With Heaven on Earth featured as a special presentation in the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Canadian Images section, it seemed an appropriate time to invite the accomplished director and her long-time producer to sit down at Meet the Filmmakers (hosted by Patricia Gruben) and discuss their approach to filmmaking. Here are the highlights of the one-hour session.
On the genesis of Heaven on Earth:
DM: After Water (cross-reference below) I was sent a lot of scripts so I had a choice of big Hollywood or my inner passion. After reading Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, I wanted to tackle the subject. I’m a Punjabi—I know what my community is like. Now we have the self confidence to look at issues. In Canada, the mainstream is complicit in the problem of spousal abuse. Many women don’t understand that it’s their right to call 911. The film is not the newspaper—thank God for that.
On the filmmaking process:
DM: I’m a director before a writer. I take what I hear and see in my head then translate that to paper—it’s all story dependent. Big speeches bore me to tears.
DH: With Heaven on Earth, there’s much more description than usual. The detail is incredible, right down to what’s on the mantelpiece. That’s why our films are long. For the longest time I heard ‘I’m working on the script’ but never saw a page. Once it was all in her head, the writing came quickly. At first we thought about not using a script but suddenly the opening, end and a few middle scenes were fleshed out. There’s no question but that she’s an actor’s director—they trust her work and will begin to organize their schedules even without seeing the script.
DM: After the script is finished, I put it away and watch bad movies for two weeks. Then I see it again, but now as a director. It’s at this point I begin to imagine the cast. Before the shoot we have extensive rehearsals. My director of photography [Giles Nuttgens for Heaven on Earth] always attends. With each scene I know the emotional centre and try to let that emerge—not spell it out literally. My camera is always totally motivated by the action. On weekends [shooting is not permitted], I take the actors to the next location to add to their understanding before the camera rolls again. [After the wrap] I have an incredible editor [Colin Monie] who doesn’t indulge me at all.
DH: Over the years you have become more ruthless during the shoot. Many scenes are dropped, where before we used to over-shoot the script.
On working together:
DM: After I say ‘cut,’ everyone leaves, I am alone—except for David who listens, questions and disagrees.
DH: (laughing) Yes, but we have developed rules of engagement. First: I can say anything; second: your answer can come in 24 hours—her work is so personal there must be time to reflect; third: I can still disagree but will support your decision 100%.
On financing and politics:
DH: Fire was financed privately. Earth was more traditional. I applied for development funding, but when Telefilm called to say the application had been approved, I had to reply ‘I’ve already shot the film.’ We don’t tend to wait. Now, due to the commercial success of two of our films [Bollywood/Hollywood, Water], we have an envelope with Telefilm. We go through the same process, but the approval is guaranteed. To save money and hassles, we bond our own films. Some funders take a bit longer: NFB’s [Canada’s National Film Board] funding for Heaven on Earth came during the last week of the shoot. Frequently we begin shooting without the complete financing in place.
DM: Are you aware that [prime minister] Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have made cuts to arts funding? Be careful how you vote!
On getting things made:
DM: I made my first documentary for $5,000—if I didn’t get it made, I would have died. If you feel passionate about it, you’ll find a way to do it. And wear comfortable shoes! JWR