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TIFF 2018: An Interview With EXIT Director Claire Edmondson and Why She’s One to Watch

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Speaking on the phone to Clarie Edmondson, it’s pretty easy to imagine yourself sitting down for an afternoon coffee with her, just having a chat, despite the fact that we were thousands of miles apart from one another.  Now living in Los Angeles, Edmondson is bright, down to earth, and personable.  Her excitement for her newest project is palpable and her passion for directing, undeniable.  

Born in Liverpool, Edmondson moved to Canada as a young girl, where she was raised on the west coast.  Since then she’s lived in London and Toronto before making her way, as many filmmakers do, to Los Angeles. As she notes, “For me LA makes more sense now.  But I get really nostalgic for London.”  Something we both have in common.  But, LA brings with it opportunities such as the one she gets to talk about now. 

Even in school, Edmondson knew directing was for her. “I remember being put into a group project and then deciding that we needed to turn it into a video,” she laughs as she recalls, “I loved it so much that I convinced my friends and their group to also make a video and let me direct it.” However, she eventually went to school for Fashion Design and Costuming which would gain her a lot of on set experience, while at the same time realizing that directing was really where she could see herself.  

Fast forward some years later past some pretty profound music videos (more on that later) and Claire is currently bringing her short film, EXIT, to the Toronto International Film Festival for its world premiere September 10th as part of their Short Cuts programme.  It is best to know as little about this project as possible before watching it, and Edmondson is careful to avoid spoilers in her interview, but what I can tell you is it stars Maria Bello as a woman who, according to TIFF’s synopsis is “facing the ramifications of a profound decision.” The film, at just under fifteen minutes, packs an emotional punch and is one that impacted me profoundly, as I am sure it will other audiences.  “As a filmmaker,” she notes,  “you just want stories that you tell to stay with people and you hope that you make an impact.”  Mission accomplished.  

Maria Bello takes aim in EXIT

The road to making EXIT was a long one for the writer/director but started with a news article she saw about ten years ago.  She has never been able to source that original article again, but it was the “seed” for this project, that she wrote six or seven years ago now.  However, the challenge of getting a film made was just beginning.  Like most things, it all begins with money – getting the project financed.  “At this point, I had directed a few music videos and I wanted to start applying for grants which at the time in Canada I just — I couldn’t get any,” Edmondson explains. “On that note, I would look at the list of grant recipients and they just weren’t even giving them to women back then.  There was never a woman on the list.  This happened through about three rounds.”

From there, and to keep a long story short, Claire ended up on a short list for a grant at the Tribeca film festival, which was the fuel she needed to keep going.  After her move to LA, her commercial agent also happened to be representing Hiro Murai, the director of FX series Atlanta.  That connection was enough to gain interest from the network, who was looking to do a short film series.  That never ended up happening, but because of the interest FX had shown she was able to get her project finally financed.

Then, it all came down to casting.  Claire explains, “We knew because [the character] goes through such an emotional arc that we wanted a seasoned actor that we could trust, that we know, and who would just nail it.”  That person turned out to be Maria Bello.  She continues, “I have been such a huge Maria Bello fan since A History of Violence and I followed her since then.  I think that was when I first really noticed her and it was always a goal of mine to work with her. The fact that she said yes, it kind of blew my mind.”

Bello in another scene from EXIT

Getting Bello to agree, turned out to be pretty easy based on Edmondson’s previous work, proving that it’s not only who you know (though in the film industry, that’s pretty important) but also what you’ve done that can help with your next project.  Meeting over a “bottle of wine”, Claire found out it was a boxing short for Everlast she had done that helped Maria take the meeting in the first place.  Being into boxing at the time, Maria Bello had already seen the spot and loved it.  Edmondson admits, “I mean, she is Maria Bello.  She doesn’t need to be making a short film at all but just thought Al [her producing partner] and I were interesting and thought the script was good and decided to say yes.”

Check out our TIFF coverage

Having an experienced actor turned out to be a necessity since they had to shoot the film in two days due to Bello’s availability.  Claire also praises Natasha Bassett (“a huge up and coming talent”) and the rest of her cast for helping to get the job done.  Heading out to the desert location prior to filming helped to prep the shoot for efficiency, blocking each scene and clearly visualizing each shot.  Then she notes, “If we had lesser actors, maybe we would have to work through the scene a lot more and spend a lot more time and do a lot more takes.  But half of the time, Maria would just nail it on the first take.  And then we would do one for safety and just for fun and try it a different way and then we would move on, which is the blessing of having such an amazing seasoned actor.”

As with EXIT, it’s clear looking from her work that Claire Edmondson has herself a strong, unique voice, just as she likes to tell the stories of strong, empowered women.  Remember those music videos I mentioned a while back? One of them, for the song Sweetest Kill by Broken Social Scene, depicts Bijou Phillips (brutally) dismembering her boyfriend, and these videos granted Claire the title of being a “feminist” filmmaker.  “I’m not going to reject the label because I am a feminist,” she explains though it wasn’t an outward intent, “I didn’t know I was making a feminist statement.  I was just actually just trying to make what I wanted and it just happened to be from a woman’s point of view.”

“Why am I being called a female filmmaker and men just get to be filmmakers?”

Like many others, Claire herself has experienced the bias the industry has historically had towards women.  She explains, “When I started directing, seven years ago or something,  people weren’t talking about all these issues and all of the bias that was working against them at the time… My first two music videos did really well internationally like I got so much press, probably more press than my male counterparts were getting at the time, but my male counterparts would just be getting handed opportunities that I wouldn’t be getting so I really felt that at the beginning.”

Those feeling happened to result in the project that leads back to the present,  “When I wrote the film for Everlast, that was a reaction to all the sexism that I was feeling within the industry…I was being called a female filmmaker and I was like, ‘Why am I being called a female filmmaker and men just get to be filmmakers?’” But, Edmondson feels that things are slowly changing, citing 22-year-old director Karena Evans, who helmed Drake’s music videos for God’s Plan, Nice for What, and In My Feelings, as evidence that the current women’s movement seems to be working.  She is clearly incredibly happy for her fellow director that the opportunity has come her way, and her hope for the industry is that women directors be, “Taken a lot more seriously and that the obstacle course that has been put in front of us is just dismantled because I really felt it.”

“Your career certainly does change once you’ve made a short film because it’s like a calling card to prove that you can actually direct actors and tell a story,” Claire states, and like her inspirations Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, and Sofia Coppola before her, Edmondson is poised to make a distinct imprint on the film industry.  With the short film under her belt, there is talk of turning EXIT into a feature, and she also has another film script completed.  She’s also inspired these days by Ava Duvernay – “She makes great work and she just puts her voice to good use and I admire that so much” – and in that regard I have no doubt that Claire Edmondson, filmmaker, will put hers to good use as well.  

Check out Claire’s videos, including that Everlast spot and music videos, at her Vimeo site

EXIT screens at the Toronto International Film Festival in the short cuts program.  For more information please visit tiff.net

Stills from EXIT courtesy of TIFF

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