Shelagh Carter is a filmmaker based in Winnipeg, and she has also worked in New York and Los Angeles. A woman of many talents, she got her start in film and television when she founded Casting in Stone Inc., a casting agency in Canada. She is a Professor of Theatre and Film at the University of Winnipeg, and a graduate of the prestigious Canadian Film Centre’s Directors Lab in Toronto. She also received her MFA in Directing from the Actors Studio Masters Program at the New School, a member of the second graduating class. We were in the same class, and became fast friends on the first day of orientation when we both hurried back from lunch together so as not to be late. She is a member of the Actors Studio. She has directed many award-winning short films, and “Passionflower”, which emerged during her time at the Canadian Film Center, is her first feature. She wrote the script as well. Filmed entirely in Winnipeg in 14 days, “Passionflower” is currently traveling the film festival circuit, and recently won the Platinum Remi award for best Dramatic Original Feature at the Houston International Film Festival.
See my review of “Passionflower” here.
Check out my interview with lead actress Kristen Harris here.
I got Shelagh on the phone recently to talk about her experience directing “Passionflower”.
Sheila O’Malley: Talk to me about the shoot.
Shelagh Carter: I was sincerely blessed on this shoot by the team around me. Everyone believed in the script. Some of these folks who came to work on it were very very experienced people that usually work on all the American films, but they loved the script and they wanted to make it happen for me. We only had 14 days. That’s what our budget would allow as an indie film.
SOM: How do you compile your team and then get them all on the same page with what you want to create? Because you can feel it on the screen.
SC: Andrew Forbes, who shot it, read the script and he just got it.
SOM: How did you find him?
SC: My producer, Polly Washburn, had gone earlier through the Canadian Film Center, and she suggested people to me. Andrew was the one she felt would be copacetic with me from the work she’d seen him do. I definitely looked at reels. Andrew and I had so much fun working together. We’re very simpatico in terms of the look we wanted. And my editor, Mike Reisacher, had gone through CFC, and had already worked with the art director, crazy Richardo Alms, fabulous guy. Richardo had come off of Guy Maddin‘s Keyhole. He’s Guy Maddin’s guy, but he’s done a lot of my short films. I found the right costume person, Lauren Martin, but with all of them, I would present visuals. And of course you see the influence of the 60s there, you see it with Mad Men, so Andrew and Lauren had a reference of that time, and they love what they do, so they just researched, researched, researched. It was about chemistry. I hope all the films I get to do have this wonderful chemistry. Polly and I have had experiences where we’ve met difficult people in positions of power that bring in negativity to a set. It’s so unnecessary and we were determined not to have that, so we made sure that those key positions were with people that were respectful.
SOM: The camera work is subtle, and doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s very classical filmmaking. The scene where Sarah (Kassidy Brown) and her friend Charlie (Mitchell Kummen) are walking, and it’s windy, with those green leaves rustling, and it’s a dolly track, following them, and he says, “Til tomorrow?” And then he runs off and he’s in a blur in the background and you see him, blurry, hugging his mother, and Sarah’s watching. It’s so simple, a mother hugging her son when he comes home from school, but this little girl doesn’t have that. She’s going back to this fraught anxious home, and it’s all in that camera move.
SC: I was told once to never trust a camera operator who doesn’t know how to dance. It’s really true. I favor moving cameras that feel the performance without leading the performance. The inspiration, finally, for some of that was The Godfather. This came from Andrew. He was watching a particular scene in The Godfather where they would tell so much information with a very simple camera move. We filmed in order as much as we could, and of course the house was also a character. Every night before the next day, the AD, Daniel Lavoie, who was lovely, I’d worked with him before, and Andrew and I, would walk the next day’s scenes. We’d have a plan and then if something disastrous happened, like we blew a light or whatever, we would improvise, but we always had a plan. It was Andrew’s first feature, it was Lauren’s first feature, everybody wanted to get behind me. We have this reputation in Manitoba now of being one of the best sets the professionals have ever worked on.
SOM: How was it for you, filming your first feature?
SC: This project has set me free. I love being on a film set. The moment I stepped on one years ago, I knew I’d come home. Even more than theatre, for me. The theatre has given me all kinds of other stuff that has been so critical, it has grounded me in truth, in terms of choices and the language and being in the moment. But it’s cinema for me that tells the story.
