SOFIA BANZHAF AND LEAH CAMERON ON THEIR HIGH SCHOOL YEARS AND THE COMMUNIST'S DAUGHTER
Leah Cameron is Toronto-based writer and director who loves writing comedies that help us empathize and laugh with characters who share our own human foibles. Having grown up with a lefty Dad who was continually launching David-and-Goliath-like election campaigns in the conservative neighbourhood he called home, she is drawn to Don Quixote-like characters -- average people with outsized dreams.
The Communist's Daughter, a comedic 8 x 12 minute semi-autobiographical series which Leah created, showran and directed, is currently streaming on CBC Gem. You can watch it here: https://bit.ly/3yhnje2 Produced by Natalie Novak and executive produced by Lauren Corber of LocoMotion Pictures the show is set in Toronto in 1989. John Doyle of the Globe and Mail named the series one of 21 shows to stream in 2021. Leah is a writer and story editor on CBC's Coroner and story edited three seasons of the host-driven web series, Where Cool Came From. She holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles where she received the Stefano Award of Excellence in Screenwriting.
Sofia Banzhaf is a German-Canadian actress and filmmaker and author. As an actress, her roles have included the films Closet Monster (2015), We Forgot to Break Up (2017), Splinters (2018), Black Conflux (2019) and Stage Mother (2020), and, most recently, The Communist's Daughter (2021). In 2020 she was named one of Elle Canada’s Rising Stars. Her short film I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plainpremiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and was included in TIFF's annual year-end Canada's Top Ten. Her novella Pony Castle won the Metatron Prize for Rising Authors and can be found here.
Interview coordinated by Rebeccah Love
Sofia: I’m curious about how you would describe your highschool self! Obviously, The Communist’s Daughter delves into that (Reader: I play a version of Leah at 16) but we can get really specific. What art forms did you gravitate towards in high school? What were your favourite stories (films, books) as a young person?
Leah: The show is an exaggeration of my high school self. Or at least I hope it is! I like to think I didn’t have a huge issue fitting in or making friends. (But you’d have to ask my high school friends about that!) That said, I had a different perspective when it came to politics compared with my friends and teachers and could be VERY opinionated, which was definitely not appreciated in girls at the time. I remember arguing with my English teacher about the illegal blockade of Cuba and that not all revolutions were doomed to fail (look at Hait and the U.S.) when we read Animal Farm. He insisted they were. And because I didn’t grow up with a TV I was definitely like Dunyasha in episode 1 in that I didn’t get ANY pop cultural references. (We had a TV with no cable for a while and the only movies we had on VHS were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Monty Python: Search for the Holy Grail and Strange Brew which to this day are big influences on me.)
Like Dunyasha I was also politically aware. I would go to protests with my family, which wasn’t a very cool thing to do in the 80s and 90s! My dad did run for election three times and he did drive a Lada Niva 4x4 (the car Aaron Poole drives in the show) and I was perpetually embarrassed by his car.
In terms of favourite films and books, Catcher in the Rye really appealed to me. There weren’t a lot of books I read with female protagonists but I identified with Holden Caulfield and his dislike of phonies. Catcher in the Rye actually wasn’t on our high school curriculum because it had been banned in the 50s and never brought back.
In terms of art forms, I was heavily involved in drama in high school and acted in and co-wrote plays with other students at Leaside. We had a great drama teacher who showed us Reservoir Dogs, which I loved. Highway 61 came out when I was in high school and I remember feeling super inspired by it. It was cool to go to a theatre and see a comedy set in Ontario with people who spoke in a way I recognized. My high school also had a great fine arts department, so I painted but haven’t done that since.
What about you? Were you drawn to acting and writing from a young age? I know you write and direct too. And are there aspects of your teenage self you channelled to play Dunyasha? What books and movies influence your work?
Sofia: I also grew up with a TV without cable until I was in my teens! So I grew up watching whatever my older siblings had on VHS like Seven and Lost Highway and they all gave me nightmares and probably impacted my psyche profoundly, ha! When I emigrated to Canada at 14, I was definitely trying really hard to catch up on pop culture and very much relate to that pursuit in Dunyasha. I watched Princess Bride, and the Goonies and all these movies I’d heard of from my Canadian friends really late. I was definitely the odd one out at my high school and like Dunyasha, I didn’t really mind (except for those times I desperately wanted to blend in of course). Livejournal was instrumental in my film education-- through that I discovered Virgin Suicides when I was 15 and from then on I started really caring about movies. I moved to Paris when I was 18 because I loved French New Wave so much and started going to the cinematheque there which totally opened my world and led to me studying film in Montreal.
In high school I loved drama club. I auditioned for Alice in Alice in Wonderland and thought it was “sooo predictable” when they gave it to a blonde girl - I got 5 lines as a frog, but I did really milk that scene.
I’m curious about your aesthetic influences for The Communist’s Daughter? The show has such a strong look, from lensing, blocking, to color grading. It feels like there was a very cohesive comedic vision behind it.
Leah: Sofia! You moved to Paris when you were 18 because you were into the French New Wave? You are so cool! I wish we could have hung out as teens. And I feel you on Virgin Suicides. There was something about that movie that spoke to me and the tone stuck with me after watching it. It was so rare to see a movie like that with central female characters who felt like real people because the movie was directed by a woman.
