Hot Docs Jots

Ali Weinstein and Caitlin Durlak talk about MERMAIDS

Director Ali Weinstein and producer Caitlin Durlak on running with the momentum of their first feature film Mermaids.

Hot Docs: What do you think audiences will take away from Mermaids?

Caitlin Durlak: For anybody who is at a crossroads in their life, feels stuck, uninspired, unsure of what to do next, this is an uplifting and honest portrait of those who have been in the same situation and taken something and turned it into the thing that gives them the most power in their lives. If you need a little vacation and you want to feel like you’re in the ocean, come on down!

Ali Weinstein: It's kind of nice that it's coming out in the middle of the summer because its going make you want to go jump in a pool and pretend to be a mermaid. We’ve found it seems to connect with people of all different ages. It’s a crowd-pleaser.

HD: What story is at the heart of Mermaids?

AW: It’s a film about five women and their personal struggles coming to a place of self-acceptance and the things that connected them to the idea of transform into something else. The film started out as a quest to learn about this sub-culture and where the myth of the mermaid stems from, since the world has always been fascinated by mermaids.

HD: What told you this was big enough to be a feature documentary?

AW: I just became really fascinated with why these people want to transform from their everyday lives, and how that transformation took place physically as well as mentally. I guess I was naïve because I didn’t really anticipate spending three years of my life on this. But once the ball was rolling we just went with it.

HD: What did you learned from your first experience seeking financing and reaching out to the film community fresh out of school? Do you have advice for others in a similar position?

CD: We worked really hard and applied to every funding source we could. We had our first meetings at RIDM and met broadcasters, but our very first meeting ended up being our broadcaster Superchannel. I think the whole process was really fast in comparison to other people who start with no previous experience, and one of the things that helped was having a subject matter that appeals to people. Once we got our broadcaster and they gave us some development funding, and Ali had already gotten some development funding, then we just applied for every fund possible and were really successful with that. I think that we got all we applied for except two. Also, we asked a lot of people to help, we asked a lot of questions, we made sure we reached out to everybody we knew in the community who had already had experience and, again, we had this great story idea that was super attractive. In some ways it feels like we were lucky, but we also worked our asses off and weren’t afraid to ask for help along the way.

AW: On my part, I think that as hard as it was, it was also a lot of fun. Writing applications can be really torturous, but it was a subject that we were really excited by so it never felt like an awful chore to have to write 10 different applications for 10 different funds.

CD: It felt really good to learn that everybody in the documentary community was so helpful. We asked everyone for advice, and called all of the funding bodies to ask them for advice. There wasn’t a sense of competition, ever, along the way, and we just felt really embraced. It was scary too, at times, because we didn’t know what the process was going to be every step of the way. We didn’t know what it would be like to hire crew members, or to say "no" to hiring crew members; we didn’t know how to set up interim financing. Once you push that ball it just rolls and you have to run with it as fast as you can.

HD: Are there things you would have done differently?

AW: I feel like, for me, there was so much self-doubt along the way. It was the first time we were doing any of this stuff, so I would struggle with every minor detail that became a new step in finishing the film. I would constantly feel like: “What are we supposed to be? Were we supposed to be thinking about this six months ago?” But the reality was that there’s a lot of common sense involved. As Caitlin said, we reached out and were really honest with people about this being our first film, and people have respected that. That was a lesson I learned, and hopefully I’ll carry with me, not to take things so seriously and use your common sense. It’s just a matter of relationships with people for the most part, so we couldn’t really screw up too badly if we had good communication with people.

CD: There’s were a million little things I’m sure we would have done differently, that we would have done sooner or gotten more of. It was just Ali and I that really knew what was happening with the film all the way through. It would have been nice to find a third person who had more experience, who was on the whole journey with us, as it would have been slightly less stressful. I think some of my money stresses in particular would have dissolved or lowered.

HD: Ali, at Hot Docs 2017 conference, you mentioned that, as a female director, you found it hard to ask for things or demand a level of attention because women aren't usually socialized to demand a certain level of authority. Do you think this is an ongoing issue for female filmmakers or a symptom of being a first-time director?

AW: I realize that I’m making a sort of generalization because I know that there are other women who don’t feel like that is their experience. Maybe it depends on the person and depends on the woman, but I do know that I’ll struggle with that probably for my whole life. It might just be my personality, but I do believe that its something that women have to deal with more than men. I believe more women find it difficult to have a strong opinion that they can say with confidence, through a lifetime of not being fostered to say: "This is how I see things." I was listening to a podcast recently, an episode of The Gaze by Hot Docs programmer Aisha Jamal, and she was interviewing Michelle Latimer. Michelle talked about the difference between working with a female crew when she directs vs. a male crew, and how when she was working with a female crew she felt like she could be herself and she didn’t have to pretend to be more assertive and more "male" in her directing. It's actually not a conversation I’ve had with that many women. Certainly not with female directors, but I just imagine it's something that we have to struggle with, and I don't think its going to end after one film for me.

HD: Are you working on anything now?

AW: I am currently working full-time at Primitive Entertainment. I’m working as an associate producer and they’re working on a documentary TV series and a documentary feature film that’s being directed by Alan Zweig.

CD: I got some Arts Counsel funding to work on a short documentary I’m directing, shooting, producing. I’m also developing a web-series that's based in Toronto, with my friend Caitlin Stewart. Like Ali, I’ve been working part time at a production company doing some assistant editing and producing work. 

Mermaids is also a recipient of the Corus-Hot Docs Development Fund



Films We Like (Canadian Distributor)

Interview by Madelaine Russo.

Categories: Director's Notebook


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