What It’s Like to Direct a Film With 6 Other Women
By Candice Walsh
The 29th St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival is closing with Hopeless Romantic, a fantastic local film following several different female narratives as they each have unique relationship adventures at a wedding. Other than its fun premise, the film is unique for another reason: it has six female directors.
You’re likely to be familiar with most -- if not all -- of the directors, actually. They’ve been showering SJIWFF with their talent for years now. They include: Deanne Foley (who also directed the opening night feature, An Audience of Chairs), Latonia Hartery, Megan Wennberg, Stephanie Clattenburg, Ruth Lawrence, and Martine Blue.
Oh yes, and Margaret Atwood was also involved. Dream team, much?
Being curious about the nature of sharing a directorial role with six other women, I asked each one about their experiences. Mostly, each director took control of their own scenes, and didn’t work directly with one another. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a sheer feat of teamwork to create such an intricate story.
Deanne Foley directed the spine of the film, which included scenes at the wedding with lead actress Lynda Boyd. She also directed two flashback stories, Throwing Rocks and Meet You in the Deep End with actress Susan Kent. For her, the challenge was the script itself.
Deanne Foley mostly worked independently, but it was her responsibility to interweave narratives, perspectives, and timelines. “I think the biggest challenge was in the writing of the script and finding the spine which brought these unique flashback stories together while still creating a unique and engaging story arc,” she says.
Stephanie Clattenburg didn’t work directly with any of the other directors during production. “I came in after the crew had already been shooting for a few days, and so they were working like a well oiled machine,” she says. “I jumped in for two days, directed my portion, then left and another director took over.”
Stephanie says the entire process was smooth and simple, from her perspective. “I approached it similarly to how I would approach a short film, seeing as how my bit is only about 10 minutes long.” But the endeavour was incredibly worthwhile, and she loved being part of such a unique project.
Martine Blue was happy for the opportunity to collaborate with other directors, citing that directors often work alone. “Working collaboratively with five other directors on one project was an interesting departure from the normal process,” she says. “The biggest challenge was to always be mindful of the whole film, how our shorter pieces fit in to enhance the feature, and not to go too idiosyncratic with a personalized style.”
For Martine, it was all about balance and figuring out how the direction of her own work would work with the overall look and tone of the film.
“Jumping into a project that is in full gear with a whole new crew and in another province was fascinating; it felt like a commercial shoot in that way. It forced us to make connections and build a rapport with the crew rapidly. We cast the actors through pre-taped auditions, so we didn't get a feel for how they handle adjustments and direction before working with them on set,” Martine explains. “The genre of romantic comedy was also new to me so I had to research and study a bunch of films to understand and appreciate how the audience wants to feel while watching them.” (Author’s note: How fun of a study is that?)
Ruth Lawrence says that each director was pretty much able to work on their own piece as they pleased -- and in fact, her original written piece didn’t change too much from the beginning (although it did go through significant rewrites!).
For her, it was incredibly rewarding to see how her piece turned out. “The DOP, Jeff Wheaton, totally got what I was looking for at the core of my story,” Ruth says. “He loved working with the reflections I wanted. He also knew how to shoot diverse skin colours and that was a huge relief. Finally, the industry is paying attention to these needs and we did a good job, I hope. I learned a lot, for sure.”
Like Martine, the actual production of Hopeless Romantic was a completely new experience to Ruth. Because Ruth only had two days to shoot, the whole thing felt more like a TV shoot (where the crew stays the same and the directors change) than a movie shoot -- something Ruth hadn’t done before.
Shooting in Halifax was also a new experience. “When I went on set the only people I knew were the producers and DOP. Everyone else was new to me,” says Ruth. “That's so unusual, especially here [in Newfoundland] where we know most of our crew. It was a steep learning curve to figure out how to get the most from my crew and have them trust me.”
As for the end result, Ruth says she would be interested to know if people could tell who directed and wrote what sections. “When I watch the whole film, there are differences in the stories to enjoy but the producers and Deanne really did a fabulous job of not having it read as an anthology.”
When asked about her experiences, Latonia Hartery touched on the fact that only Deanne Foley and Martine Blue had directed feature films before. Given the nature of the film, this actually worked in their favour as first-time feature film directors. “The collaboration allowed us to ease into it, without having to direct the entire film.”
For Latonia, the best part of working on the film was the creative collaboration. “With six directors, there were many voices to consider and we worked hard as a group to make sure all were heard,” she says. “And all that talent led to a movie that is fun, charming, and cohesive.” Goal met.
Megan Wennberg said getting to learn from an experienced feature director like Deanne Foley was one of the highlights of working with some many directors.
"We were all pretty isolated and directed our separate pieces in blocks, with the exception of Deanne and I who overlapped with shooting the wedding and the Anna/Erik storyline. Getting to know Deanne and seeing her work was definitely a highlight for me. Working with the incredibly skilled and generous cast and crew was also an excellent experience. And getting to come to SJIWFF is one of the best results of taking part in this film for me. I've heard great things about the festival for years, and I'm really looking forward to spending time with the other HR directors. We only really got one afternoon together in development, so it will be nice to get to know them more!"
Each director had one thing in common to say about working on the film: their respect for one another only grew as production went on. There were no real kerfuffles; the process was smooth. And everybody brought something unique and wonderful to the table.
Hopeless Romantic is a perfect testament to the incredible talent of women filmmakers in Atlantic Canada. Don’t forget to buy your ticket!