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Q&A: Baroness von Sketch Show’s Aurora Browne on season three

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Baroness von Sketch Show returns for season three on CBC on September 18. Photo courtesy Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Baroness von Sketch Show returns for season three on CBC on September 18. Photo courtesy Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Hailing from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Aurora Browne is one of four creators and stars of CBC’s popular Baroness von Sketch Show, which was renewed for a fourth season on August 23. She spoke with The Mutt about the show’s upcoming season (premiering September 18), going viral and some of her favourite sketches.

THE MUTT: Going into season three, how do you feel the four of you (main cast members Meredith MacNeill, Carolyn Taylor, Jennifer Whalen and Browne) have developed as writers and performers?

AURORA BROWNE: I think that for season three we felt more secure and more confident. When I was looking at the season, I thought, what are all the things I would like to do? Maybe I’m never going to get actually cast as an action star and beat somebody up, but maybe I could write myself in that scene. Other things it was like, yeah we can get this personal or this small, explore this dark little corner of how I look at the future of us as humans on the planet. I think I can share that on a show.

TM: Do you tend to write scenes for your co-stars that you know they’ll be comfortable with, or do you like to put them outside of their comfort zones?

AB: I’ve known Carolyn and Jennifer for a really long time, but that doesn’t mean you’re not discovering that, “Oh, this person is really good at this.” There are lots of times I would I think even, you know, “I’ve never seen Jen do a Russian mobster.” You get a little more playful.

TM: How does the writers’ room on Baroness von Sketch Show compare to other shows that you’ve worked on, especially considering the all-female team you have?

AB: The main thing about it is that it’s really ours. We’ve been given a really amazing amount of creative control across the board. We can hire who we want – of course, the network has final say – but we really get to hire who we’re interested in. For instance, what about this person who is primarily a crime novelist? Because we’re interested in their point of view.

Before co-creating and starring on Baroness von Sketch Show, Aurora Browne co-starred on Comedy Inc. and was part of Toronto's Second City troupe. Photo courtesy Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Before co-creating and starring on Baroness von Sketch Show, Aurora Browne co-starred on Comedy Inc. and was part of Toronto’s Second City troupe. Photo courtesy Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

AB: As far as being female, it’s been so long now working on this show that it just seems totally natural. I almost forget that’s not necessarily how it is in the rest of the industry. The other day my son got me into watching Vines, and I was watching this Vine compilation and thought, “Oh, right, guys can be funny too!” I’m so used to sitting here usually laughing with this group I spent almost all of my time with and it was nice to get a reminder that 22-year-olds guys are hilarious. When it’s all women we’re sitting and talking about issues that maybe are a bit personal. Like how many people we’d slept with. I think the discussion was super frank because it was all girls. It can feel like a really personal, nice conversation among the girlfriends and because we can do that in the writers’ room it means we can go to pretty vulnerable places.

TM: You spoke a little bit about discovering new ground in your work. What sketches and topics still feel fresh to you, and what topics do you as a team tend to gravitate towards?

AB: I would say the freshest stuff, sadly, the stuff that feels the most relevant is how do we deal with the terrible dark cloud of what the world has become. Just people dealing with modern life and all the ways it can make you sad and disconnected, in a general term that feels pretty fresh. I would say power dynamics always feel fresh, because I think for most humans power dynamics come up in your everyday life. When we’re exploring being women specifically, a lot of the really subtle interpersonal ways that power is expressed, like between friends in a group at the office, the jockeying for position and a lot of the really subtle ways that happens, that feels fresh. Those weird, private, small stuff that you wonder, “Does anybody else have these things happen?” Small awkwardness never ever, ever, ever fails to be a gold mine.

TM: I think examining those small moments has led to a number of sketches that have really connected, and some that have gone viral. How does that feel when that happens, when things go viral on Facebook and elsewhere?

AB: I don’t think there’s a comedian alive whose ego doesn’t love when that happens. It goes both ways. I think when you see comedy and you think, “Oh good, comedians have expressed something I have experienced, it’s nice.” But for us, when we see all these views on a video about people feeling old when they’re buying wine, it’s kind of nice for us, too. It’s like, “Oh I guess we’re not alone either.”

TM: What were some of your favourite sketches from the past two seasons? Was the buying wine sketch one of them?

AB: That was one of my favourites to do, and also to watch. And the last third of the scene was pretty much improvised. It was super fun to do that one. I love where that scene went.

