Excuse the understatement, but April Mullen is having her moment.
2016 has been chock-full of highlights for the actress/director/producer. Her feature Below Her Mouth was an official selection at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, she was honoured at the Birks Diamond Tribute to Women in Film, has been described as a « director on fire », and as also been inducted into the City of Niagara Falls Arts and Culture Wall of Fame, the hometown she often returns to and loves to film.
To the outside eye, this wave of success, accolades, and recognition appears to have happened overnight, in one momentous year, as April herself described it. But don’t be fooled, it’s been a really long road and a long time coming.
In prepping for this interview, I quickly realized that what I had on my hands was very much the quintessential female creative force I Am Marie is made for. Insightful, passionate, daring, and beyond talented. I caught up with April just as she was leaving Montreal, nearing the year-and-a-half mark of uninterrupted shooting.
In terms of directing and acting, it’s two different sides of my brain. When I’m acting, I zone out and immerse myself in the scene, but if I’m on screen with my partners, I’m still able to ask them to retake a line, to pick up the pace, to move to make sure they’re in the frame…
FOR I AM MARIE
By Stéphanie Marois
You’re having a kick-ass year.
It’s been great, it’s been phenomenal. It’s been amazing to be living my dream. After so many years of putting in the blueprints and the hard the work and climbing up the mountain, i feel i’m finally at a level where instead of running, I can just walk quickly (laughter) and enjoy the sights.
You’re currently in Montreal to direct episodes of the upcoming series Bellevue. How did that gig come about? I think that the majority of people know about the auditioning process for actors, but I don’t think most people know how it works for directors. How do you get the job?
That is so true. It was really interesting.
I was location scouting in Ireland, and I had a tiny break before the Toronto Film Festival and Adrienne Mitchell (creator of Bellevue) and her production company’s head office are in Toronto; they had seen a a feature of mine called 88 and had watched previous Killjoys episodes I had done. Basically, your work first goes through the door, and if they like what they see, you’ll probably get an interview with either the production company, the executives, or the network. There is a round of interviews that you go through after you pass the first hurdle. In the interviews, it was really different because Bellevue is a drama and a procedural, which I had never done before. I’m used to doing sci-fi and bigger-budget series, and a lot of excitement, action… I had nothing on my reels to depict what Bellevue was, except for basically coming with a pitch package of the way I envisioned the show, so I had some visuals to show her and material I thought it would be similar to, and shared some ideas and talked about the script. You always get the pilot in advance, so you read the pilot to be well versed in the material and what it is if it’s a new series. If it’s a series that is already on air, I would watch a few episodes and get familiar. Then there’s an interview and if that goes well, it goes to the networks and you usually have to meet the networks and the showrunners as well. And then usually after that, there are negotiations, if it all goes well! And availability, etc.
It’s difficult breaking into bigger, established television shows, they tend to gravite towards directors they’ve hired in past seasons, because they know what they’re getting. They know exactly who they’re hiring, and usually, the spots get filled by veterans because it’s so much easier to hire people that you’ve done maybe 2 years with. Breaking into television has been a long journey in terms of meetings and showing people what else I can do outside of what I have to showcase, which is always though to convince.
There’s something that I was debating on asking you, because I didn’t want to be reductive… I don’t want to ask you your age, but you look so young!
I never tell my age!
I figured, and you shouldn’t because I think it’s irrelevant and I don’t think that men even really talk about their age, but I figured it must have come up in meetings, where you come in, you’re a woman, you’re beautiful and you look super young. Do you find that it has, maybe not hindered you, but do you think that the first reaction is ‘ooh, can she handle it?’
You know what’s strange, at first I was so into the work I was reading or pitching the ideas I had creatively that I forgot what body I was in, as odd as that sounds. I never really thought about it until people pointed it out and until I had to do a slew of, i feel like extra interviews than someone with a longer resumé – it’s mostly to do with the fact that.
I‘ve always done feature films, not so much tv. Sometimes I feel that I’m a 120 year old inside of a body that doesn’t make sense. My experience in terms of my tool belt in the industry is 20 years deep, so it’s an odd thing to come across. But if you start young and you’re really focused, it pays off. I started a production company 10 years ago, so I was really involved in terms of the creative process, in terms of the business side of things, the tax credits, the producing side of things, the writing, the editing. I was heavily immersed into all different facets of the industry so my tool belt is vast, although my exterior might seem mismatched.
You built a lot of relationships in prep, but on the very first day on set, meeting a crew of 100 to 200 strangers, I definitely feel in the first 10 minutes an extreme amount of focus on what is going on. I can tell eyes are on me in terms of ‘what, what’s happening’ – I dont know if it’s a gender thing or an age thing, it might be just both. It quickly dissipates, because i’m so organized. The ship has sailed, and they see me as a creative person, and then they see me as a person, which is great.
You mentioned your production company, WANGO Films. You’ve directed yourself in the past, in films that you produced. Are there ever any conflicts between April the actress, the producer and the director?
