When I saw The Witch several months ago at TIFF 2015, I was already pretty hyped up after having read the reviews out of Sundance several months earlier. The experience didn’t disappoint. The film delivered on its promise of a truly rich and creepy atmosphere, lush visuals, a viscerally affecting score, an impressive level of attention to detail and period accuracy, and a story that would get under your skin and scare you in a refreshingly more profound way than the average new release jump-scare shocker.
And yet, and yet.
Even though it’s a visually stunning film with haunting music and great performances, I left the theatre feeling uncomfortable about something that I couldn’t put my finger on for several days. Eventually, it dawned on me.
My problem with The Witch is that there’s a real witch in it. Or many witches, as you discover by the time you get to the admittedly striking final moments of the film. Many reviews have singled out the ending as especially powerful. And I would agree with them, if the film hadn’t made such a point of highlighting its own historical accuracy (the opening credits even mention that much of the dialogue is lifted directly from accounts of the time).
We all understand that the persecution of witches in our history had far less to do with magic and spells than it did with the subjugation of women. It may not have been the way that the people of the 17th century saw it, but it is obvious to us today that women were persecuted for witchcraft because their voices and their sexuality were seen as dangerous, unwieldy and terrifying to puritanical society – and not because they were actually Satan’s hench-women. The Witch pulls a weird bait-&-switch on this point.
Robert Eggers is fully aware of the above, and The Witch treats Thomasin’s budding, pre-teen sexuality, and her brother’s and father’s fear of it with great subtlety and care. Eggers makes it excruciatingly obvious just how much the simple fact that she is a woman will harm and undermine Thomasin in life. It isolates her from her family and sets her up to be persecuted for something she isn’t guilty for. It’s a no-win situation and it’s really well done.
The exhaustive research and painstaking execution of every historical detail are so obvious in The Witch that every conflict between Thomasin and her siblings or parents seems like a stark, honest snapshot of injustice. That is, until you get to the end and think back on the entire story as perhaps a lengthy and methodical recruitment process of a new, young witch into the local coven. Then, all of a sudden, you might see that her family members were right to fear and condemn her, because even though she may not have realized what was happening to her – it was happening.
It’s like saying “yeah, we made you think that this was about keeping women down but actually this persecution … it’s justified, because those women are actually witches and they are in league with the devil.” Whether intentional or not (my bet is: not), that feels like a wrong and jarring conclusion to arrive at.
Was it just me? Did anyone else have this reaction?
This fall and winter have been soooooooooo overstuffed with work and travel and life changes that it has felt a bit like the turducken of seasons. Once again, I turn to cooking when I am stressed out. I made this mushroom lasagna from Plenty a few weeks ago when I was overwhelmed by the task of filing for tax credits for Birdland. Spoiler alert: I am still overwhelmed by this task, which is not yet 100% done, in part because I am waiting on info from other people, which at least makes me feel better and less like a procrastinating, incompetent lump.
Mostly, I feel like a delightfully happy dumpling (i.e. good lump, not bad lump), good moods being the best symptom of pregnancy that I’ve experienced so far. I haven’t blogged about being pregnant because we just announced it on the social medias a couple of weeks ago, but here we go: I am nearly six months pregnant, so you can look forward to several exciting posts over the next three months about how sore my hips are and how much my walk has turned into a waddle. Whee!
I have been joking that I thought producing a movie would be the biggest thing I did in 2015! Turns out, I’m producing something waaaaaaaay bigger, to be released into the world in early 2016. In addition to good moods, I’m also experiencing a thrilling plethora of symptoms that I had never heard of before – insane dreams, an occasionally bloody nose, sensitive gums, a numb thigh (pinched-nerve related), constant exhaustion, post nasal drip, heartburn and occasional bursts of weeping. My skin is also super dry, but maybe that’s just “winter”. I have not had morning sickness or cravings, aka the only two symptoms anyone ever talks about.
For the past few months, we’ve been inching closer and closer to finishing Birdland, which is an absolutely thrilling fact, truly. I’m kind of sorry that I’ve been too exhausted and preoccupied by the crazy changes happening in my life (and body) to throw myself fully into the final few months of post-production, but I’m also incredibly glad that it’s no longer my job to steer the ship at this stage of the game. I’m also especially pleased that the completion date for the film (even if we fall a bit behind schedule) will be at least a month before my due date. Good timing! I never ended up writing about the pickup shoot dates that we rocked in August, but they went great, and our editor Caroline did a superhuman job of sculpting all our footage into a real movie. She is a wizard, truly. We locked picture last month and are now embarking on the next grand adventure: sound!
