Spotlight on Canadian Female Directors at TIFF: Jordan Canning, We Were Wolves

I came across Newfoundland director Jordan Canning at a retrospective screening of her shorts at Videofag. She’s made 12 of them, spanning animated eggs in an awful breakup (“Not Over Easy”), Wes Anderson-indebted children’s fantasy (“Oliver Bump’s Birthday”) and a stunning conversation between a shy married couple in a single overhead shot (the first of her house series, “Bedroom”). They floored me. When I discovered that Canning’s first feature length film “We Were Wolves,” was slotted to premiere at TIFF on September 9th, I was excited, and curious.

“We Were Wolves,” is the story about two estranged brothers who return to their family cottage after their father dies. Much binge drinking and fighting ensues. We’ve all seen the Canadian cottage movie about a family that goes off the rails. But with Canning’s deft touch, it becomes a film about a relationship between two brothers and the lies and stories we tell ourselves in order to form our personalities and in turn our destiny.

In the first of three interviews with Canadian female directors at TIFF, I spoke to Canning about navigating the festival, finding confidence as a filmmaker and directing her first sex scene.

SDTC: How did “We Were Wolves” to come into being?

JC: It didn’t take that long. Steve (Cochrane the film’s co-writer and star) and I met late July, shook hands and said, “Let’s do this.” We wrote the script in August and then we shot the film in October.

Wow that’s fast! And you self-funded it?

We self -funded the production and then we got the Ontario Arts Council Grant which helped us get through post production. It was a 14 day shoot. And all of us just camped out on the island, living in the cottages there. It was really us being out in the woods together, tromping through the forest to eat a meal around the fire, and then tromping back and shooting another scene.

It’s a very masculine movie, which is an interesting choice for your first feature.

I know, it is very masculine! And it’s not like I set out to make a real man’s man story, because also there’s a lot of feelings being felt. But I feel like if you’re writing a story about brothers and the kind of abusive alcoholic father who ruled them and shaped them in the men they became – and then you put them in the woods – it’s manly. But I also think it’s a film about family mythologies, like the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. That’s the bare bones of it.

Switching gears, do you have advice for filmmakers trying to navigate TIFF?

When I came with my short “Bedroom” in 2008, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was my first time even coming to Toronto. The last few years that I’ve been able to go, save the Talent Lab year because we missed the first four or five days of the festival, my goal has always been to see as many movies as I can.

Is there anyone you’re excited to meet this year?

Well Peter Howell wrote this really nice piece in the Toronto Star. He profiled our film and the new film “The Good Lie” by Phillipe Falardeau, who did “Monsieur Lazhar” which I loved so much. I love Jean-Marc Vallee, I love all those French Canadian guys. But I also like celeb spotting.

The performances in your film are so great. How do you work with actors?

I used to think a lot about it, like when I went to the director’s lab at the CFC, they really hammered that in. And I read like a Judith Weston book on directing and the theories of it, and trying to use action verbs and bla bla bla. All that prep is great and it’s good to have it in your bones, but I find the more I’ve been doing it the more instinctually I’ve been directing. The first film I made, I didn’t even understand the concept, like “I know the actor is doing, not what I want them to do?”

As a female director too, it’s like, you don’t want to be demanding, but you need to get what you want.

It’s not ruling with an iron fist with your cast and crew. It’s being really competent and really open and supportive of your team so that they support you. I don’t yell in my life in general, but would certainly never yell at anyone on set. Unless it was to get out of the way of a falling light. You’re fucked if you lose the faith of your crew I think it’s important to build the best team around you and then just make sure that they know how much you love them.

It’s like with a relationship, letting things fester is death. I think I’m actually better at addressing problems in work situations than I am in relationships. I also think it’s really important to know what you want. Like being wishy-washy, or uncertain or expressing a lack of confidence doesn’t help anybody.

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When an actor is having an emotional breakdown – I’m curious, what is your role as a director? Are you with them or behind the monitor?

When Steve was breaking down over the dad’s ashes, that was intense. His mom passed away that year. It was remarkable to be a part of that, but I wasn’t bawling at the monitor. I was more, “when I yell cut I’m gonna go in there and hug him.”

And was that your first sex scene you’ve ever filmed?

Oh yeah! We were all a little bit tipsy because we were drinking beers around the fire and it was four in the morning. So when we shot the first take, I’m watching them do this and lifting her skirt, they’re starting to do it and I’m like, trying to figure out what move he’s at. “Oh no – okay, he just undid his zipper, okay and now he’s licking his hand – I know where this is going.”

Licking his hand?! Ahh!

Yeah they do that in “8 Mile.” And then they’re having sex, and a certain point I was like “I don’t know when I should cut.”

Yeah, because when is the actor gonna fake…

Are they gonna orgasm? I just wanted to see where it would go. So eventually Peter did kind of like, “come,” and I waited the appropriate amount of time and then I yelled cut. And all of us just burst out laughing.

 So that’s your advice for directing a sex scene?

Yeah! When stuff’s happening, just let it happen, you know?

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