2021 is turning out to be a big year for Sera-Lys McArthur. The alum of series such as Arctic Air and Burden of Truth is starring in two films at Fantasia Fest this year, a short (which she also produced) called Kwêskosîw (She Whistles) and the feature film Don’t Say Its Name, a horror film which had its world premiere this week at the festival.
I sat down with Sera-Lys on zoom this week to discuss both films and the state of indigenous filmmaking in Canada. I hope you enjoy it.
Ed. Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity, and contains light spoilers for Don’t Say Its Name.
Matthew: So you’re in two films at Fantasia Festival. So how’s that going for you?
Sera-Lys: It’s going really well! It’s, it’s a new kind of vibe because it’s all virtual, but it’s still quite interactive, which I like. Getting to see people’s faces and hear their voices, at least at the Q and A’s, and getting to watch these films for the first time. Obviously, one of them is a short film that I produced, so I’d seen that a lot, but it’s still cool to see it on a different platform and to have it available for the public. Then last night was the world premiere of a feature that I have a lead role in called Don’t Say Its Name. So that was really exciting, too, because I hadn’t seen it at all.
Ed. Note: Read Matt’s review of Don’t Say Its Name here
Matthew: How has the response been to each film? The short –Kwêskosîw (She Whistles)– been out for a while, how has it been to Don’t Say Its Name?
Sera-Lys: Good! I mean, the short has been out for a little while, but not too long, so we’re still garnering a lot of initial reaction from a lot of people, but Don’t Say Its Name –as far as I can tell– everyone’s responding to really well. They’re saying they really like it. We’ve heard that it’s some people’s favourite indigenous genre film, which is quite the compliment.
I think it pairs well with the short, it just happened to be a genre film, and I am indigenous. So it’s part of it, and they tonally match, I would say.
Matthew: Yeah, they’re both taking on these indigenous legends and bringing them to screen, which I find really refreshing.
Sera-Lys: Yeah, and also intertwining it into a modern-day sense. And also bringing to light certain issues to do with missing and murdered Indigenous women and environmental issues. That’s for more for Don’t Say Its Name, the environmental part.
Matthew: You’re a producer on Kwêskosîw, yes?
Sera-Lys: Yeah, I’m like the producer. And this is the biggest project that I’m the main producer of so far.
Matthew: What attracted you to it initially?
Sera-Lys: So Thirza Cuthand and I are both from Saskatchewan. We both have a similar understanding of an indigenous slash settler environment, and then our paths crossed in Toronto. I wasn’t aware of their work until then. I was asked to do a reading of their feature script –called Evil Fire and is in development– and I offered to come on board because I’m really into genre films or genre programming in general. I grew up watching Xena and Hercules, that’s kind of my jam, and then I’m also really moved by socially relevant –especially to do with indigenous experience– narratives.
Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Two-Spirit people had been something that I was exploring in my work as an actor, writer, and producer. So I thought this must be meant to be! So I thought I’d come on board, and since then, we’ve had the chance to develop the feature. The short was designed to be a standalone short but also a calling card for the feature to show Thirza’s ability to direct in this genre.
Matthew: I spoke to Thirza, recently and they said you’re both actively writing the script for the feature; how is that process coming?
It’s coming along! It has undergone a lot of drafts, and I think we’re at the point where we’re pretty much ready to polish it and get it into the hands of a larger production company that can help us with everything and see what can happen. So stay tuned for the next year!
That is kind of what the short is supposed to do: gain some attention so we could get a bit more momentum. Of course, it will require a large budget to do the story justice, so that’s part of the reason we’re hoping that the short will do very well –and thankfully, it is so far– so that we can get the right kind of interest involved.
Ed. Note: You can read Matt’s interview with director Thirza Cuthand here.
Matthew: Yeah, and I think that just for the record, I think the shorts really good. Of the shorts I’ve watched, it’s probably my favourite, tied with another one.
Sera-Lys: I’ll take it!
Matthew: So then what initially attracted you to Don’t Say Its Name?
Sera-Lys: Reuben [Martell] and I have been friends for a long time; we go back about 10 years, and I was going to work on another project of his that still has in development –I’m working with him as a producer as well– called A Life Less Empty. It’s a drama set on a reserve, and it is very emotional and very different from this movie. But he seemed to be running up against roadblock after roadblock of getting it made until finally he threw his hands up in the air and said, “you know what? I’m just gonna make a popcorn movie.”
He’s always been a big horror movie fan. I don’t go to horror movies that often because I actually get really scared –sometimes I can be convinced to white knuckle it and actually go through with it– but I’ve hung out with Ruben, and we’ve gone to a couple of horror movies, so he said, “yeah, I just want to make an indigenous horror movie, like a popcorn movie, something that everyone can watch and enjoy, and that they’re going to want to see, you know?” and I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea!”
