Spotlight: Sarah Deakins

Sarah Deakins
1) on set of YELLOW, pilot for IN PERSON. From L to R: Stacey Harding (First AD), Christina Kasperczyk (Steadicam operator), Adrian Holmes (Actor), Stephanie Belding (actor), Sarah Deakins (writer, Director, Producer), Amy Belling (DP), Julia Benson (Producer), Michael Shanks, (actor).
2) 3am, last prep day on YELLOW, L to R, Sarah Deakins (Writer, Director, Producer), Amy Belling (DP), Julia Benson (Producer)


The Chimaera Project had the delight of speaking with writer/director Sarah Deakins who makes her home in Toronto, LA and Vancouver. Sarah discusses her projects, passions and desires in our latest Spotlight.

Thanks so much for chatting with us today. We are eager to learn more about your amazing process to getting such an highly lauded film and how you discovered yourself in the process.

I started writing years ago as an actor, to give myself and my friends, great characters to play with and parts that just didn’t come along for us in the real world. I realized about ten years into my acting “career” that there was maybe one role a year that really excited me, that I really wanted to “get”. It didn’t seem like enough.

I found myself on a set in my early thirties, the lead in a movie of the week, in a reasonably nice trailer, with a good, “meaty” part, of a bitter divorcee struggling to co-parent her troubled teenaged daughter with an absent ex. I returned to my trailer after an emotional scene that should have been fulfilling, as it had gone very well (I had wept all morning on set, doing a particularly emotional scene justice) and I stood in the middle of my trailer in the quiet of a remote parking lot on the outskirts of the city and a terrifying thought popped into my head: “Is this it?”

Followed by: “this can’t be it, because if it is, it doesn’t make me happy and what the F am I gonna do now, this is the only thing I know how to do!”

It sounds like a really scary place to be.

I was terrified I didn’t like acting anymore. Or more importantly, storytelling. It was the only thing I had ever loved and felt passionate about, storytelling, and here I was, feeling dissatisfied in a fairly well paying lead role on a movie that was about as high on the ladder you could get in my home city of Vancouver at the time.

But very quickly after those thoughts, it dawned on me that I didn’t suddenly dislike acting, or storytelling. It was the exact opposite, in fact. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it was the kind of work I was getting and seemed destined for if I stayed where I was, that was unfulfilling, not the craft itself (badly written, stock characters with mostly archaic notions of the roles women and men should play in society).

Whew! That must have been a relief. To realize it isn’t you or your work, but the opportunities themselves. What did you do then?

I set about writing with more purpose, to have more control over the stories I was putting out into the world and what I was contributing to it. I wrote a play and hired all my friends and we set about telling the stories that excited us. Stories about people connecting and struggling to connect. Stories with characters over thirty and even over forty!

Ha! We are always talking about the importance of age diversity in the conversation about ethnic diversity, so thank you for that. How did you find your way from the script page to the director’s chair? What was the process like for you to change your focus?

I let someone direct one of my scripts as a film. Through that process, I realized I was hungry to take the reigns myself as a director, and I did just that with my next piece, which led to a love affair with the post production process as well as the development and on set part, and I knew from all this I had found another way to tell stories and one that I could occupy myself with for decades to come and still want more.

I started calling up directors I’d worked with and asking if I could shadow them. I knew that besides my labor of love endeavors, I would need a more solid income than making my independent films would provide, and having been in the world of episodic television as an actor for years, I felt I could be good at it if given the chance. I knew this world, I knew the beats of it, I understood the different genres and I felt I had a gift for working with the actors, having been one myself. I spoke their language and could feel when to leave them alone and when to guide them.

I shadowed on three major shows, “Hannibal”, “Killjoys” and “Wayward Pines”. During the course of this year of shadowing directors, I learned a lot about the politics of working in series television and that each show had its own challenges and peculiarities to contend with. I still thought I would be good at this.

I met with one of the producers of one of these shows after it had wrapped, to get her advice on how to move forward next. How to make the leap from shadowing to getting an actual job. She had watched one of my films and was very complimentary about it, but she had the decency not to blow smoke up my butt about how hard breaking in was going to be for me. She explained to me the following.

“Look. I’ve seen your film and it’s very good. Beautiful and nuanced and you are clearly good at this. But let me tell you a little about what I’m dealing with when I go to hire someone for our show.”

