Talking to DGC Members from across our country about their craft
In honour of National Canadian Film Day, we asked DGC Production Designers Chris Crane (Filthy City, Clara, Blood & Water) and Zosia Mackenzie (The Other Half, Mean Dreams, I Put a Hit on You) what about Canada inspires their art.
Is there an iconic Canadian film that galvanized your desire to become a Production Designer? What about this film’s design inspired you?
CC: I wouldn’t say there was any one in particular, but growing up in Toronto as a kid, I was always fascinated when films were shot in and around my parents’ area. I really like the film LAST NIGHT directed by Don McKellar, because a lot of it was shot in the Weston Road and Lawrence Ave area where I grew up. I loved seeing how they changed out signage and redressed parts of streets to seem like they were in a totally different area. David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS really showed off a lot of the downtown core and Bay Street area, an area my mother worked in when I was young. Films like these showed off Toronto in a way that I thought was visually interesting and comparable to American films being shot in NYC and LA. It was exciting to see the possibilities of taking places that looked familiar to me, but making them look completely different when shown on screen.
DEAD RINGERS (PD: Carol Spier, Dir: David Cronenberg)
ZM: I really admire the work of Carol Spier, her designs for David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS in particular, made a big impression upon me. I love the modern furnishings in the Mantle twins’ apartment, the sterility of their private clinic, and the fact that the film was set in Toronto, which is where I live and often work. My favourite films feature iconic designs that complement, rather than distract, from the story being acted out onscreen.
LAST NIGHT (PD: John Dondertman, Dir: Don McKellar)
How do you work with the Locations Department and the Director to bring out the visual elements of Canada in your production design?
CC: If a project is specifically set in Canada (like Toronto, Vancouver, or even Sudbury) then embracing the cityscapes, the local architecture and the land, the local terrain and the nature of the area helps elevate the overall look and design of a project. Once we start to put together great exteriors, that can directly inform colours, as well as the look and feel of everything from character-based apartments, to the look of the local diner. It all begins to work as one.
OPERATION AVALANCHE (PD: Chris Crane)
ZM: I always work very closely with the Director and Locations department to create a visual identity for each film. The process varies depending on setting and subject matter but generally we try for locations that fit the story and already have strong visual elements that we can enhance through production design. Great locations are especially important for indie features because building sets from scratch isn’t always an option given the overall budget.
MEAN DREAMS (PD: Zosia McKenzie)
What advantage does a Canadian Production Designer have over Production Designers located anywhere else in the world?
ZM: We have a solid economic support system and growing infrastructure, which means there are always great projects to choose from. We also have tons of talented crew across the country with the experience to help bring each script to life. All of these elements have helped build a strong Canadian film community and a diverse range of creative opportunities.
CC: I don’t think there are advantages or disadvantages to being a Production Designer in Canada, versus anywhere else. Wherever you work as a Production Designer in film, you find talented people to work with and make the best possible project you can.
Talking to DGC Members from across our country about their craft
Your recent doc The Skin We’re In has been getting a lot of media attention. How did the concept for the documentary come together and what were some of the highlights and challenges?
The project came together following the Toronto Life story The Skin I’m In written by Desmond Cole. He revealed a personal and honest account of his experiences with anti-black racism and racial profiling by Police. There were a few production companies interested in telling Desmond’s story, one of them was 90th Parallel headed by Gordon and Stuart Henderson. I worked with Gordon Henderson years ago on a project featuring Chuck Ealey for the Engraved on a Nation series. The concept for The Skin We’re In evolved through many conversations about community and our collective experiences as black people in Canada. We wanted to trace our history dating back to 1783, and draw a straight line to the racial tendencies of today. From Toronto, to Nova Scotia, to Red Deer, to Ferguson, we collected stories of racial struggle that run generations deep. The highlight of the process was connecting with so many people who wanted to share their experiences and just wanted to be heard. We collected hours of rich material and the challenge was streamlining scenes into a one-hour television presentation. Since the premiere, we have received positive responses where constructive ideas are exchanged. There were challenging comments too, where people in Canada don’t believe racism is a self-imposed matter. It is challenging when one speaks of a personal experience and it is met with un-informed resistance.
You have a feature length documentary that will be premiering at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary festival this month. Could you talk about the making of it and what you learned in the process?
I am excited to present the world premiere of Unarmed Verses at Hot Docs, it's a world-class festival. The film was produced by Lea Marin and executive produced by Anita Lee at the National Film Board. I could not have made this film without the support and trust they offered throughout the process. I am grateful for that. Set in an isolated Toronto Community Housing neighbourhood, Unarmed Verses takes a poetic and cinematic focus on Francine Valentine, an insightful 12-year-old girl who gives voice to the voiceless as City Council, developers and architects promise a fresh start with plans to revitalize the community. Through Francine, we render what it is like for a low-income family confronting inevitable relocation. The film is like a time capsule that offers an intimate perspective of a community. Moments you won’t see reported on the news.
You are an actor as well as a Director. What advice do you have for Directors looking to improve their working relationship with actors?
Actors have their individual ways of working and personalities. For me, that’s the exciting part. It is challenging working with a large cast and building healthy communications with each actor. Directors have their individual ways as well. I am still learning with each project and holding myself accountable for the performances that come across. I think it is important for directors to evaluate how we communicate with actors. From our first conversations, rehearsal (if you’re lucky), read-throughs to on-set etc. Sitting in acting classes from time to time, I see a range of actors working through it. See what they go through before they arrive on set. It is a useful experience for me. Directing television, you see an audition tape, you meet at the read-through, and you’re on set in "go-mode".
What are your upcoming projects and what do you hope to do more of in the future?
An upcoming project that I am excited about is the CBC premiere of 21 Thunder this June. It is an eight episode dramatic Series created by Riley Adams, Kenneth Hirsch and Adrian Wills with Malcolm MacRury as showrunner. The story is set around the Montreal Thunder U21 soccer team, on and off the field. Love, crime, race, sex and athletic glory intersect for a group of players one-step away from the pros. I had an incredible time directing three episodes on location in Montreal with a fantastic crew. Jim Donovan and Jerry Ciccoritti also had directing duties. I am mostly looking forward to the exposure the amazing young cast of 21 Thunder deserves. Currently, I am re-writing a feature project, Akilla’s Escape and a four-part mini-series based on the Mordecai Richler novel, Son of a Smaller Hero. I also begin production on a documentary about Antoine de St. Exupery’s novella Le Petit Prince.
