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“Women Are Often Seen as a Risk while Men are an Investment”: Ingrid Veninger on Porcupine Lake and her pUNK Films Femmes Labs

Porcupine Lake

Porcupine Lake is the sixth feature from pUNK Films founder Ingrid Veninger. It’s also the first from the pUNK Films Femmes Labs, which started as a DIY idea of gathering six Canadian female filmmakers to work on their six screenplays for six months to reality — courtesy of Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, who happened to hear Veninger’s pitch for funding at the Whistler Film Festival and immediately sign on as sponsor.

The film itself feels like a throwback to the early heady (not to mention pre-tech, as there’s not a smartphone-glued character in sight!) days of low-key/low-budget independent film. It’s a cinematic coming-of-age tale that follows two preteens, Bea from Toronto and Kate from the summer cottage town in rural Ontario where the film is set, as they navigate everything from sex and sexuality and troubled parents who often act like children to older siblings with troubles of their own. In other words, it’s a small story that captures life’s momentous changes and adult consequences. Filmmaker was fortunate enough to catch up with the Slovakian-Canadian actor/producer/writer/director prior to the flick’s TIFF premiere. (Porcupine Lake has additional screenings tomorrow, Thursday and Friday at the festival.)

Filmmaker: Since this is the first film to come out of the pUNK Films Femmes Lab I’m wondering how the Lab affected your latest creation. How is Porcupine Lake different from your prior work, both in terms of process and outcome?

Veninger: When I opened my laptop and sat down to write a new screenplay in January 2014, my intention was to write a juicy role for Melissa Leo. But scenes of two 13-year-old girls sharing secrets, seeking pleasure, taking risks, grabbed hold of me. Or was I grabbing hold of them? It’s hard to know which way it goes sometimes. After reading the first draft Melissa said, “It’s a story every woman carries inside her.” For me, her vote of confidence was huge. And the pUNK Films Femmes Lab was key because the six of us shared our outlines, doubts, treatments, fears, scenes, desires, scripts – and we would challenge and champion each other. We were writing the films we wanted to see in the world.

In terms of my prior work, if there’s is one overarching theme, it is a set of questions in and around the nature of authenticity. What is authenticity? Is there such a thing? If we can be in some way authentic, does that mean we are more in the real world? Are our relationships deeper, more intimate? And how do we search for authenticity, or know it, or even feel it briefly? My interest in authenticity informs how I shoot, because I need the process of making a film to be, in and of itself, authentic. I want the process to engage my real life in an authentic and meaningful way. And in presenting my films to audiences, I want them to feel that they have experienced something of the real as well.

Filmmaker: How did you find your young lead actresses? (I’m guessing Melissa Leo approves of these performances!) Charlotte Salisbury and Lucinda Armstrong Hall are both wonderful to watch, and Salisbury, with her thoroughly nuanced portrayal of Bea, especially looks like she’s got a long career ahead of her.

Veninger: Casting happened for a solid 18 months in collaboration with casting director Michael Yerxa. We wanted to hire northern Ontario locals in supporting roles, so we knew it would become impossible to have union actors in the film. Unlike SAG Indie, ACTRA does not allow hybrid productions (mixing union and non-union cast), except for student projects or big scale productions that can pay to permit the non-union performers. Porcupine Lake was low budget, and with over 30 speaking parts we would have to go 100% non-union. We went through agents, posted online, and did grassroots open calls with auditions in Toronto and Coldwater, Ontario. We saw close to 100 girls for the lead roles.

In November 2014, Charlotte Salisbury traveled with her mother from Windsor, Ontario to Toronto. It was Charlotte’s first audition. She was 13. She was self-conscious about her thick-lensed glasses, and apologized that her contacts weren’t ready. I loved her glasses. She drew a picture of her family, and we talked about her favorite Broadway musical (Hamilton) and her favorite food (tacos). Then she did a scene. Her behavior was awkward and honest. She listened deeply, handled the text naturally, and took direction. She was my first choice for Bea. I only hoped she would not be too old by the time we had all our funding secured. Most 14-year-olds I auditioned were already too savvy.

In March 2015, I attended the Melbourne Queer Film Festival with my fifth feature, He Hated Pigeons. I invited a childhood friend who I had not seen in 10 years. She asked if she could bring her 13-year-old daughter Lucinda. I still had not found a young actress to play the role of Kate, but never in a million years did I think I would find her in Australia. After the screening I met Lucinda, and the following day we went to the beach, getting into conversations about directing and acting. I asked her to read my script, and that if she liked it she should pick five scenes and I would return to read with her. The role of Kate requires a tough exterior mixed with vulnerability, so emotional range and craft is key. Lucinda effortlessly slipped into a Canadian accent, and found her moments between the lines. When I called home to say I found my Kate in Melbourne everyone thought I had lost my mind. But she was the one.

Filmmaker: Regarding the Lab, how did you choose the other five female filmmakers to work with? Besides being a Canadian filmmaker (with at least one writing or directing credit), and the ability to make a six-month commitment, what else specifically were you looking for from the submissions you received?