There are more fascinating aspects to the sound post production period than I really understood before. ADR (i.e. dubbing over lines that were mumbled, not recorded perfectly, or flubbed in some other way – in our case, we also added a few offscreen lines that weren’t in the script originally), foley (you know, like what the guy in Berberian Sound Studio does), editing the dialogue, adding the score (ours is being composed by two supremely talented musicians), crafting the sound design (the various non-musical elements that will shape the atmosphere of the film) and mixing it all together so that it sounds perfectly. It’s a lot of work. Many weeks’ worth.
Now that sound work is well under way, I can focus on tying up all the other loose ends – the aforementioned tax credit application, analyzing the cost reports to see if we’re over or under budget, get ready for the big job of submitting to film festivals, putting out press releases, promoting and marketing the film and working with our distributor / sales agent on the whole big plan of putting it out into the world.
In the meantime, I intend to focus on tying up as many other work-related loose ends between now and March as I possibly can. That includes finishing a few projects for REEL CANADA, delegating the bulk of my Royal-related work to other people, and getting as much Shudder work done as possible, so that we don’t risk falling behind during the baby-hiatus that is to come in late spring. It is all very daunting, but I have to say, I am very, very excited to be very busy with something that isn’t work in 2016. I’m a bit burned out on having five jobs. A few months ago I joked about how I could never decide on which job to quit because they all take turns being heartwarming. Thankfully, life has decided for me. I’m not quitting any of them, but I’m taking a good long break from them all. Perfect!
p.s. next time I’d add more parmesan & feta to the cheese in the very-cheesy mixture for this lasagna. It was delicious but kind of lacked salt.
By Friday, that sore throat has turned into a tired, woozy but thankfully not feverish feeling and a stubborn cough. At least the throat’s not sore anymore. It might be a sign that I’m going to cycle through all the symptoms quickly and feel right as rain in two days. Could happen, right?
Friday starts out with some non-TIFF work, a meeting with Tim Reis and our post-production friends at The Royal about some post work that we’re hoping to do on Tim’s debut feature, Bad Blood, later this fall. It’s a super fun film that I’m very excited to be helping out on, and I think that a bit of polish on the sound and colour will really take the quality and style up several notches. Plus, any excuse to bring Tim back to Toronto, because he’s basically our favourite dude.
After an extended lunch/meeting about Bad Blood I had to race downtown to another meeting, this one about a TV series that I can’t talk about yet but am very excited to be part of in whatever capacity. I made the dumb decision of taking a taxi from John and Wellington down to the back (west) side of the ACC, which should only have been a 15 minute walk but turned into a nearly 30 minute drive because of some insane traffic. Is it always like that downtown, or what? Am I just blissfully unaware of the nightmare that drivers live every day in this town? Anyway, I should have walked, it was nuts. I arrived late but the meeting went smoothly anyway and I’m very excited about the potential of this project.
I went back to the hotel for a nap, where I proceeded to grumble and groan a lot about whether I would be able to make it to Midnight Madness (I can get a bit babyish when I am sick, lemme tell ya) but in the end, I rallied for one important reason: Friday was Moms at Midnight day!!! Colin’s folks came into town (they’re staying with mine, because our families are the cutest ever) and the two moms came out to see Takashi Miike’s completely zany Yakuza Apocalypse. They loved Why Don’t You Play in Hell? two years ago so we figured Japanese insanity might be their thing?
Went for an all-curing bowl of pre-midnight ramen at Ramen Raijin (on Gerrard at Yonge, so about as close to the Ryerson as humanly possible) before enjoying some serious yakuza/mom time. I was about as tired as I’ve been all festival, but definitely glad I went. Plus, the moms got to meet Miike! He looks like a disembodied head in this picture, but trust me, up close, his outfit was extreeeeeemely cool.
Sometimes, the only thing that really helps at the end of a grumbly sick day is moms. ❤
Back to movies! On Thursday I managed to see three films and have a nice dinner and make it to bed early.
I woke up a bit tired and unwilling to invest too much emotional or intellectual energy into anything I was seeing, because I was already feeling drained and in need of some feel good pick me ups.
