, which helped launch the careers of obscure Canadian artists like Drake and Denis Villeneuve. Parliament will launch overhauls of the Copyright Act, the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act and consider a new export strategy focused on raising Canada’s profile on the world stage and attracting investment in Canadian talent. Minister Joly herself will appoint a new chair of the CRTC, decide whether to merge Telefilm Canada and the Canada Media Fund and hand down a new Canadian cultural policy, moving our industry from traditional broadcast and cable into the digital age.
UP N E T S I L
All that, all at the same time, all in the next six months. Enter outgoing CRTC chair JeanPierre Blais at the World Media Festival in Banff. In his five years as head of the CRTC, courtesy of Stephen J. Harper, Jean-Pierre Blais has pursued a clear, if controversial, agenda. He attacked traditional pillars of Canadian programming. He weakened requirements to hire Canadian talent. He rushed to kill exhibition rules, which had served to guarantee a minimum number of hours of original Canadian content on our screens. Blais’s Let’s Talk TV decisions in 2015 weakened funding for Canadian programming and put 26,000 industry jobs at risk. Consumer-friendly initiatives like pick and pay have largely been a disaster. But at least Canadians can now see American ads during a football game. Blais’s record at the CRTC was mixed at best, but he defended his decisions, arguing that what matters in the digital age is not hiring practices or network schedules, but how much money the industry invests in producing innovative original content. Then, on his way out the door, M. Blais gutted rules requiring Canadian broadcasters to invest in innovative original content. Then, in Banff, things got worse. In a 6,000-word farewell screed that can only be described as both ideological and radical, Blais finally told the Canadian cultural industry how he really feels: “Thinking in government and indeed in [the] industry—in this room—is still flawed. It’s focused all too much on…the status quo as an operating principle.” He went on: “That’s not the future. Broadband is. Apps are. Quotas, tax credits and the way we all did business 20 years ago are not. They’re anachronisms.”
Artists are stuck in the past? Film & television tax credits are anachronisms? Internet access and apps are the future, not content? Canadians have seen what happens to film & television in our country when politicians and bureaucrats start mucking around with tax credits. When provincial incentives were killed off in Saskatchewan in 2012, the Globe & Mail headline read “Film producers abandoning Saskatchewan as tax credit ends.” The CBC’s coverage read like an obituary. In Nova Scotia, Directors Guild members saw their hours of work cut by 50% when the government in Halifax axed that province’s modest tax credit, even as the industry was booming nationwide. M. Blais isn’t arguing to modernise Canadian film & television. He’s calling on the government to dismantle it. Perhaps M. Blais doesn’t understand something every creator does: audiences care more about the stories than the apparatus. We’re living in a brave new media world, and in this new world content is king. M. Blais paints a picture of a media landscape, stretched across a world without borders, where our success hinges on attracting international investment and promoting our content abroad, and there’s no doubt that he’s partially right about this. The internet has torn down barriers, and no one understands the vital importance of financing or wants our content to travel the globe more than creators themselves. But the production sector is its own beast. Everyone in our industry, from broadcasters to internet streamers and from the director to the PAs, knows that our business has its own set of rules: licencing and rights management agreements, copyright laws and union contracts. The leading players in the digital space— Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime—have all opted in to this system, fighting for their seats at the table, precisely because they know top-quality content comes from top-quality creators.
The biggest brands in online content are coming north to find that talent. But talent doesn’t come cheap. The biggest-budget shows shot in Canada this year—Star Trek, Altered Carbon and Netflix’s reimagining of Lost in Space—have budgets built to rival a summer blockbuster. How are Canadians supposed to compete with television shows made for $10 million per episode, while kissing off the contribution we rely on from our own broadcasters? As Canadians, we want, and our talent demands, access to international markets and competitive financing for our productions. We want to tell our stories at home and around the world. But what’s the point if we don’t own the productions, and we’re not telling our stories? We need to modernise our system to bring it into the 21st century, not tear it apart at a time when Canadians are producing more high-quality content than ever. In a speech delivered on his last day in office M. Blais stated that he did not seek a second term because he had achieved what he set out to do. His work may be done, but ours is only just beginning. M. Blais has thrown down a gauntlet. Canadian creators will have to decide whether to step up or roll over. Our Minister of Heritage will have to decide whether she’ll continue down the path carved out by Stephen Harper and his hand-picked telecom czar, or break with the last government, embrace Canadian creators and audiences as her constituency once and for all and emerge as the hero of this Canadian story.
Dave Forget is director of policy at the Directors Guild of Canada’s (DGC). Since joining the Guild in 2015, Dave’s mandate has been to promote the interests of the DGC’s 4,800 creative professionals and the importance of Canada’s screenbased industries. Prior to joining the DGC, Dave held a senior management position at Telefilm Canada, where he was responsible for the organization’s business affairs, treaty coproduction certification and the administration of the Canada Media Fund programs.
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PEOPLE YOUâ€™D NEVER MEET, IN PLACES YOU MIGHT
NOT GO 10
by CHRISTY GARLAND
In any good film, the story has to take you somewhere. I don’t mean the plot has to move, develop and show character transformation. All of us have seen films that check those boxes yet leave us cold. We have to feel it on an emotional level: our initial judgments and sympathies must be challenged and transformed. And for that to happen, you have to get very close. Years ago I began working on a script—an autobiographical story based on sensitive family history— but it soon ran aground. It was writer’s block, fed by a profound fear of revealing flaws and personal vulnerabilities. I thought it ended there, but the truth is I just wasn’t ready yet to make that film. Over the next few years, in a series of documentaries I directed, I met the people who would show me, very courageously, how to confront fear and vulnerability: Mary and Muscle in Guyana, some depressive Finnish cheerleaders from the Arctic Circle and the daughter of a mother convicted of terrorist activities in the West Bank. The solution to my block was to take on the responsibility of handling the sensitive material of other people’s stories, which I found in the real world. Op p o si te p ag e, from t op: Th e B astard Si ng s t he Sw eetest Son g (C hr ist y Garl and , 2 0 1 2 ); C heer Up (C h ri sty G arl and , 2 016). Co u rtesy C hri sty G arland
In Denmark, where I’ve co-produced two films, Arne Bro is the head of the documentary department at the National Film School. I asked him what he thinks makes Danish films different from those of other countries. He said, “For such a small country, it’s impossible to compete with Hollywood and its huge production values, expensive car chases and exploding helicopters. In Denmark, we look for those pyrotechnics to come from the uncomfortable, honest truths of the human heart.” So in Thomas Vinterberg’s lauded The Celebration (1998), when a son stands up at his father’s 60th birthday party to inform the guests that his twin
sister’s suicide was caused by the father’s sexual abuse, that is the film’s exploding helicopter. This resonates with me because my filmmaking approach could be described as a search for those (sometimes quiet) explosions, the ones that register a seismic shift in our sympathies. In The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song (2012), Muscle decides the only way to protect his mother Mary from her drinking problem is to keep her locked up in a small dark room at the back of the house, and the bomb drops when we find out why she drinks. In Cheer Up (2016), we discover that the saddest cheerleader on the losing team is more occupied with blaming herself for hastening her mother’s death than the lack of a trophy. And in What Walaa Wants (forthcoming), a young woman learns that her mother’s life lessons in retaliation won’t help her get through boot camp, where her worldview—and our view about her world—is disrupted when she is forced to care about, rather than fight, the others. These films have led me to where I happen to be right now, on the second-floor patio of a hotel in Egypt, where I’m attending a film festival. She doesn’t see me, but directly below in the garden there’s a young girl wandering around by herself through the manicured green hedges. I recognise her from the breakfast buffet. She was driving her mother crazy at the bread station, half-crying, whining non-stop and clinging to her legs, making demands. The mother was trying to ignore her, silently loading three plates for her family. All my sympathy was with the mother, and yet (and this might ring true for other childless people), I also couldn’t help but think to myself
“Now that is exactly why I do not have children.” So now, just below me, is that kid, in her own little world, talking to a stray cat. Suddenly her angry mother appears, yelling and storming down the walk. She grips and yanks the girl’s arm a little too forcefully; with a shriek, the girl wrests her arm free, finger marks visible. (The cat got out of there.) As her mother walks away, the girl spits (!) in her direction, twice. As she calms down, the girl tries to regains her composure, leaning for a second against the hedge (bad idea—it’s prickly) stifling sniffles and wiping away tears with the back of her hand. Now, I know it’s not that charming to spit at someone you’re having a fight with—particularly your mother. But I have to admit that now I have respect and sympathy for that girl. I’m glad that she has this fight in her. Even if it hadn’t happened in a foreign language, for any audience, the domestic scene I’d observed would raise a lot of questions. Was the mother being abusive? Was the girl just being an intolerable pain in the ass and pushed it too far? Was this just the same normal spat and firm grip that happens to everyone raising children everywhere? Do they or will they grow to hate each other? Or do they share a profound, powerful bond, and is this one of the complicated ways they express it? And for me, this question: I know that I have a few things in common with the kid, but what kind of mother would I have been? Discovering these relationships, and getting as close as possible for as long as generous, courageous subjects will allow, has become my wheelhouse. Documenting character in a way that embeds individuals deeply in the shifting judgments and sympathies of an audience is my reason for making films. I’ve
realised it’s not just about capturing behaviour: it’s the trickier, more intimate matter of capturing a person’s intentions, which may not be consistent with their behaviour, that I find most powerful. Most important, especially with the stuff of real lives, is to do everything possible to avoid turning people and their situations into clichés. I started on this path after being inspired by the run-and-gun masterpieces that built the NFB like Lonely Boy (1962) and Les raquetteurs (1958), the gripping immediacy of docs like Warrendale (1967) and Grey Gardens (1975), and the films of Drew, Pennebaker, Leacock and the Maysles. More recently, the Dardenne brothers’ fiction films Rosetta (1999), L’Enfant (2005) and La Promesse (1996) applied their mastery of the documentary form to get under the skin of their characters. Those films expanded my sympathies and tempered my cynicism, like the little girl and her mother have done. After four feature documentaries, I find myself thinking about that abandoned script and its characters. The docs have taught me how to confront the fear of selfrevelation with an approach I like to think of as “flipping people.” Rather than bowing to the pressure and the safety of banking immediately on “likeable” protagonists, it’s okay to start a story with characters that will be judged harshly. The trick is to close the distance until, in the end, they seem like family.
Christy Garland started in the film industry as an assistant director on television series, TV movies and dramatic features. As a documentarian she has helmed the award-winning The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song and Cheer Up.
FROM FRAT HOUSE TO ART HOUSE
THE BOLD TRAJECTORY APRIL MULLEN close ups
April Mullen’s career behind the camera has moved increasingly upward in terms of budgets and audience reach over the past decade. Initially she made work in genres, but recently Mullen has created mature, characterdriven dramas. Her stylish and erotic film Below Her Mouth was a festival hit and offered the opportunity for Montage to cover this director-on-the-rise. —MONTAGE
On a balmy Saturday evening during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), nine women line up on stage at the world premiere of Below Her Mouth. The film is a publicist’s dream, featuring two gorgeous women having loads of hot sex while also boasting an all-female crew. During the festival, director April Mullen has been doing interviews nonstop. The press has mostly zeroed in on the female-crew angle. A few days later, when we sit down to talk, she’s clearly spent. “It’s weird that I’m being labeled a ‘female director,’” reflects Mullen. “It’s good for the younger generations, because they need to know a woman can direct, but a year ago, they just called me a director.” That Mullen’s gender is noted is hardly surprising, given the current awareness of the scarcity of women helming productions (according to Women in View’s most recent study, only 4 percent of feature films budgeted over $1M were directed by women, with 21 percent at the micro-budget level, as funded by Telefilm Canada in 2013–14). “I feel an all-female crew was essential for a film like this,” says Mullen, “because the main actresses had to really feel vulnerable and safe on a day-today basis. The content of the film required them to let go physically and emotionally and expose themselves.” Mullen connected immediately to the story of love and longing when she read the script, as she had recently experienced a heartbreak and wanted to convey that intensity on screen. “When you’re choosing a script, you think, ‘could anybody do this, or is this something really special to me? Can I bring something to the project that nobody else can?’ That’s how I pick my scripts.” Her hope was to capture “the feeling in my heart when I fell madly in love.” The script, written by Stephanie Fabrizi, was very lean, but for Mullen that proved to be part of the appeal. “There were moments of silence. There were feelings and emotions left off the page.” She viewed it as an opportunity “to be given those silences, instead of a full-blown script [where] you’re always moving the plot forward. It allowed for moments of connection, and no dialogue, which was an exciting thing for me.” One of the technical challenges was how to use visual cues such as lighting to move the story forward. “We wanted the night sex to look different then the day sex. Night would have shadow and slight backlight, so you couldn’t really see them. And it also followed their sexual journey, because the first time you’re with somebody, you see them, but you don’t, and there is so much left to imagination, because you’re so overwhelmed, and it’s all discoveries, it’s happening so fast. So, the next day—the day sex—we had different lighting, and different blocking too, because they’re very free in the morning sunlight, and they’re very exposed.” spring 2017
S p re a d : A p r i l M u l l en o n t he be a c h . C o u rt e s y WA N G O F i l ms .
by MAYA GALLUS
Opposite page: Writer/producer Tim Doiron (left), April Mullen and actor Christopher Lloyd on the set of Dead Before Dawn 3D (2012). Courtesy WANGO Films.
Top: Christopher Lloyd and April Mullen on the set of 88. Bottom: April Mullen (left) behind the scenes. Courtesy WANGO Films.
