The last year of high school can be a promising time for teenagers, as it signals both the finish of adolescence and the beginning of their new adult life. But the new independent comedy-drama ‘Picture Day,’ which marks the feature film writing and directorial debuts of Kate Melville, realistically showcases what happens when teens must contend with the fact that they’re not as mature as they believed. It’s not until they reflect on their past mistakes, and comprehend the faults of the adults in their lives, that teens can truly mature and accept responsibility for their actions.
‘Picture Day,’ which is now available on DVD and VOD, follows Claire (Tatiana Maslany) as she’s forced to repeat her senior year of high school, and her reputation is sliding from bad-ass to bad joke. Armed with sharp comments and shielded by ever-present headphones, Claire locks onto the only student clueless to her sordid rep-Henry (Spencer Van Wyck), a nerdy freshman she used to babysit. At night, Claire escapes to wild concerts where she catches the eye of 33-year-old Jim (Steven McCarthy), a would-be rock star who feeds on young fans’ adoration. Jim leads her into an intoxicating world of hard-partying musicians, while at school, Claire takes Henry under her wing. She reinvents her friend as the mysterious rebel, throwing Henry’s life into turmoil. As Claire with these relationships, she eventually learns hard lessons about the difference between sex, intimacy, and friendship.
Melville generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing the comedy-drama over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she came up with the initial idea for ‘Picture Day’ as she was writing it as a play as a teenager; how working on the script for over 20 years gave her the freedom to deviate from her own ideas while she was directing on the set, and how she was happy to take suggestions from the cast; and how she wanted to tell a realistic adolescent story about growing up in Toronto, the city she herself has lived for most of her life.
Question (Q): You made your feature film writing debuts with ‘Picture Day.’ Where did your initial idea for the comedy-drama come from, and why did you want to write a coming-of-age teenage story?
Kate Melville (KM): I’ve actually been writing my whole adult life. I started writing scripts when I was a teenager. So making my directorial debut at 38, it was actually the script I knew best. The genesis of the script for ‘Picture Day’ began as a play that I began writing in high school. So it was 20 years in the making. Having written the script so many different ways, I knew how to bend and flex it to meet the production needs.
Secondly, it’s an actor and character-based story. I knew if I could find my Claire, I would be able to make a good film. Then Tatiana Maslany and I started working together, and she really liked the project.
Q: Like you mentioned, Claire and the rest of the film’s characters evolved from a play you initially wrote when you were 17-‘I Hate You On Mondays,’ which was staged in 1995 at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto and 1998 in Vancouver. How did the characters and story evolve as you were writing the film adaptation?
KM: Well, the movie’s called ‘Picture Day,’ and we all have those high school picture day photos that we cringe at, with the Flock of Seagulls hairdo, or the time you had a crimp in your hair. I, as a parallel, have terrible old drafts of ‘Picture Day’ that make me cringe.
But there’s something to be said about working the story over your life. It’s been over 20 years, and now I have different insights into the characters than I did then. The parents of Claire and Henry, in particular, were a later development. As I grew up, I thought about how parents are and grow up. So the challenge was to use whatever small bits of wisdom I’ve gained as an adult, and to also keep the freshness of the teenage voices that I think I was best at writing when I myself was a teenager.
Q: Before writing the script for ‘Picture Day,’ you worked as a writer on several television shows, including ‘Degrassi’ and ‘Being Erica.’ What was the transition process like, going from penning television scripts to writing a movie script?
KM: I’ve been writing for TV here in Canada for about 10 years, maybe 12. There were some things I found really useful, like I wrote for ‘Degrassi’ for many years, for example, and you watch your scripts get up on their feet and get produced over and over. You learn what works and what doesn’t. Working for ‘Degrassi,’ I certainly learned about writing for younger actors, and how important it is to be clear about their intentions. I also learned it’s better to have them do something than say something clever.
But directing was the really big leap. As a writer, I spend a lot of time alone in my house in my pajamas. As a director, you’re on set, making 10 decisions a minute. At times, that was very overwhelming and was a hard transition.
But now that I’ve done it, I totally have the bug and want to do it again. Directing felt like an extension of writing, to a certain extent. To see a script all the way through and it’s manifestation on screen was an exhilarating experience. But you also learn how much input other people have, as well. My cast was really helpful in that respect.
Q: Besides writing ‘Picture Day,’ you also made your directorial debut with the film. What was the overall process of directing the movie like? Do you think that writing the screenplay helped you in your directorial duties, once you began shooting?
KM: I think because I had been writing the script for so long, it kind of helped me not be too precious about it. In fact, as a director, I was quite careless with the script. I always encouraged the cast to bring their own feelings and lines to improvise.
Tatiana Maslany, who’s a really amazing actor, and some people may know now from ‘Orphan Black,’can do anything, and she’s so inventive as a performer. She’s so funny, so I would tell her to say what feels right in the scene. Or we would workshop the scene with the actors, and I would rewrite the scene, according to what they brought.
That was the big transition in directing-realizing how much your actors can bring to the storytelling. Authentic moments are always the most important thing to find. The specific words somehow didn’t matter as much.
Q: Tatiana has said you allowed her and the rest of the cast to improvise and change the script while shooting. Do you think that allowing the actors to improv provided an authenticity to the characters and story?
KM: I think actors can bring so much to a story. The great thing about all three of my lead actors was that I brought them all on board a year before we shot. I was sending them scripts over that year, and we shot sample scenes to get funding for the film. They were really invested in the project for a long time, so I really encouraged them to make it their own, and work together to make something better than I could have made on my own.
