Whistler Film Festival Interview: Katia Shannon on STANDSTILL

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Katia Shannon’s Standstill is about a young woman who arrives at an intersection in her life. On the way to starting a new life with her boyfriend, Amanda gets stuck in traffic. Her fight to get through the gridlock turns into a fight for survival as her body comes to a standstill. With panic mounting, Amanda must face her deepest vulnerabilities in order to survive. Standstill has been nominated for an EDA Award at Whistler Film Festival 2019. Here’s what Shannon has to say about her deeply personal short film.

Jennifer Merin: What your film is about — both in story and theme?

Katia Shannon: Standstill is a deeply personal film, drawn from my experience with type 1 diabetes, that explores the isolation of feeling misunderstood. It follows the fine thread people living with diabetes navigate on a daily basis to stay alive. It’s also a film about diabetes where we never hear the word diabetes. I wanted to explore it in that way because in life, there are no subtitles explaining what’s going on or providing context to the people around you.

At first, Amanda seems like she is about to take life by storm. Gradually, she is forced to expose her vulnerability to save herself. Although she is surrounded by people on a highway overpass, help is not easy to find as she struggles to communicate. Standstill challenges the barriers we put between each other, both physically and emotionally. My goal is also to invite empathy, especially when faced with someone we don’t understand who is in need of help.

Merin: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

Shannon: I approached Standstill with the desire to mirror the journey of a low blood sugar, taking the audience through a cohesive and imperceptible180-degree shift in tone in just 12 minutes.

We meet an Amanda who is full of life and the possibilities of young love. As her emotion evolves, cinematographer Derek Branscombe, colourist Simon Boissonneaux and I, chose to move from the vibrant reds, oranges and blues of the opening scenes and pull everything away, until cold, muted tones surround her and reinforce that isolation.

The anamorphic lenses and scope aspect ratio build separation between Amanda and the other drivers, who feel so impenetrable to her. To accentuate the isolation, I made the decision only to establish the people who choose to cross into her world and connect with her. The rest are felt, but not seen.

A gradual and subtle reduction of the amount of diegetic ambient sound, leaves more space for staggering notes that become a soaring melody. As we sink into Amanda’s emotions, we leave realism and move into an impressionistic portrayal of her experience.

With wardrobe we included layers for Amanda to peel off as she becomes more and more vulnerable, until she feels bare and exposed.

Victoria Diamond was an important collaborator. She has such range and was able to externalize Amanda’s 180-degree emotional shift with grace and poignance.

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

Shannon: The film is rooted in fears and sensations I live with every day since my diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at age 15. Amanda reflects many of my experiences and transports the audience through the feeling and raw emotion of hypoglycaemia. Low blood sugar is intense and in order to go on with day-to-day life I hide that intensity. However, I had this feeling of growing urgency to tell this story and dive into those fears. I wanted to give myself and other diabetics a film that channels the feeling of being hungry to live and convey them for others to understand.

Amanda’s relationship to her fish Howard also plays an important part in depicting her inner life. Howard the goldfish is a silent witness confined to his bowl, just as she is trapped in her car, as are the other drivers on the overpass. He’s there to share a part of her reality, a reminder of love, home and hope. As she approaches the brink of giving up, he’s something to fight for that gives her courage to continue.

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

Shannon: I didn’t know how many people diabetes affects, so I researched. Globally, there are an estimated 317 million people living with diabetes. Of those, 1.6 million die from it each year. People carry many assumptions about diabetes which often reveals a naivety of its impact. Although diabetes may seem invisible, its physical, psychological and emotional consequences are not and can be tragic. Without warning, low blood sugars threaten to end a life and their remedy is ironically simple: sugar. However, perhaps because the solution seems so simple, it is part of the reason why low blood sugars are perceived as more of an inconvenience than a threat.

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

Shannon: The great thing about editing films you direct is that you get to see all your mistakes and have time to work through the material and learn from those. I was constantly asking myself, how can I make the best possible edit, but also in some cases, how could I have directed that differently?

I thoroughly enjoyed learning that, on the whole, I could achieve the picture I had in my mind artistically, but what’s more special is seeing the impact of the film on an audience. At the team screening the response of the audience showed me that something beyond the film lingered, a new perspective. They could see me in a different light. I will always seek to use cinema to unearth truth, starting with my own.

