For the second time I was given the pleasure of interviewing Toronto-based filmmaker Ingrid Veninger. Since the debut of her film Modra at last year's festival, she has become one of the most recognizable new faces in Canadian cinema. Physically, she is distinctive as well: her dreadlocked hair sits massed atop her head, almost threatening to topple her itty-bitty frame. There is something childlike about Veninger -- not simply because of her diminutive size, large brown eyes and be-freckled face, but in her pure, unadulterated belief in cinema and its power to transform the world around her. Her entry in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival is i am a good person/i am a bad person, which she also stars in alongside her daughter, Hallie Switzer.
The film tells the story of Ruby, a filmmaker touring Europe promoting her latest endeavor with her teenage daughter, Sara, in tow. Ruby grapples with underwhelming festival crowds and a burgeoning mid-life crisis. Meanwhile, Sara endures her mother's malaise as she internalizes her own worries. Through the course of their travels, tension builds between the two, leading to a parting of ways. Now apart, the two cope with their personal conflicts, eventually ending with surprising revelations for both.
Given the demands of promoting Modra following last year's TIFF, I was curious as to the conception and break-neck production of i am a good person/i am a bad person. "I had no idea I was going to make this film... When Modra got on the Canadian top-ten I was at the Light Box (a prominent TIFF venue) watching films. I got inspired... to make another film and it came from watching all these films and being in this community with all these filmmakers and wanting to do something, wanting to make something. I had no idea what it what going to be." The film went from "a blank page... the sitting down trying to conjure up an idea to the world premier six months later." Before embarking on a spring tour of the European festival circuit, Veninger penned the screenplay in a mere nineteen days, tailoring it to the people and opportunities at hand. "I looked at what I had... my crew of two people, my daughter and myself, and I knew what the locations were going to be and I just tried to write a screenplay that would utilize those resources." (Fun fact: Switzer's boyfriend served as one half of the skeleton crew.)
Veninger was proactive in casting. Before arriving in the various destinations featured in the film (Bradford, U.K.; Paris, France; Berlin, Germany) local actors e-mailed resumes and headshots. Auditions were then conducted via Skype (oh the information age!). When additional casting was necessary, she found willing participants in trains, buses and city streets. Though her films are scripted, Veninger welcomes improvisation, spontaneity and even the occasional bystander walking into the frame. "I was hoping with a small enough crew and working with people I really trusted we would go on with a plan but be open to accidents and spontaneous things and be flexible enough to react."
Some formalist may take issue with her let's-see-what-happens approach to filmmaking, but it is this quality which imbues Veninger's work with a rare naturalism. At one point in the film, she passes out flyers advertising her character's fictional film on the streets of Berlin -- the pedestrians' genuine apathy enhances the discomfort of the audience as we watch Veninger's alter-ego clamor for attention. Also, Switzer gives an impressive performance as a real teenager -- I emphasize the word 'real' as film and television tend to portray teenagers as clear-skinned, articulate and self-possessed fabrications (think Glee!).
With the close resemblance between the two, I wanted to know the relationship between Veninger's life and her subject matter. "One affects the other but it's not the same thing... I already live my real life. I'm interested in learning new things about myself, new challenges, a different perspective... I'm not a documentary filmmaker but... I pull on a lot of my experiences." This film took "the experience of being a filmmaker and questioning the value of it and struggling with the balance of being a parent and a partner and an artist."
The love and trust Veninger shares with her actors enrich her films with great performances. However, her greatest achievement is her acceptance of the unknown. I leave readers with an anecdote from the filmmaker. "Beautiful things happened in Berlin...You know that moment with the German soldier? The camera is about 70-80 feet away. I'm just sitting at Brandenburg Gate -- in a sense, waiting for something to happen, waiting for a sign... This German soldier spontaneously offers me a free hug. He didn't just hug me quickly or pat me on my back -- he actually really hugged me. You can't script stuff like that."