“Never Steady, Never Still”Kathleen Hepburn
is a Vancouver born writer and director. “Never Steady, Never Still” is an expansion on a short with the same name, which was selected as one of Tiff’s Canada’s Top Ten. She has been awarded Leo’s for Best Dramatic Short and Best Direction in 2016, and Most Promising Canadian Director at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.
In 2012, along with Tyler Hagan
, she co-founded Experimental Forest Films, an independent production company based in Vancouver, BC.
“Never Steady, Never Still” will premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
Kh: “Never Steady, Never Still” is a film that explores the gap between what we need from each other and what we’re able to give. It tells the the story of a woman struggling through the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease, and her teenage son, a reluctant oil field worker who is faced with the daunting task of having to fill the shoes of his father, the caregiver, at the tender age of eighteen.
As they try to navigate their separate lives, both are hampered by the debilitating fear of not being enough for one another.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Kh: I couldn’t escape this story because it is one that has permeated my life. My mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 24 years ago, when I was only nine, so the disease has been an ever-present reality in my world for almost as long as I can remember.
I think I was first drawn to tell it because I wanted to know what my mother felt. I wanted to feel it myself, and I thought that I could, by writing about it, get a better sense of that. But in the end I think the film became much more selfish — it became more about the son’s struggle between needing a mother to hold him up, and not being a good enough caregiver for her.
So the emotional struggle of the son was very personal to me, but the literal character of the son was inspired by a poet I admire named Mathew Henderson, who worked in the oil and gas industry at a young age and wrote a wonderful book about his time there entitled “The Lease.”
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
Kh: I want people to think about their own families and their mothers and their children and what they wish they could say to them. It’s such a beautiful and heartbreaking relationship — I think the most heartbreak we’ll ever experience is with our own children.
But I want them to recognize the strength in the mothers in this film and to appreciate that there is so much love and tenderness in the world, despite all the hardship.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Kh: The biggest challenge in making the film was writing the script to begin with, and facing the rejection when trying to get it made. It’s a very personal film, so the writing of it was a slow and arduous process. It took about five years from first draft to securing our funding, and it’s my first feature, so I hadn’t built up the armor yet for all that.
After that, the logistics of shooting were extremely challenging. We shot over two seasons in the very remote northern towns of Fort St. James and Fort St. John, BC, where we had, for the most part, no running water or cell phone reception in the dead of winter. So, as you can imagine, the winter shoot was incredibly taxing. The spring shoot was practically a vacation.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
Kh: The very first funder to come on the film, and the one that really championed the film throughout, was the Women in the Director’s Chair (Widc) award, which is an in-kind award sponsorship worth about $120,000 (Cad). We also were lucky enough to be able to find funding through our arts council to produce a short film of the same name, which went on to premiere at Tiff and play in the Canada’s Top Ten circuit, so that garnered us some momentum.
After that we brought the project to our government funding body Telefilm, and an equity investment fund, The Harold Greenberg
Fund, and once we had Shirley Henderson
on board, managed to secure our Canadian and UK distributor, Thunderbird Releasing (formally Soda Pictures
). So we went a very traditional Canadian route with this film.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at the Toronto International Film Festival?
Kh: It’s huge for us to have the film premiere at Tiff. As a festival, Tiff is so incredibly supportive of its talent and really does a tremendous job of helping us to build a presence, particularly in the Canadian film community, which is vital to getting the next film made and the one after that.
It’s such a terrifying experience to make a film, put it out into the world, and not know how people are going to react to it, but having the support of Tiff is an incredible relief because you know people are going to be there — they’re going to watch it and give you the benefit of the doubt — which is a relief since the biggest fear is having the film disappear into the ether with no one to watch it.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Kh: When Shirley Henderson
said yes to starring in this film, I was stunned. She’s worked with many of my biggest heroes: Mike Leigh
, Ken Loach
, Kelly Reichardt
, and here I’ve done nothing and I’m asking her to fly 17 hours out to the middle of nowhere to work for a paltry wage.
I never expected her to actually go for it, so when she got there and we sat down for the first time I asked her, “Why on earth did you say yes?” And she said to me, in her charming Scottish accent, “Well, I quite liked the script and I liked you, and I thought the worst that could happen is that it’s rubbish.” And that just took about a hundred pounds of pressure off of me, because what she was saying was, I’ve done this a million times before and I’m here now to work with you, and we’ll try our best and see what happens.
You can’t be afraid to take risks, because if you aren’t striving for something beyond your comfort zone, then what’s the point, but you also have to relax and realize the process is the reward, and then you have to be Ok if you fail. That’s probably the hardest reality to face — that failure is not the end of the world.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Kh: Take yourself seriously, but not too seriously. But take your work very seriously and commit to it, because if you don’t, no one else is going to. Treat it like a job that you love because if it’s not, why are you torturing yourself?
And don’t compromise your creative intent. I don’t mean be delusional about what you can achieve with the resources you have, but I think as women, compromise is ingrained in us, we feel we need to be peacemakers, but when it comes to your film, you know in your gut what’s right for it and you need to stand by that.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
Kh: At the moment, “Toni Erdmann
” by Maren Ade
is my absolute favorite recent film directed by a woman. She has an incredible ability to observe and create the most honest and intimate forms of human behavior. Her writing in this film is unstoppable — it’s phenomenal.
Every scene hits you with these little gifts of surprise one after another. I think that’s what’s most exciting about it, the surprise and the joy coupled with heartbreaking sadness. She’s an absolute master.
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.
Kh: I am optimistic, particularly in Canada, because we can mandate change here maybe in a way that’s not possible in the U.S., because our major funding bodies are government bodies. You see countries like Sweden taking the lead and I think there will continue to be movement here, though it’s much slower than we’d like to see.
Our National Film Board just instituted some very positive changes with gender parity in creative roles and an increase in focus on Indigenous creators. I do feel like for women and Poc having stability in their careers is still a massive obstacle, because we often don’t get second chances from decision-makers, but I think we have to remain optimistic about change because the only other option is defeat.
I just hope we can achieve significant change before the focus shifts, as I feel women and Poc are being given a platform right now because it’s a hot topic, but I worry that the trend may pass soon.
Tiff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Kathleen Hepburn
— “Never Steady, Never Still” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.