Could you talk about your history with the DGC? How has it helped you in achieving your goals?
I joined the DGC in 2007 when I landed my first half-hour on the comedy Da Kink In My Hair. Fortune would have me meet Tim Southam who was also directing on the show. I had the opportunity to watch him closely and he was generous and supportive at such an early stage of my learning. The DGC has offered me access to members like Tim Southam, Sturla Gunnarsson, David Wellington, T.W. Peacocke, Kari Skogland, Gail Harvey, and Clement Virgo, who have all helped in my growth and continue to inspire me.
Charles Officer holds citizenship in Canada and the United Kingdom. He studied at Cambridge University and graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design. Charles worked as a graphic designer and creative director in Toronto before attending the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York. In 2002, Charles completed the Director Lab at the Canadian Film Centre with Short Hymn_Silent War (TIFF 2002, Sundance 2004) and earned his first Genie nomination in 2004. His debut feature Nurse.Fighter.Boy, premiered at TIFF in 2008, screened internationally and garnered 10 Genie nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. Charles made Playback magazine’s “10 to Watch” list in 2009 and received the Ontario Premier’s Emerging Artist Award that same year. His documentary, Mighty Jerome, won four Leo Awards and a 2012 Regional Emmy Award. He was also the recipient of Hot Docs’ Don Haig Award of Merit in 2012. Charles followed with Engraved on a Nation documentary series, which won a 2014 Canadian Screen Award. He has directed episodes of acclaimed television series Rookie Blue, Saving Hope, Private Eyes and recently worked on the new CBC drama 21 Thunder. Unarmed Verses is his latest feature documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada that will premiere at Hot Docs 2017.
DGC DIRECTOR: BRUCE MCDONALD
Your film Weirdos is set in post-Vietnam America. What did you do to try and convey this period in an authentic way?
Music from the period sure helped a lot. Stock footage on the TV of the Bicentennial helped a lot too. We also had four cars which we used again and again. And of course, our terrific Production Designer Matt Likely and Costume Desinger Bethana Briffett, who pulled out all the stops to take us to the sweet 70s.
What did you find compelling about Weirdos and what made you decide to work on this film?
I developed the script with the writer Daniel MacIvor, who brought a 3 sentence pitch to me. I liked the clarity and the humour of it so I supported him in writing a script. I loved the Nova Scotia setting, the sunny summer road trip and the well drawn story.
How did you go about the casting of your two teenage leads?
We saw lots of people. The male lead went to Dylan Authors, who I worked with on a movie called The Husband. The female lead, Julia Sarah Stone, was introduced to me by agent Murray Gibson, who was Molly Parker's agent and the first one on board.
Were you influenced by the road movie cannon and what elements of this genre did you use in the film?
I was influenced most recently by a movie called NEBRASKA. It's a contemporary road movie shot in black and white by Alexander Payne. I guess I loved the look and the pace and the casting of that movie very much. The film was a big influence on me.
You've been successful in a directing career where you do both TV and independent film. What advice do you have for directors who are looking to work on both episodic television and passion projects?
Use the riches from the world of episodic to help develop great stories that don't necessarily have to be written by you. If you're fortunate enough to work in both TV and film, they are both amazing worlds and feed into each other very well. The great actors and crews on Series are often very helpful in the creation of independent work and the economy and smarts of independent work can also be very useful when applied to series work.
What is your history with the DGC and how has it has helped in your professional development?
I was fortunate to become a member when I began working in television. Being part of the Guild has introduced me to a whole world of terrifically creative people. Passionate people, who continue to inspire me to try to hit the toppermost of the poppermost.
This Friday, March 17th, The Directors Guild of Canada, TIFF and Films We Like are delighted to present: WEIRDOS, a new film by Award Winning DGC Director Bruce McDonald.
Bruce McDonald is a Canadian director known for his irreverent, eclectic style and his love of music and pop culture. After breaking out with his debut feature Roadkill, he has gone on to direct numerous other acclaimed films including Hard Core Logo, The Tracy Fragments and Pontypool. He currently lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter, enjoys Italian food and loves the great album Bitches Brew.
Feature films Include:
The Husband 2013
Hard Core Logo II 2010
This Movie is Broken 2010
The Tracey Fragments 2007
Claire?s Hat 2002
Picture Claire 2001
Hard Core Logo 1996
Dance Me Outside 1994
Highway 61 1991
What is your process for editing? Do you have a signature style? If so how did you develop it?
I feel like it’s a strange idea that an editor would have a certain style. Certainly I subscribe to certain philosophies and I have my own tastes and preferences that inform my choices. But ultimately the film should dictate the editorial style, I believe the editing should embody the characters in the film. It’s hard to show boredom without letting the images play. Conversely if the character is meant to be upset or confused, you’ll want the viewer to experience a similar sensation. That is generally the starting point for me when I’m cutting a scene: What is it about? What are they feeling? What do we need to feel? That will often guide us to certain takes or shots and the scene will begin coming together. If it’s about a phone call, let’s start on the phone. If it’s about a group of people and their specific dynamic, let’s start wide and show them interacting. I think that is the editor’s job, most of the time, to take the footage and apply the cinematic language that will best tell the story and express the feeling. Most things we do in the editing room are geared towards this, whether it’s reshaping the story in a non-linear way or eliminating plot lines and characters that are taking away from the film’s intended expression. As I gain more experience, I am drifting towards a more simplistic ideal. The movie can’t be overly stylish if we don’t have a solid base for the story. That is always where I start, with the script and any work we need to do on the story telling. Then, as we shape the story on screen, we add any flourishes that can help enhance the feeling and narrative. It’s very much about remaining in the audience’s point of view. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is what the audience doesn’t know about the film’s intention. We as the filmmakers know that the girl is angry because her friend stole her favourite pen, but has that been clearly expressed in the film? Or to a greater extent, is the audience feeling that the film is about God or Racism or Sexual Identity? I always try to make sure we’re laying down those foundations from the beginning, and the film generally tells us where to go once we have figured out how to properly “announce” ourselves.
Can you talk a bit about your current projects and what you hope to be working on in the future?
