“Directing in pasties is interesting”
Katie Boland talks about the process of writing, directing, and starring in her first short film Lolz-Ita, opposite Sarah Gadon and Don McKellar
Actor Katie Boland has worked with some of the world’s most renowned auteurs, including Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), Atom Egoyan (Adoration), and Bruce La Bruce (Gerontophilia). A former TIFF Rising Star who was selected in the program’s inaugural year, she’s also been devoted to the creation of her own projects, which include the 2013 web-series Long Story, Short, which was produced, written, and starred Boland.(The series was directed by her mother, award-winning filmmaker Gail Harvey.)
For her first short film, Lolz-Ita, Boland has drawn from her years of on-set experience, serving as the film’s director, writerm and star. The film is a revealing portrait of an Insta-famous teenager (screen name: Lolz-ita) living in a small town who is plagued by insecurity and self-doubt whenever she shuts off her iPhone. With a stylish aesthetic that’s pretty in millennial pink, Boland’s sharp satire captures the fraught relationship women have to their online selves, and offers sharp supporting turns from co-stars Jesse Camacho, Don McKellar, and Sarah Gadon. We spoke to Boland about taking inspiration from the teens of Instagram, the unnerving experience of directing a crew in pasties, and why female filmmakers are not a trend.
Lolz-Ita screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 14 as part of a special Short Cuts programme devoted to female filmmakers. The other films include Liv Karin Dahlstrøm’s Women&Wine, Diane Obomsawin’s I Like Girls, Asuka Sylvie’s Last Summer, Ifunanya Maduka’s Waiting for Hassana, Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s Into the Blue, and Caroline Monnet’s Creature Dada. Part of the proceeds will go towards TIFF’s Share Her Journey campaign, which pledges a five-year commitment to increasing participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera. Boland and her producer Lauren Collins will be there to introduce the film and conduct a post-screening Q&A.
Your film explores themes of sexuality, social media, and feminism. What was your original inspiration for creating this larger-than-life Instagram character?
I am compulsively addicted to social media. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering who I seemed like online, who I actually was, and where those two people overlapped — and just about female identity in general. I have a relative who is very similar to Lolz-ita; she's young, lives in a small town, and is extremely gifted at Instagram. So, I was really curious about this slightly younger generation of women who seem to understand the power of social media and branding by using themselves as their art. There were so many layers that felt interesting to me.
How does being on social media make you feel?
Well, this morning, Instagram disabled my account for five hours and I don't know why. I felt this strange feeling of panic, but also so much relief because I was like, "This is out of my control now. I don't have to update it, I don't have to feel embarrassed and validated by likes." It's all so emotionally complicated.
Lolz-Ita is the first film that you've directed, but you created a web series (Long Story, Short), produced other films, and have also spent years as an actor. What was it like to finally direct yourself?
I was actually surprised by how challenging it was because I've been on a lot of sets, I've watched a lot of directors, and my mom, Gail Harvey, is a great director. Even still, I didn't understand how engaged your brain is — on every level, all of the time — when you're directing. I was surprised by how difficult it was, but also how hard it was judge myself. I felt like I had no gauge if a take was good, or bad.
That seems terrifying: to set up a shot and then to walk into it.
That's a great way of putting it. I would almost feel as if I’d blacked out. It was a challenge, but I liked it, even if I didn't think I did at the time.
Were there aspects of directing that you thought were going to be easy, which ended up being really challenging? Or vice versa?
It feels like throwing a party. When it's your own party, you're never having a good time. You just hope that everybody else is getting drunk and enjoying themselves! I kept thinking, “Oh my god, if this experience is bad for anyone, it is 100 percent my fault." There was this crushing sense of responsibility.
You’ve given yourself such an interesting, complex character to play. She has willingly sexualizing herself and making an income from it, but she has this complicated, layered reaction to what she thinks men expect from her in real life.
What I thought was most interesting about these Lolita-esque girls online is that they were very empowered by their sexuality, but were also victims to it. They experience this dual reality where they are their own business and their product is themselves, their bodies, and the lifestyle they’re selling, but they also get a lot of negative attention. They have hundreds of comments underneath their pictures, but some of them say, “You’re a slut.” I guess it's the essential female conundrum where you can't win.
You even have a scene in the school bathroom where Lolz-ita records herself saying, "I don't know why women can't be strong, smart, and be sexy at the same time."
I meant for that moment to be really tragic. My best friend [actor and filmmaker] Megan Park watched it and said, "That was the funniest moment in the movie." I was told multiple times during TIFF this year that I present as "too feminine" to be taken seriously as a writer and a director. People have said that “you have to stop wearing dresses, you shouldn't wear red lipstick everywhere,” even though that’s just me. I just feel like you can't escape it.
What was your stylistic inspiration for the film?
