When Helena Marie’s masterful short film CRAZY LOVE (2013) debuted last February at the VISFF it took the festival by storm. Marie’s tense, unflinching dramatization of domestic abuse and revenge stunned audiences and wowed judges, winning every major award, including Best Film, Best Performance, Best Writing, and Best Technical. Since sweeping the VISFF, CRAZY LOVE has been touring other festivals in Canada and even won the Best Short award at the 2015 ACTRA festival in Montreal. VISFF recently caught up with Helena Marie in her current hometown of Vancouver and talked to the actor/writer/producer about domestic violence, friendship, filmmaking, and the importance of dreams in her creative life.
SAD Mag: You started your artistic career as an actress. How did you transition to filmmaking?
Helena Marie: About three years ago I started auditioning and getting little parts here and there and having fun with that. But I realized that even though it was really exciting to get a part on a TV show, sometimes my part would only be for a few minutes or even seconds and that I wasn’t getting enough storytelling time. I wanted to tell stories and actually contribute to these projects. When you’re an actor you don’t always get to choose what you get to tell and what part of it you get to be. So I decided it was time to make my own film.
SM: What inspired you to write the script?
HM: I haphazardly have been a writer for the last six or seven years. Never publishing anything. It was sort of an outlet for me, mostly a result of crazy dreams. I wake up and remember these epic dreams and if I’m diligent enough, I take a pen and paper near me and write it all out. But I’d never go back to it as a story; these are just things I need to let out right at that moment not to forget about them. I have pages and pages of halfwritten stories, halfwritten dreams—
SM: Are they dark?
HM: No, they are epic.
SM: Did you base your CRAZY LOVE story on one of these dreams?
HM: No, but it was a story that I as an actor always wanted to tell. The main concept of the film is spousal abuse. When you’re an actor, people always ask you “why?” “Why choose this ridiculously hard, draining career path?” And the concept that always came to me was, if I could tell a story, for example of an abused woman who decides to fight back, and if there’s one person up there who is in a similar situation, sees that and gets encouraged to fight back and get out of it—then that’s the ideal outcome. You’ve touched someone, affected them. I watch movies and TV, I listen to music because I want to be affected, I want it to make me think and feel something. So when I started this journey making my own project, there were a few ideas floating around. I’m a big scifi fan, so I started with that, but realized it was quickly turning into a feature, and I wanted to start with a short film for my first time, so I decided to scale back and focus on an intimate story. So I chose to write about spousal abuse, because it was always something I wanted to do as an actor.
SM: Do you have any experience with that issue?
HM: Not personally. I’ve never been in that sort of relationship. But I have friends who have. In the first few minutes of the movie, there’s this girls’ poker night scene. It was really important to me to show the dynamic of different kinds of friendship that can exist around somebody in that situation. One of the girls is totally aloof and has no concept of what’s going on. Another one hints that she kind of has an awareness, but when there are questions being asked about Sam’s injured foot, she doesn’t want to rock the boat and get into talking about it. And the third one is “that” friend who’s like “What is going on? What are you going to do about it?” I came at it from the position of somebody who’s seen friends in these kinds of situations and I’ve felt like all three kinds of characters at some point. I’ve felt like the friend who is clueless and when I find out I’m in total shock. I’ve felt like the one who knows but doesn’t know how to talk about it, and I’ve felt like that person who is like “I’m taking you out of this right now.”
SM: Is this how you’ve progressed as a person or did it reflect the different kind of relationships you’ve had with people?
HM: I’d say it’s a combination of both. My first reaction would be to say that’s my progression as I grow up and become more aware of what’s going around me, but the truth is that I don’t. I like to think I do, but I don’t always know what is happening with somebody else. And at the end of the day, it’s not always my business. Not to say that when someone is in a bad situation it is not my place to try to help them, but we don’t always know the whole story and what kind of help they need. I might assume that I need to get them out of that situation and be there for them emotionally, but maybe what they actually need is financial support. And I might not be the best person to help them. They may need someone else and me getting involved isn’t what they want. You can’t always be a mind reader unfortunately.
