FREYA follows Jade, someone who considers her Federally Regulated Enquiry and Yield Assistant(FREYA) a friend. But when a one-night stand doesn’t go as planned, Jade is forced to question FREYA and the system she represents. Set in the not-too-distant future, FREYA will make you second guess your relationship with technology, social media, and the state. The film has already gained critical acclaim from Calgary International Film Festival, Awareness Film Festival, Imagine Science Film Festival, Blood in the Snow Film Festival, Berlin Sci-Fi FilmFest and Genre Celebration Festival. Hear from Camille Hollett-French and Rhona Rees about the dystopian short film, screening at Vancouver Short Film Festival.
Tell us about FREYA
Camille Hollett-French: FREYA is a futuristic sci-fi-esque story about what could happen if we don’t take control now of our own narratives. It’s a what-if story, a glimpse into a future we think we’d want but quickly realize we most definitely wouldn’t want. A reviewer referred to it as “dystopian” once and it took me by surprise, and I thought “Well, duh. Of COURSE it’s dystopian!” I made a dystopian film without even realizing it probably because I watch so many of them and they eventually became just another film to me, the typical movie I would watch. I love this sort of story. It was written so well and the process of imaging all the possibilities for it was a real joy. It follows a woman, Jade, who’s got her life together, enjoying her day-to-day, her job, getting laid—the things lots of girls like. And then because of circumstances beyond her control she finds herself in a horrifying situation on the precipice, about to fall into a canyon of regret. Maybe.
For me, it really speaks to the ever-changing, ever-wondering reality of a woman. We have so many factors to keep together, while making sure to stay pretty but sexy, smart but not too much to handle, and so on, but we have to keep it together at all times. But we’re human and imperfect and make mistakes as big as our accomplishments sometimes.
And then somehow it all clears itself up, and turns out she’s on this emotional roller coaster for absolutely no reason. Even though. That’s how the system is.
Why did you want to tell this particular story?
Rhona Rees: FREYA is a protest film. It was written when the first rumblings around illegalizing abortion in the US were happening. As a global society we seem to take steps towards equality then take leaps back, and I believe art is a powerful thought provoker. Instead of turning to social media to vent, I wrote this film. In a sad twist of fate, we premiered right after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, when Roe V Wade was suddenly in a very precarious position. We had no idea how timely the film would be. We also premiered just before The Social Dilemma, which touches another theme of the film – our relationship with technology and social media. Really FREYA is my nightmare – my worst-case scenario for the future. I wrote it as a wakeup call for all of us. To stand up for our rights, to disconnect from our devices and connect with each other instead. Sadly, right now during the pandemic that’s not really possible, we are extra-reliant on our devices. I hope on the other side of COVID that we can ditch our screens and rejoice in face-to-face time instead of FaceTime.
Who is the team behind FREYA?
CHF: So the team behind FREYA is Rhona Rees, our creator, writer and lead actor, a very talented on-screen and voice actor. This was her first script, and I think she has a very long career ahead of her in screenwriting. I’m a writer, director, producer and actor myself but I directed this film. It was produced by Kristyn Stilling and Athena Russell. And then we had the insanely talented and kind and collaborative DP Alfonzo Chin, and Davis Titus our editor and apparently VFX wizard! He saved our butts a ton, when it felt like everything was about to go up in flames and he’d nonchalantly pull out “Oh yeah, I can do that. No problem.” I’ve worked with Dave many times in the past but this project, in particular, proved that he is a true godsend. We also worked with a local studio called Workshop Media and we developed a lot of the look with them.
Our production designer Jamie Chrest is incredible. Hire her! Hire her immediately! She will take your project and elevate it like you couldn’t imagine. Her eye is so sharp. She listens to what you say and basically says, “Yeah ok, I got it,” and then she goes away and does all of this work in the background without you realizing it. And if you put your trust in her and just believe in her talent, you show up to set and you see the monitor and you’re floored. She and Alfonso made images pop in such a unique, other-worldly kind of way. They’re talented for sure, but it was also their attitudes, their love for their crafts and their trust in a director they’ve never worked with before. We had a solid team with a great shoot in a mere three days with two locations.
Karyna Barros is my go-to costume designer and she always pulls through. Just for my last film, I told her on a Thursday night that I needed a uterus costume. She said not to worry then showed up 36 hours later at my door with a human-sized uterus costume. She’s my fairy godmother. I always tell her that. She and co-designer Vlad were so detailed and delicate with this vision for a time we were creating from scratch. I will always be so grateful for their creations, sometimes with a sewing machine on set, sometimes from their massive kits they opened freely for our film. Like that beautiful blue jacket Jade wears. Karyna just brought that to set one day like she just had it laying around no biggy.