He told me about the idea for the film and for the character that I would be playing –I think in 2015–in a car ride that we had back from Alberta to Saskatchewan. I was like, “Wow, yeah, this could really happen.” Eventually, the right doors opened, and I did actually finally get to play that role, and it was really exciting to see it come to life.
Matthew: Did you draw any specific inspiration for the character?
Sera-Lys: It’s hard to say because I’ve read so many versions of his script, and I’ve been imagining myself as that character for so long that it started to kind of live in me. I don’t know if I have an outward visual of things that I would draw from, but they’re usually male, action hero type characters with a dark side.
Matthew: Or a tortured past of some kind?
Sera-Lys: Yeah, that’s what we were looking for. [Rueben] would tell me, like certain movies to watch so I could get the feeling of what he meant, and then I just had to trust that I have that ability within myself. I am really happy with the way it turned out!
Matthew: How did Madison Walsh come on board, and what was it like working with her?
Sera-Lys: Madison was brought on last-minute because this whole thing just kind of happened, and then there were budget and time constraints –people are already booked. She’s a friend of the producer Carolyn McMaster and had already worked with her on another production, so Carolyn brought her on.
Working with her was really good because she and I both come from a theatre background. So there was no hesitation when it came to rehearsing lines in between or just making sure we’re hitting the beats; we had a bit of shorthand with each other, which was relieving, because I didn’t know her before, and it’s a big relationship in this movie, so I was happy to feel supported and complemented with her performance and choices. And I hope she feels the same way too!
Matthew: Obviously, the movie is set in the winter in the cold, and there’s a lot of stuff outside; how was the shoot?
Sera-Lys: It was crazy. I’ve never been on a shoot that cold, and this is coming from a girl who has worked in Saskatchewan in February. It was the coldest outdoor shoot I’ve ever had to do. The weird thing is that the buildings actually act as refrigerators in some of those locations because it’ll be so cold in the morning. Then it’ll warm up outside, but if nobody opens the door to that little building like a little shed or cabin or whatever we were going to be filming in, it would be colder inside there than outside. I’d have to go outside to get warm and then come back! That scene where Stacy is hitting her punching bag and then going through the photos? My hands were losing feeling even with gloves on.
When I got there, we did our read-through, and then I was supposed to have four days off. So I’m chilling there on the first day of filming, I’m at the hotel, and they’re like, “we need to come and get you are pulling up all your scenes.” And I was like, “wait, what? I was gonna go over them today!” So I had to commit them to memory now in a matter of like an hour, and it was because the batteries for the cameras were freezing and they couldn’t do the outdoor filming that day. I think in the morning, it was around minus 50 before the sun came up, and then it maybe got to like minus 35. But it was such a cold day they had to do all the interior stuff instead.
Matthew: At the beginning of the movie, this young woman is rundown and then she becomes a vengeful spirit through the rest of the film is that –and this is exposing ignorance a little bit– but is that based on any specific like, indigenous myth?
Sera-Lys: It’s been explored a lot, but we’ve taken a bit of liberty with it, but it’s a witigo, but the reason we didn’t go with its name is that there are a lot of windigo movies. That’s basically the same spirit; it’s just one set in Ojibwe and the other one set in Cree.
Essentially, it’s a carnivorous spirit, but we wanted there to be like a reason –a method to the madness– as to what she was doing. As Ruben put in the Q & A last night, he actually sees the monster as the hero of the story and that my character is actually more like an antihero.
Matthew: That makes sense; when I was watching the film, I thought this feels like I should know, it feels like a lot of other things I’ve watched, but it’s not exactly the same.
Sera-Lys: Yeah, and there are some definite small differences between what a Witigo is and what Windigo is, and even different interpretations with other things. Going back to the Northern Lights thing with me and Thirza for Kwêskosîw. We’re both from Southern Saskatchewan, so our people –even though I’m Dakota, and she’s Cree– warned us don’t whistle at the northern lights or the ancestors will come down and take you away, but I’ve heard of other peoples who were told that their head would turn into a wolf head if they whistled at them, and I think further up north, I saw that your ancestors would come down and like dance among you.
So there are different ways to interpret these legends, and it depends on a lot of different things like where you’re from and who was telling it to you. So I think is making it our own interpretation, both the version of the of Don’t Say Its Name and Kwêskosîw, is, I think, making it more original.
Matthew: Shifting gears a little bit, in the last couple of years, I feel like there’s been a real uptick –in the best way possible– of indigenous storytelling, especially here in Canada. What do you think about the state of indigenous storytelling on TV and in film today?
