Made in Canada Interview: Sara St. Onge

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Editor’s Note: For Ronan’s review of Molly Maxwell, see here

With her debut feature currently enjoying sold-out screenings at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema, I took the opportunity to talk to writer/director Sara St. Onge about Molly Maxwell, the challenges of a low budget and tight schedule, the influence of experience on the potentially controversial subject matter, and the state of the industry for a first-time filmmaker.

RD: There’s a very personal sensibility to the film, and a strong aspect—I think—of sympathy for the situation Molly finds herself in, would it be fair to guess that there’s a touch of autobiography to the story?

SStO: I would say there’s a touch of autobiography definitely, but it’s not a true story by any means. As a writer you draw from everything, kind of like a magpie.

RD: One of the film’s strengths is the way in which it reserves excess judgement: you allow the viewers to experience this romance for precisely what it is and to reach their own conclusions. One thing that struck me was the apparent age difference between Molly’s parents: it seemed to me that her father was as much older than her mother as Ben was than her. Was this a conscious decision on your part, and were you looking with the film to challenge dominant perceptions of scenarios like this?

SStO: I can’t say it was a conscious decision from the get-go. After extensive casting, it was clear Rob [Stewart] and Krista [Bridges] were the best fit for the roles. I did like the parallel though, because I think in a small way it lends empathy for the mom when it all comes out, that and the mysterious “mistakes” she alludes to, but doesn’t go into. In a small way I was trying to challenge perceptions of scenarios like this, because they happen more frequently than most people would imagine. From when I started writing the film through to now screening it, I’ve had many women tell me that this kind of thing had happened in their lives. Maybe not exactly the same scenario, but something similar.

RD: To a small degree, Molly put me in mind of the eponymous character of Juno, and other recent “unconventional” female teen leads in films like Sassy Pants and Excision: the sarcasm; the slight outsider status; the maturity. Does that seem fair to you, and if not, what are your cinematic influences for the character and the film at large?

max3SStO: I’ve never seen Sassy Pants or Excision. I have seen Juno a couple times and with no disrespect to Jason Reitman, I was kind of going for the opposite of Juno with Molly. In one review someone said something I really liked, that it was like Molly had been cast in a Reitman film but couldn’t get her Juno on. I tried to make the somewhat quirky world the film inhabits more naturalistic and down-played, especially with Molly and her dialogue. Juno is way cooler than Molly. I think two good comparisons are Angela Chase from My So-Called Life and Mooney Pottie from New Waterford Girl. I was also hugely influenced by the kids and staff I met at Inglenook Community High School where I had a film club and we shot the film. Rookie Magazine was also a big reference for us, Tavi Gevinson is so rad.

RD: It struck me that Molly’s mother is very much the dominant parent; her father is a very lax disciplinarian, really quite fickle and maybe even weak. Together with the fact that it’s very much Molly herself who incites the romance with Ben, the film represents a number of strong female characters. What’s it like to be a woman struggling to make a name for herself in an industry that’s still so gender-imbalanced, and how does that shape the content of your films and the way you make them?

SStO: It’s pretty awesome to be a female storyteller right now. There is so much exciting stuff happening in film, TV and literature. We are starting to see such rich, nuanced female characters in everything from Turn Me On, Dammit!, to Girls to Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Maybe because there has been such a lack of opportunity for women in the past to honestly tell their stories, it feels so fresh and new and exhilarating to be a part of the contemporary landscape. I’m proud to be able to contribute interesting, full spectrum female characters to the mix and not have to get so many infuriating notes about whether or not a female character is “likeable” enough.

RD: Obviously your leads—Lola Tash and Charlie Carrick—are the heart of the film. I think I’m correct in saying this is the first feature for both actors; how did you go about finding such great fits for these characters, or was it the case that the characters came to be redefined by their performers? Did you encourage them to play around with the roles, to improvise somewhat perhaps?

SStO: We found Charlie first, which is a bit backwards for a movie called Molly Maxwell. Charlie joked we should perhaps consider changing the title to Ben Carter. Charlie was doing a residency at the Canadian Film Centre’s acting conservatory and we did a table read with them one day with Charlie reading the part of Ben. After that Charlie wormed his way into my psyche and I would say that the character was redefined a bit by him. For one thing, the character wasn’t British to begin with, but I think that added a nice dimension of out at sea-ness to Ben’s character. Essentially, though, the character you see existed on the page and Charlie did a wonderful job fleshing him out and bringing him to life.