Mullen also made the decision to shoot primarily in sequence, allowing the actors, Natalie Krill and newcomer Erika Linder, to ease into the relationship. “Their first kiss was on screen, and as their journey of sex and intimacy grew, so did the film.” Additionally, cinematographer Maya Bankovic shot the sexual scenes in continuous motion. “We set the lighting so we would never have to stop and start. There would never be a reframe, the camera moved with them. It was meant to be in real time and never feel like we were intruding.” The impetus to crew the film with as many women as possible came from first-time feature-film producer Melissa Coghlan, attuned to the zeitgeist as well as the comfort of the actors in these intimate scenes. In addition to director Mullen and cinematographer Bankovic, the crew included editor Michelle Szemberg, production designer Faye Mullen, costume designer Zeina Esmail, and so on down to “Best Boy.” (In documentary, where I hail from, all-female crews are not as unusual. I’ve helmed several over the past two decades, and during the heyday of the NFB’s Studio D there were many, but with narrative features a predominantly female crew is a rare bird. Recent examples include Remy Bennett and Émilie Richard-Froozan’s Buttercup Bill (2014), on which women comprised 80 percent of the crew and Chloé Robichaud’s Boundaries (Pays) (2016), which had a largely female crew.) With so much grrl power on set, the atmosphere was very collaborative. “We discussed how we felt, as women. We had rehearsals, and a lot of discussions on-set about sex. Then, two weeks before we went to camera, there were a lot of questions about how things would happen and where things would happen.” Given the multiple female perspectives, I inquire about a scene in which Natalie Krill’s character, Jasmine, has an orgasm in the bathtub. As she becomes aroused, she hoists herself aloft and, gripping the sides of the tub, thrusts herself forward into the water gushing from the faucet. I admit it struck me as more acrobatic than authentic. “I’m so glad you asked me about that scene,” says Mullen. “I think it was a great moment of female empowerment, because so often women are told not to not be sexual, to reign it in, that it’s not womanly, or ladylike. And to allow that freedom and desire to let go, all the way, until she is on her forearms, and, finally, she releases…” Mullen trails off, then continues enthusiastically. “For me, that is a massive turning point in the film. We wanted her to be bold. We wanted her to make a statement. What better way than to make it a visual one as well?” With its minimal plot and copious amounts of sex, some reviews have likened Below Her Mouth to an extended episode of The L Word; inevitably, comparisons will be made to Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013). “Our film is the polar opposite,” says Mullen, “if for no other reason than because that
film was directed by a man.” Although the performances in Blue Is the Warmest Colour were mesmerising, the actresses later criticised director Abdellatif Kechiche for pushing them too hard and objectifying them. Mullen’s approach drew on her own perspective as a woman. “It’s an internal experience, and I thought, I’m going to bring that to the screen,” she says. “We didn’t do touch-ups, we just allowed them to be real. That, to me, is my truth.” Below Her Mouth is Mullen’s first arthouse venture and it’s “a big departure” creatively. “I’m used to fast-paced editing, a lot of action. Below Her Mouth, I hoped, was a much more universal film. It wasn’t a genre-based film. It wasn’t a film for zombie lovers.” Prior to this film, Mullen established herself as a director of slapstick comedy and horror genre pictures. With their company Wango Films, she and collaborator Tim Doiron (he writes, she directs, they co-produce) have made five films over eight years, including Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Way of the Tosser (2007), Gravy Train (2010), Dead Before Dawn 3D (2012), 88 (2015) and Farhope Tower (2015). With Rock, Paper, Scissors, they developed their low-budget modus operandi, which included performing in their own work. Given the small budget, says Mullen, “we wanted to use our weakness as our strength, so we thought, ‘Let’s do a mock doc, in the style of Christopher Guest.’” Although the film had “sort of a cult following,” the distributors weren’t interested because there were no stars. Taking matters into their own hands, Mullen and Doiron went on the road, booking screenings at universities across the country. Each venue featured a rock, paper, scissors tournament, followed by a screening. They travelled in costume, setting up media in each city, two Energizer bunnies hell-bent on garnering publicity for their firstborn. “We just wouldn’t let the film go; this was everything for us. Like, if we don’t get distribution, this is all we have,” says Mullen. “And then we went back to Alliance, with a giant press book, because we’d been on every type of media outlet, and they said, ‘You know what, we’ll take the film.’” As a result of their efforts, Telefilm Canada came on board for their next film, Gravy Train. And for their third picture, Dead Before Dawn 3D, Mullen and Doiron tackled 3D. “The technology was on the rise,“ says Mullen. “We had two RED cameras, one horizontal, one vertical, one which was on a Quasar rig which, at the time, was sort of an invention for 3D, and we were doing workshops for a year on 3D. And then we shot.” Some critics were not kind, but Mullen and Doiron were very clear about their intended audience: adolescent boys. “In the 3D society, the film won a lot of awards,” says Mullen. “It’s mostly viewed in 2D now, but I’m really proud of that film for its technological achievements.” Following Dead Before Dawn, Mullen and Doiron decided to broaden their international sales, and came up with an action thriller, 88. Stylistically, the film has similarities to Below Her Mouth, she notes, particularly the glossy, high-key visuals. “I definitely take very bold steps when it comes to lighting,” says Mullen, “and I will be very specific to choose the curtain, or the lampshade, that the colour will bleed through. And I’ll go with neon lights. I did that for Below Her Mouth and 88, so when it comes to the overall look of the film, I have very specific looks.” spring 2017
Opposite page: All photos from 88 (April Mullen, 2015). Courtesy WANGO Films.
This page: Both photos from Below Her Mouth (April Mullen, 2016). Top: Courtesy TIFF. Bottom: Courtesy Serendipity Point FIlms.
Speaking of her style, Mullen points out that her films are “performance-based,” but she also goes for “visually stunning” moments when they’re possible to create. Mullen finds inspiration in “daily moments that make an impact, whether big or small. I’ll like the way someone walks and incorporate that into a character. I love the way power lines are set up against the road, and I get obsessed with that, and end up creating a shot. I’m constantly pulling from real life.” Although people assume Below Her Mouth is her first feature, it’s actually her seventh. In addition to her pictures with Doiron, Mullen directed a feature in Los Angeles last year—Badsville, a “greaser gangster love story.” She also recently helmed episodes of Aftermath, a “post-apocalyptic” sci-fi series shot in Vancouver, and Bellevue, “a gothic crime series” on which she shared directing duties with filmmaker Kim Nguyen and show co-creator Adrienne Mitchell. On the other side of the camera, Mullen has appeared in productions by David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, 2005), Lisa Cholodenko (Cavedweller, 2004), and Ken Finkleman (Good God, 2012), among others. “I’ve sort of done every single job, when it comes to filmmaking,” says Mullen. “You know, on Rock, Paper, Scissors there was a six-person crew, so I really do know all the different departments.” Nonetheless, arriving on a new set, she says she’s sometimes asked what department she’s with, which she attributes to assumptions about her age rather than her gender. If she picks up on that vibe, she ignores it, and focuses on working with the actors. After 15 minutes, she says, “everyone gets pumped.” Given how quickly things can go off the rails on set, she’s philosophical. “Film is a moving medium; you have to embrace it and just call it ‘movie magic.’ It kind of creates its own path at the end of the day, and you’re just there to amplify it.” “I’ve been so lucky to have a producing partner like Tim,” she adds. “I was able to try new things and succeed and fail, and it gives you the confidence to tackle any situation. I have been able to grow, start with a micro budget, and go to a milliondollar range.” As a producer, she’s accustomed to tailoring her projects to the funding available. “We’ve been very influenced by what we can achieve with a specific budget level, and to not make it overly ambitious. I think you need to be cautious and smart with your money. You need to make sure it has an audience out there to see it, so you can’t just go willy-nilly,” Her collaboration with Doiron coincided with the industry’s transition to digital filmmaking. “We entered [in 2007] as DVD was dying,” she says. “High TV sales were literally on their way out. So everyone was trying to claw at revenue sources, and everyone knew they were never going to be able to make it up.” With Dead Before Dawn, they released the film on multiple platforms. “Out of the U.S., we did a
day-and-date release, which was sort of new at the time,” she says, “and there was a VOD window, pre-theatrical, which allowed us to have a higher price point for a 30-day window, and then it went into theatres.” The only reason it worked, she adds, “was because Dead Before Dawn catered to 12-17 year old boys, who are all into the gaming world, and they would be on Vimeo and YouTube before a bigger theatrical release.” It’s an approach, she observes, that’s “not allowed legally in Canada.” Although Mullen is enthusiastically Canadian (she’s originally from Niagara Falls) she keeps an apartment in Los Angeles, where she migrated after graduating from Ryerson’s theatre school in Toronto. She returned to L.A. five years ago with Doiron to secure U.S. connections for their productions. Speaking about herself and others who have made a home in L.A., if only temporarily, “We need to think about protecting Canadian talent. That’s why those funding bodies are there in the first place.” She sees co-production financing as the way of the future. “I’m much more about the greater good, showcasing Canadian films and talent, so if that means including a star name so your film does get showcased, I’m totally all for that, as long as the balance stays very healthy, and it doesn’t get out of whack.” Mullen is in favour of international presales and emphasizes that sometimes “you need to find more things outside the Canadian system.” I ask her whether she thinks a Canadian star like Tatiana Maslany (who recently won an Emmy for her stellar work in Orphan Black) would have been cast under the Canada Media Fund’s recent loosening of Canadian content requirements. Mullen believes she would have. “You can definitely start with an unknown lead, if the content is really strong [and you] cast the best person for the job in those circumstances. The brand of a television series is enough, usually, and it has time to push and grow and create a fanship. I feel like the TV regulations should be different from the feature ones.” With a feature, she argues, “because of the digital landscape, and because so many smaller, more independent features are being made, the competition is so strong that when you’re looking to finance with pre-sales or co-production, talent and stars are what drives financers to the table. It’s basically stardriven.” As for the future, Mullen has several projects on the table with Doiron—two series and two features. At this stage in her career, she says, “I’m hoping to tell stories more freely, without being so pulled down by budget. I know Tim has always created a script according to a certain budget level; you’re constantly paring down, and so both of us are hoping to have more freedom now.” In a perfect world, she says, she would be able to shoot in Canada, with some American financing and American stars. “I love the team and the relationships I’ve created here. I would just want to add to the table some U.S. packaging and financing. That would be my dream project, funding that’s 70 percent Canadian and 30 percent U.S.” Ultimately, she muses, “We’re very blessed to be in Canada.”
Maya Gallus is a Toronto filmmaker who was honoured at Hot Docs this year with a mid-career Focus On retrospective of her work. She is currently at work on several documentaries, including The Heat and A Female Gaze. spring 2017
THE SOSKAS TWIST HORROR EVERY WHICH W close
Smashing the stereotype of Canadian politesse, the brash and bold Soska sisters create exciting, inyour-face horror films. Jen and Sylvia Soska’s combination of punkish design and fashion mixed with a cultish appreciation of the requirements of the horror genre has made them international successes. Born and bred in B.C., the sisters are the next generation of Canadian gothic stylists. —MONTAGE
Inspired by “punk-rock feminism,” Jen and Sylvia Soska like to wear mini-dresses and spiky boots, the better to command attention as the Twisted Twins, a filmmaking sister act who’ve grown in artistry and industry stature since they gave up acting in low-budget horror flicks in Vancouver and started lensing their own. They’ve since marketed the hell out of their talent and image, making themselves appealing both to horror fans and to American business partners like World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Studios and Blumhouse Productions, for whom they currently host the survival horror game show Hellevator on the Game Show Network. But while their extreme-DIY debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009) and its more stately follow-up American Mary (2012) put the Soskas on the cult film map and led to bigger opportunities like remaking David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977), the sisters have never felt much official support for the work they do in Canada. In an interview conducted by email through their L.A. manager, they attribute that to several factors and share their thoughts on Canada and the industry. The first factor is their chosen genre. “Being a horror director is such a dirty term here,” Jen writes. “I feel I have to educate people when they first meet us that horror films are as diverse a genre as any other, if not more.” Sylvia even thinks that horror can be “less brutal” than drama at tackling serious issues, because it’s done in abstract ways. Horror films also tend to make money due to their dedicated fan base, which means this genre supports the Canadian film industry, not the other way around, according to Jen. But she’s not complaining. “I may not have as much support as I’d like to make the work I love, but that’s not a deterrent for us, especially at this stage in our careers.” When they started out, they took for granted that they’d have to do everything themselves. “No one has ever given us any kind of hand-out when it comes to financing our films,” Sylvia notes. She describes how they made Dead Hooker in a Trunk— a grindhouse tale of twins (themselves) who go on the lam with friends and a sex worker who ends up being very much alive—by maxing out their credit cards and calling in favours during the 2007 writer’s strike. They then took to social media to get that film seen. It was a natural choice for filmmakers of their generation. spring 2017
American Mary (Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2012). Courtesy Jen and Sylvia Soska.
by KIM LINEKIN
“If you can’t tell a story within certain limitations, you shouldn’t be doing the job. Creativity can bridge any gap between initial concept and something that will make all the people involved happy.” —SYLVIA SOSKA Opposite page: Jen and Sylvia Soska behind the scenes. Photo credits, clockwise from top: Brian Pearson; Bren McDonald, Jen Soska. All images courtesy Jen and Sylvia Soska.
“We rose up during the boom of social media when Myspace was the way to connect with your audience,” Jen writes. “I used to know filmmakers who refused to go on Twitter or Facebook because they wanted their art to speak for itself. But you need to be able to do it all these days, and that includes knowing your audience and connecting with them.” Even if the sisters had the capital to buy ads, they’re not sure they’d want to. “Marketing a film online can be more successful than throwing up billboards because it connects to your audience in a more direct and intimate way,” Jen contends. Dead Hooker in a Trunk caught on at horror festivals, with critics and directors like Hostel’s (2005) Eli Roth, whose praise the sisters used to market subsequent work. “We thought the success of the first film would have made the second more easily funded, but that was not the case,” Sylvia writes. They pitched American Mary (2012) for years. Their parents finally remortgaged their home to finance it. American Mary stars Katharine Isabelle as a medical student who’s drawn into the world of underground body modification and uses her skills to exact revenge. The film is as gory as it sounds, yet it boasts an arthouse look and pace and a sweetly cockeyed friendship between the student and a stripper who’s had surgery to resemble Betty Boop. It treats the body mod community and abused women with abundant compassion. The film is the sisters’ masterwork so far. Jen calls it “the most ‘us’ film we’ve released.” Realising their vision was an uphill battle. “We ended up having to cut a lot from the original script, which was a shame. We just didn’t have the support,” Jen writes. “We had people who were very disrespectful about the body mod community. They kept calling it ugly and we told them we were going to shoot the film so beautifully. I don’t think they got it until they started to see how the fans reacted. Horror fans always get it.” Universal Pictures picked up American Mary and released it to international acclaim, but the production company IndustryWorks never repaid the family’s investment. That move remains in legal dispute. “Sadly, the legal system in Canada doesn’t do much to protect people from being ripped off by companies like that,” Sylvia observes. The sisters’ struggles continued. “Due to the very hard nature of those two first films, especially coming from women, we found ourselves unable to fund the next film until Lionsgate and WWE Studios approached us to helm See No Evil 2,” Sylvia writes. That 2014 slasher flick featured professional wrestler Kane. It went straight to video and got mixed reviews, but the studios happily rehired the sisters to make the 2015 prison movie Vendetta (see sidebar). The Soskas didn’t write either project, but their skill at depicting relationships comes through in brief scenes setting up Dean Cain’s character and his wife. There are always tender, realistic moments in Soska films that elevate the genre business.
