I recently had the good fortune to come across an interesting Kickstarter campaign (Kickstarter is a site for crowd funding – where people can pitch their bright ideas, and their projected budget, and you can choose to back them with your own hard-earned dollars, or not). The campaign was launched by a local film maker who already has a couple of well-received short films under her belt, and, having toured the festival circuit and left with awards, is eager to do her next film up right. And did I mention she’s only 16?
Matt, Sean and I are blown away by the obvious potential in her work. There’s a lot of insight and maturity that’s evident already, especially in a short entitled Gifts, and we’re so excited to see where she takes her work next. Kickstarter allows us to throw even just a couple of dollars her way and feel like we’re contributing to her vision. A long time ago, wealthy patrons would back artists with their support, encouragement, and financial aid, which allowed those artists to concentrate on their work without worrying about supporting themselves by other means. The Renaissance was famous for its patrons – the Medici family alone gave patronage to the Ninja Turtles among others (Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael – well, you get the picture). Today, we’re able to offer our support as a community (assuming none of you are from an elite political dynasty) and actually help foster the things we claim to support: young talent, creativity, and a strong female voice for the next generation that the movie industry so desperately needs. And isn’t it kind of cool to get in on the ground floor. I mean, we could be talking about the next Tarantino here, and wouldn’t you like to be able to say that you spotted her first? If you’re interested in contributing, every little bit helps, and her campaign can be found here. And without further ado, let’s hear from this talented film maker herself, Ms. Morgana McKenzie: director, editor, cinematographer, voice of tomorrow.
Ms. McKenzie took some time out of her busy schedule (she’s already in rehearsals for her upcoming film, Ellie) to answer some of our questions. In this particular interview we’ll be discussing a previous short film of hers called Gifts that you can watch by visiting this link. Ms. McKenzie made this film when she was 14 years old and garnered her tonnes of well-deserved awards, among them best thriller at CineYouth, best editing at ASK Film Festival, and best emerging female filmmaker at NFFTY (which also came with a scholarship to prodigy camp). You’ll be blown away by Gifts, and the rest of her catalogue is even more intriguing though they aren’t available for public viewing yet because they’re still making the festival rounds. You might want to use that link now to watch it before reading the interview because it does contain some spoilers.
Matt: Gifts is an engaging short film that features, among other things, a very well-executed murder scene that literally made me jump. Your POV approach kept the tension high as I was always a little afraid of what might be lurking just outside the character’s field of vision. What can you tell us about where the idea for this story came from? How do you go about building suspense with such a limited budget and non-professional actors?
Ms. McKenzie: I originally had the idea for two much more complicated shorts; one involving two worlds joined by water, and the other involving a POV sequence. These were too complex and not doable, so the idea came to mix the two shorts, making one. Writing and scrapping drafts ensued, and eventually I was left with GIFTS!
Suspense was important to me given that I didn’t have professional actors or equipment. I worked hard to do the best that I could with what I had for equipment, but I knew the suspense would be what would carry the story. I really tried to tackle that in the writing process, making sure that every bit of information being put out was for a reason and would ultimately move the story forward.
Matt: Most of us don’t take the time to commit to a two-hour movie without learning a little something about it first. Either they’ve seen a preview or they’ve read a review or at least looked at the poster. Short films are unique in that it’s quite common to go into it with no idea what we’re in for. For me, this made witnessing an ambush within the first few seconds of Gifts
even more disarming. Are you eager for the chance to make feature-length films or are you enjoying the unique storytelling opportunities offered by short films?
Ms. McKenzie: I am definitely interested to make feature-length films! I think it would be interesting to explore a longer form of storytelling and be able to experiment with expanding some of my current ideas. At the same time, I enjoy making short films, and am not in any sort of hurry to make my first feature. I see a lot of youth filmmakers in a rush to make their first feature, and while I understand the worry of getting it out there, I would rather take my time exploring short form storytelling while I can. I’m more interested in building a portfolio of work I’m proud of, while planning out my ideas for a feature.
Matt: Most of the short films I’ve seen fall into the category of either the Animated or the Arty. Is there a whole sub-genre of horror\thrill shorts that I’m not aware of?
Ms. McKenzie: Definitely! Some of the festivals I’ve attended like NFFTY and CineYouth have film screenings solely dedicated to the horror/thriller genre, and CineYouth even has a junior and senior award for “Best Thriller”. There’s a large network of filmmakers within that as well. Gigi Saul Guerrero for example has had a short in NFFTY’s “Edge of Your Seat” screening for years, and she’s now working on developing a feature based on her short “El Gigante”. It’s a cool genre to be a part of, and you definitely meet some cool people within it.
Jay: Is film something you want to pursue as a career, or more of a passion? How did this fascination with making your own movies start? What films\filmmakers have influenced you the most?
