Women Behind Canadian TV: April Mullen

Cr: Wango Films
Cr: Wango Films

Opportunities aren’t always going to fall in your lap, so get out there and make them happen for yourself. That’s the philosophy and approach director April Mullen has taken with her career, co-founding the independent production company Wango Films with Tim Doiron after graduating theater school and being disappointed in the opportunities available to her. She’s since leveraged that philosophy as an actress, writer, producer and director, landing opportunities to excel in every part of the creative process.

Most recently, Mullen became a breakout director after her film Below Her Mouth had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Below Her Mouth is the story of an unexpected and passionate romance between two women (Erika Linder and Natalie Krill) who form an immediate connection that changes both of their lives forever. The film gained attention behind the scenes as well due to the all-female crew Mullen assembled.

Along the success of Below Her Mouth, Mullen has recently transitioned her directing talents from the big screen to television. Her credits include episodes of Killjoys and Aftermath, as well as the upcoming season of Wynonna Earp and the new CBC drama Bellevue. She recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to elaborate on her decision to use an all-female crew on Below Her Mouth, the challenges in staffing the crew, as well as why she thinks the number of female directors is so shockingly low and what can be done to change things.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: You’ve pretty much done it all from acting, writing, producing and directing. Is there any specific role you prefer?

April Mullen: I’m just obsessed with the creative process as a whole. I’ve been addicted to and loved creating since a very young age. I love bringing something from your imagination onto the screen and have it come to reality. I’m mesmerized by catching something in the heat of the moment on film and being able to play it back. All of those things drew me to the industry because it was part of my identity from the beginning, and I’ve loved it ever since.

TTVJ: The gender gap is glaringly obvious when it comes to the directing position. How were you able to break through?

AM: I graduated from arts and theater school with a bachelor in fine arts. I came to Los Angeles and at the time there was a writers’ strike and nothing going on. I’m very much a believer in creating your own work and am definitely a generator. I just couldn’t wait and hope that someone would call, and couldn’t see roles or films that I loved represented on screen. My producing partner Tim Doiron and I teamed up right out of theater school to start our own production company called Wango Films. We facilitated our future with our production company and started creating our own work.

We started with micro budget feature films and slowly built up our company. I hopped right into the director’s chair after 10 years of being an observer as an actor and got to grow, experiment and try different genres under our umbrella. I started doing work for hire in the last two to three years which has been fantastic, but that’s really what happened. I was in love with what I wanted to do and nothing was happening, so I started creating my own work and the opportunity to express myself.

Cr: Wango Films
Cr: Wango Films

TTVJ: The numbers for women in the directing position are just abysmal. Why do you think it’s so hard for women to break through?

AM: The percentages are shocking when you put it on paper and count the numbers. It’s a fascinating thing to me because in the last 15 years no one has labeled me as a female director. I was never labeled as anything other than a creative person or director. However, in the last year and a half there’s been a lot of awareness and a lot of buzz so everyone now labels me as a female director. I think it’s important because there needs to be awareness, but it’s also funny because I never really realized what an oddity it was. I was so busy creating and I didn’t realize that I was surrounded by a 99 per cent male crew.

Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that when a lot of young women are leaving school they might not be aware of the fact that it’s a possibility–a woman director is a possibility. We have to promote and very much put on a pedestal the women that are succeeding in the industry, put them on the covers of things, make sure their names are household names and if that starts happening, the younger generation of filmmakers will see the possibility and know it’s an option.

If you enter the industry in the traditional sense it takes such a long time to slowly go up the ladder. If you’re a young woman that’s in love with film and want to be a director, you have to leave school and start creating work and directing shorts right away. If that’s the position you are vying for, then claim that position and start directing immediately because that’s what you’ll be seen as.

TTVJ: Directing seems to be a lot about who you know and then people hire the same people over and over again. What’s the process you go through when getting hired on a job?

AM: I think it’s also an age thing. I’m from the film side of things so when you’re entering a new medium like television it’s a whole different beast. I went through the same process any newcomer into the TV landscape would have. I went through a slew of interviews, shadowed on the CW shows and you have to put in a lot of effort to break down those barriers to let them know they are in safe hands. Your first episode of TV is definitely different than creating feature films, so once you get the first one under your belt and everyone knows you can deliver then everything becomes–I don’t want to say easier because you still have the same amount of interviews–people tend to gravitate towards what they feel safe with. Obviously, that means they work with people they’ve worked with before, but I think that goes for any industry. So when you’re new, young and breaking through those doors it’s always going to be a process.

TTVJ: You used an all-female crew on your film Below Her Mouth. Can you discuss why you made that decision?

AM: With Below Her Mouth it was very specific because the content is what generated the creative decision. It was very much a creative decision to have an all female crew because we were aiming to achieve love, sex, lust and that incredible electrifying chemistry that you can find–if you’re lucky–but we wanted to give that to people through a female perspective. To do that we wanted to go all the way in terms of the camera movement, what they are wearing, our production design, our music, our editor, everything we wanted to bring forth this truth that came from a female perspective. We just wanted to be as true as possible, so that’s why we went with an all female crew.

We wanted to give a different perspective, especially on sex and love and what those things are like for women. We felt there was very little represented on screen, and even when I was doing my shot listing, I found it extremely challenging because everything I had been exposed to in terms of sex and love was written by a man, directed by a man or made to turn men on. I constantly had to throw that to the side and remind myself to look within and really ask myself an authentic question of ‘what actually turns me on as a woman? What truly happens to us when we instantly fall in love, and what do those feelings feel like? How can I capture that and bring that to the screen?’ It’s very rarely seen, and with Below Her Mouth I think the results are on the screen because there’s something to that film that makes it so authentic, and I believe it’s the female voice that comes from all departments.

I create from inside my body with no filter to deliver the female gaze to all that I do. The female gaze creates empathy, you are feeling with the film, series, or piece of art. I don’t want to simply show the audience something, I want them to feel something, something honest, found deep within my female gaze.

Cr: Wango Films
Cr: Wango Films

TTVJ: Since there is such a lack of women in many positions behind the scenes, did you have any difficulty in hiring the crew?

AM: Yes, it was really difficult actually! It took over three months and sound was really challenging and so was boom operator. Grip and electric were also really difficult to lock women down because there are so few in Canada.

TTVJ: What differences did you notice in the environment on set from having that all female crew?

AM: I think with every film when you get a bunch of creative people together they have their own personality and it creates this synergy on set. With Below Her Mouth it was very supportive, non-judgemental, the communication was seamless between departments and there were no barriers between departments which was fantastic. It really helped with the performances of the actresses because they felt supported and very brave when going into these very vulnerable places. The crew and directorial wise we all exposed inner pieces of ourselves so they felt very comfortable. It’s like we were all on the same mission to deliver something new, from the female perspective, and we were all on the same page. We felt like a little army and it was a very inspiring and motivating set to be a part of.

TTVJ: What are you currently working on?

AM: I just finished an incredible series called Bellevue that was written and created by a woman, Adrienne Mitchell. Jane Maggs was the showrunner and writer so there were various strong, creative and fantastic women involved in that project that stars Anna Paquin. I’m also heading off to Wynonna Earp right after the new year to shoot more sci-fi with Melanie Scrofano and the Wynonna team. I cannot wait and am very excited to shoot that out in Calgary.

 

Thoughts? Share them in the comments below!

Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

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