First up, I saw Our Brand Is Crisis, the Sandra Bullock number loosely based on a real story of an American political consultant who helps a Bolivian presidential candidate win the election. There’s actually a 2005 documentary (same title) which tells the story of the real strategists and the real election, which I’d love to check out because the fictionalized version left me feeling a bit weird. I can’t put my finger on what was wrong with it (I think the ending, which is both jarringly hopeful and too-easily-redemptive, had something to do with it) but there was something about the largely comedic tone of the film’s first half that just didn’t gel with the truly depressing outcome. I was really hopeful since it’s directed by David Gordon Green, who has more hits than misses books, but … I’m not sure about this one, and I’d love to read up on the actual situation.
Next up I saw Mr. Right, which is basically a really dumb story about a kooky girl falling in love with a charming hitman. And vice versa. It doesn’t matter how dumb it is though, because Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell are so incredibly charming, charismatic, likeable and delightful to watch that the film ends up being greater than the sum of its parts, and very funny and enjoyable.
My final film of the day might end up being one of my faves of the fest. Basically the feel-good film of the year, Born to Dance is a dance film from New Zealand that manages to be incredibly fun and fresh in spite of having pretty much the same plot as every other dance film since the dawn of cinema. There are a few key differences that made it stand out, mind you: it’s about Maori teens, it features an openly gay character (who is a total badass and not at all a stereotype), plus, actually, an entire gay dance crew who totally rock out in the film’s big dance championships finale. The lead actor is so adorable and the film is such a heart-warmer that I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.
Post-movies, I met up with Colin and a friend (who also happens to be our L.A. lawyer – we need one of those cuz we fancy) for dinner near the Royal, so that we could give him a tour of the cinema and enjoy some downtime in a non-TIFF neighbourhood. It felt so nice. I miss home!
I came back to the hotel, ready to go to bed early and get a great night’s rest, and then felt the familiar and unwelcome tickle of a sore throat. The dread TIFF cold! HOW COULD I POSSIBLY BE GETTING IT WHEN I HAVE TAKEN IT SO EASY!? Seems unfair, doesn’t it? I haven’t even been hung over once!
Another one-film day full of non-TIFF responsibilities. Another hard-to-reschedule-and-inconveniently-timed appointment, another screening of an even more new & improved version of Birdland, and in between an extravagant lunch at the CN Tower’s rotating 360 restaurant with a big crew of Midnight Madness directors.
The food was delicious, the company was lovely, I got a chance to meet the 100 directors of Southbound and the lovely gents who directed Lace Crater and The Girl in the Photographs, both of which I was really charmed by. I never go up to the top of the CN Tower (and why would any Torontonian, unless they’re entertaining out of towner friends or family from abroad?) but it’s a lovely reminder of just how green this city is. The director of Der Nachtmahr said that he had no idea Toronto was so “science fiction”. I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but he clearly meant it as a compliment.
I really needed to take it easy on Wednesday because I hadn’t gotten nearly enough sleep the night before, so instead of trying to push myself to see any films or get anything done, I just relaxed until dinner time and then snagged rare private time with Colin, who had a two hour window before Midnight to eat with me and have a drink with the Southbound crew, who were doing it right at the Imperial Pub (aka the only decent place to drink that’s a stone’s throw from from the Ryerson (and by “decent” I mean “a great dive”)).
I’d seen a rough version of Southbound during Colin’s programming process and really liked it, especially the all-the-stories-are-actually-connected structure of it (disconnected stories are the one thing that often turns me off of anthologies, though there are lots that I do like, V/H/S (by the same producing team) included). But, even though I’d seen it before, seeing it again with all the effects done, and a great score and really effectively scary sound design, I have to admit I was legitimately scared several times. Kudos to Roxanne Benjamin, the only female director in Midnight Madness 2015, for not only directing a segment but also producing this joint. What a badass babe.
A highly successful one movie day. They don’t all have to be endurance tests, y’know?
Tuesday was the first of two “reminder: you aren’t out of town, you actually live here and have responsibilities” days in a row. In the morning I had a doctor’s appointment (don’t worry, I’m fine, it was just one of those things I booked ages ago and would have a hard time rescheduling, so …), followed by a screening of the latest cut of Birdland for some of our post production partners, so that we could hammer out a bit of a schedule for getting our post done in time to submit to some early 2016 festivals.
