Why She’s On Our Radar: Sara St. Onge’s feature film debut “Molly Maxwell” will open the Museum of Modern Art’s 2013 Canadian Front series tonight in New York. After making a series of endearing short films — “The Funeral,” “Turkey” and “Lobotomobile” — that screened at Sundance and Toronto (to name a few) — St. Onge dives into feature-length territory with the incredibly affecting and charming “Maxwell.” Taking on the teacher-student relationship in a refreshingly optimistic way, the film screens at MoMA tonight at 7pm and then again on Saturday at 8pm. It also begins a Canadian theatrical run on April 19th at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.
What’s Next: St. Onge is currently working on the script for a new film, “Swan Dive,” which she describes as
“an exploration of a modern young woman becoming a stepmom, which is
sometimes dark, sometimes funny, but most importantly real and
complicated and messy.”
Where did you grow up and what was the genesis of the your interest in filmmaking?
I was born in Orillia, Ontario, Canada but we moved around, so I spent time in Winnipeg, and then a town outside of Vancouver called Tsawwassen, before spending my teenage years in Seattle. I always thought I was going to be a photographer. I spent a lot of my teenage years locked in a darkroom and then majored in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, but once I graduated I don’t think I took another photo until Instagram photos of my cats. I watched bigger movies but I wasn’t really aware of film as an art form until my twenties, and even then it didn’t occur to me as something that I could do. But I’d always been unsatisfied with what I could do with photography in terms of storytelling and creating a world. I remember seeing a couple of movies that blew me away, “Amelie” and later on “Lost in Translation” and slowly, one day, (it really took way too long for this completely obvious revelation) it occurred to me that maybe film was what I was looking for.
Tell us about your work prior to “Molly Maxwell.” How did your filmmaking career begin?
I never went to film school or anything. I moved back to Toronto in 2004 after George Bush got re-elected and read some books, messed around with a beloved DVX100 and a computer and taught myself. I’ve always been involved in the indie music world, so I thought a natural place to start was music videos. I somehow convinced Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) to let me do a video for “This is the Dream of Win and Regine” and we got a grant (Yay Canada!) and that was that. I showed up to my first real film set (35mm!) with people other than me and my friends and pretended I knew what I was doing. People seemed to like it when it was finished and I did a handful of other videos. I was hanging out with some really talented comedy folks at the time and started wanting to do a short with them. We all collaborated together on what became “The Funeral,” which came from a dream where I was having a dress rehearsal for my funeral and for some reason Ben Gibbard was playing keyboards as I was sitting in my coffin and my father was asking me why I had to be so weird. I was still learning so much at this point, it was crazy. I remember being on set day one and the continuity person had to explain to me what the axis was. “The Funeral” somehow, miraculously, got selected for Sundance in 2008, which was just nuts because I had never even been to a film festival before. I made two more shorts after that, “Lobotomobile” and “Turkey,” which I created elaborate axis diagrams for.
Tell us about “Molly Maxwell.”
Molly is an unorthodox love story between a teenager and her English teacher, told through the perspective of being 16 and falling in love for the first time. So we experience it as she does, not as a black and white, scandalous newspaper headline.
How did you come up with the idea for the film? Did you or someone you know have a similar experience as Molly did in film?
The film is semi autobiographical. But since I starting writing and then making the film, I’ve had a huge number of women say that something similar happened in their lives.
How did you find the cast? Both Charlie Carrick (as the teacher) and Lola Tash (as Molly) are really outstanding.
We found Charlie first, through a table read set up by the Canadian Film Centre, whose features program allowed this film to exist. I had frankly never imagined someone as dashing as Charlie in the role. But he is incredible and wormed his way into my consciousness during that table read and by the time I did an acting workshop with him about a month later, I knew that it could never be anyone other than him. So I cast him first, which was scary since the film is called Molly Maxwell and I didn’t have a Molly yet. We knew we were going to have to find someone extremely special to be able to match Charlie.
We saw a ton of people for Molly, even before official casting we were holding completely open calls. Then our casting director brought Lola in and she looked nothing like Molly, she had all this makeup on and looked quite adult and polished. But it turned out she was a delightful weirdo underneath. We affectionately started calling her “the muppet.” She had that rare ability to straddle the line between feeling like a child one moment and an adult the next. We asked her to come for a call back with Charlie without makeup, in a baggy sweatshirt and her hair shoved in a ponytail. She and Charlie had immediate chemistry, they were joking around and giving each other shit after having known each other for 10 seconds. We all knew then, there wasn’t even a discussion. I feel so fortunate to have found them both, because not only are they incredibly talented and amazing in the film, they are lovely people and it was a real pleasure working with them.
What do you hope people take from the film?
I want people to experience this story in a non-salacious way, so they have a chance to make their own decisions about how they feel. It was important to me to give this young female character ownership over her feelings and decisions – good and bad – not just sweep her complicated experience under the rug of simply being taken advantage of, or victimized. I wanted to empower Molly to make that decision for herself.
Did you have any cinematic or other influences when making this film?
“My So-Called Life,” “Virgin Suicides,” “Freaks and Geeks,” Rookie Magazine, Tavi Gevinson in general, and the people I got to know where we shot the film, at Inglenook Community High School in Toronto, where I had an after school film club before the shoot started. I was also super inspired by the film “Beginners,” I must have watched that it 20 times. My DP Catherine Lutes and I were constantly referencing that excellent movie.
Have you seen any other films that really struck a cord with you recently?
Films that have blown me away recently (I’m a bit out of date): “Marcy May Martha Marlene,” “Oslo August 31st,” “Weekend,” “My Sister’s Sister,” “Turn Me On, Goddammit!” and “Smashed.”