Jordan Canning has directed more than a dozen short films, which have played at festivals all over the world, including the Tribeca Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and Interfilm Berlin. Among them, “Countdown” has won a number of awards, including a Golden Sheaf for Best Director; “Not Over Easy” was a finalist in CBC’s Short Film Faceoff and swept all three awards at the NSI Online Film Festival; “Seconds” won the 2012 TIFF RBC Emerging Filmmakers Competition and the Shaw Media Fearless Female Director Award; and “The Tunnel” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Telefilm’s Not Short on Talent program. In 2013, Jordan directed all thirteen episodes of the IPF-supported web series “Space Riders: Division Earth” for CTV.ca. A year later, she completed production on her first feature, “We Were Wolves,” which premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Her second feature, “Suck It Up,” premiered at 2017 Slamdance Film Festival and won the Best Feature Film Award at the 2017 B3 Frankfurt Biennale. Her third feature, an omnibus film called “Ordinary Days,” won the Best Director Award at the 2018 Canadian Film Festival. She has directed on multiple TV series, including hour-long dramas like “Saving Hope,” “The Detail,” “Burden of Truth,” “Nurses” as well as half-hour comedies such as the Emmy-winning “Schitt’s Creek,” “Baroness Von Sketch Show,” “Little Dog” and “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.” For her work on “Baroness Von Sketch Show,” she has won two Canadian Screen Awards and a DGC Award for Directing. She is a 2010 graduate of the Director’s Lab at the Canadian Film Centre and an alumna of the 2011 TIFF Talent Lab.
Tara Karajica talks to Jordan Canning about her latest short film, “4 North A,” co-directed with Howie Shia, that premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, as well as her career so far and her thoughts on film and feminism and what she is working on for when times are better.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Jordan Canning: I grew up around filmmaking. My mom worked as a production designer for many years so, when I was a kid, she would bring me to film sets and I would be around it. I didn’t really have any big ambitions at the time to become a filmmaker, but I was always aware of it as a viable career. I knew a lot of people who worked in the film industry, so it seemed like an accessible industry. After University, I moved home to St John’s, Newfoundland, and worked a few jobs, thinking: “OK, maybe I’ll go back to school and do Journalism or Media or something like that” and I started working at a film production company. First, I was doing some writing for them and then, I started on this spooky ghost reenactment type show. I started doing some of the on-camera interviews, and eventually directed some of these reenactments, which was very fun.
And, simultaneously with that, I made my first short film. I adapted a short story that I had written in University into a ten-minute script and I was able to make it through the Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Cooperative, which is a great organization in St John’s that’s extremely supportive of filmmakers and has this great program, where anybody can walk in there with a shootable script and they will pair you up with a mentor and get a volunteer crew to take you from start to finish of making your first short film. I made a short film in 2005 called Pillowtalk. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but loved every second of it and just had this sense for the first time ever really of: “This is what it feels like when you realize what you want to do with the rest of your life, dedicate all your time and energy to.” And that was kind of it!
After that, I just started focusing on making more work and figuring out how to do that, how to get better. I didn’t go to film school, so there was a lot I needed to learn. I tried to just learn by doing. I made a lot of short films. I worked on other people’s films and TV shows and eventually got a fairly regular job as a script supervisor on larger productions. So, I got to soak up a lot of experience by being on bigger sets, learning from other directors and getting to be around actors and D.o.Ps and just seeing the whole process. I did that for years. I would work a job, then I would take time off and make a short film. Eventually, I applied to go to the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto to do the Directing Lab. It’s like a mini intensive film school. And that’s what brought me to Toronto. That was about ten years ago now and since then, I just kept doing what I was doing, but on a larger scale. After the Canadian Film Centre, I made some more short films and a web series and I wrote some features. None of those got made, but then I wrote another feature with my friend Steven Cochrane and that one we were able to make. I’ve always laid out a set of aspirations and then inched my way towards them and done what seemed to be needed in order to achieve those things. Of course, things never happen on the timeline you think they will or as quickly as you would like them to, but I’ve enjoyed every project I’ve ever made and have certainly learned from all of them.
Was directing always part of your wanting to work in film? Have you ever thought of production design because of your mom, for instance, or some other field?
