Calgary International Film Festival: Ice Blue

Interview by Jessica Melnychuk
Photos provided by Sandi Somers

A Q&A with Sandi Somers, director of Ice Blue.

You wrote the story for Ice Blue, and Jason Long wrote the screenplay. How did the story begin to unfold?

I initially asked Jason if he was interested in co-writing with me, and when he read my outline, he thought it would be a great challenge for him. He was totally into doing it, and he set forth to do the first draft. He did such a great job. Sometimes things all come together at the right time. There was a lot of things that fell into place – the lead characters live on a farm, and I’d been doing some research into childhood trauma. It triggered me to write a story. One of the last times I saw my mother before she died, she asked me if I’d heard this message. She didn’t tell me what it was – she said ‘I’ll tell you about it the next time I see you’. And I still don’t know what it was. What was it she wanted to spend focused time with me to tell me about? It triggered the inspiration for some of the film’s themes – the secrets or misplaced truths that happen with families, and how that affects the children. I find it very interesting how parents pass trauma onto their children. How do the children even know they have trauma? If someone doesn’t point it out to them, they become a product of that trauma. All of those aspects of growing up are part of Ice Blue.

What was it like watching the story jump from page to screen?

It was so wonderful. We had really great local actors, and actors from other parts of Canada who came in. Seeing how each of them interpreted the words and the language, and working with each of them, it was such a pleasure. There’s the film you have on the page, and when you actually get into production and all the elements come together, it really starts breathing life.

How was the experience working with the cast?

Sophia Lauchlin Hirt, who plays Arielle, she’s a brilliant actress. She’s so young, and she had to carry the whole film for the most part. She did such an awesome job with that, along with Michelle Morgan, who plays the mom. And Billy [MacLellan], he and I are both from Cape Breton. It was heartwarming to bring someone from there to do this with me. The talent was just remarkable. Sometimes a production hits that magic place, and this was one of them.

What impact did Alberta have on the project?

One of the amazing things about Alberta is we can totally use the landscape to drive the metaphor home. Shooting on this isolated farm outside of Millarville, we had to deal with whatever Mother Nature gave us. We were able to truly capture what that’s like and what springtime is like in Alberta – sometimes snow and sometimes not.

Thinking back to when you first started out in film, what drew you to filmmaking?

Prior to being in film, I did sets, lighting and costume design in theatre. I was invited to come on set by some filmmakers, and I saw the directors do their thing. I was really infatuated that someone could pull all these elements together and make a film, so I decided to become a filmmaker. I took a course on professional motion picture production, and that gave me some time to try and see what I could do. Initially I started off on the more experimental side – silent dramatic or dance films – and gradually I started to write and challenge myself with getting work that was more narrative.

You’ve made over 75 short films, but Ice Blue is your first feature film. What did the experience teach you about filmmaking?

Yeah, I’ve produced, edited or shot about 75 things. Over time I’ve learned that each and every film is its own entity. Even after all the films I’ve made, there’s still challenges. I’ve learned to be really present with the challenges. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned throughout the years is managing relationships. I think that’s really important, because there is a lot of crew wanting to help get the vision out there, and I need to be able to communicate clearly about what it is I want to achieve. At the same time, I want them to feel the freedom to hit their potential creatively and technically. We’re all working together to get there.

I read that it’s been over 15 years since a feature film was made in Alberta by a female director. Why do you think it’s so challenging for female directors here?

It’s challenging for female directors everywhere. The stats show that there are only about 15-17% of directors who are female, which is why I started Herland [a mentorship program for female directors]. I found that some of the women who I felt were way better filmmakers than me, they stopped making films. And I started asking around – why did you leave? What’s happening? It’s difficult for anyone to make a film. But predominantly, crews have always been highly male. Men have typically been entrusted with higher amounts of money, and women have not had the accessibility to be on set and work their way up. Some women were saying they don’t get enough funding or can’t get into film festivals. There’s this assumption that films made by women aren’t accessible to the male eye, but a lot of films have proven that wrong. Things need to change. I hope that one day, we get to a point where we don’t have to say “female director,” we can just say “director”.

You mentioned Herland. You are the brainchild behind this project, a mentorship program for women in film. Tell me more about it.

I used to do it as a 10-day intensive workshop, but I stopped doing that around 2014 and redesigned it for the world today. Now we have two five-month programs, one for emerging artists and one for intermediate artists. In the emerging program, we take on seven women and teach them the skills of writing, directing, editing, camera operation, audio, tech grip, proposal writing… While learning, they’re also shooting the film they’ve written. And with the intermediate stream, it’s more about mentorship and helping out in areas they identify, like screenwriting or skills as a director.

What advice do you have for aspiring female directors in Calgary?

Don’t overthink it, just do it. If you really want to do something, you need to hurdle over those obstacles in your way. Risk something. Get outside of your comfort zone. Each of the shorts I’ve made, I made a decision about what scared me and what I’m comfortable with. I challenged myself.

What’s next for you, Sandi?

Ice Blue is premiering at Calgary Film this month. I’m currently shooting a documentary. And as I continue to work on my other projects and Herland, we’re definitely working towards our next feature.

Ice Blue premieres at the Calgary International Film Festival this month. Catch it on September 26 at Globe Cinema or September 30 at Eau Claire Cineplex.