The more hats you wear, especially if it’s your own film, that you, at concept, built together as a team, it’s sort of seamless. It actually helps, it doesn’t hurt the project, it’s helpful to be really well versed or to be the producer that’s making decisions of what the director’ choices are. I understand the budget and where we can give or where we cant, when I can use a crane and when I can’t afford one, or how many shots in VFX I have. Because the numbers are all a part of what I do, it makes my job just as easy, it all goes hand in hand. I would say it’s a benefit, and Tim Doiron (co-founder) would say the same thing: even as a writer being conscious producing-wise of what we can achieve, he would never write over-budget and he’d keep things really minuscule and keep things in practical effects if we had to. if our budgets weren’t that high, we were really smart in allowing it to be creatively free but also believable, have high production value even though the budget might not be so expansive. I think it’s really helpful to have so many different hats. It was ever confusing to me, or blurry. It made it all easier, more focused and we were able to move faster because there were less people involved in the decision-making process.
« That’s not gonna work, rewrite that, because we can’t afford that and I want to shoot it this way. Ok, cool. » It’s that simple.
In terms of directing and acting, it’s two different sides of my brain. When I’m acting, I zone out and immerse myself in the scene, but if I’m on screen with my partners, I’m still able to ask them to retake a line, to pick up the pace, to move to make sure they’re in the frame… It’s instinctual, when you’re in it you’re in it, and you know when things are working or when they’re not. I only noticed the split of my brain when we’re watching dailies or rushes when we’re in the editing room and I can myself be those 2 people, where as I’m not aware of it on the day. I always wonder how that’s even possible! I’m so immersed in the process that I don’t recognize it at the time.
You have serious acting training – you went to Ryerson and attended the Royal Welsh College of Drama; how has your acting training shaped your directing style? Are you harder on your actors because you know they can get there, and you know how to get them there?
I feel very compassionate towards actors and also very loving towards them, but I’m also always challenging them to do better. If there’s a scene where we’re not hitting it, or I can feel them either getting frustrated or losing themselves, I immediately know how to connect to them and get the best performance out of them. I feel like that’s a huge gift, and without all of my immense training, and Chekhov and Shakespeare, and voice and concentrating on that for 20 years, i just think its so a part of me as a director. it really elevates my relationship with the actors and the cast, whoever I’m working with, in such a good way. The trust is immediately there as well with actors because I come from their world, so they’re willing to trust me, and be honest and go there, and really take big chances. which as an actor, especially if you’re established on a series, you’re sort of running and gunning in one direction but if somebody new comes on board and points out certain things that you can make you either enhance your performance or do something really unique or challenge yourself in a new way, it sometimes can be really shocking but if its somebody that you trust and somebody who has really strong knowledge in the field, they’re willing to go there. Its been a gift for sure.
I’ve obviously been dying to ask you about Below Her Mouth. I saw the trailer and it blew my mind, i’m so excited to watch it. Obviously something that peaked everyone’s interest is that you shot the film with an all-female crew, which shouldn’t be unusual but is. Who was behind that idea, how important did you feel it was to telling of that story?
I think for that for script in particular, it was really important because the actors had to go to a really raw, bold, and disarming place and for that to happen we really needed to have a very safe, kind of of isolated bubble, a feeling of no judgment, and a lot of respect to give the actresses a place to really express themselves in a way that we were hoping had never been done before. It was a goal from the beginning, so when i got the script, they knew they wanted a female director and that they wanted to go all the way, with casting across the board and hiring an all-female crew – which was difficult, it was really hard to find, especially sound operating, grips, electrics.
The main mission was to aim to achieve a very female perspective of a gaze of love and what it’s like to fall in love and lust and be with another woman, or a man, but just what that immediate chemical reaction is to another human being, where you least expect it and your world changes in an instant and what that feels like to go through from a woman’s perspective. and then also to depict sex in a really new and innovative way, where it’s not, you know, written by a male, or directed by a man or images i have seen before, because most of them are very male-orientated because thats the way the world is, and every sort sex or intimacy on screen that i see is 99% made for men or by men or to turn men on. To forget all of those things and be bold enough to be open and honest and showcase that side of what those moments are like for a woman, we just thought that going the extra mile and having the editing, the music, the costume have a female touch. what are the woman going to wear? they’re not gonna be provocative in your traditional sense. they’re gonna come at it from a new way. the production design isn’t going to be satin sheets, im being stereotypical but, its gonna be really cool, wood crates, etc, and its gonna be having a female touch too, and what what all the artists could bring to the table in terms of what their female touch is. it was really amazing, we didn’t know what to expect, we also didn’t know the outcome, and we had no hard, forced creative outcome. We wanted it to feel organic, be organic, and to work together as a team to bring something very female to the screen.
It shows! I think that is what resonates with the trailer. It feels so different when you watch, it feels like it’s actually intended for me. I’m very much a feminist and I’m very aware of the male gaze monopoly and how so few shows or movies pass the Bechdel test. I think lots of women don’t really even know how they’ve been…
Exactly, programmed to accept that vision. A movie like Below Her Mouth is shocking because, like you said, we’ve seen sex scenes but there is something so powerfully feminine about it.
