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GIFF 2017 Interview: ‘Carrie Pilby’ Director Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson’s Carrie Pilby is a comedy-drama based on the Young Adult novel of the same name. The film stars Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, and Gabriel Byrne, and focuses on a young overachiever whose cynicism keeps her from getting the most out of life.

Sordid Cinema spoke to Johnson from the Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF). Our conversation spanned what it’s like touring the festival circuit, a mutual soft spot for the YA genre, and the need for more female filmmakers. Here are some of the highlights:

Susan Johnson Directs Bel Powley in Carrie Pilby

Johnson describes Carrie Pilby in her own words:

For me, the movie is about choosing happiness. It’s about letting go of judgement, both of others and yourself, and making a conscious effort to realize that everybody else has separate journeys. If you obsess about the world being black and white, which it clearly isn’t, it’s going to be a much longer road for you.

On making the festival circuit rounds:

It’s really great to have it at any festival. We really are excited to see how people are reacting to the movie, and its been one sold out screening after another, and people just really want to sit and talk about it afterwards.

It’s fun to watch how people react, because every single audience is different. I swear to you, it depends on the time of day, the day of the week, the weather. You can show the same film two days in a row at the same time and everything changes. It’s just interesting to see how that works.

How festivals like GIFF will affect the way we experience cinema in the future:

I think they’re critical to how we experience film for the very reason that you need to connect with your audience and hear from them and understand what they’re responding too. It just helps you decide what to do next, and because there is no outlet for smaller films past film festivals and generally On Demand after that.

There are no other platforms to really connect, so I think it’s really critical. Some of these stories, especially here in Florida – amazing stories that otherwise wouldn’t be heard probably. So I think it’s a critical part of the process. I’d actually like to tour the country with any film, whether it’s a studio film or an independent film, because I think it’s such an important part of the process.

Carrie Pilby star Bel Powley

Johnson on whether war is a suitable metaphor for filmmaking:

It is like going to war. I always conflate it to pushing a huge boulder up a mountain. Put a team together and push that huge boulder up a mountain and get to the top – you’re great. It’s a miracle that any film gets made, honestly. It doesn’t matter the budget – just so many pieces of the puzzle can all fall away at any time. It’s sort of a little bit of a major miracle

The first time you see these pieces read – not read but performed – that’s the most thrilling part of the process for me. And it can be the most terrifying. Fortunately, I don’t think we miscast anyone in this film. Seeing that moment and experiencing knowing that you pushed that boulder to the point where you’re here and it’s happening is really, really magical.

Johnson discusses nailing the casting process:

I started my career as a casting intern, years, and years, and years ago, so I’ve always really enjoyed that part of the filmmaking process. I feel it’s very instinctual. You know in a room, within a few seconds, whether the person before you is the person that you see in your head bringing the role to life. For me, it wasn’t intimidating, but also as a producer I’ve sat in on every casting session for big movies, so I was very used to the process.

She [Powley] is just amazing. Suzanne (my producer) and I would always say that she’s Meryl Streep-amazing, because she’s just at the very beginning really of her film career and she already sort of commands an entire set in a good way. She’s very professional, very thorough. She is whip-smart. She could memorize seven pages of dialogue at lunch.

I was so thankful for my first directing feature to have someone I could really connect with, work with, and trust. We both trusted each other, I think it was just a really wonderful relationship. I knew it would be from just speaking with her, and we auditioned her a couple times. So much so that I called her agent when we offered her the job and begged him to let me call her directly to offer her the movie, because I just wanted that moment to be mine. Fortunately, he was really nice to let me do that, because we don’t get to be part of that process very often. Everyone will discover her.

Bel Powley in Carrie Pilby

On women in film:

I do hate to dwell on the women in film issue, but I think we have to talk about it because there’s momentum to talk about it right now. I want to sort of use every opportunity to do that. But you know the numbers are staggering, they’re just so sad for women behind the camera and even getting to play in different movies.

I feel like we have to use every opportunity to push to let women’s voices be heard. If I think about my 6-year-old niece growing up with only male influences in art, it’s horrifying to me. I think that if people can really make an effort to support female-driven projects, women behind the camera, and actresses in any side role, it will help us make steps in the right direction.

Johnson’s thoughts on the YA genre:

My next film is also a young adult book adaptation. Those stories are geared towards young girls that I hope will want to see some sort of positive role model instead of vampires and horror films – you know, small steps.

I think it’s really mislabeled. I think The Breakfast Club could have been a young adult book. There’s nothing about that that says young adult women. It’s sort of timeless, you can watch it today, but had it been written in book form, that would have been young adult, totally from Molly Ringwald’s point of view.

Johnson talks about why she places value on humour:

I also think that humour is everything, and I don’t mean that everything has to be comedy. Even if you’re telling a drama or a horror film, all of that’s about finding those moments where people connect, because people connect through humour. We’re seeing it a lot in the news right now that people don’t have a sense of humour. They have a tendency to sort of block criticism. I think humour is key to everything.

Written By

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based pop culture writer and film critic who enjoys covering the city's biggest (and nerdiest) events. Victor has covered TIFF, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada for publications all over the internet. You can find his latest posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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