The Claire that Tatiana came up with is different than what I initially imagined, but I think so much better. I initially thought of Claire as being girly, but Tatiana brought this Dennis the Menace quality to the character, which I thought was so fun and refreshing. I don’t think I’ve seen a character like Claire in a coming-of-age story before. That’s thanks to Tatiana bringing what she thought Claire could be, and hopefully me being open and willing to let that be a part of the film.
Actors are what you’re watching in a coming-of-age film, so their performance is important. If it doesn’t feel authentic, it’s not going to work. So whatever you do to make it feel real, and make the relationships feel as complex and real as possible, that was the way to go. That was more important than me getting hung up on whether my joke was accepted.
Q: As Claire develops her relationships with both Henry and Jim, she eventually learns lessons about the difference between sex, intimacy and friendship. Did you want to make a realistic coming-of-age story that teens can relate to, as they struggle to find acceptance, both in school and in the world?
KM: Yeah, I think Claire is a complex, not always likeable person. I think she’s trying to find her way, and she doesn’t always make perfect decisions. But I don’t know that teenagers always do. But watching people make mistakes is rewarding and at times, funny. So I tried not to shy away from the awkwardness of certain moments of being a teenager, especially when things don’t go according to plan.
I think we definitely have an audience of people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, who want to look back at high school and laugh and cringe, along with the characters. But when people who are in high school right now tell me they relate to, or like, the film, that’s the ultimate compliment to me.
Q: ‘Picture Day’ features a diverse soundtrack that sets the story’s tone and underscores Claire’s desire to be around music whenever possible. Why was using music such an important aspect in telling Claire’s story?
KM: Well, we tried to root it in Claire the character. She’s a sophisticated music fan, as I think many teenagers are. I think at that age, music can be this great amplification and expression of feelings that are hard to express verbally or understand. But music can take you out of that.
I worked with this amazing music supervisor, Danielle Holke. We got together before we shot, gathering songs. The first test for all of them was, would Claire listen to this? All the music in the film is at some point routed on Claire’s headphones. Then we tried to find music that would fit the mood or scene, and would be a song she would listen to at the time. So the music didn’t really function as a score, but more of a way that Claire escapes her reality, or finds an expression of what she’s feeling.
We were really lucky in that we found some great bands. We have bands from Finland, the U.S., England, France and all over the world. All these great musicians were willing to have their music in our film. It’s been a unique experience to reach out to their fans, and have them find the movie through the soundtrack.
Q: The film features such varied musicians as ElastoCitizens, Humble the Poet, Ashley Park, Buke and Gase, Dressy Bessy, The Dodos and The Carnaby. What was the process of getting the musicians to agree to appear in the film like?
KM: The Jim character in the film is Claire’s much older musician boyfriend. He has this crazy, 10-piece funk punk band, called the ElastoCitizens. That’s actually actor Steven McCarthy’s actual band. So I cast him and his 10-piece band all in one swoop.
Since I wanted the concert scenes to have that live feel, with the raw energy and excitement, we started going to ElastoCitizen shows and shooting the concerts. We also wanted to capture their visually stunning band, including the costumes and the wild stuff they do.
I also connected with Humble the Poet, a hip-hop artist who’s in the film. I said, “We’re going to bring our characters to your show, and film at your show.” That was a wonderful experience. So those were the two bands that appeared live in the movie.
In terms of the soundtrack, we looked at a lot of different music. But often times, we would approach them and send them a clip with a scene from the film, with their music in it. Often times, that was a helping point, and they would say, “I see how well it works.” They understood the connection between the emotion of the character and their music, and how their songs amplified that. It was an exciting time for me, as the Internet has change a lot of things. Musicians are a lot more accessible now than they might have been 15 or 20 years ago.
Q: You shot the movie in Toronto, and it premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. What was your reaction when you heard it was accepted into the festival?
KM: I was over the moon, as it was a really remarkable experience. It started as a small project, and it was born out of myself and Tatiana and Steven and Spencer wanting to tell an authentic story about these three characters. To have the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival was an amazing spotlight to have on such a small and intimate film.
I grew up in downtown Toronto, so I would skip school when I was in high school to go to the festival. To actually go from watching Q&As with directors every year for 15 years, to answering questions as a filmmaker, was the most exciting part for me.
Q: How did audiences at the festival screenings react to the film? Did you receive a generally positive response?
KM: We did. We actually sold out all three of our screenings in two hours. It was a very positive response, and we got big laughs from the audience. They really embraced the story and characters.
There were a lot of people who live in Toronto who were at the screenings. Toronto so often stands in for New York and Chicago in movies, so I think it’s fun for people see Toronto being Toronto. I tried to capture a particular neighborhood that I had grown up in, and things that were specific to my city. Like Toronto’s a real pedestrian city, and teenagers don’t learn how to drive, so they’re walking through back allies. I tried to find things that are specific to the Toronto teenage experience. I think audiences like that.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects, whether writing or directing, lined up that you can discuss?
KM: Since I got the directing bug, I’m working on another feature script about a commune in the 1970’s in Northern Ontario that goes terribly wrong, in a comic, tragic way. I’m writing that script right now, and I’ll direct that as well. I’m really excited about that, as I kind of grew up in a hippie family, so it’s a neat part of my life to look at. Yet it’s slightly before my time, so it kind of feels, so it’s an understanding of my past that I don’t quite remember.
But I’m a working writer, so I’m always working on other people’s shows. I’m also working as a story consultant on other people’s scripts, as well.