Actresses Jennifer Podemski and Cara Gee are sitting together in Art Bar at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, and it’s an appropriate setting – a room in a building full of rich and varied history – to talk about their work on the multigenerational Canadian First Nations family drama Empire of Dirt, opening this Friday.
In the film the actors play a mother and daughter with a fractured relationship that neither has attempted to mend for years. Gee stars as Lena, a Toronto housekeeper who helps the underprivileged and downtrodden in her community, but can’t seem to keep a job for herself. An even bigger problem is the dangerous rebellious streak growing in her teenage daughter, (Shay Eyre). After a frightening incident where her daughter nearly kills herself doing inhalants and on the verge of losing their apartment, Lena decides to go back to the house of her mother in small town Northern Ontario. Minerva (Podemski) kicked Lena out when she was pregnant, at the time oblivious to her own gambling addiction, but now trying to live a normal life.
It’s easy to see how Podemski (who also produced the film from first time screenwriter Shannon Masters and directed by actor and Defendor director Peter Stebbings) and Gee can so credibly have a mother daughter relationship. Though decidedly less acrimonious as their onscreen relationship, the pair shares a relaxed candor, but not to the degree where one would finish the other’s sentences. Their views on the film and the characters they portray are just as similar and thoughtful, but they also seem to have learned a lot from each other (and the experience in general).
We talked to Podemski and Gee about taking First Nations themes and issues and applying them more broadly to a picture of small town living, the film’s sometimes subtle humour, why Peter Stebbings was chosen for such a project despite being a white male, and how the film fits into a current renaissance for First Nations cinema in Canada.
Dork Shelf: I think one of the things that people are going to be taken aback by when they go and see the film is that despite it having a lot of First Nations content and a distinct sense of cultural identity, it’s also a very realistic look at a lot of the issues that many people face in small town communities. A lot of the characters in the film are people that I would recognize from a lot of places where I lived and the town I grew up in. It’s about a family and their inability to move on, but also a town full of people unable to do the same. Was that something that attracted both of you to the story?
Jennifer Podemski: You’re absolutely right. It was intended to be sort of a universal kind of experience story. There are a lot of different nuances that we were playing with, and a lot of people who grow up in a small town in Canada usually are growing up not too far from a reserve. It doesn’t matter what small town it is; you’re probably growing up somewhere close to natives. That divide is still vast, so even someone like Minerva, who ran away from home and sort of became an adult off-reserve is really just technically right beside it. That’s a really interesting kind of play on that experience. This really is a small town story, and it doesn’t have to be defined necessarily as a native story. It’s just a family story that happens to take place in Northern Ontario.
DS: And I think that’s kind of endemic of quite a few people who come from a small town. They might move to a city for opportunity, but it’s a city that’s often not too far from where they were raised. There’s something about having that sort of a safety net around you at all times in case things don’t necessarily pan out.
Cara Gee: I’m glad that came across! I grew up in a small town, and it’s funny because I didn’t even really think about that before this. It was always just a part of who I am, but I mean when you look at someone like Luke (Kirby)’s character, he’s someone who for sure fits that exact kind of description of someone who sort of moves upward, but not onward with their life. Man, he just does such a good job with that character. It’s easy to see how he can stay so charming and still manage to be “that guy.” (laughs)
JP: Just a total slimeball.
DS: Well, he’s an example of a character who has had years to hone his charm because in his own little world, that charm still works and it gets him as far as he needs it to in his life.
CG: And it will! (laughs and cringes)
JP: I don’t know about most of that sort of thing, but I know those kinds of people. It’s different because I grew up and lived in Toronto almost my whole life, so I’m more attracted to the family story and to build that kind of mother and daughter continuum and discover what’s at the heart of that relationship.
DS: It’s also a great film about how a family fits into a community, as well, and how the individual problems of all the characters shape the community and their own personal relationships. Did you guys talk at all beforehand about how you were going to play off each others’ very specific, but different kinds of problems or was it more of an in the moment sort of thing?
