Women Behind Canadian TV: Michelle Latimer

Photo courtesy of Michelle Latimer
Photo courtesy of Michelle Latimer

There is true power in art. It can be used as a source of truth, as well as something that universally connects people. For Métis/Algonquin filmmaker Michelle Latimer, art has always been a way to make change. After roles on screen in Blackstone and Paradise Falls, she set aside plans for medical school in order to make documentary films. In doing so, Latimer quickly realized that if she wanted to create real change through film, then she was going to have to do it herself.

After several successful documentaries, including the VICE series Rise, for which she won the 2018 Canadian Screen Award for Best Documentary Program, Latimer, in partnership with Sienna, acquired the rights to Eden Robinson’s Trickster trilogy of books. Premiering in 2020, Trickster marks the first time CBC has developed a TV show based on books by an Indigenous author. In addition to co-creating and showrunner duties, Latimer directs all six episodes of the series. Trickster follows Jared, an Indigenous teen struggling to keep his family above water when a mysterious stranger, Wade, blows into town and turns his already chaotic life inside out. Soon weird things start happening and it becomes clear there’s much more going on.

Latimer recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to share why the national broadcaster, along with APTN who have come on board with a second window license, offered an appealing platform for Trickster, and will allow her to make it accessible for Indigenous communities. Television offers a platform unlike any other, and artists like Latimer see it as a chance to tell Indigenous stories to people all around the world. 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Have you always wanted to direct? Can you share a little about your background?

Michelle Latimer: I studied Theatre Performance and intended to go into performance. When I graduated Concordia University, I was doing a lot of theater and transitioned to film and television. My first union role out of school, I was 20 years old, was cast as a lead in 47 episodes on the series Paradise Falls. I went into the arts because I believe in social change and social justice. As much as I enjoyed the role, and learned a lot on set, I quickly realized that in order to have a voice about the things I was most passionate about, it was very difficult to do that as an actor. To have real voice and real power to change things I had to be behind the camera.

I was also thinking at the time about getting out of the industry altogether and going to medical school. I was really interested in Doctors Without Borders and was taking continuing education classes. I applied and interviewed for medical school, but while I was waiting to get in, I took a documentary filmmaking course. 

I had just returned from Africa where I was volunteering at a HIV/AIDS clinic for sex trade workers in Mombasa, Kenya. In the documentary course, I pitched this idea about making a short film about the women I had met in the clinic. The instructor of the course was a renowned documentary filmmaker, and he offered me a job as a researcher on his next project about Doctors Without Borders. I deferred my medical school acceptance and said I’d do that for a year. I did researching, writing, and production coordinating for it. It went on to play at Sundance and various film festivals, and I started to see there was real power and voice in this.

I approached the same company to make a short film about the community where I grew up in Thunder Bay, and the epidemic of young people who have perished as a result of racism and discrimination. That would become my animated film Choke. The production company at the time said they wouldn’t produce it, but they wanted me to keep researching for them, and that’s when I realized if I wanted to make stories about my own community, then I’d have to do it myself. 

I started learning about production on my own, and I asked other producers I knew if I could look at budgets and treatments. I was just teaching myself. I then started getting other training opportunities through programs at Women in the Director’s Chair and the National Screen Institute. I pursued my own training, and along the way, I had some incredible mentors that took me under their wing and helped me get where I am today.

TTVJ: Since you bring up Women in the Director’s Chair and mentoring, there are organizations aimed at helping women advance as directors, and we’re seeing more and more women get their chance. However, as reported by the Women in View report, there’s still a real lack of Indigenous creators. What programs do you see helping to make positive strides, particularly for Indigenous creators?

ML: What was so interesting about that report was that it did show that Indigenous women in leadership positions, such as showrunner, had the highest numbers in terms of hiring other Indigenous women to work with them. I thought that was really positive, but just getting into the business of TV can be really difficult. I think mentorship – it doesn’t have to be formal mentorship, though those are really nice — but just helping other people along is key, working with them and showing them the ropes. A “learning by doing” approach has been really helpful for me.

The other thing that has been key for Indigenous women is that we’ve had a very important festival that has really fostered talent in our community. The imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival has been a place to connect and show our work. It wasn’t just about showing work, but it nurtured involvement in the industry through craft panels and workshops. It gave us a place to connect to other people in the community that are making films – to foster our community. When I programmed at that festival, we had 75% of the films submitted made by Indigenous women. That far surpassed numbers we had seen at other festivals I had programmed at like Hot Docs, Dawson City and Victoria Film Festivals. I have never seen numbers like that of women making films. I think it comes from a long historical lineage of female leadership within our communities. 

Photo courtesy of Michelle Latimer
Photo courtesy of Michelle Latimer

TTVJ: As an Indigenous creator who is aware of the lack of Indigenous voices behind the scenes, and who is now showrunning with The Trickster, do you feel a responsibility to bring up other Indigenous creators with you?

ML: With Trickster, we set out to create opportunities through a two-prong approach. We had employment positions where we tried to put two Indigenous people in every department. There’s a lot of people in the industry who haven’t been able to break in. They have the credentials and experience to be qualified for those positions, but aren’t given a chance. So we employed Indigenous people in crew roles wherever possible.