She went on to explain that they had thirteen episodes per season. That season I shadowed in, there were only two episodes directed by women. One of those women was very well established and had been around for years (a no-brainer and easy to get approved by the network due to her extensive background coming up from the inside) and the other was a woman who had directed seven feature films of her own, that had the best reel they had ever seen, specifically for the style and genre of their show, and in order to get network approval, they still had to get the DP of the show (who was a friend of this young woman and had put her name forward in the first place) to promise that he would “Baby-sit her on set to make sure everything went OK”.

“So’, she said, “It’s nice that you made a short film, but that is what I am dealing with”.

I realized I was never going to get a job this way.

That is a frustrating realization on the business side of things. We don’t always think about the studios and networks trying to maintain their bottom line but often working under an antiquated idea of how to make that happen. But it is a stark reality nonetheless. How did you manage that supposed set-back?

I created a series that is the kind of show I want to watch. That has the kind of roles I think actors love to play and that I think, in its own small way, makes the world a better place by being in it. I raised just over twenty thousand dollars on Kickstarter, partnered with Brightlight Pictures to help me produce it independently, hired a mostly female crew, and we now have a beautiful pilot presentation that we will be shopping around next year. The scripts include an incredibly diverse array of characters, from a homeless, mixed race, ten year old transgender tap-dancer, to an African American-Jewish composer, to an illiterate, cross dressing underground bathroom attendant. The stories are as varied in settings as the characters are in tax brackets, but they all have the recurring theme of humans being “saved” by their connection to each other through the arts. I believe the incredible success of shows such as “This Is Us” prove that now, more than ever, viewers are aching for stories about empathy and simple human connection, and I aim to give them a wide range of those stories with this series, IN PERSON.

What an amazing accomplishment and such an empowering place to be coming from in building the very thing that excites you and lights your passion. It must make you extremely proud to look at your journey and reflect on it. Are there any things in particular that stand out to you and make you feel proud?

There are many proud moments, but they are never what people would expect (awards etc.); I think there’s this moment that often comes in post (which I am obsessed with; I just LOVE it) around the time when you are doing sound design and then layering in the soundtrack, when suddenly…it’s a movie. When you find that perfect lonely church bell sound to toll in the background or the edit times out perfectly with a music cue swell or something of that nature and you have these little perfect moments of discovery that give you chills and make you realize you know what you’re doing and you are being of service to this piece in a way that truly honors it…those are the proud moments.

Ah, that sounds magical and like you are right where you should be. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Do you have any parting bits of advice or wisdom you think might bolster the Chimaera Project’s diverse and growing army of creators?

My advice it always to just MAKE THINGS. Find like-minded souls who love telling stories and make one location, cheap, character driven stories that you LOVE. And I mean REALLY love. Like you LOVE these characters and you LOVE the journeys they go one and you can’t wait to communicate it to the world. So yeah, LOVE the content of what you are creating with everything in you. Don’t waste time working on stuff that you think will sell or that there is a market for if you don’t truly love that project. It makes you bitter and sad and empty. I am still very much at the beginning of this journey myself, so I can’t give great advice on getting that big gig, but I know that I have never brought a project into the world that I am not proud of and happy to send to people, and I think that’s a good way to move through the world.

Thank you so much for sharing your words and your wisdoms and all the best on the continuation of your journey, both in life and in filmmaking.  

Find out more about her at www.sarahdeakins.com 

Social media:  https://www.facebook.com/sdeakinshttps://twitter.com/sarahcdeakinshttps://www.instagram.com/deakinssarahc/

To see more of Sarah’s work and discover why her films are garnering such wonderful reactions and accolades, check out:

LATE: http://www.nsi-canada.ca/2014/08/late/

GREECE, available here: http://www.nsi-canada.ca/2016/03/greece/

(trailer: https://vimeo.com/105792659 )

And YELLOW will be playing at the Studio City Film Fest this month: https://www.laemmle.com/films/43278?fbclid=IwAR0hXjktp4dRKjDzge7lWq2nnnLZk63yWlQiW96989v9QiImWJChuqnwOko

Greece has won over 20 awards on the festival circuit and Yellow just garnered the audience award at Dances with Films, a Best Actor Leo Award for Ryan Robbins.