AB: I love watching everybody’s work too. It’s such a pleasure to watch everybody. The Mad Max one is one that we released first, I loved it across the board. It made me really uncomfortable to do because it was hot. But I loved the costumes, I loved the location and the writing of that one.

TM: As a writer and as you’ve been immersed in the show for some time now, do you find yourself taking notes in your day-to-day life, saying, “Oh that could be a sketch, that could be a sketch…”

AB: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s funny, like there’s no one way a sketch happens. Sometimes I’ll just transcribe incidents that happen. There’s one in the second season when I’m on my bicycle and saying hello to this woman that I pass by. I was on my way to the writers’ room on a Monday morning and I had my list of pitches and while I was biking to work I passed this woman I kind of knew, so I thought I’d yell “hello” at her, but I didn’t have time to stop or I’d be late. So I just awkwardly tried to explain that, “I have to keep going.” Like an asshole. So we ended up writing that into the scene. That kind of stuff. Like many comedians, I’m just riddled with insecurity and anytime you’re aware of that you’re like, “Oh, maybe that’s a sketch.”

TM: What can people expect from season three?

AB: I hope that people keep enjoying it. I hope that we keep it up and maybe exceed it a little bit and that we don’t let them down. That’s the always frightening thing. I just want us to be able to keep people laughing. But if I have any lofty ambitions for the show, I hope that it encourages other networks to give other Canadian creators the opportunity to also be in control and let creators do what they can do. There are so many talented people in this country.

The third season of Baroness von Sketch Show premieres Tuesday, September 18 on CBC.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

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Honey Bee is a revealing look at human trafficking in Canada

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Honey Bee, directed by Rama Rau, stars Julia Sarah Stone as an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival.
Honey Bee, directed by Rama Rau, stars Julia Sarah Stone as an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival. Photo courtesy A71 Entertainment

Honey Bee director Rama Rau may be known to Canadian audiences mostly due to her acclaimed work in documentary, including League of Exotique Dancers (2015) and No Place to Hide (2015) – the former profiling aging burlesque dancers and the latter taking a focus on the world of cyberbullying.

But though Honey Bee marks Rau’s narrative feature debut, her instincts honed in documentary filmmaking remain essential, as much of the film is shot as though it were a documentary feature.

“I think that was key in telling the story, for me,” Rau said. “The actors were never acting – they were always in that state.”

Much of the film’s dramatic power is supplied by lead actress Julia Sarah Stone, who plays Natalie, an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival.

“She was literally the crux of the film. She was everything,” Rau said. “When I saw her audition, and I looked at a lot of auditions, I really wanted her to be in my film.”

Rau spoke with The Mutt about Stone, transitioning from documentary filmmaking and the too-infrequently discussed prevalence of human trafficking in Canada. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

THE MUTT: So tell me about Honey Bee.

RAMA RAU: It’s about a girl groomed from the foster home system and put into a human trafficking ring. She thinks the person grooming her is her boyfriend. That’s how they get young girls from the foster care system in Canada. Then, she’s caught in a police raid and sent to a farm and the movie really begins there, her coming to terms with what has happened. A lot of it is her finding herself.

TM: What were your first thoughts when you initially read the script?

RR: I was a bit shocked, to be honest. I was stunned that these things happen in Canada. I wondered if I wanted this to be my debut feature. But it’s never frightened me to go into the underbelly of society. But films have the power to open up areas that we don’t normally talk about. I also said as a woman director I can bring a certain perspective to it. And I found my way into the story, and said, “This is how I’m going to do it, and if you’re OK with it, I’m happy to work on this film.”

TM: What were those specific elements you wanted to bring to the film?

RR: I knew I wanted it to be totally told from the perspective of Natalie, from her POV. I knew I wanted it to be a very personal film. In documentary, we use handheld cameras a lot. We literally run behind our characters. I wanted that sense of urgency in this film. We kind of blurred the lines between fiction and fact. I wanted to go so deep into the story, so the audience never knows, “Is this a real story, or is this a person acting? Does this really happen in Canada?”  [There was a scene where] and we ran behind [Natalie] like we were a camera crew.

TM: This film is obviously so based on character and Natalie’s experience. Do you think approaching things with that documentary mentality, did that help you capture small character moments?