SOM: Let’s talk about the script. Clearly, you’re being very open in interviews and at QAs that the story is autobiographical.
SOM: So talk about developing the script and when you decided that this was the one.
SC: I think what started to solidify it was when I was accepted into the Canadian Film Center. We had to send in two feature film treatments. I had written about my mum and me and the cat [a key event in the script]. I had written it as a short film around that time, and I showed it to my friend John and he said, “Shelagh, I think this is actually a feature, for some reason.” Scenes started to come to me, all kinds of scenes, they were all over the map. To the best of my ability I wrote a treatment. It was called Hello Darling at the time. I sent it in. And when I was at the Film Center, we were supposed to do an introductory piece to what our features might be, and one of the advisors said, “You’re not ready to do Hello Darling” and one of the other advisors, John Paizs, who I actually knew from Winnipeg, said, “Nope, I think that’s the one she should do.” I wrote the party scene and I did a six minute short. It was the first time that I started to think about it as a feature.
SC: It was on my reel, and I left CFC, I come back to Winnipeg, and I get introduced to Polly. I don’t know her from Adam, I just know she’s been recommended, and she looks at Hello Darling and she said, “That’s the one we’re gonna do.” By that time in my life, I had woken up to the experience I had with John Cassavetes and A Woman Under the Influence. When I was 18, and really struggling with my mum, a really smart teacher pulled me out of class one day and said, “Hey, we’re going to the movies” and it was Cassavetes’ Woman Under the Influence. And I’m looking up at the screen, and there’s Gena Rowlands, and I think, “My God, that’s my mother.”
SC: And people started to laugh behind me, they began to laugh at her. And Sheila, I swear to God, I was up over those seats, I was gonna deck them, I was so mad. My teacher was pulling me off of them. And it was at that moment, at 18, that I realized that I loved my mother.
SC: I met Polly in November, 2009, and she said “We’re gonna make this film. I’m going to the Olympics in Vancouver, and I’m going to talk to Telefilm out there because they’re the funding people. We’re not going to worry about going into development, we’re going to go straight to production.” With her believing in me, in January I took a screenwriting course. I got a structure going, and I would send it to Polly. She’s a wonderful editor. I met with Telefilm in Vancouver, and they knew me from my shorts. I told them, “We’re going to make this film out in the prairies, and you want to be part of it? Because we’re gonna make it anyway.” I happened to take some of my drawings, of the Vargas girls, and they loved the drawings. By April, we submitted it. We had three tough phone calls. By June 1, we had the go-ahead. Because I had to be back to work in September, we had to film in August, and that’s what we did. It just came out of me. I was ready. I think I was the only director that showed up at the CFC where they didn’t think of me as a writer. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and that was based on my mother telling me that that wasn’t my thing, and me buying into it. So it was also breaking that spell.
SOM: One of my favorite lines in the film is from the doctor who visits the house: “You’re a smart man, David. Call me.” It’s a great line. That whole scene, where the doctor shows up, is terrific. There’s the embarrassment of mental illness, and clearly her game face by that point is pretty bad. The doctor is seeing everything. He knows that he is in the presence of flagrant mental illness. The structure of the script is so good that way.
SC: That was one of the things I fought for. People would say, “Where’s your turning point?” And I would say, “You have to trust me. It’s there.”
SOM: Obviously if you’re filming in 14 days, the planning has to be intense.
SC: It was very intense.
SOM: Can I ask you about working with actors? Are they all Winnipeg people?
SC: Everybody was Manitoba. Darcy Fehr has certainly been seen in Guy Maddin’s stuff, he’s Guy Maddin’s alter ego. I knew he was right and I had to put my foot down. He was busy working on Keyhole and Polly said, “Well, I don’t know if we can get him” and I said, “No, we gotta have him.” In terms of working with the actors, I thought to myself, I am going to make sure that I am succinct. And I am going to talk to them in terms of something they can do, and I am going to stay away from ideas as much as possible, but if they want to ask me any kind of personal questions, they can.
SOM: Darcy was so moving with the subtlety and complexity of the loving lonely husband. Did he just click into it?
