A note from the editor
I write this letter exactly 10 days before I turn 29. At last, I must face the fact that I am approaching the last year of my twenties—a confusing but exciting prospect.
There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that in my nearly 29 years, this summer proved the most fulfilling and inspiring yet. I worked on four vastly different, powerful, (somewhat coincidentally) female-led projects, in which I played three distinct women: a punk anarchist straddling existence between Reagan-era New York and the rise of Hitler Germany (Zillah in Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day); a washed-up child actress with a hauntingly dark past who uses her sexuality to destructive and manipulative ends (Isabella in Indigo Valley); and Anna Karenina, a literary heroine and character who needs no introduction, in a theatrical exploration of the text. Despite their idiosyncrasies, each of the women whose inner lives I explored and portrayed this summer were united in their intelligence and, in one way or another, ahead of their time—much like the women in Constellation’s ever-expanding community.
For this second issue, I had the honor of curating a portfolio centered on new work at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. One particularly encouraging aspect of this year’s festival? A third of the films screened were made by women. Prior to taking on this project, I admittedly did not know much about Toronto or the festival (besides the fact that it was one of the most respected in the world). I was elated to discover the women who inhabit this magical city and its film community: their generosity, intelligence, and kindness is evident across their work. From Margot Robbie’s turn as both producer and actress in I, Tonya, to Susanna White’s A Woman Walked Ahead (a film whose title speaks for itself), there are countless new films now on my to-see-immediately radar. I was equally excited to learn about some collaborations emerging out of the 2017 TIFF Talent Lab, such as the one between filmmakers Madeleine Sims-Fewer (featured here) and Dusty Mancinelli.
I dedicate this issue to my fearless co-editors for believing in Constellation and for pushing it forward; to the incredible women I worked with this summer; and of course to each of the Toronto-based women I interviewed for this portfolio. None of this would be possible without your contributions.
With that being said, here’s to a productive and exciting fall, Constellation readers. I hope you finish this portfolio as in awe of Toronto’s talented women as I am. May our shared talents and collaborative spirit continue to unite and inspire those in the industry and far beyond.
— Jaclyn Bethany, Constellation Creative Director
PROGRAMMING ASSOCIATE AND TIFF DOC CONFERENCE PROGRAMMER, TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Dorota! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
Dorota Lech: I'm from southeastern Poland, but my family moved to Montréal, Canada in 1991. I'm currently based between Toronto and Los Angeles.
JB: What is your first cinematic memory? Did you always know you wanted to work in film?
DL: Watching Krzysztof Kieślowski's Dekalog with my mom. She gave me the box set last year for my 30th birthday!
I didn't realize that I could work in film until my late twenties. I went to graduate school for Political Science and Women's Studies and dreamed of being a professor. Film was a secret passion. Now I wish I had studied cinematography at Łodź film school … My first film job was at a production company in Berlin, where I moonlighted as an associate producer (during the day, I was a kindergarten teacher).
JB: Tell me about your life as a programmer of one of the world’s leading festivals, the Toronto International Film Festival.
DL: I'm the Programming Associate for documentaries at TIFF. I screen the international documentary submissions and make recommendations. In addition, I scout for fiction films from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. I also program the TIFF Documentary Conference, now in its 9th year. Past speakers include Raoul Peck, Jonathan Demme, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Shola Lynch, Naomi Klein, Ramin Bahrani, Alanis Obomsawin, and Michael Moore.
My other job is producing the Hot Docs Forum, a financing and co-production event, at Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary festival.
JB: What have been some of your favorite films from the past year?
DL: Tough question—and I won't even try choosing between documentaries! Jordan Peele'sGet Out was the best blockbuster of this year (ever?!). I still need to see Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.
Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight was my favorite fiction. I also loved Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, William Oldroyd’s Lady MacBeth, and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. Agnès Varda’s Visages Villages, alongside Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project are the best films I've seen in recent weeks—plus some secret new ones coming to TIFF this year. ;)
I'm always obsessed with Athina Rachel Tsangari, Emir Baigazin, Claire Denis, Yorgos Lanthimos, Agnieszka Holland, Sergei Loznitsa, Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar-wai, and a hundred others! I also really love old films—anything by Tarkovsky, Chytilová, Kiarostami, Hitchcock, and Buñuel. And I'm still catching up on a lot. I recently saw Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring and completely fell in love. I'm on a mission to see every film referenced in Mark Cousins’ A History of Film and Karina Longworth's podcast “You Must Remember This,” which I highly recommend as well.
JB: How would you encourage young women to get involved in filmmaking?
DL: A large part of my work happens outside of North America and in places where women tend to have even less access. I speak about gender and opportunities a lot—both privately and publicly. I think the best advice is to keep your head up and [to] just keep going...
JB: Who are some female filmmakers currently on your radar?
DL: So many! I'm particularly inspired by women in documentary, both in directing and production. Kirsten Johnson immediately comes to mind; she's a complete inspiration in every single way. I also love what Charlotte Cook is doing at Field of Vision. Fazeelat Aslam, Bennett Elliott, Nimisha Mukerji, Heidi Reinberg, Paula Eiselt, Assia Boundaoui, Jessica Devaney, Elan Bogarín, Judit Stalter, Michal Weits, and Cristina Ibarra all pitched in the Hot Docs Forum this year and are also beyond amazing.
JB: Do you feel excited as a woman in our changing industry? What sorts of obstacles have you encountered on your journey to where you are today?
DL: Honestly, my feelings are always fluctuating somewhere between discouraged and motivated. I definitely come across constant obstacles. It’s not uncommon for women—especially those my age—to get mistaken for personal assistants or other roles that are important in our ecosystem, but aren’t mine.
JB: What are some of your favorite spots in Toronto?
DL: Currently, I'm obsessed with Grey Gardens (also the title of my favourite documentary) in Kensington Market. The owner also runs Cocktail Bar and Rhum Corner, my other go-tos. I love The Common for coffee, Trinity Bellwoods for people watching, any public pool in the evenings (it’s super muggy here), and the 3 Speed’s backyard patio at night. But the best part of Toronto is its proximity to lakes and forests.
JB: What makes Toronto an exciting place to travel and live as a young creative?
DL: The Toronto International Film Festival, of course! The city is particularly great for meeting and collaborating with international people. Toronto has more than 50 film festivals and a growing art scene. It’s a really rad place to meet people and get inspired. ★
Actor and filmmaker
Jaclyn Bethany: Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: I grew up in Bath, England. Probably the quaintest city on the planet. It definitely fostered my love of costume dramas and graveyards. I’m now based in Toronto.
JB: What was your childhood like? Were you surrounded by the arts?
MSF: I pretty much lived in one, long, imaginary game as a child. The lines of fiction and reality were very blurred! I’m still trying to work out what’s real. Probably nothing … I spent a lot of time running around forests, talking to trees, and also making fake radio broadcasts with the kids next door. My imagination definitely got me into trouble a lot.
I had a very artistic upbringing. My dad is a drama teacher and a wonderful artist, and my mum is a musician and an all-round artistic soul. Both my parents nurtured my creativity and indulged my whims. I remember deciding I wanted to be a pickpocket one week, so my mum sewed bells to my dad’s jackets and wore them around while I tried to pilfer things without making a noise.
JB: When did you know you wanted to be an actor and filmmaker?
MSF: Oh, immediately. I made my first movie, starring my dad and my doll Becky, when I was five. I think Willow and Cabaret were the movies that inspired me to become a filmmaker. I remember watching the chase scene (where Willow slides down a snowy mountainside on a shield) and thinking, “I want to make something THIS good!”
JB: You pursued a Masters in Acting in London. What was that experience like? Is that when you discovered filmmaking? How did you start your production company, Booruffle Films?
