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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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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.

Next to read on The Mutt: Tantoo Cardinal propels Falls Around Her in first leading role

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Isabelle brings psychological terror to an idyllic neighbourhood

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Starring Adam Brody, Amanda Crew, Zoë Belkin and others, Isabelle returns to Canada for a theatrical run starting June 28. Photo courtesy GAT PR.
Starring Adam Brody, Amanda Crew, Zoë Belkin and others, Isabelle returns to Canada for a theatrical run starting June 28. Photo courtesy GAT PR.

In a quaint New England neighbourhood, a charming young couple (Adam Brody and Amanda Crew) find the perfect home to move into. But what they find in that home complicates their dream to start a family, as darkness and paranoia emerges in director Rob Heydon’s Isabelle.

Following in the footsteps of other psychological horrors such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Isabelle comes from a screenplay written by Donald Martin (Milton’s Secret). Having grown up watching genre films like The Omen and The Shining, Heydon approached the project looking to put his own stamp on psychological terror.

“Reading the script, I just got into it cold. Then once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down,” Heydon said. “I thought a lot about what other references it could be like and how I could help bring something to the story and the storytelling.”

Much like other films in the genre, Heydon’s intention for Isabelle was to emphasize the psychology of the terror as a priority. That meant slowly building up the characters and introducing new elements throughout the runtime of the film.

“In a sense, it’s trying to tell a story in three arcs and build the audience’s expectations up to the third act,” Heydon said. “We used the combination of cinematography and editing and music to bring the audience into the mind of the main character and have the audience experience what our main characters are going through.”

Isabelle made its world premiere in South Korea in October 2018, and has since played at 33 film festivals around the world. Photo courtesy GAT PR

Isabelle made its world premiere in South Korea in October 2018, and has since played at 33 film festivals around the world. Photo courtesy GAT PR

The strength of the cast – which includes Brody, Crew and Zoë Belkin as Isabelle – was essential given the nature of the material. Brody was the first to sign on, but other cast members took longer to materialize.

“Amanda Crew wasn’t available at the same time. So it took almost two years to put together the cast,” Heydon said. “But when their calendars lined up, we also got some amazing talent to surround them. Belkin, Sheila McCarthy, who played Isabelle’s mom… we were really lucky.”

Isabelle shot in Hamilton, Ont., with old Victorian homes posing as New England. Beyond the locale, Heydon said the cost savings attained shooting in Hamilton were significant.

“In Toronto, to rent a house for a day might be 10 or 15 thousand per day. In Hamilton, we were lucky to get three houses right next to each other for 20 days for $20,000,” he said. “You just can’t find that anywhere in Toronto.”

Having initially premiered in South Korea as part of the Busan Film Festival (along with fellow Canadian horror Lifechanger), Isabelle will now open to a larger release in Canada. Heydon said genre aficionados should find much to enjoy in Isabelle.

“I’d say read what the film’s about and check out the trailer – I think the trailer says it all. And if you’re interested, come check it out,” he said.

Isabelle begins its theatrical run in Toronto June 28 at the Carlton Cinema. For more information, click here.

Next up on The Mutt: Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart

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Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart, the first feature from director/writer Hussein Juma, plays June 2 at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. Photo courtesy Hussein Juma
Things Fall Apart, the first feature from director/writer Hussein Juma, plays June 2 at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. Photo courtesy Hussein Juma

Those familiar with Hussein Juma, director and writer of Things Fall Apart, know that it’s somewhat fruitless to attempt to fully summarize his work. That’s largely by design – Juma himself says he enjoys injecting ambiguity into his projects.

But more than that, what’s exciting about Juma as a director is his ability to create a sense of atmospheric dread based heavily on context and character and not cliché. So horror fans on the hunt for films that are likely to surprise should take note of what Juma says about his first feature, Things Fall Apart.

“If you like arthouse cinema, things that are going to challenge you and even scare you a little too, I think this film would be for you,” Juma says. “If you’re interested in new ways to tell stories, in indie cinema and the way it can reframe things and put them in different contexts, I think there’s a lot to think about with this film.”

That unique approach to story was evident throughout Juma’s 12-episode web series Horse Mask, a surreal horror that centres around a missing daughter, a forest and many mysterious masks. Though Things Fall Apart is Juma’s first feature, he says working on Horse Mask helped prepare him, given the fact that the runtime of that web series evens out to be around the length of a feature.

Set during a dinner party, Things Fall Apart lets audiences act as a sort of fly on the wall as tensions and emotions emerge.

“Things progressively get more tense between the characters. I think there’s a good balance — there are those moments where you’re going to feel uncomfortable, there are moments where you’re going to be scared, there are moments where you’re going to feel like, ‘What the hell is going on right now?’” Juma says.

Furthering his desire to tell a story in a fresh way, Juma says he employed improvised dialogue throughout Things Fall Apart, making up 80 per cent of the dialogue. Though actors were provided with full scripts, dialogue was written in beats that guided where conversations would go.

“When we finally selected our actors, we extensively rehearsed it multiple times. That was a really cool process,” Juma says. “I had a bare-bones, skeleton idea of where I wanted each conversation to go, but these actors got so into it and took it to interesting places. (Many times) I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great. We have to keep that.’”

Through using improvised dialogue, Juma says he was able to capture the essence of a dinner party, complete with moments of levity, tension and awkwardness. Photo courtesy Hussein Juma

Through using improvised dialogue, Juma says he was able to capture the essence of a dinner party, complete with moments of levity, tension and awkwardness. Photo courtesy Hussein Juma

The cast, which includes Chengis Javeri (one of the leads in Horse Mask), Bobbi Goddard, Gina Lorene and more, was already familiar to Juma, giving him confidence that they would be able to pull off the improvised dialogue. Juma says surrounding himself with smart, funny people led to a number of happy accidents that made their way into the finished product.

Other times, Juma says he would play off what he knew about the actors themselves.

“If I could see even a sliver of tension between them in the real world or a sliver of something in a look that I see, I can kind of harness that in the film,” he says. “I think that worked really well in terms of when I wanted to play someone against another person. Because I worked with them before, I knew things I could whisper in their ear before a take to throw them off.”

Ultimately, Juma says he wanted to make a film that he would want to see himself. Based on his track record, it’s likely that horror fans looking for a surprising, experimental feature with strong character work will find it in Things Fall Apart.

Things Fall Apart plays June 2 at 2 p.m. at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. For more information, click here.

Next up on The Mutt: The story behind Uwe Boll, the so-called “worst filmmaker” ever

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