Adam Garnet Jones Talks About His Personal Debut Feature ‘Fire Song’
Adam Garnet Jones’ debut feature Fire Song follows Shane (Andrew Martin), a gay Anishinaabe teen in Northern Ontario dealing with multiple crises, setbacks and tragedies on his reservation. His younger sister recently killed herself, leaving his mother an emotional wreck; he has a hidden relationship with his boyfriend David (Harley LeGarde-Beacham); he covers up his own sexuality by dating Tara (Mary Galloway); and he might not be able to afford the tuition to go to school in Toronto. All of Shane’s conflicts and fears make it hard for him to choose between leaving in order to live an honest life, or staying home to feel secure within his own family and community.
Garnet Jones’ film is the sort of subdued, human drama that feels rare coming from a first feature, and is all the more vital in the way it portrays the very real issues with mental health and suicide among young Aboriginals across Canada. In advance of Fire Song’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, I talked to Adam Garnet Jones about his personal connection to the film’s themes, the intensive and fascinating casting process for the film, and what he hopes the future will hold for him as a filmmaker.
Fire Song has its world premiere at TIFF on September 13th. To find out more about the film, and to buy tickets, visit its page on TIFF’s official website HERE.
Tell me about how you came up with the idea for Fire Song.
I was trying to explore a kind of a feeling more than anything. It was this feeling of heaviness that exists after a young person commits suicide, and other people in the community are grieving but also worried that it’s just the beginning of a cycle or cluster of suicides. I was writing different scenes and impressions based on that, and really finding the story by feel from there.
Did this project come from a personal place then?
It was definitely personal. I feel like it was a combination of a lot of different things so it’s hard to pinpoint, but part of it was having been an incredibly depressed, suicidal teenager. And I’ve also seen this kind of common experience of young people who come from reserves and small communities, who have this desire to go and explore life in a larger place. But they also feel incredibly connected to the communities where they come from. I wanted to write something that sort of explored that complicated relationship.
In a lot of films about young people and small towns the story is this young person with a lot of promise from a shitty small town they hate, and at the end of the film they get away from their shitty small town and everything’s better. But I felt like telling this story from an Aboriginal perspective just wouldn’t feel realistic. The relationship to home and place is so much more complicated, and that’s part of what I wanted the story to be about too.
How do you personally feel about young people in a situation like Shane’s, where they have to leave their community in order to try and better themselves?
I needed to leave my home in order to feel like I would be comfortable really coming out and figuring out who I was. I think that’s true for a lot of people, but there are people who feel like they have to leave their community in order to gain the skills to hopefully be able to help it one day. That’s difficult for a lot of people, because a lot of them sever ties to their community when they do that and never return. But there are a lot of people like Shane who would stay if they felt like they could be who they really are and could feel safe in those communities. It’s sad because I’ve certainly seen that happen to a lot of kids who leave their community. Not because they want to, but because they don’t feel safe. They don’t feel like they can be who they really are, so they go to the city and get swallowed up.
Yet in your film you do show there are opportunities for Shane to stay, and a chance that he can always come back. It’s not a negative portrayal of where he’s from.
It was difficult to try to write about a community with a lot of different problems and also try to not demonize that place. In any place there are lots of people trying hard to heal those communities and make a positive difference, and lots of people who are kind of trapped in the negative patterns that exist in those places as well. It was important for me to find opportunities to show the good in that place. There are characters who don’t want to leave, so it was just as important to show why they might want to stay there.
Suicide hangs heavy over this community, and it reflects the very real crisis going on across Canada with young people in Native communities. For a coming of age film it has a life or death quality to it.
It is life or death. I remember when I turned 20 I was so shocked that I made it. I never thought that I would be 20 years old when I was a teenager. I was sure that I would have killed myself by then. I remember that feeling of being a teenager and being so hungry to live my life, to do something with my life, and being equally certain that I would kill myself before I got a chance.
Your cast is made up of a lot of young, nonprofessional actors. What was the casting process like?
