In the world of filmmaking, actors and writers are the most high profile "hat-switchers," that is, those who step out from the spotlight or from behind the desk to take a spin in the director's chair. Film editors, on the other hand, are commonly viewed as content in their crucial collaborative role as story-shapers, cutting quietly in darkened rooms for hours on end. When the film editor Wiebke von Carolsfeld ( The Five Senses, The Bay of Love and Sorrows, Genie-nominated for Eisenstein) first read an early draft of Toronto playwright Daniel MacIvor's script for Marion Bridge she was sitting in the shade on the Toronto Islands, editor's hat firmly in place.
"I had edited a couple of Daniel's short films (Permission, Until I Hear from You), and he had given me [ Marion Bridge]to read as an editor," she explains, sipping a cappuccino in the front window of Terroni café on Toronto's Queen Street West, just around the corner from her home. "After I read it I jumped up and ran to a phone booth to call him. I told him it was the most beautiful script I had ever read and that, of course, I would work on it as an editor."
The story of Marion Bridge revolves around three sisters (played by Molly Parker, Rebecca Jenkins and Stacy Smith in the film) raised in Sydney, N.S. Finding themselves under the same roof again, the sisters cope with the terminal illness of their mother and avoid the taboo subject of their absent father, as they grapple with their identities as individuals and within the family. They love each other but also drive each other crazy. In terms of its mix of laughs and tears, Marion Bridge falls somewhere between two other three-sister stories, Anton Chekov's Three Sisters and Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart (both of which were adapted for the screen).
MacIvor, who wrote the stage and screen versions of Marion Bridge simultaneously (the play was nominated for a Governor-General's Award), initially intended to direct the film version. But his attention turned to Past Perfect, his feature-film directorial debut, which opened earlier this year. Von Carolsfeld optioned his screenplay, thus trading in her editor's hat for the director's chair. The result of the swap is a film that roped in awards for Best First Canadian Feature at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and Best Screenplay at the Atlantic Film Festival, and recently opened in a few U.S. cities to positive reviews. For von Carolsfeld, Canada has been a land of great creative opportunity. She landed here 13 years ago with a degree from the University of Cologne in Germany and aspirations of becoming a book editor, but her English was limited. "For my first three years I worked as an office temp and worked on my English," she recalls. "Then I visited a friend who was editing a film and it just clicked. I thought, my English is not going to be an issue doing this. I started assistant editing [Atom Egoyan's Exotica]then got into editing."
During her editing work, von Carolsfeld found time to direct two award-winning short films, From Morning on I Waited Yesterday and Spiral Bound. The former starred Molly Parker, whom von Carolsfeld cast just after seeing her performance in Lynne Stopkewich's Kissed. "As soon as I got involved with Marion Bridge I knew [Parker]could play the part of Agnes, who was originally the older sister, so the script was rewritten. Everybody else was cast around her, because it's a family and the whole thing had to match physically.
"After I cast Rebecca Jenkins [as the older sister, Theresa] I went home and thought, oh my god they don't look anything alike," von Carolsfeld says, laughing. A little hair-dye, eye-brow shaping and makeup went a long way to make the actors -- including Cape Breton-born Marguerite McNeil, a veteran of the New York stage, as the mother, and newcomer Ellen Page as 15-year-old Joanie, the daughter Parker's character gave up for adoption -- look like they belong to the same tribe. "But there is more to it, because I think that family dynamic comes from the writing itself, and the bonds that developed quickly and strongly between the actors, especially Molly and Rebecca," von Carolsfeld says.
There is something slightly subversive about a movie in which women do all -- or most of -- the talking; it's a rarity. Thanks in part to war films, nobody bats an eye at a flick populated entirely by men. George Cukor's 1938 movie The Women, with its all star all-female cast, still feels moderately disorienting. Of course, in Cukor's film the women spend a lot of time discussing their soon-to-be-former husbands; in Marion Bridge, the few men who appear on screen function more like scenery and the subject of men -- even the father, whom we suspect was abusive to his daughters -- is almost peripheral.
"The women in Marion Bridge are mostly defined by who they are, as opposed to their relationships with men or with anyone else for that matter. In a way, each character is the lead of their own little film," says von Carolsfeld, a great admirer of filmmakers such as Aki Kaurismaki, Ang Lee and, in particular, the recently re-examined Douglas Sirk (a Dane transplanted to 1940s Hollywood, where he made famous melodramas). "It's all about what's underneath, the things that are not spoken, which I find really interesting when I watch movies; to be asked to use my brain and my heart," she continues. "I like films that don't spoon-feed you all the answers, which is something we are used to in many Hollywood films."
Marion Bridge is an eloquent example of economy in storytelling, emotional revelations and the more practical considerations of Canadian feature film budgets. In those respects, von Carolsfeld brought all her resources to bear. "As an editor I have learned how to get away with as little as possible, which really helps on a low-budget film," she says with a laugh. "On Marion Bridge, we had to move quickly because of the budget. Sometimes we would do two takes, and I would say, 'Okay, we have it.' Then the actor would say, 'I haven't given you a good full take.' Because I'm an editor, [and]I knew I could chop the scene together, I'd say 'Don't worry about it.' But if we had time, I'd have them do another take and usually it was better."
While Marion Bridge is set in Cape Breton, only establishing exterior shots were filmed there. Most of the indoor and outdoor action was shot in and around Halifax. Yet the overall landscape of the film, both physical and emotional, feels rich and large and firmly rooted in Sydney. "It's not coincidental the sisters live in a post-industrial city which happens to be one of the most polluted cities in North America, while being embedded in Cape Breton, which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen," von Carolsfeld remarks. "The dichotomy of ugliness and beauty is within those characters, so it was important for me to bring the outside world into the film."
In the final sequence of Marion Bridge, the sisters prepare for a picnic on the beach, as we hear a version of Allister MacGillivray's famous Song from the Mira (about the town of Marion Bridge) sung by Parker, Jenkins and Smith.
"It was recorded the day after shooting and we thought it might go over the end credits," von Carolsfeld says. "In the editing, we played with the ending a lot and the song wound up being where it is.
"It's a happy ending, in a way," she says with a smile. "Well, as happy as they get in Canada."
Marion Bridge opened on Friday in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Halifax and Sydney, N.S.