As a proud sponsor of the Toronto International Film Festival, we’re lucky to work with some of Canada’s preeminent filmmakers. This year, Sophie Deraspe took home the Canada Goose Award for best Canadian feature film for Antigone, a modern take on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy she wrote and directed. In 2015, filmmaker Sofia Banzhaf starred in that year’s award winner, Closet Monster, and this year two films brought her back to the festival—as an actor in Black Conflux, a dramatic feature, and for the premiere of a short film she wrote and directed, I Am in the World As Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain.
Since September, both filmmakers have been travelling endlessly as their respective films play at various other festivals. It’s a relentless schedule that those working in the industry will recognize as a necessary hustle to gain publicity, recognition and a global audience. By chance, Sophie and Sofia were both screening their works at Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinema (FNC) this past October. Between screenings and press junkets, they sat down together to talk about their craft, the process of creating art, and how it feels to work your way through the festival circuit.
Sofia Banzhaf: So, you just got back from South Korea. How was the Busan International Film Festival?
Sophie Deraspe: It was amazing. It was a very different audience than we know here [in North America]—the cinemas were full of very young people, I’d say 90% of them were under 30. And very attentive, some were taking notes!
SB: During the movie?
SD: Yes! They asked very thoughtful and intelligent, relevant questions. And then at the end there was this huge lineup of young people wanting an autograph.
SB: That’s [so rare for a premiere Q&A]
SD: I really liked your film [I Am in the World As Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain]. It has a strong signature. When did you release it?
SB: Thank you, it just premiered at TIFF so now FNC is the fifth it has played at. It’s been a really good experience. It was the first time I’ve had a little bit of money [to create a film]. All my other shorts are literally made with two thousand dollars so it’s nice to do something that feels more representative of my style.
SD: It’s very strong. It reminds me a little of Yorgos Lanthimus. The cinematography, the shots … you are not lost. The language is strong and also the narrative—or non- narrative—you express yourself very well in a non-traditional way.
SB: Thank you. I just watched Antigone and I was so impressed. This is your fourth narrative feature? You’re so prolific. Because you’ve also made documentaries in between.
SD: Yes, and I’ve worked as a DOP [Director of Photography] on other films, mostly documentaries. That’s how I make a living in between films. But I’ve been very lucky, I financed all the films I’ve wanted to finance. Sometimes with a small budget but still. I never had to put a script back on the shelf.
SB: And hopefully after this, it will get even easier because you’ve had so much success with Antigone. Is it overwhelming?
SD: Yeah—I have to say, yes (laughs). Because it’s been so fast: Toronto and then the Canadian choice for the Oscars. (ed. note. After its run at TIFF, Telefilm Canada announced that Antigone was chosen to represent Canada in the race for a nomination in the 2020 Academy Awards’ best international feature film category.) I feel like I’m doing the Olympics now. And we had many festivals on the schedule already but now it feels like maybe a bit too much.
I’ve actually been trying to write while tired lately, because your mind is a bit softer and you may have access to some things you wouldn’t normally have access to.FILMMAKER SOFIA BANZHAF
SB: Do you get to write at all while you’re on the festival trail?
SD: It’s funny because in Toronto, I’d been there long enough that I could watch a few films and on the last day I wrote in my hotel room. It was the same in Busan, on the last day I wrote. I couldn’t recover from the jet lag at all, so I would write at night.
SB: That’s kind of nice, because it’s so quiet and nobody’s bothering you. I’ve actually been trying to write while tired lately, because your mind is a bit softer and you may have access to some things you wouldn’t normally have access to.
SD: Yes! True. Do you wake up at night, or just before you fall asleep and you know you have to write down an idea because in the morning you might not remember?
SB: And you always think you’ll remember it but then you don’t.
SB: But then sometimes I’ll read it in the morning and realize it’s not that great of an idea (laughs). Do you usually have a writing routine?
SD: I have a discipline. Like when I know that I have this window of writing, I have like two months, I want to do a big chunk of it, since I’m not shooting. I can’t write for just half a day—I need the space. I like to go away if I can but it’s ok if I can’t, I can do it from home. It’s always good to have space. And sometimes I might feel like I’m not inspired but I have to sit down and try to write some lines and it comes out just through the act of writing.