SC: Yes. He asked me a couple questions, and I said, “Just keep it honest.” He is also so good at understanding camera. He’s just one of those gifted guys that way. He knows that it’s about doing less and less and less.
SOM: Could you talk to me about working with Kristen Harris?
SC: We had a meeting on her porch and she talked about how much she loved the script. She had a few questions and that’s when I said, “I just want you to know that this is not a hate fest, this is not Mommie Dearest – this is about the illness, this is about the truth of how it all went down – so the film has to be honest that way.” My mum was a tragic figure. In the early readings, I could just feel Kristen’s intelligence. She just said to me, “I’m going to ask you to trust me. If I have questions, I’ll ask.” We hit it off. I just tried to stay out of her way.
SOM: Did you just find that she clicked with the material to such a degree –
SC: Yeah. It was one of those. And of course, she wants it. She wants to do well. She’s committed.
SOM: How did you find the kids and how did you know they could do it under these circumstances?
SC: Part of it is good ole spidey-sense based on experience and trusting. Also, Winnipeg is small enough that I’ve got connections through the people that work here. I gave the script to a couple of trusted folks, like the fellow whose house we shot in – Jeff – he teaches acting, and I said, “Jeff, you’ve read the script”, and he said, “There’s this little boy, you’ve got to see him,” So supportive friends in the industry helped. And Telefilm, just to be sure, we put the script out in a national call and the casting director that was helping me – it turns out I actually helped get her in the business and I didn’t even realize it. Fifteen years ago, and here she is working on my film. She came up to me and said, “Do you remember when my mother came up to you and spoke in the church basement …” So I feel, it’s a cliche, but I feel there’s a lot of good karma that way. In any event, she put it out nationwide and we got tapes from some very serious actors across Canada to be in the film, but I just felt I could do it out of Manitoba. In an earlier workshop, just to hear the script, I invited Kristen, Darcy, Jacqueline Guertin, Cindy Marie Small and a couple other people to do the party scene, and I had them riff off of my script.
SC: I had them in my back pocket, although I certainly looked at other actors. One of the questions was about the children working on the script, especially the little girl in that scene in the kitchen and how was that filmed? The script was given to the parents. Quite frankly, they all felt it was a piece of art, and they wanted to support the story. And Kristen and Darcy really made the kids feel that all the drama is on the screen, and off the screen, everything’s cool. And so that’s how it was. And Ethan Harapiak, the little guy who plays Thomas, he knew everybody’s lines. If you didn’t deliver your line right, he would correct you. The hardest one to cast was Sarah. I had seen a lot of kids but they were all very theatrical. I had this picture in my head of the little girl who played the lead in Atonement. I was sitting there and I turned to the guy who was our camera person, I just put it out into the world, “Does anyone know anyone who looks like the lead in Atonement?” And this guy, who I barely knew, said, “Oh! I know someone like that! Here’s a picture!” I said, “Do you think she wants to be in a movie?” He said, “I think she might be interested. I’ll call her Mum.” So Kassidy Love Brown came in and she read the scene about the cat. And she was so true, and there was so much going on inside of her. Polly and I just turned to each other with tears running down our faces and we said, “That’s the one.” I had a talk with Kassidy and said, “This is a pretty intense story, what do you think?” She said, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to cry. I’m not much of a crier.” I said, “Don’t worry about it.” And of course she performed beautifully.
SOM: When Sarah is crying on that kitchen floor in the scene you mentioned, it’s heartbreaking.
SC: We shot that scene twice. We did two takes. It was me, the camera, and the actors. Brad [Shelagh’s husband] actually chose that evening to come and visit me and he literally felt trapped, he couldn’t get out of the house fast enough, because it was so emotional for him.
SC: A director cannot do it alone. It’s your job to show up there and be absolutely prepared for every question.
SOM: Did you rehearse at all?
SC: Yes. We had that week where I was writing the script and they were workshoppping it, and that had settled in them. We had some rehearsal time a few days before we were setting up in the house. They didn’t want to do too much, actually. Darcy and Kristen asked me to trust them. And I said Yup, I think you’re right. I stayed very open with the kids. It was about the event in the scene, clear-cut: Mum has killed this cat. I was very careful in terms of pushing Kassidy.
