Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Jennifer Aniston, Paul Gross and ... Ingrid Veninger?
In the midst of the hopped-up-on-hype, celebrity-induced mass swoon that is the Toronto International Film Festival, it's sometimes hard to remember the other reasons to pay attention to Toronto's annual celebration of flickering fluffery: quality films made by talented artists.
If there is any justice, 2008 will be the year Canadian filmmaker Ingrid Veninger, already an established actress and producer, is given her due. And with two solid films in the festival - Nurse.Fighter.Boy. which she produced and co-wrote, and the lovely, heartbreaking teen drama Only, which she co-everythinged - how can she miss?
With dozens of Canadian television appearances and behind-the-scenes work on many more homegrown feature films to her credit, Veninger is one of those people who has been in the industry so long that she knows everybody and has worked with them twice. In a matter of seconds, we established a fat handful of "two degrees of separation" connections, and I have about as much to do with feature filmmaking as the guy who runs my local laundromat. I know it's a small world, but c'mon. This woman is connected.
And with the debut of Only at TIFF, she's about to become even more so. A deceptively simple film about two lonely, near-pubescent kids stuck in a snowy nowhere town, Only gently unfolds to become a deft - and blunt - exploration of the anxious yet romantic world of teens. The fact that Veninger employed her own son, an actor who looks more like a 7-Eleven loiterer than one of those freakish robo-teens from High School Musical, in the lead adds a layer of unexpected and deliciously rough reality to this often-dreamy film.
After chatting with Veninger, it became apparent to me that, while clearly a practical working woman, she is a bit of a dreamer herself. And now she's got the all-access pass to back it up.
It's great to see kids in a movie who actually look like kids.
Whenever I see kids who are supposed to be 11 or 12 and they're being played by 15- or 16-year-olds, I never understand it. This specific age of 12 is such a small window, I've wanted to capture that for years.
I made a film with Jacob [Switzer, Veninger's son and the star of Only]when he was 8, and I asked him a whole pile of questions. I asked him about God, reincarnation, and the government, and his friends, and his answers blew me away.
The way he talked about how we're born, about what happens when we die - that was kind of the genesis of wanting to make a film with real 12-year-olds who have these random thoughts, who can say things to test them out, get a reaction, but who don't hold onto the reaction. They're still creating their identity. There's a naturalism and purity to that.
We tried to re-record some dialogue three or four weeks after Only wrapped, and Jacob's voice was already changing! There must have been days during filming when your son gave you a few "Oh, God, please shut up, Mom" looks.
I didn't know what to expect, because this is the biggest thing he's ever done. He's practically in every scene! But he was so professional. He knew exactly what was coming, because we talked about it beforehand, and his instincts are natural. And he really trusts me, he was comfortable on set.
The script was very firm and intact, but we always let the kids do their own take. So, after eight or nine takes, they would get their own. And they really took chances. They had a real fearlessness. You're the Will Smith of
Canada, farming your kids out to your movies.
Oh, God! Oh, no! I was told I was the Molly Ringwald of Canada, when I was a teenager - now I've graduated to Will Smith. Hmmm ... It's a step up, I guess. I love the way the kids walk in the movie, dragging their boots across the snowy roads. Did you direct them to use that slouching teen shuffle, or was it natural?
That's natural! Jacob does walk that way, and he always walks ahead of me. But that's the way they move. Their looks, the way they deliver lines, is completely their own. What blew me away was they would do it differently each time. They never got into that "child actor" mode - pleasing the director, wanting approval, repeating themselves, trying to "get it right." They never fell into that. It was a very small crew, and there was an atmosphere where little accidents and those real, alive, magic moments could happen. Do you see Only as part of the mumblecore movement?
No, but I know of it. I love that whole movement.
I think it's happening here in Toronto, and everywhere - people working and acting and producing and directing, working in collectives, making things happen on a dime! Because there are just going to be fewer and fewer resources. People have learned to rotate roles, and it's not an ego-driven thing. It's about coming together to make something, and having a lot of fun doing it. You were an assistant director on Atom Egoyan's The Adjuster, and I suspect you learned a lot about how to give a film a desolate but seductive look.
Yeah. I think also that that's what I felt, growing up in Parry Sound at the same age as the kids in Only. I mean, I didn't really pay attention to nature then, all the beautiful rocks and the woods and the lake - to me it was just isolating and lonely.
It's very easy to shoot, because it's so gorgeous, easy to capture the feel of it, and we used all practical lighting, 100 per cent - but I didn't want to sentimentalize that world, to gaze lovingly at the lake. The kids aren't really even aware of where they are, and I remember that feeling as a kid, of not appreciating nature.
I like nature, but I don't romanticize it. I don't become One With The Universe when I stare at the moon.
March 21, 1970, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia)
Her big break
Starred in the 1977 TV movie Hide and Seek, about a computer geek who hacks into a nuclear plant (and in doing so creates the storylines for the 1979 movie The China Syndrome and 1983's WarGames).
Good with kids
Her experience as a child actress has come in handy: She was the child acting coach on Jeremy Podeswa's highly acclaimed 1999 film, The Five Senses.