Then the second tier was paid internships. Those were for people who had less experience, or no experience, who wanted to learn the role and work under people with experience. They would be paid as interns in those positions. In every department then we had indigenous people, whether employed in positions or paid through our internship program, on every level.

What’s key about that is that we also had producer positions and an aggressive director/mentor shadowing program. I had three Indigenous women as director shadows, and they were paid to come to set. They’d come either for two weeks on set or one week on set and one week in the post production process. Those were three Indigenous women from across Canada. 

It’s key that we have women in film and television in upper management positions. Just as important as it is to have people in hair, makeup, camera, electric, and grip, it is really important that we’re fostering people in key creative roles as producers, writers, and directors. That’s where the real creative voice is accessed from and it’s important we keep fostering those upper management positions. 

TTVJ: How did this adaptation of Trickster come to be? What brought you to this project?

ML: I had just come off my VICE series Rise and had been in Standing Rock for nine months. It was a very explosive situation to be working there on the ground and documenting. We just finished and had premiered Rise at Sundance on the day of Trump’s inauguration. After being in that war zone, I needed a break. I had picked up Eden Robinson’s book while heading home to Thunder Bay for my grandmother’s funeral. I read it over that weekend and couldn’t put it down. I wasn’t thinking about looking for anything to adapt professionally, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the story and characters. They resonated and stayed with me. So I called my agent and told them to look into getting the rights for a feature film. He told me the publishers were only entertaining series rights and had a few big companies already interested. None of the companies were Indigenous owned, though, and I was disappointed by that. I found out some other Indigenous filmmakers had gone after the rights too, but they were turned away because they just couldn’t compete with the money that these big companies could offer.

Fast forward to two months later and I’m having dinner with Sienna Films’ Jennifer Kawaja, who is co-producing my feature film. I was telling her what a shame it was that Indigenous filmmakers can’t afford the rights to their most celebrated writers. She said we should get the rights together. I wasn’t sure she was serious because she hadn’t even read the book yet. But she went home, read it that night and called me to say she loved it and wanted to go for it with me.

We put a proposal together and sent it to the literary agent. A big part of the proposal was ensuring it was an Indigenous-led project with a majority Indigenous creative team. They responded amazingly. A month later, I had just stepped off the podium after accepting the award for RISE at the Canadian Screen Awards, and Helen Asimakis, an executive at CBC, grabbed me and said ‘I hear you have the rights to Trickster. We want to make it with you!’ It all happened very quickly. 

CBC
CBC

TTVJ: It’s been nice to see networks like CBC more and more committed to telling diverse stories. Why was CBC the right network for Trickster

ML: In the beginning I wasn’t convinced they were the right network. There’s a lot of swearing, drugs, and alcohol in the books and I wanted to make sure we preserved that spirit. I did not want to dilute that aspect of Eden’s storytelling. But CBC assured us that they were behind our vision and committed to telling the story authentically. what was exciting about CBC is that they are a national broadcaster. This is the first time in their history that they are making a series based on an Indigenous writer’s novels, and helmed by an Indigenous team. Even though they’ve had work that has Indigenous subject matter, it hasn’t been created by an Indigenous team. 

Trickster is very much about who is behind the storytelling. That’s always been largely relegated to APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), who thankfully are also involved in the show and helped make it happen. I thought this was a huge opportunity because through CBC our entire country can see the work, see Indigenous actors represented on screen, see stories told by Indigenous people on every level, and that accessibility was very exciting for me. When I did the documentary series RISE for Viceland a lot of Indigenous people couldn’t access the channel, or the price point was a barrier for people to see it. Being on CBC means that anyone who has public television can access Trickster.

TTVJ: What was the process like to adapt the book, and what was the relationship between Eden Robinson and your team like?

ML: Eden was involved, but in the early stages she said, ‘I wrote the book, and I’m not writing the series. I’m happy to help, and I’ll be involved, but you guys have to jump where the book left off.’ She read all the scripts and gave feedback, and there were times that we made artistic choices that deviated from the book and we asked her if they were OK, and she’d give us notes. We also had Indigenous cultural consultants from the community who would look over the scripts for cultural awareness or make sure we weren’t stepping on any toes culturally, particularly with the mythology.

Eden came to set when we were shooting and was even an extra in one of the scenes. Even though she kept at arm’s length from the adaptation process, she definitely made herself available to us and was a very big presence. It was amazing because she also understood that it necessarily had to adapt to TV.

TTVJ: Can you share what part of the story will be explored in the first season?

ML: We primarily concentrated on the first Trickster book [Son of a Trickster]. We did six one-hour episodes and it’s hard to pack a whole book into that. We deviated from some of the stories and had to make them TV friendly. That doesn’t mean that we diluted them, but there’s a circularity to her writing that’s more difficult to adapt to television. We had to foster some rules to the mythology and add some linear storytelling that isn’t as prevalent in the book. So there’s stuff that’s new, but we stay true to the world, the life of Jared, and his relationships to other characters explored in the book. 

