Whistler Film Festival 2018 Filmmaker Interview: Gillian McKercher director of CIRCLE OF STEEL

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In Gillian McKercher’s Circle of Steel, corporate interests butt against personal ethics, as an Asian Canadian engineer, Wendy Fong, gets a job working in the Alberta oil fields. A sometimes satirical and largely sympathetic depiction of life in the oil and gas industry, life can become numbingly routine, especially amidst constant rumors of layoffs related to the market pricing for oil and gas products. The pay is good, but the stress is a killer. Wendy takes dubious advice from her co-workers, who largely congregate in local bars to burn off steam when not working. Complications ensue when she finds out that layoffs are officially announced making her very unsure about the future she has worked so hard for. Circle of Steel has been nominated for an AWFJ EDA Award at Whistler Film Festival 2018.

Jennifer Merin: Please tell us what your film is about.

Gillian McKercher: Circle of Steel is about the effect of layoffs in an oil and gas field office. Told through the eyes of a young female engineer, Wendy Fong, we see how morale in the office degenerates to both dramatic and comedic effect. Simply, Circle of Steel is a satirical and sympathetic portrait of the field worker.

Still from CIRCLE OF STEEL

JM: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

GMcK: Circle of Steel is stylistically unique in its warm and grounded approach to the subject matter. A lot of films about small-town life or the resource industry are dark and gritty, entirely depressing, and are shot in a cinema-verite style. I chose to make Circle of Steel with a different vision. Circle of Steel has its existentially bleak moments, but it also has lots of humour, playful editing, and a surreal edge. I’m especially proud of the introduction to the film, which includes my own 16 mm experimental pieces and archival footage.

JM: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

GMcK: I worked as an engineer for ConocoPhillips, a very large oil and gas company, for four years. Like the characters of Circle of Steel, I too experienced the toxic environment that layoffs introduces, and was laid off myself in 2016. As both an intern and a permanent employee, I worked in the field and met incredible people. Oil and gas workers are hyper aware of the public and political scrutiny of their industry, but they also experience the mundane routine of the daily grind. My goal with Circle of Steel was to strip down to the essentials of what it’s actually like to work in conventional oil and gas.

JM: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

GMcK: I learned that the trials of workplace insecurity are universal. I’ve had people in industries besides oil and gas tell me that Circle of Steel is relatable. I’m very proud that so many people have been able to see their own experiences validated on screen through Circle of Steel, and also that they’re able to do so through an Asian female engineer – characteristics which are rarely represented in film.

JM: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

GMcK: I am thrilled to make my next feature because Circle of Steel empowered me to take greater risks narratively and visually. I feel like the best footage of the film was from the last half of the shoot, when I was really finding my footing as a director. Filmmaking is all about communication, and I now feel confident speaking to a wide range of personalities and specialists. Saying what you want, clearly, is deceptively challenging, and I feel better equipped than ever to take on another project.

JM: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

GMcK: The biggest challenge was the budget and the timeline. Circle of Steel is not only my first feature as writer, director, and editor, but also for my Producers, my Director of Photography, my Co-editor, and my Composer. On one hand, we were able to tackle problems with a freshness and vigour that more experienced artists can lose in time. On the other hand, we experienced a lot of challenges through trial and error that could’ve been avoided with the foresight gained through lived experience. I’ve taken on multiple roles in my shorts and music videos, but when I tried to repeat the same practice for this feature, I was exhausted. I learned how to delegate work better, and how to adjust my timelines to allow for maximum work capacity.

JM: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

GMcK: The conventional filmmaking process is shaped by men – statistically, men are the majority for above-the-line positions, as well as the role that controls much of on-set ambience, the First Assistant Director. To identify as female and inherit a system which explicitly benefits men is both challenging and eye-opening. Filmmaking is one of the most selfish, cost-intensive, intrusive, and time-intensive artistic endeavours, and I wonder if women feel guilty about pursuing this sort of craft. Some of my favourite female filmmakers had to take years off from making movies because they simply couldn’t justify being on set for 14 hours a day for a month when they had small children to parent.

JM: What are your plans for the future?

GMcK: Through my production company Kino Sum Productions, I’m working in a producer or editor capacity for the feature films Events Transpiring Before, During, and After a High School Basketball Game (funded through Telefilm’s Talent To Watch program), and Everybody Altogether Now. I have a music video for Amy Nelson to release soon, and I’m developing my followup feature film. It will be a father-daughter story where they try to cheat their way through problems: the father with tax evasion and the daughter with plagiarism in University.

JM: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own work?

GMcK: I’m inspired by a huge array of filmmakers. I love the philosophy of Steven Soderbergh, and I love the tone and aesthetic of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Alexander Payne. I just saw Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and it blew my mind. I notice that I reference the likes of Kelly Reichardt, Jane Campion and Lars Von Trier. I also love the experimental analogue work of Phillip Hoffman, and the editing of Margaret Sixel and Thelma Schoonmaker. I’m also hugely inspired by the contemporary world cinema coming out of France and Iran, and my fellow filmmakers here in Calgary.

JM: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

GMcK: Foster the confidence that your vision is valid and unique. If you can clearly communicate your intent, your peers will believe in your work. I also suggest that you curate your team to exclude any individuals – men or women – whom condescend and suppress your work. I’ve been so fortunate to meet collaborators and crew who share my feminist ideals, but it hasn’t been without struggle to get there. I can’t make a film without a team, and with mutual trust I can be the best director possible.

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