2013 seems to be the year for great female characters written by savvy local writer/directors intent on capturing the coming-of-age experience in a way that’s rarely seen on the big screen. Sara St. Onge’s Molly Maxwell just recently concluded a successful month-long run at the Carlton and now Kate Melville‘s Picture Day is about to make its theatrical debut at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Melville, a seasoned writer with many TV credits, including Degrassi: The Next Generation and Being Erica , to her credit makes her feature debut with her story about a misfit named Claire (rising star Tatiana Maslany) who’s working on her second try at her final year of high school while navigating the limbo between adolescence and adulthood as well as the attentions of Jim, a much older musician and Henry, a shy freshman with a crush.
Toronto Film Scene was able to sit down with Melville to chat teenage sexuality, feminism in film and the necessary timelessness of the coming-of-age genre.
Toronto Film Scene: You have quite an extensive background in TV. What made you decide to make the move into features?
Kate Melville: I actually started out as a playwright, then went to film school at Concordia in Montreal, then ended up writing TV. So moving into directing a film I’d written was less about switching mediums as much as the leap from writing to directing – taking a story out of my head and out into the real world. Filmmaking is like creative problem-solving combined with community organizing, a huge and terrifying leap from writing in my house alone in my pajamas. But now I’ve done it once, I’d love to do it again.
TFS: What inspired you to write a character like Claire?
KM: Claire as a character actually emerged fully formed in a play I started to write when I myself was in high school. So she’s been my imaginary friend for twenty years – sometimes I think she says everything I don’t dare to, I’m more of a Henry. I love how bold and unsentimental she is – she says exactly what she thinks, and doesn’t buy into anyone’s agenda but her own. And she’s funny and obnoxious and foul-mouthed, which is always a treat to write.
TFS: What qualities were you looking for when you were casting the part of Claire?
KM: I knew I wanted to work with two cameras and to let the actors improvise within a scripted framework, so mostly I was looking for a collaborator. Tatiana is an improv champ, and very funny, so as soon as she came on board, I knew I was set. This was about a year before we shot the script, and over that period, Tatiana took Claire to a whole new level. We read drafts together, and did workshops in church basements and improvised to find the missing pieces. A lot of that preliminary work with the actors ended up in the shooting script, and at this point I can’t really take ownership of Claire entirely…she’s very much something we created together. I had initially thought of Claire as kind of surly, but Tatiana brought this gleeful insolence to Claire’s character, a kind of Dennis the Menace quality that I find totally refreshing.
TFS: Claire is pretty comfortable with her sexuality which is unusual to see in coming-of-age films. Why do you think it’s such a difficult thing for people to write?
KM: I’m not sure – I obviously don’t have that problem! I wanted Claire to be someone who was comfortable, even excited or confident in her sexuality. Tatiana said this great thing when we were in rehearsal, “Sex is like a conversation, and Claire just talks to a lot of people.” Tat and I wanted Claire to be a physical person, someone with a lot of energy who was happy with her body, and loved to dance and make out and walk the streets of the city listening to music. I don’t think sex is Claire’s hang-up, I think it’s intimacy. Her relationship with Henry is mostly non-sexual, but it’s intimate in a way she hasn’t had before, and that really freaks her out.
TFS: The film has been described as a feminist coming-of-age film. Do you agree with that? Was that something you thought about when you were writing?
KM: Well, I’m a feminist, so I’m certainly fine with the label. And if feminism means equal rights for men and women, I guess that also means equal access to interesting roles. We have a wealth of talented female actors in this country, and they can only play sisters and girlfriends and wives for so long. I wanted to create a compelling character in Claire, a unique spirit who would be interesting to watch for 90 minutes. She’s not perfect or even always likeable, but she’s not meant to represent all young women, any more than Henry represents all men. Mostly I just tried to create a person who felt authentic and lively and made me laugh, and if that also makes people talk about feminism or representation of women, that’s a great bonus.
TFS: Although obviously contemporary, the film also has a timeless quality to it. Do you think that’s an important quality for coming-of-age films to have so they stay relevant to the next generation? Was that something you were mindful of?
KM: The timeless quality was somewhat deliberate, partially because I was 38 when I shot Picture Day , so high school was twenty years gone. I tried to find specifics about the high school experience that were emotional rather than trends, and to avoid super-specific fashions.
That said, I’m especially thrilled when teenagers today see it and tell me they like it. I know it has an appeal for people in their 20s and 30s who want to look back at high school and cringe-laugh, but I love it when it speaks directly so someone who’s going through the experience right now.
I’ve been touring Toronto and Peel high schools this spring with Reel Canada, giving a presentation on Picture Day . We’re hosting a screening for the students on Monday, May 27th – it’ll be the first time it’s played for an audience of teenagers, and I’m super excited to see what they think.
TFS: Music plays a big part in the film. How involved were you in choosing the music? How did The ElastoCitizens get involved?
KM: The ElastoCitizens got ‘cast’ when I cast Steven McCarthy to play Jim – I needed a character with a band, and Steve had one! I wanted it to be a real band, because I wanted that crazy frenetic energy you can get in live shows, and I find that pretend bands in movies are often lame, unless it’s Spinal Tap in which case they’re hilarious. I had a eureka moment on the dancefloor at an ElastoCitizens show – I had met Steven in Montreal when he was studying at the National Theatre School, and I knew he could handle the complexity of Jim as an actor, and then he had this wild, raucous, incredibly cinematic band – how could I resist?
The rest of the soundtrack came from my music supervisor Danielle Holke. She started gathering music for Picture Day months before we shot and my editor Dev Singh and I were in constant contact with her in post-production. There’s no score for Picture Day , and much of the music is rooted in Claire’s headphones. So that was the first litmus test for all the music in the movie: Would Claire listen to this? I think Claire’s quite a sophisticated music fan, as many teenagers are, and it’s an age when music can be an extension or amplification of all your giant uncontrollable feelings.
TFS: What’s your favourite memory from shooting the film?
KM: The skipping school day, where Claire and Henry smoke weed and go to Hodo Kwaja was pretty magical – it was a beautiful day, we were a skeleton crew wandering around the Annex, and then we shot with two cameras and let Tatiana and Spencer improvise. The dynamic between those two characters was so clear and tender, and some of the improvised moments felt better than anything I could have come up with on my own – like Henry playing with Claire’s hair, or Claire’s long riff on the asymmetry of Jim’s balls, or how great walnut cake making can look on screen!
TFS: What were the best and the most frustrating parts of making your first feature?
KM: The best part was definitely seeing something I imagined come to life, and all the tiny decisions that made that happen. I think I learned a lot about being flexible and trusting the collaboration of others; I can’t tell you how many times a crew or cast member pulled me out of despair with some amazing solution I never could have dreamed of. Post-production sound work was an amazing experience – the creative team at Theatre D built an entire world beyond the frame with sound editing and mixing, it was truly mindblowing.
The most frustrating part is being so utterly clueless, most of the time – so much was brand new to me, and while I think I was smart enough not to hide my ignorance, it can be pretty humbling to be the person steering the ship while asking endless stupid questions.
TFS: If you had to recommend one excellent coming-of-age film (besides Picture Day , of course) to someone what would it be?
KM: Just one?? That’s tough. But if you insist, way more people need to see Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank . But Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a close second…
Picture Day opens on Friday, May 24, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check the website for screening information.
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