The sisters are sanguine about working as guns for hire. “I can’t put what we put in American Mary into See No Evil 2. The studio has an audience that they want to reach and you have parameters to work within,” writes Sylvia. The nudity and violence might need to be adjusted to suit the regions the studio wants to sell to, she explains. What’s happening in society can have an additional impact. “When the world is violent, people tend to want their R ratings just a little less hard and [that’s reflected in] what studios and distributors are looking for,” Jen writes. The sisters’ inspiration for their original films comes not only from punk-rock feminism but the “decades of in-jokes and fascinations” they share, writes Jen. Their first desire is to entertain each other. Yet they still feel it’s their duty to work within any constraint—studio-driven or otherwise—and make films that “light a fire” in their audience, Jen claims. “If you can’t tell a story within certain limitations, you shouldn’t be doing the job,” Sylvia adds. “Creativity can bridge any gap between initial concept and something that will make all the people involved happy.” Mind you, they’ve had a couple of experiences where the producers’ final cut differs significantly from theirs. “We ultimately reach a happy medium where neither of us is truly satisfied,” Jen jokes. Their next experiences were even less satisfying. In summer 2014, the Hollywood Reporter announced that the Soskas had been hired to direct an adaptation of the Painkiller Jane comics. The film was a major break for them; they gave interviews talking up their lifelong love of comics and the hardR rating the material demanded. In summer 2015, they announced that they were heading to L.A. to shoot an adaptation of Frank Strausser’s novel Plastic. Both projects ended up moving on without the Soskas attached. “Painkiller Jane is actually a real heartbreak,” Jen writes. “Unfortunately I won’t ever truly know what happened there, but let’s just say we were disappointed with their decision, after very little contact with us, to bring us on for a San Diego Comic Con announcement and then remove us, only to replace us with no one. “Plastic we had to leave over creative differences,” she continues. “It became clear that we wanted to make two very different films. When you’ve spent so much time building up your name and your quality of work, you don’t want that name to be associated with something that isn’t representative of that.” Sylvia found a silver lining in the Plastic experience: they were almost the first female directing team in the DGA. “The west coast council, which included Steven Spielberg, said that we were overqualified. The only thing they regretted was that we were not in the room for them to congratulate us,” she writes. “But then the film didn’t go forward and the Wachowskis took our place as the first female team. It was a painful part of my career until I thought that it’s still an accomplishment. I have the letter from the DGA framed on my wall. It’s a good reminder how much of an uphill battle this industry can be, but not to become embittered. You really need a good sense of humour dealing with these things.” The sisters then spent Christmas 2015 in Vancouver helping Lisa Ovies make her first horror film. They agreed to produce, co-write and co-star in Puppet Killer, and Jen proudly emailed Montage spring 2017
MONTAGE VISITS THE SET OF VENDETTA
Opposite page: The Soska sisters in the directors’ chairs. Photo credits, top to bottom: Brian Pearson; Mahlon Todd Williams. All images courtesy Jen and Sylvia Soska.
On a sweltering summer day in 2014, a mid-sized crew of 65 people, all Canadian, quietly buzz around the Soskas inside an abandoned asylum in Burnaby, B.C. The biggest noise is the fans cooling the set between shots. The sisters like to give hugs and joke around. At one point they clasp hands and say, “Wonder Twin powers, activate!” An actor observes, “It’s nice to see them talking like that. They usually just telecommunicate across the room.” “The girls inspire a lot of humour on set,” line producer Don Munro says. “The crew works extremely hard for them.” That afternoon, Sylvia directs prison hospital scenes while Jen supervises the application of bruising make-up onto star Dean Cain. Everyone knows their place. It’s the sisters’ set, but they also have to answer to a WWE executive. Jen comes back from the make-up trailer and shows him photos of Cain on her phone. “Is that good for you?” she asks. Regarding the sisters’ division of duties, Sylvia calls herself “a big camera nerd. Jen’s better with people. I’m better with cameras.” Her camera of choice is digital. “I’ve never worked with film and I think I never will. Digital’s faster.” Earlier that day, she oversaw three cameras simultaneously capturing a prison yard fight. “We killed the stunt guy, dressed him up as someone else and killed him again,” she laughs. Sylvia’s claim that she has “very poor people skills” doesn’t jive with how adroitly she commands the set. “I’m ready. Why isn’t everybody ready?” she calls out playfully. They rehearse a fight scene, and Sylvia agrees to the stomach jabs improvised by the film’s villain, played by the wrestler Big Show. Cain defers to the WWE star too, telling him, “This is your show. I’ll do what you let me.” After the first take, Sylvia says to me, “It’s ok. By the third take it’ll be great.” She babies an actor who hurt his arm, then sends her stunt coordinator into the pack of actors. “It helps if another boy tells the boys that their hits didn’t land manly enough,” she whispers. Jen heads off to scout locations. Sylvia laughs off someone’s suggestion that the shoot will finish early that evening. “Welcome to the adult sleepover in a haunted asylum!” Then she barks “action!” again—in a voice that sounds like a demon sneezing.
afterwards that they enjoyed being in the “studio exec” position, passing down their 10 years of directing experience to Ovies without pushing anything creative on her. “We don’t ever want to be sound-byte feminists; we want to let our actions show our support for the next generation of talent,” Jen wrote at the time.
“As an artist I think you always want to hold up a mirror to what’s going on in the world. More of the pressing issues today could be examined in film and television, but I think people are too afraid of the backlash to really speak out.” —JEN SOSKA Ovies filed a lawsuit in April 2016 accusing the Soskas of breach of contract, breach of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty and defamation. The sisters reportedly quit helping Ovies in February. They counter-sued Ovies for defamation, among other things, over remarks she made on Facebook. They now can’t comment on Puppet Killer nor have their names associated with the film, according to their manager. The Soskas still believe in supporting other female filmmakers; they just seem to be doing it from a safe distance at the moment. “The best thing to do is find people whose work you love, like Ana Lily Amipour, Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner, Jill Sixx, Julia Ducournau, Lexi Alexander, Rachel Talalay, Jennifer Lynch. Talk about their work; that’s how you give films a much broader life,” writes Sylvia. She draws the line on talk when it comes to industry support for women, however. “I’ve had great opportunities given to me because of my work and my gender, but then I have also lost opportunities where they championed a female director, then decided against it. I think actions speak louder than words.” Sylvia also has little faith in initiatives to attract women and people from diverse backgrounds to directing. “Having a brand and online presence is go-
ing to get you a lot more work than these programs will,” she argues. Jen maintains that these initiatives might just need time to bear fruit. Fortunately, other projects they were working on in 2015 did bear fruit. Hellevator came together with Blumhouse Productions, the American company behind the Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge franchises and the Oscar-winning Whiplash (2014). The sisters enjoy hosting and contributing creatively to the show. Working in a different medium has been an easy adjustment. “TV tends to have a tighter schedule with more to do, but we’ve shot every film we’ve ever made in 15 days, so those schedules have never bothered me,” writes Sylvia. The sisters expect Hellevator will get a third season, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of fans interacting online with the show. “People are consuming information in a variety of ways, but the interactive component, the way a fanbase can interact with a show they like—it brings entertainment to a different level,” Sylvia writes. The other medium they’re inspired by and have branched into is comics. They’ve contributed storylines to Marvel’s Secret Wars Journal #5 and Guardians of Infinity #8 comic books, and they’re collaborating with Deadpool comics writer Daniel Way on his “very” graphic novel Kill-Crazy Nymphos Attack! The sisters are such Deadpool fans that they’ve publicly petitioned to direct Ryan Reynolds in a sequel. They expect to shoot their update of Cronenberg’s Rabid this fall or next spring. Rabid is very Soska, given its body-horror angle and accidental vigilante anti-heroine. “Every film we’ve ever made is about a deeply flawed underdog who somehow finds a perfect moment of accomplishment,” Sylvia suggests. Jen summarises them as “violent, emotional, strange, but kind of sexy. All the best things in life.” The original Rabid touches on issues that Jen is excited to explore further. “As an artist I think you always want to hold up a mirror to what’s going on in the world,” she writes. “More of the pressing issues today could be examined in film and television, but I think people are too afraid of the backlash to really speak out.” Horror seems to be a more welcoming genre for these explorations, especially when the sisters get to run the show. They’ve come full circle to work on Rabid with Canadian producers, proving their theory that Canadian directors have to find international success before getting breaks back home. “It’s very exciting to be working with a Canadian team on what is a truly Canadian film,” writes Jen. She’s confident that their re-imagining of Rabid will be “exactly what every Cronenberg fan is hoping for.”
Kim Linekin is CBC Radio’s nationally syndicated pop-culture columnist. She lives in Vancouver with her toddler, who’s going to learn to like pop culture too.
The sisters like to give hugs and joke around. At one point they clasp hands and say, â€œWonder Twin powers, activate!â€?
PRODUCTION DESIGNER LISA SOPER CREATES NEW WORLDS close
“I’m excited to think that anything is around the corner. One day I’m in an alien autopsy lab with Neil Blomkamp, the next I’m adjusting a hamster zip line for Isabella Rossellini.” —Lisa Soper
One of Canada’s rising talents, Soper’s inventive production design work can be seen in such films as the Canadian festival hit Closet Monster (2015), the hot British TV series The Five (2016) and the Michelle Monaghan– Michael Keaton thriller Penthouse North (2013).
“It felt so real.” For many filmmakers, these four words are the highest form of praise an audience member can utter after the credits roll. It’s a compliment that transcends genre, as the so-called magic of movies means that for 90 minutes any world is possible. Though often credited solely to the director, creating these worlds takes the work of many, from the screenwriter to the director of photography to the costume designer. But most crucially, and yet ironically still often overlooked in this list of key personnel, is the production designer. The person who crafts worlds from the ground up, who has to think on both macro and micro scales and who makes the decisions that give the two-dimensional medium of film tangible texture. It’s not without good reason, then, that on her website production designer Lisa Soper calls herself a “creator of worlds.” William Cameron Menzies, the artist who created the looks of Gone with the Wind (1939), King Kong (1933) and The King of Kings (1927), was the first person to call himself a “production designer,” and the term stuck. “Whatever his listed role (and credits are especially deceptive with this unclassifiable multitalent),” wrote David Cairnes in a terrific Believer article on him, “the importance of Menzies to a given production can be assessed by the evidence on-screen. He took the stance that each shot of a film should express forcefully a single, striking visual idea.” When thought of this way, production design offers the rare union of the impossibly imaginative with the highly practical—it requires hands-on skill as well an ability to see limitless possibilities in every crevice, cranny, nook and crook. It’s this fact that inspired Soper. Talking before an afternoon shoot in Ottawa, Soper’s energy all but radiates through the phone. It’s clear when she’s talking that this isn’t just her profession but her passion. When asked why she came to production design, she says she always wanted to work in this role, even though she didn’t always know that it existed. Born in North Bay and raised in Florida, Soper says while growing up she was “inspired by film.” Living through what she calls a “chaotic upbringing,” Soper says that one constant in this shifting environment “was [always] walking around with a sketch book [and] drawing.” This, paired with how she “found escape in the overthe-top and fantastical” worlds of Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986), gave her the idea that what she wanted to do was “create [new] worlds and create the illusion of life.” No small dream, and Soper credits her marine biologist mother for encouraging her to pursue her goal of working in the arts. At the end of high school, her mother told her: “Do what makes you happy.” (With the wise advice that if that didn’t work out, school would always be there to return to.) And so Soper took her sketchpads back over the border to Algonquin College in Nepean, Ontario, where she studied animation.
Lisa Soper. Courtesy Lisa Soper.
by KIVA REARDON
Taking this unconventional path instead of going into film production or design is something that Soper says has helped her work on sets, as she got a bigger picture of the film ecosystem. Anything I did could affect another department,” she says, alluding to the massive amount of collaboration and communication that goes into production design work. But one thing that didn’t sit well with Soper was working at a desk. So Soper shifted to world-making on sets, where resourcefulness in the face of small budgets became not hindering but inspiring. Soper laughs recalling some of her first jobs where there was “no money, no time and no crew,” and all the creative hurdles she’s gone through to get a set to look just right. She found herself ripping fabric off of thrown-out sofas on the street, stopping at recycling depots to comb through discarded household items, even throwing her coffee on walls of a set “to give it more texture.” While some might find these conditions frustrating, or even beneath them, Soper describes it as “empowering” to be able to find solutions when budget-line items suggest there aren’t any. Or, as she puts it, “The magic happens when you can take an old rusted wheel and trick the audience into thinking it is a golden talisman.” That said, it’s definitely not the only reality Soper wants to work in. Just as she’s passionate about her craft, Soper is also keen to speak up about the problems that are being faced by the Canadian industry. She’s a strong proponent of protecting Canadian talent and laments that part of making a movie in Canada often means negotiating the “struggle to get the budget and that means getting a big name who comes from the States.” This is by no means a new issue in the industry, which sometimes struggles due to proximity and sharing a language with one of the biggest national cinemas in the world: Hollywood. Because of this, funders and broadcasters who want to get a return on the investment demand bankable names, and that often means pulling talent up from the United States. “There are a couple of American names sucking up budget,” Soper says of how this funding model works, “and the Canadian talent, for lack of a better description, gets the shit end of the stick.” The solution isn’t about to immediately present itself, but Soper does think we have to keep looking to our left and right and not always abroad: “DOPs, production designers, any key crew—we have the talent here.” At the same time, Soper isn’t about to limit herself by not working oversees. Last year she was hired to work on the U.K. production The Five for Sky TV. Thanks to a good relationship with director Mark Tonderai, Soper came up as a potential hire, but the gig didn’t just land at her feet: some producers were concerned that being Canadian meant she wouldn’t be able to capture a certain “Britishness” required for the crime show. Soper’s response was: “I wasn’t born in the 1700s, but I can work on a period piece. I do the research.” She got the job. Soper cites this mentality as being crucial to making it in her field. “Our job is to reinvent and recreate [ourselves] each time,” which is less about switching things up than a strategy: “It’s all about survival and adaptation in this industry.” This chameleon-like quality is already evident in Soper’s work. One of the more compelling components of her burgeoning career is how she’s already managed to stake a name for herself across genres. When asked if she has a favourite genre or draws more inspiration from one, Soper reflects before answering: “In my first year or two, I would have said horror, or period, or possibly fantasy, but now I’m excited to think that anything is around the corner. One
“I adapt myself based on the story, who I’m working with, the budget and, most importantly, what I have learned.” —LISA SOPER
Opposite page: Sketches and behind the scenes shots from Lisa Soper’s portfolio. This page, top to bottom: House at the End of the Street (Mark Tonderai, 2012); Closet Monster (Stephen Dunn, 2015). All images courtesy Lisa Soper.
