Although it’s 7:30am, not a trace of morning grogginess is detectable in Camelia Frieberg’s voice on the phone. In Toronto for the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s the only time she has free for an interview. Lively and talkative, Frieberg speaks enthusiastically about her recent venture as a first-time feature-film director. “Recreating your identity when you’re 47,” she says gleefully, “to know that you can do that…I really feel like my age and experience brought a whole lot to the film.”
Frieberg’s schedule is decidedly packed. Her film, A Stone’s Throw, premiered in Toronto on September 13. Then, after a second screening on Friday, she’ll hop on a plane and head home to Nova Scotia where, just nine hours later, the film will make its east coast debut at the Atlantic Film Festival. For Frieberg, who lives in Mahone Bay, the Halifax festival will be a relief after TIFF’s hectic pace. “The Toronto International Film Festival”, she admits, “is like a huge machine. It isn’t a festival that you can enjoy—as a filmmaker.”
Not that the TIFF experience is an entirely new one—Frieberg’s name is already a familiar one in the country’s film industry. An established producer, Frieberg has produced films for some of Canada’s most notable directors, including Atom Egoyan, Jeremy Podeswa, Daniel McIvor, Deepa Mehta and Amnon Buchbinder. When it came to making the leap to directing, she says she was amazed by what she knew, just from working with directors for so many years. But playing both producer and director on the same film brought a whole new set of problems for Frieberg, who felt her loyalties torn between the two roles. Acknowledging the dilemma, she laughs, “Sometimes I would literally lie in bed and have arguments with myself.”
Frieberg co-wrote A Stone’s Throw with Garfield Lindsay Miller, a young Victoria-based writer she met while teaching a workshop on the west coast. It tells the story of Jack Walker (Kris Holden-Ried), a photojournalist and eco-activist who shows up unannounced on his sister Olivia’s (Kathryn MacLellan) doorstep in rural Nova Scotia after a period away. Though Olivia is upset by his arrival, Jack reconnects with his nephew, Thomas (Aaron Webber), ultimately finding romance—and later, himself—when he meets Lia (Lisa Ray from Mehta’s Water), a teacher at a local Waldorf school.
Though she describes directing as an “exhilarating experience,” Frieberg admits that she was nervous going in. Pre-production involved a number of long phone conversations with Atom Egoyan, with whom she produced Exotica, Speaking Parts and the Academy Award-nominated film The Sweet Hereafter. She ultimately ended up going to New York City to hang out on-set with Jeremy Podeswa (she produced his Genie Award-winning film The Five Senses) who was directing a film there. Though they were working on very different kinds of projects, the experience bolstered her confidence.
Shot in and around Halifax and Mahone Bay—Frieberg’s adopted hometown—place plays a significant role in A Stone’s Throw. She used her friend’s houses for locations. The school where Lia teaches is the actual Waldorf school Frieberg’s own children, Isaac and Adelaide, attend. Frieberg, who has lived in Nova Scotia for eight years, says she was “excited about bringing the part of the world I’ve come to know and love to a new audience.”
Raised in Toronto, Frieberg studied music and anthropology at Bennington College in Vermont, returning to the city to work as a journalist in her early twenties. It was in covering the Toronto International Film Festival (then called the Festival of Festivals) for a local paper that the young Frieberg first became enthralled by filmmaking. After establishing a successful career in the industry, however, Frieberg and her then-husband, Larry, felt dissatisfied with life in Canada’s largest city. After spending some time in British Columbia, they travelled to the east coast, fell in love what they found and decided to stay. “There is a real sense of connection here,” Frieberg says about the community. “I was really conscious of the sense of place, and the feeling of belonging to a place.”
Knowing that her skills were transferable, and cognizant of Nova Scotia’s vibrant film community, it didn’t take long for Frieberg to find her niche in her adopted province. “I’ve build up a great team here—we’re like a family,” she says, the pleasure coming out in the tone of her voice. “The crews here are so multitalented…more well-rounded. I guess in some ways that comes out of necessity. In Toronto, you’ll have a grip or a gaffer on set, and that’s all they’ll know. Here, you can build a band for your wrap party entirely out of your crew.”
Though she won’t disclose the film’s budget, she admits that it was very small (“less than the craft services budget of most American films”). More impressive is the fact that the entire project was shot on a tightly packed, 15-day schedule. “It was insane,” she laughs, gratefully acknowledging her creative and technical crews. “I felt completely supported the whole time,” she says. “There was a real feeling of ‘let’s all pull together and do the best that we can.’”
As enthusiastically as she speaks about her adopted community, however, Frieberg isn’t all sunshine and optimism. Much as she worked hard to depict the south shore in “all its glory,” she put equal efforts into revealing what she describes as its “insidious side,” with the introduction of a clear environmental subtext: a nearby toxic paint and resin factory which is negatively affecting the health of the film’s characters. A Stone’s Throw, after all, is a film intent on raising real questions about environmental destruction. Frieberg, who has lived “off the grid” in a straw bale home, first became interested in environmental activism when she discovered Pollution Probe as a child. “For as long as I can remember, the way we live has been something I care about.”
A Stone’s Throw, says Frieberg, is really a film about wilful blindness. “It’s about the question of ‘what’s in your own backyard’…it’s about how what’s close is sometimes not very apparent to us.” Bringing the idea to vivid, cinematic life is the fact that the film’s main character, Jack (Holden-Reid), has a degenerative eye disease and is losing his vision. For the audience, it means often seeing things from Jack’s point of view—hazy, and getting darker by the day—as he struggles to find the balance between the world’s big fights and its small, sensual pleasures. “He’s getting the big picture,” says Frieberg about her character, but he’s actually missing a lot of the detail because of his perception of how the world works. He’s not open to God and the details...he’s missing the minutiae.” As if to focus our attention on those things that Jack will soon not be able to see, Frieberg takes note of the tiny, beautiful things in the environment. Her roving camera lingers on wind chimes, doorknobs and tree bark, encouragement to take pleasure in the small things that exist in a world that sometimes seems too damaged to fix.
When asked if she’ll make the return to straight producing, Frieberg admits that it’s hard to say. She’s already started working on her next story—a romantic comedy that deals with what Frieberg calls “real issues”—which will also be set in Nova Scotia. She hopes to start shooting this winter. For now, Frieberg is enjoying the challenges her newly minted career has been presenting, and says she is looking forward to making her directorial debut in Toronto, although she admits that as a director you “have a different sort of ownership” than you do as a producer. When it comes to critics and media attention, “You do have to be careful not to take things personally.” The after-screening question and answer sessions, however, won’t be a problem: “I’m not nervous in front of people,” she says, wrapping up the conversation. “I’m just a big ham ’til the hook comes out.”
A Stone’s Throw, September 15, Oxford theatre, 9:30pm, $15. See page 24 for ticket information.