SB: Yes, because you can’t wait for inspiration to strike, you have to give it the opportunity to come through. I used to feel like I had to go away—I had to go to a cabin to be alone. But my life doesn’t often give me that opportunity so I just have to take it whenever I can. I do like carving out big chunks of time because I find that when I’m sort of “bored” that’s when ideas come to me more easily.
SD: Especially with phones, you can always be on them and kids, they don’t get bored anymore. And that might be problematic for the imagination.
SB: I think that’s true, I think not being bored is the death of creativity. Because [to be creative] you have to have space to think.
SD: Yes, we have to make an effort to leave the phone on the side and let the environment put an impression on you and your mind.
SB: How do you focus?
SD: Well, in general, I can easily focus.
SD: I like to really dive into what I’m doing. Writing a script or financing a film, it takes years. I feel like I’m the type of person who can handle this time though, and I don’t lose focus or interest.
SB: Are you spiritual?
SD: I’d say yes. Not with a dogma or specific church or religion. But I think I’m very spiritual. You have very interesting questions, I’ve never been asked these questions (laughs). I like rituals and prayers. I like to make things sacred—it can be related to work or other things I cherish, or people or moments.
The first script I wrote, it was called Missing Victor Pellerin and I was a DOP at the time, mostly for documentaries. I had a son so my life was already full—but I wanted to write this script and I had been researching and meeting with people and writing for some years, and at a certain point I just thought, ‘okay, now I have to finish this script and finance it.’ It was the 31st of December and I was invited to all these things—friends and family were calling me but I decided ‘tonight I’m going to spend the night with Victor Pellerin.’ And I just sat in front of my computer, opened a bottle of wine and said “cheers to Victor Pellerin!” Of course, he’s a fictional character but we spent New Year’s together.
SB: I love that, that’s so beautiful. One of the things that’s very important to me is making other people feel less alone.
SD: Yes! Art is so much about that.
SB: With my short, I wanted it to show experiences that I wish I’d seen when I was younger—that I could relate to as a woman and feel validated in my experiences. After the screening a few young women came up to me and said they were inspired and shared how much they related [to what they just watched] and that was definitely the best feeling in the world.
I also feel like when you’re creating anything there has to be an element of surrender: surrendering to your subconscious or surrendering to the flow of creativity. When I try to surrender my day to another power or a higher power, I notice that my interactions and my thoughts have a slightly different quality. Or I’m inspired to do things that seem weird in the moment, that I wouldn’t have thought of that have serendipitous consequences. Are there things that you’re obsessed with in your work? That you keep returning to?
SD: I don’t think these are obsessions but I’m not afraid of exploring death. When I look at my previous films, I think to myself… wow, I wasn’t into pleasing an audience or my parents (laughs). Like why do we do art, to be loved? It wasn’t that, nor was it provocation because that doesn’t interest me either. But I’m not afraid of exploring and going into spaces where I know a lot of people don’t want to go to because it’s too uncomfortable.
Some filmmakers do the same thing over and over again, but my first film was in the art world, the second in a palliative care ward, and the third on an isolated island in winter, with a community that is fishing and hunting. I realized [my work is] always about community. It’s always about finding your family or preserving your family. With Antigone, it’s not just about family, it’s also about justice and solidarity in a bigger sense. It’s about resistance and dignity, not only for herself and her brother, but on a larger spectrum. After my third feature I decided that from then on, consciously, I wouldn’t … I felt I had to be subtle. And then I decided I’m going to be more generous. I won’t be less intelligent or artistic. I don’t know what I was preserving but being a little bit more mature made me want to open up with emotions and dialogue and let it out.
SB: I was curious about your casting process for Antigone because a lot of your cast had never acted before. How did you find them?
SD: I knew I wanted to have a family of four sibling age 16-21 in the film, with a grandmother. And I knew I would find the grandmother once I had the family. And I knew I wouldn’t find all of them in traditional casting agencies. It’s not how our industry is set up at this moment. Maybe in five years it’ll be different but right now it’s very white and privileged. So I did an open casting here in Quebec, I reached out to teachers at some CEGEPs and with social media. And I received more than 800 applications—there were questions they had to answer, and pictures of course, but a lot of questions about themselves. I read all of them and then 300 were possibilities so l personally met with 150 and a colleague of mine met another 150 and then out of those 300 people I picked my family.
