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Sara St. Onge: ‘I dove into film to rediscover the magic’

Filmmaker Sara St. Onge.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Molly Maxwell, writer-director Sara St. Onge's feature film debut, deals with the illicit relationship between a precocious 16-year-old girl and a male English teacher. The Toronto-based St. Onge made music videos with the likes of Final Fantasy, Jill Barber and the Diableros before shooting Molly's story, which opened in Toronto last week to mainly favourable reviews.

Many who have dealt with your subject matter portray the adult as a predator, which you haven't done. How did you arrive at the balance of power between Molly (played by 18-year-old Lola Tash) and Ben (Charlie Carrick)?

Lolita, the book, takes it completely from the adult's perspective. I tried to do the opposite. I really wanted you to be in Molly's head, to feel what she's feeling, and that affected the look of the film and the music. I think Molly is drawn to Ben's vulnerability, and his honesty about where he's at. He's the other side to the encouragement that everyone else is giving her, that you're not necessarily going to get to do whatever you want just because everyone told you so. And his Britishness and his being a bit out of his element just helped the vulnerability.

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Have you had any adverse reaction to your choice of subject?

I definitely have had a bit of push-back. The film isn't going to be for everyone. I'm just trying to show another side of a story that's often drawn in a very one-dimensional way. I'm not condoning these relationships or saying they're all like this one.

Ben describes his students as "precious snowflakes." Is the rarefied arts-oriented school milieu you've portrayed based on your own experience?

My high school was arts- and humanities-based. I was always writing stories, and I did photography, and I had a lot of people who saw something in my work and encouraged it. Having access to that was great, but as in the film, you can also over-encourage and suffocate people into not wanting to ever do that thing again.

How did you prepare the leads for their roles?

I kept them completely separate till we shot. I told them not to talk, to begin to instill the idea of taboo and apartness. I didn't want them to be too comfortable with each other. We had a lot of conversations, but no rehearsals, just a run-through while we were blocking before a shot. We filmed in shot order as much as possible, so that they were getting to know each other in the film while they were getting to know each other on the set. Since we only had 18 days and were not able to go into any overtime, everything rested on their ability to deliver, and they were both so prepared and consistent.

There are several unreleased songs by Canadian indie musicians on the soundtrack. Did you commission many of the songs?

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None were written for the film, except for the one I wrote with Paul Aucoin. We mixed stuff we had to pay for and stuff from people who were excited to be involved. TIFF Next Wave has a Battle of the Scores competition, and last year I was on the jury, and the prize was having a song in my film. It was a risk, because all the bands were teenagers and we didn't know what we would get. What Fools was the winner, but we also ended up taking a song from the runner-up, Watershed Hour, because I was so impressed with them.

How did you make the move from photography and writing to filmmaking?

I didn't have any film training. I read some books, but I learned everything on the ground. I really loved photography until I studied it at the Rhode Island School of Design. I found that studying it, and critiquing everything to that degree, killed my curiosity and my drive to make photos. I dove into film to rediscover the magic and excitement of figuring things out for myself.

What's your next feature project?

It's a dark comedy called Swan Dive, about a new stepmom who maybe doesn't know what she's getting into. I think there hasn't been a super-honest portrayal of the highs and lows of that.

Is that something you know about first-hand?

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I have two stepsons, one 11 and the other turning 17, and I've been involved with them for seven years. But I don't think real stories are very interesting. You take a nugget from it, try to find the touch points that other people will relate to, and go from there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Editor's note: Paul Aucoin co-wrote a song on the soundtrack. Incorrect information appeared on a previously published version of the story.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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