TIFF Talk: Heather Young on ‘Murmur’

Halifax-based filmmaker blurs fiction and non-fiction in debut feature

23 mins read

Heather Young navigates the terrain between fiction and non-fiction in her provocative debut feature Murmur. This intriguing slice of docu-fiction should appeal to fans of festival circuit hidden gems like Luk’Luk’I as Young’s fusion of drama and documentary lets the real world collide with cinematic storytelling to inspire audiences to think more deeply about their surroundings. Murmur builds upon the form and boundary-pushing aesthetic that the Halifax-based Young developed in shorts such as Milk (2017) and Fish (2016), both of which were selected for TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten festival. Young’s debut feature premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival before serving as the opening night gala at FIN Atlantic Film Festival (the first ever for a debut feature) and screenings at fests nationwide including Vancouver and Calgary.

Murmur stars Shan MacDonald as Donna, an alcoholic struggling on the roads to sobriety and redemption. She performs community service at a local animal shelter as part of her sentence for a driving while impaired charge. Kicking an addiction often means finding a new one as a replacement though, and Donna atones for her reckless lifestyle by adopting one pet after another, saving as many dogs and kitties from being put to sleep as penance her neglecting her daughter and isolating herself from the world while consumed by booze. Virtually every frame of Murmur rests on Donna’s world-weary face as MacDonald, a non-professional actor, inhabits this troubled character, drawing us into her ordeal and quest for redemption. Young’s approach is a remarkably inquisitive feat of observation—and an impressive bit of pet wrangling once the puppies pile up!

POV spoke with Young by phone ahead of Murmur’s TIFF premiere to discuss her body of work and exploring the spaces between fiction and non-fiction.

POV: Pat Mullen

HY: Heather Young

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

POV: How do your hybrid docu-fiction films begin? Does your approach start with the character/actor or the story?

HY: It depends on the project. I have done a few short films in the documentary/fiction hybrid zone and each of those films started a bit differently. My last short film, Milk, actually started with a location, but usually the film starts with the character. That was the case with Murmur. I got the idea from doing a short film project back in 2014. It was called Howard and Jean, and it was a small film about my mother and her relationship with her aging Chihuahua. It looked at an isolated older woman who was using a pet as an outlet when she didn’t have anywhere else to turn to. I decided to take that story to its furthest points. From there I imagined a character who was alone, but wanted companionship and connection, and tried to find that with pets. It never really satisfies her, but she can’t stop obtaining more animals in this futile attempt to find happiness.

Howard and Jean from Heather Young on Vimeo.

POV: It’s really to the extreme, but also believable because people often say how the best way to overcome an addiction is to replace it with another addiction. What sort of research did you do to develop both the story and the character Donna?

HY: I met with an addictions counselor who works for the province here in Nova Scotia. He actually ended up being in the film. There’s a scene where Donna attends an education session for people who have been convicted of a DUI. Steve, who plays the instructor in that scene, is actually re-enacting his job from real life. He’s an addictions counselor and he does these PowerPoint presentations for people who are trying to get their driver’s license back after they’ve been convicted of a DUI. I met with him and he gave me so much information about the process that people go through when they have a DUI. By the end of the meeting, I asked him if he would like to be in the film and do the presentation that he normally gives. That’s part of my documentary-hybrid form in the sense that people play themselves and act in their occupation.

POV: How did you meet Shan and cast her as Donna?

HY: It’s kind of a funny story. A couple of years ago, I was working part-time at a doggy daycare. Shan was one of the clients. She would bring her four dogs into the doggy daycare. That’s how we initially met. I just knew her as a big animal lover. Years later, when we were getting ready to do auditions for Murmur, I knew that I wanted someone who was a genuine animal lover and had a real connection to pets and specifically dogs. I wanted those to be real emotions that this person could conjure.

Shan came to mind. I found her on Facebook and told her about this film. Surprisingly, she remembered me from the doggy daycare and agreed to audition. We auditioned quite a few people: more experienced actors and non-professionals—a large range of experiences—but we were planning on going non-ACTRA to get the most flexibility in terms of using non-performers and people playing themselves.