J.C.: I just think it’s part of my personality really that I gravitated towards directing. I wanted to oversee everything. I wanted to be the captain of the ship and have this great team and get to build your crew and work with all of these people, but ultimately, be the one guiding the vision. I worked as a script supervisor and I did a couple of other crew jobs. They were always jobs that were sort of solo jobs like Continuity – you’re just a department of one. I never worked in the Art Department, although I think I would have loved working in the Art Department. So, when it comes to work, I’m a little bit of a loner in that regard, but a loner who loves people. Directing was always right from the get-go what I wanted to focus on.
You say you are a loner, but you co-directed the short film 4 North A that is screening at TIFF. How did it come about? What about the choice of the title?
J.C.: Well, 4 North A has been in the works for a long time. It initially grew out of stories that my mom would tell me about growing up, spending her summers on Amherst Island. And, there was this recurring theme of animals and death that I always found interesting. There’s particularly one story about a snake that always really stuck with me, so I jotted these things down and had a folder on my computer and set them aside. And then, many years later, my boyfriend at the time was going through cancer and we spent a lot of time in hospitals. I had never really spent any time in hospitals before that. Something about the environment, the sounds there, and how alone you can feel even surrounded by people really had an effect on me. And so, I started thinking about what if my mom, who had been there when her father had passed away years ago, and I could have sort of crossed paths in the same hospital when we were both going through these very difficult lonely times, and could have offered each other a little bit of comfort in that moment.
All of these things were percolating in my mind, but I didn’t really know what to do with them. The stories about animals and the parent-child relationship never really felt like it could be a live action film, which is normally what I work in. It felt like it would be very saccharin or maybe too corny. The way to illustrate it never felt like it would work. But then, years later, I was working with Annette Clark from the National Film Board of Canada and who is the producer of 4 North A. She had asked me to make some notes on a script that another live action writer had written and had teamed up with an animator to make into a short animation. I didn’t know that that was something that the National Film Board of Canada did. I thought: “The NFB is so great, but they just work with animators. And, I’m not an animator, so too bad for me.” But they were really quite supportive of this partnership of this writer who had an idea and wanted to make an animation, but didn’t know how and so they teamed up with a great animator and made this beautiful short. When I became aware of that, 4 North A sort of took shape. I talked to Annette about it and said: “Look, I have these ideas that I’d like to put together. What do you think?” And, she said: “Yes, go write a script and let’s see.” So, I sat down and it all came out pretty quickly. It changed once we started making it but, the first draft of the script, I would say 80% of it is what ended up being in the film, even five years after writing it. I wrote the script and then, we went about the process of trying to find an animator who would be the right fit and who the material would resonate with. We watched a lot of reels and shorts and I was trying to conceptualize: “What am I even picturing anyway? What kind of animation am I imagining for this?” And, another producer at the NFB, John Montes, sent along a list of names and Howie Shia’s name was right at the top with big stars next to it saying: “I think Howie might be a great fit. He’s an amazing person and he’s also a beautiful artist and creator.” And so, we reached out to Howie and sent him the script and it came at him at the right time because it resonated with him. He had the time and inclination to come on board with a person he never met – in fact, we didn’t meet for a long time in person because I was in Newfoundland and he was in Toronto. And so, we just started talking and sending images and he started doing sketches of the characters. We embarked on this really lovely slow – but slow in the right way – collaboration, where there was never pressure to get to some sort of timeline because we were both in weird personal places in our lives. Sometimes, I had to go disappear for a few months, sometimes he did. And so, it just percolated over the years and we would come back to it. We would have the animatic and we’d come back to it and say: “Oh my God! We don’t need this entire thing! Lose it,” or: “tweak this.” And, we would always be able to have fresh eyes on it. I think it’s a benefit and a privilege for any project to be able to have the time that it needs to make it. You don’t usually get that, certainly not on a live action movie, where you’re like: “Well, I have two days to shoot it” and then, we’re stuck with whatever we got. For this, we were really lucky to take the time it needed. And so, we worked on it and worked on it and then, I guess last year, we finished the picture, and then brought on the amazing Sacha Ratcliffe who did our sound and music, who’s just a super genius. After watching something so many times with a little bit of temp sound and some temp music, she got her hands on it and just really opened it up to this whole other level that I had hoped for, but didn’t know we’d ever get to. So, it was a small, mighty team and we worked for many years. And now, it’s out in the world, which is very exciting.
Loss is a central theme in your films. Can you talk about that?