MSF: My Masters in Acting at the Drama Centre London was the most incredible experience of my life. It was terrifying, exciting, eye-opening. I don’t think I slept for about two years, but I lived and breathed acting. I was totally immersed in every character I created. I remember working on a French character for a play, and my boyfriend at the time waking me up one night to say I’d been loudly sleep talking in a French accent. Every day brought some new terror. They call it “The Trauma Centre” for a reason! But it was so exhilarating, and I deepened my craft in ways I couldn’t have previously comprehended.
I actually did my BFA in Film Production before pursuing acting. I always wanted to work in film, so it seemed like the right decision to do film school first, get some life experience, and then pursue acting. I started making films with a fellow Drama Centre alum (director Nathan Hughes-Berry)—just writing, acting, and producing. But directing was what I always secretly yearned to do. When we made The Substitute, I was definitely being a bit of a backseat director. I’m sure it was very annoying for Nathan!
JB: What kind of films are you drawn to?
MSF: Horror and sci-fi are the genres I gravitate toward. Movies like Jaws, Don’t Look Now, The Shining, Solaris…these films really resonate with me. Fear makes me feel alive, and I’m excited by the idea of other dimensions, time travel, and things around us that we don’t know are there, or that we can only imagine at this point in time. I am quite dissatisfied with everything around me, so imagining worlds that could exist outside of this one provides some method of escape for me. I also find myself drawn to the idea of monsters—again, it is the unknown, the creatures that operate in the dark, and on a different level from us humans.
JB: The Substitute was one of your first successful short films. How did it come about?
MSF: Man, the script for The Substitute was born out of a really frustrating period in my life where I had another short that was just getting rejected from absolutely everything. I was just in this black, black state of mind. I’d come home from my job in children’s television and do a George Michael Bluth and face-plant on the carpet in my mold-infested living room. I could barely afford rent, was working 12 hour days, and my film was a big old failure. So I wrote The Substitute after a night of binging Korean horror films with my brother.
It was definitely a response to the system in England, to the job market there, the hopelessness and desperation. It was also inspired by the entrenched misogyny I experienced at boarding school. Obviously I riffed on a theme; there was no abuse at my school! But there were definitely sexist ideals perpetuated there that sparked the idea for this horrific, endless cycle of women accepting their place below men, rather than being brave enough to challenge the way things have always been done.
JB: Do you seek out other women to work with in the film industry?
MSF: The true answer is, not particularly. I definitely seek out similarly creative-minded people, [who share] the same artistic values and whose ideas excite and inspire me. Whether these are men or women doesn’t make a difference to me. I do not actively seek to work with women simply because of gender, though I do recognize the disparity within the industry, of course. I’m mostly looking to work with people who challenge and push me; who want to make similar kinds of films. I want to make movies, and have a good time doing it, so working with my friends is actually really important to me. It makes the process feel a little less like a slog up Ben Nevis [the highest mountain in the British Isles, located in Scotland] pulling a motorbike that’s trying to drive off in the other direction!
JB: The Toronto International Film Festival is known for fostering up-and-coming film talent. What was it like to participate in the TIFF Talent Lab? Did you work on a specific project during the program?
MSF: While I was in the Talent Lab, I was working on my short, Rape Card (directed by Nathan Hughes-Berry and produced by Coral Aiken). The lab gave me the opportunity to pitch the project and to gain valuable industry feedback. The best thing about the lab though, was meeting other filmmakers in Toronto, like director Dusty Mancinelli, who I’ve since co-directed two shorts with. The Lab helped me to find those like-minded collaborators I’d always been searching for but hadn’t yet found.
JB: What is a film you encountered at a festival that made a lasting impression on you?
MSF: Hmmm, this is tough, because I would love to talk about some obscure indie treasure I saw and just adored, but truthfully, it was probably Elle by Paul Verhoeven. There was a film called The Rehearsal [directed by Alison Maclean and based on Eleanor Catton's novel of the same name] that I wished I’d seen, but missed, and now cannot find anywhere! I have high hopes for that film. If someone reading this knows the director, tell her to let me know where to buy it…
JB: What’s next for you?
MSF: I am currently finishing up a short called Perverts, directed by myself and Dusty Mancinelli and written by fantastic writer and fellow York graduate, Josh Boles. Mine and Dusty’s film, Slap Happy, will premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival in August, followed by screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. Hopefully a feature is not too far off in the future. ★
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Margaret! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
Margaret Betts: I was born and raised in New York City, where I still live today!
JB: Tell me about the idea behind your feature, Novitiate. How long had you been working on it? How did you originally conceive of it?
MB: It's hard to really say when I first got the idea for Novitiate, because it all developed so slowly and sporadically. I know that about six years ago, I was in an airport on my way to Kenya, when I happened to pick up this book on Mother Teresa that I decided to read on a whim. While I thought it might be boring, the book was quite surprisingly fascinating; it consisted of all these letters that Mother Teresa had written during the course of her life to all these various confidantes. And all of them were these desperately passionate outpourings about her relationship with her husband, God. I honestly didn't know before this that nuns were actually “married” to God—or that they literalized and romanticized their relationships with God so intensely. But it gave me the very first germ of an idea; to tell a story about a young nun falling in love with God for the first time.
JB: The cast for Novitiate is particularly incredible. Did you have specific actors in mind while you were writing?
MB: I didn't really have any actors in mind as I was writing the script. First, I didn't know who might be available to me, and second, I find picturing one single person sort of limiting to the imagination. Once the script was done, however, and it was time to do the casting. I went around to all the major agencies and told them I was looking to cast a unique group of up-and-coming young women, who weren't too big or too “known”yet, and who would be new, fresh faces to audiences. I met all of the girls through this process, and each of them had some sort of very specific and resonant quality that I was looking for to create the perfect ensemble. I really wanted to create a dynamic group of young women who were as talented as they were intelligent, as well as collaborative and giving in their art. Every young actress in the film was chosen for a specific reason, and they were—and are—all wonderful to me.
JB: What’s next for you?
MB: I'm working on two new projects right now, though I’m not quite at a stage yet where I feel comfortable talking about them. One thing I can say, though, is that much like Novitiate, both projects center themselves around predominantly female ensembles, and both are stories are about individual women trying to find their way and their voice in the world; women stepping into themselves and slowly, gradually, realizing the extent of their power. ★
FOUNDER & MANAGER, VIEWFINDER FILM CONSULTING
JB: Hi, Dilani! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
DR: I was born and raised in Ontario, Canada, but I am Tamil in background. My parents moved here with my older brother, to St. Catharines from Sri Lanka, and I was born here a few years after that. Most of my life has been spent in the wonderful confines of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), until I picked up and moved to India for a while in 2016, where I established my company, Viewfinder Film Consulting, which I now run from here in Toronto.
JB: What was your childhood like?
DR: I am very fortunate to have had a colorful childhood filled with so many learning opportunities. We moved to Mississauga when I was about three, when the city began to develop a large South Asian community, which was when many teachers who had also moved here from India and Sri Lanka began to offer cultural classes for children. My parents were really great at fostering my love for the arts. From a very young age, they would spend all their free time carting me around to classical South Asian music and dance classes. I never went to formal Tamil language school, but learned how to understand and speak it through these other classes…and through the movies, of course!
JB: When did you discover film? Was there a moment that you knew you wanted to work in the industry?