RR: Yes, absolutely. I think that was key in telling the story. For me, the actors were never acting, they were always in that state. I encouraged them to be that way for as long as we were filming. I think they really took that to heart. They really lived their characters, and that was so rewarding for the camera because the camera picked up every little twitch of the cheek and movement of the eyebrow. I think that really lent to the authenticity. I even told Ryan (Steven Love), I want you to not talk too much to the women and I want them to hate you by the end of the film. So it’s really beyond method acting, it’s really living and being that character for that period of time.

TM: Having someone capable in the lead is obviously very important, because you need someone who is able to deliver that authenticity. How important was it having Stone in that role?

RR: Oh my god, she was literally the crux of the film. She was everything. I know she did so much research. I think she really carries the film on her shoulders. That’s why I had to choose such a strong actor like Martha to offset Julia’s stunning performance. I got so lucky in getting such great actors. God knows what I would have done if Julia wouldn’t have been able to deliver, because the film is totally based on every nuance of her face.

TM: Why would you recommend people check out the film?

RR: I think human trafficking in Ontario is not talked about enough. I think people watching this film will find a way into thinking about it. It’s not a news item. It’s more of a story of a girl who has been through the sex trade and has been bartered like a piece of furniture. I think we need to give these girls a voice. Since documentaries on these subjects can’t be made because it brings a lot of danger to their lives, these sort of films based on social issues is what opens up peoples’ minds to these sorts of issues. That’s why I think this film is crucial for people to watch if we have to tackle things like human trafficking in Ontario.

Honey Bee opened in select theatres on Sept. 20 and will be available on Video on Demand on Dec. 10.

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Director Rob Grant on the tension (and dark comedy) of HARPOON

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From director Rob Grant (Mon Ami, Fake Blood), Harpoon will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival. Photo courtesy CUFF
From director Rob Grant (Mon Ami, Fake Blood), Harpoon will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival April 28. Photo courtesy CUFF

Adrift on the seas on a luxury yacht, three friends find themselves stranded without food or supplies and quickly realize their survival is less than assured. An official selection at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019, Harpoon made its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) April 28. The film will release on VOD in Canada on October 15.

The Mutt spoke with director Rob Grant prior to the film’s screening at CUFF 2019. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

THE MUTT: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of Harpoon?

ROB GRANT: I had a great relationship with my producers (Knuckleball director Michael Peterson and Kurtis Harder) from a film called Fake Blood. I pitched Mr. Peterson on this idea that was a mix between Polanski’s Knife on the Water but by way of Seinfeld characters on the boat. I grew up in Vancouver, and the original idea was, “Well, I spent a lot of time on a boat, we could go take a boat out to the ocean and try to isolate ourselves out there.” Once a budget came into play and the idea grew, suddenly we were shooting the interiors of the boat in a set in the middle of freezing winter in Calgary, and shooting the exteriors on a boat in tropical Belize down south.

TM: Was it difficult for you to balance those comedic elements and still find a way to ratchet up the tension?

RG: It was very difficult, and there were a lot of discussions about that. When you have to give the elevator pitch, you have to say: “This is the genre and this is what it means.” But I subscribe to the logic that in life you can feel in one moment that you’re in a love story and the next minute in a horror movie, and that’s the way real life actually works. But it seems a little more rigid in movies. We were aware of potentially disrupting viewers’ experiences of watching the movie. (We thought) a movie could, or should, be multiple things at once. We’re willing to accept that there’s going to be some audience members that are going to reject that as a movie experience, but we wanted to try it.

Harpoon director Rob Grant said premiering the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 was a very validating experience. Photo courtesy CUFF

Harpoon director Rob Grant said premiering the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 was a very validating experience. Photo courtesy CUFF

TM: Can you tell me more about those influences you mentioned? I’m curious about how you mixed something like Seinfeld with more traditional thriller elements.

RG: Hitchcock’s Lifeboat was definitely in there, as well as Polanski’s Knife in the Water. But I had to still find the dark humour in it, and Seinfeld came up specifically because as much as we all find the Seinfeld characters enduring, they’re very much in it for themselves. They’re worried about their own outcomes. So I tried to use a lot of that. As much as these people like to say they’re looking out for each other, the second it becomes a survival story they’re all kind of in it for themselves. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia was another one, not only for mixing drama and humour, but definitely because the narration was less focused. It sets up what’s going to happen without speaking to much on the nose about what you’re about to see.

