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Interview with ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ director Zack Russell

Interview with ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ director Zack Russell

She Stoops to Conquer, the innovate and expertly crafted new short film from Canadian director Zack Russell, makes its TIFF debut this weekend as part of Short Cuts Programme 5. Billed as A gender-bending romantic comedy about a man and her double, She Stoops to Conquer is Russell’s first time at the helm of a film after nearly a decade working in theatre.

Russell’s personality strikes a rare balance of modesty and ambition, and when he speaks about his film he shares a wealth of insight that up and coming filmmakers should pay close attention to. Russell was kind enough to take time out of his hectic schedule to talk to Popoptiq about transitioning into film, his approach to filmmaking, and what went into getting She Stoops to Conquer off the ground (it involved stalking the film’s co-star Julian Richings).

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It’s your first time at TIFF as a filmmaker, what aspects of the festival are you most looking forward to?

I think I’m kind of geekily looking forward to seeing a lot of films. I’m really interested in seeing the international shorts. Especially cause that’s now the kind of films…I’ve made a short, I want to make another short.

I’m really excited about the international shorts that are programmed with us in the Short Program 5, the films that we’re showing with, particularly The Society. That looks pretty great. Yeah, really just seeing the films and you know, I won’t say no to parties but I’m sort of a terrible networker so we’ll see how it goes.

I’m sure you’ll fall into the habit rather quickly. I believe you said 8 years you’ve been working as a [theatre] director?

Yeah, kinda like 7… What am I now – 27. Yeah, 7 years.

And has film always been something that’s been on your radar? Did it come up recently; was it on the back burner?

No, it was never…It was consciously not on my radar, and I saw a bunch of people that I went to school with, university with, go into film. And I always thought it wouldn’t be for me and then, I don’t know, I just kind of started to get more into watching film and sort of binged on film for the last 2 years. And then finally it was like, why don’t I try to make one film? See how that goes. Now I feel like I have the bug. It’s not all I want to do, but it’s something that I enjoy and feel like it’s a good medium for me. Yeah.

When you say a good medium, do you mean short film in particular or thinking more long form.

I’m kind of open. The thing I’m really passionate about right now is trying to do a TV series.

The ultimate long form.

Yeah, the longest form. Short films…the prospect of a feature still kind of scares me. I don’t know if I could really bite off that much at this point. I probably shouldn’t say that. I’m supposed to be very confident and not very humble.

It’s the most incredible medium to make a short for a young artist, because you can do it so quickly and so cheaply, and the stakes are low.

I think that every artist feels they aren’t up to their own lofty expectations. We all kind of fake it until we make it.

I was really faking it when we made this short because I’ve never been on set before. And I obviously never directed [films] before. I didn’t even know what everybody’s jobs were. I’m definitely a fake it till I make it kind of guy. Now that this short has happened and I’ve had the experience of it. It’s the most incredible medium to make a short for a young artist because you can do it so quickly and so cheaply, and the stakes are low. You don’t need a lot of support to do it.

So your concept for She Stoops to Conquer, it could have been ripped right out of The Twilight Zone. It’s pretty far out there. Where did that concept come from and what were your influences?

I think the big film influence was Holy Motors. I saw that film a couple of years ago. You know that film by Leos Carax

Yes I do.

That was sort of the big eye opener film wise. Seeing that was the big final push for me wanting to make something. But, the story itself came out of working with Kayla [Lorette] who I co-wrote it with, and she also stars in it. She is an improviser and a comedian in Toronto who plays older men characters all the time. We were sitting and just kind of reflecting on how bizarre it is that she’s always playing older men and she’s like a 26-year-old woman. And that just seems like the right bizarre angle to develop something from.

It was very bizarre. I like the bizarre, thats not a diss in any way

Are you dissing me right now?

Not even close.

Now, despite the loud music, the flashing lights, the prosthetics, the drag kings and drag queens, I was struck by how intimate the film actually felt. It never toppled into a place where it was a totally abstract, chaotic film. There is an earnestness to it, how did you manage to maintain that feeling?

That’s a good question. I think it’s a testament to how close I am with Kayla and now with Julian [Richings]. The three of us were like a little unit that spent a lot of time together before we started shooting. Coming from a theatre background we had so many rehearsals and we had so many dinners, and just nights of drinking and talking about the film and talking about the script, and being together that it felt like we had a really solid little threesome to go off of when we started shooting with 25-35 people. I think it had a lot to do with just having a relationship with them. We shot it over four days and the whole four days just kind of felt, just like an extension of our weird threesome that would meet for months before.

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The idea is the thing that fuels me. The ideas are never simple.

