Being a First-Time Filmmaker in Newfoundland

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By Erin Mick

On a drizzly Friday night, I contacted my friend and colleague Emily Corcoran, an up-and-coming filmmaker, asking if she’d be willing to participate in an interview for SJIWFF. Her film, Shattered Mind’s Eye, which was made locally with help from the Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Co-operative (NIFCO), is set to screen at the Festival this week. With Emily having grown up in Newfoundland, and having been involved in the local film scene for a large part of her life, it seemed pertinent to explore her perspective on the industry as this year’s festival approached.

Emily was gracious and eloquent when she agreed to “of course” conduct an interview with me. We scheduled tentatively for the following Monday evening, and in a profoundly millennial discussion, we hashed out whether or not we should conduct the interview over phone, Skype, or Facebook messenger (yes, you read that correctly). She and I are both students, both young women in the industry, and Emily is currently in Edmonton working on a Fine Arts degree at the University of Alberta, so when she suggested that an interview via messenger would be ideal given the time difference and the busy nature of student life, it made perfect sense. Still, I was struck by the irony of two filmmakers planning a completely non-visual conversation.

Filmmaker Emily Corcoran

Filmmaker Emily Corcoran

I can honestly say that if it were an interview with anyone but Emily Corcoran, I might have been worried. I would like to claim that when I eventually messaged Emily to begin her interview, it was only because I know her and have worked with her that I felt comfortable and at ease. I would like to claim that it’s only because I’m familiar with her tone of voice and manner that I could sense a general feeling of warmth and honesty emanating from my computer screen in her responses. But the reality is simply that Emily Corcoran is a force of talent, generosity, and immense kindness, and those qualities came through in her gentle, articulate interview responses – even over Facebook messenger.

In tiny places like St. John’s, it’s easy to forget that our small but vibrant film scene is only one piece of a greater whole. Just because Newfoundland doesn’t pump out big-budget blockbusters every year, does not mean we are extricated from the greater North American filmmaking community. And, according to Emily, we don’t need to look “outside of home” to find creatives who are producing incredible work.

Festivals like SJIWFF celebrate those very people, and local talents like Emily should give us hope, especially in the dismal context of the misconduct and abuse coming to light in the industry right now. Filmmakers such as Emily Corcoran and other locals (who I could name in a list that would go on forever) demonstrate that we are not required to give bullies and abusers creative power. We are not required to tolerate their abuse when there are thousands of kind, talented people – thousands of kind, talented women – producing incredible work right in our backyard.

When I asked about filmmakers who inspire her personally, Emily did take the time to cite “big, Hollywood scale” inspirations such as Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson, but emphasized that there truly is a wealth of talent to be found right here in Newfoundland.

“I have been very fortunate to have worked with many wonderful women who continually make me want to be a better artist,” she wrote. “To name a few: Deanne Foley, Latonia Hartery, Martine Blue, Ruth Lawrence, Wanda Nolan, Emily Bridger, the list goes on and on! This province is stocked full of talented, strong female role models. I feel so blessed to be able to work with and learn from them.”

Emily herself is already a well-known part of the Newfoundland filmmaking community, and although she is young, she’s hardly a newcomer to the craft. Emily wrote the script for her film, Shattered Mind’s Eye, which is screening this week as part of SJIWFF’s short film lineup, when she was only sixteen years old. She was inspired, she said, by watching one of her friends who was “going through a rough time."

She went on to explain, “I was so intrigued by the ability a single moment possesses to make a big impact on a person’s life that I decided to explore it through a story that became ‘Shattered Mind’s Eye’. When I remarked on the young age at which she had written the film, Emily simply replied, “Yeah it is pretty young, but I was very lucky to be introduced to the local industry fairly young and I have had many wonderful professionals who helped me navigate through it early on.”

It’s true that Newfoundland has an unusual bounty of supportive outlets for aspiring artists. Emily’s short film was produced as part of NIFCO’s First Time Filmmaker program; aspiring writer-directors can submit their scripts to NIFCO for consideration, and every year, a few locals are selected, outfitted with an equipment package, provided with a basic production crew, and are paired with an experienced film mentor. Filmmakers like Emily who complete the program come out of the experience with a well-rounded understanding of the essentials of film production and editing.