day I’m in an alien autopsy lab with Neill Blomkamp, the next I’m adjusting a hamster zip line for Isabella Rossellini. I guess my favourite genre is good storytelling.” It’s a fitting comment, as Soper has already worked on telling an array of different stories. Her first feature credit was on Lee Demarbre’s Stripped Naked (2009), a road movie and drug caper about a stripper who comes across cash and drugs and sees a way out of a bad relationship. (Of course, things don’t go smoothly.) From there, she worked on some movies-of-the-week and shorts before landing a job on Mark Tonderai’s The House at the End of the Street. Shot in 2010 and released in 2012, the psychological thriller stars Jennifer Lawrence as a young girl who, along with her mother, moves after a family tragedy. They soon discover that the house at the end of the street (there’s that high-concept title) was the site of a gruesome murder, the ramifications of which are still being felt in the community. Because of the talent attached (that issue that just can’t be escaped!), this was a big break for Soper. “House at the End of the Street was not the most difficult shoot I’ve done,” recalls Soper. “But it was a game-changer for me as a designer. It was the first theatrical release I worked on and I was in my mid 20s at the time, still very much a pup in the industry.” But because of her more junior status, Soper had to fight for the role. “When Aaron Ryder (a producer at Film Nation) and Mark Tonderai first came to Ottawa with this project,” Soper says, “Aaron pulled me aside explaining that I wouldn’t be getting the design position. He appreciated my enthusiasm with the sketches I was bringing in daily, but unfortunately, with such a high-profile [project], House at the End of the Street required a more seasoned designer.” Where others might have stepped aside or given up there, Soper took this as a challenge. “I smiled and decided to bring in more drawings and references hoping that this would land me in [art direction].” About a week later, she got a call from Tonderai asking if she would be his designer. Despite having a bigger budget than ever before, Soper still brought her indie mindset to the shoot. “When I first saw my budget for House at the End of the Street, I had no idea how I was going to spend all that money—this was far more than I had ever seen in a budget for art,” she recalls. “I feel that this is how I was able to give more than expected when it came to the amount of builds and layers of design House at the End of Street had.” For instance, after losing the last location (a rural Pennsylvanian diner) the day before shooting was to take place, Soper “went across the street from where the studio was and looked at this Italian restaurant.” Though “it was a hot mess,” Soper and her team worked “through the night and pulled something together.” Ryder was so impressed by what she created he told her she “was the best mistake he had made and hooked [her] up with an agent.” Soper continued to work steadily after this break, including on the CBC series Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays (2011), and returning to horror again on
Eli Roth’s Clown (2014). But Soper’s banner Canadian year came in 2014 when she worked on two critically acclaimed debuts: Lindsay MacKay’s Wet Bum and Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster, the latter of which went on to win best Canadian feature at the Toronto International Film Festival. Over email, Dunn recalls working with Soper fondly: “One of the things I loved most about working with Lisa was the intimate approach she took to designing Closet Monster.” Set in Dunn’s hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland and inspired by anti-gay hate crimes that took place when he was growing up, Closet Monster is a portrait of a young man, Oscar (Connor Jessup), who is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. With a hamster voiced by Isabella Rossellini as his best friend, the film folds in elements of the fantastical (recalling Soper’s own childhood inspirations) but is firmly rooted in a sense of place. Soper worked to convey this in her production design. As Dunn says, “Every piece of art came with a backstory. Nothing ever appeared on set without knowing where it came from and what purpose it had in Oscar’s life. She gave our spaces authenticity and expanded the world of the film beyond the 90-minute narrative I wrote.” This is perhaps what best describes Soper’s style: a deep, conscientious attention to detail. “Asking the cast ‘why’ and being able to bounce ideas off of them is always the best way to immerse them into [the] illusion of life we create,” she says. It’s a tactic that not only cultivates a level of trust with the cast and crew, but also leads to those critical details that can bring a character to life. For instance, even though she worked on House at the End of the Street close to seven years ago, when asked about examples of her meticulous work Soper can easily mention: “the used guitar strings that Jennifer’s character would keep from her father in her jewellery box, the nervously chewed pencil ends and OCD-organised canned goods [of] Max [Thieriot]’s character.” (Once you create a world, you never really forget it.) This skill is probably what has allowed Soper to adapt with such ease and not be constrained by trends. Soper cites producer Noël A. Zanitsch as a mentor who gave her the advice: “Always pay attention to the trends; [not to mimic them] but to figure out what the next one is going to be.” So while Soper notices trends (especially the current one towards nostalgia and the gadgets of the 1980s and 90s like Polaroid cameras and flip phones), she’s always working to be a step ahead. As for the future, which is always the biggest question, Soper just finished working on FX’s Legion, which was filmed in Vancouver and is based on the Marvel Comics character David Haller, a mutant with schizophrenia and psychic abilities. And when it comes to what’s on the horizon? “I never know what the next project will be—that’s the most exciting part,” Soper says with a confident pragmatism. “I adapt myself based on the story, who I’m working with, the budget and, most importantly, what I have learned.”
Kiva Reardon is a programmer at TIFF and the Miami Film Festival, and the founding editor of cléo, a journal of film and feminism. spring 2017
THE PERSONAL IS CINEMATIC
by DAVID SPANER
Acclaimed independent director Mina Shum has both glass and bamboo ceilings to contend with. “Maybe the reason I’m so persistent is because I am an underdog,” she says of her more than 25-year film career. “I think there’s a lot of good will [towards women and people of diverse origins]. We go through waves of awareness, like in the ’90s, [when] Clement Virgo and I came out of that programme at the Canadian Film Centre of people of colour and diverse voices. Well, we’re seeing that wave again. It means the problem wasn’t solved in the ’90s. “You have the NFB saying 50 percent of the work will be female-driven. Telefilm just announced a policy about parity for women. And yet a study just came out that last year there were less females in the director’s chair in Hollywood than previous years.” (It showed that 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing films of 2016 were directed by women, down 2 percent from 2015.) “Let’s see what I do after this,” she says to Montage of her upcoming feature film Meditation Park. “I can be your litmus test on that.” Shum tells me that she was driving in Vancouver when she got the inspiration for Meditation Park. Shum’s mother leaned across the front seat and in Chinese whispered, “The cat caught a new fish.” The line startled Shum. “I went, ‘Woah! She was saying, ‘Your friend’s going through this thing,’ meaning her husband’s seeing someone else,” says Shum. “The way she said it to me, something snapped and Meditation Park—the character, the whole thing—came to life. So I sat down and wrote it.” Shum has spent considerable time meditating on her relationship with her mother, so the script came quickly. “Her idea of what it is to be a woman is very different from my idea and yet she taught me to be liberated, and so I immediately went, ‘This is a film in which I can really investigate that difference.’”
Shum emerged as one of the acclaimed Vancouver independent filmmakers of the 1990s West Coast Wave. Her first feature film Double Happiness was a stunning success in 1994, debuting at the Sundance Film Festival before winning prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). As persistent as any West Coast Wave filmmaker, Shum followed Double Happiness with two features, Drive, She Said (1997) and Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity (2002). Since then, she’s done considerable television work, including the TV movie Mob Princess (2003) and the classic B.C. series Da Vinci’s Inquest, for which she received a DGC nomination for directing an episode. Shum recently was a director consultant on a project in development called Late to the Party. While Shum has enjoyed television work and is excited about the range of TV forms these days, she’s also concerned by the lack of Canadian production in B.C. “There isn’t enough indigenous Canadian pro-
Photo: Chris Chapman
In a directorial career of more than a quarter century, Mina Shum has directed short and feature-length films and documentaries, as well as episodic television and a TV movie. Known for her outstanding debut feature, the semiautobiographical Double Happiness (1994), which made Sandra Oh a star, Shum is a versatile independent director. —MONTAGE
duction in fiction on the west coast. We have Romeo Section. There was Motive. That’s it. In terms of opportunities to tell stories from the west coast and get work as a director, it’s very hard living in Vancouver.” As for feature work, Shum continues to plow through diminished resources to find ways forward. “By any means necessary. That’s really how I think. I just feel really driven.” Her passion for Canadian film moved her to join the board of Reel Canada, which screens Canadian films to Canadian audiences. “That’s a way for Canadian cinema to be embedded in culture because they’re going to high schools, ESL classes and remote communities.” Like Shum’s earlier films, Meditation Park is proudly set in Vancouver. “If I had to, I’d shoot it in my house,” she says, adding quickly: “I’m not going to.” Now, with Meditation Park in production and her stunning 2015 documentary Ninth Floor making TIFF’s top ten Canadian films list, Shum’s ardent, personal touch is back on Canadian movie screens.
Opposite page, top: Mina Shum (centre) sets up a scene for Sandra Oh (left) and Alannah Ong (right) on the set of Double Happiness. Courtesy Mina Shum. Bottom left: Double Happiness (Mina Shum, 1994). Courtesy TIFF Film Reference Library. Bottom right: Mina Shum (far left) discussing dialogue behind the scenes on Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity (2002). Courtesy Mina Shum.
The day Shum finished the first draft of Meditation Park, Ninth Floor was green-lit. When the documentary idea was brought to Shum by National Film Board producer Selwyn Jacob, she listened attentively to the story of six black students at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (later amalgamated with Loyola College and renamed Concordia University) who charged a white professor with racism in 1969. The resulting student uprising included an occupation and severe damage to university computers. Jacob told her the six students from the West Indies were under surveillance and there was an infiltrator, a black CIA agent loaned to the RCMP. “I immediately went, ‘Oh my god, this should be a feature film. I started pitching him fiction.’ But he said, ‘No, it’s got to be a documentary.’” So one of Vancouver’s best-known narrative filmmakers found herself making a doc. She soon was interviewing former university activists as intriguing as any characters concocted in espionage fiction. “If you were making a spy movie, each character would play an important part. You’ve got the father confessor, you’ve got the psychologist, you’ve got the antagonist spy.” Shum wrote a script infused with the drama of her fiction storytelling “and immediately the Film Board said, ‘Yeah, you’re green-lit.’ I spent six weeks in Montreal and Trinidad. Then I edited for a year.” Ninth Floor combines stunning new visuals with compelling archival footage and revelatory interviews to recreate one of the seminal student protests of an era of the ‘60s. The contrast of the vivid colours of Trinidad and the students’ blackness against Montreal’s bright white snow and the university’s concrete brutalist architecture is provocative. It’s the stuff of blurred identity and alienated ‘others’ that Shum’s been exploring since her first feature Double Happiness. The documentary was popular on the festival circuit, including a premiere at TIFF that drew most everyone who appears in the film. When the screening end-
ed, the packed theatre was silent, then people began to rise, and Shum and her film received a prolonged standing ovation. At the Vancouver International Film Festival, Shum won the Women in Film and Television artistic merit award. It was a DGC finalist for the Allan King award for Excellence in Documentary in 2016. At Montreal’s World Film Festival, it screened in the room at Concordia where the protest began. “It was electrifying.” No surprise that the students’ resistance to racism was something that deeply moved Shum. She has always been acutely aware of stereotyping and it has figured strongly in her work. While some in 1969 Canada liked to think racism occurred somewhere else—Selma, Alabama, say, or Johannesburg, South Africa—Shum knows the painful slurs of Canadian schoolyards. The only white student protester interviewed in Ninth Floor movingly describes an anti-Semitic incident that spurred him to activism in Montreal. “I think Ninth Floor is a deeper exploration of some of the themes that I’ve always been obsessed with,” Shum says. “I’m interested in the underdog and how society sees this underdog. You may be an older Chinese woman in the Vancouver community and people look at you and think you’re a rich Chinese person from Hong Kong when you’re actually second-generation Chinese or you’ve been here since the 1960s. That attitude from society affects her in a way that may trickle down to her relationship with her husband. My characters never live in isolation from the rest of society. I’m fascinated by how people see each other. Even now, I’ll walk into an interview for a job and they’re not sure if I’m coming in for the craft service position or for the director job, just because of the way I look. So it’s personal.”
Shum’s personal life and her art consistently overlap. She was born in Hong Kong in 1966, and her family moved to Vancouver a year later. While they moved around the city’s East End and suburbia, Shum’s constant was a passion for popular culture—absorbed by television, then music, then movies. She briefly aspired to be an actress and sang in a punk rock band called Out of Proportion. (“The one thing I take from that movement: question everything.”) At the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the 1980s, she turned her attention to writing and directing films. The timing was right as she was about to become a core player in the West Coast Wave that broke out of UBC’s film school. In 1989, the nuclei of this wave came together on the set of UBC student John Pozer’s The Grocer’s Wife. There were eight future feature filmmakers in the crew of this artsy exegesis on life in the industrial B.C. interior, including assistant director Shum, boom operator Bruce Sweeney, production designer Lynne Stopkewich, and editor Reg Harkema. All involved were pleasantly shocked when The Grocer’s Wife screened at Cannes and won a special jury citation at TIFF. The film’s success showed these UBC students that it could be done, so a Vancouver indie scene was born that would soon produce Sweeney’s Live Bait (1995) and Last Wedding (2001), Stopkewich’s Kissed (1996), and Shum’s Double Happiness. Double Happiness is about a young woman (Sandra Oh) pulled between her traditional immigrant family and the “destroy tradition” ethos of Vancouver’s punk scene. “I made the film just like I’m about to make the next film—because I had something I wanted to see in the world,” Shum says. “I didn’t see people that respring 2017
flected my experience on screens. I was telling my sort of semi-autobiographical story and so when it went to Sundance and won the best first feature at Berlin and got picked up by New Line, I had no idea that was going to happen. You don’t aspire to those things. You hope one Chinese girl in the audience realises she’s not alone anymore after you make a film like that.” On screen and in her own life, Shum continues to probe that film’s relationship themes. “When Sandra Oh in Double Happiness can’t move out, can’t tell her parents what she really wants, what kind of power is being exercised? How is that a microcosm of a larger societal issue, of race, of feminism, of tradition versus the new world? If you were going to crystallise my stories, that’s always the beginning for me. I’ll see a power struggle in some way and I’ll go, hm, there’s something interesting in that.” Double Happiness was that rare Canadian film that resonated viscerally with a wide audience. It was a new take on the old Clark Kent–Superman identity crisis — and who doesn’t have more than one identity? Someone might have four or five—an identity on a film set, another at a punk gig, another at a family Christmas dinner. Actor Tom Scholte was a first-year UBC theatre student home for Christmas in Scarborough when he went with his parents to see Double Happiness at a neighborhood mall. “To be at a Canadian film with my parents and have us all walk out satisfied was a great moment,” Scholte said. He returned to Vancouver determined to be part of the indie film scene and landed a role in Shum’s second feature Drive, She Said. Shum and filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming have been close friends since 1989 when Fleming let her apartment be used as a dressing room for the nearby Grocer’s Wife shoot. “All of Mina’s films are very personal and they talk to things that are very close to her. Like her personality, I think she always wants to put forward ultimately a positive message—that love is possible,” Fleming says. “Mina is remarkably resilient. She’s inspirational in that way. She’s a great person to get a pep talk from and hopefully I’m that person for her when she needs it.”