There are directors that make careers out of pointing the camera at people and just letting them talk, since this was your first time helming a film, did you ever consider going with something less ambitious?

That felt funny cause when you started that question I thought you meant that’s what I did because I did kind of just…the final scene in the film is just Kayla improvising. We really just did point the camera at her and let her talk but I guess there was a lot to get to that moment.

I think I have the great terrible quality of just the most insane impossible things. I’ve been doing theatre for a while that’s just way too ambitious and I don’t think I’m capable of… the idea is the thing that fuels me. The ideas are never simple. I’ve never tried to simplify an idea, and I don’t even know how. Part of it comes not from being stupid—but incapable of simplifying things.

That can be a great trait to have in the right circumstances.

Now your just flattering me.

No. it’s true. Some people have all the ideas in the world but they see them as insurmountable, they don’t try. Drive and ambition, it’s better to have those than just a great idea. You need the momentum to get the ball rolling, and then that momentum can carry you anywhere.

I just think it’s so hard to make anything. If you’re already doing this crazy thing of trying to make any short film, or play, or a feature. If you’re already putting all of this work in and it’s already feeling kind of impossible then, to go from barely possible to sounds like it’s not going to work is just a logical leap for me. Why woudnt we just… If it already probably isn’t going to work, then let’s go even further with it. That’s a pessimistic way of tricking myself into doing things.

This was your first time stepping onto the set as a director and your weren’t familiar with all the technical aspects of directing. Who did you lean on to help you through?

I leaned very heavily on the DP (director of photography) Henry Sansom. He is a very seasoned DP. He was just kind of really lovely with me. And then it’s him plus Kayla and Julian who have a lot of film set experience. I was working with pro actors and a pro DP and they never, no one ever made me feel  like I had to have an answer for something. It was much more like they were going to be able to make it work no matter what, and I was just kind of allowed to play and have fun with my weird idea.

I think plan B was just shoot more video. Keep sending him these weird videos of Kayla wearing his face until he relented or had us arrested.

You really took a gamble on being able to land Julian, Was there ever a plan B?

(Laughter) No plan B. I think plan B was like, if he says no…let’s think of another way to ask him. OK if he says no to this what’s an even more…. The way that we asked him was we had gone to…you probably heard this or read this in our [profile]. We got a pull of his face from a makeup artist without his knowledge. And then we made the prosthetic for Kayla’s face, then we shot a video, like a very slick teaser just for the purpose of wooing him because we were already scared that he would say no. Who am I? And I’ve never made anything.

Already we were kind of approaching him as though he was definitely going to say no and it was like, ok this is step one to win him over. Which sounds kind of crazy now. You just secretly take someone’s face and make someone else look like them doesn’t seem like a logical way to win someone over. But for the purpose of this project I guess it made sense. I think plan B was just shoot more video. Keep sending him these weird videos of Kayla wearing his face until he relented or had us arrested.

For your writing process, do you typically have a face or an actor in mind, or do you write the character and leave the follow up to casting?

I think I write more for actors than I do for characters. In this instance where Kayla and I were writing together it was more… it was very much us trying to write for her. Before we wrote the script we had Julian in mind and we were very much writing for him. In all the theatre work that I’ve done, I tend… things tend to go a lot better for me when I have the actors before I have the details. I really like to make things for people.

Even with what you think that you need to make a film, you actually need half of that. And that would be a lesson I hope to take with me in the next film.

Do you have any advice for young filmmakers out there that have their minds set on jumping into a film as ambitious as yours?

NO! (laughs). I think that you can execute an idea regardless of what resources you have. You can figure out a way. You really shoudn’t let people try to dissuade you from making something because you don’t have the resources or you don’t have the training. I think that was the biggest…positive. I guess the positive side of it was that we did make the film. Even though there were producers saying you don’t have enough money, you don’t have enough backing and this idea could look better if you had more of this. There definitely were people saying wait, apply for this thing, apply for that thing.

And then the flip side of it I guess was that we were kind of inventive ourselves, we needed a lot of money and needed to spend a lot of money. I think that you can either do something fast and expensive to make it good, or you can do something slow and cheap to make it good. Even with what you think that you need to make a film, you actually need half of that. And that would be a lesson I hope to take with me in the next film. We did end up spending 40-thousand dollars on it. I think the next film will be, let’s do it for 20, let’s do it for 10.

Dont tell your producers that!

(Laughs). We can always do it for a bit less. Money doesn’t equal quality.


She Stoops to Conquer is directed by Zack Russell and stars Kayla Lorette and Julian Richings. The film is playing as part of Short Cuts Programme 5 at Scotiabank Theatre on Sunday September 13 at 7:00pm and then again on Friday September 18 at 12:45pm.


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