And then of course, we had the great Elysia Rotaru voicing FREYA. She was the first audition we got for FREYA. Then every time we heard another one, it was like, we couldn’t get Elysia’s insane AI-but-human voice out of our heads. Praneet Akilla plays Theo, such an oddly funny character that Rhona wrote. And now he’s a new regular on Nancy Drew! We had a great team.
We couldn’t have done it all without the Harold Greenberg Fund and Creative BC who greenlit the production, and also the National Film Board of Canada who awarded us with the Filmmaker’s Assistance Program finishing fund, the only way to be funded for narrative content at the organization! That was a huge goal of mine once we learned about the fund, to get in with the NFB. They do incredible work.
Camille, you’ve created stories that lend yourself as a producer/director who tells stories with a social impact, when did you feel you knew you wanted to bring impactful stories to life?
CHF: This is an interesting question! A tough one. I’m unsure of it. I like it… All I can say is luckily, I’ve never had to sit down and think about what sorts of films I’ve wanted to make. I’ve always had this clear desire to go after stories that could create change.It was like the gas in my tank rather than a roadmap. So I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it, per se, or tried to create that brand for myself. I’ve just lived around very loving, very passionate people my whole life. And that’s given me a very rich, protective, strong foundation to explore from.
My partner in love and business, Paul Benallick, has been a chef for 25 years. And when he comes home at night he moonlights as a producer-by-necessity which I love but also feel bad about! He never stops working. He supports me by building a very supportive space for me to be able to just sit and think and feel and create and follow my heart and follow my passions, and it’s fallen into place so far in really wonderful ways. I’m really grateful for that.
FREYA approaches social issues in a unique framework almost with a dystopian Black Mirror feel, can you tell us a bit about the writing and inspirations for that theme?
RR: The original idea came after a conversation between some voice actors about Siri. We were auditioning for a Siri type voice and having a laugh about extreme personalities for Siri. It got me thinking about ethics in tech. How do you program ethics? Who decides what’s ethical? When I started to explore the concept of smart devices, the smart toilet was such a striking idea – funny and weird and scary all at once. The film really came to life around the toilet scenes! The style is heavily influenced by Black Mirror.Black Mirror is so impactful because it feels relatable, within reach. If we set this story 100 years in the future, the audience would feel safe. The not-too-distant future is a wonderful space to play in as a writer. It allows us to use our imaginations while staying grounded in a world that audiences can picture themselves in.
How do you think creatives can use their own unique voices to incite social change in an authentic way?
CHF: The best kind of art to me, is something that’s an extension of its creator, when someone’s artistic voice flows so naturally from inside of them out into their art. And I think when that happens, it’s this really beautiful instance of experiencing truth. And I think harnessing and using truth naturally creates change—It creates change in our own lives, it creates change in the people around us, so ultimately, it creates change in our society. My goal. Whenever I embark on a new project is to find ways to push my own boundaries, so that the growth in me can hopefully be used as a mirror for people around me to want to grow themselves. Then when I can experience their growth, it makes me want to reach higher. And then eventually it’s like “was it the chicken or the egg?”—but it’s like, who cares! Let’s have an omelette! Throw some oysters and champagne in there! Make it a lazy Sunday afternoon brunch. And we move forward together like that, as one.
There’s something I’ve learned though, that’s been a very hard lesson to learn and sometimes a very painful one: change doesn’t always happen immediately. Sometimes it happens 10 years later. I’m still waiting for a lot of it! But you have to trust that with your heart and your guts, that it will eventually change and that you are but one person moving forward in an army of people around the globe. Eventually the ripple shows up on the surface. But that waiting can be excruciating. So you just distract yourself by working on the next project!
But it can be very hard for creatives, to trust in that. I mess up and fail miserably all the time. The process of creation can be really lonely, you’re sitting there by yourself, cutting yourself up on the inside and trying to like lay pieces of yourself beautifully, perfectly on this platter for the hungry and sometimes downright mean world to see and consume. And all you can do is hope that they’ll see it and like it and want it and invite you in.
How do you stay creative?
CHF: Movies. Lots and lots of movies. I have a growing collection of about 300. And then there’s Netflix, but I’m old-school. I like to feel them and smell them and watch the special features.
