(L to R) Annika Irving as "Harley," Ashley Rebecca Moore as "Krysstal" and Breazy Diduck Wilson as "Gemma" in H&G. (Red Czarina Productions)
A crew of six, a budget of $5000, some rookie child-actors and a
shooting window of just over two weeks may seem like a dubious task for creating a feature film. But according to the girls of Red Czarina, Winnipeg's newest production company, this challenge doesn't
seem that daunting.
Red Czarina Productions started in May as a shared idea between writer/director Danishka Esterhazy, producer/photographer Rebecca Sandulak, actress/producer Ashley Hirt and actress/filmmaker Rebecca Gibson. The plan was to start a production company which focuses on female-driven projects across multiple platforms. Three months later, they are already shooting their first feature film called H&G -- a retelling of the Brother's Grimm classic Hansel and Gretel -- here in Manitoba.
Directed by Danishka Esterhazy (whose first feature Black Field won several awards and received high-critical acclaim) H&G features an ensemble cast of Winnipeg actors including Black Field star Ashley Rebecca Moore, with newcomers Annika Irving and Breazy Diduck-Wilson (who are but six and eight-years-old respectively) in the title roles.
SCENE caught up with the women behind Red Czarina in between takes to get the story behind the film-making.
Why an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel for Red Czarina's first feature film?
Director Danishka Esterhazy: I have always found Manitoba's landscape to have a unique and stark beauty. The vast open fields, the looming sky, the skeletal weather-beaten trees -- it really is quite Gothic. Although tales like Hansel and Gretel were originally set in the forests of Germany, there are many parts of Manitoba that are fitting to a dark fairy tale.
And then there are the social issues to explore. Hansel and Gretel is a story about child poverty and child abandonment. Those are important issues in parts of our community. By setting the tale in contemporary Winnipeg, I can explore these topics in a powerful way.
Is there an added pressure, as you begin working on H&G, to follow up your award winning and critically acclaimed first feature, Black Field?
Director Danishka Esterhazy: Actually, I feel quite liberated shooting H&G. Black Field was a larger production, a period film, and challenging to create. I am very proud of Black Field but I am also enjoying the intimacy of this smaller story. I am shooting H&G in a gritty neorealist style that eschews Hollywood-style camera coverage. All the elements are stripped down so that the audience will feel connected with our child protagonists. It is an exciting way to shoot.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with such a small production crew?
Producer Rebecca Gibson: The advantages are that we are creating art for art's sake with less "cooks" in the kitchen for decision making. The set is a true collective. One disadvantage is more equipment to carry!
Have any of you ever worked on such an ambitious film with such a shoe-string budget?
Producer Ashley Hirt: With a combined experience of over 50 years in the industry, we can say no. We have never worked on something of this extreme nature. It's thrilling. Many of us have worked on low budget projects but this is a 15 day shoot with only six people on the crew. Our entire budget has gone to feeding the crew!
How did the casting process go, with so many actors auditioning, including many children?
Producer Ashley Hirt: We sent out a casting call and over 100 local actors came out to audition during the August long weekend. People want to work with Danishka because her reputation as a filmmaker is outstanding. We have tried to include everyone who auditioned by offering background and featured extra roles.
How are you all coping with the time constraints of this shoot?
Producer Rebecca Sandulak: We made the decision to go into prep one month ago. The results have been wildfire! Our time is limited and we have all sacrificed sleep (but mostly from excitement). We know that we are creating something very special with H&G. Our attitude is fearless because of the support of the film community. Colleagues from across Canada and Hollywood are extending their good wishes for this venture.
And what about the cast?
Producer Rebecca Sandulak: Our cast is incredible! Annika Irving who plays "Harley" is nothing short of brilliant. How many films have you seen with a six-year-old actress playing the part of a boy?
This interview has been edited to fit this format by CBC.