SC: Certainly with Blake Taylor, who played the doctor, he said, “I’m sitting here, I’m listening to them, what’s going on for me?” I said, “You are sizing them up.” He said, “Okay. I got it.” I would speak to the actors in the most basic way, always in terms of a verb. It had to be active. If they needed a little bit more, we would talk about the conflict, we would talk about the circumstance, we would talk about the event, and I would really try to keep it as succinct, but loaded, as possible. I could tell when they would get it and then I would just leave them alone.
SOM: I loved the actress who plays David’s mother with her little pillbox hat and her judgmental attitude.
SC: Susan Kelso! Wasn’t she great?
SOM: She reminded me a lot of the mother in Woman Under the Influcne, who was Cassavetes’ mother in real life. “You’re crazy” she’s shouting. “You’re crazy!”
SC: Susan said to me, “Oh my God, Shelagh, I used to work in an advertising office, we were so like this, with the dresses and the cigarettes!” That’s the stuff that I know my mum experienced with my dad’s mother, because, boy … when she broke down the first time, she was pounding on the floor and I came up to see what was going on, and I was in my pajamas, and she was saying, “You tell your father to tell his mother ….” I was, what, 9 years old at that point?
SOM: Could you talk about the sexuality of the film?
SC: I was definitely pulling on my experience with my mum and the competitive quality of it. At the time, I was becoming a daddy’s girl. He thought he was being a great dad, but it set up this competition, What would happen is everything my mum would attempt would never get finished. But I was drawing and winning these prizes at school but it seemed if I showed her something, she would dismiss it. About that time, playing outside with a group of kids, we discovered this amazing Vargas on the ceiling of this guy’s garage. That image still stays with me.
SC: You know how kids feel the sexuality in the house. My mum would drive my brother to school in her nightgown. That was one of the things that I wanted to get at. We can be so stupidly politically correct in our culture now, that Sarah hanging out at the barbershop surrounded by nude pictures might be seen as inappropriate, but that was a real place of refuge for me when I was a young girl.
SC: That’s when I first saw the famous nude Marilyn Monroe, and of course my mother was obsessed with Marilyn. And forget about cartoon books, I was looking at Photoplay as a kid. My mum wanted me to be a good girl, and yet there was all this blatant sexuality around her. My mum was out there with her sexuality.
SOM: The scene with her in the road was striking, when the sound drops out. Could you talk about your conception of that scene?
SC: It was interesting because that day, Kristen’s agent had called because she had done some scenes in a television show and something had gone wrong so they called her back in and it was that afternoon. So we just said, “Okay, this is what we need to feel in this scene.” And she just went and did it. What we came up against in post is that people were fighting me on why that scene was silent. Well, I’ll tell you why it’s silent. When I first got to New York, and I escaped my family, I was walking in Greenwich Village, 8th Street, and there was a moment when my body cut off, and I was suddenly in a silent movie. I knew then that I had to deal with my feelings. I wanted that experience in the film with that character.
SOM: Beatrice’s mental illness is never named.
SC: That was important, I felt.
SOM: I’m very curious about how you thought about all of that.
SC: Some of the things that came up years later in my own analysis is that they never were clear in what my mother had. Terms were thrown around, schizophrenic, manic-depressive. People today would say bipolar, but I don’t even know if that was my mother. One of the questions was about the end of the film where the little girl is looking back at the house. We did wonder how we would end the film. Was it just on her face, or was she outside? I felt that people needed time to be with her and think about what they had just witnessed. If we just left it on her face and cut out that would be too abrupt and not really the tone we had established. I remember in my 30s, I was back from New York, and trying to talk to my mum. She was having a bad time again. I said, “Mum, do you love me?” She said, “Dear, it’s so hard for me to talk about these things.” I knew she loved me ultimately but boy, we missed each other on some level. And of course my dad hasn’t been well enough to know exactly what I’m doing. A couple weeks ago, I went to see my dad and I walked into his room and playing on the television was the musical Gypsy. Gypsy is what my mother sent me to when I was 9, to see Natalie Wood and the strippers, and that was playing on my dad’s television. The hair on the back of my neck went up. And in Passionflower, of course, the way I referenced that film was with Beatrice singing to Thomas in the bedroom. We couldn’t use “Little Lamb” so Kristen, who’s a singer, made all that up.
