"Be Bold": An Interview with Filmmaker & Feminist
By The Film Atlas Staff | 13.11.2017
Emma Higgins is a Toronto-based filmmaker hailing from Vancouver, BC. Since moving to Toronto, Higgins has become deeply involved in the city’s cultural industries. She has directed many music videos, working with artists such as Mother Mother, Dirty Radio, Dear Rouge, Brave Shores, and Shawn Mendes. She created the short film God Hates a Coward (2016) as part of the 2016 Bell Media Sound and Vision film challenge and recently completed her latest short, Currency (2016), for which she was awarded a BravoFACT grant. Higgins is currently working on developing her first feature length project, Northwoods.
Emma sat down with us to talk about filmmaking in Canada, her roots in the North, and women on screen. You can visit her online at emmahiggins.com.
The Film Atlas: From a career perspective, why did you choose to move from Vancouver to Toronto?
Emma Higgins: I felt that at the time since I was directing a lot of Canadian content, music videos and lower budget things, there was more for me in Toronto. I had someone representing me here and there aren’t really directors’ reps in Vancouver, it’s much more of a service town. There is a huge film industry [in Vancouver], but [the sets are] often American money. They’re not actually creating a lot of what’s being filmed.
TFA: How did you get into film originally? Did you go to film school in Vancouver?
EH: I didn’t go to film school. I very randomly — it’s kind of embarrassing I guess — was doing extra work, acting work when I was 14 or 15. I was on set one day and asking a ton of questions and I remember this DOP (Director of Photography) at the time [asking] “would you like to work in this?” and I was like “Uh, I’m 15 and you have to go to school for years to PA.” He said, “No, no, you don’t. My girlfriend’s actually a location manager so you can just email her and she’ll get you out on a set sometime.”
So I went and PA’ed on a set and kind of took that up as my high school job. By the time I was ready to graduate high school, I just fully slipped into full-time film work. I started making my own shorts and ridiculously embarrassing pieces and then kind of built it up from there to directing.
TFA: You’re editing style is very unique (check out some of Emma’s work here). Without a formal film education, where did you learn to edit?
EH: That’s very kind of you. I’m using some more editors now rather than doing it all myself. I think it’s better to collaborate with people whenever you can because it always brings new things to mind. But at first [editing] was a necessity because I had no money to do anything. At that point, I would have to edit just to get projects to happen. So I got a copy of Final Cut and I just taught myself things. I made a bunch of short films in my kitchen and learned how to edit that [way].
TFA: You mentioned to us previously that you were trying to get funding for your feature film, Northwoods. What is this process usually like for filmmakers in Canada?
EH: I can’t say that I’m an expert on this because I haven’t successfully funded my feature yet. There are a lot of ways and it is sort of this nebulous thing that happens in different ways for different people. I have known some friends who’ve managed to get their films made using Telefilm money. I don’t know if you saw Hello Destroyer (2016) this year at TIFF? Kevan Funk [the director] is from Vancouver/Toronto too and I thought that film was great. He [received Telefilm funding and] pieced that together over years. I have so much respect for him for making that happen.
I have some other friends that go a more private financing way by finding investors, not through Telefilm. Or you can do foreign sales – where you’ll find a sales agent on board and sell to foreign markets – which is a little bit easier if you’ve done films in the past and have a track record. There are many different methods that people use and I don’t think there’s any sort of right way.
I think in some ways it’s a good process. One of the things I like about filmmaking is it’s not easy. If I had gotten funding immediately and easily for my first draft of my first script, it would have been terrible. Sometimes the hoops that you have to jump through will ideally just make [the work] better and my hope is that when it finally happens it will be really well deserved.
TFA: Your short film, God Hates a Coward (part of the 2016 Bell Media Sound and Vision film challenge), was made on a budget of $100. Do you find it is a great obstacle if you aren’t granted a large budget for a short?
EH: That one was a challenge. It was $100 in two weeks, which is fast. And because you [are given] the locations you can’t really preconceive anything. We also had to use [a specific] song. But it was a very pure experience too because you can’t really worry much about things. You can’t worry about [the film] looking ‘the best,’ you’re just like “okay great, I can get this camera and we’ll shoot on that.”
I think [the filmmaking process] is better now though. It’s insane, you can buy these little cameras [that are] a couple grand and they look really awesome. It’s not a rich person’s game anymore. I think another way to finance films is to just make really cheap ones, a lot of filmmakers will tell you that. Make a film for no money. Most of the time the less money, the more creative freedom.
TFA: You’ve directed many music videos and are now moving into narrative work. Can you speak to the difference between these two formats?
EH: Music videos are more crafted as commercial pieces so it involves a little bit more marketing. [The artist] knows what they’re going for so it’s often very collaborative as well. A lot of the artists that I work with will have ideas or visuals that they will bring to the table. We’ll discuss things and they’ll come up with something [of their own]. You know, it’s their songs.
I also find music videos to be very quick and satisfying. Often we’re shooting these things and they’re out within a month. I get the song, we come up with [a concept], we shoot it, and it’s done and out in the world. So it’s very rewarding for everyone involved. It’s this tangible thing that’s here and we made it and now we can share it.
TFA: When you’re working with artists, do you feel like you are given enough creative control?
