Stephen Dunn (pictured here with star Gordon Pinsent) is the writer-director of the must-see short film Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, making its world premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as part of the Short Cuts Canada: Programme #2. Roger Ebert hailed him as a newcomer to watch, he wowed at Cannes and has earned multiple awards at TIFF; all while still in film school at Ryerson. This lovable coming-of-age comedy features the very talented Jade Aspros, as 13-year-old Esther, who is having the worst birthday ever. Co-star Gordon Pinsent wows, with a funny yet poignant performance. With a perfect soundtrack by Sufjan Stevens, original visual style and even a cute pug, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me leads the pack of Canada’s impressive festival submissions this year. Criticize This! caught up with Stephen to talk about Pinsent, a pug, a pop-up book, and everything in between.
What’s your creative process, in both writing and directing?
SD: My writing is usually motivated by emotions and images. I don’t usually start writing a screenplay until I’ve collected dozens of resources images, news articles, poems and even a music playlist. I sit down with all my materials and will usually form some sort of scrapbook as I piece the film together on the page and in my head. Life Doesn’t Frighten Me was inspired by a combination of childhood traumas and a grotesque little toy, of a woman’s face with a bendable nose, that is featured in the film.
This is the first leading role for 13-year old Canadian actress Jade Aspros. How was she chosen for the role, and what was it like working with her?
SD: Jade was a really special find for us. We auditioned several talented young women for the role of Esther, and Jade was probably one of the least experienced on the page. But when we turned the camera on in that audition suite, and Jade delivered her first line, “Why didn’t anyone tell me I was ugly?” our mouths dropped and our hearts broke. Jade possessed just the right amount of vulnerability and sincerity that made her perfect for the role of Esther. After some in-depth conversations with my producer, Holly O’Brien, we both decided that there was no one else to play Esther. On set, Jade continued to impress me with her reliability to perform the same emotionally gruelling scenes over and over, while still being able to capture the spontaneity and life that the film demanded. Jade is a natural talent, and I really believe that this is just the beginning of a very rich and exciting career for her.
The film also co-stars Gordon Pinsent, seasoned icon of Canadian film and television. How do you direct someone with that kind of resume? Do you steer him in certain directions, or simply stand back and let him work his magic?
SD: Working with Gordon was like experiencing that surreal dream that every young filmmaker fantasizes about. As a fellow Newfoundlander, Gordon has been an important cultural icon to my family and I, ever since I was in diapers! He brought more to the table as a performer than any actor I have ever worked with. His depth of knowledge around his craft definitely intimidated me at first, but I quickly found common ground with him as we collaborated on the creation of his character Francis Weary.
And then there’s Igor the pug… Co-starring also (in his way), and delighting us with his tilted head and quizzical looks. Why was this dog important to the plot, as part of Esther’s life?
SD: I have no idea how this has happened, but I have somehow managed to write an animal (an owl, a cat, even a whale) into almost every single film I have ever made. Not because I have an affinity for pets, but I tend to use animals as metaphors/reflectors of my protagonists’ psychological states. There’s a beautiful moment in ’Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, when Esther is looking into King Henry’s (Igor the Pug) eyes, after having the worst day of her life. She thinks she’s ugly, she feels lonely and out of place, but when she looks into that confused and wrinkly little pug dog face, I believe that Esther finds herself in that moment. It’s no secret that pugs are one hell of a strange looking creature, but does that have any affect on this adorable little dog’s life? As Esther laughs warmly at the squished little face, it’s a very subtle moment in the film, but I think it says a lot about who Esther is.
The costumes, props, music, and especially the handmade book in the end credits have a uniquely whimsical, homespun feel to them. How important were the original look and sound to the telling of Esther’s story?
SD: I wanted to give the audience the experience of Esther’s miserable day by telling the film completely from her perspective. When Esther is told that, “if you can see the tip of your own nose when you close one eye, it means you’re ugly”, I knew I wanted to shoot the scene from Esther’s point of view. I’m hoping that people will test themselves, to see if they can see their own nose, so they can feel exactly what it might have been like for Esther. I’m so excited for how the end credits turned out. The film is about a girl on the worst day of her life, and what might a young woman do at the end the worst day of her life..? Write in her diary, of course. Karen Justl created a beautiful pop-up book inside of Esther’s diary that captures the heart and essence of the film in 1 minute. It was important for me to stick to Esther’s perspective, all the way through to the end of the film.
You’ve snagged multiple TIFF awards, and the Cannes screening of The Hall got you tagged by Roger Ebert as a newcomer to watch… All while you were still in film school at Ryerson. What’s it like getting such powerful responses to your work?
SD: It’s always a welcomed confidence booster to have your work well received. There’s nothing more thrilling than sitting in a packed theatre and seeing a film you’ve worked on for 5+ months play in front of an audience for 14 minutes. I am very grateful for the early attention that my films have received, but I don’t make films for trophies. I try to not let myself be motivated by accolades and awards, because that’s something that is essentially not in your power. I treat every film as a stepping-stone that brings me closer to developing my next project, whatever it may be, and if a project is successful, I try to use its momentum to catapult my next project off the ground. In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking about what is coming next.
What other projects do you have in the works?
SD: I’m currently a director in residence at the Canadian Film Center, and am developing my first feature called Closet Monster. I am also in the process of co-writing another project with Dillon McManamy called The Marksman.
Why should people go see Life Doesn’t Frighten Me?
SD: To have a good hard laugh and maybe shed a tear or two.
Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is playing as part of the Short Cuts Canada: Programme #2 at TIFF 2012 on Saturday September 8 at 6:15 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Sunday, September 9 at 9 a.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Follow all of our TIFF 2012 coverage at criticizethis.ca/tiff.