When you think of your dream job does writing, directing, acting and producing come to mind? I think I heard a few yes’ in the crowd but for most, it is a daunting suggestion. At one point when I was younger I picked up juggling. I could juggle three apples and take a bite out of them without stopping. Then one day I began to eat the apple after I stopped juggling. It was so much easier. If you do something the same way all the time, where’s the art in it? Give me a can of controlled chaos and I’ll cook you up a solution soup.
Camille Hollett-French is an award-winning Trinidadian-Canadian actor, writer and director. Camille is currently showing her latest project, Her Story (In Three Parts) in festivals around the world.
One of her three films Hush Little Baby won the Special Jury Innovation Award at the Awareness Festival 2018 in Los Angeles, the Best Debut prize at the Discover Film Awards 2018 in London, and the £20,000 Grand Craghoppers Film Prize at the Discover Film Awards 2018 in London. She also won Best Writer at the 2018 Oslo Independent Film Festival. Pretty darn good for her first time out of the writer/director gates.
We couldn’t wait to speak with her and on this particular day, the stars and planets aligned to make it so.
“You went to journalism school in your earlier years. Did you find that it has helped you to become a better writer?”
“It’s funny because the whole time I was in journalism school I was miserable. Every day I would tell myself that this is my last day and I don’t want to be here anymore. I held out to the end and now I’m grateful every day for finishing it. It’s really formed the way I write stories. I enrolled in journalism school not because I wanted to be a journalist but because I felt I still had more to learn about story structure and the craft of writing. It’s helped me so much in my writing/screenwriting and also in my daily life; connecting and communicating with other people. I’ve always been a writer. It was the first art form I started with. Once you understand the rules of writing it’s a whole new world.”
“You have all three short films circulating in the festivals. Are you presenting them as a trilogy?”
“We’re not against showing them as a trilogy but so far they’ve had success on their own. Hush Little Baby has been in four festivals and In The Absence of Angels had its double world premiere in Florida and Utah. A Simple Act is the last film we did and we will be starting its festival circuit in the coming weeks.”
“Did you write these three films back to back?”
“It’s actually hard to remember from the time I had started them to when I finished the others. I tend to write in my head before I put anything down and I won’t start writing until I have a good sense of the story and until I can see it. They all happened around the same time, in early 2017. They started as their own stories but then they began to meld together and this common vein would start to show itself. There’s so much to enjoy from conception to completion.”
“You wore so many hats in the making of these three films, including acting.”
“I knew it was going to be hard but something inside me told me I needed to do this now! I pulled up my bootstraps and said ‘drop me in.’ Performing all those roles really opened up a part of my consciousness that allowed me to see how far I could push myself. It also caused me to utilize my brain capacity in a different way; for instance, on set you’re acting, directing and producing, so you’re calling cut, acting in the scene and at the same time noticing out of the corner of your eye, a garbage can that needs to be moved out of way. I had to literally put on my acting hat, take it off and put on my directing hat, then producing then writing. It was exciting and liberating in so many ways. I believe it gave me a new lease on life.”
“Did you always have this tenacity from a young age?”
“I don’t know if I realized it but I’m sure my mother did. I’ve always been someone that has either done extremely well or completely bombed at something and have always lived with those extremes. You’re appreciated when you succeed and considered a write-off when you fail. When I look back at my childhood I realize that I’m a director. I think I’ve always been a risk taker. I’ve always been a thinker. I didn’t know if I’d actually be able to finish the films but the fact that I did is something I’m very grateful for. I think every person out there has something they’re good at. My partner and I took that belief with us when we started our production company. We want to help people find their purpose. We want to create spaces for people to thrive.”
“Since you started your career as an actress, what was the ignition to drive you to writing, directing and producing?”
“Growing up watching movies like Schindler’s List and Legends of The Fall made me feel something. As an artist I’ve always been so eager to feel something and movies have always been that. It wasn’t until recently that I felt like I can do this. When you think about making films it seems like an astronomical obstacle to overcome and it is. There is so much work and so many elements that have to fall into place to make it happen. I’m just so happy that I’m able to play an intricate part of my favourite media. I think growing up being a visual artist and being in drama class, music class and other classes have all helped to make me a better director. Although I’m not picking up a paint brush, my visual style has become much sharper.”
“With all your past experience in the industry, when you embarked on producing did you reach out to anyone for guidance?”
“Yes I did. Robbin McDonnell was a Production Manager on a cult horror film we did about six years ago called Kingdom Come. We kept in touch over the years and when we were shooting Hush Little Baby in Toronto I brought Robbin on and she clicked really well with our producer Anthony J. Baldwin and the team. It was the three of us that produced it together and we had a great working relationship. Robbin also came on for movie number three, which was In The Absence of Angels. A good team is so helpful in any industry but even more in film because there’s always a time constraint. If you can have that language with someone, no matter what position it is then it makes things run much smoother, so it was really good to have Robbin on-board.
“In terms of production, were these stories produced in numerical order in which you wrote them?”