SM: What do you think Sam (your character) wants from her friends? What is her perspective?
HM: I think she has gone totally numb after what happened earlier that day. She’s out of it and doesn’t know what she’s done. They’re literally playing this poker game as her boyfriend is lying in the backyard and she thinks he’s dead. When she finds out he’s not, it’s a big shock to her.
SM: There must have been years of tension building up in the relationship. What do you imagine your character’s background is?
HM: I think the abuse started off subtly and it got to a point for her where it was easier to pretend. If she had broken the teacup two years ago, there would have been a fight with yelling and hitting, but at this point, it’s easier for her to turn around and do what he says. Then it’s done and she can carry on with her day. It’s really creepy when you think about it.
SM: So she’s not looking for help or someone to get involved?
HM: It’s scary. You might have to look up the exact numbers, but statistically, if there’s going to be a murder committed in an abusive relationship, the majority of the time it’s going to happen on the abused partner after the abused partner leaves. That’s terrifying. When you’ve gotten to that point when staying seems more feasible. I wouldn’t know what to do. You can call the cops, you ask your friends and family, everyone is going to help you…but it’s still scary. What do you do? There’s not one answer for anybody. Everyone’s different, everyone needs a different fix. And with abusive people, you never know how far they’re going to go. I’m sure she does want help - but at this point she’s so far into the abuse she has no clue how to escape - it all seems so impossible.
SM: How did the characters develop over the time of writing the script and shooting?
HM: The script went through so many revisions. At one point, the character of Alan had a much bigger part. There was even a reverse torture scene where she holds him captive and repeats all the violent acts onto him that he has done to her. There were a lot of reasons we didn’t go that way, but mostly because we didn’t want the focus to be on him. I didn’t want the abuser to get much screen time. Even if he was portrayed as a horrible person, I felt that the more time he’d get, the more glorified the character would be.
SM: Funny that the character of the abusive partner is played by your real life fiancé. Did that have any impact on your relationship?
HM: Not at all! It’s funny. I needed somebody who could go through a whole range of emotions, especially in the original script where there was a stronger focus on his character. And Jason is just really talented and could do that. I also needed someone who could be charming and not come across as an aggressor. Someone you’d see walking down the street or hanging out with friends and say, oh, there’s a dude, he’s hot, he seems nice. We didn’t want a muscular mean face with a shaved head or whatever the typical image of an abusive person is. And Jason did a great job, but it didn’t affect our relationship at all, in fact it made it stronger. I once said at a party that Jason was perfect for the role, and everybody went “Um, what do you mean?” I meant that he killed it!
SM: You said you “aim to create films which address mature subject matters and ask [audiences] to question their stance on the definitions of right and wrong.” Wouldn’t almost killing a person be considered wrong?
HM: Going back to the concept of the friends—it could be anything trivial or anything serious a person could be talking about, but some people would go: “Oh, I’d kill him, let’s find him and do it.” And I think, “Okay, but really? You’d really do it? Because that’s pretty serious.” Just hearing stuff on the news, you go “I’d do this, or I wouldn’t do this.” It’s so easy to say. I wanted to see at what point the audience is still okay with what’s happening. First, we see this woman, and her boyfriend is an abusive jerk. He’s making her walk on a broken teacup. And there’s a history, there’s gotta be a reason why she’s doing that. People don’t like what they’re seeing but they are not at the point where they’d say “kill him.” But by the time we get to the end of the movie, the guy is a vegetable. Now, where’s that line? Where do you still say, “Okay I’m supporting this, or maybe this is getting a little weird, and now it’s too much.” I want to have people to go through the transition and think about it afterwards. And most importantly we wanted the audiences to actually talk about spousal abuse, have it enter into our everyday conversations so they can understand a tiny amount of the difficulty that these people are going through and not be afraid to address it if they think there’s something going on with their friends or loved ones.
SM: Is there room for worrying about Sam not as the victim but as the aggressor who will have to face the consequences of her violent action?