Ninth Floor (Mina Shum, 2015). Courtesy NFB.
Before making Ninth Floor, Shum spent four years developing a “big-budget accessible comedy” that came close to production. “The producers changed hands on that project so nothing happened with it,” she says. After that experience, she welcomed a return to her low-budget Canadian roots. She wrote the script for Meditation Park and received production funding from the Canada Council, the B.C. Arts Council and Telefilm. Shum is excited about the remarkable cast she’s assembled: Chinese stars Cheng Pei-pei and Tzi Ma, and Canada’s Sandra Oh, Don McKellar and Jessica Paré. “That’s the one thing I missed when shooting the doc. I love creating magic with actors.” Shum’s style is narrative but with cinematic twists— at times nonlinear with wholly unexpected imagery. “In Meditation Park, you’re suddenly looking at a photo album,” she notes. “My stuff is character-driven.
A cinematic epic treatment of small intimate stories. That’s what I aim to do.” When I spoke with Shum at her East End home in January, she was having trouble sleeping. “I’m in prep,” she explained. “My mind is racing. In prep is where all the wars are won. If you’re organised, you’ve thought of many of the eventualities, so that when you get to set, you’re present. I want to create an environment where everybody gets to shine. I’m not going to do the job of the camera assistant, but I’m so detailed in my prep that I can make her job easier. You know, ‘We’re going to need a focal length of 500 mill here probably.’ It’s almost like if you know the script well enough you just throw it away so that you’re present for the actors, present for your crew, present for the other collaborators. To me, that’s where magic happens.
“All of Mina’s films are very personal and they talk to things that are very close to her. Like her personality, I think she always wants to put forward ultimately a positive message—that love is possible.” —Ann Marie Fleming “I pre-visualise the film, but when I walk on set, I can adjust when the actor goes, ‘I don’t feel right sitting down here, I want to race across the room.’ I would hate to make a film where everybody just said yes to me.” Shum says she is receptive to “a good idea from anybody, but I also know when an idea is going to steer me in a different direction than the vision of the movie. It’s less in Canada that they [the producers] say ‘final cut’ or not final cut. I’ve gotten to do my film work the way I pretty well wanted.” The film inspired by her mother in her car is now about a 60-year-old Chinese-Canadian who immigrated to Vancouver 40 years ago. “Raised her family, never had a job, devoted to her husband, now she’s a grandma. The day after her husband’s 65th birthday she’s doing laundry and discovers an orange g-string thong in his pants. She realises that she can’t say anything because she’s powerless in this country. She’s shaky in her English, she doesn’t have her own bank account, she’s never had a job, and she’s really been the isolated immigrant woman. One foot in tradition and at the same time teaching her daughter to be everything she can be. She steps out into her world for the first time, into Canada really.” Through shifting markets and technology, Shum has maintained her focus and her passion. “I’m a storyteller. Every morning I write. I’ll write scenes for films that don’t exist. I’ll write just to see if I can get an idea. My job is to be ahead of the curve. So if there’s 15 Dracula movies, I’m not going to come up with a Dracula movie just to be part of the Dracula group. I’m going to make Meditation Park.” David Spaner coined the term “West Coast Wave” in his book Dreaming in the Rain: How Vancouver Became Hollywood North by Northwest. He has worked as a movie critic, feature writer and editor for numerous publications. His latest book is Shoot It! Hollywood, Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film. spring 2017
LYNE CHARLEBOIS : SAVOIR CHOISIR SES BATAILLES
nw o i t a s
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technologies, on est passé du film à la vidéo. Les nouvelles technologies, si on parle des nouvelles caméras, cela permet de sauver beaucoup de temps, ce qui nous aide vraiment. MONTAGE: Considérez-vous avoir pu développer un langage cinématographique qui vous est propre et comment le décririez-vous ?
MONTAGE: Martin Delisle LC: Lyne Charlebois
On doit à Lyne Charlebois le long métrage Borderline (2008) pour lequel elle a reçu le Jutra pour la meilleure réalisation. Elle a travaillé sur des séries à succès comme Toute la vérité, Nos étés et Sophie Parker. En 2016, elle a tourné des épisodes de la deuxième saison de la télésérie, This Life. Elle réalise en ce moment la nouvelle série web Mère et Fille, l’adaptation québécoise d’une télésérie humoristique française. —MARTIN DELISLE
MONTAGE: Comment vous débrouillez-vous pour réaliser dans un contexte où les moyens de production sont réduits ? LC: Le talent d’un bon réalisateur, c’est de s’adapter aux réalités d’un tournage et aux barèmes de la production. Il doit faire des deuils, mais en même temps il doit grandir là-dedans. Il doit trouver des idées pour pouvoir traduire l’essence du scénario, tout en respectant les balises de la production. C’est à dire qu’il doit maximiser son temps. Cela lui prend un assistant réalisateur qui comprend qu’il faut prendre le meilleur avantage possible des lieux de tournage en tentant de minimiser les déplacements inutiles. Vraiment, un réalisateur qui travaille ces temps-ci doit être productif et minimaliste… Il doit faire des sacrifices, comme de tourner deux scènes dans un même endroit, mais en s’arrangeant, par un changement d’axe par exemple, de faire croire qu’on est ailleurs. En bout de ligne, ça marche, c’est sûr qu’on n’a peut-être pas le décor qu’on souhaitait, mais j’aime mieux maximiser mon temps de tournage et avoir du temps pour mes comédiens et ma mise en scène que de perdre du temps en déplacement… Je choisis mes batailles. Certains plans sont tournés plus simplement et je m’attarde davantage sur les plus importants, dans lesquels il y a de l’émotion ou de l’action. Moi, mon mot c’est « équilibre » : en tournage, en tout, en moyens… Donc, il faut faire des compromis, mais des compromis dans lesquels on se sent bien. MONTAGE: Devrait-on créer des mesures pour protéger le talent canadien ? LC: La seule réponse que je pourrais donner, c’est qui si les gouvernements mettaient plus d’argent en production cinématographique, les scénarios, les conditions de tournage, etc., seraient plus équitables. On tournerait moins les coins ronds… On aurait peut-être plus de temps de tournage, donc le créateur serait plus à même d’exercer son art. C’est le temps qui nous manque et le temps, c’est de l’argent pour les producteurs. MONTAGE: Comment vous adaptez-vous aux demandes d’un marché constamment en mutation avec les nouvelles technologies et les chaînes numériques ?
Lyne Charlebois sur le plateau de This Life. Avec l’autorisation de Yan Turcotte.
LC: C’est certain que cela engendre des baisses de salaires. Par exemple, quand on fait une série web, c’est beaucoup moins payant qu’une télésérie, donc il faut s’adapter, cela fait partie des conditions de travail. Quant aux nouvelles
LC: Je trouve un peu prétentieux de dire que j’ai un langage cinématographique. Le mien se colle à la réalité, donc à celle du scénario et à celle du temps de tournage que j’ai. Je m’efforce pour que mon langage soit toujours cohérent et congruent avec le scénario. C’est certain que si je n’ai pas le temps de peaufiner une scène, je passe à l’essentiel, au texte, à livrer la marchandise, l’essence du scénario, à faire toutes tes scènes. Il y a toujours moyen de faire des beaux plans en peu de temps, mais tout est dans la mise en scène. Est-ce un défi d’imposer votre vision propre dans vos réalisations ? Si on parle de films, j’ai pu avoir ma vision propre en tournant Borderline, à peu de choses près. Mais, en télévision, c’est davantage un travail d’équipe, avec l’auteur, le producteur, le directeur photo. C’est le réalisateur qui donne le ton, mais il doit respecter le texte. Je n’ai pas à me battre pour imposer ma vision, mais je fais des compromis. Je tente de trouver des solutions qui contentent tout le monde. MONTAGE: Où allez-vous chercher votre inspiration ? LC: Je vais chercher mon inspiration dans des films et des téléséries que j’ai vus. Je suis beaucoup inspiré par la photographie, la littérature, le théâtre... Borderline, c’est l’adaptation de deux livres de Marie-Sissi Labrèche, nous avons écrit le scénario ensemble. Ce qui m’a inspiré, c’est le thème de la maladie mentale. Pour moi, c’est un sujet très important. J’aime parler des sujets tabous. J’aime aller au-delà du divertissement et qu’il y ait une profondeur dans le sujet. Même dans une comédie, je pense qu’il peut y avoir de la profondeur. Mais, je fais souvent des commandes. Je ne peux pas nécessairement y mettre mon grain de sel social. Je prends l’œuvre d’un auteur et j’essaie de la rendre à l’écran avec le plus de respect possible. C’est certain que si je tourne en extérieur et que je peux montrer la réalité vraie, un aspect documentaire dans une fiction, il faut que le scénario m’invite à faire cela. MONTAGE: L’actualité est-elle prise en considération par les producteurs et les distributeurs quand ils s’engagent dans la production d’un film ou d’une série pour la télévision ? Que cherche le public ? LC: Je pense que le but des distributeurs et des diffuseurs c’est de vendre, de faire de l’argent, de rentabiliser leur investissement. Quant au public, il veut se faire raconter des histoires, vivre des émotions et s’évader de sa propre réalité. Je pense que même une comédie peut avoir de la profondeur et parler de réalités sociales. Je pense aussi que le public prend ce qu’on lui donne. Il aime ou il n’aime pas, mais on a tendance à sous-estimer son intelligence. Borderline traitait de la maladie mentale. Ça n’a peut-être pas aussi bien marché spring 2017
De haut en bas : Lyne Charlebois. Avec l’autorisation d’André Dufour. Isabelle Blais (gauche), Lyne Charlebois (centre) et Marie-Sissi Labrèche (droite) dans les coulisses de Borderline (2008). Avec l’autorisation de Pierre Dury.
ma, particulièrement avec les films d’auteur, ce n’est pas pareil parce que cela nous appartient davantage et que c’est notre signature. MONTAGE: On parle beaucoup d’équité homme/ femme de nos jours. Or, il semble qu’on embauche encore plus facilement des hommes que des femmes comme réalisateurs. Avez-vous souffert de cette inégalité ?
que certaines comédies québécoises, mais le public a suivi. Je ne suis pas pour un film que trois personnes vont voir sous prétexte qu’il a un contexte social. Entre une comédie à succès et un film d’art et d’essai que personne ne va voir, qu’est-ce qui est mieux ? Pour moi, le meilleur des mondes est un film profond et artistique qui s’attire un public considérable. MONTAGE: Sur un plateau, pouvez-vous prédire quels événements ou quelles conditions vont soudainement influencer les choses ? LC: Le temps est crucial. Je peux déjà prévoir en regardant l’horaire de la journée si on va le dépasser. On demande aux gens de faire des miracles et on ne nous donne pas le temps de faire bien les choses. Cela ne prend pas beaucoup plus de temps pour créer des conditions de travail exceptionnellement meilleures. Deux scènes de moins par jour, cela fait trois ou quatre jours de plus par tournage en bout de ligne. Cela fait peut-être des jours supplémentaires à la période totale de tournage, mais ça paraît à l’écran. Pour moi, c’est important de respecter le temps alloué, mais à un moment donné je ne peux pas inventer du temps. Je ne peux pas faire des miracles. C’est un travail d’équipe et il faut respecter le travail de chaque département. Nous ne sommes pas des machines ! MONTAGE: Comment en tant que réalisatrice gagne-t-on la confiance d’un scénariste, d’un producteur au contenu, de l’équipe technique et des acteurs ? LC: Je pense que je gagne la confiance d’un producteur et d’un auteur par mon expérience et le premier contact avec eux. Elle dépend aussi de ma vision du scénario et de mon acceptation des conditions de tournage imposées par le producteur. Sur le plateau, je pense qu’il faut savoir créer une bonne atmosphère. L’équipe apprécie que j’arrive avec de bonnes idées de mise en scène. Essentiellement, on fait un travail d’équipe, donc je juge très important le respect des individus. En ce moment, je travaille sur une nouvelle série web, Mère et Fille, et la réponse de toutes les personnes que j’ai appelées pour y travailler est extraordinaire. Ce sont des gens d’expérience et ils ont tous accepté d’emblée, même si ce n’est pas très payant ! Cela m’a fait plaisir, parce qu’ils sont venus par envie de travailler avec moi. MONTAGE: Vous arrive-t-il souvent d’avoir des différends avec le producteur à l’étape du montage ? LC: Quand je travaille en télévision du côté anglais, c’est une commande, je ne choisis pas mon équipe, donc je dois lâcher prise complètement. C’est un travail d’équipe qui demande beaucoup plus de compromis. Je fais ma director’s cut et après j’en perds le contrôle. Au Québec, c’est différent : c’est beaucoup plus proche du réalisateur. C’est certain qu’en ciné-
LC: Je pense qu’il commence à y avoir davantage de réalisatrices et j’en suis très heureuse. On est en train de mettre en place des mesures à la Sodec (ndlr : Société de développement des entreprises culturelles) et à Téléfilm Canada pour encourager une parité homme/femme. Je trouve dommage que l’on en soit rendu là, mais je trouve cela nécessaire. Par contre, je ne pense pas qu’on doive financer un projet de film qui n’est pas bon parce qu’il est réalisé par une femme et il en va de même pour un film réalisé par un homme. En télévision, il y a beaucoup de femmes qui réalisent, mais j’ai encore entendu parler de sessions de pitch de projets pour des polars, ou quelque chose de ce genre, où aucune femme n’a été invitée à pitcher… Moi, je sais qu’à talent plus ou moins égal les hommes qui ont commencé en même temps que moi dans ce métier font quatre fois mon salaire, parce qu’ils ont eu plus de contrats et ils ont eu l’occasion de pratiquer davantage leur métier, de toucher à différents genres et, par conséquent, de se faire connaître et de bâtir leur réputation. Je me suis déjà fait dire que j’étais bonne mais que je n’avais pas assez de couilles ! Ce qui était une remarque un tantinet machiste, ne pensez-vous pas ? Je n’ai tout simplement pas eu autant d’opportunités qu’eux pour développer mon langage cinématographique. Il ne faut pas oublier que la première femme qui a gagné un Oscar pour la réalisation, c’était pour un film de guerre (ndlr : Kathryn Bigelow en 2009 avec The Hurt Locker) ! Moi, je suis la première femme à avoir gagné un Jutra de la meilleure réalisation (ndlr : en 2009 avec Borderline), mais il était temps. Cela va aller mieux pour les plus jeunes que moi. Et puis, je crains qu’on donne aux femmes que des séries qui ne parlent que d’émotion, alors qu’on est capable de faire d’autre chose., comme des polars, des films d’action, des comédies, etc. J’ai justement accepté la série web parce que cela me tente de faire de la bonne comédie. Sinon, j’étais confinée au drame, même si j’aime ce genre, cela me tente vraiment d’explorer autre chose. MONTAGE: Le nombre croissant de femmes à des postes de décideurs a-t-il modifié l’environnement de travail ? LC: S’il y a de nombreux producteurs et productrices qui n’ont fait pitché ou engagé que des hommes, c’est parce le bassin des réalisateurs est beaucoup plus grand que celui des réalisatrices et que, par conséquent, ils ont plus d’expérience. C’est l’organisme Réalisatrices Équitables et certaines productrices qui se sont battues pour cette cause. Par exemple, si un diffuseur exigeait des producteurs qu’il y ait au moins une réalisatrice sur une télésérie, ils devraient faire des recherches et je vous jure qu’ils trouveraient des trésors cachés… féminins ! Mais ils préfèrent se rabattre sur des « valeurs sûres », c’est-à-dire des hommes. Mais, ce qu’il y a de bien, c’est que la CBC a déjà commencé à exiger l’embauche de réalisatrices.
