I met Carolyn Saunders recently through mutual friends and we hit it off instantly. I knew immediately that she was a woman that we absolutely had to feature on Ms. In The Biz. As a writer and director, Carolyn has a passion to tell stories that push the envelope and bring women’s stories to the forefront. So here we go!
Hi Carolyn! I know you have lived all over the world and am curious about your background. Where did you grow up and where you are now based out of?
My dad was a fighter pilot in the RCAF and I lived on air force bases from Germany to Canada to the US to France. It was a magical childhood, and I’m writing about it right now. I go between the UK and Canada right now, as I’m a dual citizen and lucky to be able to work in both places.
With your background as a writer, what drew you to directing? Did it feel like a natural progression?
I’ve been a storyteller since I was small, whether orally or written. Directing is just more storytelling, expanding to the visual the ways I can speak. When I was raising my three boys as a single mom, I wanted to be home for them, so I worked as a writer. It was important to me to be there when they got home from school every day, and when they left the house in the morning, and you cannot be a director and do that. So, the time wasn’t right. When they were done school, I directed my first film. I’d written it, and we briefly attached another director, but he wanted to turn it into some kind of schlock horror and that wasn’t what I wanted for it. I realized nobody was going to understand my vision the way I did, and I knew the time was right to direct.
Your film The Wasting is right in the wheelhouse of the types of films I love, arthouse horror with a feminist angle. Where did the idea of this story originate and what was the process like of getting this film from script to screen?
God, it was nightmarish. The inspiration came from a young woman I met when I was writing a show called Ghostly Encounters. It was a little doc series in which people who reckon they’ve had a paranormal experience tell their story to camera. This girl’s experience – haunting by a hag – was closely tied to her anorexia, and that intrigued me. The worst part for her was that nobody believed her, because she had anorexia. So essentially, her mental illness had stolen her voice. That was the hell I wanted to explore. More than the hell of being haunted, or whatever was going on, was the hell of being not believed, simply because you have a mental illness. So that was the genesis, and I developed the script with input from several people suffering anorexia, as it was critical to get my protagonist’s disease and her relationship with her parents exactly right.
It took a long time to get it to screen, because I was nobody. I was too old. I was a woman. I was a doc writer. I had not gone through the CFC (Canadian Film Centre) or to film school. I was a former journalist, turned TV doc writer. People asked why I was just doing this now. If I was any good, why had it taken me so long? They didn’t want to hear that I’d been busy being a mother.
I submitted it to the CFC Features fund and we got down to the wire, but they chose the other project. So, I decided I’d waited long enough for permission to make it and just went out and found a bit of money. I got some wonderful private investors on board, not big business or film people, just regular people who believed in the story and in me. And I crowdfunded the rest.
I shot it in the UK, where I had access to incredible locations for nothing, and to fabulous actors and crew. We took over a small town in the West Midlands, and the mayor and villagers bent over backwards to accommodate us. Without them, we never could have made it.
We won some festival awards and it had a small theatrical release. You can watch it now on Amazon or itunes. So please do!!
When we met, we spoke a bit about the obstacles you have personally faced in the entertainment industry. Can you speak a bit about that?
I alluded to this above, but I’d say the biggest obstacle is being an older woman. As a woman, I’ve had to put up with the handsy bosses, in appropriate comments, and the lack of respect etc etc. blah blah blah. We all have those stories, and it’s gross, but what’s more gross is that – now that it’s trendy to talk about supporting women – I find that for the most part, I’m just as invisible as I was before, because I’m older. Many of my peers find this as well, and we’re kind of banding together to raise awareness of it. Most of the schemes for women directors are aimed at young women, and they use all kinds of euphemisms, like “Emerging” or “New Generation” when they really mean “fuck off if you’re over 40.” They don’t believe you can be emerging if you’re over 40 or 45 or whatever the new age of too-old-to-matter is. But many older women are emerging. Many women took time out, as I did, to raise children. Or they came from other careers. And our life experience, our wisdom, our kickass managerial skills, our patience, our intelligence, is overlooked. Certainly, there are female directors over 40, over 50, over 60. But they’ve been directing since they were young. They’re in the system. They emerged when, according to the powers-that-be, you’re supposed to emerge. There is no provision for those of us who spent our “emerging years” caring for children instead. And there should be, because we have a hell of a lot to offer.
Yes! I hope that is a message that can be heard loud and clear. I know so many women over 40 who are fiercely talented and skilled and also deserve to have all of the opportunities that younger women are getting right now.
To switch gears a bit, has living in France and London changed the types of stories that you feel drawn to telling, or logistically how you are going about getting your movies made?
Living in France – not so much. It’s not a good place to be a filmmaker unless you are French. It’s a great place to walk on the garrigue and think about your script though.
Living in London is fab because it’s like you’re at film school all the time. I never stop learning there, because there is so much access to great film, and to events where you can meet and pick the brains of great filmmakers. It never gets old. Being around so much genius helps me to be better, to dig in and strive for greatness in myself.
As for getting my films made – there is no one way, and I am constantly exploring new models. The industry is changing so quickly, and the old ways aren’t working anymore (not that they ever worked for me). God only knows what Brexit will do to the British film industry. I’d like to keep my feet in both Canada and the UK, as a true dual citizen, and one who sees the value of film in both countries.
Part 2: But where I live doesn’t change the type of story I tell. Though I am never bound to one genre, I seem to always be telling stories about identity and home. My grandfather was a Home Child. He was shipped the UK into indentured servitude in Canada at age 12 and told to tell everyone he was an orphan and to forget his family and home. This coloured his whole life, and when he was 100, he finally told us the truth. So, I went through my life with one idea of who I was, only to learn something entirely different. Part of that was discovering we are Romany (gypsy), so that adds a whole other dimension. I’m still learning about who I am and what home is, and writing is how I explore those concepts. Identity and home are very different to me than they are to other people.
What is up next for you?
Two big things I’m excited about. I’ll shoot my second feature Island West, in the fall, in Newfoundland. It’s a female-led sci-fi, about a young woman who has grown up on an isolated, xenophobic island, as the face of white supremacy. When a stranger makes his way past the mines in the water, everything changes.
I’m also writing a script right now called Starfighter Baby, set on an air force base in Cold War Germany. My dad flew the Starfighter – that was the airplane of my childhood in Germany. The script is based on my mother’s letters home to her mom and is about a young girl who idolizes her fighter pilot father, coming to realize that her mother is equally heroic. There was a lot more danger and stress in that time than the general public knows. Honestly, those women held us together in an insane time, and their story needs to be told.