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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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Philippe Lesage on ‘Genesis’ (‘Genèse’), his keenly-observed second autobiographical feature

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Director Philippe Lesage's Genesis is the second autobiographical film from the Quebecois director, following 2015's Les démons. Photo courtesy Ixion Communications
Director Philippe Lesage's Genesis is the second autobiographical film from the Quebecois director, following 2015's Les démons. Photo courtesy Ixion Communications

Director Philippe Lesage returns with his second autobiographical film, Genesis (Genèse), a contemplative and keenly-observed meditation on young love and adolescence. Since its North American Premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), Genesis went on to win the Louve D’Or at Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma. He spoke with The Mutt prior to the film’s screening at VIFF 2018. This interview has been condensed and edited for length.  

THE MUTT: This is your second autobiographical film after 2015’s The Demons. What material from your past do you tend to draw on? 

PHILIPPE LESAGE: The Demons was more or less based on my own childhood. So I would say that in Genesis, the main basic material of the story is also quite close to my own personal experience or experiences that some people very close to me had. It’s pretty much based on reality. One character, the main character in The Demons, Félix, he also has a part in Genesis.

TM: How close to your actual life would you say the film is? 

PL: It’s always a tricky question, because I think that, in a way, if I was writing about martians that would still be close to me. I mean I cannot give you a percentage, of course, but it’s very close. The character of Félix is pretty much accurate. What he’s experiencing in this one – he goes to a summer camp, he has this crush on this girl, and it’s like a first powerful heartbreaking or bittersweet crush he has on this girl. I consider that experience more or less exactly the same. It was ambiguous – I didn’t get to kiss the girl, but almost. That’s maybe why I’m making a film about it. If I had kissed the girl, maybe I wouldn’t make many films at all.

TM: For you, what’s your memory like of being that age and experiencing first love? Do you have a strong memory and a strong recollection of what it was like to feel that way? Because for a film like this you have to make it authentic. So in the writing process, how were you able to transport yourself back there to feel those emotions again?

PL: When you’re taking time to go back to it, it’s very easy to me to get back to that period in a way. If you ask the question now, I can still think about that summer camp and I can still remember a good part of it and how I was feeling. I think it’s funny how adults sometimes make a kind of wall between what they are now and what they were when they were kids. Adults sometimes forget how lucid kids are and how much they understand. But I would say my wall is a thin wall, in a way. These are pure emotions and I struggled in a way not to be corrupted to keep that authenticity in my life. The characters in the film are passionate. They love without trying to protect themselves, without any calculation. That’s something that I value as an adult – to jump into love without a safety net and to just try and be as authentic and truthful as you can.

TM: The film deals a lot with young love, and how that evolves and changes. What did you want to explore about that period in adolescence? 

PL: I wouldn’t say it’s a coming out story in this case, but I would say that I’m interested to show in films how sexuality is evolving and moving around and changing. Sometimes we don’t notice it. You don’t want the same thing you want now that you wanted when you were 20 years old or 15. At a young age you also don’t really know what you want, and that’s the tragic aspect of loving – because first love is very rarely happy. The reason is that maybe the emotions are truthful but we’re not well-equipped to make decisions that are clear. Because what happens when we are loving at that age is we love the wrong people. We are surrounded by the wrong people, and that’s one of the tragic aspects of being young is hanging out with the wrong people and then you start to have doubts about yourself. We’ve all experienced it. But being happy has a lot to do with being surrounded with people you feel good with. Sometimes when you’re a teen you end up with a group of people and you’re trying hard to fit the group, but you’re not yourself, so you’re not well. You realize that later on when you have sincere connections with other people. That period of life, for me, is kind of fascinating and very rich. Everything is kind of built on this foundation afterwards.

TM: How were you drawn to writing autobiographically initially? Do you feel more comfortable writing in that fashion, or is it difficult? You said that you value authenticity and honesty – does that naturally translate into these types of stories?

PL: I guess so, but what happened is I started as a filmmaker as a documentarist. I had the urge to do something more personal. I’ve always been writing and writing has been a part of my daily life forever, you know, like these never-ending eternal novels. So I had a couple of these in a drawer under my desk. I was satisfied as a documentarist but I needed to mix that writing desire and also the filmmaker’s aspect to transform that kind of thing into sound and images. So it was really out of necessity that I went back to my life. The terrific side of it, and it may sound selfish, but the more honest you are to yourself, the more often it has the chance to touch other people. I travelled a lot with The Demons and I heard people say, “Your film is like a therapy for me.” Then you’re like, “OK, that’s meaningful, what I did then, it’s not just about me and my own little demons.”