SOM: In my second viewing of it, the anxiety of the father is what came across to me. The first viewing was about the mother and the sexual competition she has with her prepubescent daughter. The second viewing was about the sort of cultural Mad Men thing that you’re tapping into, what I would term as “the loneliness of men”. I felt his loneliness in that situation. His role, as a man, was that he was going to have to take care of this situation.
SC: I felt that with my dad in their relationship. He didn’t know what to do. Everyone knew that my mother was not functioning. We were sort of the orphans on the street.
SOM: You really see that with the mother of the friend Charlie. It’s very subtle. She’s peeling the potatoes, and they leave, and she looks back, and you don’t even see her face, but you know she knows: “I want that little girl to be at my house every day. I want to know what’s going on with that little girl.” Those are the details that are often missed.
SC: When I had to write my director’s statement, once I discovered that Passionflower was the one I had to do first, I came across this quote from Cassavetes: “You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all.” I know that I did lots of things with Passionflower where I’m not sure why I did them but I made those choices because they felt right. Polly was so receptive. She helped me crystallize a couple of things. She came into my room where I had all the storyboard stuff, and she saw my drawings, saw the Vargas girls. Later, during the writing of the script, she said, “You know what? What about paper dolls?” I said, “Oh my God, I used to have all these cutouts …” So she would really guide me in a way.
SOM: If you look only at the surface of Beatrice, you just see easy sex. If you want her, you can have her. It doesn’t matter that she’s married or has kids. And the fact that that was sort of incorporated into their marriage – that he had incorporated that, was so interesting. The mental illness was manifesting itself in a way that would be judged. How do you even diagnose someone like her? It’s still not addressed.
SC: A couple came up to me after one of the screenings and asked me about the children. They said that their son is married to someone who is struggling with bipolar and they are really worried about the children. They’re the grandparents, and they were tearing up. They said, “Thank you for this film, because you survived this family. Our concern is that the kids won’t survive.” I said, “I know you’re in a position where you can’t just step in – but if you create that safe place for the kids – ” and they said, “We do.” I said, “Well, there you go, keep a safe place for those kids.” They asked about my parents and I said, “The truth of it is that in the last 10, 15 years, my mum was much better and my parents had some good time together.” When I grew up, I sure didn’t trust doctors. I eventually found someone that helped me through all this, after that moment of everything going silent in the New York streets. I am the happy ending. But this moment in time of the film, told from a child’s perspective, that was the most important thing for me to say in Passionflower, and not rush to a happy ending or anything, tie it up in a neat bow.
SOM: So what’s next for Passionflower?
SC: Distribution is going to be very interesting. We do believe there is an audience for it. Everything that’s been said to us by people coming to the screenings matters, they’re all saying, “Why aren’t we seeing these kinds of films?” We’re waiting on a film festival in Russia. We’ve been requested to send a screener to one in Italy. I’m waiting to see if I get into Edinburgh, the Talent Lab. They were very excited that it had just won the award in Houston [Passionflower won the Platinum Remi award for Dramatic Original Feature at the 2012 Houston International Film Festival]. There’s a hot shot in Canada who would love to get his hands on it but he doesn’t have enough of a track record yet. Nobody wants to rush into anything because they’re protective of me and the film, and they’ve often said to me, “We want to make sure you take time for your next project.” Meanwhile, I would love it to be in Russia, I would love it to be in Edinburgh, I would love it to be in all of these other festivals, but I sort of had to let go of it and let it find its way.
SOM: What would your mother have thought of the film, do you think?
SC: I think she would have been proud of me, actually. My greatest sorrow is that I realized maybe too late how much guilt she carried, because she couldn’t remember what she did, with all of those shock treatments. Some of it would come back to her and she would have a sense of how horribly she’d behaved, so she carried in her life a huge amount of guilt and pain. In the week that I was home when she died, I remember her sitting on the couch and sobbing, “I’ve had so much pain in my life, what did I do?” And she died four days later. Sometimes I wish my mind wasn’t so vivid in terms of remembering everything. So thank God there’s art.