Posted on: Monday, April 30th, 2012
Writer and director Elsa Morena just finished shooting her latest short film, Winners, which she – appropriately – wrote and directed. She made the film through NIFCO’s Picture Start program, which guides selected writer-director-producer teams through the filmmaking process and gives emerging filmmakers and producers a leg up on their careers.
I caught up with her to talk about Winners, monster dating, and uppity Vancouver fertilizer.
You had a short film in the Women’s Film Festival last year.
Yep, it was in the Women’s and the Nickel, it was called Watching Emily.
Was that your first film?
It was the first I did that had a story. I’ve done music videos, and things to put up on YouTube, but this was my first script that I wrote and directed myself.
What music videos did you make?
I made one for the Idlers.
What did you do for YouTube?
I did this sort of comedy sketch with my writing partner, Amy Doherty. We did a parody of that 80s dating video montage and instead of awful, weird, quirky people, there were monsters. It’s called Monster Date and it’s about monsters trying to get a date. We did it while we were at the Vancouver Film School and they loved it so much that they put their name on it and used it a promotional video like, ‘Look at what our students can do!’
Was there a monster in the video that you would have dated?
Probably the elf. He’s weird and interesting.
So, Winners. You guys shot that over St. Patrick’s Day?
We did. It was really risky because we didn’t know whether it would be summer or winter.
You had that crazy ice rain storm, too.
Yeah, we had that mini ice storm on the first day! Everyone was all, ‘I don’t think we can do this,’ but then we all remembered that everyone on the crew has shot in worse weather than that.
What is Winners about?
It’s about two best friends that are really competitive and they find out that they have to… well, you know at school, when you sell chocolate to raise money for the school? Well they’re selling fertilizer. And they find out that the principal is conning them and they have wind up having to figure out whether they want to keep selling and keep competing with each other, or just stop and save the friendship. It’s a battle between winning the prize or saving your friendship. And in the end, there’s a big old fertilizer fight.
Why did you pick fertilizer as the thing they’re selling?
Because I thought it was the most ridiculous thing to sell, especially in a city. Ironically, when I gave the script to my friends to edit, it was when I was in school in Vancouver, and some of them said, ‘We had to sell to fertilzer!’ But of course, I was in Vancouver and everybody’s into that, pro-green was the way of life out there.
Sorry to get off track here, but when did you graduate from the Vancouver Film School?
A year and a half ago.
So, overall, how was the Winners shoot?
The biggest challenge with Winners was that we had children in our film, so we could only have eight-hour shooting days. So every minute was precious. Because of that, it really made me have to prepare a lot in advance. I prep all the time anyway, I’m organized in that way, but you have to prepare yourself to be able to cut your shoot list and be able to just let some things go.
We were lucky, too, because our crew was a mix of poeple who have been in the industry for a while and new people. We had a really young crew and we were able to give responsibilities to people who had never been in that position before. But that meant that they were extra passionate and really driven to prove themselves and make it work on a really tight schedule.
How old were the kids you were wrangling?
They were between 9 and 14. Percy White plays Max, and he is just an amazingly talented little kid. His mother is Sherry White and his father is Joel Hynes so the talent is in the blood, but I was so impressed with him. He was jumping off the walls but the minute the camera started rolling he was so focused, it was amazing to see such talent.
You’re also a writer at Best Boy Entertainment, right?
I’m a writer for two of their shows: Mickey’s Farm and a docu-drama series called Pet ER. I’ve been working there for a little over a year.
So you’re living the dream, employed in the industry to you want to work in.
I’m doing the job that I always wanted to do, yeah. I’m 27 years old and I can say that I have a career job right now. I’m glad that I moved back to St. John’s. I don’t think that I would have been able to get so far ahead so quickly in the industry if I hadn’t have come back here. And I personally think that in St. John’s, women in the film industry are well respected. It feels a lot different here than from Montreal and Vancouver where I lived before, where it’s still kind of a novelty for women to be in the industry. But because of the Women’s Film Festival here, back in the day if you wanted a film to get into a festival, that was the only festival. So you had to get a woman on board and that meant that women were part of the creative process. And I really think that because of that, it’s easier over here for a woman to break into the industry.
I started here as a boom microphone operator. I went to NIFCO and I banged on the door and said, ‘I wanna learn sound.’ It was something that I just never knew anything about in film, and I wanted to know everything about the industry. So I did that, and I worked my way up. When I moved to Vancouver, I started getting gigs as a boom op and I had so many people out there saying, ‘Oh my God, a female boom op?! A woman in sound?!’ But over here, it’s nothing. Over here, there are lots of women in different parts of the film industry.
If you could go back and tell your younger self anything, or give yourself some advice, what would you say?
I’d probably go back and say, ‘You don’t have to drink that much, I mean really.’ [laughs] But no, I have to say, I’m in a pretty good position right now and I think I’m really lucky to be where I am right now. I know a lot of talented people out there that are still struggling to break in, but I’m really lucky to be in this position and I recognize that, so I try to give back. I’ve had a lot of people who have mentored me throughout my career, so I try to mentor people as well. I volunteer and I ask people to give me their scripts and I’ll give them notes — anything I can do to pay back the community.
What sorts of mentoring things to do you?
I did the 24 hour film challenge for high school students with the Women’s Film Fest and I also toured with the Nickel to schools in the province and did some workshops on how to make a film with high school students.
I wish back when I was in high schol that there was someone like me that came in and talked to me! I had no idea about the film world except for what I saw in the movies. You don’t learn about it in school, it’s something you find out later in life when you’re in college or university, so I’m really glad that I ended up doing those workshops.
Maybe you’ll wind up mentoring them through Picture Start! How did you find your Picture Start experience?
You submit a script with a director and producer team, and then they choose the teams. My producer was Patrick Condon (pictured left), we’ve worked together on a lot of things, so they chose us. Then you’re given a budget and you have mentors that guide you through the process. You have to at least have done the First Time Filmmakers program which I had done to make Watching Emily the year before. But yeah, they really are great at mentoring you through the process, and you get access to a lot of people who have been in the industry before, and I think that was actually the most helpful part of it: having someone sit you down and tell you the realities of the film world.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I am actually the only female that got chosen in the Picture Start program this year. Last year, there were three woman but they were all producers. This year I‘m the only one, and it’s a creative position, as writer/director.
Not bad at all!