When we go to watch the movies, it’s usually for escapism… but then there’s the stories that draw you in, they encapsulate you and immerse you into the characters, their motivations, their reasons and their pain and triumphs. When you feel what the characters feel – that is outstanding acting and writing at its best. Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor should be a benchmark for family films. Society evolves and families must evolve with it. This film can act as a guide when confronting diversity, hate, indifference, acceptance and love in its many forms. Evolution is a great teacher but it can also be a cruel one in its lessons. Films can act like a beacon for change and Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor is capable of shining a light around the world.
Making great films that touch on most of our nerves and emotions can take years to master as a writer /director and as an actor. However, what Elvis is to music, Shelley Thompson is to filmmaking and Maya V. Henry is to acting. Both making their feature film debut, this film and this story brought them together, along with an incredibly talented cast. This film debuted March 4th at Cineplex theatres across Canada and has already won multiple awards.
Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor is a beautifully crafted film about a transgender woman that returns to her childhood home (dairy farm) in Nova Scotia to attend her mother’s funeral. Once there, family, friends and community members are compelled to confront their feelings about Dawn. The award-winning film stars trans Youtuber and actress Maya V. Henry as Dawn and Trailer Park Boys’ Robb Wells as her father, John Andrew in a notably different role for the actor who is best known as Ricky. The film is written, directed and produced by Shelley Thompson (Trailer Park Boys, Labyrinth) who is a champion of LGBTQ+ issues and mother to singer/songwriter T. Thomason. The film was 1 of 12 projects invited to the NY Writers Lab – supported by Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. The film was a sell-out at it’s Inside Out premiere and is currently on its festival run with a UK debut upcoming at the prestigious BFI Flare Festival in London.
The music for Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor was created by Nova Scotia Songwriters Rose Cousins and Breagh Isabel. Original songs for the film’s soundtrack include Get Home, Build Again, Hello Morning and Love Without Warning. Rose Cousins won a Juno in 2021 for her album BRAVADO heard in the film.
I had the extraordinary privilege of speaking with both amazingly talented ladies, writer/director/producer Shelley Thompson living in Falmouth, N.S. and actress Maya V. Henry living in Toronto. It was absolutely incredible. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “Congratulations Shelley on writing, directing and producing an incredible film. Where did this story come from?”
SHELLEY “I have a young trans son that began his transition as I was shifting my life from in front of the camera to behind it. At the time, he’d been working with an organization in Toronto called Egale. Much of his job was outreach work with trans people who had been kicked out of their homes and lost contact with their family. As we got to know more about the organizations, it coincided with my sons transitioning and it became clearer to me how much young trans people suffer unnecessarily with the loss of their families and communities. I’m a storyteller and I wanted to figure out how to tell a story that was more accessible and appropriate for families and communities, and that could also help to create a dialogue.”
HNMAG “Maya, this role is quite outside your wheelhouse. How did you prepare for the role?”
MAYA “Definitely. Prior to this film, I had only been in a short 10-minute film. I hadn’t done anything in comparison to the scope of this film. In order to prepare for it, I would meet Shelley on Zoom and we would go through the script together and discuss the meaningful moments. She would coach me through each scene, which really helped. On a technical level, she really helped me to get into the right headspace for the acting. As for the character of Dawn specifically, there are a lot of similarities that I’m able to draw from. I’m also from a small town and later moved to Toronto to transition and find my community. I’ve been back to my home town to see my family many times and there’s definitely a catch-up period, where not everyone understands – you go through some hiccups and have to deal with some negative people.”
HNMAG “When did pre-production begin and when did you start shooting it?”
SHELLEY “We started a few times and we hoped to shoot in 2019 but got held up. When we were ready to go the next time, Covid hit and we were pushed back again.
Prep started in July of 2020 and we started filming on August 8th. For me, the prep had started long before that. I had been looking for locations and working with my DP Kevin Fraser in terms of the look of the film and other things.”
HNMAG “Was this film shot entirely in the Maritimes?”