TM: I understand there’s some great gore and effects in Harpoon. What was your approach to that, and what effect do you think that has? 

RG: I’ve explored the effects of violence in cinema with Fake Blood, and this was an extension of that. The entire movie, these people speak very casually and aloof about the things that potentially will need to be done without actually considering what that entails until suddenly when it happens. I felt like it would be a good idea to make sure that was extremely violent and horrible, not only because we’ve been teasing up to this moment, but I do believe there’s a certain element that people do not consider the actual realities of having to do something like that. So it’s very shocking, very brutal, it’s like, “ha ha ha this was all funny to discuss” and now that it’s happened it sucks the wind out of you. That was a very intentional decision.

TM: What do you think Harpoon does in a unique way when compared to other similar films? What do you hope the audience walks away with?

RG: I hope when people leave the cinema that it wasn’t the movie they were expecting, that it was a little bit of a different take. I do think it’ll challenge them depending what their expectations are. I just hope they’re expecting something interesting in the genre, and that they’re along for the ride.

Harpoon will be released on VOD in Canada on October 15.

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There Are No Fakes is a shocking journey into the world of art fraud

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Directed by Jamie Kastner, There Are No Fakes is a shocking feature-length documentary that centres on the work of Norval Morrisseau. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions
Directed by Jamie Kastner, There Are No Fakes is a shocking feature-length documentary that centres on the work of Norval Morrisseau. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

Some of the best documentaries of the past two decades involve hard left turns – films that begin in one direction but end in another due to events that unfolded during production. There Are No Fakes, directed by Jamie Kastner, joins that select company of documentary as its comedic opening slowly morphs into something much darker.

There Are No Fakes centers on the work of Norval Morrisseau, the Indigenous Canadian artist of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Morrisseau, who died in 2007, sought to remove forgeries of his art from the marketplace, establishing the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society in 2005.

After Kevin Hearn (of Barenaked Ladies fame) buys one of Morrisseau’s paintings, he starts to doubt its authenticity and discovers a bizarre feud consolidated around Morrisseau. It’s this conflict, and the dark secrets hidden beneath it, that form the backdrop of There Are No Fakes.

Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution, Free Trade Is Killing My Mother), who was friends with Hearn in high school, learned through conversation about Hearn’s ongoing lawsuit surrounding the Morrisseau paintings. It became clear to Kastner that such a story would be perfect for his next project.

“It was almost unbelievable. There was so much crazy stuff in this story, I couldn’t quite believe it,” Kastner said. “I told him if I was going to proceed with it, though we were friends he would have no editorial control. As a journalist, I would be talking to both sides, and he agreed.

“I went off on my own doing my own kind of digging and research. Lo and behold, everything he told me and then some turned out to be the case.”

Norval Morrisseau of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation was sometimes referred to as the "Picasso of the North". Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

Norval Morrisseau of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation was sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

As the story unfolded and as Kastner continued to meet a succession of larger-than-life characters, he found himself shocked at what he uncovered. Bringing footage back to his editor provoked a similar reaction.

“He’d say, ‘Holy f***!’ Then I’d do another one, and he’s quite an even-keeled guy, and he’d say ‘holy f***,’” Kastner said. “So it was a series of ‘holy f***’ moments. I tried to recreate that experience for the audience.”

Documentaries can often unfold much as expected, with a known story dictating the outcome of the production. But given the fluid situation surrounding the events of There Are No Fakes, Kastner followed the story as it led him, knowing he had been handed an incredible gift.

“It’s definitely a privilege and a responsibility (to tell this story). You’re dealing with the legacy of one of our most important artists,” he said. “You wind up dealing with very serious issues of abuse of different kinds, so I felt a real responsibility.

“You have to handle it very carefully as a documentary filmmaker. It really is so unique and unusual and special and horrific and inspiring and a whole range of things that you don’t usually get in one film.”

There Are No Fakes made its world premiere at Hot Docs 2019, receiving highly positive reviews. Kastner said the film provided fascinating insight into the legacy of Morrisseau, touching on multiple problems still at play in Canada.

“It’s a very dramatic story. People can’t believe that they’re real people. They seem like characters out of some HBO series or something,” Kastner said. “I think it’s a very entertaining, edge of your seat, jaw-dropping type of story that happens to be a documentary.”

There Are No Fakes will screen at multiple locations throughout Canada in July 2019. For more information, click here.

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