In terms of aesthetic influences for The Communist’s Daughter, Freaks and Geeks was a big one for the interior of the McDougald home. I just loved the pattern mixing you see in that show and the hand-me-down aesthetic of the costumes and interiors. Plus I even think they made the light a greyish-green on purpose, so it feels like Michigan even though they shot it in L.A. Conor Fisher, my cinematographer and I, also looked at the colour palette and lighting in photos of Soviet bread lines from 1989 and talked about Kieslowski as a reference for the light and saturation inside the McDougald home. I wanted their home to feel more desaturated, boring and Soviet than the outside world. Conor was also the lead colourist on the project so we desaturated the scenes inside the McDougald home in post. For the world outside the McDougald home I wanted colours to pop and feel more saturated, like in an 80s comedy -- to represent this tantalizing world of consumerism Dunyasha isn’t fully a part of. My production designer and I looked at Clueless as an example of a movie where the design team used colourful bristol board in the background of school hallway scenes to add pops of colour. My costume designer and I looked at references from movies like The Breakfast Club and Goonies. Allie Sheedy and Molly Ringwald were both inspirations for Dunyasha’s costumes while Alex P. Keaton was a huge inspiration for how we dressed her brother Boris. But we also looked at actual photos of what real people wore in the 80s for characters like Dunyasha’s father and mother because we wanted there to be humour in the authenticity of how uncool her father and mother look.
In terms of blocking, I’m always trying to get the blocking to telegraph the subtext of a scene as a director.
And on that note Sofia, can you tell me about your character in The Communist's Daughter and what were some of the greatest challenges and rewards during production? Lol. I distinctly remember it raining one day, for example, in that scene where you meet Oleg at night in episode 5!
Sofia: I feel like there were quite a few similarities between me and Dunyasha. Aside from a general “fish out of water” in highschool, I also grew up in a household that didn’t shy away from political arguments. My parents raised my older sister in a commune and going to protests was just part of everyday life. It’s only when I visited friends for dinner that I realized the conversations at my house weren’t “the norm”. I think anytime I feel a core, spiritual connection so easily with a character I get excited, especially when that connection is as specific as it is here. The greatest reward was getting to inhabit her world, really dip my toe into comedy, and work with such a fine group of actors. As for challenges, I’m pretty used to it in the feature world, but not having a lot of time is always number 1. There were scenes where we only had time for one take before having to move on, and of course as an actor you just want to sink your teeth into the scene and play around. On a tight schedule you have to be extra prepared, trust your gut instinct and stay extremely present with your scene partner. All things you do as an actor regardless, but I think I got better at doing that under pressure.
What was it like for you? Was there anything that surprised you during the production?
Leah: Yeah, you really sunk your teeth in! And many of the scenes where we only got one take are among my favourites, so it’s a testament to you and the rest of the team of actors.
Well, in terms of surprises, there were so many. I love how the rain actually became a gift in that scene between you and Oleg in episode 5 -- it just feels extra spy-like with the rain! I love the character moments you and other actors found -- Aaron Poole [who plays Ian] leaning defiantly back in his arm chair at the beginning of episode 5 or him deciding to “go limp” in episode 7 when the Feds show up are among my favourite bits of improv. And Jessica Holmes [who plays Carol] of course who was always making us laugh with unexpected riffs. There are so many hilarious outtakes where she is making Ryan Taerk [Boris] die with laughter. And then there is the human gift who is Neema Nazeri who just made everyone die with laughter -- in the show and on set.
We also lucked out with our school location, which had a lot of preexisting 80s production design that Helen, our production designer could take advantage of. What she and my producers did with tight resources was incredible.
Sofia: Being a creative in Toronto, do you find the city to be conducive to art-making? If not, what could be done to help foster a healthier community for artists?
Leah: I think there is a huge talent pool in this city -- more talent than has the opportunity to express itself. So that’s both exciting and frustrating. And I think the cost of living is also a barrier for a lot of people. I have friends who constantly have to put their acting careers on hold, for example, while they juggle other work and from outside people wonder why their careers aren’t advancing, which feels so unfair!
I think there could also be a bolder attitude among funders and broadcasters in the digital space to be championing projects and artists that have something original to say. I feel like the digital space ideally could be a testing ground for creators who will go on to make ground-breaking TV shows. But the worlds of digital and TV feel very separate to me right now, which has never made sense to me since it’s all content that will likely be streamed.
If we want to MAKE the I May Destroy Yous and the Normal Peoples and Pen15s here in Canada instead of acquiring them, then we need to back those artists -- in terms of giving them opportunities and more creative control. We’re living in a time when auteur-driven TV is what is breaking through the consciousness, from I May Destroy You to Master of None to Insecure to Letterkenney to Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek - audiences are seeking out shows with distinct points of view, so I’d like to see us foster more and more of that.
Sofia: I like to think that funding bodies here are starting to shift a little bit. Maybe not so much in terms of taking risks artistically, but the pool of people getting financed is finally changing and that’s a start. I agree completely that we should be encouraging auteur-driven TV and film and trust artists with creative control far more than we currently do.
The city itself is becoming too cost-prohibitive for a thriving art community I think. It’s honestly the great tragedy of Toronto because I do think there’s a huge amount of talent here, and a lot of genuinely strange and interesting people. But the cost of living is untenable and that makes it extremely difficult to justify taking risks career wise. You just don’t have the same freedom to experiment. I’m watching my friends leave one at a time and it’s devastating but I get it. I think we have maybe 7 more years before Toronto completes its transformation to condo hellscape full of marketing executives and rich kids who inherited their parents’ townhouse. But that being said, I don’t plan to leave anytime soon and I do still have hope. There is still so much potential here, and that excites me. I guess what I’m saying is... if the ship’s going down, I’m gonna go down dancing.