Sera-Lys: I think we’re getting there, but there’s still a long way to go. Clearly, there have been some scandals, and there still is this element of having to partner with a non-indigenous, more established production company, and they often kind of can challenge our vision. It’s hard to get the actual indigenous stories out there. It has to be a collaborative effort, and we understand that, so I’m just saying that we’re in the middle of turning the tide, but the tide is really heavy, and it’s gonna take a long time to turn. Hopefully, I think we’re on the right path, and we’re all going to be a lot more recognized when we get to where we hope to be with this.
Matthew: You live in New York now, do you find that there’s a difference in terms of how indigenous storytelling is received from Canada to the US, either from a production point of view or just from an audience point of view? Or for both?
Sera-Lys: Well, yes! So from a production side, it’s very different in Canada because there’s a lot of grant money that is earmarked for indigenous creatives. That’s a good thing, but it also makes it a bit of a precarious situation for us to navigate who we’re partnering with to tell the stories.
Then, in the States, it’s a free-for-all like everything else in the entertainment industry, where you try to get the money, and you try to throw it together and get the team going. But they are coming along as well; there are quite a few indigenous plays that have been getting a lot of traction and now those indigenous playwrights are working with big companies like DreamWorks, and to help develop shows and movies.
They just came out with this show called Reservation Dogs that’s been in the works –I think Taika Waititi has been such an awesome thing for indigenous storytelling and for indigenous creatives in both US and Canada. which is kind of weird because he’s from New Zealand and for sure he’s helpful for them as well, but he really helped boost our optics.
Matthew: Well, not to sound too hyperbolic, but he seems like he’s a bit of a creative genius. He’s also very forward with his identity. He’s not in any way toning it down or anything, which I think is amazing and great.
Sera-Lys: Yeah, for sure! And we identify with indigenous people of a lot of different colonized areas, and there’s definitely a big connection between the First Nations people and the Maori of New Zealand. So it’s nice to see that being explored in the mainstream now.
Matthew: Well I don’t want to take too much more of your time but one last question: for either or both films, what’s something that no one’s asking you about that you wish they’d ask you about?
Sera-Lys: I would just say that it was a really interesting challenge to make Kwêskosîw (She Whistles). It ended up kind of ballooning bigger than we anticipated because I didn’t really expect to need that much crew. Usually, a short film might have a crew of about 10; We had 40! It was also, for my company Fanning Feathers Productions, it was our first kick at the can kind of thing so I was definitely very nervous about that. Everything seemed to come together and I had a lot of awesome people helping me along the way, obviously, but I also just felt really accomplished about it all. I tried to be the steward for the indigeneity in this story and to help make sure that Thirza’s vision was as realized as possible, given our budget constraints.
Also, I was able to work with a composer who is also of Cree descent, called Nigel Irwin and I thought he did a fabulous job as well. I thought it brought so much to the film, to the feeling of it, and he was able to incorporate that song. So one of the behind the scenes things about Kwêskosîw is that there’s a creepy song in our movie. We were like, “how are we going to find a song that we can actually license?” Because… a rapist is playing it… you know? Nobody really wants their song associated with that, right?
So we were trying to think of a Canadian song, something like by Anne Murray or something, but it was getting down to the wire and we’d like really didn’t know what we were going to do. I can’t remember who came up with this, either me or my partner David Garegnani –who was our consulting producer, and he’s also from the Osage Nation in the US– but we thought “wait a second, what about when copyright expires? And it’s over 100 years old? Like, how does that work?” So you can’t F with a recording, but you can take the sheet music. So we took the sheet music and a sample of a style of the recording that we would want for By the Light of the Silvery Moon, and we gave it to Nigel and he was able to recreate that song as a recording that sounded like was on an old record player.
That was one of those things that that we were like, what are we going to do? And then like, that happened and we’re like, “Whoa, eureka!”. So there are like little ways that things seem to work out and also I learned along the way as a producer how to navigate.
Matthew: That’s awesome! So you said you’re working in Toronto right now, what’s next for you?
Sera-Lys: So I’m on Season Two of Pretty Hard Cases right now. So we’re not quite finished the season and we’re gearing up to that exciting part where we’re all waiting to find out what the whole mystery has been the whole time, so I’m excited about that. Then I may be going to be doing another lead role in another Canadian feature by an indigenous director in Vancouver in October.
Matthew: Are you allowed to tell me anything about that yet?
Sera-Lys: Probably shoudn’t until everything is signed.
Matthew: I guess I’ll speak to you next year at Fantasia or VIFF then!
It was a pleasure speaking to Sera-Lys about these two films, and I look forward to seeing what comes next for her. Don’t Say Its Name had its world premiere at Fantasia and will certainly be making the festival rounds the rest of the year. Kwêskosîw (She Whistles) played at Fantasia and is also having an encore showing at Outfest LA after this weekend, if you are in the US you can check it out there.
You can also catch Sera-Lys in the upcoming second season of CBCs Pretty Hard Cases.
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