Interview: Helena Marie

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.



SAD Mag is an independent Vancouver publication featuring stories, art and design. Founded in 2009, we publish the best of contemporary and emerging artists with a focus on inclusivity of voices and views, exceptional design, and film photography.