Yes and also, there’s a scene in the film, where she’s in the bathtub and she’s on her own. But
just to showcase empowerment and freedom, rather than to shy away from women masturbating or the female orgasm, which is very rarely even depicted in cinema. Same as strap-on sex, it’s very shied away from. But this is a film that shows those very real life happenings and it just does without forcing it down the audience’s throat. It does it organically through connections betweens two people, it’s just really beautifully. Or a connection on her on, a growth that the character goes through which brings her to those new levels sexually. I just think that there’s so much freedom in that and I’ve never seen anything like that, so it’s exciting that audiences are recognizing that. We didn’t know if the world would be ready for it, or whether they would just glaze over. It’s very minuscule, it’s there, its raw and its humble.
You can tell it’s done with a lot of love and thats what makes it special. But in a big-big-big budget market world, that usually gets swept under the rug, because we’re used to an overhaul of explosions and color corrections and crazy fast editing. Thats what audiences are used to, and that’s what very entertaining, and I watch movies like that too, I love all types of films, it’s just that Below Her Mouth definitely offers something really different than that regular ticket.
Where can people see it?
Its coming out in February. Valentine’s Day! It’s the alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey. We’re the alternative option. (laughter)
I wanted to talk to you briefly about TIFF and being part of the official selection at TIFF. How was that, did it feel like a whirlwind?
It was so nice to celebrate the film. I felt really at ease and thrilled to be immersed with the audience and watch their reactions, do the Q&As. I really love interacting with audience members and seeing their reactions. We’d been in the editing room for a year and a half, not knowing what the outcome would be, so to be a part of such a huge and prolific
film festival was such an amazing feat for the team. I felt very proud to be part of that all-female crew and that team that created Below Her Mouth.
Any reactions that surprised you when you were in the screenings?
My mom’s reaction! She was at world premiere and she had said before that she’d « never gonna be able to see it » and i was like « i know, » because she’s very small town, and amazing, but naive in the best way. She came out of the screening in tears, and so did my dad, and they just said « it’s such a beautiful love story. » I was really amazed that love for love’s sake transcends all. That’s what we were hoping for, that people would just see love for love and embrace it as an incredible love story – it doesn’t matter who the two leads are, it’s just the connection, and it came from my parents, so i was really excited.
What is more difficult, directing yourself or directing a sex scene?
Directing a sex scene, hands down. Just because it doesn’t involve me taking off my clothes, but yet I’m with two vulnerable people who are exposing such vulnerable pieces of themselves and trying to get that just right and allow them to feel really comfortable, proud of what they’re doing, and honest with themselves. Allowing them to have freedom, while it also has to be very choreographed in certain ways, they have to be in certain positions because the lighting is designed a certain way. Allowing it to feel organic but yet having it still polished in an odd way, is very challenging.
With Below Her Mouth, we were really fortunate because we decided to shoot the film almost chronologically, so the chemistry between the girls sort of augmented as we kept going. Their first kiss was within the first two days and the very first sex scene was on the Friday. Then the weekend passed and they got to do the next day sex scene, so their chemistry and their discovery with each other grew as we were shooting, which was phenomenal. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of shooting in chronological order, but we felt it was really important for this film. I have to say it’s part of the magic, because there was so much curiosity and that is what happens in real life. Watching that build and watching that happen was very fortunate.
I find it so exciting to listen to you and to hear that you and the team made such strong choices and it really paid off. It must feel like a victory.
It is. As like a team, the whole group.. Down to everything, every little minuscule detail. I love watching the film and forgetting about the fact that we handpicked the curtains for the bathroom scene; my sister was a production designer and she searched everywhere for the perfect
the painting for behind them. The way chandelier lit their bodies, making sure it felt practical and not overly lit, but yet we definitely picked every element in the room, so that everybody could forget and just let go and they could just be together. It’s such an incredible experience as a creative team to go through that.
What’s next, after leaving Montreal tomorrow?
I’m going to Los Angeles for a lot of meetings, I’m on the hunt for new script for a feature. Then im going to Argentina for Below Her Mouth for a festival. Then I’m going backpacking for 5 days, and then I’m going on to Wynonna Earp, which is a sci-fi series, in Alberta in January, and then i’m going to do two features next year. I’m excited, it’s gonna be a good year.
You’re in meetings, looking for scripts. Are you already at the place where people are offering you things?
Yes. It’s so difficult to say no! I just love the creative process, so I connect to material and i start envisioning all the different ways i would shoot a scene or the film, so I’ve had a lot of scripts over my desk in the last few months, but nothing yet.
WANGO Films has a new film coming out, it’s one of the scripts that we’re shooting next year, I’m very excited. We haven’t announced it, but it’s happening!
Watch Below Her Mouth movie trailer:
January 12, 2017