I also learned that I have supporters without whom this film would not have been possible. People were very very generous with their time, talent and resources and wanted to honour that with the results.

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

Shannon: Logistically, filming on a highway was incredibly difficult. The Ministry of Transport gave me a permit for the weekend I had asked, but something didn’t feel right. I went on a tech scout the same day and saw construction trailers digging up the road. Turns out the Ministry of Transport hadn’t done their due diligence in checking with every department. They withdrew the permit and wouldn’t tell me of another window when the works would be done. I pushed everything back by 6 weeks and received the “real’’ authorizations, only 3 days before filming after 3.5 months of discussions. So it boils down to never taking anything for granted, triple-checking and following your guts.

I also faced the challenge of being at times too close to the subject. It’s hard to express yourself eloquently when you lose perspective on the essential part of the story and get trapped in your head. Standstill pushed my ability to convey the unsaid and rawness of a feeling of survival to an audience with no in-depth understanding of diabetes.

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

Shannon: The female gaze runs through Standstill in its writing, acting, editing, directing and production. Its hard to know what Standstill would be without it. My gender affects how I see the world, but has also shaped my leadership style. Whenever possible, I like to hear everyone out, listen and then decide. There’s nothing worse than not feeling listened to when you have something important to say.

For me, directing means following my intuition. I work well with creatives who can also voice theirs and my collaboration Victoria Diamond is something I will always cherish. There was trust, built over time, over long conversations and sharing of poems, inspiration and life experience. We rehearsed to clarify the character’s choices and I wanted to empower her to feel bold in her instincts and choices. I was not attached to a specific portrayal of my experience of a low, as much as trying to lead her to her place of connection with the material.

Another aspect of female perspective I could highlight is that the process is really important to me not just the result. In many ways, Standstill is its own little miracle. The scale of the ambition relative to the means available was disproportionate. I achieved what I wanted because of the quality of the team and their generosity. To rally them on the project, I identified an aspect that each crew wanted to develop and gave them the tools to develop it so it would be a stepping stone technically, artistically or organizationally for them. It’s important to make it a win-win.

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

Shannon: I love films inspired by true stories. I want to inspire, delight, entertain and tell stories of overcoming adversity and that reveal the resilience of the human spirit. I really want to direct large scale period dramas. For now, I have another short film in development, a dramatic comedy called Us & in Between. I am also working on a feature and an episodic drama. I want to nurture creative collaborations with writers and producers and develop long standing relationships.

Merin: Who are the filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

Shannon: I admire the work of Amma Asante, Joe Wright, Sarah Polley, Ava Duvernay, Deepa Mehta and Ken Loach. I think all of them are experts in telling moving, subtle and important stories powerfully.

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

Shannon: Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Remember all the offers of help people send your way and take them up on it. Every single artist in history has had a support system to make their mark, so it’s part of the process even if it doesn’t always feel natural.

Befriend women and men who are more experienced and learn from them. Equally, when someone sees you as a mentor, accept that even if you don’t feel experienced enough to mentor, they clearly see something in you they want to learn and that’s enough. I would also say stand tall even when things aren’t working out how you had planned. Don’t let other people make you feel unworthy of your voice. Have rejection amnesia. Someone will open a door at some point, and then its your responsibility to keep it open for someone else too. I think that’s also how we’ll find a good balance as an industry.

ABOUT KATIA SHANNON: Determined to take her family to Walt Disney World, Katia took her first plunge into film aged 9. Targeting the grand prize of 500$, she wrote the winning script for a national contest run by the CBC (Radio-Canada). Produced in 35 mm, Un accident inoubliable opened the Carrousel international du film de Rimouski. Katia later graduated from Concordia University in Montréal with a BFA in Film Production and an award for outstanding achievement in filmmaking. Fuelled by a love for passionate stories of human endeavour and inspired by the worlds of photography, painting and dance; Katia’s films, have been selected at numerous festivals including the Calgary International Film Festival, Whistler Film Festival, Air Canada EnRoute Film Festival and Fastnet Film Festival. Standstill is her latest short film currently on the festival circuit.

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