Interview: MOLLY MAXWELL Director Sara St. Onge
Here at Twitch I've had the opportunity to do a number of long form interviews with the likes of Guillermo Del Toro and Bill Paxton, well established filmmakers that when given the opportunity to properly express themselves outside of simple soundbytes have fascinating things to say about cinema.
I thought I'd try something of similar scope with a filmmaker unfamiliar to most. I sat down with director Sara St. Onge over hot drinks to chat at length about her first feature, Molly Maxwell.
The film is charming, provocative, and quite well done, a far cry from the glossiness of High School films that traditional Hollywood spits out. At its core is the story of a young girl who falls for one of her teachers, something that in less deft hands would have come across as simply fodder for an exploitational or ribald film.
Instead, St. Onge crafts a quite believable scenario, showing the intricacies of a young woman coming to terms with her own maturity (and the power this elicits), while still very much showing many of her choices to be fueled by childishness. It's this balance that keeps the film interesting - at several moments, when I thought it'd slip into something entirely predictable, the film takes a turn in a pleasing way, showing over and over a sophistication of narrative that's pleasing.
Strong performances, capable direction, and a rich score drawn from many Indie bands makes this coming-of-age film feel very present. It's a film almost free from irony or sarcasm, yet it never dreary or soap operatic. Sure, some of it could be tightened up a bit, and we're left with some elements that lack the dimensional components that other characters are given, but on the whole it's quite an accomplished film, well worth seeking out.
I began our (spoiler-riddled) chat by asking about the transition from being a short film director to crafting her first feature film.
Sara St. Onge - When I made Lobotomy [ed. a short musical about the joys of psychiatric brain surgery], I felt like it's almost a weird side project made several lifetimes ago. People are always like "what is this lobotomy musical thing" and when they see the rest of my stuff, they're like "it makes sense".
Twitch - I also saw in Turkey [ed. the story of a step mother coming to terms with cooking for a new family] some seeds of Molly Maxwell as well...
They're companion pieces, yeah.
I've been trying to do this feature for a while. As you know it just takes a long time. For me, because I didn't know how to write, it took longer to get the script to be what I wanted it to be and not just yetanother script. I wanted it to feel very particular, and I think more than anything tone and the feelings is the most important part of making it for me. I really want them to feel like something.
The most obvious question anyone would have for the writer director given the subject matter is just how autobiographical is it?
I think there are definitely autobiographical aspects to it.
So, did you ever fall in love with one of your teachers?
[laughs] I'm not going to talk about that!
I will say that I have had a number of questionably appropriate relationships in my life. I've always been attracted to maybe the non-normal path. Even my husband is ten years older than me!
I don't think I've ever really dated anyone my own age. I can remember being in 3rd grade and having a crush on someone in 6th grade. So I do think there's a lot of autobiographical aspects that go into this sort of thing. Some of it's true, some of it's not true, it's an amalgamation.
I don't even think it's the most interesting question but, inevitably, you're going to get that kind of question about this kind of film. You must have been prepared for it when you were writing the script. Plus, don't think I didn't notice that your lead actress was reading Lolita in class! The irony of you casting an actress named Lola I thought was even more delicious. What I found incredibly charming about the film was the balance you struck, of dealing with not only the fact that there is something genuine here between the two characters. These are adult emotions, but you also show the immaturity of both of them. You show she comes across as both older than her years and incredibly immature, and the same can be said for. I'm just wondering if that was the core of what made you want to sell this story?
It was something I really wanted to tell that way, I really wanted to show the complexity of something like that. You have people going through these cusps in their lives and, on the surface, if you're reading a headline, it's scandal. He should go to jail, we should kill himshe's a victim and she had no agency.
I got really tired of hearing that story because while there are people who are absolutely victims, there's also these very complicated things that happen.
I can't tell you the number of conversations I've had with women since getting interested in telling a story who [confide in me] that this is absolutely their own story. They say they've never seen their story told this way, with all the heights and the crushing depths and the ambiguity and the right and the wrong and all that. Normally, you just hear the "rot in jail, bastard!" [part of the story].
