Vagrant Queen Director Danishka Esterhazy on Breaking Down Genre Barriers

@desterhazy
@desterhazy

Women need to look out for one another and be each other’s champions. That’s certainly the attitude on the set of SYFY’s Vagrant Queen, which follows former child queen Elida (Adriyan Rae) as she looks to stay one step ahead across the galaxy from the evil Republic government. Showrunner Jem Garrard not only wrote and directed several episodes herself, but she saw to it that the show featured an all-female writers room and had all-female directors in its first season. Knowing firsthand how hard it can be for women to break into directing genre, Garrard wanted to give a couple of other women directors a chance to earn some genre credits. 

Winnipeg native Danishka Esterhazy stepped behind the camera at Vagrant Queen to direct Episodes 3 and 4. Esterhazy, a graduate of the Director’s Lab at the Canadian Film Centre, previously worked with SYFY directing The Banana Splits Movie last year and directed the upcoming Lorena Bobbitt movie, I Was Lorena Bobbitt, for Lifetime. She recently spoke with The TV Junkies about barriers that still need to be knocked down for women in genre, what it was like working with the Vagrant Queen cast, especially on those action scenes, and why she really loves shooting in South Africa.

 

The TV Junkies: This isn’t the first genre project that you’ve directed. What do you love most about working in genre?

Danishka Esterhazy: Genre and science fiction are big passions for me. Growing up, I was a huge sci-fi nerd as a kid and teen, and it was the kind of programming I watched. When I became a filmmaker my first goal was to try and work in that genre, try to do world creation, and speculative stories. But I discovered pretty quickly that there are a lot of barriers to women working in genre. I think there’s a misunderstanding where people think that women don’t want to work in science fiction. They do! Very few of us are hired to create science fiction or secure funding to make our science fiction projects. For my film Level 16, it took me 10 years to raise the money for that and it was a pretty small budget of $1.5 million. We just couldn’t get anyone excited about a woman directing a dystopian story about other women. 

There are still so many obstacles for us, as writers and directors in this world, unfortunately, and Jem really deserves a huge round of applause for championing other women. She herself knew what it was like trying to get jobs in science fiction as a woman director, and so she really went out and made hiring women directors and writers a priority for Vagrant Queen.

TTVJ: I look at even some of my favorite sci-fi/genre shows over the past few years that focus on women, and they tend to have a lot of female writers, but the women directors seem to be just sprinkled in here and there.
DE: It’s true, it’s like women directors are the sprinkle right now, and that’s across the board for any network or channel. It’s starting to change, though, and it’s pretty exciting to see how many women have been hired recently. I’m just hoping that this will open up to more women directors that are passionate about telling these types of stories.

VAGRANT QUEEN -- "Rocket Science" Episode 104 -- Pictured: (l-r) Adriyan Rae as Elida, Tim Rozon as Isaac, Alex McGregor as Amae -- (Photo by: Marco Cruz/Vagrant Productions/SYFY)
Marco Cruz/Vagrant Productions/SYFY

TTVJ: Just as a viewer who tries to casually keep track of who is writing and directing episodes, it does feel that there’s been some initiatives put in place and we are seeing more and more women directing episodes.
DE: It does feel like the doors are opening. We are nowhere near parity, and it is still very hard to get hired and there’s so many obstacles. First of all, women directors are still just very underestimated. It’s very hard to find producers who will take a chance on a woman director. Of course because we’ve been shut out of the industry so much, the people with more credits are always going to be the male directors, as they had opportunities for a long time that we haven’t had. There’s the occasional person that will come along and be able to recognize talent and be able to see you have an eye and an ability. They will open the door for you. People like Jem Garrard and Josh Van Houdt at SYFY who hire a lot of women are just incredible. 

TTVJ: As you mentioned, Jem really used her platform to help bring women writers and directors in on this project. What was it like being able to work in an environment that had so many women behind the scenes?
DE: It was great to have so many women with creative input. It’s so important for women who work in film to open the door for other women. We know how hard it is for us, and so once you get your foot in the door, you have to open the door for other women behind you. 

I just finished shooting a movie in Toronto for Lifetime and for the first time, all my department heads were female. I had a female cinematographer, a female AD team, female camera team, and in wardrobe and production design. It was really quite incredible and an amazing energy. There’s so many departments where we’re underrepresented, so as a woman director, when you have the ability to fight for women in other departments, then that’s your responsibility to make the industry more diverse and more representative one step at a time.

