If it hasn’t been done before, let’s do it
The challenge of capturing a vision that’s been hatching inside her mind for several years, and how that process evolves as it reaches production, is something that fascinates April Mullen.
Speaking over Zoom from her snowy hometown of Niagara Falls – the location of many of her independently made features – the sparky Canadian filmmaker likens the process to surfing a giant wave.
“When you’re on set it is such a moving beast that you have to ride the waves, every second is unpredictable. But that’s what makes film so unique and exciting to capture: it’s a real, breathable, tangible thing and a very collaborative process. Once you’re on set it takes an army to make a movie,” she says.
An instinct for the vision
Once cameras start rolling and her shot list transforms into footage, Mullen claims she relies on her instincts to deal with the lightning-speed decisions she needs to make on set. Whether it’s the evolving dynamic between actors, the locations or the weather, she’s confident that by this stage she knows her script, her cast and her key creatives inside out.
After more than 20 years in the industry, as actress, director and producer, Mullen’s tool bag is heavy with experience. Her eight features run the gamut of genres – from the low budget comedy Rock, Paper Scissors: The Way of the Tosser to 3D horror Dead Before Dawn and erotic thriller Below Her Mouth.
Her latest film is the New Mexico-set conspiracy thriller Wander, starring Aaron Eckhart, Tommy Lee Jones and Heather Graham.
“Film is a real, breathable, tangible thing and a very collaborative process. Once you’re on set it takes an army to make a movie.”
Six of these features, including ‘Wander’, were made through the independent production company Wango Films, which she cofounded with her coproducing/writing partner, Tim Doiron.
“I didn’t really break into directing – it happened by sheer force. I simply started directing our own projects. Tim and I made the decision to collaborate on our own features, rather than working our way up through the ranks.”
Mullen, whose acting career started in films such as David Cronenberg’s History of Violence and Lisa Cholodenko’s Cavedweller, was also realistic about her prospects of sitting in the director’s chair in the pre-#MeToo era. “It could have taken me up to twenty years to get to get my first directorial gig, if I choose the slow route of waiting by the phone or working my way up the ranks,” she claims.
The director credits her collaboration with Doiron as the driving force behind their joint success. “Together we’re this unstoppable, dynamic duo. When one of us is down the other brings us up and it’s like this constant balancing act.”
“For our first feature we both took on a million other hats so that we could make it work. In total there were only about 7 people on the crew, most our own family,” she recalls.
While the pair – who co-produce the features they make together – met at theatre school, Mullen reveals it was only once they stepped on stage together in a clown class that they realized how creatively aligned they were.
She explains: “When you put those clown noses on, all ego goes out the window, you are extremely vulnerable and it was there that I found someone who was just as wild, eccentric, driven and just as passionate as I was.”
A creative science
According to Mullen, one of the biggest achievements to come out of her collaboration with Doiron was completing their first 3D feature in 2012.
Zombie horror Dead Before Dawn not only became Canada’s first stereoscopic, live-action feature, but also the first 3D film with a female director at the helm. She was also the youngest director to achieve this.
“A lot of the technology we required didn’t exist at the time: we had to put together a quasi-rig with a vertical and horizontal camera, and overcome issues such as cameras overheating,” she recalls.
Fortunately, Toronto-based post house REDLAB agreed to do a 3D test for the pair, which was then viewed by the Resident Evil production team. The results were impressive, with REDLAB landing the gig, enabling the facility to invest in 3D services.
“It meant that we were able to come in and do our feature and finish before Resident Evil! We’ve collaborated with REDLAB ever since, we’re this film family,” she adds.
Mullen describes directing 3D as “both an art and a science”. She spent a lot of time initially thinking about the practical requirements of the medium – the frames, how to move through a space and so on. She says she was keen to give audiences the immersive feel of entering into a 3D space, rather than the traditional gimmicks of things flying out at the screen. The creative thinking came later.
But having to consider the science also pushed her to envision new, unique ways of working – innovative use of props, the movement of actors in different spaces. She developed unique blocking where actors move within the 3D landscape in wides. “The science can be creative too; allow yourself to swim in imagination and explore both worlds, they often will whisper secrets to one another and you will discover the best solution when these are working together.”
A more recent technical challenge has involved finishing the post on Wander remotely.
“The pandemic struck last March when we were supposed to go into colour correction and sound design, but it’s something we just we just had to make work to deliver the feature on time and meet our financing commitments,” she explains.
Post house REDLAB suggested they use Sohonet collaboration tool ClearView Flex, which enabled the production team to watch the same images as their colourist, Walt Biljan, as he worked his magic.
“I was in Niagara Falls, Tim was in LA, Walt was in Toronto, James was in Hamilton and everyone was able to collaborate on the live colour correction over the span of two weeks – we were so grateful just to be able to work on the film and achieve our deadlines,” Mullen recalls. “It was a unique situation, luckily with our film family, so there was a familiarity present.”
Collaborating with an all-female crew on Below Her Mouth is something that Mullen describes as a “quieter” on-set experience than she’s used to, although she adds that could be due to the intimate nature of the content and nothing to do with gender.
“I read the script and it made me blush BIGTIME, it was so raw and honest, and so then I thought – I just have to direct this, it’s a new challenge! Also it had a very unique perspective when it came to the instant of falling in love, that kind of mystery and magic drives me bananas.”
The 2016 Stephanie Fabrizi-penned film, made through Serendipity Point Films, was billed as an erotic thriller produced for a purely female gaze. Mullen explains: “We started by hiring the key female crew – which wasn’t an easy task when it came to boom operators or gaffers – but we found two in Toronto. I remember on set there was also a lot more communication between departments, and people talking in hushed tones – everyone was really focused and super supportive.”
Recognition and progress
When the feature debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, Mullen was honoured with the Tiff Birk Diamond – a tribute to Women in Film being honoured for her years of work and trailblazing a huge path in Canada for independent filmmakers.
Way ahead of the curve, almost two years before the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements hit Hollywood, the all-women ensemble is a stark contrast to her experience of directing TV in LA.
While her TV showreel sizzles with clips from Wynonna Earp, Legends of Tomorrow and, more recently, Blood & Treasure (CBS), Tiny Pretty Things (Netflix) and Lethal Weapon, The Rookie, it’s been a long journey.
“I love working in TV because you get to do so many different genres in such a short time frame… When I first arrived for interviews in LA however, it was way before the Women in Film movement and it definitely felt like being a female director was a disadvantage, because there were so few of us and the stereotype of the director’s chair was heavily in place.”
By this point Mullen had directed five features but felt obliged at times to over-explain her vision.
“A DP would try and talk me out of doing a shot because of a tech issue. I’d come back with my own experiences and I’d say: ‘these are the reasons why’ and ‘this is why the technology shouldn’t matter, I know it works this way because I’ve done it before’… it was kind of exhausting. But those days are gone now, the industry has created more space for us to be heard, and I genuinely feel the shift daily.”
Finally, she reflects on the change she’s witnessed with showrunners, and how they now are far more open to suggestions: “On Lethal Weapon with Matt Miller, he let me try pop zooms with a car chase across LA, so long as I came prepared with a backup… in the end it was successful and achieved exactly what I hoped – it made the cut!”