DR: When my parents and brother moved here, my mom (a big movie buff and former famous classical dancer) was naturally very homesick, and would constantly replay the few VHS copies of her favorite Indian movies that she brought over with her (this was long before Indian grocery stores selling movies popped up on every corner here!). So for as long as I can remember, I have been watching and immersing myself in Indian films with her. She is a diehard fan of the famous actor/director/writer Kamal Haasan, so I was raised on his films first and foremost. We used to put on our favorite movie songs and learn the dance routines in our living room and go shopping for outfits that were the closest match to those of my favorite leading ladies. And while I grew up on Indian cinema with my parents, my brother and I would discover the latest in Hollywood and other foreign films together; we were easily at the movie theatres at least once every week and at Blockbuster twice as much. Ever since I can remember, Indian cinema (and its music) has been the most natural way in which I bonded with my parents and learned all about my culture, despite being born on the other side of the world from it.
If I had to pick a singular moment in which I knew I wanted to work in the industry, it would be when this massive Tamil movie called Jeans came out in 1998. My family and I went to see it four times in the theatre, even though the theatre was an hour away from us; we were just hooked. It was the most expensive Indian movie made at the time, and they literally traveled to all the seven wonders of the world in it. I just remember staring at the screen with my jaw dropped for three hours, and thinking about how many people it must have taken to create such a beautiful thing. I think that’s about when I decided I wanted to be one of those people.
JB: What did you learn while working at TIFF?
DR: So much that I’m not sure where to begin! To me, TIFF was the perfect launch pad for my career in film after completing my MBA. I joined in a contract marketing position for the 2012 festival, which happened to have a program focused on films from Mumbai that year, and then came on full time in a finance role. Soon after, I was recruited to assist with South Asian programming in addition to my full-time position. If I had to note one thing in particular that I learned, it would be just how complicated the film programming process can be. It’s easy for us as an audience to attend a festival and pass comments on what we like or dislike, and question why perhaps a particular film was or wasn’t chosen—but the truth is, there are so many different steps to the programming process and to running a public film festival in general, especially the world’s largest one! I think it’s hard for most people to comprehend just how delicate the balance between artistic appreciation/curation and fiscal responsibility can be sometimes in this industry.
JB: How did you come up with the idea to start Viewfinder Film Consulting? What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own company?
DR: VFC was founded sort of serendipitously. I moved to India to gain film production experience on my friend M. Manikandan’s third directorial venture (Aandavan Kattalai). I had been creatively consulting and coordinating the festival travels of his earlier films since 2014, from Toronto itself, along with the works of some other filmmakers that he recommended to me. After arriving in Chennai last year, however, I learned that many more filmmakers were waiting to meet me! They were all keen to get the same sort of consulting I had been providing him. Once I realized the demand that existed, I decided it would be best to formally establish something in order to work with many different directors and production teams in the South. So I laid the foundation of VFC and began work with my first formal clients while I was in India e publicly announced the firm at the end of 2016, shortly after I got back home. Today we have expanded to offer script consulting, subtitling and translation, custom marketing materials, and online sales and production coordination for North American shoots, as well as film festival coordination for the Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Telugu industries of India.
The most rewarding thing about starting my own company is having our name associated with these amazing films that I might’ve just been admiring from afar, had I not started this venture. Although I was known within the Tamil film industry for my writing and for being a part of M. Manikandan’s team, establishing VFC has given me an entirely different identity in the industry as the international voice for quality South Indian cinema—to be appreciated as such is an indescribable feeling.
JB: What are some of your favorite Indian or South Asian films from past few years?
DR: So many, so hard to choose! But I’ve had a few favorites this year in different languages, so I’ll mention those: Vikram Vedha (Tamil), Angamaly Diaries (Malayalam), Baahubali 2 (Telugu), Trapped (Hindi).
JB: As a programmer for the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, what do you look for when selecting films for your lineup?
DR: The Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival has been doing a great job of expanding its representation of Asian cinema to include South Asian programming over the past few years. Given that the majority of Reel Asian audiences are traditionally non-South Asian, when I help to choose films now, I look for ones that have a more universal subject matter that any audience can connect to easily and enjoy. We’re looking for stories that stand out, regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with the language or the setting, and that are also a good representation of the large variety of Indian cinema out there today.
JB: Do you see a shift occurring to focus on more diverse films, regardless of their commercial appeal? What are the challenges you see some young filmmakers face today?
DR: I do feel as though there is a shift to focus on more diverse content, rather than mass commercial appeal—at least when it comes to South Indian movies. Audiences are becoming more vocal about what they want, and are quick to call out what they dislike. In turn, I feel directors and production studios are more careful with their project choices, because they’re more sensitive to the audience’s craving for unique stories and their fading interest in the formulaic “five-song movies” (films with unrelated song videos that transport you to the Alps at random, for example). However, I still see many young filmmakers with great scripts in hand facing the challenge of obtaining producers willing to give newcomers a chance. It’s a risky business, as it has always been, but with the threat of piracy being so rampant in Indian cinema, studios are very cautious about what they spend their money on, knowing that the box office collection of a film might only span one week, at best. It’s also very saturated, and there are often six to seven films releasing every Friday. VFC is trying our best to help new filmmakers that we believe in develop effective financing proposals to attract the right investors. Hopefully, we’ll help to get more promising talent the attention and funding they deserve.
JB: What's on your horizon for 2018?
DR: Hopefully, 2018 will be filled with more travel to places I haven’t been before to represent VFC films at some prestigious film festivals. I haven’t explored Europe much at all yet, so hopefully I’ll have a few excuses to travel there for work, if not for a personal vacation! Otherwise, I know 2018 will bring a lot more collaborations for VFC, since we’re already involved in the planning stages of some exciting films that will be going to floors by the end of 2017. I’m also eager for us to grow more across industries in South India and to represent more non-Tamil films.
JB: What's the best advice you've received?
DR: Not to compare myself with others—whether it’s personally or professionally. We all have our own pace. As an entrepreneur, it’s very easy to get hung up on how other businesses might be growing much faster than your own. You may even find that you start comparing yourself to those who have the stability that a 9-to-5 job can offer when things are challenging with your venture. In those times, I think it’s important to remember that no two paths are exactly alike. I admit this is the best advice I’ve received (and am reminded of daily by some close friends and family), but I still struggle to practice it! ★
Programmer, Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival
JB: Hi, Betty! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
BX: I am from Guangzhou, China. When I was 13, my family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada. I am now based in Toronto.
JB: When did your interest in film begin? Did you have a favorite film growing up?
BX: Growing up, I loved watching films from Hong Kong and Mainland China. Because I speak both Cantonese and Mandarin, I was able to fully immerse myself in the vibrant film culture of Hong Kong at that time. My favorite film was Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage, a biographic film about the famous Chinese actress Yuan Ling Yu, starring Maggie Cheung. I was very attracted to the idea of a film about films.
When I first went to the University of Toronto, I was supposed to study business, but very quickly, I was captivated by the liberal arts courses in literature and cinema studies. Cinema studies allowed me to look at films through a new lens. I loved every single class and decided to major in it.
JB: How did you start your job as a programmer?
BX: When I was in university, I interned at TIFF for its special film series on Chinese cinemas. Just before I graduated, I was making a short documentary and also started volunteering for the Programming Committee at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival. One thing led to another. I am now the Programmer of East Asia for Reel Asian, and also a part of the TIFF Docs programming team this year.
JB: What is a typical day like for you?
BX: A typical day for me this summer is getting up early in the morning and watching one feature documentary submission for TIFF. Then I go to my full-time job at Reel Asian, take meetings, and try to squeeze in one or two East Asian features to watch. After work, I come home and watch one to two more documentary submissions before my brain completely shuts down.
JB: As a woman in the film industry, do you feel like the industry is changing and more women are taking on leadership roles in the industry?