It was great to see the cut on the big screen again, because it gave me just enough perspective and distance to have a few new thoughts about how it’s going (somehow seeing it on a computer doesn’t always have that same effect). I had to let those thoughts percolate for a while and hop back downtown to meet up with Tim Reis (our favourite Atlantan, who Colin & I met and first got involved with when he produced The Demon’s Rook a few years back) and another producer friend to talk about where Tim’s directorial debut is at. It’s at “very close to finished”, is where, but we’re looking for a bit of help to tie up the last of the loose ends before this baby is ready to hit the festival and sales circuits.
After a pleasant lunch / meeting / catch-up session with Tim & co (during which we got some great advice on how to proceed with finishing the film), I met up with an NYC-based friend / colleague who works at Kickstarter. We were mostly meeting up to catch up, chat movies and hang out (because he’s a lovely guy, why else?), but Colin was able to make a rare appearance in between intros & Q&As and we managed to also talk a tiny bit of business. Over drinks and onion rings poutine, of course.
By the end of this marathon day of meetings I was honestly ready to collapse into a heap, but instead I hoofed it over to the Imperial Pub at Dundas and Victoria for drinks with the entire crew from the telekinesis-revenge film The Mind’s Eye, before the premiere of their film. Pro-tip for anyone attending Midnight Madness: the Imperial may be an out of the way dive, but upstairs at that bar is where you’ll find all the coolest Midnight Madness filmmakers and guests drinking before the show.
I hadn’t seen a single film yet and I was so stoked to finally see the finished version of The Mind’s Eye that I didn’t even need a coffee to stay alert throughout. So many laughs and cheers! Such good times. And honestly, those guys are the MVPs of the fest, for not only attending their own film but also every other film in the Midnight section (and then some) for the whole fest. I love it when filmmakers support each other. It is the cutest and most heartwarming and makes this whole genre film scene feel like a real, international community (which, at the best of times, it is). ❤
I did something really fun on Monday. I saw three public screenings in a row. The public audience at TIFF is great for a lot of reasons. They tend to be quite respectful of the films (sure, sometimes someone talks or pulls a cell phone out but it’s about 95% less likely to happen than it would on an average Friday night at the Cineplex). They’re genuinely interested in the films, so they’re attentive, and they’re fun to chat with in the lineup before the movie or as you shuffle out afterwards. People gasp, cheer, cry, laugh and express their enjoyment (something I often miss with P&I crowds, especially when it comes to funny movies). Sure, Q&As always have the potential to be cringe-worthy when pompous cinephiles insist on sharing their comments-not-questions or when people ask dumb or inappropriate things, but for the most part public audiences are a lot more fun and invigorating.
Aside / note to Q&A question askers: I know I’ve said this before, but I will say it again. Don’t ask filmmakers what their budget was. It might seem like a pretty innocuous question to you and it’s only natural to be genuinely interested in what level of resources were required to make something you’re really impressed by, but there are lots of reasons why filmmakers will never actually give you a straight answer to this question. If their film is looking for distribution, they don’t want to reveal what it cost to make to potential buyers because it could affect the price that they’re offered. They could be devaluing their film by admitting it was cheaper than it looks, for example. Don’t put people in the awkward position of having to politely sidestep this question. Just don’t ask. You might be able to get filmmakers to reveal this info in private but a public Q&A just isn’t the place.
Anyway. First up was Chevalier, by Attenberg director Athina Rachel Tsangari. It’s a funny and slightly absurd but enormously enjoyable dismantling of the male ego. The story centres around a group of friends on a diving vacation who invent a game intended to determine who among them is “the best” (at everything). Which is the kind of game that will inevitably chip away at their confidence, their friendships, and their sense of self. Great stuff from Greece!
Next up I saw what is probably my favourite crime drama of the year (or longer), The Ardennes. In the setup, a takes the fall for a crime that was committed by him, his girlfriend and his brother. Cut to four years later, he’s getting out of jail and his brother and (sort-of-ex) girlfriend have to contend with his return. A simple and not wildly original setup that unfurls into a really smart, unexpected and very dark story. I can’t recommend this one highly enough. It’s “top ten of 2015” material, easily.
Last but certainly not least, I saw Schneider vs. Bax, the latest by Borgman director Alex van Warmerdam. The story (about two hitmen who have been hired to kill each other) is less strange than Borgman, but is definitely darkly comic and mildly absurd, which I think is the director’s steez.
It was an overwhelmingly successful movie-watching day, made even better by the fact that I could then trudge off to the hotel and be in bed long before the midnight show let out. A sane and healthy TIFF continues, at least in my neck of the woods.