If you want to know what the status of the filmmaking industry is, you don’t ask your stunt double, you ask a pro like Anne Wheeler. She was a filmmaker before seatbelts and politically correctness was a thing. Carving out a path in her early twenties that led to filmmaking at a time when it was a man’s world. Filmmaking has evolved and we are seeing more and more female driven, directed and produced films that provide more perspective on cinema and the Arts. Anne Wheeler is a Canadian icon, one of our sacred treasures, a trailblazer and the salt of the earth.
Anne might be known for Bye Bye Blues or her many independent films, TV success or her mentoring of new filmmakers/directors. As a master story-teller, her work to date has garnered seven honorary doctorates and an Order of Canada. She was mesmerizing to talk to and her ‘pearls of wisdom’ are for every new and well-versed filmmaker to absorb. Times may have changed but great storytelling should always be front and center. If we’re going to flip the script, then we need more funding and amazing writers, like Anne Wheeler.
Taken by the Muse: On the Path to Becoming a Filmmaker is Anne’s first book.
Laced with humour and revelation, Anne Wheeler’s creative non-fiction stories tell of her serendipitous journey in the seventies, when she broke with tradition and found her own way to becoming a filmmaker and raconteur. This book is a must-read for anyone open to exploring the possibilities of who they are and what they might do with their lives – and for those who love a good story told with integrity and warmth. An intriguing story that will speak to you, influence you and make you question your path to happiness. Who are you doing it for and are you in it for the right reasons? Only this book can help to answer that.
This was an outstanding interview with so many great stories, advice, lessons and wisdom shared throughout it.
HNMAG “You’re known for your directing and filmmaking, and now you’ve written a novel entitled, Taken by the Muse: On the Path to Becoming a Filmmaker. What can readers expect from the book?”
ANNE “It’s really a series of short, stand-alone stories that are all turning points in my early adulthood about taking risks and making mistakes. There were people that inspired me, to not let other people define who I was or what I was going to do with my life. I graduated from mathematics before taking music in university and then became a high school music teacher but found that I wasn’t being satisfied enough. I had a deep wanderlust, so I took what I had saved and took off around the world for 3 years, when I was in my twenties. The first story starts in Kenya, Africa – then Tanzania. It was a very momentous journey for me because it opened my entire perspective on life and I was introduced to so many different cultures and histories without getting locked into the North American or European point of view. I often travelled on my own and many times, didn’t know where I was going to sleep, so I had that ability to go with the flow, to fend for myself/keep myself safe. In that particular story, my car breaks down in the middle of the night and I’m rescued by a small village that takes me into their compound. We ended up coming together by sharing our stories. So, it’s about the importance of stories and how they define us. It was the time that I had initiated myself as a storyteller.”
HNMAG “When did the fascination with film happen?”
ANNE “The day after I came home from my journey, one of my friends from university were getting married. At the wedding, some of my university friends told me about a film they were making and they needed an on-camera personality. The idea of being a filmmaker never entered my mind, but there I was – almost the day after returning home on set. I looked around and it just clicked… this is great! I found filmmaking better than acting, because you can get into the sense and purpose of the project. For a few years, we formed a collective but paid ourselves nothing. We put out about 40 films and it really became our film school because there wasn’t any at the time. We would rotate through the roles – I would take sound, be an editor or do the writing and we stayed together for about 6 years and it taught us how to make a film and how to tell a story. There were two in the group that had gone to film school but the rest of us really learned by doing. We put all the money we made into cameras, editing equipment, lights and sound. At the 6th year, it became clear that some of us wanted our own unique voice. I was the only woman in the bunch, which meant some of my subjects weren’t that interesting to the guys. They were beginning to think about ways they could turn it into a lucrative business by making safety films, corporate films and anything else to stay afloat. A late coming member eventually bought everyone out and created a distribution of education and documentary films (Film West Distribution ). He kept that going until just recently.”
