Rachel Talalay: Beauty, bravery, and respect in the making of On The Farm

I wanted the dialogue in the film to feel real, I wanted artistic photography but also have a documentary feel. I wanted to be ‘inside’. To this end, I let the actors improv parts of scenes, to try to feel more part of their world. I didn’t want the standard TV-fare — you speak/beat/I speak… that’s not the way people actually talk.

Maija Tailfeathers, Rachel Talalay [Photo Credit: Cate Cameron]

#DirectedbyWomen had a chance to talk with filmmaker Rachel Talalay this week as her film On The Farm prepares to screen at Portland Film Festival.

DBW: Rachel, it’s great to have a chance to connect with you. Thanks for taking time. I know you have so much going on these days. You’ve been directing some very exciting TV: Sherlock, Super Girl, Legends of Tomorrow, Dr. Who, etc. Any news on that front you’d like to share?

RT: Spoiler-free Zone.

DBW: Right now your powerful film On the Farm is finding its way to film festival audiences and I’d love it if we could turn our attention to this intense, deeply engaging film, which screens next at Portland Film Festival Sept. 3rd. What’s at the heart of this project?

RT: It’s based on a true story beautifully chronicled in investigative journalist Stevie Cameron’s award winning book (On The Farm) about victims of a serial killer in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. He preyed on drug addicts and sex workers from approximately 1995 to 2002. It’s the story of the voicelessness of the women who tried to bring attention to the story, the police malfeasance and community leaders and the families who worked to bring attention to the problem. It’s a universal story of marginalized women.

DBW: So many aspects of the production work together to keep the women firmly at the center of this story: the striking visuals, the aural landscape your soundtrack provides, the subtle ways you work with framing and blocking actors, the shape of the script, and, of course, the daring, nuanced performances. They all serve to keep our attention riveted on the women – to assert their primacy. Can you share about how you worked with your creative team to make this film such a departure from a typical film involving a serial killer?

RT: It was always the women’s story — that is the center of the book and the movie. My job was to try to keep it away from the obvious cliches and out of the realm of exploitation and in no way honor the heinous villain. On the other hand, I didn’t want a ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ cliche either. The Vancouver Downtown East Side is a very specific place — a community with a dark heart. People do not choose addiction. It’s an illness. And being a sex trade worker can be the result of this.

Our cast was tasked to research the world, to read the book, to go out with the police and experience this world. I didn’t want glamour. But I wanted beauty. A strong inspiration to me was the brilliant photographer, Lincoln Clarkes, who took pictures of the girls. A lot of the missing women are documented in his book Heroines. Those photos are glamorous and real — the girls are not looking away, not embarrassed. I wanted that reality and courage to come across.

On the Farm: Sarah Strange, Sara Canning
On the Farm: Sarah Strange, Sara Canning

Auditions were really important. I rejected hopefuls who thought they were all about dolling up and playing a Lolita type character. I wanted the warts to show.

The casting director, the brilliant Jackie Lind, was tireless in promoting the show to a high level of cast (and it’s a large cast for a small film). Also actors such as Brittany Wilson (Megan) worked hard to get an audition — putting herself on video even when she normally would not have to — because she wanted the opportunity to be in the movie. Jackie said she would not automatically have brought her in to audition because she normally plays such wholesome roles. It’s a credit to her that she fought to be seen. And I think she’s exceptional.

Maija is mind-blowing in her bravery, but we’ll get to that.

I wanted the dialogue in the film to feel real, I wanted artistic photography but also have a documentary feel. I wanted to be ‘inside’. To this end, I let the actors improv parts of scenes, to try to feel more part of their world. I didn’t want the standard TV-fare — you speak/beat/I speak… that’s not the way people actually talk.

I worked closely with our wonderful cinematographer, Michael Blundell, to get an art film look. I didn’t just want gritty, I wanted beauty too. That was the challenge.

Sarah Strange, Olivia Steele-Falconer, Maija Tailfeathers
Sarah Strange, Olivia Steele-Falconer, Maija Tailfeathers

DBW: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers delivers a riveting performance as Nikki Taylor. I heard her say in an interview – and I’m paraphrasing here that she’d been told once that some stories aren’t worth telling unless they are told with love. And she feels that this is one of those stories. Watching the film I felt that love pervades the film. Does that resonate with you? Can you give us insights into how you engage with actors to support their ability to take risks with their work and act from a deep place of love even when telling heart wrenching stories?