Lola very much transformed herself into the character of Molly. Lola, in real life, looks nothing like Molly. The first time she came in to audition, we would have passed her over had it not been for her sense of humour that wonderfully snuck out from a polished, more adult-looking exterior. It was very rewarding watching Lola inhabit Molly’s character. She’s a chameleon and a wonderful actress.

There really wasn’t much improv. I can remember one scene with Lola and the Principal (Richard Clarkin) where we were having some difficulty making it work and Richard and Lola improvised a bit to find it. Other than that, it was pretty much to script, although I always encouraged them to try any ideas out.

RD: You’ve worked with cinematographer Catherine Lutes before, and I think that’s reflected in the confidence of the visual language here. There’s a lovely evocation of the mood of this romance in the handheld framing, the naturalism of the slightly long takes, the way the sun seems always to creep into shot when Molly and Ben share the screen. Can you tell us a little about that collaboration, the kind of things you and Catherine wanted to achieve on a visual level, and how you went about capturing that?

max4SStO: I often call Catherine Lutes my filmmaking soulmate. We just work so well together. It’s a complete collaboration and a real joy. We started talking about this film together at least a year before we went to camera, and for one whole month before pre-production we met almost every day and went through the script scene by scene, so it was secondhand to us by the time we got to set. I joke that we have a telepathic connection at this point.

We had a giant binder with almost every shot photoboarded, ranked in order of what was essential, to what would be nice to have. We knew that we were facing an extremely difficult challenge to achieve what we wanted in only 18 shoot days, and so we prepared as much as we could. We also tried to be realistic in terms of what we wanted it to look like and how much time we had, so we were very strategic about the lighting plan and streamlined in our shots. Our time limits forced us to be brave and have faith in our vision. Catherine also had a great crew who believed in what we were doing and were always up for whatever needed to happen, even though there were so few of them. They were great sports.

We were very influenced by Mike Mills’ Beginners, which has a beautiful effortless quality, despite being very specific and planned. That’s what we wanted as well. We very much wanted to convey what Molly as a 16-year-old girl was experiencing and put you in her headspace, so all the decisions were towards that end, especially the heightened romanticism in the backlighting with the Ben and Molly scenes. We wanted to play with the feeling of being in the moment, but it already having a sort of nostalgic quality to it as well. So, with the controlled handheld we actually had levels of movement based on what was happening in the scene: handheld supported by this ridiculous rolled up sound blanket that Catherine strapped to her body; an airhead which gave a bit more support but still floated a little; camera directly on the tripod; and then completely still.

There were certain scenes with Ben and Molly, especially where they were first getting to know each other, like the streetcar and in the darkroom, where we wanted to hold on them and watch it happen in real time and watch their body language and awkwardness and chemistry. So we just went for it in the single takes once we realized how fantastic our actors were. They were just phenomenal together. We had planned for safety shots in case they weren’t able to pull it off, but they did.

RD: I noticed an interesting undercurrent to the film that kept coming up in small but seemingly important ways: the film/digital divide. I know you worked with 35mm in your early days of music video direction; it’s mostly in jest, but the digs at digital throughout the film would seem to suggest a clear preference on your part. Did you make any attempt to get the movie shot on film, and has the experience of working with digital at feature length changed your perception in any way?

max2SStO: Wow. That’s pretty observant. I did make a sort of lame attempt at first to shoot it on film, in that romantic way that filmmakers do. I would have loved to shoot on film, but it has just become unrealistic, especially for our budget. I was also nervous with this being my first feature and working with young, inexperienced actors, I didn’t want to be limited in how much I could shoot if I needed to. And I love the way the film looks, so I don’t have any complaints. But coming from a photography background and especially as someone who had a deep love for the darkroom, I do believe that the film process has a magic to it, some kind of presence and feeling that transfers itself onto the film that cannot be the same with digital. But it’s just not the way the world is going, so I can be as romantic as I want about it, it doesn’t change anything.

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.