When I was trying to fund [the film] a lot of people said “I really love the script, but I have no idea how you’re going to put that cast together.” There are no professional Aboriginal teenage actors that anybody knows of. There might be a couple in the whole country, but there isn’t the pool of talent to make this film out there. And my response was always that the pool of talent is there, but nobody is looking for them. All we have to do is go out there and look. We had general casting calls for anyone, they didn’t have to have any acting experience whatsoever. We saw over 200 people I think, mostly for the parts of the younger characters because I knew that they would have to carry the film. Once we narrowed it down to a group that I thought had promise in front of the camera, we invited them to a week long casting workshop. It was an intensive workshop for all of these performers, and over the course of the week they learned about acting on camera.
It was a really important bonding experience for all the cast members because [almost] everyone who was at that workshop ended up on set playing one kind of character or another. Over the course of that week they formed a pretty tight bond as a group, and when it came to the incredible demands of making the film they had that trust in one another developed over the course of the workshop. They could lean on one another and support each other through it.
Did you have a different approach in how you worked with the nonprofessional actors versus the professional actors on set?
Yes and no, I guess. I did a lot more work with the nonprofessional actors than I did with the professionals. There were a couple of times when I was working with Jennifer Podemski where I stopped in the middle of talking with her and I realized “Oh shit, I’ve been talking to her in the same way that I was speaking with these super young actors who don’t have any experience.” I was over explaining things and getting into tons of detail and just more or less embarrassing myself. That was a learning curve for me. After getting so comfortable with the younger people over the course of the casting workshop, heading into production I had to switch gears and work with people like Jennifer who had a lot of experience. I had to learn to step back and give them a lot less than I did with the younger actors. It was strange and difficult moving between those two modes.
It was more on the sidelines of the film, but I liked the relationship between Shane’s mother Jackie (Jennifer Podemski) and David’s grandmother Evie (Ma-Nee Chacaby).
The casting is a big part of it. Teenagers are so much less comfortable in their skin than older people as a rule, but it somehow gets reversed when they’re in front of the camera. Younger people, even if they don’t have any experience on camera, are much more at ease being themselves in front of the camera than older people. It was much harder for us to find inexperienced older actors who could just relax and be themselves. We saw a lot of people for the role of Evie, and we just weren’t really finding what we were looking for.
Then I was in Thunder Bay during Thunder Pride and happened to be at an impromptu backyard party where Ma-nee was like an important guest in attendance. Partway through the barbecue she got up and started telling this funny traditional story. She had on her big pride shirt and had the whole group of people in the palm of her hand. She was so charming and I thought “This woman has to come in and audition,” and sure enough she was perfect. So because Ma-Nee brings so much of her character and personality, and because Jennifer was such a professional, it was pretty easy to let things unfold between the two of them.
I’m surprised to hear that, since Ma-Nee plays such a subdued character in the film.
There aren’t many queer Aboriginal people on screen, and I was really happy that there were so many people in this film who were queer and made it on screen. Ma-Nee being a really well known and respected two-spirited elder playing this homophobic elder was really satisfying for me, and in a way satisfying for her. She really got into the idea of transforming herself into this character. And I think in the same way that making a film in the north, and making a film about queer Aboriginal people starring queer Aboriginal people really brings something different and special to the table.
I always ask people what they’re working on next, but you already have another film in post-production.
It’s completely different in every possible way. It’s called Great Great Great. It’s a very, very, very micro budget film I made with a long-time and friend collaborator Sarah Kolasky. She co-wrote it with me and stars in it. It’s about a woman who is in her late 20s and has been in a relationship with her boyfriend for about 5 or 6 years. Everything is kind of fine, but because of different things happening in her life she kind of feels like something new needs to happen. She decides to propose to him and they end up getting engaged, and as a result the relationship kind of gets ripped apart.
Do you want to make sure that you’re making films that are completely different from what you’ve already made?
I would like to keep making films with radically different stories that feel different in terms of their tone and execution. I feel like that’s the way I’m going to grow the most. There’s so much hyperawareness of branding in the world of media arts right now that there’s a lot of pressure for directors to develop a trademark or recognizable aesthetic stamp on their work. I just don’t think I have it in me. My interests are too scattered and diverse, and I’m too restless to try to pin down an aesthetic and just keep following that one thing.