JP: There was very little rehearsal or anything like that. Peter originally wanted to rehearse, but we actually couldn’t afford it. It costs money and it’s too difficult to really pull it all together without any money. So I think ultimately he just wanted to tap into that real, raw place. We did come together on one scene that we all sat down and wrote together.
CG: Oh, yeah! I forgot about that! At the end of a shooting day we all kind of sat down and started writing for each other.
JP: But, yeah, we found moments together to discuss things and work off each other.
CG: But I think everyone did really come prepared with our own shit so that when we came together it was just all coming together. Everyone already came in with such rich backstories, and we each found that resentment and pain within these relationships. And that’s really funny because those were often the scenes that were the most fun to shoot, even though it was draining.
DS: It’s interesting that someone like Peter Stebbings would be directing a film like this, because I think most people would be surprised that he would get such a good handle on the material. What was it like working with him on this film?
JP: It was great. When I asked him if he would direct the film, he just seemed like he would be the perfect person for it, to me at least, and I know that might sound a little strange. But Peter was raised in a family of women. He has three older sisters and was raised by a single mom, and he’s very in touch with his feminine side, and he’s also really creative while being protective about the particular vision for a story. He was very delicate with us as actors.
CG: He was so gentle, and calming, too. The way he ran that set was so efficient, but easy to be around. There was just so much kindness.
JP: Very kind, very respectful. He seemed to just really honour the work of the people involved.
CG: He trusted us immensely as actors. He wasn’t ever once trying to impose anything on me. It felt like he was just sort of unlocking the work I had already done in my head. It all felt really collaborative. It was very ideal and joyful.
DS: It’s a story that’s obviously close to you, but as a producer, Jennifer, was there ever any hesitation about hiring Peter? It’s very much a story about women, which is hard for some men to really get a feel for, and it’s also a First Nations story.
JP: That was absolutely a question that we were all asking ourselves. “Why does Peter keep coming to me for this movie? He’s a white male, so what relationship would he have at all to these women?” I think I was looking for a director for about a full year before we decided on Peter, and I was just sort of feeling out our options and exploring everything from women, to native women, to native guys, to all kinds of directors, and Peter just always kept popping up here and there.
When I called him up, I asked him if he had anything to show in case I pitched him as a potential director. He had just finished shooting Defendor and he had just completed a rough cut. So I saw that and I was, like, “Oh, my God! This is a serious movie! He’s never going to want to do this movie!” (laughs) And then sure enough he said he would do it! I don’t know why he did it to this very day, and I don’t think he would really be able to answer it, either. But he was just perfect for it.
When people ask me about how you would go about making that choice, to tell you the truth, it’s because I had been for a producer for several years already, I know that when you give birth to a project that whoever you choose will be there forever, and that you have to like dealing with them. That was one of the things that I kind of had to have. I had to have a relationship that works because the nature of the film is about being open, honest, and respectful, and he was all of those things.
DS: And I think this film and Defendor also speaks to one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker, which is that he has a real knack for realistic sounding humour. He’s great at subtle humour, and he’s also great with that kind of nervous, awkward humour where you aren’t quite sure if you should be laughing at what you are seeing. And Empire of Dirt isn’t always a dour and sad film, and I was wondering what it was like trying to bring some of that humour into it without compromising the story or the vision?
JP: We tried to come at the material from sort of a hyper-real persepective, and the challenge with that is that you sort of fall out of consistency, but that’s what real life is. Real life is not consistent, and reality always moves away from the formula of traditional storytelling techniques in a lot of ways. There is humour and moments of sadness. There are uncomfortable silences and moments of joy. There’s all that stuff, and I think we all consciously made the decision to keep all of that real and raw and almost improvisational. Those moments of humour were very important to retain, but I think we found a lot more moments of them that weren’t on the page.
