The Maiden Graham Foy interview

Graham Foy on his feature debut The Maiden, a dreamy tribute to Calgary’s suburbs

An interview with the Canadian filmmaker about casting non-actors, shooting on 16 mm and depicting a magical space in his coming of age film.

In a hazy Calgary suburb, the lives of three teens intertwine around a ravine, until their lives are irreparably changed by tragedy. In director Graham Foy’s feature debut, The Maiden, memory plays an essential role in shaping the confines of the story. Shot on textured 16mm film, the movie is divided into two distinct parts, one rooted in the naturalism of the real world, the other guided by one character’s diary, a more ephemeral dream world. A stunning and personal project that captures the strong emotions of youth, The Maiden centres on the seismic upheaval that comes with mourning at a formative stage in your life. Foy doesn’t spoonfeed the audience but instead draws them into a world of hazy impressions, numbed by memory and grief. It captures the feeling of long summer nights where the possibilities seem endless; rife with opportunity but also, perhaps, horror. 

Graham Foy spoke with Cult MTL over the phone about working with non-actors, shooting on film and being an Albertan filmmaker. 

Justine Smith: I want to start by talking about the actors and how you went about casting, particularly since you’re working primarily with non-actors or first-time film actors.

Graham Foy: My wife, Daiva (Zalnieriunas), also a co-producer on the film with Dan Montgomery, and I spent about two years trying to cast the three lead kids. We went to high schools, primarily (ones) that had theatre programs. We did a lot of workshops with different high schools in Calgary to find kids interested in acting in a film. And that’s how we found Hayley Ness, who plays Whitney in the film. Right away, we were in love with her, and she has such a beautiful moral compass. She really cannot tell a lie. She’s very, very honest. Because the relationships in the film are very close, we wanted to make sure that the person we cast as Kyle would get along with her. We found Jackson (Sluiter) through a mutual friend in the skate community in Calgary. I was really nervous to have the Whitney and the Kyle casting possibilities hang out together because I wasn’t sure if Hayley would like Jackson. It was important that they could firstly be these sort of unlikely friends but also seem like they genuinely respect  one another.

To our surprise, they got along amazingly well. Hayley started singing Abba to Jackson in our first rehearsal. And then Jackson was kind of relaying his experience with hardcore music to her and saying, “hardcore is like this really cool, inclusive community, and maybe you’d like it.” They really bonded over music and that made its way into the film as well. And then Marcel (T. Jiménez), we met through some casting sessions at skate parks. He was working at one of the skate parks in Calgary, and similarly, we just fell in love with his gentleness and his heart. Actually, Jackson and Marcel had been friends since they were two, but we didn’t know when we’d cast them both separately. So the photo in the film is the two of them when they’re younger is a real photo.

The Maiden
The Maiden

JS: Alberta is one of the largest provinces in Canada, but feels often underrepresented in film. Is it important to you to be a voice for Alberta film and feed into the future of filmmaking there?

Graham Foy: That was really important to us. I grew up in Calgary and got into filmmaking through the skateboarding and snowboarding communities. I used to make videos when I was younger, but I didn’t see narrative filmmaking as a possibility because I just didn’t really know any directors that were from Calgary or Alberta in general. That kind of visibility or just having somebody (making films) opens up possibilities for you or at least I felt that way growing up. I wanted to make the film as inclusive as possible for the kids working on it. There were a lot of high school kids that interned or helped out on the production and learned some of the more technical stuff as we were shooting. I hope it opened up some intrigue to some of the younger kids on the shoot. But it was an amazing experience from both sides. We learned a lot from the kids, too.

JS: Can you talk about the motivation for working with people who have less experience with film acting?

Graham Foy: I was interested in trying to create this naturalistic performance style because the film does sort of transition into this somewhat ethereal, magical space. To do that, I wanted to be really careful to ground the film in this almost documentary realism so that those magical qualities would feel as realistic as possible. For all three of the leads, this was  their first experience acting in a film. I wanted to make sure that we cast kids that could bring some of themselves to the role and that would feel comfortable with themselves and who they were within each of the scenes. I tried to guide a very specific direction through each of the scenes, but I let them choose the words, for the most part, that they wanted to use to get there, rather than me forcing sort of a voice on their character. I wanted to give them all agency that represents the character in the way that they wanted.