I recently finished a pilot called The Sinner with my friend Antonio Campos and it was just picked up for the series. It’s a psychological crime mystery thing starring Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman. I’m not sure what’s happening next. There are a few films that I’m hoping will happen in the spring. At the moment, I’m excited to take a little break.
You’ve worked on a variety of acclaimed films from Swiss Army Man to James White to Enemy to Sensitive Skin. What has been your favourite project to work on to date and why?
That’s not an easy question to answer. I’ve been very lucky in my career and I feel fortunate that I happened into all of my past projects. From the beginning, I have had immense support from amazing mentors like Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar and Niv Fichman. That was my real film school and I cannot express what a wonderful and profound experience I had working with those guys. Enemy was a special experience, we had so much room to experiment and stretch that film into what it is. It’s a movie that I am very, very proud of; the people who made it put such amazing effort into letting Denis experiment and explore. I think the film shows that and I’m proud to have played any part in making it happen. James White was a huge challenge and very rewarding. I lived with the director and went through an intensely emotional experience making a movie that was largely about his life. It was very satisfying to work with the Borderline Films guys. I’m a fan, and it’s a relationship that I hold very close. They are a genuine and pure representation of American independent filmmaking. Most recently, Swiss Army Man completely energized me and was a welcome reminder of how much we can do in the editing room. At a certain point, it’s very easy to settle into your routine and trusted methods. Working with two guys who invented their own filmmaking style that heavily relies on post production really revitalized my process and reminded me how much can be done just in the timeline. I am very grateful to have dipped into their world.
How has the DGC helped you in your professional development and in achieving your goals as an editor?
When I joined the Guild, I was so focused on just working that I didn’t really stop to think about how it would impact my career. Over the years I have had the privilege of being around editors who have been members for much longer than myself. Ultimately I think that is what the Guild is, a group that supports each other and ensures that our industry remains viable and fair. No matter how involved I choose to be, I feel confident that my investment in this group extends to all of the members as we all grow together. Being a member of the Guild allows me to be considered alongside editors whom I admire and when I’m lucky enough to work with them, I always find that my craft improves. Most importantly, I try to remember that this is our livelihood and not a hobby… the Guild ensures that it remains such.
What is something you’ve learned working on a variety of film and television that you’d want to share with other editors?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that you can always fix it (and that’s when it gets good). Sometimes it gets really hard - things aren’t playing right, you don’t have the footage you need, the material isn’t strong enough. Whatever the case, there are endless challenges when editing a project. The most important thing I try to remember is that there is usually some tool you haven’t thought of that will help. So I guess what I’ve learned is to never give up until you feel like you’re happy with every frame. This gets especially hard when the days are running out and the deadline is coming fast, but I try embrace those constraints. It’s never too late for a 3-pointer, and it’s usually easier to score them when the clock is running out. Early in my career I was on set and I saw the director really upset the crew by doing some extra shooting when everyone was tired. I asked him how he felt about being the bad guy, and his response was: “I’m never going to be here again, so I want to make sure I do the best I can". I've never forgotten that. You don’t get another chance, so it’s important to make sure you've looked in every corner if you still haven’t found it.
What advice do you have for editors looking to get good projects in this very competitive landscape?
Trust your peers, and keep working together. In my experience you never know where your perfect project is going to come from. It’s impossible to guess and position yourself into some fantasy you have. So just keep working with the people you believe in and eventually you’ll be doing the stuff together that you want to be doing. My first feature came from cutting a behind-the-scenes featurette for the director’s previous film. Everyone I know who is happily editing things they love has trusted and cherished their relationships. Loyalty goes a long way in this business and if you support the people you believe in they’re going to be that much stronger.
Matthew Hannam is a Canadian editor based in Toronto and Los Angeles. He has been editing Movies and Television for the past 12 years and has had the pleasure of working with some really great Directors. Ranging from Guy Maddin in his hometown of Winnipeg to recent projects with Denis Villeneuve, Brandon Cronenberg and The DANIELS. The past few films have been overwhelmingly well received and lauded. Most recently, Swiss Army Man won the Directing prize at Sundance '16, followed by Netflix’s The OA which stirred up some interesting feelings on the internet.
Can you talk about Mohawk Girls and the evolution of the series? What direction have you taken it in and what have you focused on?
TD: It’s been an amazing experience to be one of the showrunners of Mohawk Girls and to also direct all of the episodes, which I realize is quite a rare experience. It has resulted in a show that is very on point with our vision and very authentic in its representation of a dynamic, complicated community. I’m very proud of that.
From the very beginning, the goal was to create a slick, high production value product that could not be dismissed as a low budget or niche show. I think we’ve accomplished that and each season we work hard to surpass the standard we set the season before. The show is a comedy but with lots of drama and lots of heart.
Over the years, we’ve slowly been peeling away the layers of both the characters and the community to get at the context of Aboriginal realities in this country, because when we understand the context of issues it makes it so much easier to empathize and come together.
Comedy has proven to be a great way to tackle tough issues, such as prejudice, racism, abortion, bullying, blood quantum, sexuality, addiction, and dysfunctional relationships, for example. While we do hope the show entertains our audience, we also seek to stir up self-reflection, debate and positive change. I know that’s a lofty goal but I am at my best when faced with big challenges!
Can you talk about how the Guild has helped you in your career?
TD: The DGC has been such a huge support throughout the years. First and foremost, I think it’s really comforting to know that I can depend on them to have my back in this industry. That is a major stress reliever. It’s also wonderful to be a part of a community of directors. We don’t get to work together but the DGC ensures we get to socialize and learn from one another with all of the screenings, panels and workshops that it organizes. These events always inspire me.
Who in the industry have you learned a lot from? Who has been a mentor to you?
TD: In the beginning of my career, I sought out every opportunity I could find to meet, learn and shadow other directors. I’ve had the privilege to be mentored by Norma Bailey, Tim Southam and Jane E. Thompson. They were all so generous with their time and energy, because I had a million and one questions for them!
I also credit producer Adam Symansky of the NFB for helping me to find my voice as a storyteller. His unconditional support really gave me the confidence I needed in order to succeed in this industry. On the creative spectrum, producer Catherine Bainbridge of Rezolution Pictures, who has been a champion of my work from the very beginning, and my partner-in-the-creative and fellow showrunner of Mohawk Girls, Cynthia Knight, are two women I greatly admire and am continuously inspired by for their passion, storytelling instincts and overall brilliance.
How did you transition from making documentaries to making a series about Mohawk Girls? Was this something you set out to do or did the opportunity just present itself?
TD: After 10 years of making documentaries, I actually hit the equivalent of “writer’s block” for documentary filmmakers. My last film, Club Native, was a 3-year labour of love and extreme anguish because it dealt with the very controversial topic of blood quantum and membership in my home community of Kahnawake. I worried about the subjects of the film 24/7. So once that film was finished, I couldn’t fathom what subject I wanted to devote that same level of obsession to.
After months had passed without inspiration hitting, I decided I would try my hand at fiction to see if my skills would translate. Years earlier, I began compiling notes about the ups and down of the dating catastrophes I was experiencing – as well as those of my sister, cousins and friends - that I thought were both hilarious and insane enough to belong on television. So using those notes, I wrote, directed and produced a short fiction film, Escape Hatch, which we then used to pitch the concept of Mohawk Girls to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the rest, as they say, is history.
Can you talk about the biggest differences between making documentary and making TV for directors who are curious? Which format do you prefer? What are the pros and cons?
TD:I adore both formats because they are equally challenging and can yield incredibly powerful results. I believe all directors are cut from the “control freak” cloth, which serves us so well in television and film because we get to decide every little detail. In documentary, on the other hand, we have very little control – often none – and have to rely on our instincts. I find both to be very invigorating. But no matter how crazy things get on a television set – with huge crews, an unexpected hail storm, an actor not knowing their lines, and a broken lens – I find my stress level never reaches the same intensity as it does on a documentary set.
In fiction, it’s all make-believe. We can have one, two or three (ok, sometimes even more than that!) re-dos. Everyone on set is an expert in his or her field and we become a well-oiled creative machine together. But in documentary, it’s real life. There is very often no second take. You get the moment or you miss it. But most importantly – and the biggest difference – is the courageous people who bare their souls in front of our lens are not being paid. They trust us with their most intimate feelings, their flaws, and their fears because they believe in the story we have set out to tell. This is a tremendous responsibility to carry in documentary filmmaking.
What projects do you have on the horizon?
TD: We are about to start the storyroom for season 5 of Mohawk Girls, which will occupy much of the winter. I’m also currently co-writing my first feature with Meredith Vuchnich entitled Beans, which is a coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old Mohawk girl during the 1990 Oka Crisis, to be produced by Ema Films.
I’ve been approached to helm two other feature films that I’m really excited about and am currently in discussion on. And my creative partner, Cynthia Knight, and I are in the process of developing a new television series. So I have a lot of exciting things on my plate right now.
What advice do you have for young filmmakers trying to tell stories that may be marginalized or underrepresented?
TD: I think it’s so important to team up with producers who are just as passionate about the project as you are. It’s a long road to get a television show on air and there will be a lot of closed doors. If the producers don’t want it as badly as you do, they may stop at the first or second closed door. Rezolution Pictures, who produce Mohawk Girls, have been true champions of the show.
My second piece of advice is to be as authentic as possible. Tell the story you want to tell. Don’t change it to give it “broad appeal.” My third piece of advice is to find experts to collaborate with. A good story editor will elevate your project. Listen and learn from them. It’s also very important to click with this person – don’t pick someone based solely on an impressive resume. Creative work is personal work so find people you like and respect. They are there to help you. Let go of the reins (I know it’s hard) and it’ll pay off. This has been my experience with Mohawk Girls and the show exists – and is what it is – for all of these reasons.
Award-winning Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer has multiple credits to her name as producer, writer and director in both documentary and fiction. Beginning her career in documentary, Tracey teamed up with Rezolution Pictures for feature documentaries One More River: The Deal that Split the Cree, Mohawk Girls, and Club Native, as well as the documentary series Working it Out Together, seasons I & II. This collaboration has continued into fiction television with Mohawk Girls, the series, which she is co-creator, is directing and co-executive producing. Her own production company, Mohawk Princess Pictures, recently produced the feature documentary Sex Spirit Strength and the youth documentary series Dream Big, both for APTN’s 2015 fall season. Her work has been honored with two Gemini awards and has earned acclaim from multiple film festivals, including Hot Docs and DOXA. She has worked with the CBC, the NFB, and numerous independent production companies throughout Canada in both documentary & fiction. In 2016, she was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for best direction in a comedy series for her work on Mohawk Girls and she was honored at TIFF as a recipient of the Birks Diamond Tribute Award. Tracey is currently in development on Mohawk Girls season 5 for APTN and is writing her first feature, a coming-of-age story of a Mohawk girl during the Oka Crisis, with Ema Films.
Could you talk about the highlights and the challenges of making your DGC-Award winning documentary Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World?
CW: All day. The highlights are obvious. Just being able to spend time on Haida Gwaii in an inquisitive role creates a set of memorable experiences. Filming in Europe, I used to sort of feel the echoes of all the human triumph and tragedy that’s gone down there – especially in the 20th century. But in Haida Gwaii there’s 14,000 years of one continuous human culture. Consider that the pyramids were built less than 5,000 years ago. You sort of feel that there. That’s the challenge too - you want whatever you do there to somehow be real and true to the place and the people, and at the same time have something relevant and maybe even helpful to say to people who have never seen the place.
When you first set out to make this documentary, what was your hope or your intention?
CW: First of all I wanted to make a hopeful, constructive film about the environment for people who don’t identify as environmentalists. I saw and see on Haida Gwaii some reason to hope that we’re not entirely doomed. I also wanted very much to tell a story that has a lot to do (although not entirely so) with First Nations culture and history without appropriating the voice and remaining clearly an outsider looking in. My interest in Haida culture was and is that I think the white business guys who came to exploit the resources initially were in such a hurry to grab the stuff they could convert into quick cash and run that they missed the most valuable resource – the Haida world view. The non-First Nations Haida Gwaiians who have come to the archipelago get that for the most part. That was the story I came for. Ironically, after making the film I had the amazing honour of being adopted into the Haida Nation, so now it’s pretty much becoming my world view as well
This film is part of a series of three documentaries that all have an environmental angle, the other two being Peace Out, and Oil Sands Karaoke. What was the inspiration for making this series of documentaries? When did you first have an idea you wanted to make these films?