Veninger: The idea for the pUNK Films Femmes Lab started when I was at the Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina in November 2013. Filmmaker Josephine Decker organized a breakfast, inviting female filmmakers to eat and real-talk about how we make our movies. I was inspired to be at the table because these were filmmakers who were on the front lines of making films, consistently.

Outside of a handful of female filmmakers in Canada, I would often see a solid debut feature by a female director but no follow-up. Where was the second, third, fourth feature? Of course there can be many reasons for not continuing — money, family, health, a different career path — but I wanted to galvanize with female writer-directors who unequivocally wanted to keep going and perhaps felt a little beaten down. I was looking for hunger and urgency.

When I received an award at the Whistler Film Festival in December 2013 from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, I made a pitch for the pFFL (pUNK Films Femmes Lab) at the podium. When Melissa Leo stood up it was sealed. I posted a notice on Facebook for submissions and received over 20. I watched all the first features, and based on my gut and a desire to have a diverse group of women from different parts of Canada, with different cinematic aesthetics, I made the final selection. We met from January to June 2014, rotating leadership roles each month, and holding steadfast to delivering six scripts to Melissa Leo in July. It was an invigorating circle to be a part of, with Anais Granofsky, Danishka Esterhazy, Michelle Latimer, Mars Horodyski, and Sophie Deraspe.

Filmmaker: I realize that the Lab is geared towards empowering female screenwriters, but I would venture to guess that financing (or rather lack thereof) plays the biggest role in the fact that women written-and-directed films are so underrepresented at film festivals and in theaters. Are you planning on tackling the male-dominated money issue as well?

Veninger: Ah, this is a big question and opens up a zillion tabs in my brain. Women are often seen as a risk, while men are an investment. I read this in a Forbes article last year, “Men are offered the presumption of competence regardless of experience. Women are considered a risk regardless of experience.”

I am a director. I make films. I can write them and produce them, so I’m not waiting for anyone’s “greenlight.” Would I like someone else to do all the producing work someday? Sure. Would I like a bigger budget so I can have, um – a dolly? Sure. Would I like to have an art department, or an AD, and transportation, and a locations team? Absolutely. But I’m not going to let budget limitations stop me from making a movie.

Right after my first feature — and to this day — people say, “I’d love to see what you’d do with a ‘real budget.’” Well, show me the money and you’ll find out. I’ve seen many friends get stuck in development for years with their $5 million feature, even with “name cast” attached. Waiting for permission does not turn me on. I don’t want to be talking about making movies. I want to be making them. Bigger, stronger, faster is cool, and that costs money both in the making and marketing. Smaller, heartfelt, direct-source art is cool, too.

Film festivals offer us a shot to reach an audience. A world premiere at TIFF means lots of eyeballs on our films from media, industry and audience. TIFF is a platform that can be leveraged whether you have a micro-budget feature, or a blockbuster. Would I like to see more films helmed by women in the world at large? Absolutely. And I want to see the stories from a diverse wealth of experience, not just the “emerging new voices.” If you’re 40 or 50 and you want to make a movie — do it! I made my first feature at 40 and spent my 30’s being a mom and producing films for other people. If you’ve got a story, tell it. Be unstoppable. Financial sustainability in a male-dominated industry is a different issue, and you’ll need to buy me a pitcher for that conversation.

Filmmaker: So on a completely different subject, I just saw that the Whistler Film Festival will be premiering The Other Side of Porcupine Lake, your “making of” doc about the film. Why did you decide to produce a behind-the-scenes look as well?

Veninger: Good question. Why would I give complete freedom and full access to another filmmaker, and invite them to capture the process from prep through production and into post-production? Well, it required a lot of trust. The director, Julian Papas, had never made a feature, but he was a former student and we had similar tastes in cinema. I knew he could shoot and edit, so he was a one-person documentary crew, which was key because I didn’t want extra people on set.

The main reason I decided to produce a full feature, behind-the-scenes documentary, alongside the fictional narrative, was for the young cast to have an archive of the whole experience. As we know, our industry can be results-oriented, and fixations can fall on reviews, awards, box office, which are things I can’t control. But I could control an atmosphere inside which we made a movie, and I wanted to preserve that for both the cast and crew. Cassavetes said, “What matters is the doing, the learning, the scrambling, the growing, the discoveries along the way. The work itself is the tracks left behind as the artist moves through a set of challenges, stimulating experiences. A historical record of a series of choices.” I wanted a record of the choices.

Porcupine Lake is not so different from how I made my other five features — it’s always immersive and intimate and bonding. We shot in the summertime, in Ontario’s cottage country. Together we shared cabins and outdoor meals every night. Of course it’s tough to distill four months of prep, three weeks of production, and months of post into an 85-minute movie, but Julian captured the energy of it. So for anyone who is interested in DIY filmmaking, or for people who are curious to see how we made the fiction, The Other Side of Porcupine Lake is an honest look behind the scenes. The Whistler Film Festival in December will be the first time the two features are presented side-by-side, but it would be fun if more festivals go for it in 2018, and ultimately it will be great to have the sister films together online.

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