SHELLEY “Yes it was. We were pretty lucky too because we had great weather. We shot it in Windsor N.S., which isn’t far from where I live now and in Dartmouth, which is basically the other side of the harbour from Halifax. We also shot in Antigonish, N.S., where I lived for many years. It was when my child was in their early stages of the decision to transition. Antigonish is an interesting little town. They were incredibly supportive of the film, so I was glad to be back there. The film was perceived as happening in that town. The town and the county came on board and it’s an extraordinarily beautiful part of Nova Scotia – we’re very proud to have been able to shoot there.”
HNMAG “Maya, where do you live in relation to the film location?”
MAYA “I’m from Toronto. I’ve been there since 2013 and attended film school there but I’m originally from a small town, called Georgina in Ontario.”
HNMAG “How did you land the role in the film? Was it a regular audition?”
MAYA “Yes, I did an audition with Shelley as well as a reading with Rob (Wells). It was amazing and cool and eventually, I was lucky enough to hear back.”
SHELLEY “Just an FYI, Maya did get the role through her audition but she had been brought to our attention because of a short film she had been in, called For Nonna Anna. It was a winner at Sundance and is a pretty stunning short film. It was written and directed by Luis De Filippis. They live in Toronto as well and they’re doing some extraordinary work.”
HNMAG “They say that there are no small performance’s Maya. I think it’s incredible that you caught Shelley’s attention through your performance.”
MAYA “You just never know right? We shot it over three days, so it almost felt like a distant memory. When it came out to the festivals, it was overwhelming and now it’s brought me here – you never know where you’ll get your start.”
HNMAG “How long did it take to shoot the film?”
SHELLEY “We only had 18 days to shoot but there was also the prep before that.”
HNMAG “You’ve been in a great many productions but are probably best known for Trailer Park Boys. This film is quite a leap from past projects you’ve been involved in?”
SHELLEY “I was involved with The Trailer Park Boys for approx. 13 seasons, so it’s been a long time and it was a great opportunity. In saying that, I’ve been very fortunate to work on a lot of independent films here in Nova Scotia, as an actor. I’ve also made a lot of short films myself and it’s an ambition that came to me later in life. I’m trying to make hay while the sun is still shining.”
HNMAG “What has the audience reaction been with this film?”
MAYA “It’s been so amazing. Some people have been brought to tears. It was also amazing that I could have my friends and family there. I’ve heard from the trans community and some of my followers have reached out. The film has been able to educate people and because it’s family orientated, it’s a great movie to help share your experience. It’s been great to see those moments on screen and to have those realities reflected. It’s been nothing but great feedback and it’s made me so happy.”
HNMAG “What did your son think about the film Shelley?”
SHELLEY “He’s quite proud of it. We’re a mutual admiration society, he’s a singer/songwriter and one of his songs, Hope is the last song in the film. He loves the impact this film is having on his community, so I can’t think of anything better than that.”
HNMAG “Do you see yourself making another film on addressing trans issues?”
SHELLEY “I don’t know that I will. I think there are other voices better placed than mine. I do want to make myself available to the trans community as someone that is willing to help with information or even a leg up. I’m working with a couple of people at the moment and I’m excited about that. It’s all about amplifying voices that we haven’t heard, which I believe is important. I do have another film in development and the script is getting a lot of attention. (Laughing) I hope I live long enough to make it because it takes so long to make a film. It’s a very different story and a film that’s closer to my own world; women in my age group/older. I hope to keep making films until I’m put into a box with a camera.”
HNMAG “Were either of you able to attend any of the festivals in person?”
SHELLEY “Maya and I actually had a good time in Whistler, which was great. I am, however, a bit saddened by the state of the world and Covid, because we have two really significant festivals in March. One is the biggest LGBTQ film festivals in Holland. The Amsterdam Roze Filmdagen, which is our International premiere. From there, we go to London’s British Film Institute’s Flare. It’s one of the biggest in Europe and certainly the biggest in the UK. I wish we were touring there because I think the film will really have an audience in Europe. With everything wide open in the UK and considering my age being a few years older than Maya, it makes it risky to go. I was beginning to reconsider this week and brave it out but then Ukraine happened. I lived in the UK for a long time and Europe is very close. Given the current situation and shutting down the air space, I’d like to show solidarity by staying and supporting the Ukrainian people by any means necessary.”