I think it's very interesting what multiple audiences are going to take away from this, I mean, here I am a 40 something year old guy with long hair watching the film. Obviously, I'm going to relate more to the scruffy teacher than I am to the student. Yet even though I don't have kids, I also completely relate to the strange shift in permissiveness that the parents go under. In your film, you see parents trying to be friends with their kid before they start trying to be parents, and I think the transition between the father realizing he is losing control towards the end, and the mother seeing herself in her daughter with increasing permissiveness is an interesting shift. I thought the dexterity of actually showing that was particularly well done. From the script stage, how did you maintain that tone all the way through?
Well I had a great story editor, Mark Van de Ven. To my credit, was I leaned very heavily on the people around me. Not having studied film, not having gone to film school, I surrounded myself with a really great support team. And I relied on them.
Mark was instrumental in helping to carve out what I was trying to say and keep steering me back to what I wanted. When you have a lot of people feeding in, as you do when you get a film made, there's a ton of people who have opinions. Some of them are good and helpful and some of them are not as helpful. He was always there as a guidepost, telling me "I think this is you know a little over the top, let's go back to what we wanted." It was great to have that sounding board.
I then brought him on as producer because it was so invaluable to me, that sounding board.
When you start to market a film, you market it in a certain way. The relationship between these two is clearly the storyline, but I wanted it to very much be about how this choice of hers refracts in the world around her and refracts in her relationships with the people around her. Maybe it's not as obvious that something negative is happening because she seemed like she's so cocky and everything, but really she's alienating herself from everyone around her that has been a good support system for her. She's focusing all of her attention on this relationship that maybe isn't the healthiest relationship in the world. So I wanted to feel the presence of that in the family.
Do you end up judging your own character? Do you think she made the right or the wrong decision, or do you think that's just a part of her becoming an adult is that she makes decisions like this and that's what shapes her?
I think she's trying things on. Not to be callous, but I think that from the beginning of the film she's trying to find something to help her figure out who she is, and I think that Ben [her teacher] is something like that.
I mean, not to call him a hobby, but like I think she figures out something about herself in this relationship, with its positive and its negative aspects. And that's something I really wanted to show, kind of the full spectrum of her in that she does gain some confidence from it and gains some sense of self, but she also loses some things as well.
I'm interested in what, if anything, you see as the culpability for someone like Ben.
I very specifically told it through Molly's perspective. Everything is from her, not literal POV but emotional POV, so that we are experiencing it in the moment as she's experiencing it and not as you and I are necessarily seeing something like that from the outside.
I think that he's lost. I have a lot of empathy for him, I guess because I'm the writer.
I know that Charlie [Carrick, the actor playing Ben] had an enormous amount of empathy for the character as well, which is what made such a beautiful performance for him on that part.
None of us were judging Ben. I think that he has to live with it, and Molly has to live with it, and we can feel what we want to feel. I really wanted at the core to empower Molly's character to make that decision for herself, of how she was going to take this experience and go into the rest of her life with.
The question was whether she was going to then listen to everyone around her saying that she was taken advantage of and that she was just a hapless victim of this, or whether she was going to take ownership of her own responsibility for what she did as well, in the relationship. I wanted to give her accountability for her actions.
How much was the Nabokov novel at the core to your initial idea for the film? I'm not thinking strictly in terms of narrative here. For me, the book Lolita is stunning, yet completely misunderstood by many people who think of it as just sordid. It essentially is about the power dynamic between the two, the eventual impotence of the male character, with a strengthening female character forced to take advantage of his weakness despite her earlier domination by him. Were these elements you you were consciously toying with, especially when you show Molly reading the book in class?
Yes, well, that was sort of my own joke, which is, how do you learn how to get your teacher back, like when you're on the outs, I guess you read Lolita!".
I've always been really interested in your notion of what Lolita is about vs. what it is actually about. As you said, there's the pop culture perception of it, like people being "Lolita is in heat-a".
In the book, she's 12, and she's drugged and manipulated beyond belief, so I think for me there was definitely the knowledge of that story and the power dynamics and everything. At the beginning of that story, she's a child, whereas Molly isn't a little girl. But I think I've always been really interested in how we perceive that story. Even the films, I mean, I've only seen the one film, of course, the Kubrick one...
