Inspiration from the arts community and hard work have translated into success for one Calgary artist

Wearing multiple hats comes naturally to award-winning artist Danielle French.

 She pursues multiple creative goals and embodies a distinctive combination of traits: creative and pragmatic, exploratory and collaborative, and humble and successful.

However, she credits, in part, her incredible luck to being a part of such a vibrant and inclusive arts community in Calgary.

French’s most recent short film, “To The Death,” has won multiple awards on the 2011 film festival circuit so far, but the path that lead her to this point is not what most people might guess.

“I never grew up going, ‘I want to do a film one day,’ you know? Some people know all their lives they want to be a director. For me it really came out of the music,” admits French.

She began her artistic career as a singer/songwriter in 1995 with her debut “me, myself & i,” and has since released two other full-length albums. She has played with a number of Canadian musical luminaries such as Burton Cummings, Matthew Good and Tom Cochrane. Having worked with various types of artists in different areas of the community inspired her to explore the visual aspects of her sound, and she discovered she had a willing roster of talented friends to draw on.

A bustling arts community

“In Calgary, because it’s a bit of a smaller community, it seems like there is a lot of cross pollination,” the artist said. “Even 10 years ago the arts community wasn’t that big; everybody sorta knew each other. All the theatre people seemed to hang out with the musicians.

“I’m not the technology person, I’m more the visual person, but the more I learn about technology and about what’s possible [in making films] the better I’m able to communicate the ideas. So, I really think about myself as emerging at this point, but I’ve had a lot of support so it’s really about bringing a team together and collaborating so that the idea can be translated.”

The filmmaking process began rather loosely for French. She had a visual concept in mind and approached various people to help her bring it to life. Her first film, “Avalon,” was a short set to one of her songs, as are all of her films. She submitted the film to various Calgary film festivals in 2004 and, bolstered by her experience, decided to apply for funding for a second project.

The business of art

Having a peer-reviewed piece of work under her belt, French applied for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and received the grants for her film. She said that the process of applying for the funds was a good learning tool for the emerging filmmaker because her first film had no real formal structure.

“So, that got me into the process of scrutinizing the budget and doing all that research like, ‘Well, how much does it does it cost to rent a jib arm, and what is a jib arm?” (It’s a camera arm.)

After French created her second film, “Time to Kill” in 2007, she was just hoping it would be accepted into some film festivals and get the exposure an emerging artist needs. At the time she had just quit her job and wasn’t sure exactly what direction she was going in. She decided to submit her film to the Sedona International Film Festival in Arizona, and her pragmatism and multiple talents soon became an obvious advantage.

After learning her film had been accepted in the festival, she realized she had an opportunity to play some music gigs on her way south. She decided to put the word out and before she knew it she had booked a tour of 35 dates over two and a half months, and her two passions had suddenly collided in her favour, exceeding her original expectations she conceded.

Drawing on her talents, learning some on the way

Her apparent ability to trade hats when needed has certainly come in handy in her latest and largest film endeavor to date.

As a musician, French was already accustomed to applying to perform at folk festivals and approaching the experience in a somewhat competitive way while trying to market her albums and herself. She says as an independent artist, whether it’s music or film, marketing yourself is something you get used to. She’s now more comfortable in her multiple roles as producer, director and publicist, to name just a few.

“To The Death” premiered at the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival in April, where it won the best music video award. Since then it has also won awards at the Honolulu Film Awards and the Mexico International Film Festival respectively.

Peter Hemminger, Calgary International Film Festival’s associate programmer, explains why short films are important to the film industry and emerging filmmakers.

“For a lot of first-time filmmakers, it’s impossible to get funding for a feature, so shorts tend to be where you see all these new voices that are trying to establish themselves,” he said.  “And when an established filmmaker does a short, it’s usually because they want to try out a new idea, or just have fun without all the commercial pressure that comes from making a feature.”

 Colour, texture, creep and character

“To The Death” is a stylized exploration of the multiple sides of a female character played out through the various caricatures of the tarot deck. The filmmaker said she is visually inspired by vaudevillian ideas seen through a kind of freak show lens.

Certainly the characters speak to her vision and the sumptuous costumes create a kind of reckless yet luxurious aesthetic of eccentric cabaret. People compare French to other directors but she said she’s usually not really familiar with the filmmakers’ work.

“I’m often like ‘who are they?’ and they’re like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me. Your style is so reminiscent of’ whoever, and I’m like, ‘I just kinda came up with it.’ So I feel a little like the idiot savant in a way.”

And the winner is…

French submitted her film to the recent Calgary International Film Festival’s Alberta Spirit Awards competition and explains the reasoning behind her vision for the audience at the event:

“This may look like a creepy kind of vaudeville display or spectacle, but I actually did a lot of research on Carl Jung, the psychologist, and the tarot and the topic of archetypes. All of the characters relate somehow into the tarot and these archetypes. So, it’s like a dream where the characters are an aspect of the main character’s psyche.”

Steve Biswanger watched the film and particularly enjoyed French’s address to the audience.

“I thought it was a beautiful film. The cinematography was very engaging and gripping, and it was interesting, I originally had thought it was a period piece and she had really captured the moment, and then at the end she explained all the complexity from the Jungian psychology and it just added up to more depth in the film,” the film-fest goer said.

Although “To The Death” didn’t take home the Alberta Spirit Award, French said she was sincerely pleased to be considered among the other entries.

“Honestly, I try not to take competitions too seriously — of course it’s nice to win and a great resume builder — but especially in a program like last night where all the films were of such a high calibre, how do you choose ‘the best’ film? What are the criteria?

“In the end, the judges said they had a really hard time deciding and they ended up choosing a film that they felt best represented the Alberta spirit… Just having my film in the same category as the other films that were represented was an honour, and I’m not just saying that to try and sound graceful, I really feel that.”

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