d’attirer des femmes et des hommes de diverses cultures vers la réalisation. Est-ce nécessaire ? LC: Moi, ma réalité c’est au niveau du casting. On essaie toujours de faire une représentation équitable de la réalité, donc même les diffuseurs me demandent d’inclure des comédiens de cultures différentes. C’est certain que le bassin est encore assez limité, mais, on tente faire de la place aux autres cultures. Il commence effectivement à y avoir de plus en plus techniciens d’autres ethnies sur les plateaux, mais c’est parce que la jeune génération est allée étudier en cinéma, ce que leurs parents n’ont pas fait. MONTAGE: Quel serait changement que vous voudriez apporter pour simplifier votre vie en tant réalisatrice dans la manière dont on produit à la télévision ? LC: C’est certain que d’avoir plus de temps pour tourner et pour répéter, avec moins de scènes à tourner par jour serait l’idéal. Cela veut donc dire avoir plus d’argent j’imagine ? Encore l’argent! Finalement espérer le respect et l’équilibre est-ce possible? Et là, je parle au nom de tous les réalisateurs et réalisatrices, scénaristes, comédiens, techniciens, hommes-femmes confondus. Nous faisons un merveilleux métier et il faut que nous continuions à le trouver merveilleux! Martin Delisle contribue depuis 2013 aux périodiques POV et Montage. Il agit comme sélectionneur-monteur de plans d’archives à l’ONF depuis 2012. Il a travaillé à la pige comme consultant au contenu, programmateur de films et comme critique de cinéma pour RadioCanada et diverses publications. Il a occupé le poste de directeur à la programmation à l’Institut canadien du film à Ottawa de 1985 à 1988. Il a rempli diverses fonctions à Téléfilm Canada entre 1989 et 2004.
Martin Delisle’s English version of this interview with Lyne Charlebois can be found at www.dgconline.ca
MONTAGE: Par diverses initiatives, on tente aussi spring 2017
CHARLES OFFICER SCORES HIGH POINTS IN THE DIRECTORâ€™S GAME
by DANIEL GLASSMAN
“I want to prove to myself that I can do it all.” —Charles Officer
Charles Officer is one of the most versatile directors in Canada today. His work spans successful efforts in indie drama, episodic TV and documentaries. Born in Toronto to a Jamaican mother and British father, Officer’s works have often focused on the lives of black Canadians dealing with their unequal status in a liberal society that is still overwhelmingly structured around the desires of a white majority. His features— the drama Nurse.Fighter.Boy (2009) and docs Mighty Jerome (2010) and Unarmed Verses (2015), which won the best Canadian Feature Documentary Award at Hot Docs 2017—are marked by a singular vision, which is less an aesthetic than a distinct and evolving set of concerns. His work on television, ranging from Da Kink in My Hair (2008) to 21 Thunder (2017), shows a sure hand and adaptable professionalism that is making his progress swift in Canadian dramas. Reflecting on challenges that have emerged because of the changing state of the industry, Officer says that, “I think it’s reinforced a real questioning of how badly you want to direct. Do you really want to be a person of colour who’s trying to tell certain kinds of stories within this space? One of my mentors, [the acting coach] Jacqueline McClintock, always said that, ‘It doesn’t get easier; it just becomes more possible.’ So I never expected it to get easier. I had expected it to actually get narrower, as less and less folks are going to have certain opportunities. “I realise that I can’t just be local. I have to think internationally. I should maybe put my British passport to work. How do I expand and look at other places outside of this country? Although I am a citizen here, and want to contribute to the landscape of Canadian work, I don’t think it’s ever going to get easier. But how does it affect inspiration? I think it reinforces how badly you want it, or you kind of fall away.” Officer’s early works, like Nurse.Fighter.Boy, focused on characters’ dramas against a backdrop of race and poverty, but more recently, in Unarmed Verses, about a group of youth in Toronto’s Villaways community housing project, and the CBC doc The Skin We’re In, about outspoken black journalist Desmond Cole, he has become more explicit in addressing racial imbalance. It may be Officer’s most pointed work yet, but it almost didn’t happen. “[Cole] actually said he wouldn’t make this film with anybody from the CBC,” says Officer. After being asked to make the doc, which met with Cole’s approval, he admits “I actually backed away from the project because I felt I was too busy. Then CBC said, ‘Well, we’re not going to do the project,’ and Des’ reply was, ‘I’m not going to do the project.’ Then I felt really guilty that this project wouldn’t happen.” Officer and Cole didn’t know each other personally at the time, but had heard of each other. They grew close quickly once Officer signed on. “I’m a little bit older than him,” says Officer, “but we’ve become like brothers.”
The 2014 shooting of Mike Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson was a turning point for Cole. In The Skin We’re In, Cole talks about how his journalism changed afterwards, becoming much more outspoken and political. The magazine article that launched Cole to fame, the Toronto Life piece “The Skin I’m In,” came out in 2015, with the provocative teaser, “I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I’m black.” Cole’s piece renders racism personal and psychological in ways akin to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, filtering the often-depersonalised discourse around racism through everyday experience: Cole is carded by police while walking a white friend home; girls run away from him when he gets off the bus; bouncers kick him out of clubs or don’t let him in at all. In a Toronto that likes to imagine itself “postracial,” Cole’s piece struck a nerve, catapulting him to celebrity status as a public intellectual. Of course, the shooting was a turning point for many people. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, launched in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, became a movement that gained international prominence in the protests it organised in the aftermath of the Brown murder. Black artists from Beyoncé to Kendrick Lamar to Raoul Peck have foregrounded race in ways they never had before. Officer is another one who became newly politicised by it. Though race had always been an undertone in his work, going all the way back to Nurse. Fighter.Boy, The Skin We’re In is by far his most outspoken. He had to fight for that, of course, challenging the everyday racism that colours people’s perceptions. “[CBC’s] notes were, we need more handholding and we need to soften people into this issue, and we think it’s a little too hard for our main-line audience,” says Officer. “And I’m like, ‘Who’s your main-line audience?’” Here in Canada, we imagine that we are somehow immune to racism, but a groundswell of activism by the likes of Cole, Officer and Black Lives Matter is working hard to disabuse us of that notion. “What’s the difference between the Mike Brown incident and the Andrew Loku incident?” Officer is talking about the 2015 police killing of Toronto resident Andrew Loku, a refugee and father of five from South Sudan with a history of mental illness. Though it galvanised the Toronto chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking major protests outside Toronto’s police headquarters, the incident is not nearly as well known as its American counterparts. To wit, it does not have a Wikipedia article. “Like really, what’s the difference?” remarks Officer with an ironic tone. “Not everyone in this country or even in this city knows about the Andrew Loku killing, but they know about Mike Brown…We in this country don’t pay attention to what’s going on here.” Ferguson, South Sudan, Toronto: the story that has been emerging in the reinvigorated interest in race in the Black Lives Matter era is international in scope. The Skin We’re In ventures abroad to Ferguson to meet with friends of Mike Brown including poet Marcellus Buckley. “Often the CBC was like, ‘We don’t need a scene in Ferguson. We don’t need to go to the United States. Let’s just keep it all in Canada.’ No—let’s go to the United States,” says Officer. “A border doesn’t take away or eliminate racist behaviour. It has no borders. It’s something that people are contending with all over.” The film also goes to the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, where Cole talks spring 2017
All images from Unarmed Verses (Charles Officer, 2016). Courtesy NFB.
about his parents, both born in Sierra Leone, and to Red Deer, Alberta, where Cole was born. “There’s a scene where we sit outside of the first house that he remembers that his parents came to,” Officer recalls. “It depressed him when he arrived. He felt that, ‘This isn’t anything like what I thought it was like.’ And the scene kind of fell apart, because he didn’t even want to get out of the car… He was so uncomfortable and emotionally couldn’t bring himself to go to the space.” Officer ended up cutting much of that display of vulnerability. Another of the CBC’s notes, says Officer, critiqued that representation. “They said, ‘We don’t learn anything about him…’ I’m like, ‘Well, what do you need to know about him?’” The choice to keep the focus on the issues and not on Cole was deliberate. “He’s inquisitive; he’s out in the community; he’s providing space and listening to what people have to say,” says Officer. “I was really thinking that, because often people are trying to discredit him as a journalist or question that, I didn’t want to present anyone with an arsenal of personal facts. “It was really a choice to protect him as well,” Officer goes on, “and allow for him to speak and have a certain space and be more direct, because I’ve never dealt with this subject head-on like that. It was important that we got little things about him, but you do get a sense of how he feels about this, because people want to call him a guru—like he’s our guru, he’s our guy, he’s supposed to teach us something new—and he doesn’t want to be that.” That sensitivity to the person behind the persona is pure Officer. He’s political, sure, but his big interest is in people. The linking of those scales—the human and the system—drives his best work. Officer’s juggling of those themes might arise out of his unique path to becoming a director. Many filmmakers are determined from a young age to make films; others try other arts or roles within film, like acting or writing, before getting there; others come at it from the humanities, journalism or activism. Officer’s background is completely different. “Hockey was my trajectory, was my life—it was my first obsession, and the first thing that I committed myself fully to,” says Officer. “When I was around 16, they were looking at me to go to American schools—Michigan State, Lake Superior State, St. Lawrence, Ohio. “I was drafted by the Sudbury Wolves and went to this training camp,” he goes on. “My mom is completely not a hockey person; she’s a Jamaican woman; she didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And she’s Jewish. She’s this black Jewish woman who married a Seventh Day Adventist man from England, and she would always observe the Sabbath. I started playing hockey, and you play on the Sabbath—you play whenever. She said, ‘You go play,’ so I’d go and play, and I got obsessed with this game. “When I got drafted to the OHL [Ontario Hockey League], I applied to OCAD [Ontario College of Art and Design, now OCADU] as well,” recalls Officer.
“They called my mom on the intercom phone in Sudbury with all these dudes, and they’re like, ‘He’s made the team, and we want him to stay.’ Her first question was, ‘Where’s he going to go to school?’ And they said, ‘Uh, well, he’ll go to Laurentian University,’ and she wants to know, ‘Well, what will he study?’ ‘Oh, we’ll get him into some sports medicine and some kinesiology’—they’re just Mickey Mousing it. She says to them, ‘Do you know he just got into one of the best art schools in the country?’ I’m like, ‘Don’t say art to these hockey guys!’ I’m sitting there knowing, “Oh man, now they think I’m this flake,” and whatever. Anyway, she says, ‘You’re coming home.’ So I got on the bus and I went home.” Instead, he went to go play in England—he had a passport courtesy of his British-born father, and the presence of family and his native language made it more inviting than offers from places like Germany. After a year there, the NHL’s Calgary Flames drafted Officer. “I found myself in Salt Lake City, Utah—which is so funny because I went to Sundance there years later, but my first introduction to that city was that that was where Calgary’s farm team was. I was thinking, ‘Whoa, this is a trip. My mom has no idea where I am; no one can see what I’m seeing.’ I was the only black person. It was so hard, and I was young, and I was wondering, ‘Will this be my life?’” An injury—which Officer thinks, in retrospect, was as psychological as physical—prompted him to rethink his trajectory. Officer ended up at OCAD for graphic design. Nevertheless, he says, “Sport has always been something special to me. I’ve learned so much about discipline and sacrifice—all these clichés that you hear about, but it’s so true—how to really give a shit about someone and put someone else first. I think that’s definitely been a tool that has helped me in filmmaking.” He recalls, “My last year at OCAD I auditioned for some things, like YTV shows, and I thought, ‘This is kind of fun; I should take an acting class.’ And then, just walking through the halls at OCAD, on the board with all the different advertisements there was one for an acting class. I took the whole flyer.” Officer hesitated for over a year before signing on. “Finally I get to Jacqueline McClintock’s class. I walk in and Sarah Polley’s there, Scott Speedman is there. That’s where I met Ingrid Veninger. It was crazy. David Wellington. Clement Virgo was in that class. It was nuts. Jacqueline had all the top amazing actors. But I had no clue who they were! “I wrote my first short, showed it to her and said, ‘I need a director.’ And Jacqueline said, ‘No, you have to direct it. You’re smart; you’ll figure it out.’ But I approached three different directors instead. My little six-page script, one guy was telling me I needed 350 grand. One guy took it and rewrote it to a half hour. Another person had this other vision for it, and I realised, ‘This is crazy.’ I ended up making When Morning Comes, and that’s what got me into TIFF in 2000. That’s what started everything. But it was Jacqueline who said, ‘You’ve got to do it. Only you know this story.’” Evidence of Officer’s circuitous route is plain to see in his films. Anybody familiar with Officer’s work knows that sports play a large role. Nurse.Fighter. Boy features acclaimed actor-director Clark Johnson as a boxer; he’s made documentaries about football player Chuck Ealey and runner Harry Jerome; and he’s directed three episodes of the CBC series 21 Thunder about an under-21 soccer team. “People are constantly approaching me about sports stuff,” he says. “‘Oh my god, you played hockey? We’ve got
this project…’” But he doesn’t feel trapped by that reputation. “I do think that there’s so much drama built into sport: You need to get there—what happens when you get there? You need to stay there. Losing money. The wives or the women not getting a fair shake, and all the dedication and time that you put into it. I do really love sport and what it does for the human spirit.” Officer’s Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story (2012) follows the acclaimed black quarterback’s return to his hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio with his daughter Jael. It was a deeply segregated town, divided by the railroad tracks where Chuck would throw stones at trains to practice his aim. Jael and Chuck recount the story of a 1962 heat wave and a whites-only pool. To beat the heat, black kids went to go swim in a quarry; there, one child, Chuck’s cousin Eugene McKinley, was pulled under by a current and drowned. Protests ensued, and a group of kids climbed over the fence and jumped in the pool.
