If there's one thing Ingrid Veninger recalls from her days as a young actor, it's that she doesn't actually remember much. So when she set off to make her sixth feature, Porcupine Lake, she wanted to document it. Not just for her own sake, but for her two young stars who play 13-year-old girls in the film.
"Being part of something that intense at that age really does spill over into your real life and I wanted to preserve and archive the entire process of making the film for those actors," Veninger, 51, said this week from Toronto, where she lives and has been a film professor at York University. "I wanted to have this archive of them being on-set every day and meeting each other for the first time and auditioning for the film. And all of those experiences that happened behind the camera could be something they would look back on when they were older, because you tend to lose those memories with time."
Porcupine Lake is a female-centric coming-of-age story, set in Ontario cottage country. Bea (Charlotte Salisbury) spends the summer up north with her parents, where she meets Kate (Lucinda Armstrong Hall), an extroverted local from a troubled family. The two develop a special bond.
Porcupine Lake premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall. The documentary, tracing its making and Veninger's creative process, titled The Other Side of Porcupine Lake, has its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival this weekend.
The Whistler festival was key to the project. In 2013, Veninger won an award there from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. In her speech, she spontaneously threw out an idea: Who in the room would cough up $6,000 so that six Canadian women, including herself, could each receive a $1,000 grant to write an original screenplay?
"You could hear crickets," she said, recounting the story at last year's WFF. Finally, a woman jumped up and shouted, "I'll do it!" It was Oscar-winning actor Melissa Leo. Veninger used the money to fund her scriptwriting. (She later funded the documentary out of the fees she earned making Porcupine Lake.)
Lurking on-set with his camera while the film was being shot in Port Severn, Ont., over the summer of 2016 was Julian Papas, a former film student of Veninger's. She commissioned him to be a one-man fly-on-the-wall to chronicle the process. Veninger wanted the documentary to be as non-intrusive as possible, so she asked that Papas work solo and not conduct any interviews. She funded the documentary out of pocket and gave him free rein. (So even though Veninger was disappointed that her mother, who prepared food during part of the DIY production, wound up on the cutting-room floor, it was Papas who had the final say.)
"It was a huge project; a huge undertaking for a first feature for me, but it was worth it," says Papas, 26. He figures he shot at least 120 hours of footage; the final film is 85 minutes.
Papas says he learned a lot watching Veninger work, while navigating their multilayered relationship – she had been his teacher, and here she was his producer and also his documentary's main subject. His camera captures Veninger doing every job under the sun, creating sets, trespassing on private property as she scouts locations and auditioning dozens of actors.
It took Veninger 18 months to find her two young leads. Charlotte, 13 when she auditioned, was a complete novice. Lucinda, who was 13 during production, is an experienced performer – from Australia, a fact she and Veninger kept quiet, with Lucinda always using her Canadian accent on-set.
The film is as much a love-letter kind of scrapbook for its two young stars as it is a documentary. Veninger (who is now doing her MFA at York in cinema studies) was 11 when she started acting, 12 when she landed her first big role, a made-for-TV movie. She says her desire to preserve this experience for Charlotte and Lucinda is tied to her own experience.
"As a young actor, oftentimes the line between the character you're playing and your real life is blurry," Veninger says. "When I was acting at that time I would sort of lose myself and I would come out of these projects thinking 'Wow, this guy who's playing my brother is actually going to become my new best friend and this woman who is playing my mother is going to be in my life forever.' And then the film finishes and everyone goes their separate ways. And as a kid, I found that very disorienting."
She says it took her a long time to feel ready to not just make the film, but guide two young actors through the process. "It's a big responsibility. And I think making the documentary was part of holding the entire experience for them, which is something I never had as a young actor."
Porcupine Lake screens at the Whistler Film Festival in Whistler, B.C., on Dec. 1 and 2. The Other Side of Porcupine Lake has its world premiere at WFF on Dec. 2 (whistlerfilmfestival.com).