I’m also very fortunate. I’ve always known what I wanted to do, so there was no question. It just WAS. The hardest thing has been other people getting me my way, casting their doubt, telling me how hard it would be. I call those the “lies of the world.” It’s a system, that’s been created somehow to keep people in place because that maintains order. And we have to keep chasing our dreams, despite what people say around us, despite “tall poppy syndrome” and the bullshit we’re told not because it has anything to do with us but because people are battling their own demons and self-doubt. We have to keep moving forward and just drown out the systems that prevail, because this isn’t FREYA-land, not yet, thank god, and the opportunities are there.
For me, creativity comes from necessity. I couldn’t live without the urge to creative. It gives me a reason to live. Dramatic but true. I’ve been like that since I was a child. And again, I’ve been fortunate enough to always be in an environment that allowed me to explore that.
What has your experience been like working on FREYA through the series of obstacles this past year?
CHF: FREYA itself was an obstacle. To make a movie, any kind, any length, you need this like consistent flow of miracles because you can’t do it alone and it doesn’t make any sense as to how they actually get finished. There are just so many things that could go wrong. And as Murphy says, they will. They really do.
Working with a new team is always tough and the only thing that can pull it through is trust. If that’s messed, then you’re screwed. Or you may get through it but it’s really not fun.
The pandemic made it very hard because the typical means of communication are broken down, ie sitting in a room together, and feeding off each other’s energies. When you don’t have that, it makes it difficult partly because of the logistics but partly because the joy is sucked right out of it. And what is creating if there’s no joy involved?
Overall it was a difficult process and so it was that much better when we could celebrate when we started showing the world and getting really good feedback and seeing that it was resonating in a very powerful way like winning Best Live Action short for our first festival at the Calgary International Film Festival. That was an amazing treat, and it was like the cherry on a shit sundae.
We shot the film a year ago almost to the day. It was in the can. And then we went into post production shortly after that and that’s when we started to feel like, oh, this COVID might be really serious. And then of course March 13 happened and from then on it was like everything went remote. VFX like that was really difficult because it’s so much better to be able to sit in a room with an artist and have them tweak here and there and play with visuals and show you different options very quickly, rather than setting everything up and then sending it over for a pass, then sending it around the team, then sending it back and then getting notes from everybody. Something that could normally take three days took three weeks. But we were all in this uncharted territory. Now moving onto future projects it’s different, because we’ve been fortunate to have to have come up with solutions.
It really was a more difficult process than I could have imagined. And there were times I was really beating myself up about it, at the end of the day like oh, could I have done that better? Could I have run that meeting better? Could I have been more efficient somehow? What could I have done to make the communication clearer?
I did however discover shortly after this process, after 34 years of wondering why I’m the way I am, that I have an ADHD brain. Knowledge is good, because it means you can come up with tools for success, but I can’t deny that it’s all been very difficult in general, regardless of a pandemic or working with a new team for the first time. And as I become more ambitious, it gets harder, because I’m being forced to fold into the majority and work in a way that just isn’t conducive to me and is in direct conflict with my method of creating my nest work. But I can’t turn down a good opportunity! So it builds and builds. It’s a double-edged sword really! Kind of like a nightmare at times.
At the same time, I’ve been dealing with chronic pain and fatigue. I had my second surgery for endometriosis a month before we shot, then I was on series of medications that made me a zombie and took over, and if you’re not careful, it happens really slowly and you wake up one day and go, how did this become my life? So you have to manage that with the pandemic, knowing the people you would normally lean on for support can’t really be there because they’re struggling too because there’s a global pandemic going on! It’s been a strange year. But like I’ve said, I am so fortunate! I got to make another film during the pandemic! We made it in eight days. It’s called ENDOMIC and it’s a quirky, zero-shits-given dock-meets-mock, live-action and animation short about endometriosis. So, full circle there! It’ll be premiering at Slamdance next month for the first Unstoppable program for filmmakers with visible and non-visible disabilities.
Ultimately, we have to be easier on ourselves and loves ourselves. That’s what smiling social influencers keep telling me anyway. Ok, I can’t be that cynical. I don’t want to be. But it was really hard, particularly toward the end of post. Then I read an article that Denis Villeneuve was having a hard time finishing Dune because of the pandemic and having to work remotely, and that made me feel a lot better and gave me that final push. I’ll have to thank him in person one day.
Watch FREYA at the 2021 Vancouver Short Film Festival from January 22-24.