Skip to main content

Katie Nolan, left, and Lindsay Tapscott share a common goal of giving shape to female characters who defy, subvert and confuse expectations.Gillian Mapp/The Globe and Mail

On an average night half a decade ago, friends-turned-collaborators Katie Nolan and Lindsay Tapscott were hunched over the table in their shared Toronto kitchen, scheming about how to capsize the film industry’s overbearing male gaze.

The pair had met in Montreal years prior and joined forces to write projects such as the 2014 web series Hot Mom, about a close mother-daughter relationship wherein a woman and her adult daughter swap stories about sex and lingerie – photos included – as the daughter’s boyfriend recoils in horror. Even in Babe Nation’s pre-accession phase, the makings of an ethos were clear – female characters who defy, subvert and confuse expectations.

TIFF 2019: Updated – The Globe’s latest ratings and reviews of movies screening at the festival

On the fateful night in question, Nolan’s boyfriend popped in to find her and Tapscott recognizably engrossed, quipping that the apartment was the duo’s “babe nation." The name would soon become that of their production company.

At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Babe Nation – now official and requiring capital letters – will premiere two titles. The Rest of Us boasts a glorious Heather Graham revival and White Lie (produced with Film Forge and Lisa Pictures) stars Canadian actor Kacey Rohl as a vibrantly sinister firebrand who fakes having cancer. Both films reach into oubliettes of shame and maleficence, resulting in complicated characters who are simultaneously terrible and pure. It may seem contradictory to create female characters just to make them astoundingly villainous. This is part of the Babe Nation dream.

The Rest of Us, directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and written by Alanna Francis, clearly defines Babe Nation's ethos.Handout

“In White Lie especially, it’s an unlikable female character,” says Nolan, 30. “We felt like it was an important role to shepherd. She’s so nuanced and so complex. You’re rooting for her, but you despise her. Why can’t women have a role like that? Women are never permitted to be angry, and if they are they’re pigeonholed as ‘the crazy feminist.’ But we are allowed to feel emotions how and when and to the depths that we want. It’s a powerful thing to be able to show that on screen."

“We aren’t interested in stories that have one-dimensional characters,” Tapscott, 37, adds. “For us, everything is character driven.”

To follow through on the promise of characters containing multitudes is easier said than done. Where Babe Nation’s debut feature offerings make good is their willingness to let emotionality lead, lending legitimacy to feelings, however imperfect they may be. In both films, each character, although unequivocally wrong in their actions upon occasion, is prismatic enough to be understood by audiences even at their most immoral. While Nolan and Tapscott are careful to clarify that the feminist lens through which their films’ stories are actualized include input from men and women (White Lie was directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, The Rest of Us by Aisling Chin-Yee), the success of their characters owes much to the producers’ insistence upon usurping the industry’s patriarchal commandments.

“Among women in our age group, there’s a real hunger for female stories pushed forward by female filmmakers. Something we talk a lot about is portraying women the way women want to be seen, not the way men want us to be seen, or the way men see us,” Nolan says. “We haven’t had any negative reactions to our feminist values. I think it’s the opposite. People of all genders are currently seeking us out because of it. I think that’s partly because of the name we’re starting to make for ourselves and partly because of the current climate.”

Kacey Rohl stars as Katie Arneson, a popular undergrad faking cancer, in White Lie. 'You’re rooting for her, but you despise her. Why can’t women have a role like that?' Nolan says.courtesy of Film Forge/Lisa Pictures

Tapscott adds that the men chosen to work with Babe Nation are themselves feminist allies. “The men we hire are sympathetic, sensitive, aware human beings,” she says. “We don’t actively exclude men, but it is very important to us that women have a seat at the table. First and foremost, we want to put women in the key creative roles.” (All Babe Nation projects currently in development were created by women.)

Their stalwart politics notwithstanding, Nolan and Tapscott say they aren’t naive. They have, at times, felt the industry’s old guard minimizing their ambitions based on gender, age and their unwillingness to contort themselves into girl versions of cantankerous business executives. “Sometimes people see us as not as strong or assertive because we’re women,” Nolan says. “But we don’t want to be assertive for the sake of being assertive. We believe that kindness and quality will always get you the furthest.”

“Women don’t have to act like men in order to convey authority and get respect. There’s a general idea that you have to be aggressive and put your foot down – things that men are respected for and women are reviled for,” she continues. “We’ve found that people respond to us best when we’re just ourselves.”

How Babe Nation approaches the task of creating interesting characters is the same way its producers approach doing business. Industry veterans might frown upon using gut feelings as scouting tools, but a belief in serendipity has brought Nolan and Tapscott good fortune. At a TIFF party in 2016, Nolan was introduced to The Rest of Us writer Alanna Francis, who casually mentioned she’d written a script. “You know when you meet another woman and it’s like, ‘Oh you’re a forever woman?’" Nolan says of meeting Francis. “I completely forgot I had an Uber waiting downstairs.”

Francis sent her script by e-mail the next morning; a week later it was optioned. (Babe Nation has since optioned Francis’s second feature, Alice, Darling, and is in development on a modernized retelling of banned French novel Bonjour Tristesse, the rights for which took three years to secure. Bonjour Tristesse is currently being adapted by writer Durga Chew-Bose.)

“When we first started making short-form work it was difficult to get people to take us seriously,” Tapscott says. "Our name alone, people were like, ‘Ha, Babe Nation, whatever.’ Then we started putting content out there and the response changed to, ‘Oh, these women are legitimate.’ Then, The Rest of Us happened and it was, ‘Oh, they’re getting real casts, they’re getting real money, this isn’t just a marketing trick.”

The producers of Babe Nation have evolved from the kitchen-table era and proven themselves as professionals, visionaries even – crusaders of doing things their own way. So what now? Nolan and Tapscott have a long list of objectives – bigger budgets, ambitious projects, a mentorship initiative and overall company expansion.

“We want to do everything," Tapscott says. “But it takes a lot more woman power to do everything.”

The Rest of Us premieres at TIFF Sept. 6, 6:30 p.m. (Winter Garden), with an additional screening Sept. 9 7:30 p.m. (Scotiabank); White Lie premieres at TIFF Sept. 7, 3 p.m. (Lightbox), with an additional screening Sept. 13, 6:30 p.m. (Scotiabank)