“They were all written around the same time and when we were looking for programs and such they had all been already written. I’d submitted all three scripts to the Young Emerging Actors Assembly (YEAA) program for young emerging artists and they said ‘great’, let’s pick one to shoot, so I chose the second one, Hush Little Baby because it was the easiest to execute. It’s basically a two-hander and takes place in one location and a short shoot. I think I would’ve been way over my head if I tried to do one and three first because there are more locations and characters. With the second film we were able to focus on the core of the story, which is the relationship between two people. There are some things I probably would’ve done differently but we did end up winning a huge prize for it so I can’t really fault anything we did because it’s all part of the process that’s gotten us exactly where we are now.”
“Where did you find financing for the films?”
“We actually funded all three ourselves. We could’ve waited but I knew we had to hit then so we found a way to jump in right away. We did get help from YEAA and they covered most of our equipment for Hush Little Baby but we still had to fund a lot of it. We ended up funding all three films in one year including flying myself all over the place to get them done.”
“Are you able to briefly explain the inspiration behind each story?”
“I always find it hard to answer this question because I don’t think anyone ever sits down to see what’s going to get the creative juices going. What I tend to do as a creator is try my very best to listen. I’ll listen to the sounds of the street as I walk down it, listening to my server as she talks to someone else and listening to yourself in reference to what you’re really feeling and thinking. When you listen objectively with your whole heart it allows for growth and it allows for you to continue down the path of ‘what if’. The question of ‘what if’ is very necessary in writing, acting and directing. I don’t want to be dramatic but with Hush Little Baby, it was a vision that popped into my head. I saw this man in a cold grey room wearing an orange jumpsuit with a woman sitting across from him with glass separating them. They’re both looking at each other with so much sadness and they’re not saying anything but there’s so much said between them. That really set me up pretty good visually. We shot it in a very simple way.”
“Did you shoot Hush Little Baby in an actual jail?”
“I wish, we went through months of trying to get permission. There are only three locations in the Toronto area where everyone shoots prison scenes. That year, one was taken off the list because of asbestos, another one was partially renovated for the space that we needed and the third was torn down. All of our prison options were gone. A week before shooting I had gone to look at Legions because many of them have a great look that matches a prison setting. I was speaking with a manager of one in Etobicoke when he told me he had another space to show me. We walked across the street to an apartment building that he owned. He took me down to the basement and it worked. It was perfect and one of the rooms was completely empty because they were going to renovate it. Within ten days, our producer Robbin and fiancé Greg A. Sager saved our butt. Greg built a prison set inside his apartment in London Ontario, which is three hours away. Then my brother-in-law drove a large truck to pick it up and delivered it to our set and we reassembled it. Greg did a phenomenal job. It looks just like a prison setting.”
“Did the good luck continue with the other films?”
“In the Absence of Angels was a little simpler. We shot outside and inside an apartment and we had a great PM who works and produces out of Montreal. We were able to shoot on the grounds of an elementary school and high school on a Sunday. The permits in Montreal were easy to get and not expensive. We were also able to find an apartment so it worked out pretty well. With A Simple Act, it was similar to Hush Little Baby in that we needed a hospital. They run 24-7 so it was nearly impossible. We ended up renting a space at Sprott Shaw College and aesthetically turned it into a hospital with a waiting room. They teach a nursing program there so they even had medical equipment we could use. Our chairs were given to us for free from a company in the city. We needed fifty for the waiting room and when we went to pay for them, they told us not to worry about it. We really had some good luck and in the end we got what we wanted, it looked like a hospital. We had an amazing production designer, Lillian Melo. She did a great job.”
“When you created these films, was it with the intent of sending a message or was it to tell an interesting story?”
“My only goal as a filmmaker is to make people feel something. What you end up feeling is up to you. It’s not my job to tell you what to think or feel, nor is it to help you to feel. I’m just set out to make stories that are memorable and make people go, ‘aha, oh yeah I’ve been there, oh yeah I know that person.’ It’s my goal to be truthful. I think when we get into writing a story and creating a script we need to make a commitment to truth and it’s my job to go out there and find it.”
“Did you research all three subjects before making each film?”
“I did, especially with Hush Little Baby because there’s more dialogue and it has the makings of something that can be more gripping because of the dialogue. Specific words are put there based on the realities of prison life and what happens to a relationship when one of them is in prison. My research involved speaking to police officers, people working in the judicial system and people that worked inside prisons. I asked them about different scenarios and what would happen in each event. I was given a huge compliment by one of the officers attending a screening. He said the resemblance was uncannily real in regards to the way the guard spoke, the interaction and the authenticity. It was such a huge compliment.”
“Do you feel moving forward that you’d like to focus on one aspect of filmmaking. Be it directing, writing, acting or producing?”
“I want to do it all. Whatever the project needs from me I’ll keep doing that and keep building on it. My ideal career would be like the Duplass Brothers because they do these really heart-felt, authentic, hilarious, awkward and very humble films. They’re acting, writing, directing, and producing. It’s really a dream job.”
“What is the best thing about making films?”
“I think it’s the fact that you can internalize a piece of yourself. It’s there for eternity. It’s also the fact that it’s so far reaching. I really love the problem solving aspect of it. When something is really hard to get done on set, it’s not impossible and so I will always tell my team, we better get a hard no before we move on. I don’t want to wonder down the road if we hadn’t tried a different way to do something else, could we have done that.”
This was an incredible interview with a tenacious artist. Her ambition in a can makes any energy drink fall short. We celebrate her success and look forward to more films from the effervescent Camille Hollett-French.