The Whistler Film Festival never disappoints… even when Covid tries to get in the way. It’s not a computer virus, so the show has gone virtual. This year’s big winner was Little Orphans, it won the Best Canadian Feature Film Award. It’s a romance/drama that revolves around the lives of three sisters… and it was shot entirely in Newfoundland. It will make you have faith in love, no matter where you are on the planet and you will most likely fall in love with Newfoundland because the cinematography is spectacular in this film. Many thanks to the incredible director and cinematographer team of Ruth Lawrence and Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron. There were more incredibly talented members of the team in the form of producer Jennifer Hawley. Little Orphans is written by Emily Bridger and she is also the lead actress.
This film has an incredible cast throughout and the other two sister roles are superbly played so convincingly by Marthe Bernard – Janet and Rhiannon Morgan as Kay, with Emily playing the role of Gwen. This film had girl power with 2/3rds female cast and crew, which is remarkable and outstanding! It was also director Ruth Lawrence’s first time behind the wheel of a scripted feature film. She’d made a feature documentary and an array of short films but this was her big break. How did she do? She knocked it out of the park and smashed the streetlight!
I had an amazing talk with her about taking the leap into feature films with Little Orphans and it was so entertaining. Ruth is the best friend next door, with a plate of cookies and coffee to say hello in the morning.
HNM “Is this really only your 2nd time directing, after your first short film 2 Square Feet in 2012?”
RUTH “No, I’ve directed 6 or 7 short films and a couple of music videos. I’ve also directed a feature documentary and was a writer on an anthology feature a couple of years ago, where I wrote and directed a 6 min. section as part of a feature. This is my feature film debut as director.”
HNM “How did you get attached to the film as director?”
RUTH “Emily had originally written the script as a play and at the time, I was running the Women’s Work Festival; she had submitted it for a workshop. It was 2 – 3 years later that she had approached me, to tell me that she had rewritten Little Orphans as a feature film and was wondering if I’d be interested in directing it. It was the proposal I’d been looking for all my life, so I said yes. It translated very well to film and she really trusted me and I felt very honoured. It took us approx. 2 ½ yrs. to fund it.”
HNM “With an all – female lead cast, female director, producer and female writer, was this film a salute to women in the industry, considering the push for more diverse lead roles for women?”
RUTH “I’m glad you saw that (laughing). We hadn’t really discussed it too much but there’s no doubt that we have a world-renowned Women’s Film Festival here, that’s been publicized as one of the best film festivals in the world and they’ve worked very hard to raise the bar. The female diversity really came out of people that I love working with. I have a theatre company that produces only female written works but my film company doesn’t. It just so happens that Emily and I are female but when we needed a producer to come on board, we looked quite extensively – until Jenny Hawley was suggested to us; she turned out to be such a gift and was amazing. From that point on, we went looking for people we wanted to work with, people we’ve worked with before and people we admired. It wasn’t until the 3rd day into production, that our male transport manager reminded me of an earlier film we had worked on together and how hard I had tried to reach gender balance and fell slightly short with a few women that had to cancel last minute. He wanted to let me know that on this film, there were 2 thirds listed as women. We hadn’t set a number but as it turned out, they happened to be some of my favourite people.”
HNM “There must have been a very positive vibe on set.”
RUTH “We made it on a microbudget and we had nothing to offer anyone – except a good experience. Jenny and I had actual discussions about making it a kind, generous and pleasant atmosphere for everyone. We said we wouldn’t work overtime; we wouldn’t kill our crew by asking for more than they were capable of and… boy did they bring their A-game every single day and I think it shows in the film.”
HNM “You make your feature film directing debut with Little Orphans. How did it feel to be driving that bus?”
RUTH “I took it quite seriously and wanted a really great film at the end of it without costing anyone any pain. Jenny (producer) was asked many times, whether or not we could do this or that. She would never say no, she would instead say, ‘well, we could… but it might mean that we have to lose something else.’ I always respected that approach because it made me think about what was most important to me. It became really easy to make those decisions and she really guided me. You ask me about driving the bus, but I feel like the bus had 2 drivers. I could never have dreamed that I’d have such a generous, thoughtful, smart and insightful producer. She’s 30 years old and it was pretty impressive, I owe her a lot.”
HNM “I was so impressed when you were able to film inside the airport. How difficult was that to get permission?”
RUTH “That was Jenny – she made that happen. I was a 3rd AD on a film a few years back and we had shot in the customs area. When we read the airport scene in the screenplay, we both thought – no problem, we’ll go to the airport (St. John’s International). We had a couple employees that didn’t seem too happy we were there but we would pause the filming if anyone needed to go by and then continued shooting. It wasn’t until the day was over that Jenny had told me, it was the first feature film that they’ve ever allowed to shoot there. St. John’s Airport was having a slow day and we managed to get some really beautiful shots, the airport is gorgeous. Our DOP is Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron and she had captured everything I had asked for and more – I was so thrilled.”
