Based in Winnipeg and well-known within as well as outside of Canada, Esterhazy has directed over a dozen films and television programs. Fairytales aren't new territory for her, though, having made the short films, The Snow Queen, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story, and The Red Hood, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood (also by the Brothers Grimm), and setting them both in the Canadian Prairies. She made her feature film directorial debut with historical drama Black Field which premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2009.
Red Czarina is the production company for H & G, founded in 2012 by Esterhazy, Rebecca Sandulak, Ashley Hirt, and Rebecca Gibson, who co-wrote H & G with Esterhazy. Watch a video feature on the production of H & G.
In a recent interview, we discussed her new film, working outside of film industry centers in Canada, and how she creates a tone on her film set.
DE: I think that I am fascinated by fairytales because I loved them so much as a child yet I find them so frustrating as an adult. The portrayal of girls and women in traditional fairytales is so negative and yet the lure of the stories remains strong for so many of us. I enjoy taking the elements of traditional fairytales and reworking them.
Why did you think that H & G was an important story to tell?
DE: The original fairytale of Hansel and Gretel deals with serious issues: child poverty, child neglect, and child murder. Unfortunately, these are issues that are still important concerns for modern society. These are topics worth exploring.
DE: I tried to make the film set a safe and fun place for the child actors. They were not on set for the more violent scenes. And they were not required to read the script or prepare in advance. We approached each scene as make-believe and play -- although the parents were fully informed. And the crew adjusted their behavior to keep everything child-friendly. As a result, the set was actually a light-hearted and happy environment for everyone.
Is there a particular conversation about social issues you want to begin, or to further, with your film H & G?
DE: I think it is important to recognize that childhood is both a time of great joy and a time of great vulnerability. Children are resilient but also powerless. If they are victims of neglect or abuse, they cannot save themselves by being brave. Adults, and society at large, need to take responsibility for children at risk.
DE: Rebecca Gibson and I wrote a fully realized screenplay. However, I did not want the children to memorize their lines because I wanted their performances to feel natural. And I did not want the children to feel pressured to give the “right” performance. So, once on set, I described the basics of each scene but let the children choose their own actions and staging. I would make suggestions or offer lines of dialogue from off camera and the children would adapt. It was a fun process and resulted in a film contains much of the original scripted dialogue but also lots of adapted and improvised dialogue.
How do you, as a director, run your set and establish a tone for the production?
DE: A director is a leader of troops as much as she is an individual artist. A large part of her job is to assemble a talented team and keep them inspired and on target. I try to keep angry and peevish people away from my sets because they drain everyone’s energy. Luckily, on H&G, I had an amazing cast and crew. Lots of talent, a great work ethic, and a true passion for independent filmmaking.
What were your greatest challenges and greatest triumphs in the making of H & G?
DE: The greatest challenge was our budget – only $5000. We made the film with borrowed gear, donated labour and lots of favors. But Ashley Hirt and Rebecca Gibson, my producers, worked triple shifts to make everything happen. From filling insurance paperwork to cooking the crew meals, from running to town for batteries to driving tractors to set. They were amazing.
My greatest triumph is not something that I can fully take full credit for – it is the performance of the actors. I feel very lucky to have found such a perfect cast. I tried to give them both the creative freedom and the directorial support that they needed to find their characters. I am thrilled with their work in H&G.
DE: Because we had such a tiny micro-budget, and because all the cast and crew worked for deferral, we did not need a pre-sale. We plan to find a distributor and broadcast sales through the festival circuit. And we are planning a Canadian theatrical release for summer 2014.
You live in Canada and have worked in film for many years. Does living in Winnipeg, outside of some of the denser filmmaking hubs in Canada pose a challenge as far as directing work? Of course, Winnipeg does have film production going on, and every province has its own special tax credits, etc. Are there particular provincial schemes or programs that you’ve found beneficial as a filmmaker living in the province of Manitoba?
DE: Winnipeg has a great indie film scene. There are lots of talented filmmakers here so it is easy to find creative collaborators. There is support from the community, from government agencies and from the local arts councils.(H&G was funded with a grant from the Winnipeg Arts Council.) I love shooting films here.
But one of the challenges is that it can be difficult to bring one’s work to larger national and international audience. We don’t have access to distributors and broadcasters – who are based in Toronto and Vancouver or Los Angeles and New York. But I have some great fans – many who have found me through the internet. And they help me expose my work to new audiences.
Next week you’re premiering your film at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Best of luck! What do you hope that audiences will take away from your new film?
DE: I’m thrilled to be back at VIFF where my first feature, Black Field, also premiered. Because this screening will be our world premiere, I am excited and thrilled that I will be in the theatre with the film’s very first audience. I am really looking forward to hearing the audience’s feedback during the Q & A. But what I hope they will experience is empathy for the characters of Gemma and Harley. I learned to love those characters during the writing, shooting and editing of H&G. I hope that the audience will care about those two children and care about what happens to them.
Help support this film by visiting and sharing these links:
- H&G website
- Red Czarina website
- Filmmaker website
- H&G Trailer
- Facebook page: /HGfilm
- Twitter: @DEsterhazy