HM: Who knows? Obviously, the law is there to try to protect people. But it doesn’t always. People get hurt, murdered, raped, kidnapped…The law doesn’t always help. My point isn’t to tell people to go out and take a baseball bat to the person who’s hurting them. That’s more of a metaphor for standing up for yourself. But the way our lives work now we don’t know what’s going on with people. It used to be that when somebody was an asshole in the community, they just took him out. Now we have all these nice little homes and nice little cars, we all do our thing and don’t know our neighbours’ names. We hear yelling sometimes outside the window and think, “Is it just a little fight or…?” We don’t know our community, and the people around us anymore. It would be nice to think that the law would be on her side, but again, that’s up to the audience to see how difficult the verdict would be to make in that situation.
SM: When did you realize you had passion for acting?
HM: I went to theatre school after high school. I was very shy; public speaking was the worst. But in theatre, I was able to express myself, because it wasn’t Helena—it was a character. These characters can say things in front of people and not be embarrassed.
SM: What is the most important part of preparing to get into a character?
HM: It took me a long time—and I’m still kinda learning it—to realize that even if you have a natural ability and you're comfortable doing certain things, that it’s all about practice and being prepared.
SM: Did you always know you want to follow this career path?
HM: I had a real life after I left theatre school—a typical nine-to-five life for a couple of years and I stopped acting, dancing and singing. I had a great time, but at some point I realized I wasn’t dreaming anymore. Literally; I wasn’t waking up with any memory of having dreamt, which for me is not normal. I often wake up remembering two or three very vivid, very long and detailed dreams from that night. So that made me realize I was stifling my creativity; a part of me, that creative person, had gone dormant. So within a few years I was back to acting and being creative. Also, before I discovered acting, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I was interested in how the brain works in terms of emotions and how it makes us feel things. And around the same time I was deciding to pursue acting, I realized that being an actor was a study of human behavior. It wasn’t just show, it’s expressing of how we all feel. We have been storytellers since the beginning of time. We relate to people through stories; we want to connect and know what they feel, and understand why different people feel different things, and know that we are not alone.
SM: How do you treat a character that requires a more emotional background?
HM: I’m pretty open in terms of emotional availability. I cry at radio commercials if they put the right music with it. I’m a total sucker. So I identity with sensitive characters easily. When the character is tough, and doesn’t show a lot of emotions, that’s been a challenge for me. But I like a good challenge!
SM: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
HM: Work with people you want to work with. Don’t work with jerks just because they’re the “best" at what they do. If they’re mean and belittle other people on set, don’t give them another chance. As you get into bigger and bigger productions, there are a lot of people that are always getting rehired just because they were part of a successful film, but maybe on set they’re sexist or rude. You can still make a film without them. You’re going to be able to find other great people. Because at the end of the day, working on set is really stressful and there’s a lot of money in the production, so you should surround yourself with people who are professional and team players.
SM: How did you come to work with Mathieu Charest (director of CRAZY LOVE)?
HM: I was introduced to Mathieu by our cinematographer Benoit Charest. Mathieu had already read the script and was so so excited that he started right in explaining their relationship (Alan and Sam) and just got absolutely everything I was going for. It was like he was in my brain. He also has decades of experience behind the camera. So it was a no brainer to work with him. I think he and I share a love of the weird and dark. Like, for me, there’s that part of CRAZY LOVE where, after she hits him, she tears up a stack of porn magazines and urinates on them as a symbol of her marking her territory and dominating him. And I personally enjoyed the fact that I got to pretend to urinate on a porno and people gave me an award for it (laughs).
SM: What experience from VISFF are you taking to the next festival?
HM: If it’s a festival where there are are awards—and I recommend this to everyone—always know what you want to say if you do the speech. Mine was the worst; I went up there and was, like, “Hey! Let’s party!” I’m not good under pressure (laughs). Be prepared, because you have every right to be proud.
You can submit a film to VISFF until November 1st, and the festival will be held in February of 2016. Visit their website for more details, and their socials for updates: @visff.