We use some of her dogs in the movie too. Bruno, the Chihuahua, is Shan’s dog and so is the dog that is having the cone put on at the animal shelter. The little Yorkshire terrier Sweetie, who is in the background of Donna’s apartment, is also Shan’s dog. That was helpful.

Shan is also just really brave in the sense that she’s not afraid to bring parts of herself to the film and to reveal things from her own life and bring that to the character. I’m really happy with her performance.

POV: Does your approach to directing an actor differ depending on whether they’re a non-professional or a pro?

HY: I do think it’s quite different. One of the things that helps when working with non-professionals is to have unscripted dialogue. The dialogue is unscripted in the sense that I don’t have the performers memorize lines. They don’t say the same thing in every take and there’s no continuity in that way. I find that that has been working well to get authentic and realistic conversations. The way that I approach it is to go over the scene with the performers and make sure they understand the story points that we need to hit or if there is any specific information or emotion that has to be conveyed in the scene.

I let them say it in their own words. Sometimes they say something that I really like and then I’ll encourage them to say it again in the next stage, but they burn out memorizing dialogue. It’s really fun to work that way. You get things that you didn’t expect. I find that it helps the performers be present with each other—they’re listening to each other and reacting to what the other person says.

POV: Do you generally shoot scenes sequentially, like in the order in which we would see them in the film, to help the performer develop the character?

HY: We tried it a chronological order of shooting as much as we could because I felt it would be easier for Shan to shoot that way. But it wasn’t entirely chronological. For example, everything that was shot in her apartment was done first and we shot back chronologically. The apartment gets messier and messier as we go through the film, so my art department would have lost their minds if they had to clean it up and then re-mess it up, and then clean it up and the mess it up again. Since we shot that first, I think that helped Shan because we moved through the film chronologically in that sense. After that, we moved around to other locations and attempted to make it as chronological as we could. That can be one of the challenges when working with people who have never been in a film before—jumping around the script can be confusing.

POV: People often say that you shouldn’t work with kids or animals when making a movie, but there are so many dogs in Murmur and they have such distinct personalities. How was the process directing animals who really play a dramatic role in the film with their movements, mannerisms, and personalities?

HY: A couple of things went into it. For the main dog in the film, Charlie, the older dog that Donna adopts, we knew we needed a dog that was unflappable. His real name is Charlie too. He’s the main dog and had to be in many different locations—it’s a demanding role, but as long as he’s getting a treat, he’s happy to sit in your lap. The other great thing about Charlie was that his owner, Gail, is actually friends with Shan, which we didn’t realize when we were talking to them both individually, so Shan already knew Charlie. Gail actually runs a dog rescue here in Halifax called Home to Stay. Shan actually adopted dogs from Gale’s rescue—a crazy connection worked out well because there are many dogs in the apartment by the end. It was only realistic to have dogs that already knew each other and were already comfortable around each other. We didn’t have the time or the resources to be introducing dogs to each other. There are scenes where the dogs are free in the apartment, running together in a group.

Gail had a bunch of dogs because she runs the dog rescue and Shan had a bunch of dogs. Since they’re friends, they get together and their dogs know each other. We ended up using Shan’s dogs combined with Gail’s dog in the apartment. The only new dog we introduced was the puppy, but it’s actually quite easy to introduce a puppy to a group of dogs because the puppy is naturally docile and surrenders to the older dog.

POV: But I imagine it was difficult playing out the scenes and setting up the shots? I can barely direct my cat for an Instagram photo!

HY: My approach was that you couldn’t make them do anything, so don’t try. There was nothing in the film where an animal had to do something specific. No dog has to jump up, lay back, stay, or run across a table. The animals didn’t need any specific training. You’re just filming animals doing whatever it is they do. It’s much easier, although you have to be patient. With the animals at the animal shelter, that’s a bit easier because they’re contained. If you have a dog in a dog kennel, it can’t go anywhere. You can film for as long as you want until they do something interesting. Sometimes that takes a while! [Laughs.]

