Interview with Newfoundland Filmmaker Melanie Oates

body bones

The first-time feature film written and directed by Newfoundlander Melanie Oates, Body and Bones, has arrived on iTunes Canada and On Demand. Filmed in Witless Bay and St. John’s, NL, Body & Bones is an emotional coming of age journey that follows Tess (Kelly Van der Burg), a young woman stuck in her small town in the care of her mother’s boyfriend after her mother’s passing. Withdrawn from her life, the one thing that comforts Tess is the music of Danny Sharpe (Joel Thomas Hynes), a local musician who left town twenty years ago.

The film has been screened in several film festivals, including the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, Phoenix Film Festival, Victoria Film Festival, Whistler Film Festival, and Cinefest Sudbury International Film Festival. It was also shown at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival, in which Joel Thomas Hynes won the David Renton Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor.

I had the opportunity to talk to Melanie about the making of the film and her filmmaking career.

Who are some of your cinematic inspirations?

Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, and Sofia Coppola are all big influences of mine. When gearing up to make Body & Bones, Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold was a visual reference for me and my cinematographer, Jordan Kennington. We really admired the way the camera moved in that film and how it allowed the viewer to remain in the lead character’s perspective. I’m in awe of the mastery of Lynne Ramsay’s visual style, the subdued nature of the dialogue and characters, and how she allows subtext to speak volumes. Though her style is quite different from Arnold’s and Ramsay’s, what I love about Sofia Coppola is how she infuses her films with whimsical elements and the way she explores femininity. Those were all things we, humbly, aspired to in making this film.

How did you get your start in filmmaking?

I guess there’s a couple of answers to that question. I first discovered my interest in filmmaking when I decided to take Film Studies as my minor when I was going to MUN. I found studying films as a text, like the way we analyzed novels in English classes, to be very exciting and gave me a better appreciation of film as a real, complex art form. Though I didn’t aspire to make films until a few years later. My first job on a set was in the costume department of the TV series Republic of Doyle. I spent a lot of time watching directors work and watching what goes into getting something made. The experience of being on set gave me an idea, at least, of the process, the skills required, and the confidence to give it a go.

Are there any particular challenges to filming in Newfoundland?

There are some practical challenges, like access to crew, equipment, cast etc. It’s especially difficult if there are multiple shows shooting at once because the people and the gear just won’t be available. But otherwise, it’s more or less the same. If anything, a nice advantage to shooting here is that people are so supportive. If you’re looking for a location, to rent someone’s house, for background actors, people are very enthusiastic to be involved. In some other places I’ve worked there’s not that same kind of community support.

Where did the idea for this film come from?

It’s hard to say where exactly an idea comes from. It starts as a little flicker in your mind and then becomes a bit of a compulsion and it’s not like you’re intellectualizing the why while you’re doing it. That happens after. But I suppose for me, I was reflecting on relationships. Relationships in my youth. Negotiating power dynamics in those relationships. How I compromised myself. How I could lose my head or become obsessive. And there’s this strange drive to share the most shameful parts of myself. I’m not sure why. Maybe to have it validated through people relating or something.

If you could work with anyone in the entertainment industry, who would it be and why?

That’s a tough one. If we’re talking blue sky here, it’d be a dream to work with Pacific Standard, which is the production company of Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea. They’re doing incredible work with projects like Big Little Lies, Gone Girl, Little Fires Everywhere. Having the backing of a company like that would be completely incredible. I’d also love to work with Elisabeth Moss. I imagine collaborating with an actor of her caliber would be such a creative and fulfilling experience.

How is the St. John’s International Film Festival different from other film festivals Body and Bones has been featured in?

The SJIWFF is such a special festival. Every year they bring in the most amazing filmmakers from around the world and put everyone in this intimate environment where you have access to each other in a way that I haven’t seen at other festivals. The panels and workshops are so valuable. I’ve learned so much from their events every year and am grateful for all their support of me and my work. Plus it’s so unpretentious and fun, and they create a warm environment that feels really good and inclusive.

What do you think is your proudest filmmaking moment?

That’s another tough one. A moment that comes to mind is after we premiered that film, we had a little celebration party and throughout the evening I had people come up to me and tell me how much the film meant to them. I was especially moved by a couple of women who told me that through seeing Tess’s experience they were able to reflect on their own youth and see themselves with more compassion. To sort of be able to recognize and articulate experiences they’d had but hadn’t really dealt with. That was so powerful and important to me.

Can we expect any new works in the near future?

Yes! I’m working on two feature film projects that I’m writing and will be directing. Hopefully we’ll be shooting the first of those in 2021. Other than that, I’ve been working on some fiction and have a novel that’s been sitting in my desk for while that I need to give some attention to and hopefully find a home for. This year, with covid, I’ve been lucky to be able to spend time writing but I’m eager to get back to directing.

You can find Body and Bones to buy or rent through iTunes Canada and most On Demand services.

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