TM: So do you feel there’s an opportunity then to follow these characters in future films, or would you pick up at different parts of your life with different characters?

PL: My next film, maybe I will try to do it in English first. I’m writing this script right now and thinking about this amazing cast, so I’m going a little bit less autobiographical. These are different characters, but some themes are still there, of course. There’s still a little coming of age aspect to it, even though the adults are much more present. But you know, what I try to do is I try to write films that I would like to see. So in a different time in my life I want to see different things.

TM: What’s your pitch to get people to check out Genesis?

PL: I’m trying to do films that value life for what it is, but also I’m trying to transcend the mundanity of life in order to show the beauty out of it. I think that I’m showing sometimes tough things so that people can feel less lonely if their living situation is similar to what I’m showing. But I also want to show beauty. I think that beauty gives hope.

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Director interview: Michael Peterson on ‘Knuckleball’

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Knuckleball
Knuckleball plays Oct. 18 at Imagine Cinemas - Carlton in Toronto and is now available on iTunes and VOD. Photo courtesy GAT PR.

From Calgary-based director Michael Peterson (Lloyd The Conqueror), Knuckleball is a gritty and exhilarating thriller centered on 12-year-old Henry, a young boy who finds himself in a terrifying situation after his grandfather suddenly dies in the middle of the night. Knuckleball, co-written by Peterson and Kevin Cockle, has been described as “Home Alone” meets “The Shining.”

Peterson spoke with The Mutt during the Knuckleball’s Oct. 18 screening at Imagine Cinemas – Carlton in Toronto. This interview has been edited for length.

THE MUTT: So to start off, what’s the film about? How do you tend to introduce the concept to people?

MICHAEL PETERSON: Well, there are a lot of different ways to talk about it. The elevator pitch is that it’s an R-rated Home Alone. I think on the surface that’s true, but hopefully there’s a lot more going on with it. It’s a dark thriller that seems to also connect with some of the horror crowd. It has some horrific things in it, but I would really describe it as a dark thriller.

TM: Some really positive reviews coming from a number of outlets so far – what’s your reaction to the positive press?

MP: Well, it’s pretty flattering that you put this thing out there and people are responding to it more or less in the way you hoped they would. 

TM: You talked about that Home Alone comparison – do you think that adequately prepares audiences for what transpires in the film, or is that just a starting block to catch people’s attention?

MP: I think that’s really what it is. It’s a quick and cheap method to transfer information really quickly. It’s really something different, but it’s just that that film is so iconic. If you’re making anything with a kid in danger, where the kid has to defend themselves, you’re going to end up with that comparison anyways. So it might also be a way to control the conversation so people can either disagree with it or agree with it.

TM: With your protagonist being a child, what sort of challenges does that raise in terms of creating tension but also keeping things grounded and believable? Because obviously we need to be able to believe that this child is capable of fighting back. In the writing process, how did you deal with that?

MP: Well, the idea was, how would a 12-year-old – not your average 12-year-old, but a pretty smart 12-year-old, a capable 12-year-old – be able to deal with this? So we wanted to make it within the realm of possibility. Obviously, it’s still a movie, but that was an important consideration. We didn’t want to veer too far into the world of the fantastical, or like an ‘80s action film. We wanted to keep it somewhat grounded.

TM: Why did you want to explore how a kid would handle a situation like this?

MP: It’s just probably dealing with my anxiety of being a parent, is really what it is. You hope that your children will be able to deal with the world outside on their own and be safe and happy.

TM: I’m not a parent myself, but the world these days and all the crazy stuff going on, you still worry about the world-at-large. Did your experience as a parent with a kid growing up in this world influence how you approached this movie?

MP: Definitely. My kids are a little bit older now, but they’re still young. They’re around the age of the kid in this film. Yeah, I mean, you think about that. You hope they are making good decisions if they see something that isn’t right.  Underneath all of that there is some other themes that are at play, like what happens if someone grows up with the absence of love and that’s normalized? How does that warp your view of the world? How do the bad things that every family has, how do they resurface and come up again, even if you try to protect your kids from those legacy-type situations?

TM: So those are heavier themes than you might find in a typical thriller.