HNMAG “It’s amazing the areas of filmmaking people are drawn to. Were you immediately drawn to directing?”
ANNE “I love technology and I love science; I think it was a good fit for me because you have to be eclectic to be a filmmaker – you can’t just be artistic, you need to know the craft, the lenses and the microphones. You need to know your tools and I was always fascinated by that. I have 3 older brothers that were always working on their cars and I’d always be under the car wanting to help change the oilor work on the engine. I always thought it was neat to understand how things worked. It was my sense of purpose that kept me going. One of the stories in the book is about this old woman that I meet after she realizes she only has a short time to live and she wants her story saved. If she can’t hand it off to someone, it will never be known. That was a really important experience for me, to have that huge responsibility as a storyteller. It became my quest to tell as many stories I could tell before they’re lost and if I can’t, to pass them along to someone else to tell.”
HNMAG “I’ve read that you prefer non fiction. Do you write in non fiction?”
ANNE “I love anything that is seeded in the truth. This book is written about myself in the ‘70’s, almost 50 years ago, so it’s called creative, non fiction. I remember certain important moments of truth that have always stayed with me. I have to create a story around that, knowing that it came from a conversation, even though I can’t remember the entire conversation. The turning points in the story are all true; my car did break down, in a forest in Tanzania where trucks drive at great speeds with their lights off. I was found trying to push it out of the ruts. My descriptions are what I vaguely remember, but I build on that. There’s a lot of research that goes along with the writing, to reorientate myself with that time and place.”
HNMAG “How long did it take you to create the book?”
ANNE “The book is an interesting evolution. I’ve always been a storyteller, whether I’m in the back of a van scouting for locations or talking to an actor about the character they’re playing. I’ve always used stories to teach and these are all parables, with an undercurrent of that, they’re stories I’ve used. I went to meet Rajneesh, the orange guru, who many people were familiar with, because of his Netflix show, The Wild Wild West – which was about his cult and his following. I was there early on when there weren’t very many non-Indians in the ashram. I learned something very important there – it came at the right time. I had left the collective and had ventured out to India in search of where my parents lived during the 1930s. I ended up going to visit some friends that were at the ashram and I ended up staying for quite some time. What I took away from that experience, I use in my work. When you become a filmmaker, you have to learn your craft, you have to have a sense of purpose and know which stories you want to tell. You also have to remain in control of your ego, get people to work with you and bring out the best in them, as well as exercise your awareness. India really helped to reconfirm what kind of person I wanted to be, what kind of director I wanted to be. India really slowed me down, it allowed me to be more thoughtful and find my own style of directing.”
HNMAG “I’ve heard of other artists thanking India for inspiration as well
ANNE “It’s so easy in this society, to get caught up in the competition, making money, getting to the market, winning prizes and all these other accolades, used to measure one’s success. It starts to feel pretty empty if all you do is win prizes and money, so you start to ask yourself – why am I here and why am I doing this? I’ve been blessed with some talents, I’ve had a privileged upbringing living in Canada, in a good home with a good education. I believe there’s a certain responsibility there and if you get caught up feeding your ego or pocketbook, it will lead to depression and you won’t stand the test of time. People say to me, ‘God, you’ve been making films for 50 years’ and I tell them I still have many more to tell… if I don’t, nobody else will.”
HNMAG “You’ve been quoted as saying, ‘we need our storytellers and I guess that role in our society is disappearing for the reasons they were originally told – to keep track of who we were and what we believed and where we are going.’ Do you still feel that way?”
