TALENT ON THE RISE: JILLIAN ACREMAN TALKS QUEEN OF THE ANDES
Jillian Acreman has directed six short films and produced a seventh, Pop (dir. Ryan O’Toole) which was selected by Telefilm Canada for the “Not Short on Talent” showcase at the Cannes Film Festival. Her short films Broke, The Editor, The Art of Decay, and North have previously been licensed to CBC for broadcast. Acreman’s short Marigolds premiered at the 15th Annual Silver Wave Film Festival, where it was awarded both Best NB Short Film, and the Viewer’s Choice Award. Most recently Acreman directed her first feature film Queen of the Andes through the Telefilm Talent to Watch program, and with the support of the Province of New Brunswick. The film was awarded Best Canadian First Feature at the 2021 Victoria Film Festival, and is currently on the festival circuit. Acreman has studied under Judith Weston in Los Angeles and Toronto, and is also a 2017 Reykjavik International Film Festival Talent Lab alumni.
What were some of the first creative activities you remember engaging with as a kid? What artforms were you drawn to at that point in your life?
As a kid I was really drawn to acting, but I was always too inhibited to really experience the joy of it. When I was about 13 I started writing spec scripts for the X Files (in word!) which is the cute way I launched into the world of writing.
How did you engage with art as a teenager? Did you receive specific training in any discipline?
I just watched everything I could get my hands on. As a family we went to the theatre a few times a week, and I rented movies. I was a big disc-2 kid. I watched every commentary to every movie I rented, and then often rewatched the movie. I've definitely done lots of professional development and training over the years, but I learned by doing, and I think that's the most valuable way to understand how to work intuitively.
What first drew you to filmmaking? What were some of your favourite films as a young person?
I would love to say we were raised on high-brow cinema, or that I was inspired to makes movies after seeing The Third Man, but Home Alone and The Sandlot were my first big influences. I discovered the art of cinema through Scorsese, writing through Billy Wilder and the Coens, and directing through Paul Thomas Anderson. In recent years I've learned the most from Edgar Wright.
What did you choose to do with your life after graduating from high school?
After high school I went straight to university and got an undergrad. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I didn't know filmmakers existed outside of Hollywood. In school I made a few friends who invited me to work on a short film they were producing and I was pumped. That's when I started to realize that there were film communities everywhere and this was a possibility.
You recently wrote and directed a feature length film, Queen of the Andes. Can you tell me about how you got started on this process?
Queen of the Andes was originally a short film that I couldn't get funded. I didn't want the story to die, so I decided to apply to the FIN Atlantic Film Festival's Script Development Program and try to adapt it into a feature.
What was the greatest challenge and greatest reward of working on Queen of the Andes?
My biggest challenge was figuring out how to scale up from shorts to features. I understood the logistics and realities of making short films, but I wanted to be able to shoot for four weeks and have the last day feel as well paced and organized as the first.
The greatest reward is being able to talk about it with audiences.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the story universe you've developed while making this film? What themes are you interested in exploring in this story? What central imagery or idea lies at the core of the film?
The world in Queen of the Andes is set in the near-future, and is familiar but changed. The world is also very contained. We are with Pillar, and in her perspective for all but one shot in the film, so the outside world is hinted at or implied, but never explored. It's a backdrop. This works for me on so many levels from story to budget. I love sci-fi but I don't have the skills or confidence (yet) to create a "space movie", so instead I created a character drama with a gentle sci-fi vibe.
When I talk about how to scale up, the most useful strategy I learned was to allow the theme - in this case isolation - to inform all creative decisions. My films are really planned out, but sometimes you get to the location and something has changed on the day so you have to adapt how you shoot. By always defaulting to the theme of isolation, I could ensure that changing something on the fly wouldn't prevent it from feeling cohesive with the rest of the film. The shot might look different than planned, but if I use the camera to isolate Pillar from what she loves, it will still work.
The idea I wanted to explore with this movie is "can you get exactly what you want, and still be unhappy?". Pillar wants her final memories with loved ones to feel authentic and happy, but of course as the story progresses she begins to lose her own authenticity because she knows something that no one else in the room does. There are moments of people learning that she's been drafted in which they express anger or disappointment, knowing they may never see her again. It's authentic, but it doesn't make her happy.
What advice would you give to a person trying to embark on their first feature?
Figure out what your weaknesses are and then hire a producer with those strengths.
How would you describe your arts community in New Brunswick? How would you describe the filmmaking community to which you belong?
New Brunswick is Canada's best kept secret. We have a rich arts community that interacts and supports one another. This movie is a love letter back to NB in so many ways. Nearly everyone in the film, and all the crew are from here. All of our music is NB. All the art that decorates our sets are by NB artists. If someone is drinking from a mug or snuggling a blanket, those were crafted by NB artisans. A entire community contributed to the making of this movie, and the gratitude and sense of belonging run deep.
What are some of your favourite non-film artworks?
The installation "Portrait of Ross in LA" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
Why is film important?
It captures and preserves our cultural timeline like no other medium. It's so collaborative, so multi-functional, and just so enjoyable. I don't think it's more or less valuable than books or art or music, but it's an experience like no other, and I'll never get tired of seeing a great film for the first time. (Or the 50th)
What are you looking forward to?
Hopefully being able to watch Queen of the Andes with a live audience one day!"