JS: Can you talk about where the story came from, including how you decided to structure the film?

Graham Foy: The film really transformed a lot through the writing process. But one of the things that I have been thinking about pieces of the puzzle that a lot of the ideas started to coalesce around was the train bridge and the ravine that’s featured in the film, and specifically the tags on the train bridge. I grew up in that area and used to walk past the bridge to my high school. Over the years, I would really notice the graffiti changing and sort of the different little pieces of writing that were on the bridge, some of which were, you know, really crude sayings, and others were makeshift memorials for lost friends. Then also normal, more polished graffiti tags. There was this mystery, I think, to all of those little pieces of writing. There was a story behind each one of those tags. The Maiden became one of those stories, this almost secret history immersed in this space. 

The structure of the film came from this feeling of trying to articulate how a great loss, especially when you’re young, can really transform the way that you see the world around you, and spaces become different, and they change in their sort of meaning and how you feel about them. I wanted to create a film that could dive into this space but also represent that sort of psychological headspace that Colton’s character was going through. I feel that when sometimes when you go through a great loss when you experience art or somebody else’s story, you start to see yourself or people in your own life and the roles of those characters that other people are writing about. It can help you process what you’re going through. So that’s how the two-part structure with Whitney’s journal sort of came about.

The Maiden
The Maiden

JS: One of the strongest aspects of the film, too, is this incredibly dreamy, textured, almost sensual cinematography by Kelly Jeffrey. Can you talk about your collaboration and what your like how you envisioned the film to be, and the aesthetic?

Graham Foy: Me and Kelly have been working together for almost ten years, maybe longer than that. But we’ve been working together since film school. We have a very easy shorthand because we’re really good friends. We talk all the time, and we’ve been working together for so long, but we talked a lot about how to achieve this, like the slight separation between reality and the film. One of the things that we decided to do is to shoot much of the nighttime footage as Day for Night. So we shot many scenes that are dark and blue in the daytime, and then we coloured them down to the result that you see in the film. But there is something about that technique, an old film technique, that pulled together the dreaminess of that transition between Whitney’s more realistic world and this sort of separate space the film transitions into. Also shooting on 16mm film offered just a slight separation between what we’re used to seeing normally and offered just a slight layer of distance in terms of its rendering of colour and its grain that offered a little tiny sparkle to the world that we were trying to capture very naturally.

JS: You’ve spoken about shooting around where you grew up, kind of going back with this first feature and shooting this film. How did it shift or illuminate your kind of relationship with that space?

Graham Foy: There was something really interesting about shooting my first film in a place where I had a lot of history. It was really helpful to have that connection to the place, but also to my memories of things that happened in and around that age in those spaces, to be to write the film, but also have a lot of different material to draw from. And some things are from my life, but many aren’t. But I was also interested in how memories transform over time and become separate from the actual events. Even in the film, there’s an element of that and how your memories of somebody close to you that’s maybe not here anymore can morph and change and become something new or different.

JS:  I’m curious about your artistic influences, not just film but if you also have anything that’s musical or literary, anything that you feel informs your vision.

Graham Foy: I’m inspired by a lot of painters and a lot of photographers. Some photographers I was thinking about for this film were William Eggleston, Justine Kurland and Irina Rozovsky. Then also painters. I was interested in this idea of impressionism in painting and how there was this stage in painting where people started to represent the world with these very strong, bold colours. It wasn’t about realism so much as expressing what they felt about the world. I was interested in the idea of how it could fit into film. So the film is sparse, and it has these sorts of sketches of characters. It doesn’t articulate everything. I try to use these very broad strokes and gestures to tell a story. I like these broad strokes that carry you through a temporal space and may be influenced by some of those ideas in Impressionism. The way we shot it, we tried to shoot a lot of silhouettes where the landscape was reduced to this kind of black void and that the sky breaks up and shows you where the character is and that in that space is strong, like the blue and black colour palette. ■

The Maiden (directed by Graham Foy)

The Maiden is screening exclusively at Cinéma Moderne

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