The Adrian Lyne one is actually very interesting. Despite the fact that Nabokov wrote the script for SK's version, in some ways Lyne's is actually closer to the book.
I'll definitely watch it, but for me, when I saw it come out, I was like, I don't like to see bands on reunion tours, even the film is much different. At the time the [Kubrick] film was made [ed. 1962] it really didn't represent the brutality of the book. She's a woman, in the film, and she looks like one. Anyway, I think I got off on a tangent...
I think it's an important tangent! Again, there's a brutality to the dynamic that your film, rightly or wrongly, is missing for the most part. It is genuinely a sweet coming of age story, one that doesn't' dictate moral judgments on the characters. You just see how it is, you see how every decision actually gets played out and as such I think it works for that. How has the reception been?
It's been really positive. I'm always interested when people . . . There are people who are very unsettled by it, and I'm glad. I do think that I wanted it to be from her perspective and I wanted you to get caught up and at times root for them. I also wanted there to be the other side of the moment, where you were thinking "I shouldn't be rooting for this." The decisions that she's making, especially when she's at the party, when she goes up with violin guy... There is some other side to the things that she's doing. I didn't want it to just be this rosy tale.
The text message that Ben sends is, I think, the most challenging moment of the. She's very precocious and very attractive and all that stuff as a character in the film, and there's the notion that he realizes what he's doing is wrong and he's still doing it so he's certainly culpable. But he also realizes that he has no way of formally letting her know what she's doing is also wrong, and it's one way I guess of him saying, out of love, "you should grow up".
Yeah... "You're hurting me. I am also a human being."
This isn't all about your coming of age, this is you have culpability in this whole thing. Her childishness doesn't come across with her nascent in her sexuality, its more stark with her lack of empathy.
Exactly. And that's what I guess I wanted there to be that side to it.
The use of source music is obviously a central element of your cinematic toolbox. Can you shed light on the process of selecting tracks to include in the film?
[Selecting the music] was a major labour of love. There's writing, shooting and editing, and the music for me was as big as those in the process.
I did a lot of the initial reach out myself, a lot of me getting in touch with whomever. I'd get a clip of the film, send it to the band, and tell them, "this I'm planning to do, we don't have any money, please [help]."
There was a great reception I think in part because we have this technology where I can just send a clip in an e-mail to someone and they can see how their song is going to be represented, how it's going to look and what the context is. I think that's something that I would be afraid of as a musician. With an indie film, well, maybe it's going to be terrible, maybe it's going to be in this scene that I'm really not going to want it to be in, so that helped a lot.
It's basically Molly's playlist we're throughout hearing, correct?
Yeah! I'm glad that you said that because I wanted it to feel like the way that I find young people listen to music now, which is very all over the place. At one moment they're listening to Jay-Z, the next moment they're listening to some weird song from the 1930s that they found on YouTube. It's very schizophrenic. There's no sense of, for the most part, I mean there's still the holdouts, like the very "I'm a this" person but for the most part, it's genreless, there's crossover all over.
As soon as she puts on Bon Iver onto his stereo, I'm like, yeah, if I was 16, that's exactly what I'd want to seduce somebody to.
She's probably been thinking about that forever...
Of course, that Bon Iver track (Skinny Love) is from a break-up album. So, there's more irony there...
And what I love about that song, the lyrics... "It's skinny", there's not enough fat to hold it together, which is pretty much exactly what their relationship is.
How specific were you in thinking as you were writing a scene, oh, this Foxygen track should go here, say, or was it that you were listening to a bunch of stuff, trying it in the edit?
Some of it was one way, some of it the other way. There was definitely stuff that I was listening to before the script, and then there was stuff that I was listening to after. You write something, you think it's going to feel a certain way. Then you see it, and it is a little different than the feeling of it is just . . I just love music so much! It had to be so particular to me, like it really had to feel right.
Do you find it harder to stay on the forefront of music or film?
I'm not on the forefront of anything!
Yet your movie is littered with music the cool kids are groovin' to these days.