ANNE “It’s certainly something I’ll say over and over again. In all of the Arts right now, it seems like the marketplace has taken over. Even in our science, research is being done on drugs that will sell. If there’s a cancer that’s not affecting many people, then the research is set aside and they’ll do research that people will make money on. There’s such an emphasis on money and market right now. Our Arts in Canada are not given the worth and respect they deserve. We are so overwhelmed with making American productions, when very little Canadian film is being made. Partly, It’s because we can’t afford to compete in terms of locations and actors. Big American productions come in and can outbid us – of course, our crew members and actors are grateful to have the work. But our budgets for Canadian features are so low, it makes it difficult to find our place, to make feature films based on Canadian stories. If the story is great, it will more likely be made if “Canadian references” are taken out and you find an international star to get it made.When I made Bye Bye Blues, I had federal and provincial financing and I couldn’t have any Americans in it. It received funding because it was a Canadian story and an all Canadian cast. Nowadays, you don’t even go to public funding unless you have a couple stars and American distribution. All of that is more important than the story.”
HNMAG “You’re saying, it hasn’t gotten better?”
ANNE “I think it’s gotten worse for Canadian stories. You can make them but you can’t get them distributed. For new emerging filmmakers, it was also easier to make a short film and get them seen. Back in the day, there was always a short film before the feature. We used to also have more Canadian programming from CBC, where there were these 1-hour anthologies. I did 2 anthologies and directors across the country were asked to do 1 short story. We got to write it, develop it, cast it and pick the location – it was fantastic. There was also a 1 hr drama on CBC called, For the Record, where people were invited to come up with the issue, work with a writer to create a 1 hr. drama. It was on every Sunday night. Many of us had gotten our first experience directing actors and making fiction that way, but those avenues of just making a short film is much more limited now for Canadian filmmakers. These days, they will make a student film and then want to jump right into making a feature. I made over 25 short films before I made my first feature.”
Anne continued to express her great frustration with the Canadian film industry. She says, “film festivals are great for film exposure or getting your name out there, but they don’t make money. It’s about getting them launched into the theatres and the paying public; it’s a very difficult game. Another of my concerns is with new filmmakers – if you haven’t had any life experience, what are you going to make films about? I work with young, bright, creative, ambitious, excited people on set that’ve gone from high school to college/film school, then the set. They haven’t seen the world to broaden their horizons, they’ve been too focused on becoming a filmmaker. When I ask them what they want to make a film about, they’ll say they just want to be a film director. It would be much more satisfying if you have something to say or have a sense of what’s happening in the world, in order to have a response to that. You have to get out there to see how different people think – you can’t have all your characters talking the same way. In each story, you need to look through the eyes of each character and see their arc. You need to make each character arc very defined and dramatic to see that change happening within them.”
Anne also touches on how easy it is to make a film these days in comparison to the earlier days of filmmaking. It was very expensive for each shot, so there would be rehearsal for those long shots and you’d try to limit your shots. These days, she says the camera will keep rolling as they’re resetting for the shot to do it again and again and again. It’s a very different attitude toward, ‘the shot’ that you’re trying to achieve together.
HNMAG “Considering you’ve learned filmmaking through old school methods, do you still try to apply those methods when you come to a set?”
ANNE “I do and my job is to help everybody do what they do, the best way they know how to do it, while being aware of the actors, the set decs, the focus-pullers and all the different aspects of it coming together to make the production. You have to take it seriously and I still like my long takes, so when I say ‘CUT’, everyone knows we got it. There’s a sense that we were all in the moment together, everything clicked and everybody wants to cheer and say ‘We got it! It was a fantastic take! Let’s move on.’ That doesn’t happen too often anymore. There used to be 1 producer on a set, now there might be 20 standing at the monitor saying, ‘we want another one!’ TV is very different from making a film and most of us are working in TV, but you have to not let it destroy you. The fact is, the role of the director has been diminished in the last 10 years in TV. There’s a lot of producers, there’s showrunners, the writers are often on set and the showrunner might not like something and wants to change the dialogue… so you have this mixture of people with their own skillsets and as a director, you need to incorporate all that in order to come up with something that feels like we all worked it together. It’s different if you’re working on a MOW, you can have a director’s vision but in episodic television, you’re coming in as a guest and you’re one of several directors.”
HNMAG “Do you have a preference between filming in studio or shooting outside?”
