Wanda Nolan on the RBC Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award, and being a first-time director

Wanda Nolan
Wanda Nolan

By Candice Walsh

Local filmmaker Wanda Nolan has two short films in the 27th annual St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. Mystery of the Secret Room is Nolan’s animated directorial debut, and her script for Crocuses won the 2015 RBC Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award.

I had the opportunity to talk to Nolan about her directorial experiences.

INTERVIEWER: I’d love to know a little about your background and how you got started with filmmaking.

WANDA: My background is fiction writing. I earned my Masters of Fine Arts from UBC, a multi-disciplinary program, so I had to take three disciplines. I did a summer residency just kind of thinking, oh, I’ll do film – I just wanted that credit, but I ended up loving it. I wrote my first film, Four Sisters, and it was created, but I didn’t direct it. The ball started rolling from there. I did more writing and editing, and then I started working for the National Film Board doing research for them, and story consultations.

I: And you have your directorial debut in the Festival this year!

W: Yes, Mystery of the Secret Room is my directorial debut, but Crocuses is my first time directing live action. Both of them coming out at the same time is crazy exciting.

I: What made you go the directorial route? Was it just kind of a natural progression?

W: Annette Clarke, the executive producer at the NFB was such an amazing mentor. She pushed me towards directing although I had only ever intended to write. I thought Mystery of the Secret Room would make a great animation, and she encouraged me to submit it under their emerging artist budget.

I: So how do you direct an animation, exactly?

W: It’s a lot of Word documents [laughs]. Claire Blanchet was the Animation Supervisor, so it was kind of like working with a cinematographer where you talk about your vision and then he or she executes the vision. But with animation, it’s so specific. There’s character design and environment design, so you have to write every single thing down. It’s a collaborative effort. She came to St. John’s a few times and we storyboarded everything. And Claire is incredible. She’s really good at taking every note into consideration, but at the same time, you can see her voice in the story as well. This is really important, as it is with any cinematographer. The art direction is just so gorgeous.

I: It’s very beautiful. It’s the first local animation that’s been submitted to the Festival in quite some time.

W: Oh wow. Claire Blanchet will be here from Montreal, and she’s actually one of the [Interactive] Incubator Project winners this year. To be fair, Annette and I were the only ones working on the film from here; we had a whole animation team in Montreal. The animation studio at the NFB is magical. Every door you open is something new and different. The level of creativity is over the top.

I: And Crocuses. Where did the story come from?

W: Like everything I write, it was a piece of fiction first. When I was applying to the RBC Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award, I got really interested in the camera as a narrative voice. As a writer, you place the reader in the story through tense and point of view. I wanted to understand how the camera does that. So I wrote this story as a memory piece — it’s a voice over. I wanted to play with images.

I: This is also a period piece. Was that part challenging, having to stay true to period dress, setting…?

W:It was really challenging. Latonia Hartery was the producer and she was a huge help. She’s really good at what she does. We had four time periods in that piece: present day, 1950s, 1960s, and the 1930s. So I wanted each period to have a palette. We spent a lot of money on the locations, and you can see that in the film.  And, Ian Vatcher, our cinematographer, did an amazing job making these worlds come to life.

Emily by Duncan de Young.jpg

I: What about wardrobe?

The wedding dress was so gorgeous and so hard to get! We looked at so many. I called this woman, Amanda Bulman, who had replied to my online classified, and when I called her, she was at her birthday party. When she described the dress I was like, “This is the dress!” So I hunted her down. [laughs]

I: I was reading up on when you won the award last year. The plot changed – it started out as a different kind of story.

W: Yeah, it did. It was an ambitious script. Originally, she (Rita) had already moved into the senior home, and there was a man provoking her. He was flirty and it kind of pissed her off. So just to make it more economical, I decided to make it just about Rita and her daughter. I had to make choices that worked for the budget, and also to condense the story.

I: So it was more of an economic decision.

W: Yeah. I worked with Ruth Atkinson who is the story consultant. We did it for two reasons -- to get it down to less pages, and budget wise to make it more of a succinct story.

I: How hard was the rewriting process?

W: It was challenging in some ways. Rewrites are always hard, really hard. And you do give up some things. I feel like it was more dark and humorous to begin with, but now it’s more sentimental. But I also think that sentimental is true to the character.

I: With the RBC Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award, what was the most valuable outcome of receiving this award?

W: There are so many things. The recognition, to be chosen, is such a boost. It’s like a validation of yourself and your work. There’s an investment in your career, and the knowledge that you’re moving forward. Just simply being able to produce a film with that kind of budget when it’s so hard to do...it means a lot to my career. And the purpose of the award is for emerging artists, and for learning. I truly learned so much. I never directed actors before. There was a lot of Googling. [laughs]

I: [Laughs] Was it really hard to move from writing to directing?

W: It’s been a real growing process for me because I had to own my work in a totally different way. The thing about writing is that it’s a supportive role, and I feel comfortable with that. To be the director, you are the final say. So all the mistakes are yours, all the good things are yours…it’s a privilege to be able to own that, and at the same time it’s killer. You’re worried about messing up, and all these people are relying on you. And there are so many people out there who are deserving of it. Self-doubt can bury you.

I: I understand. Any sort of rejection can be soul sucking.

W: Totally, and that’ll never go away, and I think in some ways that’s good because you’re always reaching for something. But I can kind of ride it a little bit better. So going through this whole process, you have to step up and it’s really scary. But being able to produce something from all the doubt and fear is incredible.

The Crocuses crew.
The Crocuses crew.

I: What was the most challenging part of making Crocuses?

W: Getting over my “people pleasing,” and knowing that this is MY film, and my story. It’s a personal thing too, and I think for women the whole “people pleasing” thing is especially a problem. I recognized this, and how I’d have to say, “This is my film!” I didn’t do that everyday, for sure, and you always have to compromise. But being in the position to own your work is really empowering. That’s the biggest strength of the award, for sure.

I: That’s a good point. I think "people pleasing" really holds a lot of artists back.

W: I think so, yeah. I always see everything in grey; I always see the other side of the story. But sometimes you just have to let that go.

I: What was the mentorship experience like?

W: Anita’s really passionate about story and supporting the person. She’s really great at creating an encouraging space. She was great at walking through the script and the shots with me, and the director side of things, like, “What do you see here?” She helped me tease out the scenes.

I: Do you have any advice or suggestions for emerging filmmakers?

W: Go to all the [Interactive] Film Forum events at the Festival. Go to events at NIFCO. Sign up for workshops and meet people working on their films. There’s a real community here that is genuinely interested in helping each other out because we’re all kind of in the same boat. There were a lot of really experienced people working on my film that didn’t have to, but there’s that support in the community. But going to all those workshops, it’s inspiring. We’re introverts, so of course we spend a lot of time at home, alone. Participating in workshops will help you realize that you’re not on your own -- we’re all just kind of figuring it out. Every project is a new one.

Mystery of the Secret Room will screen at the Evening Shorts session at the LSPU Hall on Saturday, October 22, starting at 7pm. Buy your tickets at the LSPU Hall box office.

Crocuses will debut at the Emera NL Closing Night Gala at Scotiabank Theatre on Sunday, October 23, starting at 7pm. Buy your tickets at the LSPU Hall box office.