There’s also a beautiful mythology that I’ve been dubbing as Indigenous gothic. There’s surrealism and some scary, quirky things. it’s sort of a Stranger Things meets Shameless kind of vibe….maybe with some Twin Peaks thrown in there too. We were very true to the character of Jared and his relationship to Maggie, as well as his relationship to the non-human world. 

TTVJ: It really sounds so unlike other series on Canadian TV right now and that’s very exciting. There’s so many procedural shows out there that really follow a set formula, and so it’s exciting to hear about a new show coming out that differs from that.

ML: I agree, but to be honest with you, that was one of the challenges of the show. It is very original: it’s an original concept, adapted from original books. It’s much harder to make an original show than to make something that has a formula to it. As much as that’s what makes Trickster special, it’s also what made Trickster super challenging to create and make. I’m fully with you on that, though.

Our Indigenous stories encapsulate so many other types of realities and realms — things are not separate. When we pray, we end the prayer by saying ‘to all my relations.’ There’s a relationship to all things: human and non-human. That’s been calculated in Trickster, but it’s a different point of view – an Indigenous point-of-view —  in relationship to the world around you. We owe that because our country is filled with so much diversity, this land holds our Indigenous stories, is literally built from them. We should be looking in those directions for our stories. Honouring where we come from and the Lands we are on.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Latimer
Photo courtesy of Michelle Latimer

TTVJ: So often too, those very specific, diverse stories end up being the most relatable ones, even if I’m not from that community. 

ML: Totally! Jared lives in Kitimat, a community where the largest natural-gas extraction project in Canadian history is happening. That’s going to affect all Canadians and our economy as Canadians. What does that do, particularly when you’re an Indigenous kid who doesn’t really identify as being political? What does it do when you are growing up in a territory where there are those conflicts? All people can relate to that. Trickster is also a family story. Kids can relate to Jared as a character, as well as to parents. This is a story about a kid parenting his own parents while struggling to figure out who he is. I think many people can relate to that too. So there’s an environmental, family, and identity side to it all that makes it really exciting to me.

TTVJ: In addition to directing all six episodes of Trickster and your features, you’ve directed episodes of shows like Little Dog and Anne with an E. What kind of series do you enjoy working on the most, and do you prefer film or TV?

ML: TV is where some of the most exciting work is happening, but for me, I’m old school. I love film. I love walking into a movie theater, the lights go down, and you have this communal experience with everyone around you. I’ve never felt as emotional as I have at times in a theater watching something. I like bringing that kind of aesthetic to television, and we’re seeing that happen in long form, so that you can see more over six one-hour episodes than one 90 minute feature film. With all the streaming services there’s now a universality of the platform so people can watch all over the world. Our stories can really get out there and there’s great power in that. Our stories as Indigenous people can be represented across the globe and that’s an incredible thing.

I really like to best work on my own projects because that, for me, is the real challenge. How do you birth these stories into being? What kind of team do you create to actualize that? What is it I want to communicate? There’s real power in having voice. How do we create the work we want to see in the world? Quite frankly, in our community, we’ve had to do that ourselves, and it’s only recently that people have been interested in our Indigenous stories. While that’s exciting, there’s also a dark side to that where people from outside the Indigenous community are capitalizing on the next “hot thing”. People see money can be made around those stories. So we have to be careful. I’m not doing this for money, but rather to celebrate our culture, and to change our representation in society. To create sovereignty through our storytelling. I want to change how we’re seen and amplify our voices, it’s about using our power to create the future we want to be a part of.

TTVJ: Do you have any advice for other young people looking to tell their stories?

ML: As a film programmer, the biggest thing I always look for is ‘why are you telling this story?’ It can’t just be ‘well I thought it was cool.’ But why? What is it in you that identifies with this story and is it your story to tell? That’s a big question you have to ask yourself. Maybe it’s not, maybe it requires partnering with other people, and maybe it requires leaving it alone. That’s a very humbling thing to ask yourself. ‘What is the story burning within me? Can I go to my grave knowing this is inside of me or do I need to get this out beyond myself.’ 

There’s an urgency and passion that should be in storytelling, as well as a personal relationship to the story. Those kinds of things should tell you if you’re the one to tell that story. I think the most important thing for a Storyteller to have is voice, and a will to really question where that voice is coming from, and the reason behind it.  

TTVJ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

ML: I was at Content London recently and it was daunting because there was so little diversity there. Everyone was being terribly politically correct, saying things like ‘we need more diversity on our screens’ and yet they were talking to a room of mostly White people. I remember one of the people on the panels saying ‘I think it’d be OK to have more anger on our screens.’ Well, trust me, if you have more diversity, you’ll certainly have more anger. A voice can be fueled by anger and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be balanced by love. Whether that’s a love for community, your story, the characters, your desire to communicate your authentic experience. There can also be an urgency and anger for the things you feel are unjust and need changed. Anger and love are really important aspects to storytelling, but everything needs to be in balance. I think we sometimes forget that. If a story is made with love, told with love, and fostered through love, then that’s where real power lies.

 

Thoughts on Latimer’s comments? Share them below!

Trickster will premiere in 2020 on CBC.

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