CW: When I was a kid sitting around the campfire with my dad and his brothers listening to them bitch about the unintended consequences of the electrification of the country. I grew up understanding that when I switched on a light I was participating in something with a very dark side to it as well. That’s the long answer. The short answer is one summer I realized I had some free time, could borrow some gear, my son wanted to hang out with me camping, and we had a car that ran. Road trip! That was Peace Out. It led naturally into the Oil Sands Karaoke project. Which depressed us so bad that we had to find something positive – Haida Gwaii.
What advice do you have for documentary filmmakers about following their inspirations or ideas through to fruition, especially if they aren’t sure how to embark on a project?
CW:I feel a bit awkward giving advice. I’m still learning, still screwing up every day. I guess the place I have most often gone wrong is when I’ve forgotten it’s all about the story, the people and your heart. I spent years directing and developing dramatic long form movies. Often I’d start from the point of view “What does the market want?” It took me way too long to understand that a story that comes from there isn’t often worth much. Now it’s: “What do I care about?”, “What makes my heart soar?”, “What makes me angry?” and "If I could sit down and tell a quiet story to a group of people I love, what story would I tell them?".
I think maybe a piece of pretty good advice is to try hard to be realistic about your chances and your progress and your goals. Everybody wants to direct. But in reality I’ve found very few people actually have the temperament for it, have the gene that actually makes you happy and fulfilled doing it. And I’ve seen so many people flail away at it year after year, turning out adequate work, hoping for that big break, when they could be putting their life, brains and heart into something they’d be truly amazing at. I spent years directing mainstream drama, thinking I was headed for a studio film. It took a real shake-up for me to realize that’s not my skill set. It’s not even what I want – doing tent pole projects about super heroes and stuff far from home and family. I realized I’m much more suited to making small documentary films about real things with a tiny group of people I love. I love the work. Getting locations for free, cutting sound, scoring, mixing, all of the more or less invisible stuff. What I don’t love is the visible stuff, the “Oh my god, the director” stuff. The schmoozing, the chasing famous people, the one-upping, the looking past the person you’re talking with at TIFF to see if Marty Scorsese just walked in, having to mix with people who call famous people they don’t know “Bobby” and “Marty” and “Leo”, the certainty that your self-worth is a function of the box office on your last picture – that bullshit.
Also, in the actual filmmaking, I try to avoid the gimmicks, the incessant time lapses, drone shots, rapid jump cuts, unmotivated camera moves, 90 degree camera positions. Back in the day that stuff was freeze frames and zooms and swish pans. Those techniques were things the filmmakers I loved would never use. Over time I’ve tried to develop a way of telling a story that’s quite measured, some would say slow, I guess, but enough people seem to like it that I’ve been lucky enough to be able to keep working. I feel uncomfortable cutting with sound bites – you know, have the expert in front of the book shelf say one short blurb then cut away to something new. If someone treats me like that in a conversation – lets me make one short statement then cuts me off – I’m offended. Why is it okay to do that in a movie? I let our subjects speak in paragraphs. That to me is how conversation works – which is what I hope our movies are – conversations.
By the way, when I say “our” I am referring to my life partner Tina Schliessler and I. She co-produces all my films, co-shoots, co-edits, co-suffers. It’s an amazing partnership.
Can you talk about how the DGC has helped you in achieving your goals as a documentary filmmaker?
CW: I’ve been a member of the Guild since 80-something. The folks at BCDC and at National were my mentors, my role models, my co-workers, and finally my friends. Crawford Hawkins beat the hell out of the American series producers in Vancouver to make them hire local Canadian directors. The Guild created a situation where a whole generation of us got to make a living directing drama. I served on the local and national board for years. We got some important work done but it was a blast hanging out with all my friends from across the country and learning their regions. I’d say that the Guild did more to create a sense of what the whole of Canada meant to me than any other single organization in the country.
How did you get to know your subjects and get them to open up for this documentary? What kind of research did you do in preparation?
CW: Coming from decades of drama and loving to work with actors, I cast very carefully for these documentary films. We’re drawn to people who know a lot about the subject, yes. But we’re also looking for things like gender and racial balance, appearance, and ability to speak well. But mostly we look for knowledgeable people who say surprising things in a way you’d like to sit down and have a glass of wine with them over. Research mostly starts at the library downtown. I generally start with Genesis and work forward. Honestly, I really feel I need to know the back story. The research never stops. All the way through prep, production and post my ears and eyes are always open to relevant details that pop up. I also used to browse 5 or 6 major news web services daily for updates – before the recent US election and our new prime minister’s sacrificing long term environmental health to short term corporate economic interests with the big energy projects in BC – the pipelines, LNG, and Site C Dam. I can’t bear to watch that stuff now. It’s toxic.
What was the day-to-day like shooting this documentary? Was it structured or did you wing it? Did you spend more or less time on it than you expected to?
CW: It was both structured and spontaneous. Tina and I are pretty much it. That’s the crew. So we can be as flexible as we want. We convert the economic savings of a tiny crew into a very long schedule. We had a structure, a pretty clear shape to the story. So like with a drama, every day you’re filling in a blank spot in the jigsaw puzzle. But working small, when something crazy comes up, we go there.
We spend around 3 months shooting, all tolled. The movie took 2 years to make – which is long for us. Oil Sands took exactly 12 months. As will our current show.
How did you budget for the making of this film? Can you talk about how you secured funding?
CW: The key to our business model (feels weird using grown-up words like that) is that our budgets are small enough for one broadcaster to make it happen. Our broadcaster has been the wonderful Knowledge Network – the most successful public broadcaster on the continent I believe. Rudy B and Murray Battle are terrific to work with. Murray is a brilliant commissioning producer. His input has a real impact on how these stories unfold. And we’ve been working with the brilliant filmmaker and good friend Kevin Eastwood who has executive produced our last 3 films.
What is your next project?
CW: We’re at rough cut stage on a feature documentary about the housing bubble. Our hook is Vancouver’s crisis, but it’s a story repeating itself in many major centers across the globe. It’s a subject most everyone has an opinion about and fingers are being pointed every which way. We’ve been constantly surprised at what turns out to be real in the story. And I can tell you, there are some dark things slithering beneath the surface of most of our cities. But mostly, like the Haida Gwaii film, it’s a love story about the city that’s tolerated, nurtured but I think mostly humoured me for my adult life. It will hopefully premiere in April - with a lot of luck.