BX: I work in a building that houses some of the city’s most important medium-size film festivals: Reel Asian, imagineNATIVE, Inside Out, and Images. Currently, all four organizations are led by women. This is a fact that my colleagues and I are extremely proud of. I definitely see the wheels moving in the right direction, but I definitely want them to move even faster.
JB: What was your favorite film of 2017?
BX: I am biased, but my favorite film this year would be the feature film that I produced—a Korean Canadian feature comedy film called Stand Up Man, directed by my mentor Aram Siu Wai Collier. The film will make its festival run this fall. Stay tuned.
JB: Describe your perfect day in Toronto.
BX: I would go for a quick run in the Annex in the morning, then get myself a nice, hot Americano from Sam James Coffee. I’d do some reading or listen to a podcast, then go see my friends over brunch at Insomnia Café (also in the Annex). In the afternoon, I’d either go check out an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum or the latest release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Somewhere in there, a second coffee had to happen. Then I would end the evening in the Ossington strip with an amazing bowl of pho from Pho Tien Thanh and blueberry ice cream from Sweet Olenkas.
Yes—I love food, movies, and coffee.
JB: What do you hope for in the future, particularly when it comes to film?
BX: I hope to see more Asian representation in the arts. ★
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Sofia! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: I was born in Toronto, but grew up in northern Ontario in a small francophone town called Penetanguishene, and then eventually found my way back to Toronto. I have been living here for about 12 years now.
JB: What is your earliest cinematic memory?
SB: My grandmother had a solid collection of VHS tapes at her home, and when I would visit her I would often watch Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden. It was the first film I had seen that featured a young female protagonist that I could relate to—she was stubborn and was depicted in such a strong and interesting way. I was transfixed. I think I saw the film well over 50 times throughout my childhood.
I was obsessed with cartoons as a kid; I grew up on Disney and Looney Toons and referred to live-action films as “real people movies.” The Secret Garden was the first “real people movie” I enjoyed and took to because I saw myself in it. It was the first time I felt physically transported by a narrative, and it gave me a preliminary understanding of how powerful filmmaking can be.
JB: When did you make your first film? What drew you to the art of storytelling through this medium?
SB: I made my first film in high school in lieu of a presentation. I hated talking in front of people, because I would get nervous, mumble my way through it, and I didn’t have the kind of ease and control I wanted. It was embarrassing and frustrating for me. Suddenly, I realized that if I made a film, I could have control over these variables and manipulate the way I presented myself and the information I was trying to deliver. These were projects I would shoot by myself with my father’s VHS camera and then I would edit them tape-to-tape with two VCRs. One day, I discovered that if I inserted one of the audio cables into my CD player, I could add a music track in the left or right channel, which was pretty revolutionary for me.
Sometimes these little films deviated far from the task at hand, but I always got an A+ on my projects, because my teachers were amused and entertained by my effort. Eventually this thing that I was using as a scapegoat to avoid talking in front of people turned into an interest that consumed me. After school, I would wait for my communications technology teacher to leave the classroom and would ask the custodian to let me into the editing suite to edit after hours and would stay there as long as I could; my parents would have to drag me out of there sometimes. I eventually realized that filmmaking was something I wanted to pursue long term and went straight to film school soon after high school. It all took off from there.
JB: You call yourself an experimental filmmaker. What does that term “experimental” mean to you?
SB: Experimental filmmaking to me means making a film without having an intended outcome. To me it’s about exploring and testing out different methods; not having an idea where you’ll land and being ok with that. When I start shooting films, I do a minimal amount of planning. I always have an outline, however I really like to challenge myself and be present while I shoot so I can be open to working with the variables around me.
I feel like as a filmmaker, it is always such a struggle to achieve your intended vision, and if I have set expectations going into a shoot, I feel like I inevitably end up working against my environment. So what I’ve learned to do is to work with what is already there and to use the variables in front of me to my advantage. I usually figure out the narrative line in my films in the editing room, which might sound like a backwards way of doing things but it works for me.
I don’t think that my filmmaking is very avant-garde, but it’s not narrative either, so I am in this grey zone a lot of the time. At the beginning of my career, it was quite challenging to get programmed because my films weren’t experimental or narrative enough in either category and I think that programmers weren’t sure what I was trying to do. However, after creating enough work, I think people have warmed to my voice, and by continuing to create, I have made more space and interest for my films.
JB: Tell me a little bit about your most recent documentary, Maison du bonheur. How did you develop the idea?
SB: Maison du bonheur all started after I had screened a program of my short films with the Polish Consulate in Toronto in 2014. A friend from work, Eillen, attended the screening which focused on films about my grandmother, and she became very interested in my filmmaking. She mentioned to me very casually after the screening that my films reminded her of her mother, Juliane. She said if I ever found myself in Paris that it would be great if I could make a film in her childhood home.
Eillen knew that this was a lot to ask of me, but casually mentioned that her mother was an astrologer, lived in Montmartre, and had been living in the same apartment for 50 years. When she told me this, I was naturally fascinated by it all. In my filmmaking, I am very interested in anthropology. I love capturing the way people live, their spaces, rituals and the objects that hold significance for them. From Eillen’s description of her mother, I knew that this would make a very interesting film and had a good feeling about it.
A year later, I took out a line of credit from the bank and headed to France. I didn’t have any direct contact with her before I went (which was perhaps naive) and essentially showed up on her doorstep. However, from the moment Juliane opened the door, there was this incredible generosity that flowed out of her; every nervous feeling I had about making the film disappeared and I knew that my investment would pay off. 20 minutes after meeting Juliane, we were already shooting the first scene of the film.
It should be noted that I shot this film by myself (and usually shoot by myself) or with a minimal crew. Since I shoot with microscopic budgets (and can’t afford to have a lot of help), I have learned how to do all of the camera work and audio on my own. At first this was an economical choice, however, I feel like it has artistic benefits as well. When you shoot a film with no crew, your subjects are able to let their guard down and act much more natural. It creates a great sense of intimacy onscreen that I wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise.
JB: How would you describe your films? As a filmmaker, is there a through line that connects each one?
SB: I would describe my films as experiments in docu-fiction. I feel like the line between fantasy and reality oscillates throughout my body of work, and I like to push these boundaries as much as I can. One theme that is consistent in all of my work is a focus on elderly matriarchs. From an early age, I noted that the representation of older women in film was not accurate to the experiences I had with them in my own life.
Older women are oftentimes depicted as stubborn, angry, senile, and confused. This was not my perspective on my paternal and maternal grandmothers. I saw them as strong, intelligent, resilient, and wise women with a lot to share. In my filmmaking, I aim to correct the negative stereotypes to create a new angle to view these incredible women. Elderly women are often not listened to the way they should be in our society, and by making films that focus on their experiences, I hope that people will be willing to give them the attention they deserve.
JB: In your view, is there a distinct difference between narrative and documentary filmmaking? Or do you consider the two types of filmmaking to function as more of a hybrid?
SB: I think there’s definitely a distinct difference between narrative and documentary, and that’s what makes them so fun to experiment with within a film. The first time I saw Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte, I was captivated by her ability to explore both forms so seamlessly. After seeing it, I learned that she had hired two actors to navigate the scenes of a young couple having an existential crisis within their relationship, but the scenes with the villagers were essentially (save for a few staged scenes) a documentary. I was in love with her technique, and in turn became interested in exploring the lines between fantasy and reality (and did so in my first feature, Never Eat Alone). Varda’s filmmaking continually gives me the confidence and artistic license to push the limits within my own work. As I expand my filmography, I am hoping to continue the practice of interlacing, as it gives me more opportunities to improvise and shoot intuitively.
JB: How are you balancing studying and filmmaking? What encouraged you to further pursue your academic career?