POV: And how do the scenes at the vet’s play into the hybrid mode?

HY: We were lucky to have access to a veterinary clinic. My friend Susan is a veterinarian and she’s actually the veterinarian in the film. She introduced us to the owner of the clinic and he gave us permission to shoot there. That was some of the more straightforward documentary-type footage that we had: filming procedures, surgeries, and things that go on in the clinic. Those animals are unconscious, so they’re much easier to film.

POV: The framing is really lends itself to the hybrid style because we’re often only seeing Donna while other people are obscured from the frame. Was this an aesthetic choice, a factor in the casting (like people not wanting to be in the shot) or both?

HY: It was definitely a stylistic choice. I look at the film as having documentary aspects, but then also having formal cinematic elements. The shooting style would be one of the things that were more formal, planned out, and precise. We decided that we wouldn’t show the secondary characters who are kind of talking at Donna. I liked the full attention on Donna’s because the soul of the film is a portrait of her experience.

I wanted the audience to empathize with Donna, so I liked just being on her face to see her when she’s speaking, but also to see her as she reacts to what people say to her. The reactions of the secondary characters weren’t as important to me as her reactions. I didn’t know if it was going to work in the edit, so I always shot a backup of the speaker’s face just in case I needed it when we were editing.

Donna is a bit powerless in certain situations. These people dictate her life and, in a way, control her. By not showing them, they become an anonymous group working against her.

POV: Were there any films or filmmakers in particular who piqued your interest in this kind of hybrid filmmaking?

HY: Definitely Werner Herzog. He has a number of films that blur the line between documentary and fiction that inspired me. He also has an interest in filming animals.

Milk from Heather Young on Vimeo.

POV: Murmur has many shots that reminded me of your short film Milk. Both films have prominent shots of swirling water down the drain. What strikes you about that image?

HY: Two or three things about it strike me. One is Donna’s state of mind. It shows her isolation and depression. Another is that in shots of various cleaning procedures like the ones you see in the animal shelter, I wanted to show what it’s like to work in an animal shelter. People think it’s just kittens and puppies and hanging out with animals all day. But really, the job mostly is cleaning and it’s mostly done by women. I used to work in an animal shelter and I also worked at the doggy daycare, and it’s almost exclusively, in my experience, women who are doing these kind of caretaker jobs. I want to give a voice to that and validate it. People don’t normally look at what is behind the scenes.

POV: You work on the programming committee for the Halifax Independent Film Fest as well. How does working on both sides develop your approach to filmmaking?

HY: It’s been great because it exposes me to so much more work. I’m watching so much of what’s being done in Canada in terms of features every year. It’s been helpful and it’s exciting because I feel like Canadian film is just getting better every year. It’s definitely influenced my practice as a filmmaker seeing so many great up and coming feature filmmakers in Canada.

POV: What was the biggest challenge of making the jump from shorts to a feature if you had to give advice for the next wave of filmmakers?

HY: There are two things. One is the writing. It’s hugely different writing a short script versus a feature script.

I think people feel more intimidated by that than they should be because it’s the same process. It’s just longer. I was definitely intimidated and procrastinated because I was afraid to attempt to write a feature script. The biggest challenge in making the leap from shorts to features was the edit. I’ve been editing my own shorts for a while now—I edited the feature and it was a massive difference.

Just the workload and going from a few hours footage to almost 50 hours of footage, which actually is not that much for a feature—we shot for 25 days. To go from a 14-minute film to a feature and having to sift through the footage was intimidating, especially when you’re trying to pick out what is working and what isn’t. That stage of watching take after take after take of the same shot, and doing that by yourself, was difficult. Once I got to the assembly stage and laid it out on a timeline, it became much easier and much more manageable. I was able to, to cut it down a lot faster after I got to the assembly stage, but getting to that point was excruciating. But rewarding!

TIFF runs Sept. 5-15. Visit tiff.net for information and tickets.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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