Twenty minutes is not enough time to talk to filmmaker Ingrid Veninger about her work. Twenty minutes is barely even enough time to sit in silence with her or just bullshit about crappy old jobs that we’ve had in the past. Admittedly, I am quite friendly with her and a great admirer of her work, and a lot of that comes from the fact that she’s an irrepressible and fearless dreamer that’s constantly curious about the possibilities of film and performance.
It’s one of the main things we talked about last week at a downtown Toronto supper club when discussing her latest film, The Animal Project (opening today in Toronto and available on iTunes in Canada and via Vimeo on demand worldwide). She has arrived just after some lengthy travelling around the world with the film. Just back from Cannes she seems to be running purely on positivity, adrenaline, and vitamin C. It’s hard to explain how she’s always able to do so much, but somehow she always finds ways of pulling it off. She’s even gearing up when I’m talking to her to go out into the world in the same fuzzy animal suits that she made her cast wear for their roles in her ambitious new cooperative project (and hoping that people aren’t awful enough to knock her around while in costume, something I can sympathize with from my first job in the same kind of mascot costumes). She’s someone for whom nothing is impossible, and sitting down with her inspires an almost infectious amount of confidence in whomever she’s talking to.
Coming off her more personally minded projects Only, Modra, and i am a good person/i am a bad person, all of which featured Veninger and her family in prominent roles, The Animal Project is something new for her: an experimental and ambitious story of a widowed acting teacher (played by Aaron Poole) trying to coax his students and colleagues into roaming the streets of Toronto while outfitted in giant mascot suits. It was created only through the participation of the actors involved, with the award winning Veninger only coming up with the film’s actually idea once the cast was in place.
We talked to Veninger (who will be attending Q&As with cast members tonight and tomorrow at the TIFF Bell Lightbox) to talk about how the film came together as a co-op sort of operation with the actors, how her casting process worked, how her personal experiences fit into a story about acting, and why the project was a fun and rewarding thing that she’ll probably never attempt again.
Dork Shelf: The first thing I wanted to talk about was how the film came together as a co-op project where you approached people through ACTRA to openly be a part of the process of making the film, so what was that process like? What was it trying to get people to understand what you were going for here?
Ingrid Veninger: I don’t think anyone understood what I was going for, and the cool thing is that they went along with it anyway. Really it was that I wanted to shoot something in Toronto, I wanted to work with professional actors, and I just kind of wanted to branch out from just using my family a little bit. It was somehow important for me – and this wasn’t a thought through thing – to test the waters and see if actors would be willing to commit to three month shoot, be it only shooting three days each week, without knowing anything about the project or anything about the roles they were going to play. I was wondering if people would even be down for that, and I thought it was pretty unlikely. It’s a big commitment of time, and mostly people rightfully want to know what it is they’re getting into.
DS: Especially if you’re a working actor like all of the people in your cast.
IV: Exactly! And I was interested in using professional actors that were members of the union. I wanted to work with some actors who had experienced and had developed, and I wanted to see where that would lead.
So I worked with casting director Nicole Hilliard-Forde, and she was my frontline person to say “Here comes a letter going out to all of the agents saying that Ingrid has her next project ready to go, but she has no idea of her movie.” (laughs) It wasn’t like I was even faking that. It wasn’t like I had some kind of Woody Allen-esque idea that I had been hiding in my drawer or in my back pocket. There was nothing I had no idea. And I was just going to meet with the actors and see what comes with it. The meeting was on a Tuesday and they were in groups of five.
Hallie (Switzer, Ingrid’s daughter) and Nicole were there taking notes. I didn’t take any notes. There was no documenting on my part. I just took a picture of each actor that came in the room just so I could remember. I didn’t even see the pictures in their resumes. They just came in and I had my iPod and my headphones and I had a playlist of songs that I liked and I said “Why doesn’t everyone just choose a song and listen to it? And when someone else is interested, just take the headphones and listen in or change the song.”
That happened for a while and sometimes they would dance. Sometimes they had these big reactions. Sometimes they listened really quietly. I was just really interested in the behaviour and the interaction was going to be. Some hogged the headphones. Some never got a turn, but I could see that they wanted to hear the music, but they never stepped up to do it. So who was operating how based on their instincts? Who was acting on their instincts? Who was sitting on their instincts? I just watched that.