Ms. McKenzie: Film is something I will pursue as a career. It started as an interest after watching JJ Abrams’ film “Super 8”, but then as I explored making short films and became more experienced, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue long-term. Shows like Breaking Bad and True Detective that have an ongoing feeling of suspense and wonder have strongly influenced my work. I gravitate towards suspense and non linear storytelling. Individual people that have influenced me range from Ray Bradbury, Reed Morano, David Lynch, Vince Gilligan, Roger Deakins and the Coen Brothers.
Matt: You’ve had your films screened at several festivals around the world and have been fortunate enough to attend at least a few of them. What’s it been like to meet so many other young filmmakers and how do you think it’s influenced the way you make movies?
Ms. McKenzie: Meeting other youth filmmakers has been amazing. I’m able to network with other people my age that have the same interests as me, have someone to bounce ideas off of, and have a friendship at the same time. It allows you to have someone you can count on in filmmaking and in life.
Matt: What can you tell us about Ellie, which you begin shooting at the end of the month?
Ms. McKenzie: Ellie was originally meant to be done a year ago at Prodigy Camp, a camp based just outside of Seattle. I wrote it working with Emmy award-winning script mentor John Jacobsen, and had cast Nathan Gamble (The Mist, The Dark Knight) as the lead. Because the script was too long to shoot in the three-hour block given, complications with my DP, and almost everything else going wrong, I wasn’t able to finish shooting.
Now, I can start over with Ellie, here in Ottawa. It’s the first time I’ve hired union actors. ACTRA has been really supportive, and Ilona Smyth (Smyth Casting) made the casting process really enjoyable. I’ve also increased the quality of my equipment, and I’m ready to take a step forward with my filmmaking. This film can do that.
Matt: Earlier this year at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY), you got the
chance to speak about your experience as a female filmmaker. What’s it been like for you as a female filmmaker?
Ms. McKenzie: I get asked this question a lot and have a hard time answering it because it’s not
something I often think about. I’m aware it’s an issue and a big problem in the industry, but I haven’t felt the effect personally (probably because I haven’t worked professionally yet). I do get frustrated with the label of a female filmmaker. You don’t see females in other professions being labeled “female doctor” or “female fireman”, it seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?
I frequently see people surprised about the amount of dark material in my work. Maybe people expect to see themes from a teenage female filmmaker that involve romance, or butterflies and fairies. But those themes don’t interest me, unless of course the fairy is out to murder wolves, then we’re talking.
Jay: Last year you were able to attend prodigy camp thanks to a scholarship from NFFTY. What did you learn while at camp, and how do you see your education in film making continuing?
Ms. McKenzie: I learned so much at Prodigy Camp. I loved playing different crew roles on other campers films. You end up learning so much from the other kids and DP’s while on set. I as well learned the value of being able to connect with your crew. In this case, I was not able to connect with my DP, so decision-making was very difficult, especially under the tight three hour shooting window we were given. This was one of the reasons I wasn’t able to complete Ellie at Prodigy Camp, but it was a good learning experience for me on the importance of being able to connect with your crew.
I want to continue expanding my knowledge in film. For post high school, my current plan is to apply to the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) for their six month intensive directing or editing program. But, my plan for after high school changes often. My backup plan is to take a gap year to work and build more of my portfolio.
Jay: How do you perceive the film making culture here in Ottawa? Do you think Canadians have to be in Hollywood in order to be successful in the movie industry?
Ms. McKenzie: The filmmaking culture in Ottawa is good! Not as major as other places in Canada like Toronto, but we definitely have great local production companies like Zed Filmworks and Affinity, as well as resources like SAW Video for training and equipment rentals.
The youth indie film culture in Ottawa is what’s lacking. There are fewer opportunities for teenage or youth filmmakers to collaborate because it’s a smaller community, so you end up working alone on most things.
At the same time, I don’t think we as Canadians need to be in Hollywood to be successful. Indie filmmaking is such a big thing nowadays, and there are so many other resources you can go to that aren’t related to Hollywood.
Jay: Who are your biggest champions and supports as you pursue your dream?
Ms. McKenzie: I’m extremely fortunate to be able to have some extremely supportive parents. They are definitely one of my biggest supporters in film, assisting me in any way possible. We joke that they only do it so I’m obligated to put them in a nice home later.
Aside from immediate family, I’ve met some really amazing people through film in places like Seattle and New Jersey. These are the people that I can go to for read over of my latest script, but I also consider them to be close friends and seek their advice on life in general. We are all trying to reach the same goal, and all support each other in any way possible to make sure we can get there. I like that a lot.
As you can see, Morgana McKenzie is not only a talented film maker, but a thoughtful and well-spoken young woman too. We’re really proud to have gotten to know her a bit and hope you’ve enjoyed it as well. Her Kickstarter campaign is still in high gear, and I urge you again to think about giving. I know we are a community of film lovers, and this is a great way to express it and contribute to it.
If you have any questions for Ms. McKenzie, leave them in the comments. Let us know what you thought of her work. Do you admire any other film makers in the short-film oeuvre? Do you know any other “prodigies”? We look forward to hearing from all of you, and we hope to bring you more news of Ms. McKenzie’s as her career continues.