Well, ok, so some of that stuff is purely accidental. Like Kitty Pryde, and Foxygen, they were not yet popular when I put it in. They were really just on the cusp of popularity. I thought, these tracks are perfect, and then they both exploded. So that was just fortuitous.
I knew I wanted The Cave Singers in there , I knew I wanted Ghettosocks... There were some things I knew I wanted in but there's others that I found surfing music blogs, little tiny blogs that put up one song a day, and just listening and listening and looking and thinking.
I would suggest that's is you trying to keep at the forefront of popular music...
But I don't do that every dayI love film and I love music, but I'm not the person who's got the coolest thing today. I kind of find out things a bit later maybe.
So you're not loving it because of its esoteric nature, you're loving it because it's got a good hook? What do you respond to musically and what do you respond to film-wise?
Feelings, I think. I love the presence that both film and music can convey.
I think that's what drove me from photography. I didn't have that gift to do it in photography. I find it very hard [to capture] the same kind of presence that music and film has. I'll go back and watch a film the same way that I'll go back and watch a song [sic] because I want to feel the way I felt when I first watched it. A lot of Wes Anderson films, or sometimes I'll go back and watch Dirty Dancing because I'll just want to feel like that. It's the same thing with music, I'll go back and watch or listen to a Sebadoh album because I just want to have that feeling that I remember feeling from that album.
Are there particular keystone films that you looked at? You mentioned Wes Anderson, I mean, obviously Cameron Crowe immediately comes to mind as somebody well familiar with coming of age, drenched in music, moral ambivalent films. I think there's a bunch of Almost Famous in this movie, in a good way....
That's a great compliment...
I'm just wondering if there are particular films that you really respond to. At the same time, I'm always interested in films that directors try to avoid replicating. We're not here to piss on those, but were there films that you though, "oh, I don't want it to have my film be like this."
As much as I respect Jason Reitman, I really didn't want to make Juno. I wanted Molly Maxwell to have a very naturalistic quality to it, while still being a very particular world, an artisinal world. It's like we were trying to make a quirky film in a very unquirky way.
The world of the film is quirky, but the filmmaking isn't quirky.
It's certainly not twee.
No, it's not twee! It's very earnest, it's very unironic.
The compliment I love the most that people say is that it's a sincere movie in the best possible way. I loved My So-Called Life, I watched that a lot again in the year before we went. There was just something so amazing about that show that.
It can be argued that Claire Daines hasn't done anything better since then. She is pretty amazing in that show...
It's perfection. Even in its "ugh" moments, it's still, "oh, yes!"
Plus, there's the relationship with the parents in that show. It was the first thing I ever related to, I think.
At the same time, there's Twin Peaks. That's what I was kind of watching [while writing the film].
I think that the most influential film I've seen in the last five years was Beginners. I watched that film probably 25 times. Catherine Lutz, my cinematographer and I watched that film several times together and we were referencing it because it just has like an effortless beauty to it, even though it isn't effortless. Yet it's very effortful, it's like a breath of air watching it, even in its construction. I love that film!
What was the first movie you saw and thought: I want to be a filmmaker?
Maybe Amélie. And if it wasn't Amélie, it was Lost in Translation.
I can remember seeing Peter Greenaway films when I was in my early 20s and some arty stuff when I was in school, but it never occurred to me that I could do it. I think those two films were the first where I was like, oh, I can see this, I can see, I want to do that, I like that, I want to tell a story like that.
There's a lot of things that I loved, but I couldn't and I never imagined doing that myself. I wasn't one of these born directors who were planning their directing careers when they were like five. That wasn't me.
You weren't playing with super 8s and shooting action figures?
So, you got into filmmaking through photography, and then started doing videos. You then made a bunch of shorts, then got accepted into the prestigious Canadian Film Centre. What was that experience like and how did that come about?
We just applied! I don't know when it was, but they shifted the program so that it didn't have to be alumni and so that was kind of a big gate that opened. They really overhauled their program to try to get people doing more interesting things.
It took awhile to convince them to do Molly Maxwell, they had a lot of projects on the go and they were juggling a lot of trying to get into production, but then it just happened.
What I like about the program is it really, once you get going, it's a one-stop shop. You have all your money, you have support, and you have access to people...
It's like what studios used to be.