MP: Yeah. They are there if you’re a parent when you watch the film, but I also don’t think you need to pay attention to them to enjoy the film. If you don’t want to engage in that, you don’t have to. The movie also just functions as a thriller. But you can also get a deeper experience – that stuff exists within the story and the characters in the film.

TM: Obviously, Lloyd the Conqueror was a comedy and this is a completely different beast. Did you find the transition between the two genres an easy one to make?

MP: I think the similarity between the two is you’re dealing with very visceral types of emotions. You don’t have to deal with it intellectually – either something is funny or something is frightening, and that’s how I think comedy and horrors or thrillers are similar. As a director, your ethic is to the story. Whatever the story is, you want to tell it the best way possible.

TM: I want to ask about Michael Ironside. He’s got one of those all-time great voices. What was that experience like and how was he able to complement the vibe you were going for?

MP: He was a really great collaborator. He’s someone I grew up admiring as an actor, so to get a chance to work with him was something of a highlight for me personally. I also think he fit that role really well. There were stories that he told me about his dad, not directly related to our story but character traits that he described to me that, once I heard them, I decided to put them in the script. I think it became a way for him to find a really personal connection to that character.

TM:  With Knuckleball now on VOD and those screenings coming up in Toronto, what’s your pitch to folks who haven’t seen it yet to check it out?

MP: I think it’s 90 minutes of thrilling and tense, edge-of-your-seat action, with an excellent cast that bring their ‘A’ game. Thirdly, and this isn’t a reason to see it, but it’s something to hopefully be celebrated, is that it’s all Canadian. We can make really cool, watchable films that can play other countries and do well there, too.

Knuckleball plays Oct. 18 at Imagine Cinemas – Carlton in Toronto. The film is now available on iTunes and VOD. For more information, click here.

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VIFF’s Future//Present expands its view of what Canadian cinema can be

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Shot in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, director Igor Drljača's The Stone Speakers is set to play as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival's 2018 Future//Present series. Photo courtesy Timelapse Pictures
Shot in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, director Igor Drljača's The Stone Speakers is set to play as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival's 2018 Future//Present series. Photo courtesy Timelapse Pictures

Anyone who has been paying attention to Canadian cinema in recent years will have noticed a major shift in where the attention is going. Over the last half-decade, Canada has developed (or redeveloped) a new definition for its art cinema, often dubbed the New Canadian Cinema. Though this movement has existed for some years, its main festival support system has only emerged recently.

Now entering its third year, the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Future//Present has become the annual hotbed for what is most exciting in Canadian cinema that year. In its brief existence, the section has helped launch new works by some of the most impressive talent ever to come out of this country: Sofia Bohdanowicz, Ashley McKenzie and Antoine Bourges, to name a few. This time around, Future//Present aims to expand its view of what Canadian cinema can be.

Two prime examples in redefining Canadian cinema come in the form of The Stone Speakers and The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs, a pair of films that both approach the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina in distinct ways. The Stone Speakers comes from director Igor Drljaca, making his documentary debut after a pair of narrative features. In the film, Drljaca pairs images of the nation’s burgeoning tourist industry with various voiceover narrations that recount the history of the country through these landmarks. Through these two devices, modern images and detailed history, Drljaca finds a way to bridge the past with the present, while also examining the nation’s conflicts between religion, politics and economics.

In The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs, Bojan Bodružić takes a more intimate and personal approach to the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ostensibly a documentary about his grandparents spanning a decade and a half, Bodružić uses their stories to paint a portrait of a nation that has gone through turmoil. Essential to the film is the manner in which Bodružić makes the viewer aware of and comfortable in the family living space, the space where most of the film is set. Images of a nation ravished by war are paired with recollections and memories, setting the context for the film that follows. Though much of the film can be seen in relation to the nation it takes place, the scope of the film extends beyond just a history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The film also operates as a mediation on the passing of time, seen through the slowly aging subjects, as well as the various mediums used for recording. In the end, Bodružić returns to the images of the house, a house that carries the weight of history, presenting the intrinsic connection between the personal and the national.

Continuing on the documentary front, first-time director Aïda Maigre-Touchet’s Song of a Seer proves one of the greatest artistic statements in this year’s Future//Present section. Shot with great intimacy, Song of a Seer is a portrait of Haitian artist and intellectual Dominique Batraville. In its early scenes, Song of a Seer bears a striking resemblance to the films of Straub-Huillet, as Maigre-Touchet films Batraville reciting a series of texts and songs. As the film progresses, Maigre-Touchet finds her own voice in making the film. Much attention is given to Batraville’s home, a tight space brimming with knowledge, as books clutter every corner and pour out of the shelves. Despite the film’s tight focus on Batraville as the subject, there is a a strong sense of universality to the film, especially in its meditation on the self. Eschewing any traditional documentary traditions, Maigre-Touchet’s minimalist glimpse into the mind and life of Batraville is as artistically exhilarating as it is pensive.