“Finally I get to Jacqueline McClintock’s class. I walk in and Sarah Polley’s there, Scott Speedman is there. That’s where I met Ingrid Veninger. It was crazy. David Wellington. Clement Virgo was in that class.” —CHARLES OFFICER Ealey rose to fame as a quarterback with a threeyear undefeated career at the University of Toledo. He was passed over in the NFL draft after he let it be known that he only wanted to play quarterback at a time when no blacks had starting positions in that role in the U.S. pro ranks. Instead, Ealey signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL, winning a Grey Cup in his first year and having a successful career through the 1970s, which ended with an injury in 1978. The film is an example of how Officer makes “hired gun” projects his own, even when following a prescribed TV-doc format. “I needed to find my inpoint with him,” he says. As Jael notes early in the film, Ealey is a reserved person. “When you’re doing films about athletes everyone says, ‘You’ve gotta crack him,’” Officer says. “And I ask, ‘What do you mean by that? You just wanna see him cry? Or do you really want to get to know this man and why he’s been successful?’” To that end, Officer pursued the father-daughter angle. “The strategy was to get her involved in pulling some things out personally, because he’d talk to his daughter differently than he’d talk to me.” She ended up as a co-conspirator on the film. Officer’s other way in was the political-historical angle. At one point Chuck and Jael look at an Underground Railroad route that followed the river that runs through Portsmouth, Ohio. Officer found parspring 2017
allels of that in Ealey’s story of moving to Canada and finding success there. “I loved that angle, kind of giving Canada some props for giving somebody that otherwise wouldn’t have had that opportunity to do what they were meant to do,” says Officer. Officer’s first feature documentary was Mighty Jerome, about the controversial B.C.-born runner Harry Jerome. He recalls being influenced by Todd Haynes’ inventive Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007). In similar fashion—if not quite so aesthetically radical yet—Officer invites cross-pollination between his métiers. “[Making documentaries] allows me to actually see better how fiction should be,” he says. And it goes both ways: “My docs, I sort of plan them like fiction. I don’t write scripts of what people are going to say, but I think of the connectors.” In Mighty Jerome, he plotted documentary moments by confronting people with mementoes as if they were in a museum. “Wendy Jerome, his former wife, who was one of the first people I met on my development journey, took me to her basement and pulled out these eight big photo albums of everything that she’d kept on him as well as boxes of his shoes, his running blocks—even his blanket from Oregon. I said, ‘You have an art gallery here. We have to display this somehow.’ So I curated and blew up the images and designed all the text. I set one up in Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto, and no one I was going to interview knew. They’d get the address, and when they walked into the space they were immediately affected. They were looking at things, seeing a picture of themselves when they were younger and reacting, and we were just rolling film. I remember his mother in her wheelchair looking at images of her son, and she just started to weep. Eventually, I had to interrupt her to say, ‘We have to actually work now,’ because she was just going through and looking at everything.” In the end, not a ton of the interviews made it into the doc, but it helped to give Officer a sense of Jerome and the people he was dealing with, and from that came the structure of the film. Officer’s first—and, to date, only—feature drama, the Canadian Film Centre-produced Nurse.Fighter. Boy, is more obviously stylish than his docs. Nominated for 10 Genie Awards, it’s a strong debut that marshals lo-fi aesthetics and a strong sense of place to tell a moving and very particular story about the relationships between a boxer, a nurse with sicklecell anemia and her son in the east end of Toronto. It’s terrain that Officer was deeply familiar with: his sister had sickle-cell anemia, and he grew up in the neighbourhood the film is set in. The camaraderie among the boxers, which is shown in opposition to the underhanded ruthlessness of a fight promoter, is also one of the dramatic centres of the film and underscores Officer’s ongoing interest in sports. “I write about things from my experience and what I know,” says Officer, “but I think certain projects find you. I wasn’t seeking the Chuck Ealey story; I definitely wasn’t seeking the Jerome story. It found me, and I found a connection with it. Even with Des-
mond Cole, it kind of came through other folks—I was happy with him just being a writer; I didn’t immediately feel that here’s a guy I have to jump up and make a film with.” Unarmed Verses, Officer’s most recent NFB documentary film, is another project that clearly became personal to him. As the film begins, we see a development proposal sign—ubiquitous in gentrifying 21st century Toronto—in the Northeast Toronto housing project Villaways. Francine, the film’s 14-year-old central subject, expresses in voiceover her sadness and frustration with it: “They keep telling us they’re revitalizing it for us. It’s not really for us. It’s sad to see all of it go away.” This intrusion of politics and capitalism into personal space is a signal aspect of contemporary life and is a large part of what is recalibrating Officer’s cinema. Not to say that he ever had any illusions to the alternative, but he seems to be realizing that he can’t make personal dramas without grappling with larger systems of power. Just a minute later, he shows us some roughhousing boys and then the security camera watching them. “It’s very special to me, that film,” says Officer. There’s a scene in which Francine studies Edgar Allan Poe, surrounded by boisterous family members: “When I started filming that day with her, she said, ‘I just have some homework to do,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, cool,’ and she pulls out this freaking book. It took me a second, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Is this a joke?’ I certainly wasn’t reading this at her age. I wouldn’t even be breaking it down the way she was doing it—the way she just got into it and that sort of public solitude.” Unarmed Verses follows Francine in a class of kids learning to sing, rap, produce and make beats. Francine is shy but, in classic fashion, is coaxed out of her shell by the teachers. It’s a tough film that shows a side of Toronto we don’t often see. Unarmed Verses shows us poverty, displacement and broken institutions in a society in which the only white people are the ones on TV. Officer has deep respect for Francine, with whom he has stayed in touch as a friend and mentor. Linking the political and personal again, Officer tells us that to him, “This is what a black life mattering looks like.” Officer’s TV work got off to a bad start. “There was a little show called Hotel Babylon,” he recalls, “and I was involved in the pilot. After that experience I didn’t feel good about television—because of who I was working with. They just wanted the project for themselves. I think what I did then was I just kind of put all my negative energy on TV: that’s the way people operate in that space.” With a bit of help, Officer warmed up to TV again. “Da Kink in My Hair came around,” he recalls, “and I trusted those individuals. I was lucky there and had Tim Southam and certain folks who said, ‘Yeah, come shadow us.’ They were nurturers and showed me a different perspective about television. And then David Wellington, when I was acting on 11th Hour, he was a guy who I watched, and Steve DiMarco. They were guys who had a demeanour about them and they would say, ‘Come and watch this.’ I don’t think I would have done Rookie Blue and Saving Hope if it wasn’t for David Wellington constantly reaching out. I knew that a lot of directors wanted to get in there, so I said, at this point, it’s hard to get an opportunity—I have to do this.” His most recent TV work has been three episodes for 21 Thunder. “I directed on Saving Hope,” recalls Officer. “I did Malcolm MacRury’s episode. He’s a
showrunner on 21 Thunder and one of the writers on that, so he was interested in us working together, which I was so grateful for.” Officer talks about gaining the confidence of the cast and crew by finding mistakes, like plot holes. “I think it’s [a sign] that you’ve really taken in the material. I try to find something that they missed. Not just a typo, but some connector. It tells them that you’re paying attention and that the material is in good hands.” It was an incredible amount of work, but he loved it. “It was a very ambitious show, all on location, and they didn’t get the budget that they wanted. But they still went forward, so the schedule was just insane. I had a half hour to shoot a scene—there was no scene in any episode that would take a half hour to shoot. Like, no. So it was like these fudged sort of numbers for the day—like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re on a 12-hour day.’ Actually, no—it’s 14. It’s 15. Let’s get real.” Plus, there was the schedule: “Usually you have seven days per episode. I shot all three in 18 days.”
“I wasn’t seeking the Chuck Ealey story; I definitely wasn’t seeking the Harry Jerome story. It found me, and I found a connection with it.” —CHARLES OFFICER The actors presented another challenge. Their experience ranged from first-timers to… Colm Feore. “They all need different things,” says Officer. “It was amazing; I think they’re an incredible group and really talented, but there’s definitely room for improvement. They’re being pushed in ways they’ve never been pushed before…” As for Feore, Officer is effusive: “He just brings a whole other level. It’s crazy because they were trying to get a name actor for that role, so they moved all those days that I was shooting with him in prison to the end of the entire shoot. I already had my episodes cut with these holes in it. Colm came in and I worked with him for three days straight. He’s incredible. Everything he’s in, he lights it up. It’s a real difference when you work with a pro who’s so invested and thinks and is fluid and easy to communicate with.” Officer is always looking for new opportunities to challenge himself and grow as an artist, as a person and as part of the communities he’s in. “I was at an acting class on the weekend,” he says. “But not because I want to show off my acting skills. Being around actors, they see that I’m there, that I’m actually watching how they’re developing. I’m learning new ways of communicating with them. It really informs the writing too—just watching them and how they behave and hearing about character and how you can get into developing character. “I still feel like—God willing and the creek don’t rise—my best work is still to come. I’m not even close to being done yet.”
Daniel Glassman writes about film and music. He lives in Toronto. spring 2017
CREATIVITY AMID THE CUTS
THOM FITZGERALD ON NAVIGATING THROUGH FUNDING SETBACKS AND SPLINTERING AUDIENCES 44
Thom Fitzgerald gets very blunt when asked about coping as a filmmaker amid so many funding cuts. “I masturbate a lot or the stress would kill me,” he says.
Such frankness shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to followers of the Halifax-based filmmaker, who has written and directed an array of unusual low-budget feature films as well as two critically acclaimed TV series. He has created a body of work that includes Beefcake (1998), a docudrama about the gay subtext running through ‘50s fitness magazines that has become a cult phenomenon; the lesbian comedy road movie Cloudburst (2011); and the gritty and often brutal TV show about domestic violence and its repercussions, Sex and Violence. Fitzgerald has picked up a bounty of awards and accolades along the way, and has done so defiantly from his Halifax home base. On the surface, his oeuvre may seem varied, but the Fitzgerald universe is unmistakable: his vision is marked by a sharp, wry sense of humour as well as marginalised (often queer) characters. His protagonists—and he has a particular strength depicting complex women characters—are often at odds with a mainstream culture that is absurd and unjust. He first burst onto the scene in 1997, when his debut feature, The Hanging Garden, took its bow at TIFF. A bidding war ensued, and suddenly everyone was fascinated in this low-budget wonder about a grown man who returns to his hometown to revisit his uncomfortable, repressed childhood and adolescence. It was one of the most auspicious debuts in Canadian film history and a distinctly unusual and inspired film. Those, as they say, were the good old days. Since then, many independent distributors have closed their doors, festivals have been deluged with a burgeoning amount of content, TV has supplanted cinema as the goal for many writers and directors and the internet has enabled an unprecedented level of piracy. Government funding, something essential for the Canadian film and TV business, hasn’t always remained steady. Some governments (like the federal Liberals) see the benefits of subsidies to the arts, but many provincial governments have made austerity a priority. For his part, Fitzgerald is philosophical about the major changes in the cultural industries. “Look, we go through periods of shake up, seismic shifts, in showbiz. This is one of them, around the globe and especially in my community. Nova Scotia eliminated its film equity investment program and froze the East Link Fund and diminished its tax incentive all at once, so I certainly felt change last year.” He concedes this has led to personal frustrations for him and roadblocks for his own projects. “I coped with the loss of half the funding on the third season of Sex & Violence by shooting half the number of episodes. I wish I had a more clever solution [laughs]. But we rolled with those punches. Signs are that the local situation is starting to improve again. In the big picture, audiences are fracturing into smaller audiences, and along with that sometimes we see diminished resources. But that should also mean more diversity in the
Opposite page: Thom Fitzgerald. Photo: Shaun SImpson
by MATTHEW HAYS
kinds of stories we tell, so I remain optimistic.” The variety of Fitzgerald’s projects is matched by the versatility of his roles: he writes, directs, produces and acts in film, TV and theatre. The writing process is the beginning for him, and discussing that topic brings us back to government purse strings: “Nova Scotia also eliminated its script development program. Telefilm has really narrowed its development priorities as well. But script development takes a long time, so I haven’t really felt that as much yet. Linda Wood at FCINS [Film and Cultural Industries, Nova Scotia] and Stephanie Azam at Telefilm seemed to remain supportive for as long as they could.” Fitzgerald describes the process now as involving far more juggling of various projects—something he doesn’t see as entirely negative. “I’ve not yet seen any diminishment in my writerly obligations, to be honest. I suppose as the available dollars have diminished, I’m writing more, not less. When there was greater development support I could sometimes focus on one screenplay for a longer period of time and get really immersed in it. Now I juggle more things to make the same money. I’m not complaining. I enjoy the creativity of it.” The funding situation requires greater independence, and as a creative writer, Fitzgerald views that as a bonus. “I never flourished in a highly structured development pipeline. I hated writing those 20-page treatments with all plot and no dialogue. I think a character’s voice, a spoken line of dialogue, is a perfectly good starting point for a story. What a protagonist says out loud can change everything. That’s as important to a story as action. I also sometimes find it hard to muster enthusiasm to return to a script over the months it takes to raise a subsequent round of government funding. My muse doesn’t give a shit about waiting for the packaging phase decisions. It’s inorganic. But that’s business.” Despite all the shifts in technology, the consumption habits of viewers and the funding blips, Fitzgerald has maintained a very strong and consistent style. He laughs when I call him a genre-buster or genreblender. “I do like to blend genres a little. The Hanging Garden is a surrealist kitchen-sink drama. Beefcake is a docu-comedy. Cloudburst is a road trip romance. Forgive Me is a drama with threads of supernatural horror. I tend to find a comfort zone in between genres because I feel it allows for multiple interpretations. “My background is in visual art, an art form where the viewer is much more often asked to bring their own interpretation to the experience. I like to afford viewers space to make some choices either intellectually or emotionally.” But he is quick to add that he isn’t the same director he was when he made The Hanging Garden. “As a director, I’ve evolved. I used to approach a movie like a painting. I chose the colour of every wall and every costume. Over time I’ve learned to find the beauty and the ugly in the world without having to build it from scratch. I’m not much one for analysing my work. I consider my films to be optimistic. I’m fascinated by people’s contradictions, fragility and ferocity. I’m sure that comes through in the work.” Fitzgerald is keenly aware that many see his films as being about underdogs facing off against maddening forces. He insists his interests lie mainly in the personal rather than political, and that he doesn’t ruminate about audience numbers much. “I’m an empathetic guy. My heart breaks for people’s struggles fairly regularly. For me, inspiration is extremely personal. I’m aware that some people interpret my films as overtly political. I wrote about people with AIDS in 3 Needles
“Pulling together resources to tell LGBT stories remains a bigger challenge, and I imagine that’s true of movies made for any niche demographic. I hear the darnedest things. ‘There’s no audience for this’ is a common one I still hear, no matter how often it’s disproved. Left, top to bottom: Cloudburst (Thom Fitzgerald, 2011). Courtesy Thom Fitzgerald. The Wild Dogs (Thom Fitzgerald, 2002). Photo: Diana Gursca. Sex and Violence (TV miniseries, 2013-present). Courtesy Thom Fitzgerald. Right: Cinematographer Tom Harting (left) and Thom Fitzgerald on the set of The Wild Dogs. Photo: Diana Gursca.