Exactly! It gives people confidence that it is a legitimate production and it's not just you and your friend making something. Now, doing it on your own is great, and I really appreciate that initiative, but when you're asking for a lot of favors and you're kind of trying to get the Toronto District School Board to give you a location for a film that's about a teacher involved with a student, it helps to have these other entities involved that gives it some credibility.
I was really fortunate to have access to really talented people that helped throughout, people that you could just write an e-mail to about anything. And they would give advice! Now they just really believe in the film and they're doing everything they can to get people to see it, so a lot of support.
There are obviously a lot of advantages to working with the CFC, but were there any changes to the story that had to be made for it to be shared by the CFC, did they make specific recommendations?
Only one that I can remember: We were asked before we were officially in production with them if, hypothetically, could she be 16 instead of 15. We were like, ok, we can do that. Then if it was in the script at certain points I could be like she just turned 16, but like, yesterday.
Well, and you had to say the line, I'm technically legal in Canada.
Yeah, I put that in just kind of cheeky like, not even cheeky to them but just cheeky like she just Googled this, like, this is what you're Googling?
It shows that she's at least thinking about it at that stage in the relationship she's actually starting to think, ok, what is it that we're actually doing, what am I getting into?
Exactly! So, they had notes and they had feedback like anybody you work with is gonna do that, right? Every single person that ever reads the script is going to tell you something that they think should change.
But in the end, you're given final cut?
Yeah, and they were really supportive. I wanted it to end the way that it ends and I really believed in it, but we had shot a whole other scene I never planned for it to be in the film. You kind of do these things. And I said "this is why I want it to end like this, it's really important to me and these are the reasons" and they fully helped me fight for it.
Can you get into those reasons or what the scene was?
You know, I don't even, I remember why I wanted it to end the way I did but I can't remember the reasons why there was question about the other scene though.
What was the other scene that you shot?
It was just an "ok, everything's great, back at school" scene. Which, I felt like . . .
Thank you for not including that.
Yeah. Thank you. There's so many reasons I wanted it to end the way that it did.
Again, as the male viewer, gaze, whatever you want to say, I'm like "the poor bastard, how the fuck's he going to make a living as a guitarist in this city?"
He sacrificed everything for her. And she's gonna move on.
Well, but that also, just to be a huge nerd, poetically, it has to be that. There's a lot of nerdy reasons why. But also I wanted this moment of reflection and for her to be sitting in it.
I'm watching that scene having a moment of disbelief thinking how the hell did she get in to a licensed bar without being carded for her age, and then at that very moment the bartender calls her out. This is one of several moments in your film that I was just on the verge of thinking "oh, this is going to turn into this, this is going to become just a little too Hollywood, this is going to be a little too convenient", while you were constantly you were pulling the rug out from under me.
Thank you. That ID'ing thing was actually my story editor's idea, and I was like, at first, I'm like... [silence] and then slowly it was like yes, of course.
We were definitely looking for that moment. He had some good ideas that definitely made their way into the film.
I'll give you credit anyway. You're not doing this right! You're supposed to hog all the credit!
Well, I've had to like, correct people 4 times to not say "A Sara St.Onge film" on the credits because it drives me crazy, especially with first time filmmakers.
Nobody gives a shit if it's a Sara St.Onge film, like that doesn't mean anything to anyone.
When you're Altman? We'll talk...
But also, it's like, disingenuous, I think. Like, it's definitely not just a Sara St.Onge film, it's an every single person that I leaned on like physically, sometimes, to get through that.
I guess the counterargument is that you were the one who was doing the leaning.
Yeah, but the rest were holding me up. There were so many talented people on the film, and everything fell into place. Sometimes it feels magical. It's nerve wracking when you think about it so easily not having that alchemy, you know?
I think we both know the kind of dreary or overwrought film that it could have been and thankfully isn't. That said, o you think there's something quintessentially Canadian about this film?
Well, I'm Canadian, and it was made in Canada [laughs]. I find the whole "Canadian film thing sometimes suffocating, just like I find the female director moniker really annoying. I'm just making a film.
You're a director making a film, regardless of your style of genetalia.
