Filmmaker Heather Tobin
This week, Reelout Rita caught up with writer/director/Jane-of-all-trades Heather Tobin about her new feature, Route of Acceptance. After starting her own independent film company, To Each Her Own Films, she has worked on multiple projects – most notably, an award-winning documentary on same-sex marriage (I Do?) and a feature film involving a young married woman whose life is transformed after meeting an exciting and openly gay woman (To Each Her Own). Now, she’s bringing us her sophomore effort, Route of Acceptance, which is a concept film that explores the possibility of destiny. The striking and talented Emily Alatalo plays aspiring screen writer, Ryan Stark, who is agonizing over which university to attend in the fall. Through various realities – and multiple hair colours – the audience is privy to Ryan’s possible futures, which change depending on the university she attends. The film, which Tobin wrote, produced, edited and directed, will be screened at this year’s festival with cast and crew in attendance.
Reelout Rita: Ryan’s *multiple* storylines don’t follow the ‘typical’ lesbian storyline (ex. a woman leaves her husband after falling for a beautiful lesbian). In fact, the film seems to challenge that sort of story as Ryan faces an array of challenges in each of her possible futures. What inspired you to write this non-linear narrative and were there challenges you faced when creating this intersection of realities?
Heather: My first narrative feature film, To Each Her Own, was just that story. Married woman Jess, meets super gay activist, promiscuous Casey. It was a little different from the typical coming out story in the sense that the characters were very young, and the film has a very youthful feel to it which doesn’t fit the norm of the “married woman” movie target market age group.
But yes, with Route of Acceptance I wanted to do the opposite of that. I didn’t want [the film] to be a story about a lesbian so much as just a story that happens to star a lesbian. I wanted to make a film that would reach a broader audience. I wanted straight mainstream [audiences] to want to see this film just as much as someone coming out would.
To me the very best movies are concept films. I tend to watch most movies in theatres; there’s just something about the theatre experience that can’t be beat, no matter how big your home television set or how good your surround sound is. And every time I see a really good movie that blows my mind and gives me the kind of goosebumps that confirm that movie making is the only thing I could do with my life, it just happens to be a concept film (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Cloud Atlas). So I wanted to bring a really unique idea and concept film to the lesbian movie scene. Non-linear films are my favourite and I wanted to challenge myself as a filmmaker to see if I could pull one off. What I like about RoA is that, like all good concept films, the first time you watch it you won’t get everything. In fact, some people may not even understand what’s going on (unless they’ve read the description of what the film is about) until they are almost at the end of the film. But I like that each time you watch the movie, as a viewer you’ll discover more and more things about it.
Keeping the realities straight was a challenge. It was hard because Emily Alatalo (Lead, Ryan Stark) had to dye her hair three different colours and we had to shoot accordingly. And with an ultra low budget film where the cast and crew are volunteering their time, you also have to work around everyone’s “real jobs” so scheduling-wise it was a nightmare having to work around Emily’s hair colours which meant having to shoot around that and [everyone’s] availability. There was this one shoot day where we had a picture up in the room from a wedding that hadn’t occurred yet in the timeline so we had to reshoot the master shot. Little challenges like that all add up when filming something so complex with so many layers that jumps time frames so much.
Emily Alatalo and Tracy Rae (To Each Her Own) star as lovers in one of Ryan’s possible futures
Reelout Rita: Did you have a clear vision of what Ryan’s character might look like? What made you choose Emily Alatalo for such a challenging role?
Heather: For me, casting is without a doubt the absolute most important thing. I think the only reason my no budget films are able to compete with movies with funding is in fact casting. I truly believe that Hannah Hogan of TEHO and Emily Alatalo of RoA are in fact undiscovered super stars. And it won’t be long until they are rocking mainstream media and hopefully bringing more awareness of the existence of TEHO and RoA.
So to answer your question, yes I had a vision going into casting of what Ryan Stark should look like and no Emily was that original vision. But she is now exactly what I picture for Ryan. Emily blew me away with her talent and although she didn’t fit my original intentions of the super dyke look, emily totally rocked the roll and became a better vision of Ryan than I could have ever imagined up. It is my firm belief that you cast the best actor who auditions regardless of their physical appearance and that if she’s as good as you think, the vision will form around her because she will work to become it. Emily and I did a lot of research and put a lot into her becoming Ryan Stark, the one in my head that I wrote and I think she did a stand up job of that.
Reelout Rita: At the beginning of the film, Ryan and her brother Cory engage in some playful banter in which she says, “Gay is just a word and I refuse to empower that word by letting it bother me.” What are your thoughts on the stigma surrounding those sorts of words and do you share any of Ryan’s views?
Heather: I have mixed thoughts around the word “gay” as being used as a word to describe something someone doesn’t like. It’s really a popular word right now, although I do agree with what I wrote that getting all worked up over someone saying the word “gay” when they don’t mean any offence to gay people is probably counter productive. On the other hand, “that’s so gay” is derived from hatred towards things that are in fact gay, so how can that not be offensive!? You can only truly control what you do and by being the change you want to see, so I think that at the very least the queer community itself should refrain from calling things “gay”. Sometimes we can be the biggest contributors to using the word in such a manner.