And as an after note – I’m working with Barry Greenwald and Hans Engel to encourage a new generation of directors to join this great organization such that hopefully you’ll be seeing the DGC bug on a bunch more cutting edge films in the coming years.
Best regards to the story tellers!
Charles Wilkinson is a Canadian writer/director of a large body of both documentary and dramatic film in a career that spans over 30 years. His documentary films including Down Here (2008), Peace Out (2012), Oil Sands Karaoke (2013) and Haida Gwaii: On The Edge Of The World (2015) have played around the world and have received numerous national & international awards. Haida Gwaii: On The Edge Of The World won the top award at Hot Docs – the largest documentary festival in North America in May of 2015. The film went on to become the 2nd highest earning Canadian film per screen in winter 2015/16. It’s a film where audiences are finding some solutions to our global sustainability dilemma. Charles is currently working with his partner Tina Schliessler on a documentary about crazy real estate, and how we can gain some measure of control over the places we live. Charles lives with his family on an inlet near Vancouver.
DGC ONTARIO DIRECTOR: ANNIE BRADLEY
After the TIFF Game Changers panel, which featured female leaders in film, television and VR, we sat down with DGC Director Annie Bradley to discuss her current projects, the importance of mentorship and more.
What made you decide to speak on the TIFF Kids Game Changers panel today?
Because I am a polite girl and when someone asks me to do something I say yes [laughs]. I felt like I had something to add to the conversation. I had the experience of being in the middle of that change. Technology has democratized the process immensely, so it’s kind of an exciting time. It’s also somewhat of a scary time because they’re hiring less directors, and the competition is getting fiercer. There are a lot of challenges. I was also really excited to meet the girls from the VR world and the gaming world. They have faced major obstacles and yet they seem so optimistic and are a vital part of the game-changing dynamic. I look forward to getting to know them better and maybe collaborating with them at some point.
Did you have a female mentor when you were trying to get into directing?
When I was a first assistant director I didn’t get to work with many female directors, but there were a couple of them that were very encouraging to me. Stacy Curtis comes to mind, Maggie Greenwald was another. I also had a lot of really talented men who encouraged me – Roger Spottiswoode and the late George Bloomfield. I was working with George when I got into Women in the Directors Chair right before I quite ADing. He was like, “Don’t look back, just keep going the other way. Get on the directing train and take all the risks and walk away from all the security and go for it.” George was so excited for me and was such a gracious, lovely, talented human being. Luckily today, there are more female directors to inspire me. Those who tell stories about women that are somewhat different, who take risks. Like Andrea Arnold, who has a unique and original voice – her first film Wasp and my film Tongue Bully were at Sundance the same year. The Catherine Hardwicke’s and the Kathryn Bigelow’s, who tell powerful stories with great craft and delicacy and tackle difficult subject matter.
Can you tell us about Film Fatales and what this group is trying to do?
Film Fatales was created by a woman named Leah Meyerhoff out of New York City. It started off as a group of women that got together because they needed support and has grown to over a dozen chapters around the world from Paris to Australia to Beunos Aires. They were female independent filmmakers coming up against the same glass ceilings. The support of getting together and lifting everybody up was a powerful and positive thing. We all meet at the same time – the first Monday of the month, at 7pm around the world. We also support each other at film festivals, through screening attendance, panels and press. We have curated pages on major crowdfunding pages so that Film Fatales members can get to the front page and have a better chance. And it’s there to support and lift up all female filmmakers around the world, to share work and create new alliances. Two documentary filmmakers started the Toronto chapter here – Nicolina Lanni and Chloe Sosa-Sims.
Can you talk about some of the mentoring that you do?
I was just invited up to Yellowknife with a program I created called Uncovering Your Vision. It’s a really magical place. It just so happened that all the people who signed up for the program were women. So we had 7 or 8 women in the room. It’s a one-on-one intensive about developing your authentic voice to understand what it is and what you have to say as an artist. You leave with a clarity of vision. Even people in the program that weren’t directors developed an idea that they wanted to make into a film and some have since had their films come to fruition. I feel that mentorship is important. It’s important to coach people on how the business works and what it’s really like. I think there’s a certain level of naivety that still exists in the business because many of them have not been out on a floor that they don’t control. They’ve made independent films or short films with their friends or people who are supportive to them. But stepping out onto the floor of a television series that’s already a freight train in motion or coming on board a project that’s already been funded and is being driven by the writer and the producer is a very different paradigm and there are a lot of holes to avoid in the road. But I feel my greatest gift as a mentor is to teach people how to figure out what they have to say. I think having knowledge about your authentic voice is what separates the great filmmakers and great television makers from the rest of them.
Do you think finding your authentic voice is the best way for women to break out of intern level and support roles into roles where they have more responsibility?
I think that part of what uncovering your authentic vision does is make you feel empowered. It makes you feel like you have the right to take up space in the room. That’s when you start to say “I deserve to have a seat at that table – I’m creative, I’m talented at what I do, I’m a team player, I want to make you look brilliant for hiring me, and I deserve that opportunity just like every other guy.” There’s a confidence gap they have with a lot of women. I have confidence because I was a first AD. It was a gift for me, but it was also what stopped me from becoming a director in the eyes of a lot of people because it was seen as a non-creative job. Now I use it to my advantage. “She knows production, how to step onto the floor and run a crew. I don’t have to worry about any of that.” I think we need to be mentoring women to feel more confident, and to develop the skill set that they need. Knowledge is power. I try to tell women “You can’t just be great with actors. You can’t just be technically excellent. You’ve got to know the full extent of the craft. It doesn’t matter that the men are always going to give their buddies jobs when they aren’t ready. You’ve got to let that go and say “We’re just going to take over by being excellent.”
Did you have a moment where you felt you deserved a place at the table and deserved a voice?
I had made a film called Tongue Bully which is still one of my favourite films I’ve ever made. It was shot in Cuba. I was no longer a first AD and was a an emerging director. I was working as a waitress in this beautiful little restaurant called Olivia’s that was full of film people and I was serving Bruce McDonald and Jerry Ciccoritti dinner. The phone rang and it was a programmer from Sundance and they said, “We just wanted you to know that we loved your movie and it’s going to be playing at Sundance.” I just put down the phone and screamed in the middle of the restaurant. It was Friday night dinner, 8:30pm, Bruce was like, “Let’s get some champagne.” The whole restaurant was cheering. It was like “I belong at the table.”