Yeah, and I'm just trying to tell a story that I hope will resonate with people. And I grew up half my life in the States, so the Canadian film thing [doesn't' resonate]. I find poor bastards trying to do stuff here, because immediately everybody's going to say "I'm not going to see that, it's Canadian, it's gonna be bad". Really, is that what we're doing here?
Jason Reitman made Juno under a Hollywood contract.
Yeah, and I can see why, it's just even showing at MOMA and how it was embraced there. Just the current there, in New York, you can see how seductive it is, and it's unrestrained. It's very unguarded and it's without caution, and it's just "we should do something together right now."
Here [in Toronto] it's sort of like, "Who are you? I don't know who you are".
At the same time I really love it here. I chose to stay here. I've moved all around my whole life and I've been here 8 years now. I got married, got a house here, I believe in it here, but the Canadian film stigma is a big hurdle. We're just trying to tell stories, right?
The whole MOMA thing, that came about through CFC?
No, it came about through the curator at MOMA saw it from a bunch of films that were [possibly] given to them by Telefilm [ed. One of the Canadian Federal Government Arts funders]. Telefilm's definitely involved in that program, but we didn't do the film with Telefilm.
The curator had heard about the film from when we premiered at Palm Springs. The film curator liked it and programmed it for opening night at MOMA, which was a huge, HUGE deal for. All the promotion that they did, and the party was about us...It was amazing!
It was also an amazing opportunity because people who never would have seen it were there because they're part of that whole community.
Congrats on that! Switching gears to casting, how did you find your two main leads?
Charlie we found first, which is backwards.
That's very interesting.
He was up at the CFC actors' conservatory and we did a table read of the script as part of the whole process. I didn't really have any expectations of that role other than I was a little nervous about the whole thing. He just snuck his was into my brain because he just clearly had empathy for the character.
After that, I was kind of like, "huh", who's that guy?
I then did an acting workshop with him for a few hours with another woman who was up at the CFC. By the end of that day, I think that it would have been really difficult to dislodge him from my mind as Ben. He had just inhabited it for me, he brought so much to it, he filled it out.
Charlie brought that empathy and that point of view that you were talking about where you see what it might be like, and he's not even the one who's in every scene! He really put the breath into it and was amazing. He's such a delightful person.
Plus, you made him sing.
I made him sing. He was not happy about that. But he did it, we got through it.
I think it's great. I think it's actually really charming that he has a voice that is, shall we say, untrained.
Yes, that was very important to me. I didn't want it to be this polished.
That suddenly he opens his mouth and it's... You can see why Molly is totally falling for it, but I think one of the charming things about it is that she's too young and too unjaded to realize that he's got a fine voice, but not one that's going to provide him a living. I kind of love that.
That was important, because it's that perception, exactly. There's a lovely moment at the the beginning of Adventureland that really resonated with me. The Ryan Reynolds character is the hotshot in the amusement park, and he's crowing that "I hung out with Lou Reed" and all the girls are like "ooh, ah, this guy". But really this guy lives in his mom's basement and is cheating on his wife with this young woman. He is a loser.
I'm not saying that about Ben, but what I like is this shift.
At the end, when you see Reynolds and the Jesse Eisenberg's character, Jesse sees him for what he is, that he's not this myth. He doesn't even know Lou Reed one song! I thought that was so brilliant, and was really inspiring.
I love those shifts, especially when they're subtle. When Ben asks, "are we going to hang out after", there's that shiftshe's seeing that she's kind of moved on, while he's not quite let go yet. He's written a song for her and she's kind of already... she's just come there to apologize, you know?
It's that whole notion - he's engaged in a relationship as an adult, and is making adult mistakes about it and she is engaged in an adult relationship as a child still and is making childish decisions which she has the full ability to ignore given her tremendous safety net.
What, if anything, will you take from this experience to your next film. I know you're already working on some new stuff. Or do you think this was such a unique project, such a unique circumstance working with the CFC?
It felt like I was having the kind of experience Molly was having because it was so amazing. Everybody was so excited about it and was having such a good time. As hard as everybody was working, everybody was excited to be there and excited about the film. It just felt like something really special.
