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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesCanadian Filmmaker Sarah Warren Makes Debut Feature in London

Canadian Filmmaker Sarah Warren Makes Debut Feature in London

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LR-MLE current poster-emailLR-MLE current posterSeeking to make her debut feature film, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Sarah Warren relocated from Canada to England in 2012, leading to her comic spy thriller M.L.E. (My Little Eye), which is now rolling out in North America. Writing, directing, producing and starring in the project, Warren put the entire film together in one year’s time. “It was a minor miracle,” she confessed by phone from London.

Seeking to gain credibility, Warren donned many hats, including raising the funds, for her first film. “I would have to prove myself,” she realized of her nascent career. “If I got up off of my arse, making something happen with a small amount of money, I could show – for the next film – this is what I am able to do with $40,000. It was a vehicle to get me started over here and hopefully internationally.”

Screening at the Action On Film Festival in Los Angeles for its U.S. premiere on Sept. 19, M.L.E. is many things in addition to Warren’s “Julia Robert” — its main character. Traversing London in the manner of a madcap amateur spy mission, M.L.E. is also about the plight of women in a male-dominated world and the challenges that creative people face through an ascent in their chosen field. “I wanted to make a comedy film that felt authored and show my voice and maybe my own talent,” revealed Warren. “If people aren’t going to cast you, you need to cast yourself. We did a Kickstarter campaign which you can only do one way properly. I saw poorly lit videos where people were saying give me and my friend money. I wanted to have continuity with the video we make and the actual film and tie it all the way through post.”

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With an initial fundraising goal of $17,000, micro-budget by any standard, Warren raised $20,000, still infinitesimal for launching a feature, much less one in a foreign land. “Having been in the country for about three months, I was proud we made the goal,” she said. “We matched that money with private investment. We shot over six weeks with three cameras: a RED Scarlet in 4K, the Spy Camera 5D, and some GoPro shots in the water.”

Shooting on actual London streets, Warren’s project was ambitious by any standards, magnified by her duties as star, producer and director on set. “On most micro-budget shoots, any producer would advise you to shoot in two rooms with a couple of great actors,” she said. “We had 64 actors in 35 locations. The story tells you what it needs to be. This particular story, being the awkward amateur spy in a new city, needed to be full of bumbling quirky characters. It needed to have the rough-and-tumble tsunami of meeting people. That adds up to the comedy. It needed to be an overwhelming amount of chaos.”

As for her taking on a mountain of responsibility, Warren felt it was in her basic nature to do so even on her first film. “I’ve always wanted to do the writing, directing and acting,” she stated. “That felt like something I wanted to pursue. ‘We’re kind of accidental CEOs.’ You have to create a company and learn about that logistics admin stuff. I’m pretty good with organization.”

LR-MLE CHASE PNG copyMany a writer-director-star might seek out a producer to manage the daily minutia on a film set, but Warren noted that, at this juncture, she felt self-producing was the logical move. “It’s extremely hard to find your producer soul mate,” she detailed. “Someone else isn’t going to love your dog as much as you do. It takes a good 10 years to find that person who gets your voice, is creative, and pushes that project forward.”

In concocting M.L.E., Warren noted her unique approach to developing material. “My process is walking around with something – letting it live in your head for six months or however long,” she explained. “Then I write it in less than a week. Outline, outline, outline. Treatment, treatment, treatment. What would Mamet do? Then the writing is just natural – it completely flows out from there.”

One of M.L.E.’s sure strengths is its memorable characters, both Warren’s Julia Robert and co-star Julie Sype’s Camila. “You have to live with the characters,” Warren related of her formative creative springboard. “Walk and walk. Suddenly, things will come to you. You carry it around and let it be natural for a while. It’s important for all writers to have that vomit pass.”

LR-MLE Masks PNG copyStarting her career in Canada, Warren made a student feature film at the University of Toronto where she worked under the tutelage of director Atom Egoyan. “I took an acting degree at University of Toronto,” she said. “My BA was in Theatrical Arts. My last year, I was doing a minor in film. There was a specialized course to work with Atom – two actors, two directors. I got accepted into that course. That concretized my want to make films.”

Constantly thinking of ideas, Warren’s vision of working in cinema crystallized, leading to a series of short connected vignettes all connected by the moment right before a person says, ‘I love you.’ “That was a very important film – Moments Before,” she described. “We treated it like 14 short films. You can stop and start instead of treating it like a feature.”

To make M.L.E., one of Warren’s key collaborators was executive producer Simon Shore who had first assisted with the script. “He’s won a BAFTA for directing,” Warren noted. “I asked him to be an on-set eye for performance. Because he was an older white male who won a BAFTA, I was concerned about people going to him. That was not an issue at all. I don’t take stuff personally. I’m all about get the best shot, get the best take. I have a built-in first AD chip — I don’t linger on takes.”

In the editing room with cutters James Branch and Christopher Chow, Warren found her biggest challenge on the project. “It was very difficult film to cut,” she expressed. “What people have to remember, talking to an editor is the same way you would talk to an actor. It’s somewhat collaborative in moments, but a director has to have a vision.”

As for editing her own lead performance, Warren also found that aspect daunting, but she found a method of overcoming the hurdle. “I teach acting around the world; in London, I teach master classes,” she said of her experiences. “You have to learn to watch yourself and see it as someone else. You have to be an active spectator. We had a lot to accomplish.”

Looking back on her first feature, Warren saw her multiple roles as all having the same function. “It’s moving the cart up the mountain everyday,” she remarked, “carrying everybody’s energy and inspiring production all through post. You have to do it authentically. At the end of the day, if they see a good film, that’s the reward.”

With her U.S. premiere upcoming, Warren looks forward to sharing the experience with stateside audiences. “I hope that people like it,” she said. “I’m proud of its charm and its heart and a lot of the comedy.”

Before departing, Warren noted that she is only at the beginning of her journey. “I’m already really deep into the next idea for the next film,” she said. “The goalposts are always changing — you can always show and do more.”

For its appearance at the Action On Film Festival in Los Angeles, M.L.E. is nominated for six awards including best comedy feature, best actress, best director and best screenplay.

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