Is there something that you do actively to make your crews / projects more diverse?
I’m pretty well known for my diverse casting. It’s a huge focus of mine. When I mentor students I always push them to ask “What if that person was of a different race? - in a wheelchair? How would that enrich or support the story? How would that uplift the theme of what you’re trying to say?” At the end of the day I’m a woman and I’m a filmmaker and I love the underdog and the under-represented.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m doing a project right now and it’s truly exciting. There’s a short version and a feature length version. The short is called Blowback and the feature is called The Stand. Basically it’s a story about a female cop. I’ve been secretly meeting with female cops for about 2 years now doing research which is pretty horrifying. There is a story on the NPR Strangers podcast called “Worth Saving” that they saw me tell in a storytelling room and asked me to tell on their podcast. It’s is sort of the reason I needed to make this film. I understood intrinsically from being a woman and a director that I was doing a job that is still perceived as a man’s job. I thought “That’s challenging enough.” But I’m not risking my life every day. So what if I was trying to fit into that patriarchal paradigm and my life was threatened every day, as either a military person or police? I was very interested in the fact that I had not seen a woman saving herself in a movie. Save her children, save the family, save her husband, save humanity, save the future, yes… but not herself. And this story is inspired by how I saved myself in a very life or death situation. I wanted to see a woman who was making bad choices and trying to fit in because she just didn’t believe she could ultimately win. She gets set up and a lot of bad stuff happens. In the end though, it’s about redemption. This woman who has made bad choices because she doesn’t believe she deserves any better finally realizes that she does. I wanted to see that story told in a really visceral, terrifying and powerful way.
What advice do you have for female filmmakers?
Learn the craft. Just start making films, even if they’re crappy. Make them on your iPhone. We get caught up in people waiting for people to say we’re enough, waiting for people to say we’re worthy, waiting to say we’re deserving. We have to find our own way in, and make opportunities. And learn to say no- it’s really powerful.
ANNIE BRADLEY is a multiple award-winning writer/director whose resume of international credits spans film, television, music videos and commercials. A director member of the Directors Guild of Canada, she is also an alumna of the Sundance Film Festival, the TIFF Talent Lab, the CFC Directors Lab, Film Fatales and Women in the Director's Chair. Her work has screened on five continents and has been featured in American Cinematographer. Well known for her distinct filmic style and diverse casting, Annie is currently at work on a number of film and television projects developed through her company The Heat Mansion. Annie’s female ensemble anti-romantic comedy feature The WBI, which she co-wrote, just landed on the “It List” of the top ten best unproduced screenplays for the 2016 CFF Harold Greenberg Fund Script Contest. She is also the co-creator of Ir-Reverend, a 1⁄2 hour comedy, which placed 6th in the worldwide 2015 JFL Comedy Pro Pilot Pitch and was a quarter finalist in Screencraft’s 2015 TV Pilot Launch. Next up she will be directing her short thriller Blowback with Peter Mooney (Camelot, Rookie Blue) and Joanne Boland (Strange Empire, X-Men)
DGC ONTARIO DIRECTOR: APRIL MULLEN
April Mullen is the Director of Below Her Mouth which pushes the boundaries for cinematic sex and premiered this past September at TIFF 2016. Shot by an all-female crew, TIFF programers called it “one of the boldest and sexiest dramas of the year.”
This film was shot using an entirely female crew. What was the inspiration for this?
AM: With Below Her Mouth, we wanted to bring to life something audiences had never seen before on screen: an honest depiction of a truly female perspective on desire, love, intimacy, sex and heartbreak. The goal was to capture an electrifying moment of intense chemistry between two people when they least expected it.
In every department we wanted to bring a female touch and gaze to the screen when it came to love and sex. This “female gaze” included lighting, sound, wardrobe, camera movement, editing and music etc. In order to bring this story to life we needed to expose our female voice, creativity and truth. Hiring an all female crew allowed our original intention to be strengthened because everything came from women. It was also an essential part in allowing our actresses, Erika Linder and Natalie Krill, to have a safe and comfortable place to reveal their desires and be intimate. They needed to know they were supported and had the trust of all involved in order to go to the extremes they went to in their performances. There was so much respect on set for them and our mission. It was a unique and transformative experience.
Can you talk about your experience working with these women on the film?
AM: On set we were able to create a supportive environment that allowed every woman to stay true to herself. The voice of the film is so strong and honest because of that. Working with all of these women we found a very fluid communication style and seamless work flow to enhance the experience. It was rewarding and empowering to watch each key woman excel in her department. Everyone brought so much of themselves and their truth to the table; it was an honour to bring that to the screen in all forms. I believe the results of having an all-female crew can be seen on the screen.
The film is being called sexy and bold. Can you talk about your experience directing this content and the benefits and challenges?
AM: 99% of my exposure to sex in film, TV and media is something that was written by a man, directed by a man, and made to turn men on. This fact was something that was always on my mind while filming Below Her Mouth. I struggled trying to stay true to my inner sense of sexuality as a woman, and create a filmic narrative that was free from the usual images, positions, sex you would normally see in a male driven film. I had to constantly remind myself to forget all of the “movie sex” I had seen before. Instead, I reflected inwardly on what turned me on as a woman – what were my inner desires, what made me want to be physical with another person. These are the moments I wanted to bring to the screen. Another one of my big goals and challenges was to isolate our leads, Natalie and Erika, so that the rest of the world would disappear as it does in life when we fall in love. To allow the actors to feel extra protected and safe to break down any barriers and be vulnerable; to champion their connection and allow them freedom to express themselves.
What is your background in directing and how has the DGC helped you in your journey?
AM: My background in directing is through creating my own work with Wango Films; Tim Doiron and I started the production company after graduating from Ryerson Theatre School. I started in the industry as an actress and spent years on set observing behind and in front of the monitor. I am from the indie feature film scene and have slowly gone up in budget levels when it comes to features, that being said I just recently joined the DGC. Since joining I have found it to be a very supportive community of very talented people. The DGC has been there recently on my new journey into the TV world and they have been very helpful with the transition. It’s fantastic to be a part of such an important union of creative minds here in Canada; I look forward to getting to know more members and the DGC as a whole.
