Festival Daily

Child’s Play!

By Emily Wexler

Actress Kelly O’Neill sits inside her trailer on the set of the Irish film Kisses, refusing to come out. She’s been in there for eight hours, communicating with director Lance Daly only by text message. The reason? Her jelly beans have been taken away. In his frustration, Daly considers replacing her but decides against it. O’Neill, he feels, is magic on screen. Besides, her behaviour seems downright normal for a 10-year-old acting in her first role. Daly has come to realize that when kids are involved, the rules of the game change completely.

Kisses is one of several films at the Festival with children in lead roles. The directors of Us Chickens, C’est pas moi, je le jure! and Un Été sans point ni coup sûr also worked with very young actors and learned some major lessons from their minor stars.

In Kisses, O’Neill and her equally young and inexperienced co-star Shane Curry play troubled youngsters from an inner-city Dublin neighbourhood who escape their abusive households for one night at Christmas. Casting kids who had no previous experience was a necessary risk for Daly. “We made the choice between these two kids and other kids who were disciplined and could act, but who we didn’t feel would have sold the story and the characters in the same way,” he says.

Working with O’Neill and Curry meant Daly had to alter his filmmaking style. Suddenly he became aware of sugar highs, looming boredom and short attention spans. “Sometimes the crew would be saying, ‘We need more time,’ and I’d be shouting, ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot before we lose them!’” he recalls.

On the set of the short Canadian film Us Chickens, six-year-old Amariah Faulkner may not have hid in a trailer, but she certainly made Toronto director Mark Van de Ven rethink his usual routine. Faulkner appears in almost every frame of the film as Claire, an imaginative little girl who lives in her own playtime world as her family and their farm fall apart around her. “Being a director means you have a certain amount of control freak in you,” Van de Ven admits. While getting a six-year-old to stand still and follow direction was often a challenge, he came to realize that some of the most beautiful moments occurred when no rules were in play. “Part of how I had to grow as a director was to start seeing that it was okay if she went outside the bounds a little as long as we made sure we kept the camera rolling for those little bits of magic,” he says.

Directors working with slightly older children are often surprised when they realize how much these kids are able to understand. “I was told, ‘You’ll see with kids, you have to work like you do with chimpanzees – show them what to do and they’ll do it back,’” says French Canadian director Philippe Falardeau. “But it’s not true. They do understand how the character feels, and you can talk about that to direct them, which is a much better way to direct actors than just to say, ‘Do this, do that.’” In Falardeau’s film C’est pas moi, je le jure! (It’s Not Me, I Swear!), Antoine L’Écuyer plays Léon, a 10-year-old who can’t seem to stay out of trouble, whether it be pathologically lying, burglarizing houses or attempting suicide.

While the story and the dialogue are complex, Falardeau came to realize that watering it down for the young actor would be a mistake. “When they’re at that age, you can’t pretend anything,” he says. “They’re sure to understand what’s happening.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between working with child actors and working with adults is the embarrassment factor. It seems you can expect child actors to understand complex issues, but just don’t ask them to kiss. While filming C’est pas moi, je le jure!, Falardeau realized that both L’Écuyer and his young love interest, Léa (played by Catherine Faucher), had never kissed anyone before and were understandably hesitant. So, he sent them inside a house to practise. “Half an hour later, they still hadn’t come out,” Falardeau recalls, “so I had to go in and say, ‘Antoine, Catherine, are you ready?’ And they both came out of the house with big smiles!”

While there may be challenges to working with children, Quebecois director Francis Leclerc sees definite advantages. Of the four films mentioned, his feature Un Été sans point ni coup sûr (A No-Hit No-Run Summer) certainly had the most children to direct – at least two full baseball teams’ worth. For Leclerc, working with children was often a welcome change. “They don’t always think about themselves,” he says. “All they want to do is play and have fun with you.” He says he recognized distinctions in directing a young cast, but in the end he still treated all the actors as adults. “I know they are children and the psychology is different, but I can say that in my life I’ve worked with some adult actors more childish than the children in my movie.”

C’est pas moi, je le jure!
Sept. 7, 7:45pm, Varsity 4
Sept. 7, 7:45pm, Varsity 5

Un Été sans point ni coup sûr
Sept. 6, 3:00pm, Scotiabank Theatre 4      
Sept. 8, 9:30pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3

Sept. 7, 12:30pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3
Sept. 9, 12:15pm, Scotiabank Theatre 2
Sept. 13, 3:30pm, Scotiabank Theatre 2

Us Chickens (in Shorts Cut Canada Programme 1)
Sept. 6, 9:30pm, AMC 3
Sept. 7, 12:00pm, Jackman Hall – AGO