ANNE “I always love location driven films. I love natural light and love the place being a character in the movie, however there are those situations where it’s more intimate and there’s more focus when you’re in control of the light and sound. Most films are a combination of the two. I always hope that a good portion of the movie is a location driven movie but we can go inside when we need that privacy and control over the environment.”
HNMAG “You have twin sons that are also working in film. What area of film do they work in?”
ANNE “I have one son Quincy Wheeler, that’s a wonderful 1st AD (assistant director) and is working all the time. He goes from one to the other to the other. My other son, Morgan has been working on Flash for several years in the rigging department where they’re always inventing different ways to get the camera into different places to get the shot. They both love their jobs very much but as twins, they strive to be different from each other, where their roles are concerned. I also have a stepson but he’s into International finance and lives in England, so he’s in a totally different racket. I have nieces and other relatives in the industry and I came from a family where doing the Arts for a living was not an option. It’s been a bit of a personal journey to break away from that. These days, I think it’s very tough to be an actor and to face rejection time after time. I don’t think I could handle it. With my success, I still have many screenplays sitting on my shelf unproduced. It’s still very hard to make a personal film in Canada. I had to face the same rejection as a first-time author of a book, when I was looking for a publisher. It was difficult to be turned down. If my child wanted to be an actor, I’d encourage them to have a plan B.”
HNMAG “If you could give your young self any advice, what would it be, if any?”
ANNE “Well I can’t change anything. I just feel very lucky to have lived what I did and I really want to reach a younger audience with my book. An older audience might think it’s nostalgic and think it’s a memoir – but it’s not a memoir, it’s something unique. In the book, I want to emphasize that everything you experience in life will feed you and it’s important to take risks, go down that road to the unknown, get lost and define yourself. Don’t always play it safe, otherwise you can miss out on those opportunities that are not only exciting, but more fulfilling opportunities that will lead to a more satisfying life. Some people have said that this is the funniest book I’ve read because I’ve gotten myself into some ridiculous situations… and in getting through those situations, I’ve always come out a better person for it.”
Anne was generous enough to expand on her young adulthood. “I suppose I could’ve defied my parents and gotten into the Arts right after graduation but my dad died in my grade 12 years and that made a huge difference in my life. I stayed with my mom until I graduated from university. I was a bit lost with what to do with myself and most of my friends were getting married at 21/22 but it didn’t feel right for me and I felt like a bit of a misfit. I’m glad I did because it pushed me to do things that weren’t expected of me and I got to see a great deal of the world. The best years of education were those few years of travelling. I was many things before I realized I loved being behind the camera and I loved to write. I’m going to make a few more films but I have a lot of stories and books all around me that I’d like to put into book form, because they can’t all be movies and I don’t know who else will do it. It’s been such a joy to find my voice again, because when you work in television and for other people, you try to give them what they want. My biggest hope for this book is that it really encourages people to find their own voice and own stories that people haven’t heard before.”
HNMAG “Before I let you go, I’d like to ask you a few fun questions. What’s your favourite 3 movies?”
ANNE “Oh my, I don’t think I can, there’s so many. Since the pandemic, I’ve gone back and watched so many films that I thought were fantastic… but now I find them very… slow. I’m sorry, but I don’t think I want to try and answer that (laughing).”
HNMAG “What would be one of your favourite guilty pleasures?”
ANNE “I don’t really feel guilty about anything… except things I obviously like to eat. I guess a guilty pleasure would be staying up all night and binge watching, not going to sleep and to keep thinking about… what there is to offer. I have people in my life that I’ll call at 2 am in New Guinea or other places in the world. I’ve always been a bit sleepless and only get between 5-6 hours a night.”
Anne wanted to mention that in truth, the pandemic is a tough time to launch a book and many of the bookstores haven’t gotten it in… but you can go to annewheeler.com, to get a signed copy. Anne says, “They can find it at my website and I’ll sign the copy being delivered to them.”