It felt like a family and everybody was just calling each other, or just hanging out in that school, Charlie and Lola are on couch with the wardrobe stylist and the head of makeup, we're all just sitting around. We're working hard, but it felt like everybody was at the same level, and we kind of were.
A lot of us were making our first film, so I think that that's very unique and comparable to a first love. I want to try to recreate that feeling, but I understand how it gets harder every time. I think the trick is to just keep the people with you that are instrumental to you.
This was your first love with something that was much older than you, but now you've realized, learned from your mistakes, and moved on?
Are we going to hear about a sequel 10 years from now?
I don't know.
You weren't sitting thinking about what happens to her in her 30s?
No. There will always be a bit of Molly in all of my characters, I think.
I want to create characters that we haven't quite seen before, that are relatable to the other part of the population.
I just realized, we totally skipped over the casting of Molly!
Lola Tash was very hilarious. Well, her name, first of all, was hilarious as you pointed out.
We looked long and very hard for her. We started even with a completely open casting call where we just let anyone come in and audition for us and then moved into official casting with a casting director, and she brought in the people that she thought would be good to look at and Lola came in.
Where's she from?
She was on a show called Connor under Cover, and she'd done a couple of indie films. She hasn't really quite had that breakout film role, and she looked nothing like Molly.
When she came in she looked like a 25 year old with her hair done and her makeup and her little outfit and everything. I almost dismissed her. I kind of mentally did, I thought "ok, we'll just make this quick".
Then Lola's personality started to come out at the audition. She had a lot of Molly-esque qualities. The awkwardness and the sort of like self-deprecation, being mortified at herself, but still having a real presence and a real shine
I brought her back in with no makeup, her hair shoved in a ponytail with a baggy hoodie four times as big as her body. I also had her read with Charlie. It was then I think everybody that knew right away. Suddenly she looked her age. She was 18 at the time, yet she looked 16. She had what I needed, which was that thing you talked about earlier - I want her to feel like an adult, like, yes, of course, this makes sense, she's totally ready. Yet in the next moment, she'd be like a child. I wanted her to be able to swing very believably between those two things. It's a pet peeve of mine when we have films about teenagers who are played by people in their late 20s. It's just something that I kind of hate. I understand why people do it.
You weren't doing 90210!
I wasn't doing 90210. And when you're making a show, you need someone who can totally handle the insurance. I totally understand the reasons. You also need someone to see the maturity of the character.
I auditioned a lot of younger people because I wanted authenticity, which is something that you have a lot of attachment to when you first start out, to some "authenticity", which means nothing.
Yeah. But the 16 year olds, and especially the 15 year olds, they didn't understand the character. They were too enmeshed in it, they didn't have the perspective to play the character.
They hadn't gone through and come out the other side of it.
Yeah. So what Lola had that was great was she brought so much to it, she was so smart and so prepared that by the second day we'd do three takes and then move on, all because she knew it, she was nailing it. I think if I had gone with a younger actress, they wouldn't have been able to collaborate with me the way that Lola was able to collaborate with me.
As a first time director, she's going through all of these emotional swings that I'm assuming you're shooting as normal out of continuity how are you dialing over scene by scene over a 90 minute film too much here, not enough here, instinct, or do a shitload of takes and worry about it in editing.
We only had 18 days so there were not a lot of takes happening. Also, because of the CFC, we couldn't go over time, so we had real days - we weren't shooting these 16 hour days that people shoot. We were shooting like 11 hour days, which is great because then people can regenerate.
So Lola had to nail it. And I think we got almost every single one of her days, and that's a large testament to her. She was very consistent and she just was so good.
Did you storyboard the film?
We photoboarded every single shot. I had a binder, the cinematographer had a binder... We showed up and we were, like, here is the call sheet, and here are the shots, everyone! You can just go! I'm going to go deal with other shit.
It was all shot in and around Toronto?
Yes. The emotional roadmapping came from just being extremely prepared. I had my own notes, directing binder, in which I had been neurotically preparing every single, we went through every single scene and figuring out all of the stuff, and I didn't look at it when I was on set, but I had done the work before hand.
Was it slightly weird then to actually be on set, you'd done so much prep for it?
