By: Addison Wylie
TIFF’s short film programmes have always featured creative work made by gifted people. This year, Peterborough born filmmaker Zack Russell is one of those people.
She Stoops to Conquer marks Russell’s filmmaking debut, but he couldn’t be farther from being a beginner. His sweeping theatre experience has allowed Russell to gradually learn how to communicate with actors, how to block a scene, and how to understand the emotions behind a playwright’s work. After watching the filmmaker cut his teeth alongside experienced actress Kayla Lorette (Roller Town), it’s clear the change in medium is no biggie.
I got to talk to Zack Russell about She Stoops to Conquer, but as someone who finds himself also fascinated with actor Julian Richings, I couldn’t help but ask Zack about his personal interest with him.
Addison Wylie: How would your film She Stoops to Conquer interpret the famous Shakespeare passage, “all the world’s a stage”?
Zack Russell: It would probably go: all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely pretending to be each other. Much of the film is about performing identity – whether women performing gay male stereotypes or our main character trying to embody a realistic older man. I think there’s a cynical way to read both the film our girl – that she’s always performing, never authentic. What complicates that for me is that I think live performance is kind of when we’re most authentic.
AW: How did the making of She Stoops to Conquer begin? Did the script writing process start with a theme of stolen identity, or did you craft a movie around the casting of actor Julian Richings (who always has such a memorable presence)? I feel every filmmaker is interested with Richings in their own specific way.
ZR: Yes! I think it started by falling in love with Julian’s face – which is so important to the film. We really needed a distinct face for Kayla to wear. And then, he’s just this wonderful actor that we never see playing romantic leads – though he’s so warm and charming. We wanted to show that side of him.
The script actually began with co-writer/star Kayla Lorette’s own life: she’s an improviser and actor in Toronto who frequently plays older male characters. It’s become her speciality – kind of bizarre for a woman in her 20s – so we riffed off that. She’s also a great improviser, and so the challenge was to write a script that included an improv set, since I really wanted to capture her performing on film.
AW: The viewer is thrown into a theatrical setting right off the bat. We see actresses warming up their vocal chords, and a jittery kind of excitement occupying the atmosphere that only a performer would truly understand. Do you have fascination with theatre? Or, was that inspiration provided by lead star/co-writer Kayla Lorette?
ZR: I come from a theatre background – I’ve been toiling away for about seven years in indie theatre obscurity. Kayla and I met doing a play (Henri Faberge’s Feint of Hart), so it was a setting we’re both comfortable writing inside. And, this is my first film – so I’d say I had those opening night jitters for the whole shoot….
AW: The film also has a certain breed of vibrancy lined within its style, especially when the characters find themselves in a topsy-turvy nightclub. Was a lot of that lurid appeal created during post-production edits, or did you always know to go that far with it?
ZR: Our DP Henry Sansom and our production designer Hanna Puley played a big role in determining the style of the film. The big inspiration going into this was Leo Carax’s Holy Motors – a film that really goes for it in terms of style. So, we actually didn’t do all that much, colour-wise, in post. Our editor Marianna Khoury was a real driving force behind heightening those images. She was totally fearless when it came to pushing things further, style-wise.
AW: The audience may be ready for a film about seeing life through another’s eyes, but She Stoops to Conquer’s most surprising element is the portrait of a hopeless actor losing their own sense of enthusiasm for what they do. Have you felt this way about building towards your own accomplishments?
ZR: Yes and no. I really connect to the way the main character experiences failure – as something kind of romantic that ultimately fuels your work. One of the funny things about the character and Kayla and I is that we’re still in our twenties, so really any feeling of ‘oh god it’s hopeless’ need to be taken with a grain of salt. Ask me again in twenty years and we’ll see?
AW: Without giving too much away, the film has quite an unexpected ending where final motivations are left up to debate. Nonetheless, do you think there’s always comedy to be found in tragedy?
ZR: I do. I also think there’s a difference between finding comedy in tragedy and being self-deprecating. The stuff I really love tackles big tragedies and finds the humour. I’ll take devastating loss over small complaints any day. At least in comedy… maybe not so much in life.
She Stoops to Conquer: My Review
Zack Russell’s filmmaking debut She Stoops to Conquer is a stark and wild piece that sincerely portrays a performer’s nerves, apprehension, inspiration, and passion. I sure hope it isn’t too weird for audiences to handle.
By “too weird”, I’m referring to the premise involving a creatively frustrated, prosthetic-clad actress meeting her doppelgänger after a shoddy crowd has chewed up her act and spit it out. She’s dressed up as a frail, older man and she immediately locks eyes with a similarly timid gentleman at a nightclub. They dance, hang out, and caress each other – their one-night-stand has begun.
Every stylistic motion Russell brings into his film feels natural, even when the viewer starts to feel as if they’ve been shaken up inside an untapped tequila bottle because of the blurred imagery and the hurried pace. However, the film really washes over the audience once She Stoops to Conquer slows down and Kayla Lorette and Julian Richings communicate through awkward body language. Richings’ dialogue (co-written by Russell and Lorette) hits all the right desperate notes of a pathetic nobody.
Or, is he a nobody? That’s what She Stoops to Conquer proposes to us by the end. Maybe the performer’s newfound spark is more of a mean-spirited lark? Those who are too busy freaking out over the film’s oddball qualities will miss how wise She Stoops to Conquer actually is.
She Stoops to Conquer screens at TIFF as part of Short Cuts Programme 5 on:
Sunday, September 13 at 7:00 p.m. @ Scotiabank Theatre
Saturday, September 19 at 12:45 p.m. @ Scotiabank Theatre
Runtime: 16 minutes
For more information on the festival, visit the official TIFF webpage here.
Buy tickets here.
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