The only director to make their return to Future//Present this year, Andrea Bussmann, makes her solo directorial debut with Fausto, following 2016’s collaboration with Nicolás Pereda, Tales of Two Who Dreamt. Taking her camera to the Oaxacan coast, Bussmann presents a dreamlike story of ghosts and myths, all shot on video transferred to 16mm. Arguably the most dense and difficult work to screen in Future//Present yet, Fausto feels like a series of unsolvable riddles, a layered meditation on history through a series of tales that feel as if they have been passed down for generations. Fausto is a modestly ambitious film that demands a lot from its viewers, but those who can find the film’s rhythm will be rewarded tenfold.

Olivier Godin, arguably the only “veteran” filmmaker in this year’s Future//Present section, makes his first entry in the section with his fourth feature, Waiting for April. Much like his last work, 2016’s The Art of Speech, Waiting for April is once again an abstract cop comedy. Waiting for April is essentially a fantasy planted in the real world, replete with assassins, barbarians, a man with a gorilla arm and a much coveted singing bone. In the film’s emphasis on the use of shadows and the makeshift irises, Waiting for April is as much-rooted in the traditions of early cinema as it is looking forward to the future of the medium. While The Art of Speech appeared to take direct cues from the later works of Jean-Luc Godard, Waiting for April is far less alienating, while retaining the core absurdity that helped make the former feature a rousing success. Much like Fausto, Waiting for April requires patience and a suspension of belief, but the simple pleasures of the film’s brutal absurdity make it one of the most instantly pleasurable films in this year’s Future//Present lineup.

Mangoshake marks the biggest risk to ever be taken by the Future//Present programmers. The first feature from director Terry Chiu embodies the spirit and aesthetic of lo-fi/DIY cinema like few films to ever play a major festival.  Telling the story of two rival food/beverage carts over the course of one summer, Mangoshake is a surreal and unpredictable consideration of suburban ennui. While the characters and their exploits in Mangoshake fully rest in the realm of suburban ennui, even the film itself feels birthed out of this concept; a group of bored suburban young adults coming together to make a low-budget film to occupy themselves. While this may not be the truth of the film’s genesis, everything about the film feels born out of this. Despite its rough around the edges look, the film is oddly poetic, allowing characters to reflect on their place in their community and the world at large. Above all of this, Mangoshake is side-splittingly hilarious. In the way it plays with expectations (if you can even have any with a film like this), in the characterization, in the physical comedy, Mangoshake is brimming with hilarity and sincerity.

The finest film to play this year’s Future//Present selection comes in the form of M/M, the feature debut from Drew Lint. What initially appears as a fairly innocuous tale of a man isolated in a new country quickly shifts into a a wild psychosexual thriller. M/M chronicles a tale of deep obsession through sleek, cool style. The film feels at once both cold and clinical as well as brimming with life. Lint’s style plays directly into the tense energy and unease of the film, building and exhibiting the characteristics of the characters at the centre of it. M/M is a terse, glossy peek into the world of love and infatuation, marking Drew Lint as perhaps the most exciting new filmmaker to emerge in 2018.

Another film dealing with obsession in its own right is Spice It Up, a collaboration between Lev Lewis and directing duo Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas. The film tracks a young film student working on a feature-length project. Through interaction with others, she receives the feedbacks and criticisms that drive her to obsessively tinker with her project. The film is largely built on an aspect of cringe, which is honed to elevate both the drama and the humour of the film. Spice It Up is equally an observation of the artistic process and a consideration of feeling alone and dejected in the world. The end result is a film that is both beguiling and bizarre, a truly singular work unlike anything to ever emerge within Canadian cinema.

As Future//Present has shifted its focus away from films confined within Canadian borders, the program has become all the richer for it. Every film laid out in the 2018 lineup feels significant in its own right, while the program is also using this year as an opportunity to help redefine what Canadian cinema is and can be. If the first two instalments marked the introduction of a slew of new English language Canadian directors, this year is largely about diversifying the voices on display in this platform. It marks the riskiest selection that has been curated yet, but the rewards are largely bigger and more exciting than ever.

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