Reelout Rita: Later on, Ryan claims that soulmates don’t exist and “destiny is just an excuse for lazy people. Hard work equals good life – the end.” Do you believe in destiny in some form or another?
Heather: Solid question. Hmmm, well the entire premise of RoA revolves around the question of “does destiny exist?” The film leaves the issue up to audience interpretation, which was my intention because I think that believing in destiny is a very personal question and I didn’t want to dictate my opinions on the viewer – I wanted them to make their own conclusions from watching. So I think the film does in fact reflect my personal opinions about destiny; Some days it feels like it exists and some days it feels like it doesn’t. Either way, the excitement exists in not knowing what the future holds for us. On the other hand, being someone who literally spends at least 80 hours a week making films that matter and hopefully make a difference, I do believe that you create your own destiny practically and I do believe that it is determination and drive that’ll get you places.
I’ve wanted to make films since I was twelve and spent my paper route money on a recordable VHS camera so maybe it’s my destiny or maybe it’s because I’m the crazy kid who decided to go to film school instead of becoming a doctor or anything with more stability and although destiny may be a catalyst to certain occurrences, it is only with your drive and determination that you can reach this potential destiny. If you sit around on a couch playing video games all day, your great and powerful destiny won’t just come knocking on your doorstep, so to speak.
Reelout Rita: Your production company, To Each Her Own Films, is off to a great start with your first feature (of the same title) and now, RoA. What plans do you have for the future?
Heather: Well the next year of my life will be about social networking and spreading the word about all my film’s existence. As much as I love making films [I] don’t really like the marketing aspect as much [even though] it’s part of the job. There’s no point in having great films in your possession if you can’t find a way to share them with people. So against all my burning urges to start shooting again, I’m trying to take a year away from that so I can focus all my energy on awareness about my three films. But as soon as that’s done, I’m super stoked to start up another feature film.
Life reflects art. I recently went though a break-up and I’d like to make a film that is a statement on the fragile nature of relationships. I’d like to make a film the opposite of RoA and TEHO that’s less “love conquers all” and more “love can only take you so far.” My two favourite films right now revolve around this theme – they are Take This Waltz and Like Crazy, so I’d like to do a lesbian film that is a combination of these two brilliant films. But I’d also like to stick with non-linear filmmaking. I see my next film being a little Memento-esque (another brilliant concept film) where it starts at the end and ends at the beginning.
Reelout Rita: The theme for our festival this year is youth. Route of Acceptance is a very youthful feature that speaks to a lot of youth issues such as self-discovery, family, first loves and sexuality. Do you hope to continue and create films that target this audience? What sort of films did you love growing up and did any of them inspire you to create your own?
Heather: I work on a very low budget and therefore I can only afford to cast non-union actors. I pride myself in being able to find the next gem of the film industry before the mainstream finds them, which means finding undiscovered talent. And so it makes sense to look for that young adult right out of acting school. So for practical reasons I shoot with a generally younger cast. But yes, I find I do relate to younger issues, which makes them easier to write about. I’ve never been married. I haven’t found the one. I myself don’t own my own house yet and don’t have experience of being in a long term – say over 10 year relationship – so it’d be harder for me to write about the hardships of these things as I haven’t gone through them yet. So yes, for now anyways, I see myself sticking to writing about characters between the ages of 18-35. Also business-wise it is best to make things that aren’t already being made. And for the most part, most of the lesbian films being made are in the over-35 age category. But on the other hand, I feel like I’ve always been an old soul and I think I write characters who are wise and have a sense of self enlightenment that would be worthwhile to watch regardless of the age category you fall under. I feel like all age groups and genders and sexual orientations can benefit and learn from the morals and characters in my films. I anticipate my next film will be based around three lesbians (yes, it will be a love triangle film) around 26-29.
Léa Pool‘s Lost and Delirious, was a huge inspiration in my life – it’s my absolute favourite lesbian film. It was after watching this that I felt comfortable in coming out to my best friend. I really hope that my films can do for others what this film did for me, which is really the entire reason I do this. Oddly enough, it was filming my first feature documenary (I Do?) that gave me the strength to come out to the rest of the world. I filmed this back in 2004 while the process of allowing same-sex marriage was underway in Canada. In the film, I interviewed the first couple in Canada to be married and the minister and lawyer that made it all happen, plus a wackload of other people in the LGBTQ community and their supporters. And after meeting all these powerful and strong people of the queer community it was pretty impossible to not feel safe and proud of my sexuality. From then on I knew the only films I would be making would be LGBTQ and that I had to make them because not enough people were and the media has such great potential to create change. If you have the ability and know how to do so, you have to follow through and do it. It’s so strange to me to think back to a time when I wasn’t out to others and myself, because I pride myself in screaming gay from rooftops these days and I dedicate basically every second of my life to lesbian filmmaking.
Kelly-Marie Murtha and Emily Alatalo play another pair of lovers in one of Ryan’s possible futures
Be sure to catch Route of Acceptance on Saturday, February 2nd at 4pm in Cinema 2 of The Screening Room. Director Heather Tobin and lead actors will be in attendance!!