Then I had 100 books in this space, everything from graphic novels to Charlotte’s Web to Hallie’s textbooks to all sorts of things, and I had each actor just choose a book. Hallie would write down what they chose and then the actor would read the first line written by the author.
DS: It sounds kind of like a psychological experiment.
IV: It kind of was. How long does it take them to choose the book? Are they hesitating? Are they sticking to their commitment? Are they putting it back down? Are they watching what everyone else is doing? Are they afraid of being judged by their choice?
DS: I know that would have been thinking those things the whole time I would have been doing that.
IV: (laughs) Yeah! But it also would have been totally cool to pick up something like Charlotte’s Web. And I really mixed it up in that room. For every actor there were five or six books that they could have legitimately chosen, but they could only pick up one. And then, how do they read that sentence? Do they mumble it? Do they act it? Do they project it? Do they think about it? Do they prepare? Do they dive in? I just examined all of that. That was it and everyone left.
Then I went away to a couple of film festivals in Russia and India, and I was just in my brain clocking through what actors were able to get under my skin. Then I had a second meeting with ten of them individually, and for the first ten minutes of that meeting we were in utter silence. I like irregular beats in writing and awkward moments between characters, so I figured that if when I sat there with them in silence and I felt really uneasy and my body tightens, then t would probably be tricky for me to write for this person. So is there trust and willingness? Can I write for you? Do I want to write for you? I don’t know you, but do I want to get to know you well enough to write for you?
In the second ten minutes I asked a bunch of personal questions, some of which you see in the first interview scene in the film. I said, “You can lie or you can tell the truth. This isn’t like a therapy session.” I was going to write stuff down and I basically said that anything they said to me was something I could then use in the script. I might give it to this person’s character or I might give it to another character. I might mix it around, but it might not come out of your character’s mouth. It could come out of someone else’s mouth. You’ll start to hear yourself in other characters.
Then for the final ten minutes, they could ask me whatever they wanted, and I could also lie. Mostly they would ask me about how I worked with actors. I would mostly just say that I would never ask someone to do something that I never would do myself. So I would ask them a bit further things like, “Are you not willing to be naked?” I should probably know that. “Are you not willing to dress in an animal suit?” I should probably know that. I’m never going to ask people to do anything I’m not prepared to do myself. I would never put someone in that situation, but I am prepared to do A LOT of things, so if they told me what they wouldn’t do, I would take that into consideration.
Then from those ten we got the core of eight people, including Jacob. Some of them I had worked with before, and some of them I knew socially, and then I had to come up with a movie. (laughs)
And I will NEVER do that again. (laughs) I will never, NEVER do that again. That is RIDICULOUS. No one should do that. It was insane. And yet I know that I had done it the traditional way – and now it strikes me as so luxurious to have a script and professional actors – I don’t think that it would have had the same kind of energy. The whole film to me is kind of purposefully lopsided. There’s no music and there’s kind of a lot of irregularity in it. That’s part of the challenge and the risk that I took in making this project and that the actors also took in making this and not knowing what they’re getting into. It extends to the characters getting involved with the actual Animal Project, and in turn the audience also becomes a part of this weird experiment. I really love that.
DS: It’s a great film about the very nature of acting, and you have acted, directed, and you have taught both in your career so far. So it’s interesting to see you coming from your previous film, which was about the personal nature of directing something, to come to this film which is very much about the personal nature of being an actor. And when you don’t have a script in place, the actor has to do even more to bring to the screen what isn’t there on the page.
IV: Exactly. And I realize that now coming to The Animal Project on the back of a film that I had acted in. I was playing a filmmaker and I was a filmmaker on it, but I think that was a big factor in the calibre of actors that stepped up to be a part of this film. I was on the frontlines as an actor who was pretty exposed and vulnerable in that film where people never realized what was real and what wasn’t real. That blurry line stuff was written into that film, but the fact that I was on camera makes sense that I now want to tell a story about acting and what it really means to tell the truth and what it is to lie really well, and then what it means to put on a mask and then run the risk when you take it off of being exposed.