TTVJ: The Vagrant Queen cast seems like a really fun group. What was it like directing those actors?
DE: I just loved the cast and as an ensemble, they are great because they are so supportive of each other. They’ve done so much work to bring life to those characters and make them their own. They were all so much fun. 

Adriyan was remarkable because she has a real range of acting ability. She can do the really funny comic timing stuff, but she can also do some really dramatic and heartbreaking scenes that just blew me away. Then she also is incredible with action. She can learn a really complex stunt choreography sequence so fast. I was always amazed, watching her in the stunt rehearsals, how quickly she could pick up really long sequences and still bring her character into the choreography. 

With Tim [Rozon], everybody loves Tim! I’ve been hoping to work with him for years and he’s been on my wish list of actors I’d hoped to work with. I was really excited to get this opportunity with Vagrant Queen because not only is he brilliant with the comic timing and so charming, but he’s also just an incredible human being to work with. He has such an amazing presence on set, is so warm, so collaborative, and an absolute partner in anything. He’s always willing to try things and a total pleasure in every way.

I wasn’t familiar with Alex McGregor before this, but she was just incredible. That sweetness, charm, and energy that she brings to Amae is all her own. She’s just such a warm and wonderful person in real life and so much fun.

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SYFY

TTVJ: I’ve really been enjoying some of the BTS stuff you’ve been sharing on your social media feeds. The storyboards are especially cool to see.
DE: I love seeing that stuff myself and it’s fun to lift the curtain and show how these moments of magic are created. In Episode 4, there’s a fantastic fight sequence that I was able to shoot, and it involved a lot of pre-planning so I’ve got a ton of BTS information about that.

TTVJ: The Vagrant Queen action scenes in general are so cool and fun to watch. What is it like for you to shoot those?
DE: I love doing stunt work and fight scenes, and Vagrant Queen had a really great stunt coordinator named Kerry Gregg that choreographed all those scenes. They involve a ton of pre-planning with all your departments. I’d walk through the locations with the stunt teams and actors talking about the beats. Then I’d build overhead diagrams of all the blocking, quite early so the production design team and on set effects team could design the room to match the choreography — put the furniture in the right place, put the directing in the right place, put the explosions in the right place. It’s a ton of pre-planning and I had to vist the location many times so that when you get there to shoot on the day everything is ready and waiting for you. Fight scenes require a lot of additional coverage because there’s so many little beats you have to get. It was incredibly fun and a lot of work, but when it comes together it’s really gratifying. I hope people enjoy it.

TTVJ: I absolutely love those freeze shots that Vagrant Queen does during the fight scenes. They are so cool!
DE: Aren’t those great? Jem designed those shots and calls them mannequin challenges. It was a technique that she and Trevor Calverly, our DP, had worked out together on a movie called Killer High. So when Jem designed Vagrant Queen she wanted to add one of those mannequin challenge shots in every episode. We’d talk about which scene would give us the most bang for the buck and best freeze frame moment. It is really fun to shoot those and is a real combination of the camera team, the effects team on set, the VFX team in post, and everybody coming together to make those shots amazing. 

TTVJ: What is it like shooting in South Africa? Some of the locations that appear on Vagrant Queen are just stunning and so unlike what we see from other shows.
DE: The locations are amazing! I come from Winnipeg and spent a decade shooting strictly in Manitoba. I think I have shot every wheat field that you can shoot. [laughs] I love the prairie landscape, but it was so exciting to go to a completely different landscape. Cape Town is beautiful and full of amazing architecture. The landscape outside of the city is just incredible. You have cliffs, beaches, dunes, massive rocky outcrops, and it’s just so cool. The people and film crews there are amazing as well. It’s a really fun and happy place to shoot. I’m actually supposed to go back later this year for another movie, though everything is on hold right now, and hopefully that’ll happen once the lockdown is over because I really do love going to Cape Town.

TTVJ: You mentioned the Lorena Bobbitt movie for Lifetime, but are there any other projects we should keep an eye out for?
DE: I’ve got some great projects coming out later this year that I’m really excited about in terms of genre television. I have a horror film coming up and am attached to an action movie. It’s a strange time, and after finishing Vagrant Queen and the Lorena Bobbitt movie, I thought I’d be pretty much shooting nonstop the rest of the year. 

One thing you can do during the shutdown is write. Judy Holm, a producer with Markham Street, is developing a limited series based on a great novel by Toronto novelist Nathan Ripley called Your Life is Mine. We got some funding to develop that script so I’m currently writing that adaptation with the novelist. We really hope to be bringing that series pitch to networks in the fall.

 

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Vagrant Queen airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on SYFY and Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Citytv.