By Jim Slotek
Porcupine Lake is about Bea, a city girl (Charlotte Salisbury) who enters into an intense summer friendship with Kate, a harder-edged local girl (Lucinda Armstrong Hall) in Port Severn, Ontario. It’s Veninger’s first time filming a movie with someone else’s kids.
It’s also the first film to be wrapped under the auspices of the pUNK Femmes Lab, a writing collective Veninger started with an initial pledge from actress Melissa Leo. (Leo had input on the script and is listed in the credits as “Foremother.”)
Original Cin talked with Veninger about the intensity of female friendships and how it coalesced into Porcupine Lake, which screens at TIFF Sunday (Sept. 10, 7:30 pm) at ScotiaBank 4, Thursday (Sept. 14, 7:30 pm) at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Friday (September 15, 8:45 pm) at ScotiaBank 9.
ORIGINAL-CIN: I would say your coming-of-age movies are your best ones. What is it about those years that strike such a chord with you?
VENINGER: “The early teens are definitely a sweet spot. I can access that time in my life really easily. That was when I felt really big emotions for the first time. And they were completely overwhelming. My first dog died when I was 13, got hit by a car. Then my dad got me another dog and that one ran away. And that was between 11 and 13 and I remember going to the Humane Society every single day after school for 18 months hoping I would find that dog that ran away.
“The big things that happened first. My dog dying. Making my first best friend at camp. Having to leave that best friend. Being freaked out by my first kiss. All those big things happened in that window. So, when I move into writing a fiction, I can access that feeling and the characters are secondary. I have a feeling first, and I put those characters into circumstances that can generate those feelings.”
OC: I like how tough the kids in Port Severn were. People think small towns are nicer, but in my experience, you find a lot more kids getting into trouble than in the city.
VENINGER: “The summers I spent out there, I was alone a lot because my parents were working. And they were some of the most boring times I could imagine. So, what are you going to do when you’re bored? You’ve got to create some excitement.”
OC: You didn’t really get into the heavy drugs and sex territory, but kind of acknowledged that was part of life with the older kids.
VENINGER: “In Porcupine Lake I’m hitting the years before that happens, but it’s right there, just a few years away. The young characters are looking to the older kids as models in a way. I had some really strong relationships at the time. But I was also friends with a lot of older girls. So, I experienced that dynamic of being educated by someone a lot more experienced about how to kiss, and how to do this and that, personal female things.
“The starting place in the movie is one girl is more experienced than another. She has older siblings. Her world is a little more unsupervised. And she’s looking for a pupil. So, when Bea comes along, that dynamic is both dangerous and exciting. It’s specific to girls that involves vulnerability and manipulation.
“I think in the case of these girls in Porcupine Lake, I was interested in telling a love story. It goes beyond exploration and experimenting. They’re affecting the course of their lives in ways they can’t imagine yet.”
OC: Interesting that you cast one young professional actress and one non-professional.
VENINGER: “The actress who played Bea had done school productions but never acted in a film before. The one who plays Kate had done television work in Melbourne, Australia and is Australian. But her mother is Canadian and was my childhood best friend when I was 12.”
OC: Wow. Everybody is connected.
VENINGER: “It’s funny. Anais (Veninger’s friend Anais Granofsky, the former Degrassi kid), her boy Walker plays Kate’s young brother. Anais and I, we stick together.”
OC: And how did the two leads’ different styles manifest?
VENINGER: “They have very different methods. Lucinda has had to be a little method. The entire shoot, she never lost her Canadian accent. No one ever knew she was Australian. Whereas Charlotte is more naturalistic. She’s a little closer to the Bea character, so she could just kind of be herself and move between herself and the character and the scripted dialogue. Together they’re incredible listeners. This is probably the most scripted film I ever made. I didn’t deviate. I wrote it over a span of two years and then I had to find these actors.”
OC: And Melissa Leo continued to play a role in the Femmes Lab.
VENINGER: “The exercise was six of us had to write a full feature-length script, and Melissa Leo had a look at my script and said, very encouragingly, that she felt this was a story every woman carries inside her. And I was like, ‘OK then. I know I’m making something for women at least. Melissa Leo says so. Let’s keep going.’
“And then I went to another writer’s retreat, Hedgebrook (a rural retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, Washington) and was mentored by two incredible women, Jane Anderson who just won an Emmy for Olive Kitteridge (the 2014 miniseries) and Jenny Bicks the showrunner for Sex and the City. And they just said, ‘We want to see this movie. You’ve got to make it.’”
OC: And this is the first time you’ve worked with other people’s kids.
VENINGER: “This is the first time I’ve taken that responsibility on. Partly because I worked with my kids, Charlotte’s mother was like, ‘OK, we’ll let our daughter, who’s never done anything, never kissed anyone in her life, be in this film.’ And she’s kissing a girl for the first kiss in her life. And they’re just trusting that this is going to be a real worthwhile experience.
“For that reason, I was kind of scared to make this movie. It could be a great thing for them or a tough thing for them. All I can guarantee is this is going to be a good ride and then I can’t guarantee anything else for the rest of their lives.”
Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.