No, it felt, it was very fluid. We had such great people, you know, and everybody was working so hard and so well togetherEven though you photoboard things, you have to be fluid in the moment - oh that's not quite working with the blocking, and you change everything. I'm not a winging it kind of person, I need to be that prepared so that then I can go and wing it when I get there and I have the foundation, the confidence to wing it.
The whole TDSB, CFC, you couldn't have shot the movie without some of these things. The TDSB thing... I still will have panic dreams about it because I was so attached to that location.
So, when you were writing it you knew you wanted it there?
I wrote some of it there. So I found the school and then they're amazing.
Can you say the name of the school?
Inglenook Community High school - The best school in the world! It's down in the East End. I was renting a car nearby, I was, like, what is this place? I want to go in. It's not very safe, guys!
So I walked in, and thought, this is the place, the only place I've ever been in that felt right. We don't have an art department budget to do that to a place, it was perfect.
The problem when you find the perfect place is that you immediately start feeling anxious about it, because there's a giant chance that you won't get that place. But now it exists in your mind!
So, I wrote to the school and said can I come and hang out there and research and write for this film I'm doing. They made me get my police check, and then I went and I hung out there for 2-3 weeks. I went to class, I hung out in the student lounge, I had lunch with the kids, I just was like a fly on the wall. A very active fly on the wall!
Once I was starting to actually think I could make this film, I went back and told them I wanted to be involved there. I did a film club, an after school club. It was totally volunteer, I brought in local filmmakers to come in and show some of their work and talk to these kids about whether they went to film school or did it on their own, what their path was to doing what they were doing.
I brought in some music video directors and different kinds of things, so I got to hang out there more. I was able to forge a relationship with the people there. They stood behind me when I approached the TDSB.
There's the head teacher at Inglenook named Rob who's amazing. He bears a lot of resemblance to Raymond in the film. Rob is like a legend in the alternative school world. Everybody who ever went to Inglenook or even their friends and see Raymond in the film are, like, "It's Rob!"
He put me in touch with the Principals of the alternative school network. I met with them, talking to them them in depth about the film and what I was trying to do and why, how it was going to be portrayed. I showed them the script, and then they wrote a letter on my behalf to the school board.
That gets back to the the character of Raymond in the film - You have this incredibly flaky, totally stereotypical alternative school administrator. You're thinking "oh, he's going to let everything go" and immediately as soon as shit starts going down he's like, "yeah, that's not happening." You realize this isnt' some fable, under the flakiness he's good at his job, and doesn't shrug off this stuff in typical movie fashion.
Exactly. Raymon might believe that everybody is an alien, but when it comes down to it he's got to take care of these kids.
The school itself is such a character. You also give lots of love to the Toronto Island.
I feel like Toronto Island is just this like other-worldly place. I remember going there for the first time, my husband took me there when we were dating. And it's just like what is this place and all these little cottages...
The insanity that is [the themepark called] Centreville.
Yeah, well that too, but I didn't really have too much of a relationship with that. I've never been to Centreville when it was open, so...
There's something amazing about how sad, that's what passes for a theme park .
I've always been attracted to off season amusement parks!
My stepkids have a friend who lives out on the island, so we were going out there for Hallowe'en. When I first wrote the script, it was set during the fall. I love it that it's now Spring because it gives it this real kind of like first love feeling, that Spring-y quality to it, but there was something I really wanted to portray about those little cottages and all the kids that just run around like crazy out there on Hallowe'en. There's no streets, so they're all just going bonkers.
No streets, no cars, the weird commune that is the Toronto Islands...
But all of the people who have their little cottages on Hallowe'en go and sit out if it's warm and drink their little cognac hot chocolates and offer people drinks and it's amazing out there. I love it. If I could live out there, I'd be the happiest person in the world. But I didn't put my name on the waiting list 40 years ago, so it's never going to happen.
In the end, it's clear that your film is a work that made by somebody that is incredibly passionate about this story, but is also very cognizant of the pitfalls that such a tale would have.
I enjoyed our talk, thank you very much!
Thank you so much.
Thanks to Ingrid Hamilton and the staff at GAT PR for setting up the interview, and Sara St. Onge for her time.