SB: The M.F.A program at York is unique in that I get to make a new feature film while I am studying (it’s a Masters in Film Production), so I am looking at it as a two-year residency. I am eager to be in an environment where I can learn from my peers while taking the time to refine my own craft and have the support of the faculty there. It is rare that I have the time to reflect on filmmaking as well as study it, and I am looking forward to having the space to hash out a film with more support that I’ve ever had. Just the idea of it all already feels quite luxurious to me.
A lot of filmmakers in Toronto that I respect have done the program and have highly recommended it, so this is what pointed me to it in the first place. There are only so many low-budget features I can make— I am hoping that I can learn how to make my practice more sustainable during my time there.
JB: What’s your favorite film that you've seen recently?
SB: I have just started soft-titling for French films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and had the opportunity to watch Jean-Pierre Melville’s When You Read This Letter. It’s a film noir about a nun who takes revenge on a man who rapes her younger sister. I won’t plot spoil, but the film takes so many dips and dives and is quite revolutionary for something that was made in the 1950s.
Since I was soft-titling it, I had to watch the film about four times and study the script so that I didn’t screw up when I was launching the subtitles. It was fascinating for me to study a film in this way— fell in love with it. Every time I watched it, there was another angle of the narrative to question and appreciate. I have always loved Melville, but this film took me to a new level of admiration for his craft.
JB: What do you find inspiring about working as a creative in Toronto?
SB: There is a strong community of filmmakers, programmers, and critics in Toronto, and I feel quite blessed to be a part of it. Independent, self-funded filmmaking can be liberating, but it is also very challenging, and the fact that I am able to lean on friends and colleagues whenever I’m feeling stuck or frustrated is a real gift.
In attending screenings at the Lightbox or independent screenings hosted by MDFF or Early Monthly Segments, you are constantly reminded that you’re not alone. It’s rare for me to go to a screening and not run into someone whose films, writing, or programming I admire. Filmmaking can sometimes be a depressing and isolating craft, and being able to relate to others and share our own experiences is vital. It helps to remind me why I’ve chosen this intense career and gives me the gumption to keep going.
JB: What's next for you heading into 2018? Can you tell me anything about your next project, Veslemøy’s Song?
SB: Veslemøy’s Song is a film that I will be developing for my M.F.A at York University. I am in the very early stages of researching and lining up a rough outline of how I am going to attack it. My thoughts on it all are still very loose, but I can tell you it’s based on a violinist name Kathleen Parlow who mentored my grandfather who eventually played in the Toronto Symphony. She was the first musician in Canada to do a world tour and had a concerto named after her titled Veslemøy’s Song that was written for her by a Norwegian composer.
Right now though, most of my energy is wrapped up in my third feature film that I co-wrote with actor Deragh Campbell who starred in my film Never Eat Alone. We don’t have a title for it just yet, but the film follows a young woman who becomes the literary executor for her great-grandmother’s literary estate and is trying to figure out what to do with it. The film is based on my great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, who was a poet who immigrated here from Poland in the 1960s. I found letters that she wrote to a man named Jozef Wittlin in an archive in Harvard over the course of eight years and had them translated by the Polish Consulate here in Toronto. Deragh and I decided to write a narrative around the discovery of these letters and shot the film over the course of a week this summer. I am hoping to have it completed by the spring. ★
Actress and Filmmaker
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Emily! Tell me a little bit about your background as an actress and your transition to writing and producing. Growing up, was acting something you always wanted to pursue?
Emily Taaffe: I’m the youngest of five children and was a bit of a show-off as a child. I was the baby, so I was always encouraged to sing and perform; I think that’s really where it all started. Then in secondary school in Ireland, an older girl suggested I join my local youth theater. I did, and I was hooked. But even then, I didn’t really understand exactly how one could be an actor—I didn’t know any [actors], it wasn’t part of my world.
I applied to study drama at Trinity College Dublin. Whilst there, I did a bit of everything; we had an amazing drama society with our own black box theater that we ran, but it was the acting that kept drawing me back, so I applied to LAMDA in London to do the two-year postgrad course. I loved it there! [...] As I moved toward doing more film and TV, I had much more available time and energy; I had always made my own work in university and felt the desire to do that again. [This decision] was also driven by my frustration at being at the behest of others, and not being able to do my thing until I was given permission from a third party.
JB: The story of Little Bird seems to be very personal to you. Did you always know that this was a story you wanted to tell as a filmmaker? How did your collaboration with filmmakers Georgia Oakley and Rebecca Cronshey come about?
ET: Little Bird is really personal. My grandmother had a sister, Christine, who left Ireland as a young woman in the 1940s. She was never heard from again. According to my mother, my granny would occasionally wonder, “Whatever happened to our Chrissie?” But sadly, she died not knowing— no one knew for a long time. Then, a couple of years ago, a knock came on my aunt’s door. A very nice man stood there and said in an English accent, “Hello, I think we might be cousins.”
It transpired that Christine had gone to England, joined up with the war effort, and gone to Egypt, where she met and married another member of the forces. They returned to England after Hitler was defeated, set up a home, and started a family.
For reasons known only to the dead, Christine told her children that she was an orphan with no surviving family, and this is what they grew up believing until her death. Only then were they able to discover a large extended family just across the water in Dublin.
When I first heard this story I immediately became fascinated. Why would someone leave Ireland and join the British army? Why cut all ties with your people? Why lie to your children? How deeply must you have been hurt to do such a thing? Why would you never call your sister? But I didn't immediately know what to do with it ... it took about 18 months really of thinking and researching before I wrote the script.
I knew that I wanted to tell this story with a female team, so I contacted a director friend of mine. She introduced me to Georgia, and another friend told me about Rebecca. I met with them both separately and was so struck by their talent and intelligence and drive. It was a great fit immediately, and we just went from there. Victoria Zalin joined us as another producer further down the line, and that was the dream team complete!
JB: How much research did you conduct prior to shooting? Did any stories you read from that period of history stand out? Why do you think more of these stories need to be told?
ET: I did a lot of research! I live near the Imperial War Museum, so I could often be found digging around their archives. There are so many great stories, but for some reason, one that pops into my mind now is of an engineer’s daughter from Leicester who was so desperately trying to pass herself off as middle class that she used to work on her elocution at night when the other girls were off having fun—that sense of being an outsider trying to fit in really stayed with me.
I think we have a tendency to romanticize this period, whilst at the same time women are sidelined in stories about World War II. Sadly, most of these women are dead now, but from speaking to some of them and reading first hand accounts, it's clear that it was an incredibly exciting and challenging period—one in which a huge amount of social boundaries were broken through. And it wasn't all red lipstick and cute outfits; they really often were in very difficult conditions and played a huge role in winning the war. I also think we owe the women of this era a huge debt in terms of feminism, and I feel a strong urge to bring their stories to light.
JB: What was it like working with Imelda Staunton on the project?
ET: I mean, an absolute dream. She was everything you could hope for and more! So generous and professional and respectful. I will be forever grateful to her.
JB: You’ve played many leading roles in British theater. Any particular favorites?
ET: Oh, loads! I've a special place in my heart for Daphne from Nation at the National Theatre, as it was my first leading role there. I came on board before there was even a script, so I got to be a part of the development process as well, which was amazing. And then playing Viola in Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Company was also a bit of a “pinch yourself” moment.
JB: Since part of this issue focuses on the film scene in Toronto, can you tell me a bit about your film that’s premiering at TIFF this year, Beast?
ET: Beast is a romantic thriller that centers on a small island community, where a troubled young woman falls for a mysterious outsider who empowers her to escape her oppressive family. When he comes under suspicion for a series of brutal murders, she defends him at all costs and learns what she is capable of.