What advice do you have for female directors and other directors looking to make their film sets more diverse and inclusive?
AM: It’s an exciting time in the industry. There is so much talent and so many new voices out there. I love working with the younger generation as much as I do the older one. The mix of experience and wonder is intriguing and creates an interesting dynamic. Each film is so specific with it
’s own creative needs, it's important to find the right fit every time. I love hiring women; there are so many talented ones out there to recognize, you just have to find them. I hope the percentage s of women in film continue to increase . It’s a long-term transition as we are still a long way away from a balance, but I believe awareness is important so the younger generation of women know it’s possible. In terms of advice, I would say, stay open minded and pick the best individual for the job.
A director known as much for her versatility as she is for her passion, April Mullen's latest directorial offer Below Her Mouth is a relentless love story shot entirely by an all female crew. She was recently honoured with the Birks Diamond Tribute to the Year’s Women in Film. Her previous features include: 88, an action thriller and Dead Before Dawn 3D, which confirmed April Mullen as the youngest person and first female to direct a live action stereoscopic 3D feature film. The film was celebrated for its technological achievements and awarded the Perron Crystal Award. Mullen is co-founder of the independent production company Wango Films, alongside Tim Doiron. The company has produced five films to date. A true maverick in the feature film world, Miss Mullen is known for her bold and stunning visuals, ambitious shooting style, strong performances and unique voice.
In terms of cinema, you've worked on some legendary films in the Quebec cannon: C.R.A.Z.Y, Enemy, Sicario and Arrival to name a few. What is the process for creating these striking visual worlds and how do you find inspiration?
I always take the same approach, more or less. After I read the script for the first time, I instinctively start collecting images and making sketches. It's sort of my scrapbooking phase. I sort them according to where the action takes place: images of textures, light, places, colours, art installations and everything that comes to me and that was influenced and inspired by that first readthrough. I then move into an intellectualization phase. I try to get at the symbolism to create visual metaphors to support the scenes and character development. These two steps come fairly easily and naturally. I build mood boards, which help me communicate and dialogue with the director, cinematographer, location managers and, of course, producers. It's the critical phase of my approach, and it's what determines what comes next. After that, everyone can build in the same direction. I really get the impression that the sets, just like the cinematography, music, costumes, etc., exist to support the story, not to monopolize it; it's important to be invisible and remain at the service of the film. It's all a question of modulation, a bit like a bass line.
What are some tips you would give other production designers for doing a great job?
In short, don't change who you are. It seems silly, but you have to be honest in your approach. That's the best support you can give to the director. That's what we're there for. Our opinion is a tool, so never second guess yourself in order to please others. That's the worst mistake you can make. Or just don't take the job. I couldn't give the best of myself if I didn't 100% believe in the project.
The other tip I could give is to be aware of your strengths, but especially your weaknesses, and surround yourself with the best people possible who will be able to compensate for them.
What is your typical day like on set?
A typical day on set is relatively simple for me if everything has been well prepared. In theory, there shouldn't be any surprises for anyone. So, I present the sets with my set designer and my art director, and we explain the latest details to the team. We then have to head out to prepare for the coming days and iron out any problems so that everything runs smoothly for the technical team on the next shooting days. In fact, the art and set design teams very often work in advance of the shooting team.
How did you become a production designer? What steps did you take to get to where you are?
When I was a student at Concordia University, I dreamed of writing music for films and to make albums. I kind of missed out on my career choice. But actually, I find it's very similar. You have to create moods and try to understand the deeper meaning of scenes to give them their own flavour.I started learning through video clips, short films and ads. Lots of ads. Way too many ads. It was through those experiences that I met the amazing people and directors with whom I've had the immense pleasure and chance to develop affinities and especially to share dreams. What I take away from this is that through clips, you learn from your mistakes and also to develop your own style. Ads teach you precision, the art of selling (which is no small feat) and to perfect a certain signature. Short firms get you to tell true stories and apply what you've learned.
How has the DGC helped in your career as a production designer?
The DGC helped me broaden my experience once I entered the world of feature films. The DGC is a vital association for further advancing our profession, for us and for generations to come. As other associations have already started to do, it is critical that the DGC be able to represent production designers beyond feature films.
Can you talk about your involvement in the DGC Awards and the inaugural DGC Discovery Award?
I've always been interested in Canadian film in general. In Quebec, we are extremely lucky to have our own language and, by the same token, we have developed our own star system. This has enabled us to showcase our identity and that of our creators.
On the other hand, I really get the impression that it's a huge struggle in English Canada. There's so much talent, but that talent has a tough time surfacing because it seems to get drowned out by the US film industry, which has much greater financial means for promotion. I find that sad. We need to work together to find solutions to bring more visibility to Canadian talent.
We are lucky to have the opportunity to create within a fully subsidized system that isn't based on box-office success. That's huge; we have to continue to use this leverage to develop our own identity a strong signature.
The films submitted for the DGC Discovery Award were simply confirmation of the immense diversity and promising future of Canadian talent.
What has been your favourite project to date and why?
Honestly, they're all different. I put 110% into all of my projects, and they've all brought me something new. I grew through each and every one of them. It's like a chain: every link is important. Without Les Mots magiques, there would be no C.R.A.Z.Y. That film gave us wings and the desire to go further. Without that film, there would be no opportunity to goof around in England on The Young Victoria. Without that film, there would be no Oscar nomination. Enemy is an artistic meeting and a liberated approach. A buddy trip. Without Enemy and The Young Victoria, there is no Prisoners, and so on.1981 and 1987 are films that did me enormous good. Arrival was an extraordinary and deeply personal experience last year.
There is cinema, but across the films, there are the encounters, the friendships and the sharing between people with the same passion. That is the most beautiful thing about this profession. The energy of all these people heading in the same direction. It's not a profession, it's a calling.
Patrice Vermette is a Canadian Production Desinger/Art Director who has won numerous awards including the Genie Award for Best Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design and a Jutra Award for the best Art Direction for his work on C.R.A.Z.Y. His other work includes 1981, La Cite, Cafe di Flore, Enemy, Sicaro and most recently Arrival. Vermette was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Art Direction for his work on the film The Young Victoria.