When I asked Emily about the program, she had only positive comments, calling the First Time Filmmaker program, and NIFCO as a whole, a “remarkable resource” that the Newfoundland community is “fortunate to have.” She said, “I personally am very grateful to have benefited” from NIFCO’s support.

Although the resources available to artists in Newfoundland are doubtless accessible and incredible, I was curious to know – as an artist myself – how Emily feels about the unreliable and sometimes unstable nature of a career in the arts. When I asked her how she came to be interested in a filmmaking career, she explained that she had always wanted to be an actor. For Emily, there has never been a passion separate from the arts. 

“It must be sort of freeing or comforting, in a way,” I said, “to know for certain what you want to be dedicated to – especially in our generation, which in some ways I think is defined precisely by its uncertainty and fluidity. But is it nerve-wracking or challenging sometimes, knowing exactly what you want? The arts are amazingly fulfilling, but I know first-hand that creative careers are no cake walk. Would you be able to speak a bit more about some of the challenges of being a young artist and a burgeoning (female) creative?”

In the minutes while I was waiting for Emily to answer, I wondered if it was necessary to ask such a blunt question. But those of us who pursue careers in the arts are confronted with questions like this every single day, and I don’t think it’s because those who ask seek to hurt our feelings or challenge our choices – I think it’s primarily because they’re curious. When Emily’s response arrived, every word resonated with me, as I’m sure it would with many young creatives.

She started by addressing the nature of careers in the arts, which she said are “freeing and terrifying,” and spoke about how she often feels like “one of the luckiest people in the world” because she has found exactly what fulfills her, and has found a way to make it a prominent part of her life.

“There is always a challenge,” she qualified, “be it for roles or funding… and there is almost never a stable income. It’s by no means an easy life.” But her next lines struck at the heart of why many artists continue to create: “I think [it] speaks to the passion and dedication of working artists, that they have chosen this path for themselves knowingly, and in spite of the hardships that come with it. It’s all for the love of the art.”

She pushed the conversation further, acknowledging that I had asked about the challenges associated with being a young woman in the industry. She answered frankly: “I have felt at times that my age has worked against me in regards to filmmaking. Being so young, funders are often skeptical of my capability to create good work.” She pointed out that “people equate youth with ignorance” and explained that this unfortunate, but prevalent bias “can be frustrating for someone like myself who is dedicated to their craft.”

She credited some of these challenges with prompting her to gather resilience and to build resourcefulness, explaining that the necessity for her to push past an age bias in order to produce her content anyway has made her a better and more creative budgeter. “In every challenge there is something constructive that can be taken away,” she said.

Being a woman in film is difficult enough without also being quite young, and certain elements of the industry can be unnerving for women at best, and blatantly abusive at worst. But Emily’s discussion of her experience as female filmmaker in Newfoundland was an encouraging, uplifting dialogue. Her perspective indicates not only that we are progressing steadily toward a more equitable reality, but that we might be in the midst of an unprecedented paradigm shift in the film industry itself.

“Although there is no denying that the film industry is dominated by men,” she said, “I am very fortunate to be able to say that I have not thus far in my career felt at a disadvantage because of my gender.” In her generous style, Emily went so far as to mention this festival specifically, saying: “I am lucky to be surrounded by some incredible, strong female filmmakers, and resources like SJIWFF.”

But Emily certainly isn’t unaware of prevailing systemic gender issues. She made sure to acknowledge, “it is likely because of the challenges [women before us] overcame,” that she has been able to have a positive experience in the industry. Yet, even as the stories of new Hollywood victims continued to roll across my social media newsfeeds, Emily’s core message was one of undeniable hope, and of a bright future for women in film:

“If anything, being a woman in this industry has always felt like a celebratory thing.”

It was vital, as the interview came to a close, that I ended with a hard-hitting final question.

“Got a favourite comfort food for when school gets rough?”

She responded immediately with typed laughter, “I'm a Newfoundlander stranded on the mainland - I would die for a JamJam or Caramel Log bar... But for now, microwave popcorn will have to suffice.”

Erin Mick is an actor and a grad student in St. John's, Newfoundland. Between film projects and writing her thesis, she can be found puttering around downtown with a coffee in hand, trying to pet every dog.

Candice Walsh