I took a lot of inspiration from Elephant, the Gus Van Sant movie. Then, I was just looking at these young tastemakers and feminist icons online. There are a lot of anonymous young women on Instagram and Tumblr where I’d [look at their work] and say, "Wow, there is so much creativity going into this." They all are makeup artists. They all are photographers. Their captions are all really witty and branded. In an unconventional way, they became my inspiration.
And your film credits them at the end, which was really nice.
Well, they’re also very brave. They put their feelings out there.
It’s almost like a new performance art.
Well, for any 20-year-old you follow on Instagram, they're very good at it and have hundreds of likes on every photo. They all have two accounts: one their mom can see and one their mom can't. The whole thing was fascinating to me.
When you were approaching this character, were you trying to channel any one of those girls in particular? Was it hard to play a teenager again?
I just tried to think about the moments in my life where I pretended that I'd had a lot of experience but the gap was suddenly very obvious to me and whoever else I was talking to. That's a particularly humiliating experience.
Do you feel like you have to create your own work, not only to challenge yourself but to keep playing complex roles?
Absolutely, that's why I started writing five or six years ago. It was because I felt very limited, I was going to have to wait forever for people to give me permission to tell any kind of story at all. The ability to try and take some kind of control is 100 percent why I started writing and directing.
And what was it like directing your co-stars Sarah Gadon and Don McKellar?
Oh, that was easy! I was like, “Thanks for being in my movie, do whatever you want." Obviously, they're so talented and such professionals, but it was touching they took it so seriously!
What's your favourite part of directing?
The control, for sure. (Laughter) I love control, that you get to decide how the movie turns out, that it's you from the beginning to the end. It's a weird thing when you're in someone else's movie, you have a version of the movie in your head, and often when you see the final cut, it's completely different. The final artistic control is what I really like!
As an actor you've worked with so many different directors, including Paul Thomas Anderson and Atom Egoyan. What did you learn from them that you applied to your own craft?
The best directors I've worked with, like the ones you mentioned, are very relaxed on set. They have a very clear vision and there's no moment where they don't know what they want, but they're not all over you giving you direction, or being suffocating. It was important for me to be that way as well. To let people do their jobs, but to be in control and have a firm vision.
What was the hardest scene to both play and direct?
Well... directing in pasties is interesting. (Laughter) There were quite a few women on this project, but the crew, as most crews are, was predominantly male. It was lower budget, so it was a lot of guys my age, and that was hard. When I was in that wig, wearing pasties and underwear, as soon as I called "cut" I felt really embarrassed. I felt exposed and wanted to put the robe on.
How did you handle it?
I think you try to take yourself out of it, as much as you can. As much as I felt vulnerable and exposed, I pretended that I didn’t. As soon as I called "cut," everyone on set looked the other way and were respectful. I did have a conversation with my producer, Lauren Collins, and my mom. They said, "If you ever feel really freaked out, just come to us." Luckily, I could navigate it but it was definitely strange and surreal.
It’s strange too because you're like, “Who put me in this position?" "Oh, I did!"
As a performer, I think that I always want to push myself to some really uncomfortable place. Where does that instinct come from? It's not a normal, human thing to want to do.
Maybe it’s something you're compelled to do because you're an artist.
I have friends on both sides of this argument, who say: "It's wrong to write about yourself and people in your life." But it’s a part of myself that doesn't seem to be going away, or getting smaller. I feel like I have more to say about my life and the people in it now than I ever did before!
In an interview with TIFF at this year’s Festival, Mary Harron said she's been asked about the topic of women in film for the last 25 years, but only in the last year has she felt anything has significantly shifted. As an actor and someone who has been in the film industry since you were a child, do you sense a change?
I do... but it's a very sexist industry where it will probably never be completely equal, or fair. It's a greater societal issue where people actually get mad when women talk. I think there's been some really positive changes in Canada specifically, but there's still way further to go. Everyone has to do way better, as far as what we're mandating. It's pitiful in a lot of ways.
In the process of directing your first film, did you ever experience any sense of self doubt?
That's a particularly female thing. I think every artist has imposter syndrome, but specifically as women, we're like, "What makes my life story so interesting?" Or just, "who cares,” a lot of women ask themselves that. It's tenacious thing to say, "I'm a woman and I want to be a director."
Luckily, you have such a powerful role model in your mom, Gail Harvey.
I know, she is tenacious, she's the very definition.
TIFF’s Share Her Journey campaign has put resources and advocacy behind women in film, but obviously, there’s still a lot of work to do. What do you hope for Canadian female filmmakers in the year to come?
I just hope it isn't the issue "this year,” then we're onto the next thing. I hope we can continually be given more money by the government and by Telefilm. Women are 50 per cent of the population, we should be telling 50 per cent of the stories.