Who Says Female Characters Have to Be Likeable?
Canadian actor/writer/producer Sarah Kolasky on the making of her first feature, Great Great Great
I started writing my first feature, Great Great Great, about four years ago with my friend and long-time collaborator Adam Garnet Jones. We were both eager to make a feature and decided that we didn’t need anybody’s permission to do it. As an actor, I was tired of hearing that I didn’t have the right “look” for leading parts on network TV shows (conventionally pretty, girl-next-door American). I like my face and know by now that comparing myself to others is pointless — although I still do it.
My taste in entertainment isn’t mainstream either: HBO shows and indie films are my jam. Show me the weird, smart, funny, honest, challenging stuff with great actors and I light up. On TV and in independent films, I started to notice that women around my age were creating their own complex, relatable female characters. I'm a huge fan of actor/writer/directors like Miranda July and Lena Dunham, as well as the work of the Toronto writer Sheila Heti. Say what you will about Dunham, but my mind exploded when I first watched Girls, and I loved every season of it. No one else was writing female characters like that on TV, and finally (FINALLY!) we were given permission to see women as challenging, confusing, and, dare I say it, unlikeable. I remember being floored by the six-and-a-half-minute long argument between Hannah and Marnie at the end of the ninth episode in season one, where they are both so blatantly selfish. It was uncomfortable, yet totally compelling because of its honesty. Girls gave me the confidence that there could be an audience for Great Great Great. If we were lucky, maybe it would push some buttons in the same ways.
"I spent all my time on my movies worried that people were eating and that the schedule was being kept..." — Lena Dunham
Hannah and Marnie hash it out in a scene from the ninth episode of Girls' first season.
Adam has very similar tastes, and as we were watching our friends in Toronto’s independent film scene make their own character-driven micro-budget features, which were getting into festivals around the world, including TIFF (Kazik Radwanski’s Tower, Shane Belcourt’s Tkaronto, Ingrid Veninger’s The Animal Project), we thought: hey, maybe we could do that too. I had produced and acted in our last short film, LIAR, which was the first time I wore both hats on the same project. I wanted to see if I could handle both jobs simultaneously without losing my mind, since each role is demanding in totally opposite ways. The movie was a success and premiered at the prestigious SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
When approaching my first feature, I naively told myself that it would be the same process as making a short, just with a longer running time. Adam and I agreed we’d tailor our shoot to fit our budget (i.e. our collective life savings, so basically nothing: approximately half the budget of our seven-minute short film), then apply for completion funding from Telefilm Canada once we had a rough cut. Using your own money means you retain complete creative control, but it also means you’re using your own money. Our anxiety ballooned with the budget, as there were many costs I hadn’t anticipated. Still, we wanted to do whatever it took to get our film made. (A tip: be prepared to ask for many, many favours you cannot ask for ever again, and in return, offer to help everyone who helped you.)
Adam would direct Great Great Great, and I would produce the film and star. For the first time, we would also be co-writing, which was intimidating. Several years ago, I had basically resigned myself to the fact that I was not a very good screenwriter, after receiving less-than-stellar feedback from a teacher in university. He said that all the characters in my script for a short comedy sounded the same, which was apparently a bad thing. I felt back then that I was writing in my voice, but it wasn’t good or interesting enough. In retrospect, I was way too easily discouraged. This experience pushed me to focus on producing at school, since I wasn’t interested in directing, but loved being involved in the creative process from beginning to end. I was organized, I thrived when leading a team, and above all: I got shit done.
Adam and I wanted to tell a story inspired by our past long-term relationships and the uncertainty quietly gripping many of our friends as we crossed into our thirties: should I marry or break up with the person I'm in love with? We decided to write a story where our protagonist is so scared of making the wrong choice that she pursues both paths simultaneously: my character, Lauren, gets engaged to her boyfriend and initiates an affair with her boss. That sounds like the recipe for a classic love triangle, but we were very conscious of avoiding that trap. Instead, we agreed the film would never devolve into a "which man will she choose?" narrative, and it would be clear from the start that Lauren isn't seeking anything more than a physical relationship with her boss. (Only later did we realize we’d put a feminist spin on the classic “Madonna-whore complex,” much to our delight.)