RT: Maija is so brave in this role. I am just amazed to watch her. Everyone who came in to audition was wary of the story, scared we might be exploiting, not honoring. A large amount of community engagement was necessary, and we had a 1st Nations advisor, Doreen Manual, who was on set to give us guidance and to add a spiritual element that respected the lost girls. It was incredible to have her smudge the crew or the locations at certain points, it was a means of respect.

Cast and crew all chose to be part of this film because of our hope that its importance would resonate out into the world. This type of story continues and we need it to be seen and discussed and acted upon.

Recently a couple of people have told me that watching the film made them want to DO something. We have set up a charitable foundation but this is not enough. One young woman told me her longer term ambition is to start a reputable rehab clinic. If that’s the response we are evoking, I am delighted.

It’s a hard movie to watch, but it needs to feel redemptive too.

Casting was a large part of the journey. Once you hire the right people and give them general direction, you then strive to give them a safe space to their best work. I don’t dictate. In a way, I think the word ‘directing’ is entirely wrong. I guide, I collaborate, I have a vision, but ‘directing’ is threatening to an actor who is trying to find a vulnerable, real place. I want to give them the opportunity to do their best work.

Equally the word “Acting” is misleading because it puts a veneer of falseness on a process that is all about honesty.

DBW: There’s a lot of discussion these days about transforming the film industry to break down barriers and create a culture of inclusion. I’m struck by the awareness that change so often arises from shifts in how people actually do the work together. Your shoot seems to be a wonderful example of opportunities for films to be made in new ways. The introduction of smudging for example. I’d love to hear about that. How did that come about? What impact did you experience it having on the work process and the film itself? Do you feel inspired to take this approach to other sets in the future?

RT: Smudging was respect to the 1st Nations victims. (Fewer than half of the victims were 1st Nations, but the community has been particularly active in keeping the story alive).

The smudging was so spiritual, we all embraced it as a way to respect everyone — victims, family, crew, community.

Some of the crew were only one or two degrees of separation from the story – they had family members who were addicts, or had disappeared, we all have stories of pain. Others knew victims or victims’ families. So there was a sense of the importance of the work among everyone.

I didn’t set out to make that the case, the film brought those people to us.

We all do a lot of commercial work. As is obvious, I love the entertainment I make, I have a wacky sense of Tank Girl humor and a love of Sci-Fi. But in the work I do, I always want to honor strong women. I have experienced a lot of anti-women biases and if there’s one thing I can choose, it’s to tell stories that fight that.

Sara Canning, Rachel Talalay, Patrick Gallagher
Sara Canning, Rachel Talalay, Patrick Gallagher

DBW: We’re about to enter the month long #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party, which aims to help the world fall madly in love with films (actually all kinds of motion pictures) by women directors. Could you share a few films directed by women that inspire, challenge, or delight you – particularly perhaps sharing about work by women filmmakers that audiences may not yet have seen or heard about?

RT: I don’t want to be having this conversation any more. I don’t want to have to think about how many wonderful women directors were near silenced in the 90’s. Thinking how I love Desperately Seeking Susan, Wayne’s World, Girlfight. Then I go back to Lena Wertmüller — Swept Away.

I don’t want gender to even need to be a topic. But the statistics and stagnation just continue. I’m often the only woman on the bus on location scouts and we’re lucky to have one woman in the technical crew. Still. Even now.

You can’t be an auteur if you can’t have a body of work. But if you are stopped in your tracks or forced to make movies at such a tiny budget, you can’t survive.

I just got depressed.

DBW: It was not my intention to depress. The intent is to catalyze a culture of appreciation and invite celebration of women directors and their work. Thanks again, Rachel, for sharing about your work. Can’t wait for what you create next.

On The Farm at Portland Film Festival 2016
Saturday September 3, 2016 10:00pm – 11:30pm
Laurelhurst Theater 2735 E Burnside St, Portland OR 97214