Partners in life and work, the dynamic documentary filmmaking duo of Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott have been film festival darlings for 10 years now—longer when their individual work is noted. For Gallus, it began over 20 years ago with her stellar first film, Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels. For Pimlott, who worked as a sound recordist on over 100 docs (some of the most memorable from the National Film Board’s now-defunct Studio D), it began in 2000 with her award-winning turn as director/writer and producer of Laugh In the Dark, a film that critic Thomas Waugh called “one of the most effective and affecting elegies in Canadian queer cinema.”
Together as Red Queen Productions, they have created a rich and diverse body of work, from straight-up vérité to hybrid documentary-drama, anchored in stories that humanize and bring into the mainstream often-derided or marginalized experiences. They’ve broken stereotypes and misconceptions about the choices women and LGBT people make in following their own passions: in art (Elizabeth Smart, The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche), in sport (Punch Like a Girl and the forthcoming Hot Rollers), as activists (Cat City and the forthcoming The Fruit Machine), in how we love (Fag Hags: Women Who Love Gay Men), how we live our gender and sexual identity (Erotica, Laugh in the Dark, Girl Inside), and how we make our living (Dish: Stories From The Frontlines of Waitressing). It’s work that’s garnered a passel of awards and international festival invitations for memorable characters and engrossing, openhearted stories told with humour, integrity, passion, beauty and, always, love.
In the swelter of a late summer afternoon, I sat down with Gallus and Pimlott in the front window seat of their modest, bright second-floor office, nestled in the heart of an ad hoc community of small doc production companies in downtown Toronto. In spite of the community vibe, the spectre of documentary’s collapse is all around. At the very least, it’s a moment when traditional partners and models of support have crumbled and fallen away, hopefully to make way for new ways of making films. Here, then, the Red Queens reveal the secret sauce to their success and nimbleness. Hint: it’s a classic combo of optimism and dogged determination.
(BC: Barri Cohen, for POV | JP: Justine Pimlott | MG: Maya Gallus)
BC: Is timing 9/10ths of the law?
JP: Yes. that’s why you don’t give up! Don’t just let a project die if you’re passionate about it, because it is very much about timing. Adrienne Rich has a poem called A Wild Patience has Taken Me This Far, and that’s how I feel about what we do. It’s the “wild patience” that you need.
MG: I was at the height of production for Dish, and Charlotte Engel called us. She said, “Okay, we’re on board for production.” And, I said, “Oh, great.” But I didn’t really take it in. She said, “This means you have to deliver next year. It’s now or nothing, because next year is a whole new ball game” [CTV was in the process of purchasing Bravo – ed.]. Everything was changing. And then we realized, “Oh shit! Now we have to pull together the rest of the financing in two months to meet the CTF [Canadian Television Fund] deadline!”
BC: If you were to try to get this film done today, 2013, what would happen?
JP: We wouldn’t be able to go anywhere.
JP: Because, goodbye Bravo for arts programming.
MG: And CBC would never fund a film like that.
JP: And TVO isn’t commissioning these types of arts documentaries now, although they did come on as a second window. So this film wouldn’t be made now. Arts programming is gone. I don’t believe that if we pitched this film that we would get this film funded.
MG: Mazo de la Roche and the Film Board [were] a natural fit.
JP: And not just in terms of subject matter. They also support the filmmaker. They support those who are trying to push the form. And our co-producer there, Anita Lee, really championed what we were trying to do.
BC: Justine, how did you end up training at the NFB in the first place?
JP: I was living in Winnipeg and finishing university, studying sociology and I was a huge fan of cinema. I loved Margarethe von Trotta and all those early-’70s female film directors—Chantal Akerman, all of the gals. The local art house cinema in Winnipeg was great, but they rarely showed female filmmakers.
So I decided that I was going to organize a women’s film festival. I raised all of the money through the Women’s Caucuses of Trade Unions and other women’s groups. I held it at the NFB on Main Street in downtown Winnipeg. It was packed every night.
Chesley Yetman, who was the NFB executive producer in Winnipeg, took note of me and my passion, and asked me to do the publicity for two Studio D films [Behind the Veil and Bonnie Klein’s film Speaking our Peace] because my outreach had been so successful. He had heard about a training programme at Studio D and said to me, “Justine, they’re fields. You should apply for this. You’ll be able to move on to become a filmmaker.”
