LEAH JOHNSTON (WRITER/DIRECTOR) is an award-winning Nova Scotian filmmaker whose short films have played at over fifty film festivals worldwide. She is the recipient of the Corus Fearless Female Filmmaker Award and the $35,000 Bravofact/WIFT Pitch Prize. Her most recent film, INGRID AND THE BLACK HOLE, premiered at Cannes Not Short on Talent and Fantasia Film Festival, winning Best Canadian Short at Edmonton International Film Festival and qualifying for the 2018 Academy Awards. Leah was one of six directors across Canada selected by the Academy of Canadian Cinema to participate in their inaugural Female Directing Mentorship program. She recently had the opportunity to direct several scenes on the television series MARY KILLS PEOPLE. Leah is currently preparing to go to camera on her fifth short film, MHARA’S SKIN (Financed by Canada Arts Council) and is in development on her first feature, CREATURE HE. She is a graduate of New York University, National Screen Institute and the Reykjavik Talent Lab.
What does your writing process look like?
There’s nothing particularly interesting or unusual about my creative process. When I decide it’s time to come up with a new film, I try to force myself to spend a day or two doing nothing else but brainstorming and following my curiosities. This usually looks like me sitting alone in my room with a notebook and staring out the window. Or searching the internet for books or articles related to subjects that pique my interest.
It’s really one of the most challenging things you can do. To sit alone with your thoughts and fears and allow yourself to come up with a bunch of shitty ideas (or none at all). It’s scary and ungrounding to allow yourself to be in that vulnerable space of not knowing what you want to make…but incredibly necessary if you want to be an artist, I think.
After a while, whether it’s a few hours or a few weeks, you eventually stumble upon something that’s interesting.
That’s what happened with my most recent film, MOTHER’S SKIN. I was inspired by a really amazing film I saw called BORDER which is a drama about a peculiar-looking woman with special talents who discovers, over the course of the movie, that she is a troll. I wanted to come up with a short film in a similar vein that was a drama mixed with mythology. So I spent a few days researching local myths. I bought a couple of books about Newfoundland witches and mermaids and eventually stumbled across the myth of the Selkie and the idea for the film was born.
Once I have the basic concept, I just force myself to keep returning to the daily task of thinking about the idea, jotting down snippets of dialogue and images I see. Eventually I get to the point where I’m approaching some kind of arc and I can start outlining. From there, I usually jump right into writing a draft of the script, starting at the beginning and going right through to the end. Generally writing 2 to 5 pages a day.
What has been your favourite project to date?
I love all my babies. SOME THINGS WON’T SLEEP holds a special place in my heart because it was the first film I shot with a professional crew. I enjoyed the process of making that film given I had a lot of lead time to prepare and really find the right locations and actors. If given a choice, I always prefer working like this, really taking my time rather than rushing to pull everything together quickly, which is how films are typically made these days.
I’m working on a new short film right now called MOTHER’S SKIN and due to issues around COVID-19, the shoot was pushed from this Fall to early next Summer. I’m actually really happy about it because it gives me and my producer so much time to plan and enjoy the process of making the movie. There’s such a pleasure in creating a film slowly and methodically. Then when it’s all over, you can look at the film and know that, no matter how it’s received, you really did your best work.
What was your favourite part of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television Directing Mentorship?
When I did the ACCT Directing Mentorship program it was in its inaugural year. I thought it was a great program in that it got us up on our feet shadowing established television directors on their shows. I felt really fortunate to have shadowed David Wellington who insisted I get up and physically direct some scenes on his episodes. Not many directors will let their shadows do that. We had to get special permission from the broadcasters and producers to do it, so I really feel blessed that he had that faith in me and pushed to give me that opportunity. That was certainly a highlight of the program for me.
Do you have any recommendations for someone who hopes to apply for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television Directing Mentorship program?
In terms of applying to this program, I don’t think it’s really about the application you make specifically, but rather the body of work you’ve built up in the years prior to applying. So I wish I could give some quick tips on how people could strengthen their application, but my sense is that they adjudicate based on your previous film work and how poised you are for their training at the time of applying. As with any application, I think it’s just a matter of pushing forward with your own work and continuing to apply to things, with the hope that, at some point, someone notices and throws you a bone.
What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
Practice your craft. Seek honest, critical feedback from filmmakers who are more experienced than you. And read lots of scripts! Many of the great ones are available online for download. You can learn so much from reading other screenwriter’s work.
Oh! And read John Yorke’s master work, ‘Into the Woods’. Best book on screenwriting I’ve found over the years!
What is something that has surprised you about the industry?
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how much one’s success in this industry relies on relationships. People always talk about hard work, and that’s a given, but I think what I’ve often neglected to consider is how the connections you forge along the way play a pivotal role in your success. And those connections aren’t always the obvious ones–the big wigs in the industry who are “movers and shakers”. The people you meet early on in your career who are just starting out like you can end up being your most important collaborators down the road. As I get older, I realize more and more that building great relationships that can sustain the long-haul is just as important as working on your craft.
Are there any books, podcasts, or vlogs that you would recommend to someone hoping to break into the industry?
For anyone starting out in the industry in Nova Scotia, I would recommend they join AFCOOP and get involved in as many workshops and activities as they can there. That organization has played such a pivotal role in the development of so many local filmmakers’ careers. It’s really an amazing place to get started.
Interviewed by Hope Latta
The Canadian Writers’ Exhibition
Showcasing Canadian writers from coast to coast