EH: I feel like it’s important that [the artist is] definitely reflected. Sometimes you can have conflict with people. You know, with any sort of work, some people you’re going to work better with and some people you’re going to see eye to eye with. And that's a difficult place to navigate. One of the things I would say I've learned in the last couple years is [to have] more confidence in standing up for what I know is good, what I believe in, or what I feel represents me too. I think it's just something you get after a little bit more time. It's the confidence to be like "no, you need to trust me. This is why this is going to be good and make sense."
TFA: You employ a very specific authorial style to your work. How did you start to develop this?
EH: I've been very lucky to have had some people trust me with their songs, or even trust me with a budget, so I've been able to get really experimental. I feel like with music videos, if you can do that, you should. A lot of [my style] just comes from trying to do things that you don't see everyday or trying to [incorporate] weird camera tricks. Stuff like that is really appealing to me. It's bold. I'm trying not to be super basic and I think that is [a filmmaker’s] job in some ways. Make bold choices. Make statements rather than just playing a really safe role.
TFA: In your short film, Currency, you often rack focus and play around with different camera techniques. How, in the moment, do you choose these formal elements?
EH: Honestly, especially in shorts, there's something to be said about instinct being all you have. You prepare and you prepare and you prepare and then you get on set and shit never goes how you want it to. You're there and it's like okay, for some reason your idea doesn’t work, so you have to figure out how to capture different angles on the spot. It's just trusting your instincts in that moment. It's something that I think is very difficult. I would like to say that everything was perfectly planned out in advance but it's a little bit more instinct.
TFA: You regularly incorporate animation into live action, like the animated figures in the Brave Shores music video, Surf’s Up, or the animated vignettes in Currency. What's your inspiration for that?
EH: I'm often inspired by multimedia. I just like breaking the boundaries a little bit. There are other filmmakers that [incorporate multimedia] often and I don't know why I love it, I just really do. You watch Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) and it's great. It cuts from fully animated scenes to 16mm black and white to fully crisp 35mm. It's all over the place and there are no rules. So I would say that a safer interpretation of that is incorporating some mixed media forms or graphics within live action when it's appropriate.
TFA: We were struck by the natural beauty in your Northwoods teaser. Do you find it considerably more difficult to shoot in the cold?
EH: Yeah, shooting outside is difficult. It's actually one of the things that I find really creatively stifling sometimes in Toronto. There's this 4-5 month period when I'm conceiving ideas and am limited by [the weather]. You can't necessarily go do something that will take place outside because it's going to look really grey and people won't physically be able to do it for that long. You're sort of limited to do something in a studio.
TFA: I feel like this is particularly true with Canadian filmmaking.
EH: Yeah, the North. My lens is fogging up every two seconds and stuff and you're like "ugh, this is making me so frustrated." But you just gotta roll with the punches.
TFA: Your main character in Currency is a woman and the two main characters in Northwoods are going to be women as well. What is your approach to depicting women and femininity onscreen?
EH: I cannot bear to watch more male stories. It's just unbearable. It's all male driven. You even look at the stats on it and it's insanely tilted towards male characters being represented and their stories being told. I couldn't give a shit about telling more male stories. I have a very hard time relating to them and it's just exhausting. Not that I wouldn't ever make a film with a male protagonist but right now [female protagonists are] what interests me the most.
I don't think there are any tricks to portraying females, I just want to portray them honestly. It's not that I'm trying to glorify women or champion something. I'm just trying to present honest stories of women. Get more women on screen and talking, whatever the role, just more of it.
TFA: Do you find that you are given different opportunities than male directors?
EH: I wouldn't say that I've experienced anything so obvious as that. I guess people have been surprised to learn that [I’m a woman]. Some people don't even read the [credits] on stuff. I sort of take it as an interesting compliment. One of the best comments I ever got was when I made this country video that was really “bro” – dudes and cars and trucks – and [people] were like "this is the best macho video ever." I directed it, we had a female editor and a female producer, and we did the manliest video. No one knew or could believe that ladies made it.
TFA: It’s disappointing that a man might assume men direct your work, especially if it is of interest to him.
EH: I think that there's this idea of what constitutes a ‘female’ film. You know, [when] people talk about the female vision or whatever, it tends to be [depicted as] romantic or soft. [People] think of dramatic, arty films as opposed to action movies. I was reading this story on how Martin Scorsese's editor (Thelma Schoonmaker) is a woman and how she's edited every single one of his films. She's won three Oscars and she's obviously incredible. One of the questions she was asked a while back in an interview was "As a woman, how do you feel about working on such violent material? Isn't it upsetting to you?" And she said, "Oh, but it's not violent until I edit it."
When I say that I want to tell female stories it's not always like I want to tell the story of being a woman and experiencing menstruation. It can just be a very entertaining film that happens to have female characters at the helm. It doesn't need to be about “being a woman.”
TFA: Even within the past five years, do you find noticeable differences in gender equality working in the film industry?
EH: It's hard to say. I'm in such a different place than I was five years ago, just where I'm at in my career. I think that there's a lot more information. There’s more research being put in that actually shows the numbers on how many speaking roles [are female]. I think that people are becoming more aware of the bias on screen.
You know, people have these old ways of thinking that women can't do as well in the box office and stuff like that. There are a few [women] that are breaking that idea. Force Awakens (2015) can star a women and it can do well. I think the big one was Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), which was directed by Elizabeth Banks and broke a bunch of box office records. It's little things like that that will hopefully change people's minds. I'm optimistic.
This article has been edited for style and length.