So I applied, and got it. I remember the day I got the letter. I just thought, “My life is about to change.” They gave us a salary and found us housing. Can you imagine?? They gave us housing! I was plunked into Studio D, into this place…you would walk into the cafeteria, and Denys Arcand would be sitting there, and Léa Pool, Donald Brittain. It was such a rich time. Steenbecks were available at all hours. You’d bring a six-pack of beer to pay off the security guard to let you in. It was extraordinary.
BC: It’s a great example of political, cultural will. That if you have a clear policy and act on it, great things can happen.
JP: It worked. Eighty percent of the women in that programme are working in cinema and television today.
BC: What in your background inspired your moxie in pulling that festival off, and indeed, in being a tireless, patient producer?
JP: My parents. I was born with moxie.
MG: Justine is a fearless Amazon. She was a red diaper baby.
JP: I was an orange diaper baby! My mother was a feminist, my father was a social democrat. I knew how to organize. My parents taught me. Makes good skills for being a producer!
*BC: You’re great at outreach. I notice you were an early adopter of social media to promote, for instance, Cat City.
JP: I’m constantly on Facebook promoting our work.
MG: Social media—Justine is totally all over that. She’s is very good at banging the drum and saying, “Hey, this is happening now.” I’m not so good at self-promotion. I’m a good cheerleader, if it’s about somebody else. I come in more in the first stage. I’m really good at hitting up the broadcasters and really talking up what we want to do.
BC: The pitch. Does it excite you?
MG: For me the pitch is a conversation. You talk about the story while trying to get a handle on what the broadcaster is thinking, so there’s a dialogue.
We do take “no” for an answer; we’ve been rejected many times. Yet there’s this perception that we’re lucky and we get everything we want, that we’re somehow the ‘documentary darlings.’
JP: It’s that we’re persistent. We don’t give up.
MG: We do get turned down, but then we come back or they come around. That’s the key. Girl Inside was a perfect example of that. I approached Rudy Buttignol [the then] commissioning programmer at TVOntario’s “View from Here” strand. He came in for development, but then, when it came to production, he said “no.” We had started shooting, and I didn’t know what to do. We were getting turned down everywhere. It was a dark time.
JP: But we just kept going, though, because we were following Madison’s story [she was transitioning from male to female] over several years. So we were committed.
MG: Then Rudy [Buttignol] called me sometime later, out of the blue, and said, “I’ve been pitched a couple of projects on similar themes. I actually think what you’re doing is more interesting. So, I am ‘in’”.
BC: Many filmmakers and producers have the view that if they get a “no”, you don’t burn your bridge by pestering again. It’s seen as a risky thing to do.
JP: But you go back because, especially with commissioners like Rudy Buttignol, it’s a process. What broadcasters want changes over time. We went on to be nominated for the Donald Brittain Award for Girl Inside and Maya won the Gemini for Best Direction. So it was right to pester!
MG: If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business it’s that you have to get your ego out of the way. You have to get your ego out of the way anyway as a filmmaker, to tell other people’s stories. And in funding, you have to get your ego out of the way too. If somebody says “no,” even though it feels personal, you have to let it go. Then, you rethink, “Okay, where else can I go?” You just have to keep going.
JP: It helps that commissioning editors like Rudy are interested in the filmmaker. Not just what the film is about.
BC: If I didn’t know Maya directed Girl Inside, I’d say it’s…
JP: A ‘Justine’ topic?
BC: Yes. So, how did the relationship with Madison come together?
MG: A friend who works with queer youth had asked me to mentor a 17-year-old person transitioning from male to female. Originally, I was interested in telling her story and then shied away from that.
JP: Well, you didn’t pursue it because of the respect for your mentee/mentor relationship with her.
MG: But I realized that there was something really interesting there that people could learn from. There was a lot of exploitative stuff that pathologizes transitioning, and I wanted to combat that.
So I started going to these trans-youth group meetings, and I was very upfront. I said, “I’m interested in making a film and talking with anybody about your experiences.” Madison was there, and she said, “Sure, I’ll talk with you.” Right away, I said to her, “I want to talk to you, but you’re too old [she was 25] for what I’m looking for, for a film.” I said, “I really want to show someone who is much younger and how complicated that [transition] is.” She started talking, and when she told me about her grandmother, I had a gut feeling. So I went and met with Madison and her 80-year-old grandmother. I loved Vivien and Madison.
BC: Madison’s a terrific subject—forthcoming, strong and vulnerable at once. We care about her. And her grandmother Vivien was amazing.