SB: When you say you met with them, do you mean you auditioned them?
SD: Some of them I auditioned, I sent scenes to have a proper audition, others I felt they might not be a character in the film but I want to meet with this person. Some of them turned out to be participating as supporters of Antigone—background performers. One of them co-wrote the music, he did the score—I mean I paired him with a professional. The girls in the youth centre had never acted in a film before.
SB: That’s amazing, those were some of my favourite scenes.
SD: We had this open casting and I found this amazing young woman, Nahéma Ricci, who… she just is Antigone. It was a huge amount of work but it was so worth it and I’m so glad my producers supported me. We cast for three months. And you are an actress as well?
SB: Yes, I’m an actress. Directing and writing is something I never really thought of for myself, that’s why I’m really enjoying it, I don’t have a ton of pressure in that area. I have more pressure with acting because it’s my livelihood and there’s so much bullshit around acting anyway.
SD: Yes! And auditioning and being rejected and hoping you’re going to get it.
SB: Yeah, it’s a lot.
SD: And then thinking back, ‘oh did I do it wrong?’
SB: It’s horrible for an anxious person like me.
SB: Yeah, nobody is expecting anything from me and in that way I have more freedom, there are fewer parameters for me. I feel like I’m finding my voice. But of course, that might also change.
SD: Yes, of course it will change. My first films were more radical and more niche and it’s nice to now have a film that speaks to a larger audience. I don’t feel I had to sacrifice anything for that to happen. I stayed true to the art, to the characters. In a way, it’s very pop what I did, because of the music—
SB: And the montages—
SD: Yes, and the young people, the pace and the rhythm and the colors. So, in other hands it could have been more serious or theatrical but I decided to go the way I did, which is more like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (laughs).
My first films were more radical and more niche and it’s nice to now have a film that speaks to a larger audience. I don’t feel I had to sacrifice anything for that to happen.FILMMAKER SOPHIE DERASPE
SB: Did you always know that you would shoot Antigone yourself?
SD: I’m not saying I will always shoot my own films but I hired a DOP on my third feature and I had a really hard time with it.
SB: (laughs) Yeah.
SD: I felt disconnected from the actors because to me, it’s a dance, it’s a choreography with the actors. I love filming actors and moving with them. It’s such a huge part of what directing is, or doing a mise-en-scene. And also I don’t have to explain what I’m going to do and I can change my mind without having to explain. It’s more organic. The DOP on your film was amazing.
SB: Yes! Bobby Shore, he’s a good friend of mine, and I felt really comfortable with him. You’re always looking for that, you’re always looking for a short hand with your DOP because they’re your closest ally and you’re always looking for that closeness of minds but if you’re your own DOP, it’s perfect because you’re the closest you can possibly get.
SB: So what’s next for you? Do you get any rest?
SD: No! Because of the Oscar campaign.
SB: And what does that involve?
SD: It really is like a campaign, I have to go to L.A. and go to screenings and shake hands and introduce myself and find some people to champion the film. The other contenders are Parasite, and Pedro Almodóvar’s movie [Pain & Glory].
It’s exciting but I really am the dark horse. It’s kind of unexpected so we’ll see how we can make this diamond in the rough shine. So until the shortlist in December I have some work, I’ll be in L.A.
SB: Do you like Los Angeles?
SD: I don’t know L.A. very well, I’ve been there twice for a very short time. Do you like it?
SB: I actually like it. I think I like it more than most people. I have to be very specific about where I stay, I have to feel like I’m surrounded by some sense of normalcy, you have to curate your experience very well. Otherwise you can get infected with L.A. I know people that go to L.A. and six months later, I feel like… what happened to you.
SD: You feel the change?
SB: There’s this bragging culture that I can’t stand but people always tell me to brag more and talk more about my achievements but that doesn’t feel right to me and I don’t like doing that—but that’s the culture.
SD: I don’t know if we have to act this way. We’re doing films, either acting, filming, directing or writing. And we can just be honest about what we’re doing.
SB: I totally agree.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.