CG: Definitely. There’s a part when we are hitchhiking that gets me every single time I watch it. Colin (Brunton), who was one of our producers, was the guy driving the truck that was picking us up. But he stopped way, way the fuck past us (laughs), and we have these heavy bags and suitcases of stuff, and then Shay – totally in character because she is the loveliest, sweetest person in real life – just kind of looks at the stuff, then looks at me, and she just starts walking. So there I am forced to carry everything, including her stuff, and I was just trying so hard to keep it together and keep from laughing because I actually have to act mad if I want this to work. Because it totally does work. Then when we get to the car, she just gets right in the front door. It’s just, like, “What THE fuck?” (laughs)
JP: She has incredible instincts for those sorts of moments. She was awesome, and that was hilarious.
DS: There are a lot of problems in the film that so many people sort of dangling on, below, or just above the poverty line tend to deal with, but while it’s maintaining a cultural identity it doesn’t give into a lot of the stereotypes that some people might employ when dealing with a First Nations family going through similar problems. The film never plays these issues for melodrama, but as actual problems and flaws within the characters. I was wondering trying to take that approach when such a film could have easily become a macrocosm of every problem that faces First Nations families?
JP: You’re totally right, and that’s actually such a good way of putting it that I might steal it. (laughs) We really made a conscious effort to tell a humanistic family story, and at the same time not abandon the things that come and flare up from what might come from this legacy of familial shame, or residential schooling, or addictions, or whatever. We never wanted to be pulled specifically by the issue, but we have to acknowledge that the issue exists. It’s inherent in the fabric of this family, but it’s not something that overtakes their story, and it’s really challenging to not go in those directions.
A lot of people might want to make this an addiction story or would want to make it into a story about a whole bunch of other issues and themes, but we wanted to maintain a simple reality of how hard it is to go home after many years of being estranged from your parents, family, loved ones, town, community, or whatever. And it’s also about how hard it is for others to receive that person when they are coming home. This is about a broken family trying to put itself back together, not exploring in detail the specifics of every event that led to it happening. It’s just about that, and we recognize that there are issues of poverty, and issues of addiction, and mental health, and cutting, and residential schooling, and alcoholism, and gambling, but those aren’t what the film is about. And it was hard to not succumb to the “issue” storyline.
CG: And I think a lot of that, too, goes back to the sophistication of Shannon’s writing and how she can have those elements present, but what’s really driving the story forward is the relationship.
DS: And that seems like an added degree of difficulty, because as actors, writers, directors, and producers, you’re often taught and sometimes demanded to play up the more salacious aspects of a story to make things a bit more obvious, and it seems like this was dialed back quite a bit.
CG: It’s really interesting that you touched on that because the main note that I would always get back from Peter time and time again is “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” And I think that’s kind of what reflects the bigger picture. Shannon and Peter and Jennifer and everyone involved put in so much work to allow the complexity of the relationships to shine through, so we’re never hitting anyone over the head with anything.
DS: It also seems like this year where a lot of the most interesting and attention getting films coming from Canada have been ones dealing with First Nations subjects, like Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls or Alanis Obomsawin’s Hi-Ho Mistahey!, and it really seems to be a reflection of how voices in these communities are getting more and more of a chance to be heard. What’s it like being a part of a film that has a timeless kind of story, but is timely because of when it’s coming out?
JP: For me, I definitely noticed it, and I think what I thought was really, really great was how there were three movies at TIFF this year that all explored very different ends of the First Nations filmmaking spectrum. It was the first time in my entire career and the first time in my life where I was able to see more that one valid, but completely different expressions about the same kind of communities. I think it really could be the start of something. I don’t know what, but it could be. But it’s really important that it happened.
CG: This has come up again and again, and I maintain that “native” is not a genre. And I think that the fact that you have these different expressions of art calls something important to mind. We don’t ever think of white artists in that context. You would never say “Wow! Both of those films were done by white people?!?” (laughs) “They were SO different!” We just don’t think that way, and I think it is such an important thing, and it was great that we were able to be a part of TIFF, and it was a great direction to be going in.