J.C.: It is something that I am drawn to. I have always been drawn to stories and themes about grief, loss and memory and those are certainly I would say the main themes of 4 North A. But there’s just something that I keep going back to. I just think it’s something that connects us all. Nobody is going to go through life without losing something and someone. And, it’s a very humbling experience to reckon with. The takeaway I hope that people get is this sort of beautiful simplicity and strength that can be drawn from just a little bit of human connection. I think this moment in History is really highlighting that, when we’ve all been so separated and isolated from the people who would normally bring us comfort and you’ve got to take those moments of connection where you can get them, whether it’s over Zoom or the phone or in passing by a stranger on the street with a little smile. I think we’re all very starved for it right now and there are times in our lives, even when there’s not a pandemic keeping us apart, where we feel so alone. And, that moment at the end of the film is hopefully going to give some sense of comfort when people are watching it: you can connect with anyone. You aren’t alone and even a stranger can bring us some comfort. And, I’m going to steal this from Howie because it’s something that he has said in a few interviews we’ve done that I think is very true and resonates. In this moment, we should all be so lucky to be able to be at the bedside of a loved one as they’re passing on, to be able to spend those final moments in proximity to the people we love and to be together in that very difficult time. That’s a blessing that we should be so grateful for as hard and as painful as it will be. It’s a part of life and an experience that not everybody, certainly in the last year, has gotten to have. It’s also about embracing the messiness of death and how unresolved it is. There’s no tidy loss. You never really get to have that one conversation you imagine having, where you really see each other and it’s like: “Wow! We’ve said everything we’ve said and now you can go on and we can both be at peace.” Those just happen in the movies, not in real life. There’s always something left unsaid, undone or unseen, but that’s just part of it.
Let’s move on to brighter things!
You’ve written and directed very different genres and have worked both in film and TV. What is the difference between directing your own material and someone else’s scripts? What do you prefer?
J.C.: It’s funny. Despite all this talk about loss and grief, generally, what I write and direct is comedic. I mostly work in comedy and love to work in comedy. When I’m asked which I like better, which I’d rather be doing, the honest answer is I love doing both. I love doing comedy. I love doing drama. I obviously can do some very sad stuff just as much as I love doing a very broad sketch. So, I hope to be able to continue to have all these different places to draw from in my career. I don’t really want to just do one thing. But in terms of the difference between directing your own work or doing a TV show or doing a feature, the older I get, the more I’m trying to find the good and fun in every experience I have. I’ve mostly been doing TV for the last four years because once I got in there, it’s been fairly frequent work, which is amazing, but obviously when you have paid work, it usually takes time away from doing your passion projects that you’ve been working on forever and no one pays you to do. And, a couple years ago, I’d be like: “Oh God, I haven’t made a feature in years. Am I just a TV director now and what does that mean? Do I even have anything to say anymore?” You can get kind of worked up in this idea of: “What is my purpose and am I doing enough? Am I doing it right?” And, it’s such a fruitless train of thought because I am very fortunate to have the career I have and to be able to be doing something that I really truly love and to have people actually pay me to it. So, I’m trying to let go of some of those expectations that I put on myself that are like: “Well, if you don’t do a feature, then you’re not really a filmmaker anymore. You’re just a hired gun in TV.” And, the truth is, you use the same tools to direct a TV show as you do a feature as you do a comedy as you do a drama and anything else. And so, I just try to look at it as like: “What am I learning from this one? What am I strengthening on this project? Who are the great people I get to meet when I do this episode or who’s the amazing D.o.P. I get to work with? Maybe when I do my next little short in two years, they’ll want to come on board.” I’m just trying to enjoy the ride and not judge too heavily what a project is or what it means and just try to choose projects that will be fun to do and fulfilling and challenging. And, if and when I get to make my next feature, I will be very happy to do that. I still very much want to make films, but I also recognize that it’s getting harder and harder to make features. In the interim, I’m going to keep doing TV and making some shorts when I can and maybe get to team up with an amazing animator like Howie and make another animated short film for five years…
I cannot not talk about Schitt’s Creek and Baroness Von Sketch. These are big and very popular titles right now and really great TV shows. Can you talk about working on them?