MG: Vivien was larger-than-life. And Madison was so articulate and lovely. So then I said to her, “Actually, I think, this would be really interesting.” Our process of raising the finances coincided with her process of raising financing for her transition. So, we just kept shooting with her. There was a point where it was getting really hard for her. It’s hard to be followed and constantly being asked nosey questions. I said, “Madison, are you sure you still want to do this?” She said, “Yes. I am committed. I can’t say everyone else will.” But, her family proved to be extraordinary and Cameron, her boyfriend, was extraordinary. I think because they saw that the story we wanted to tell was not exploitative. We wanted also to tell a story about how the loved ones around the transitioning person also have to go through a transformation.
BC: There is a feeling of loss felt by the family members. That was palpable.
JP: That was really important, because what we were seeing in the more exploitative stuff is that people transitioning have no community.
MG: Which can be true, but I was interested in the fact that here was an example of someone who hadn’t been rejected by her family. And it was amazing to watch the grandmother taking Madison’s hand and trying to teach her about being a woman and about femininity.
BC: Is that what fascinated you?
MG: Yeah, I was intrigued with “old school” identity, what it means to be a woman versus new school, and that Madison had enough confidence as a person to reject it. She said, “That’s not who I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a woman, but I’m not interested in that.” It was comical, too, when Vivien tries to give Madison a makeover.
BC: You use different approaches with your films. Cat City is very intimate, vérité and gritty. Girl Inside evokes a different kind of intimacy, and Mazo is a lush, larger canvas of artifice and doc hybridity. At what point do you decide on your approach?
JP: Early on. I mean, certainly with Mazo very much.
MG: I had scripted Mazo. We shot the drama before we did the documentary, which I wouldn’t advise for someone approaching hybrid unless you are really clear with the material.
BC: I’ve done dramatic re-creations, as we call them, but I would never do that!
MG: But I knew this story so well. I had already written many different variations so it was quite scripted, and aesthetically, we knew that we wanted it to have a real period look, it was quite a fetish for me, to get that look with the wardrobe and the sets.
JP: What informed that approach too is that there wasn’t any footage of Mazo. No footage except a teensy little clip of her at the end at a Writer’s Trust dinner. There were photographs. Otherwise, nothing. Creatively that really informed the aesthetic.
MG: That was the same thing with Elizabeth Smart. And [editor] Roslyn Kalloo was an important part of it, because it was really important for us to work with an editor who understood drama and dramatic structure, which she understands beautifully.
BC: And how would you describe Dish’s style or aesthetic approach?
BC: Almost anthropologically so at times, too.
MG: Anthropological, sociological, definitely. It’s vérité structured around specific themes. Initially I wanted to make a film about waitresses, because I had been a waitress, and I knew there was a particular perspective and experience of being a woman in the service industry.
BC: And with Fruit Machine, is it a bit of a departure for Justine? It’s more historical, which has typically been Maya’s territory. Will it be a quintessential “Red Queen” film?
MG: What is interesting about The Fruit Machine is it’s a real merging of our sensibilities, if you like, in the sense that I’ve tended to—I think I naturally gravitate towards making biographies, because I really like to get into the story of a person. I do a lot of research. I was trained as a journalist. In this case, this is a biography, but it’s a biography of a community, of a movement, of a time. It’s bringing our talents and sensibilities together in an interesting way.
JP: We’re co-directing it, for sure.
MG: But Justine is driving it.
JP: I think of all of our films, the ones that I feel best represent Red Queen are Girl Inside and Mazo. That’s what we do. A film like Girl Inside is a personal vérité documentary over a period of time; an intimate story with a subject. Then there’s Mazo, which does it on a much bigger scale.
BC: What do you love about documentary? Why do you do it?
MG: I fell into it. I was interested in journalism but my love was fiction filmmaking. So, I’ve always tried to bring a fictional film sensibility to what I do in documentary. I think we both try to bring that to a degree. That’s always been really important: bringing a fiction film/dramatic film aesthetic or structure to the social issue work of the documentary.
JP: For me, it is also about educating. It is about shedding light on subject matter. I feel that making documentaries is really connected to the way that I was raised. I feel that it’s the art form that I’ve chosen to try to help create social change. That’s really the bottom line.
MG: The most important thing to me, as a filmmaker, is my relationship with my subjects. You have to go in with an open heart and an open mind, but really an open heart. And my hope is that then the viewer will have their heart opened by the film.