JB: What’s next for you? Do you plan to continue writing and producing?
ET: I sure do. I loved stepping on set and seeing my imagination made real—I'd love some more of that feeling! And working with other talented folk to create a piece of work in this way was a wonderful experience. We are developing Little Bird into a television series, which is very exciting, I'm working away as an actress on a variety of film and TV projects, and I'm waiting for the next story that I really want to tell to land in my lap or my brain. ★
Actress and Filmmaker
JB: Hi, Anna! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
AM: I was born and grew up in London, England. Both my parents are Canadian, so I was always drawn there. I attended the Canadian Film Centre in 2015, which was a great way of getting to know Toronto and the film industry there quickly. I’ve been back in London more of late, as I’ve been working on a couple of film projects— a short that I just finished shooting, and a feature script I’m writing. I took part in the inaugural development scheme Modern Tales this spring in London with Jessie Mangum my producer, so we’re working on that now, and I will be shooting another short in the spring in Canada. So I guess this answer is a long-winded way of saying: everywhere!
JB: I know you started acting quite young. How did you get your start? Did your love for the craft grow over the course of your teenage and young adult life?
AM: I did start young—I was part of a choir, and they needed some child singers/actors for a small background part in the opera Der Rosenkavalier at the ENO. My parents let me do it, and after the first night on stage I was hooked. Though I’m not sure my parents were super happy about it (cue taking me to auditions and the like), they were always supportive and allowed me to follow it within reason; it’s not like I was pulled out of school or anything, it just kind of worked out that I did it in my summer holidays. Basically, it was a fun thing to do instead of going to summer camp.
In terms of my love of the craft, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. I didn’t do any formal training until my time at the CFC, but I did perform in a lot of university plays during my time at Cambridge. I swear reviews from kids who are playing at being reviewers of performances of kids playing at being actors are the harshest! But it was a lot of fun, and made me more determined to continue on this chosen path. However, when I graduated, I quickly realized that being an actor and nothing else was both impossible financially and also not particularly rewarding for me. I loved working as an actor, but I also felt something was missing. I lacked creative control, and it probably made me a total pain to work with! I started writing, devising, assisting photographers, directing work, making little films and so on and so forth as a means of teaching myself a bit more what else I might be interested in and how to tell stories in the way I wanted to tell them. It’s been a lot of muddling through and doing a lot of work for little money, but it’s definitely made me more satisfied, and as a result I think I’m a much better actor now, as I’ve chilled out! I have my stuff that I’m doing on my own, so when I’m on set or rehearsing for someone else’s project, I work to make it the vision they have, and I absolutely love doing that. I have no claim on the material, other than being committed to discovering another person, becoming that person, and doing it in collaboration with a director, writer, and other actors. It’s refreshing and joyful to be directed and trusted with another person’s vision.
JB: I have to ask—what was it like playing a young Drew Barrymore (in one of my favorite films, Ever After) and appearing in Saving Private Ryan? Do you have memories of these early experiences?
AM: It was great! I bought a bright orange fake fur coat with my first paycheck. Everyone was really nice—I remember Giovanni Ribisi doing animal impressions in the “drying off tent” during Saving Private Ryan to make me laugh. I think the guys were happy to have two little kids around, as it had been them and guns and boot camp for months. We were so excited to be there; we probably made them see the joy of it all again.
Ever After was right after. I remember doing a lot of swimming in our hotel pool with the other kids in the film. We formed a gang. Drew had a really nice dog called Flossie with a blue spotted tongue. It’s funny the things we remember as kids.
JB: Growing up in front of the camera, did writing and directing come as a natural transition for you?
AM: I guess I answered this partly above, but yes, I think it came out of a frustration I had with the limitations of being an actor. As a child I was doing it for fun, but I was also at school, playing music, hanging out with friends, taking exams, and doing all the things young people do. Most importantly, my parents were looking after me and I didn’t have to work. So it was just this fun, amazing thing I got to do that was a bonus to my life. It’s weird that I then based all of my adult dreams and desires on this fun extracurricular activity.
When I graduated from university, I realized that being a jobbing actor was really hard, on so many levels: no money, bad scripts, good scripts that you never ever get the part in, but someone you know once did get a part in something like this—so there’s always hope, keep going to those auditions—lost confidence, bad reviews, really weird part-time jobs like Pokémon conventions or standing in front of Formula One cars...I mean the list goes on. I wanted to explore what it meant to make my own work, how to tell stories that were important to me and that moved me, and probably most importantly, not to feel like a social pariah at parties. (Maybe it’s just my distorted anxious early ‘20s mind, but I really felt the minute I said I was an actor, whomever I was speaking to would take a step back—including actors! It’s painful! But maybe I just smelt bad…).
JB: What do you consider to be the greatest challenges of working as both an actor and a director? Do you ever feel pressure to identify yourself as one or the other? Do people ever have trouble understanding that you do both?
AM: I went to a party once when I was 22 or something—it was a big, swanky film thing that I had somehow crashed with a friend, and I was talking to a producer who I think was someone quite important, and he asked me what I did and I said I was an actor and director. He laughed a bit and told me I should probably choose one and stick to it. I remember feeling indignant—[thinking] “Why?! Why can’t I do both?” I mean, I think I probably smiled and was like “Yeah, probably,” but inside, that was my call to arms. I’ll probably discover in a couple of years that he was dead right, but right now, I’m having a whale of a time doing both. I don’t always do them at the same time, but the most recent short film I made is one that I acted in, wrote, and directed. That was a massive challenge—probably one of the biggest I’ve ever faced creatively and professionally. I kept trying to chicken out, but every time I suggested it to either my producer or my boyfriend, they were like “Don’t be silly, you’re doing this, and you’ll regret it if you don’t.” There was nowhere to run really; they had me in a pincer formation, so in the end, I just got on with doing it, and it was great! I spent the week after filming it feeling like I could probably do anything. But then the edit begins, and you get to see all the bad takes you’ve done, and you’re like “Yeah, I guess I’m probably still just a normal, fallible human being after all.”
I’d definitely do it again though. It was all about the prep. Just do so much prep and have everything so well planned out that once things change on the day, you’re ready for them. ... I think the collaborative element of film is one of the most important things for me, and the thing I enjoy most about the process. Everyone who worked on the most recent short was so, so good at what they did! And they brought all their amazing ideas and skills and abilities to the film, and they made the thing I have had in my head for the past two years a million times better. That’s what I love about filmmaking—I may sound like a megalomaniac writing, directing, and acting in one project, but the reality is that I’m a small part of the process. Trusting the people you are working with, cast and crew, means the film becomes something else again, something made by the hands and minds of many. It’s my job to help try and get us on the same page, and then we all just take it from there. So it’s fun and organic and very much in the moment of making it.
JB: What has been a favorite project of yours?
AM: I’m not sure I’ve got a favorite. They’ve all been different. I have to say a highlight recently was shooting Pavan Moondi’s Sundowners in Colombia—I was there for about 48 hours in deepest, darkest February. Well, that’s how it felt in Toronto; in Santa Marta it was a different story. I spent the days in the sea with the fishes all swimming around me, thinking “this is a really good moment. If I try not to move too much, maybe the moment will stay.” So I did, and my fingers got all wrinkly. Then at night, I got to shoot fun improv scenes with the hilarious Phil Hanley, so that was pretty good.
JB: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers and films of the past year? Any films this year that had an effect on you?
