The Nova Scotian rom-com Relative Happiness, directed by Deanne Foley, charmed festival audiences with its fabulous lead (Australian actress Melissa Bergland) and the right mix of humour and emotion. Bergland stars as Lexie, plus-sized and 30 years old, a feisty Bed and Breakfast owner who desperately needs a date to her sister’s wedding. Co-starring as Lexie’s love interests are Aaron Poole (Strange Empire, The Animal Project) and Johnathan Sousa (The Animal Project, Rookie Blue). The film is based on the bestselling novel by Lesley Crewe.
WIFTV is pleased to host the Vancouver premiere of this film on March 6th at 9:30 PM and caught up with director Deanne Foley for a behind-the-scenes conversation.
Vancouver International Women in Film Festival: How did you find your spectacular lead actor, Australian Melissa Bergland, who has meanwhile been awarded Best Actress for her role as Lexie Ivy at the LA comedy festival?
Deanne Foley: When I was approached to direct Relative Happiness, I knew casting the role of Lexie would determine the success of the film. Most of successful romantic comedies in Canadian cinemas have recognizable US talent and so I knew it was crucial to find an actress who could break through. First off, she needed to have both strong comedic and dramatic skills. Secondly, she needed to be striking and plus-sized. Easy, right? We didn’t find her in Canada and so we hired US casting director Nancy Klopper (Ray/ Devil’s Advocate/Risky Business) to help us. She was amazing to work with. However, she was in LA and I was in Newfoundland. Our budget didn’t allow for me to attend casting sessions in LA so I watched self-tapes. As luck would have it, Melissa Bergland landed in LA from Australia to look for a manager. The same week she signed with Untitled Management, she landed her first audition –– for Relative Happiness. And when I saw her audition, I just knew she was the one. I don’t know how else to say this but Melissa has a star quality. She’s a gifted actress who’s easily embraceable. Lucky us.
VIWIFF: Were there any challenges in casting her (e.g. with temporary foreign worker permits or the difference in dialects)?
DF: We had a very experienced crew and so our production coordinator, Cathy Grant, had no problem arranging our foreign worker permit. Nova Scotia has a lot of service productions so it wasn’t a new thing for her. However, we had a lot of discussion around dialects. Melissa worked with a dialect coach in LA and she worked with Susan Stackhouse once she landed in Nova Scotia the week before filming began. I think we all had our concerns but I knew she could do it. And she nailed it.
VIWIFF: Comedy is the hardest genre and your film succeeds, in my opinion, with a great sense of humour, a nice fast pace and a wonderful production design. What was your creative vision for this project, particularly considering its origins as a bestselling novel?
DF: Thank you for your kind words! The film is very different from the book but I feel the film maintains the tone and spirit of the characters. Specifically, this film is about a young woman’s journey towards understanding and accepting the complexity of love. It’s about having the courage to open yourself up to the possibility of love, and to stop idealizing it. I wanted to create a visually striking, emotionally engaging and entertaining experience for the audience. The story paints a charming yet poignant, and often hilarious portrait of one Nova Scotian middle class family. I was personally drawn to the script for a number of reasons. One, being the youngest of three sisters, the dynamic between the three sister characters was refreshing and truthful. Relative Happiness is a character-driven comedy with heartrending, emotional moments. Yet, these real dramatic moments play against unlikely comedic situations. The dramatic emotional beats are never sentimental while the comedy is rooted in truth. And neither undermines the other. Life, and this may be particularly true from an East Coast perspective, is a mix of the tragic and the comic. It was my goal to express this poignant ambiguity.
VIWIFF: Where, when and how long did you shoot the film and what were the main challenges?
DF: We shot the film over 16 days in October of 2013 in Hubbards and Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was immensely challenging to make this film period. There was a series of challenges based on the scale of the story and the reality of our budget. I was rewriting the film throughout pre-production in order to give us a fighting chance to get our film in the can. Scheduling the film with such a large cast was a huge challenge but we had a top-notch 1st AD, Megan Banning, who managed to put that puzzle together. In fact, if it wasn’t for my amazingly talented, deeply committed crew, we would never have crafted such a beautiful film. My production designer, Jason Clarke; costume designer, Sarah Dunsworth; D.O.P Christopher Porter; Location Manager, Gary Swim, all worked tirelessly with their respective teams despite their tiny department budgets. It was amazing to have that kind of support and to know everyone cared about the film as much as I did. And last but not least, nobody cared more about this film than my producers, Jill Knox-Gosse, Lynne Wilson, Alan Collins and exec prod Avi Federgreen, who made it all happen and kept us on the rails.
VIWIFF: You have recently filmed two episodes of the now concluded CBC series Republic of Doyle. How, would you say, is the situation for women filmmakers in Newfoundland and / or in the Maritimes?
DF: Well, I think there are a lot of strong women filmmakers on the east coast who are making huge strides in their careers. I know the numbers of female directors & writers in Canada is dismal but I still feel hopeful that those statistics can change. We have to demand it and support one another. If a film with a female protagonist and has a female director does well at the box office, it’s a win for all of us.
VIWIFF: Relative Happiness is scheduled to be released in the spring of 2015. What’s next for you?
DF: I have a couple of feature scripts in development and I’m working on a couple of TV projects with writer, Kerri MacDonald. And I desperately need to clean my house.
VIWIFF: Thank you for the conversation!
Watch the trailer:
Q&A by Katja De Bock
Relative Happiness screens on Friday, March 6th at 9:30 PM at #VIWIFF2015. The local musical shorts Happy and Gay, by Lorelei Pepi and Bedbugs: A Musical Love Story by Matthew Kowalchuk, precede the feature.
For Tickets, click here.