DS: And this story revolves around a character who’s a teacher, and you’ve learned from a lot of different people what it means to be an actor and you’ve also taught people what it means to be an actor and a filmmaker, so what is it about acting that you specifically learned that you wanted to bring to this film once you had your cast in place?
IV: You know, I think it’s that thing where as an actor you construct this character, and you want to separate yourself from it at the end of the day because you want to keep yourself protected. You have a character that has a name, and a backstory, and all these qualities, but I feel that a character, much like an idea for a movie, can be a trap. So it’s that balance and the push and pull between being really well prepared and having all this experience and using all these tools in your belt to craft something, but also knowing when to actually let it all go to be in the moment, let it all go, and just go flying without a net. Knowing when to do that is risky, but I wanted to create a movie that was made with a testament to or an example of taking a risk on a dream no matter how irrational. It could be a pointless humiliation or it could be a mere idea of a process that could be a miserable failure, but then to just go for it.
When you work as an actor you get slapped around a little bit. You might put your faith in someone and it turns out to be a disaster. There were many times when I was acting and I felt like I was never in control or even given any control. I came with all my preparation, and then there was no control over it.
My very first experience on set when I was 11 years old was something I still really remember, and that kind of informed The Animal Project. I was a part of a family. I was the sister of Tom Butler, and he was an experienced actor that I really admired. I was an only child, and I was so happy to have him be my brother, and he was hugging me and playing with me, but as soon as the camera stopped rolling he had no idea who I was. Suddenly I realized, “Oh. This is acting. This isn’t real life.” There’s a line, and I sort of think that I’m constantly pushing that line. The people that I work with in the movie, they’ve become real life friends. It’s not just over for me when the camera stops rolling. I think that experience for me kind of traumatized me a little bit. (laughs) As an actor I always want to try and cultivate an atmosphere of safety. As a director, I always want to encourage actors to take risks, and I think having been an actor there are too many directors who just pay lip service to that. To them “risk” means “adlibbing a line.” That’s not risk. As a director, it’s challenging to really take creative risks, but that really comes from my being an actor and wanting that kind of atmosphere for myself.
DS: Also, in terms of putting someone into suits like this there’s something really interesting with that as a driving force behind the film. You can either go into it or come out of it as a completely blank slate, or you can chose to create a whole backstory either inside or outside the suit. When it comes to creating these suits and these characters, did you see specifically which actors you wanted for each of these suits and which ones you wanted to be actors who could be vague and who you wanted to be really precise?
IV: I love the metaphor of the limited range of vision in the suits. There are so many different ways that I could just lift off that question because as filmmakers, we’re expected to know everything. It’s so result oriented. We’re supposed to know what we want to make, who we want to make it for, who the audience is. I think that’s really reductive, and the idea of keeping that range of vision broad and open is terrifying for a lot of people looking to invest in films or whatever.
I think that specifically for these characters in this film, I went straight from The Bunny Project that Jacob did as a child, and in that he dressed as a rabbit and he could not see anything, but there was a whole universe going on inside that suit in that interview I did with him ten years ago, and you see it in the film, and it’s about all kinds of things. All sorts of things were coursing through his body. There was this fear and uncertainty, and wanting to be loved and accepted and having my approval as his mom. He wanted to be good and he wanted to be liberated and free, all while being terrified at the same time. Inside that suit, he was like a firecracker. I only realized all of that from talking to him afterwards.
I knew as soon as I was going to put these actors in these suits that crazy stuff was going to go down. Stuff where there was an element of improvisation. We were out in the world. I was in control of these actors in the suits, but everything around them was out of my hands. So they had incredibly transformative experiences.
I wanted Pippa to be a horse, but they didn’t have a horse costume, so I got that character a donkey so they could kind of be an ass and be stubborn. I gave the qualities of the character to that animal. Alice was a rabbit because there had to be a rabbit. The cat, the mouse, the lion, who Aaron Poole often talks about as kind of being my avatar. It’s a character that’s solitary and is okay with that. It’s not about finding a mate. It’s about kind of being solitary and alone and being okay with that. Everyone comes and goes and you find your own grounding. And the beaver here is kind of the activating agent for so much of what goes on in the film. The characters took on the personalities of the animals, and the actors themselves in real life were transformed and that transformed the characters. It became a living spiral throughout making the film.