AM: It wasn’t [from] this year, but I really loved Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier. I loved the way the men in her film vied for supremacy via her gaze. There was a deep humor as well as a generosity to the way she portrayed their vulnerability masquerading as bravado. I’m a big fan of Gillian Robespierre, and I’m looking forward to seeing Landline, as well as Amy Seimetz—I loved her debut feature Sun Don’t Shine, and I like how she both acts and directs and takes no prisoners. I’m also really looking forward to seeing Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. I could go on…
JB: Tell me about your new film, The Sisters Tolchinski. How did you develop the idea? Do you find yourself drawn more to narrative or to documentary filmmaking? Or do you think the two go hand in hand?
This was the first documentary project I’d worked on, and I really enjoyed it! I’d definitely like to do another one. I think they absolutely complement each other—it’s all stories and different ways of telling stories. I’ve learnt so much from this process for narrative and vice versa.
Rich Caplan, the son of Rose, one of the sisters, approached me via one of my tutors at the Canadian Film Centre, and we started talking about his mother, her three sisters, their particular relationship, their age (they are all in good health and range from 86 – 101 and have outlived all their husbands), and his desire to tell something of their story. He made it clear that he didn’t want a sentimental family film complete with star wipes, so I set about watching all the reams of home videos they had, as well as interviewing the sisters individually and together.
They are wonderful women who are so full of life, and it struck me how difficult it is to age when your mind is raring to go, but your body consistently holds you back. All four sisters have their in-fights and their alliances, their own stories as well as shared histories, and clearly some secrets that they weren’t going to divulge. I was drawn to the idea of exploring what it means to be “remarkable.” So often, documentaries focus on the extraordinary or the awful, these big mysteries and wild stories of lives lived out of the ordinary. Of course these are important stories to tell, but I wondered why we don’t tell the stories of lives lived simply and quietly— the drama of what it means to live from zero to one hundred being enough to draw and grab our attention. The subtleties of their interactions, and the difference of where we are as a society now to where we were 100 years ago, is striking when you see these women and their adaptation to living throughout this period. I was also fascinated by the way they all remember the same events differently. It made me so aware of the refraction of memory through our own experience and how, over time, that prism is a little different for everyone. It was a subtle thing to make, and I really enjoyed putting it all together with my tireless editor Chris Mutton. I’m excited that it’s premiering at the Rhode Island International Film Festival this August, and I’m looking forward to seeing what an audience makes of it.
JB: What projects do you have on the horizon?
AM: Well, there are a few things in store. I’m finishing up editing my latest fiction short—it’s working title is actually Constellations, but I think that might change as we move forward. I’m hoping to have a finished film by the end of the year. Then there’s another short film that we’ve just received funding for, which I plan to shoot this spring in Ontario, written by playwright Julia Lederer. That will be my first time directing someone else’s writing, so I’m really looking forward to that process and that collaboration. There’s a feature film that I’m developing with my UK- based producer Jessie Mangum, as well as a couple of other ideas that I have that I’d like some time to work on and write up, and then whatever acting work comes up on an audition-by-audition basis! I’m heading to Goa in January or thereabouts to take part in a Lab thanks to The British Council, as Your Mother and I won an award at The London Short Film Festival this year, so I’m really looking forward to that.
JB: What do you find exciting about being a woman in the Canadian film industry?
AM: There’s a collaborative spirit within the film industry in both Toronto and Montreal, (I hear it’s good in Vancouver, too, but I’ve never worked over there), which I find is bolstered by the access to government arts funding. The community is really supportive, and I like that I’m allowed to be a part of it, even though I sound like a Brit.
Just watching the Anglo-Canadian film industry right now, there’s a real flourishing of Canadian stories that are distinct from American ones. I think it’s something that Anglo-Canada has struggled with historically due to its proximity to the film super power that is the United States of America, but there are all these amazing young filmmakers who are redefining their culture apart from that of the overarching “North American” one. Then of course there’s a bloom of First Nations’ filmmakers whose films are hitting a world stage, and great work being done to develop these filmmaking communities, as well as the Québécois contingent—that has always been artistically strong due to, in part, the language that keeps them separate from the same Americanisation that English-speaking Canada is endangered by. It’s interesting to see this country struggle toward an identity that can unite in all its differences. It’s a rather inspiring place to be right now.
It’s strange, though—because of the fact I work in the UK, as well as Canada, I feel lucky that I get to be a part of a network of international filmmakers, rather than just being in one community. For example the latest short film I made is shot in the UK, however my producer is Australian, my DP is from New Zealand, the first AD is Italian, and the list goes on. I’m currently editing it in Toronto with my friend and collaborator, Maureen Grant, and one of our executive producers is Moroccan-Québécois. I guess what I’m trying to say is that rather than feeling like I’m just within the Canadian or the British system, the film industry itself allows [one to experience] international cross pollination that, at its best, allows us to broaden the stories we tell and the ways we tell them. Both Canada and the UK have this rich mix of cultures working within them, and I’m lucky to be a part of both worlds. ★
Julia Sarah Stone
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Julia! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
Julia Sarah Stone: I have lived in Vancouver my whole life, and have traveled to many other places in Canada to film!
JB: Tell me about A Worthy Companion and your character, Eva.
JSS: A Worthy Companion is a dark drama which centers around the relationship between Laura (Evan Rachel Wood) and Eva.
My character, Eva, is a socially isolated teenager whose loneliness makes her vulnerable. When she receives a special kind of attention from Laura, she is drawn into a toxic relationship which she at first mistakes for love.
It’s a dark film, but I think a very important story. It hits on themes of psychological abuse, vulnerability, manipulation, and how codependency makes it difficult to see abuse for what it is. I think this film could potentially help some people recognize dangerous relationships in their own lives.
JB: What was it like working with Evan Rachel Wood, someone who also started her career early in her life?
JSS: Evan is a wonderful person and an incredibly generous scene partner. Her commitment to the vulnerability of her character made it easier for me to delve into the darker scenes. It was an honor to work with her!
JB: What's next for you?
JSS: I worked with Amy Jo Johnson on a film called The Space Between, which comes out in Canadian theaters this fall! It’s a dark comedy with lovable characters, and it has a phenomenal cast. I’m also currently shooting an independent thriller called Come True, which focuses on the blurred lines between the nightmares of our sleep and those of reality. ★
JB: Hi, Susanna! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
SW: I grew up in England and now live on a farm in the Sussex countryside.
JB: What was your childhood like? When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
SW: I grew up in the suburbs of South London. My brother is eight years older than me, so in many ways it was like being an only child. I spent a lot of time in the world of my imagination. I discovered cameras around the age of eight. When I was a Brownie Guide, I went to watch a children’s TV show called Crackerjack being made. All the other kids were trying to get up on stage to win prizes but I remember being fascinated by a red light coming on on a camera and that image appearing on the monitor above me; then the camera would change and a new image appear. I started piecing together the practicalities of how films were made. It opened a whole new world to me—there was a practical way to create the world of my imagination. I went to the local library and started reading about filmmaking. My parents bought me a Super 8 camera and I began to make my first films—bike chases with my friends, that sort of thing. My parents must have seen how passionate I was, as we didn’t have a lot of luxuries growing up.
A lot of films I discovered on the TV growing up. I remember seeing François Truffaut’s L'enfant sauvage, as well as watching Westerns with my father. As a family we’d go to the cinema for commercial movies like James Bond or Disney films.
JB: What was your first project as a director? What did you learn during that process?
SW: After film school at UCLA, I ran a screenwriting competition for a while, then got my first break directing documentaries. I made a film about a surrealist painter called Eileen Agar who was an amazing and inspiring woman; she was in a circle with Picasso and Salvador Dali, but she wasn’t taken seriously in the way her male contemporaries were. Her work is now being reevaluated, and in the last few years people have realized just how great she is. She loved the experience of having the film made. For her it meant being taken seriously as an artist. My first single drama film was about the poet Philip Larkin. Starring Hugh Bonneville, Tara Fitzgerald, and Eileen Atkins, we made it for £200,000. We got very lucky in the way you sometimes do. It was hard for us to shoot wide exteriors, as it was period and we didn’t have the budget, but it snowed on the days we were shooting Christmas, and suddenly we were able to shoot outside with scale! That film taught me that what matters most is the script and casting.