Early feedback on our script included a lot of questions about my character’s motivations. People didn’t understand why Lauren was making choices that were detrimental to her relationship, and why she would be attracted to her cocky, intimidating boss when she had a kind, loyal boyfriend at home. We were told these aspects made Lauren less likeable, and as much as we bristled against that word, we eventually started to question ourselves and wrote a draft that explained everything. Adam and I trashed it almost as soon as we were finished. We were hell-bent on keeping the contradictions in Lauren’s personality because that’s what made her feel real, and how we saw ourselves in her.
Now that I’m in my thirties, I feel like all my would-be maternal instincts have found an outlet in producing. I'm pretty sure I don't want kids, but I’ve long said that making a film is like giving birth. Sure, the conceiving and pregnancy stages can take years and once it’s been pushed out into the world, your job is literally to exploit your child for money. But while my baby is gestating, I am a woman on a mission: everyone working for me has to be well fed (no pizza!), safe, and encouraged to do their best. Adam and I work very collaboratively, and we bring the same approach to working with our cast and crew. We interviewed almost every crew member ourselves for Great Great Great, since it was going to be a small team and I’d be placing myself in some vulnerable positions as an actor. (More on that shortly.) When you're stuffing 20 people into a one-bedroom apartment for days on end, it's really important to consider how everyone is going to get along. My best advice: hire funny people. Being able to laugh when things go wrong is extremely useful. Everyone likes laughing more than yelling.
Playing a lead role I co-wrote was very empowering, although it didn’t really dawn on me until we started scheduling the shoot that I was in almost every single scene. When I got to set on the first day of production and everything was already in motion, I felt incredibly thankful and happy. Later that day, the weight of carrying the whole film hit me. There’s nothing like having 20 people waiting around for you to cry on cue to sober up an inflated ego.
I remember struggling with the “likeability” factor, too. In certain scenes where Lauren was making particularly selfish choices, my producer brain would jump ahead and judge how her actions would potentially be perceived by an audience. I hate that those voices got in my head, but Adam and I did our best to favour emotional honesty rather than succumb to the pressure of making Lauren “nicer.”
A few key scenes also involved nudity, which would mark my first time doing that on camera. Adam and I talked extensively about these scenes, as they came from our mutual appreciation of stories that use sex as character development, not just titillation. (It’s done so well in Girls and in Andrea Arnold’s films). Under different circumstances, I may have requested the scenes be done with less or even no nudity, but as the producer, I knew I would have control over how the scenes were shot, who was on set, and how they would appear in the final film. If I felt uncomfortable, I knew we could stop. It turns out that shooting nude scenes is actually really liberating. There are so many other things to think about that by take four, you forget you’re naked.
Once we had a solid rough cut, we applied to Telefilm Canada for completion funds to cover our post-production costs. Adam and I were out of money, so it was a tense couple of months as we waited to hear whether we’d be able to finish the film. Thankfully, Telefilm came through with the funding. They also trusted us to finish the film the way we wanted to and were completely hands-off, which was awesome. Still, we weren’t sure how the film would be received by a broad audience.
The night of our premiere at the Canadian Film Fest, I remember sitting in the theatre and sweating through my dress. Then, the film got its first laugh. As they continued to laugh and wince in all the right places, my heart exploded — they got it! I had assumed our target audience would be women in their twenties and thirties, so it’s been powerful to hear men and women of all ages tell me how much they related to the characters. It taught me not to worry about likeability — it’s outdated and sexist. Great Great Great went on to win Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and I won Best Performance in a Feature at the festival. I’m happy to say we’re in talks with a distributor and have plans to release the film theatrically.
As an actor, writer, and producer, I make art as a way of connecting with people. And because that’s the most fulfilling way I know how to live my life, I’ll keep doing it. I’m often asked which role I’m most passionate about, and without a doubt it is acting. Ultimately, as a woman in Canadian film, I am writing and producing out of necessity: I will create the roles I want until I see them everywhere.
Sarah Kolasky is an actor, writer, and producer. She is also the former chair of the Breakthroughs Film Festival, which is the only film festival in Canada dedicated to exclusively showing short films by emerging female directors. You can find more information on Great Great Great at greatgreatgreatmovie.com. Join TIFF’s movement to champion female storytellers, like our ambassadors Deepa Mehta, Jennifer Baichwal, and Ashley McKenzie, at tiff.net/shareherjourney. Donate today to help TIFF support and empower female voices.
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