J.C.: Like I said, I love working in comedy and so much of working in comedy is getting to work with amazing comedians. When you think about Schitt’s Creek, you’re like: “Okay, well, I’m working with truly some of the greatest comedians who’ve ever walked the face of the Earth.” And, it’s a pleasure to go in to work everyday, to see what they’re going to do and to just get a little bit of that sparkle from them because Catherine [O’Hara] and Eugene [Levy], in particular, are so brilliant, so funny and so smart and they care so much about the material. They’re always trying to find ways to make it funnier and there are no big egos; they’re just like: “How do we make this as good as it can be?” I feel very fortunate to be in the room with them and to be part of that and to help as much as I could to elevate their vision and make that show. I mean, the show is so fun and I’m so happy that it’s found such a great, diehard audience. And then, Baroness… I love those women! They’re geniuses and I’m so happy I got to work on that show for two seasons and showcase the brilliant talent in the city of Toronto. What’s so great about Baroness is that those four queens, the four baronesses, are amazing and then, you have this sort of endless well of secondary characters to draw from in the Toronto comedy scene. It felt like this great ensemble that we were all a part of. The show was wild to shoot. It was always an ambitious schedule. Sometimes, we were doing seven sketches a day, so it was also a really fun challenge just logistically to be like: “Okay, how do we make this puzzle work and how do we schedule these seven scenes around this one block of Toronto so that we can actually make our day so we can just run next door and do a coffee shop and then run outside and do a scene in the alleyway?” It was a very fun production puzzle as well as just being such a great show to work on. I love both those shows. I do love working in comedy. I just did a pilot in Vancouver at the beginning of the year. We got ten days into it and then, Covid shut it down and then, four months later, we finished it. It’s an hour-long dramedy; it’s a lawyer show, but very funny, very grounded in character and that always is kind of my sweet spot, I think. My film, Suck it Up, is kind of like that; it’s a drama, it’s got emotion, but it’s always got a kind of levity to it as well. That has always been a great combo, I think, for me to work in.
What would be the dream project for you?
J.C.: Something I’d really like to do is my own TV show. I’m developing a project right now, but I’d like to come on board a TV show early on. I really loved doing the pilot for Family Law. The scripts were so great, the cast, the crew, everything was a dream. That really got me excited about the idea of coming on to a show when it’s still in development and having a creative influence on it early on. And then, of course, I’d love to be working on increasingly ambitious and broad-reaching shows. Almost any show on HBO, I would be very happy to direct an episode of. Hire me! But my definition of success is just having people I respect wanting to work with me. So, that’s all I’m aiming for, just continuing to put my best foot forward whenever I do a job because you never know the friendships and the relationships that will be forged.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
J.C.: Am I a feminist?! My God, yes! Of course, I’m a feminist! I would be terrified if anyone said no to that question. How does it inform my filmmaking? I mean it informs every moment of my life. So, I don’t know if I ever think of approaching something through only that lens because it is just ingrained in my point of view and my experiences and how I see the world and how I hope to portray characters on screen. Certainly, in terms of how I run my sets and the people I hire and the people I want to work with, it factors into that. We’ve been quite fortunate in Canada over the last few years, more and more women have been being hired to direct. There’s still a lot of work to be done, especially with department heads, particularly the camera department is still quite lacking in female representation. But, that to me is at the forefront: gender, diversity, equity on a crew and I think it’s something we all have to be putting our foot down about right now whether it’s a crew, whether it’s a panel, whether it’s on screen or behind the camera – this isn’t the sort of line I’m not willing to cross.
Is there any female showrunner you would absolutely love to work with? And, do you have a favorite female filmmaker?
J.C.: Yes, I have lots of them. Right off the top of my head, the show that I would die to work on and is run by two brilliant women who are also in it, is PEN15. I love that show. That would be a dream to work on. I think the person that stands out in terms of filmmaking right now or just came to my mind first is Lynn Shelton, who passed away this year. She was someone that I always imagined I was going to get to meet. She was someone I always had on a list where I was just like: “Find out a way to shadow her or have a coffee with her” and it was just always this idea of like: “Someday, I’m going to sit down with her and learn from her.” That was such a big loss. I saw her once on the street at TIFF and sort of had a three-second fantasy in my head of going and talking to her and I never did. I love her films and I love the work that she’s done in TV. Her career is my idea of a perfect career, getting to work on awesome shows and then making your films in conjunction with a very successful TV career.
Times are uncertain now, but are you working on something for when they are better?
J.C.: I am developing a TV show in Newfoundland, where I’m from. I’ve also got a couple of features. I’m about to start working on a great new show next month, run by some amazing female talent. Tassie Cameron and Sherry White are the creators and showrunners and Amy Cameron is the producer. I’ve worked with them before on another show and they’re a dream triangle and I’m very excited to work on that show with them again. Meredith [MacNeill] from Baroness is in it as well and Adrienne Moore from Orange is the New Black. So, I think that’s going to be a very fun show. I can’t wait!
This interview was conducted during the 2020 (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival.