If there is something Canadian filmmaker Sarah Warren truly possesses is determination. After recently moving into the UK, Warren managed to get twenty thousand pounds through Kickstarter to finance her first proper feature. A few months later, MLE – a comedy about a real-life spy – was born. Sarah wrote, directed and starred the film. I had the pleasure of interviewing her about the whole process.
You had a very creative Kickstarter campaign. How did you develop the idea behind it? Did you imagine the campaign would be as successful as it was?
Thank you for saying that about our campaign – Kickstarter is one of those “wow technology,” moments where innovators try out an idea and the people speak ‘Yay/Nay.” I looked up hundreds of indie go go and Kickstarter campaigns before creating ours.
A few conclusions I came to were, one that I wanted to spend a whole month dedicated full time to making the campaign – the layout, the incentives, and of course- the video. The video was where (in my humble opinion) some other Kickstarter campaigns fell short (or excelled) – perhaps I am hyper-aware of this, because I am a filmmaker/actor so I am used to the idea of a reel or video pitch. Most of the Kickstarter videos are people sat in poorly lit rooms, with little thought towards framing and an improvised speech (with little humour) about why you should give them money. Without sounding crude, that didn’t appeal to me. We didn’t know if it would be successful, but I wanted to create a character outside myself that would charm the audience, and write a proper script with well-recorded sound. I figured, if people enjoyed/bought into the Kickstarter video, they would like the vibe of the movie we wanted to make.
It was important to me to have continuity from the Kickstarter video through to production and beyond. This puppet-doll, a “Makie” (from Makie Labs, London) is a toy that the protagonist, Julie Robert, loves to play with but her best friend thinks is immature. One of these dolls was the host of our Kickstarter video, as a kind of funny North American film investor who loves “hot chicks,” which voiced. In the Kickstarter campaign video I have a little argument with him about filmmaking, and this comedic duo sort of sets up the playful nature of MLE, while reflecting a more serious subject matter – the casual objectification of women in the entertainment industry. Through to post production, the investor puppet came back to present MLE at the BFI Southbank in a little follow up video. If this were a huge commercial success versus a micro budget indie film, then the puppets could even go on to have a merchandising future where audience members could order their own personalized dolls through Makie lab.
We were thrilled to exceed our goal and break 20k. We are incredibly grateful to our backers, and we have stayed in touch with them all throughout preproduction, filming and post production – some of them even came all the way from Western Canada to the premiere in London.
Kickstarter is a community, and it is a filmmaker’s first audience, first loyal fans – gotta treat them right innit? It is a rollercoaster launching a campaign, especially with Kickstarter because of course if you don’t make your goal – no dollah dollah bills, not one! The most moving thing perhaps during the fundraising process were the dozens of strangers that donated, like from Norway and a gentleman in the USA who sent over hard drives, just to help. Humans can be amazing.
You brought the puppets back for the film, which added a very compelling touch to it. Was that something you had planned since the campaign or the idea just came along the way?
All planned, baby!
Yes, I think a good director (which I try to be), plans everything, and anything that shows up on the day to potentially be embraced, can be embraced because you planned, if that makes sense. Plan – to be spontaneous.
The puppets have long scenes in the script and I had to cut down most of their dialogue to keep the comedy disciplined and tight.
How long do you think it would take to make MLE without Kickstarter?
Forever? I don’t know. I mean, I came to London less than two years ago. When I arrived I left behind a career in film in Canada, and I wanted to make a mark here as a writer/director/actor, and show a little piece of my voice in Britain – or how I observe the English (both with humour and respect of course). I was also floored by the lack of female comedy feature filmmakers. (I think many young women are floored by this lack of representation for their voice – what are the English too scared to talk about? Sex? Dating? Being in their 20s and trying stuff?)
In the US, they have Lake Bell (in the just theatrically released Man Up, should be mentioned), Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Jenny Slate – just to name a few female writer/director/actors. Can you name one person in the UK doing that? One? A female comedy director making feature films? Believe me, I’ve researched!
When commissioners are faced with this question they just kind of cower in a risk adverse shrug. Anyhow, as you can see from my film, I don’t complain – I just try to make people laugh with the ridiculousness of this industry and life! If you complain no one will listen, but if you satirize – you have a chance. Hence why most Americans don’t even watch the news anymore since John Stewart (who, by the way, is my dream man, if I had to have one).
Back to how long it would take. If I didn’t do Kickstarter, it would’ve maybe taken 5 years (going through public funding applications or private investment routes). I was not known in the UK as anything, so without credibility I figured the only way to gain that, was to actually make a film. So, I got off my ass, raised 20k in 2 months of being here and 2 months after that made a feature film with a talented cast and crew of over 100 people. Yay films! We are proud to say that’s a minor miracle in itself, but what matters is if the film is any good – at our recent screening at Century Club I actually saw someone fall off their chair laughing, they could’ve been drunk, but if not, that’s the biggest compliment I could ask for. Go films!
You wrote, directed and starred the film, which is based on a true story of your life. How did you manage to distance yourself from it in order to get the perspective needed to make MLE?
Such good questions. I think, the answer is, because I don’t take myself too seriously but I take things around me seriously. I remember what everyone says/looks like/eats and I analyze why they act how they act. Despite making, what perhaps seems like a self indulgent film , I hope when people watch it, they see it’s actually the industry, the world, gender politics, friendships, video games, and cake that I was interested in, and that I have a lot of heart.
I teach acting at the University level, and my students always cover their face when we watch playback going, “I can’t watch myself.” I try and gently knock that out of them immediately. As an actor, you are an instrument, a vehicle and a product. That can sound cold, but a blanket is also a product and it keeps you warm! You need to look at the product in the face and analyze it with as much objectivity as you can. That makes good filmmakers (I think). I startled the editor a few times in post with how hardcore I was about cutting my performance and which takes were; excuse my French, “shitty.” I am working on a lot of things as a person and as an artist, but one thing I am is focused. I think that focus means it is no longer about ego – every film is about the film and story itself.
Short answer is – every film must be all about making the best film, and the film isn’t about any one person. I try to serve the story. You need distance and objectivity to be a good filmmaker – and yet not be so cold that your film lacks heart. The right sensitivity in the right places, about the right things.
London plays a very significant part in the film. It’s very interesting to see how you portray the city since you haven’t been living here for long. How was the process of choosing the locations?
A unique aspect of the film is my foreign look at the city. Sometimes when you are surrounded by something you cannot see it for what it is and all of its eccentricities – I love London. I heard someone say, “first you love London,
then it loves you back.” This city is a fight, but it can be worth it, very much so, just cycle across a bridge to see what I mean… What makes a unique story is perspective – and my perspective of London is hilarious.
I chose locations by a combination of deep East London searching/my dream locations and then, of course, what we could manage to afford. Don’t even get me started on how much one hour at the pool cost! But hey, I got my own lane, pretty neat…
I searched for the most colourful, local-feeling locations because I wanted to show a comedy in London with big splashes of life and soul. London is famous for its harshness, its bleakness – and in most films/TV it is depicted as cold, grey and washed out. We wanted to show a London that was seen through the protagonist (Julie’s) lens which is one of optimism, cake, exploration, etc – which sets up for brilliant comedy potential faced with the cynicism of London. Setting up that visual juxtaposition even from the first shot, was important to me, and I thought sets the tone for the world we are playing in right off the bat.
Also, the humour of MLE is typically British, and humour is a very culturally established thing. Did you have the chance to screen the film to any of your fellow countrymen? If yes, what was their reaction to it?
This is one of the biggest compliments I can ask for – when people say, “Sarah, it feels so British.” That was hugely important to me, and a fine line to walk on (ie: not offending, but showing gentle cultural observations, while making Brits laugh)!
First, I think all Canadians honestly go ga-ga for Britain. I was brought up on all British comedy, Fawlty Towers etc. I love the dry, subtle, wit. Brits have a different respect and relationship with storytelling than North Americans, it’s wonderful. In Scotland, for example, they actually say, “she/he gives good story.” There’s a genuine value on storytelling; set up/reveal, etc in day-day life.
I’ve shown it to many audiences around the UK now, and we have been pleased at the response. Brits feel it’s in a genuinely “British voice” but from a fresh perspective, which I’m honored to hear. I found it humourous outside London that audience members would see me in the loo and say, “you know dear, people outside of London are much nicer. We aren’t all like that darlin’.” That made me laugh.
Ryan Mercier was first casted – as shown on Kickstarter – as Sebastian. When did Harry come to the story?
This is a bit of a boring answer, but Ryan was always cast as Harry, I just wrote him down as Sebastian on Kickstarter because Sebastian had an appealing character breakdown, “cult leader” etc.
Harry was always part of the film. The character of Harry was named after Harry Lloyd who is a wonderful actor, thoughtful person, and was a nice support in the making of MLE.
I wanted to show a female led comedy that wasn’t a romcom and if anything, the romance was sort of between the two female friends (ie: the final shot on them, etc). We intentionally shot the film with choices like: magic hour light and slow motion tracking on most of the scenes between my character and Joy (played by Deidre Garcia) which you would typically see envisioned for romantic scenes in films. I thought it was important, without making a grand statement, to just have a film where the protagonist was more concerned about saving a friendship than ensuring her dating life is in tact. And that dating was just a subplot of the story, as it would be in a film about most male protagonists. Needless to say, we are Bechdel Test approved!
You got both Paul Haggis and Mike Figgis to join MLE. How was that?
Those might be good stories for a beer – I’m teasing. I loved the idea of having cameos from famous directors I admired calling my character names as they flew across screen, making for comedy in the transitions from scene to scene.
Mike Figgis was a friend of the editor, and was an absolute ball to work with (he plays the Drug Dealer in a scene where I am being interviewed by an agent at his house). Paul Haggis contacted me during the Kickstarter campaign to talk about my acting, and he was kind enough to be a part of our cast, apparently his second on screen performance ever. Behind the scenes fact – we shot Paul Haggis’s scene in his hotel room, and our Executive Producer Simon Shore stood in for his over the shoulder shots on location six weeks later. I matched Paul’s movements and wardrobe for Simon to mimic and matched the colour, of course, in post.
How did having Atom Egoyan as your mentor influenced you as a filmmaker?
Atom taught myself and 9 others on an interdisciplinary art course at the University of Toronto. He only taught there for three years and worked with a couple of selected actors, filmmakers, musicians and artists. I was thrilled to be selected as one of the actors (I was studying theatre at the time).
We worked with him for almost a year creating an interdisciplinary piece each and also got to visit his set of Adoration. Atom is a serious man, and yet he championed my comedic voice and dialogue. I am completely honoured to have his on-going support.
During the course with him and particularly watching his work like Calendar, I knew I had always seen the world and articulate it as a filmmaker (through shots, and exchanges of dialogue with loaded subtext). I asked him how to make the transition from theatre to film and he said, “go buy a camera and make a film.” I’m not sure if he expected me to do it, but the next day I found a producer with a camera and pitched a feature to him.
Over the summer we made my student feature called Moments Before, a series of connected vignettes about the moments before we say I love you (what can I say, I was obsessed with “Magnolia” and “Paris Je T’aime”). A year later before he set off to Cannes, Atom watched my film, he spoke about the cinematic highlights and he suggested my next script be quite structured, personal and a comedy – hence M.L.E.
There have been three moments in my career so far where I thought, “oh me oh my! Breakthrough!” They were with Atom Egoyan, Paul Haggis and a member of Katherine Hepburn’s family. Now those stories really ARE for a beer!