HNMAG “Do you have distribution for the film?”
SHELLEY “We don’t yet but we’ve been self-distributing in Canada. It’s been a huge learning curve but it’s been really successful. We’ve had the film into a lot of independent cinemas and the number of bums on seats has been fantastic. It’s been very exciting but a lot of work. We’re also going to Crave at the end of March and we’ve had a lot of requests to have this film on a major streamer. We’re hoping the film will get picked up by Netflix, where Trailer Park Boys resides and because of Rob Wells (Trailer Park Boys) involvement. We certainly feel that there’s an engaged and enthusiastic audience out there.”
HNMAG “Maya, what would be your biggest takeaway after being in this film?”
MAYA “I think the thing that I’ve taken away the most with me, was the heart and the family of Nova Scotia. It was my first time there and I felt like I was welcomed with open arms. Being on set every day was such a treat and I even looked forward to waking up early and spending countless hours on set. Whether that was hanging out with the crew, hanging out with fellow actors or Shelley. It’s an Indie film, so there were no egos and we were all trying to create something spectacular. It was so nice to have that family behind-the-scenes. I think that’s what I take with me, along with all the memories and the laughter. It was a fun rollercoaster ride for me.”
SHELLEY “I had a lot of help, significant help from our producer Terry Greenlaw. She’s been central to this entire process and was a mentor to me. She’s also very passionate about raising female filmmakers up – to ensure that their voices are heard.”
HNMAG “Is there anyone on the project that you had worked with before Shelley?”
SHELLEY “There were lots of actors on set that I’d worked with before on stage that I just love. There were also some new people too, that were such a revelation to me. Reid Price, who plays Byron in the film, was such a treat to work with and so much fun. His career is blowing up, he’s doing so well. I’d worked with Amy Groening in a previous film and she and Maya were like bestie sisters. It was lovely to see how they turned into family. I’ve worked with Terry (Greenlaw) before, but it was the first time I’ve worked with my cinematographer. We had prepped so much together that it felt like we’d been working together forever (laughing). I’ve worked with my sound person before and he’s fantastic. The music was so pretty, Rose Cousins was our song writer and Scott Macmillan was the composer. He is so beloved here on the east coast. Rose Cousins is a pal of my sons and won a Juno for the album that is very prominent in the film – Bravado and a few others. It was such a diverse cast with gender diversity and representation from the BIPOC community. With the newcomers and young people, we hope to have a real solid industry-spread eventually.”
HNMAG “We can’t finish this interview without talking about Maya’s tractor driving experience. Maya, how was that experience?”
MAYA “I’ve never driven a tractor before this film. It was very interesting. I’ve also never driven standard before, so there was a lot of shifting of gears. It was a bit of a learning curve but I took it slow. The tractor is a bit of an ancient beast so luckily, it didn’t go too fast. It was a very authentic experience; I would be out in the field by the cow patties, familiarizing myself with the tractor – it was magical. The only time I was nervous was the final day of shooting, when we had everyone inside the auditorium for the tractor trials. I had to do some figure 8’s on the tractor and at one point the tractor had sputtered and stopped working. Everyone rallied around the tractor and people from town were trying to figure it out and eventually they got it working again. We all had our own personal story happening behind the scenes that day. It was really magical.”
SHELLEY “It was also very terrifying. We knew we were running out of time and we knew there was stuff we were going to have to cut and lose. That was awful but it was also hilarious the way that everyone inside that place had a tractor, knew their way around tractors and had a set of tools in their car. The fellow that ended up fixing it was the Warden of Antigonish County. He was also acting as one of our judges as a background performer. He took his jacket off and crawled underneath, it was pretty hilarious, as the clock continued to tick away.”
Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor has a happy ending but many young people in the trans community are pushed away from friends, family and society. Filmmakers like Shelley Thompson pick up the torch for social issues and they are glad to do it. To be part of change is the reward and this film will have a legacy. Great job to everyone involved!