LGBT audiences will flock to tent poles, but they also want to see well-crafted LGBT stories. Business folks should understand that a narrow demographic is still a big audience.” —THOM FITZGERALD
 because I saw so many friends get AIDS and in many cases die. It was personal, even if I was asking global-scale questions about why. “When I wrote Cloudburst, I wasn’t thinking about same-sex marriage as a social issue. I was navigating my own evolving feelings about marriage as it applies directly to me. As much as I admire those artists who think in terms of what an audience wants, like ‘50 million people play this video game, thus a certain percentage will pay to see a movie based on it,’ I’ve never managed to think such thoughts. I’m hopelessly introspective. That said, there is a bit of a ‘ripped from the headlines’ aspect to Sex & Violence.” Topical stories, like LGBT ones, can be a tougher sell. But Fitzgerald is heartened to see genuine efforts to diversify the talent pool along the lines of sex, gender, race and sexual orientation. “The US is 66 percent ‘white’ and Canada is 89 percent ‘white.’ A province like Nova Scotia is 94 percent ‘white.’ In a way, that means Canada has to work harder to bring minority voices to the table. We need to aim for overrepresentation of minority populations in the arts because if we go by the statistics alone we’ll end up with a fairly homogenous and inaccurate cultural voice. You can see how one production like The Book of Negroes seems to open doors for a Studio Black and Black Cop. It can make such a dramatic impact in terms of opportunity and growth in a place like Nova Scotia.” And the work environment for gay men specifically? “Conditions seem better for gay white male directors than for women or people of colour, but I shouldn’t speak to what I don’t know. I’m off in my corner of the world doing my thing. I haven’t really gone out in the world looking for a job directing a Jason Statham action movie or anything. Well, not yet. I feel the extra hurdles as a producer. Pulling together resources to tell LGBT stories remains a bigger challenge, and I imagine that’s true of movies made for any niche demographic. I hear the darnedest things. ‘There’s no audience for this’ is a common one I still hear, no matter how often it’s disproved. LGBT audiences will flock to tent poles, but they also want to see well-crafted LGBT stories. Business folks should understand that a narrow demographic is still a big audience.” Fitzgerald concedes that when the creative juices are flowing, film and TV are extremely collaborative media. “My vision gets influenced and changed by the cinematographer’s vision and the actor’s vision and the designer’s vision. It’s a bizarre accident of fate if I ever see a shot that looks exactly like the image in my head when I wrote it. I try to convey my vision and then everyone else dives in and they make it better or smarter or more credible or more orange or whatever. I rarely get stuck on a vision that I hammer into existence. That would be wasting everyone else’s imaginations.” Fitzgerald says this teamwork is imperative, and gaining the trust of his cast and crew is vital to making each project work, both on set and ultimately on screen. “If my job is to direct, I direct. I don’t leave people hanging. If I don’t know the answer to their question, I tell them so, but I offer direction anyway. I
am open regarding my weaknesses. Capable and talented people would rather feel genuinely needed for their specific talents than feel like soldiers in battle. That said, I don’t always win everyone’s confidence. It’s best when everyone gives everyone else the benefit of the doubt, but that’s not human nature. We talk about abstract things all day: emotion, intent, subtext, colour, depth, shadow. “Trying to find the right way to talk to each artist is a challenge. I keep trying until I find it, but once in a while I fail. I’m honest with others if I think they’ve failed. But every day and every scene is different— there’s a weakness in there somewhere, but there’s also some amazing unexpected strength: a great performance or a great bit of lighting or prop, costume or set piece. Something unexpected. A scene sometimes gets built around an unexpected bit of genius that someone brings to it. If I can find and capture that bit of brilliance, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t get what I thought I wanted when we arrived at work. We got something better. I try to make sure that everyone working on my set knows that their own effort, their own bit of brilliance, may shine through on screen.” When I ask Fitzgerald what the toughest roadblocks are when creating something for the screen, he doesn’t hesitate with a response. “It’s generally ego that trips us up, isn’t it? Mine or someone else’s. Fear, more precisely. We’re all walking around terrified of fucking up, when fucking up is a necessary part of the process. Doing a scene badly is an essential step in recognising when it’s good. Thing is, every film is always a new cast and crew. We don’t know each other’s idiosyncrasies and triggers. Yet we get put together often in confined spaces for 12 hours a day and we try to function as a cohesive creative force. There are going to be conflicts. For me, the solution is pushing ahead. Always keep moving forward. I’ve never had the budget or time to indulge anyone’s bad behaviour or bad luck, even mine.” And then, he pauses. And responds with a bruising personal story. “Two years ago, when we were shooting Sex & Violence my brother went into a coma in New York. I had to go see my brother and my family. Yet I couldn’t stop the shoot. I begged Shandi Mitchell, who had worked with me as an AD in the beginning of my career and is now a wonderful director, to please direct for several days. She wouldn’t even have a chance to read the scripts. Shandi kindly and bravely pulled it off. The cast and crew pulled it off. My brother died, and I got to see him and tell him I loved him. But when I returned, I was not my best. And you know what? The cast and the crew stepped up. They pulled me along and lifted me up and the show got made. “Some days can go sour over the little things but when the big hurts come, people pull together.”
Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, POV, Vice and the Toronto Star. He teaches courses in film studies at Concordia University and Marianopolis College and is the co-editor (with Tom Waugh) of the Queer Film Classics book series.
PARTING SHOT 48
Remembering Rob Gray (1962-2016)
Andrew Currie, director Rob had this beautiful, rough-around-the-edges surface and a passionate, deeply artistic soul. From the detail of his props to his perfectly designed sets and his beautiful full-colour drawings that made us all see with better eyes, he was the perfect production designer. I love and miss him. David Hackl, director and production designer Rob was my best friend and direct contemporary during my production design years. While we never worked together, he was always there to bounce ideas off of and to pick me up after a hard week with his courage, enthusiasm and creativity. His love of life and his craft would fill up all those around him and give us strength to charge back into the battle with renewed passion. Angus Fraser, writer and producer Working with Rob Gray, one never felt more creatively alive. I think of the 11pm conversations on set, or in a bar, followed by the 1am call from him saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve figured it out!”—and without fail he had. Those are the moments when you are reminded of why you got in the game. He was a risk taker. Rob showed that if you cut his leash, you would learn more about yourself and your work—whether you were a writer, director, or actor—through the worlds he created. I distinctly remember walking alone through one of his sets and marveling, with a rush, what it would be like to live in this world. It was that intense, perfect homage to vision and detail. Rob worked at a high bar, one that always inspired me. Kari Skogland, director Rob’s ability to see the right and just path as a creative tour de force will continue to be my inspiration. Christine Haebler, producer Rob’s sets had a bold signature. He had a deep respect for architecture and his vision always included a wink to the Artist: to paintings, sculptures or photographs that resonated. Marilyn Flak, Rob’s partner and producer Rob loved his work—really loved his work—and he loved to excel at it. He was always ready to meet any design challenge head-on, and was joyously eager to share his work with the girls and myself. Whether it was bringing us to set, having us travel with him, or sending daily updates and snapshots of his endeavours, Rob engaged us all in his creative process. And, as a family, I may say that we were all very grateful and proud that he was able to manifest so much of his creative passion whilst earning a healthy livelihood. Scott Smith, director Rob would set the highest bar, and then show us all how to get there. His powerful drawings would inspire what your movie could look like. He taught me that even the set painter told the story, through colour, calculated disrepair and high-traffic smudges. He was indispensable.
Opposite page: Rob Gray. Photo: Tony Pantages. Below, left to right: Production design for Moby DIck (Mike Barker, 2011). Actual ship from Moby Dick. Rob Gray in his studio. Falling Skies (TV series, 2011–2015). Production sketch for Falling Skies. All images courtesy Rob Gray.
PARTING SHOT 50
Jennifer Kawaja, producer Rob had guts. He was decisive in his work as a designer and he never settled for the in-between. On Combat Hospital he had the courage to make it real; but he knew the laws of TV and what the camera would need. On Cardinal, he had the courage to stay away from “quaint” and to create a different world, both lived-in and stark, in order for the story to feel suspended in mid-air. He was a filmmaker, a creator, who understood all the pieces of the puzzle and how they needed to fit together. We trusted his judgment and vision. What I loved was that when something wasn’t good enough, he would come and say so. Always in time for us to try to fix it. John Beattie, construction coordinator Rob Gray had that rare ability to convey everything that he wanted his set to be, by using illustrations (painted by him), wild hand gestures, full body gyrations, facial expressions, sound effects, old war stories, jokes, laughter and a few expletives. And every set was perfect! Mike Barker, director It is impossible to sum Rob up in one sentence. If I were to try, I’d say he made me a better director. Rob taught me to not give up on a vision. He was relentless in the pursuit of the perfect image. His passion was infectious and his skill precise. He was the best collaborator I ever had. I love him and I miss him. Tim Southam, director Going to an art gallery with Rob was a commitment and an epiphany. It took us a day to get through the Frick, a day to take in two floors at MOMA. Rob would stand, and stand, and stand, as people flowed around him, even through him, refusing to move on until each painting released its secret to him. This was the gift he brought to all our films. A gift of infinite, intense discovery. Bruce McDonald, director On our projects Rob was Philosopher, Father, Champion, Provocateur, Artist, Storyteller and Production Designer. He drew all his sets. He even drew sets that were not in the script to further illuminate the characters and the world. Colour spoke to him. Rather than draw examples from other movies, Rob found his prime references in painting, photography and life experience. Wine and music fuelled the journey. He reached beyond the often-meagre limitations of the budget. Rob was able to find style in the ordinary and real life in the “Let’s Pretend.” He found excellence in what was meant to be just good enough. He challenged producers to “Bring it.” He challenged me to be daring. Brave. He challenged writers to push it. He challenged his crews to dig it. Love it. He challenged himself to kill it. To be the best. And he was. Rob Gray was The Best. Grace Gilroy, production manager and producer Rob was a master of the battle both in life and art. He always knew which battles he could win and which ones he had to give up on. He would marshal his troops and off they would go. And the results were beyond what we could have imagined. For those of us who were lucky enough to have crossed paths with him, that call to battle will always be with us urging us on. His last battle was the hardest of all but once again, he soldiered on and called it a day.
Below, left to right: A house from Fido (Andrew Currie, 2006). A hive from Falling Skies. Sons of Liberty (Kari Skogland, 2015). All images courtesy Rob Gray.
“ The AFC’s support came at a time when we were very close to the edge ... when we were at our most vulnerable.” Our son Benjamin Waterhouse-Currie was born at 24 weeks and five days, weighing 1lb 6oz. Ben spent 11 months in hospital, had many surgeries, endless medications, a breathing apparatus and oxygen for two years, and a feeding tube for three.
And yet, we’ve all been incredibly lucky. By 4, Ben didn’t need oxygen, a feeding tube or any medications. He’s now seven years old and a smart, funny, talented singer who keeps defying early predictions. When Ben was 8 months old, his lead respirologist had told us that his lungs would develop, but “he probably won’t become an opera singer”- well, as of last week, Ben has just been invited to join the Canadian Children’s Opera. Hardship always comes with these stories. ‘How did you get through it?’ was the question most often asked. But you quickly realize the answer is that you do. We had amazing support from friends, family and people we hardly knew. The AFC’s support came at a time when we were very close to the edge, early in Ben’s life, when we were at our most vulnerable. To use a driving metaphor, we were on a high mountain road, a steep cliff on both sides. It was dark, and raining, and we were really tired. It’s not that we needed anyone to drive the car, we just needed someone to take the wheel for a little while. Our friends and family and The AFC did that for us, and for that we will be forever grateful. MARY ANNE WATERHOUSE Producer/Production Manager and DGC Member ANDREW CURRIE Writer/Director and DGC Member
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