Even before she agreed to meet with me, I imagined that interviewing Halifax-based filmmaker Donna Davies was going to be a magical experience. The writer/producer/director is known for her factual tales of all things genre, with documentaries such as Nightmare Factory and Pretty Bloody: the Women of Horror. She has recently ventured into a different aspect of genre with her 2015 documentary Fanarchy, which explores the phenomenon of the fan film, particularly in the sci-fi/comic book world. With the WIFTV genre contest #FromOurDarkSide on the horizon, I was thrilled to find an excuse to sit down and speak with her.
When I arrived at Ruby Tree Films, Davies’ production company, she was deeply engrossed in a storyboard meeting. Her co-producer Ann Bernier led me into Davies’ private office until they were ready. I sat on a velour couch under dim lighting and waited with Toulouse the dog, surrounded by grey walls adorned with drawings of fairies, a faint smell of incense lingering in the air. It felt more like the lair of an Oracle than the workspace of a successful filmmaker. Perhaps these two things are not so at odds.
I had hoped to interview both Davies and Bernier together, having witnessed their hilarious chemistry in action at the AFF Fanarchy screening. However, the office was a calm, collected flurry of activity that could not spare both of its integral members at once. Anyone who has worked as part of a co-producing team can understand this. Even so, both Bernier and Davies generously gave their time to me in separate sittings, never rushing me to finish.
I could have spoken with them all evening (and very nearly did). Here is a selection of the best of that conversation.
Nicole Holland (TNH): First of all, did you grow up here in Nova Scotia?
Ann Bernier (AB): I came to university a long time ago here, but I am actually from Quebec and didn’t speak English till I was 12 and I moved to New Brunswick.
Donna Davies (DD): I grew up in PEI in a very small, very poor community.
TNH: How did you get into film, was it something you always knew you wanted to do?
AB: My background is in the arts; I worked at Dalhousie Art Gallery for ten years before working for Telefilm Canada, and then went into the private sector. I got into producing when Thom Fitzgerald asked me to produce a part of a series. It was supposed to be quick and dirty, but then Thom decided to shoot in Romania, so it was a real plunging in.
DD: I always wanted to tell stories and I grew up in an eclectic neighbourhood, watching my grandmother read people’s fortunes, watching the comings and goings of all the weird freaks. It was also a very poor neighbourhood. So I wanted to be a writer, but I was concerned about how to make money. I went into journalism and I did really well but I didn’t want to do newsy stories, it didn’t interest me. After journalism school I got into writing and directing ads. At one point I wrote a short story hoping to get it published and it ended up in the hands of a film producer from Montreal. She loved it and invited me to a workshop for women. Many of the people I met there I still work with today, some are business partners, some are my best friends and that was twenty years ago. That is why workshops for women are so important; there was no fear in that environment, no guys to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. WIFT came much later, but that made me realize anything is possible.
TNH: Fanarchy deals with aspects of genre, but it’s really different from previous projects you’ve done that deal more with horror and the supernatural.
DD: Really to be honest I fell into all of that. I do really enjoy the paranormal, supernatural, dark themes; I am not a very light, fluffy person. My film The Kitchen Goddess is one of my favourites because it’s about my own life. I got into witchcraft when I was 7; my grandmother was a fortune-teller. I didn’t even know how to do what I was doing, but I convinced networks to give me money. I was incredibly lucky. I wasn’t specifically looking to do supernatural stories, but it was what I knew and it was what sold. I’ve done lots of others, such as episodes of Land and Sea, a doc about immigrants, many others, but I guess I got typecast. Meeting all those people in the horror and paranormal genre, they are very giving, they are not precious. The directors, John Carpenter, George Romero and all those guys, because I was respectful of their time and did a good job on the film and made presales, it allowed me to get the next one and the next one to the point where I was actually approached to do films. The genre stuff is very good for women and it has a very loyal audience. They know what they want. Fanarchy fell into my lap in a way. When I was doing Nightmare Factory about Hollywood special effects, I found that these big name directors had all been mesmerized by some film or TV show in their childhood that imprinted on them, led them to their careers. Many of them had made their own version of famous films. It gave me the idea to create a film about people who do their own Hollywood movies, who love the product so much it takes over their soul. It strayed a little from my original concept, it ended up being much more complicated.
AB: We don’t just do supernatural, for example we’re working on one about women and aging, and a couple more projects that are more both of our interests. Fanarchy was one that Donna was approached about, somewhat, that she said okay to. It is kind of that pop culture, outside of the norm kind of feel, even though now it is kind of the norm. For me it’s about the relationship you create with the team, that’s what I really like about my work. I am interested in working with people I like and you get that more with documentary than with drama. It’s a longer process and you have less money spread over more time, so you need a lot of people to work really hard on it, to really want to make it happen and that’s where I thrive.
TNH: Geek and nerd culture has been in hot water lately for its misogyny. Did you come across any of this while shooting this documentary?
DD: I could really make ten different films with all the footage I got, I wish I had the money and time to make them all. But I interviewed several female comic book writers and yea, it’s an epidemic, it hasn’t come anywhere nearly as far as it should have. There’s sexism in the film industry, there’s sexism everywhere but really genre is the perfect place for women to make their mark. I explored that with Pretty Bloody, when women are allowed to tell these stories they do so well. When they’re allowed to tell their stories their own way you end up with different entertainment from what’s out there already. There’s market for it and the demographics are shifting incredibly fast. Women are now a larger portion of the viewing audience for any film and you are foolish not to want to please these women, women who are no longer satisfied with what’s already out there.
TNH: You got to speak with lots of famous people, from film freak Harry Knowles to actress Brea Grant (of TV’s Heroes). Who was the most unexpected or exciting person you met?
DD: Well I don’t know if this is a good thing, but I thought that Leonard Maltin was very conservative (laughing). I’m not used to conservative people. Maya Glick, the Marvel Storm character, when I originally found her through my researcher in Toronto, she hadn’t actually done any films and we didn’t know if we should take a chance. Even when we went to meet her at her house, it was really tenuous. She turned out to be my favourite character, she’s amazing. She’s since been listed as one of the top five black nerds in America, she’s articulate, she’s politically astute and she is able to walk into a huge crew of kick ass, Hollywood, heavyweight men and run that set. We’ve become very close friends and I am trying to bring her here for a convention.
TNH: Most importantly, where can people see Fanarchy?
DD: It screened on Epix this summer, as well as at Toronto Fan Expo, and of course the Atlantic Film Festival. We are still trying to get it into more festivals; we haven’t done the UK yet. You will definitely be able to see it at Hal-Con next year.
TNH: Thank you for the conversation!
Special to the WIFTV blog by T. Nicole Holland
T. Nicole Holland lives mostly as a hermit in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, with her deaf, white, odd-eyed cat Murphy “David Meowy.” She is passionate about women in film and television.