HNM “Was it more difficult to shoot inside the church or the airport?”
RUTH “It was harder to get the church. There was some discomfort present in some of the scenes. There was a swear word in the church scene followed by a comment by Emily’s character after the power outage. The church and ArchBishop wanted to see the scene in the script and without thinking, I showed it to them. It was an affirmative ‘No’ they did not want any swearing inside the church. Not only did they say no, they also told the entire diocese not to let us in. Our location manager went back to ask what it was that was so offensive and what we could do to make it happen. I really wanted the church, the exterior looks like a king’s crown. Luckily our location manager, Cara Powell was very experienced and was able to negotiate it down to removing the curse word along with a 3-word line. Emily was not married to it and had no objections, so they allowed us back to shoot it. We were so thankful to everyone – they were all doing us favours. We kept our promise to leave it out and it actually made for a better scene.”
HNM “Did you have a hand in selecting the cast?”
RUTH “I did… I selected all the cast, but came into it knowing that Emily had written it with Marthe Bernard, Rhiannon Morgan and herself in mind. Emily was incredibly generous and told me that I didn’t need to cast her, it was a lead role and she wasn’t sure she could do it – but I couldn’t think of anyone else that could pull it off. She would do some table reads and I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing her part. The three of them are so close and very good friends. I told her that this role was perfect for her and that I was so confident she could do it. She really took a lot of pressure off of me by casting three incredible young actresses. They brought such a closeness, such intimacy and raw emotion, as well as trust in me as a director. We were so crunched for time, we had no time for rehearsals and only did 2 two hour table reads and sometimes we wouldn’t even get through them because I had questions. I told them I knew an incredible acting coach/director, Lois Brown who they also knew and liked. I wanted all three of them to take some coaching from her because she knows exactly what I want from them. They all agreed and were all so prepared when they came to set. They were also prepared to be open, because they had all brought really strong choices. I wanted to make some adjustments and they trusted me.”
HNM “There was a beautiful night shot of the city, when Gwen-Emily and Tom-Andy McQueen were having a romantic moment. Which city was that overlooking?”
RUTH “That was the St. John’s Harbour. I really wanted a magical quality to the town. Stéphanie knew exactly what I was looking for and brought even more. When Emily wrote it, she wanted the feeling of the small town imposing on them all the time. I said no problem, we can do that and we found locations that worked well. When Tom tells her he loves her, she has to feel like all of St. John’s is looking at her because that has been the way she’s felt since returning, with the big secret. I didn’t want the camera on her the entire time, I wanted to show the perspective on what she was looking at when he said he loved her. I told Stéphanie about my idea and that I wasn’t sure if people would hate it. She told me, ‘my advice to you is, if you really want that shot, lets shoot it and let’s make it work and you don’t shoot it any other way because someone will try to talk you out of it.’ I loved that advice and it’s one of my favourite shots in the film – Stéphanie and St. John’s really made it beautiful.”
HNM “If you were competing in a three-legged race, who from the cast would be your partner?”
RUTH “I’m trying to think, who might be short enough to be my partner (Laughter). I think it would have to be Marthe. I’ve been on stage with her, I think she played my daughter and I believe we’re the same size, everyone else is so much taller (laughing). My son (Luke Lawrence) is also in the film, he plays Georgie and he’s even a foot taller than me.”
HNM “If you only had 3 forms of transportation to travel 50 miles, would you choose horseback, motorcycle or hot-air balloon?”
RUTH “Horseback… I was born in the year of the horse and I have an infinity for horses, I love them. I don’t own one but it’s one of my lifelong dreams to own one. Have you ever stood beside a horse and looked into its eyes, it’s so powerful? You can feel their muscles when you’re standing beside them… the breath is something else. I would take the first opportunity I could to ride 50 miles on a horse. The funny thing about horses, is that my boyfriend is a horse. In Chinese astrology, it repeats every 12 years, so he’s 12 years older, I’m a horse and my son is 24 years younger than me, so he’s also a horse. I used to joke with people – I’d say, we don’t have a home, we have a stable (laughing). We have slight variations… one is a water horse, I’m a fire horse and the other is a metal horse.”
When I caught up with Ruth, she had been working on bringing a children’s theatre project to online viewing. Her tenacity is off the hook and her Maritime warmth came through the screen whenever she laughed or smiled. Ruth Lawrence directed a terrific story and a phenomenal cast.