JB: You’ve directed both prolific television series and films. Given that there seems to be more crossover between the two mediums nowadays, what do you consider to be the central difference between the two?
SW: I’m so happy to see that television is now being taken seriously as a medium. For a long time, it was seen as the poor relation. I love the scope that television series give you to explore character. It was wonderful on Bleak House or Generation Kill to see the actors really develop their characters over the months that we were filming. Perhaps the biggest difference is the way that directors are revered in film—for a long time, television has been seen as the writer’s medium. I think that the crossover now means that that aspect is shifting a bit. Actually, shooting a big television series is much more challenging than making a feature; filming over 100 characters shot multi-episodically on Parade’s End (when I directed the whole piece) and keeping that massive jigsaw in my head was the toughest thing I have ever done, physically as well as mentally. I had the incredible actors you would have on a feature [Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Rupert Everett etc.], but [with the addition of] shooting out of sequence in different countries and in freezing weather.
JB: Tell me about your new film, Woman Walks Ahead, which will premiere at TIFF. How did you come across the story?
SW: I was introduced to the script of Woman Walks Ahead about two and a half years ago. It had actually been on the shelf for 14 years. It was the second thing Steve Knight ever wrote. I knew this was the film I had to make. The combination of such a strong woman in Catherine Wheldon, combined with the emotional delicacy and the political content, was irresistible to me. It reminded me of the Westerns I grew up on, but in a very different key —here you heard the voices of those people you never normally heard from in those movies, the Native Americans and women.
JB: What was it like to work with Jessica Chastain? Where did you film?
SW: It was absolutely wonderful working with Jessica. She is so smart and so precise in her acting. Every beat is thought through. She is also very generous towards other actors—she has a lot to give both when she is on and off camera. I felt very lucky to have her. We filmed in New Mexico, all around Santa Fe. That place has the most incredible light and we were able to give the film the look of the wide vistas I wanted, as the land is a character in the movie, too. The movie is set in the Dakotas, so our greensman was frequently having to dig out cacti so it looked right!
JB: You also directed one of my favorite series, Jane Eyre (2007), for PBS— where did you start as far as thinking through how to bring such an esteemed novel to the screen?
SW: Jane Eyre had always been one of my favorite books from when I read it at about the age of 13. I think every single teenage girl relates to it as Jane feels like an outsider, ugly, someone who feels they may never be loved. There have been well over 20 film versions made—every generation reinvents it for themselves. I wanted Jane to feel modern and passionate, hence the casting of Ruth Wilson, who has great naturalism and immediacy as an actress.
JB: What’s next for you?
SW: I’m currently developing a movie about a young girl growing up in London in the 1960s— it’s a very personal film based on the story of my family.
JB: Do you aim to make films that place women at the center?
SW: That was certainly part of the appeal of Women Walks Ahead. In the past, those films have not always been easy to finance. I think that is part of the story of why this movie was not made before. It’s terrific to have discovered Erika Olde as a financier—she made it possible to make the movie after all this time. Of course, as a woman I am keen to make films with women at the center of their story and films which have a female sensibility behind them. ★
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Elisia! Can you tell our readers about your company, Heart On?
Elisia Mirabelli: Heart On is an ecosystem that supports, celebrates, and uplifts female-identifying creatives in whichever way we can. Our initiatives include a multi-disciplinary, all-ages screening and art event showcasing the work of six emerging female-identifying visual artists, two female-identifying filmmakers, and a blossoming musician, dancer, or actor.
Our workshops are a catalyst for storytelling. Aimed at demystifying the practice of filmmaking, our series of intimate discussions, Q&A’s, and classes unite female-identifying emerging creatives with professional filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, producers, and production designers.
Heart On’s intent is to create an inclusive atmosphere where one is unafraid to ask questions, share their inspiration, and present their work. Our aim is for female-identifying filmmakers and artists to connect, make cool shit together and, with any luck, feel less alone.
We’re madly in love with our next event. Writer Durga Chew-Bose [Editor’s Note: Constellation’s Issue 2 cover star!] will join us for an intimate discussion outlining her carefully poetic approach to writing nonfiction, finding her voice, getting lost in it, and the curious journey to Too Much and Not The Mood, her stunning collection of lyrical essays.
JB: What is it like working as a young artist in Toronto?
EM: I oscillate between feeling warm and supported and feeling left out in the rain. I think it’s tough, because there are a fair number of art institutions who are quite resistant to opening their doors to a fresh crop of artists, so for a while things felt pretty stagnant. With that being said, you can see and feel the strides young artists are making as they push through a ton of antiquated bullshit and carve out their own paths. They’re forming their own arts communities and initiatives and completely throwing themselves into their work. They’re tearing down the boundaries built by an earlier generation of artists and reconstructing the arts community as their own. It’s really fucking inspiring.
JB: Tell us about your work as a filmmaker.
EM: I graduated from film school with a focus in directing and a serious love for production design. I was really lucky to discover, investigate, and play around with filmmaking outside of school with a group of collaborators. My earlier projects grew from all these new experiences and feelings I was coming to terms with in the first chunk of my twenties. It felt like each crushing set of feelings became my own personal theme for the year, which in turn influenced the projects we were creating. Each project represents one of three moods: feeling trapped inside someone’s perception of you, craving to break free of yourself, and wishing there was a way of shielding yourself from the weight of expectation.
JB: What are you working on at the moment?
EM: There are lots of little seeds that I’m tending at the moment. I’ve been focusing a lot on becoming a fiercer writer and have been dipping my toes in personal essay writing. I recently took a creative nonfiction class with essayist Chloe Caldwell which made me realize how badly in shape I was.
I hope to infuse my next projects with more of myself. To not be afraid of filling my films with the way I feel the world and to have more belief in my feelings as something worthy of being shared. I just want to take up more space in my work. That may sound funny, but for me the most challenging aspect of filmmaking is having the balls and ownership to be a character in the universe you create and to not be petrified of someone knowing it’s you in there. ★
Elisia Mirabelli’s Mini-Guide to Toronto
Best saved for Sunday afternoons or those days when you need a trip away from the crappy voices in your head. These spots are great soul fuel top-ups and should be enjoyed very slowly.
Stunning, disobedient, glittery, goosebumpy, daring, unruly, and the best programming in town. Knock on Xpace’s office door and spill your guts to the ladies who curate/run the space. They are visionary angels.
303 Lansdowne Ave Unit 2, Toronto, ON M6K 2W5
Visit this petite bar with the yummiest cocktails and dreamiest décor. It feels like you’re on the best date with yourself. (They serve snacks, too!)
838 College St, Toronto, ON M6H 1A2
This light-filled plant shop that will make you wish (for a brief second) that you had a 9-to-5 job that would allow you to buy exquisitely potted tropical plants.
1086 1/2 Queen St, Toronto, ON M6J 1H8
The most gorgeous windows, thoughtfully curated bookshelves, and a wonderful array of local works of nonfiction scripted by the city’s most brilliant female authors.
883 Queen St. W. | 427 Spadina Rd. Toronto, Ontario
The crumbliest almond croissants. Get two—one to scarf down, one to enjoy.
780 Queen St. W Toronto M6J 1G2
This indoor botanical garden is a serious slice of heaven. Oh, and it’s free!
Allan Gardens Children's Conservatory, 19 Horticultural Ave, Toronto, ON M5A 2P2