I, Claudia directed by Chris Abraham, produced by Jennifer Kawaja and Julia Sereny, written by Kristen Thomson, with Thomson. A Sienna Films/CBC production. A Mongrel Media release. 75 minutes. Opens Friday (October 1) at Camera Media Gallery. See Indie and Rep Film, page 132. Rating: NNNN
It's a little-known fact, but the film adaptation of Kristen Thomson's Dora-winning play I, Claudia has two directors.
The first, Chris Abraham, is talking animatedly with Thomson amidst the ruins of a hastily consumed lunch in the Intercontinental's dining lounge toward the end of the Toronto International Film Festival.
The second makes only a brief and partial appearance during our interview.
"I found Drachman to be very, very macho," Thomson says. To demonstrate, she lifts her chin up and forward and swings her arms from side to side. Suddenly, there he is, the wry "Bulgonian" school custodian and avant-garde director who provides the film with its moral and aesthetic core - or some of him, anyway. She drops her arms and laughs, and he's gone again.
Drachman is Thomson. Or rather, he's a character created by Thomson. He's part of Thomson's psyche, channelled through a mask.
"I met Drachman...," she starts to explain, and laughs. "Well, I first started working with him at the National Theatre School in Montreal.
"He was just a Bulgonian theatre director, a very moody fellow, and I thought it would be great if the play came with its own director, somebody with an aesthetic point of view about how to show the play. I think that helped to form a lot of Chris's choices as a director."
It may seem odd that one of the film's directors is strictly imaginary, but that's one of the peculiar things that happens when you work with masks.
Thomson created the play using four masks from a set of 26 made by Anglo-Algerian theatre designer Abdel Kader Farrah. She started with a 10-minute improv piece starring Claudia, the 12-and-three-quarters-year-old star of the play. Over the next two years, she developed three more characters: Drachman; Claudia's grandfather, Douglas; and her stepmother-to-be, Leslie.
The characters emerged as the product of hours spent improvising in front of a mirror with a mask on and a tape recorder running.
"It's really all about mobilizing the unconscious," explains Abraham. "You're not thinking. You're actually thinking about something else in a way, other than what you want to say."
Thomson agrees. "At times I had no idea what was going to come out of my mouth, and I'd take off the mask and start laughing because the character had surprised me."
Thomson had initially meant to use the improvisations as a starting point for her writing. Unsure about what to do next, she showed her work to Abraham, and that's how their collaboration came about. "He said, 'Those tapes are your writing. Don't change that stuff. '"
Over the next two years, Thomson worked on the piece alone, and then they came together to workshop it. They obviously work together well. There's a collusive, conspiratorial air about them, laughing at in jokes, finishing each other's sentences. They're effusive in their mutual appreciation.
"For me," says Abraham, talking now about adapting the play to film, "she's the barometer for the truth of every decision I've made as a director."
Thomson laughs. "For me, Chris is the barometer of good taste. A lot of the visual choices, the way the characters are presenting themselves, are very much in his hands."
"I totally trust her, and she totally trusts me, so there's an ebb and flow of.... "
"It just works," concludes Thomson. "The script has ended up being a hybrid. There's improvised material, and then to pull stuff together I've had to create and write stuff. But I wouldn't have been able to trust that process had Chris not encouraged me to trust it."
Not to be outdone, Abraham counters.
"This is a one-person show; it's about her. Even though it's not autobiographical, she's described it as a kind of emotional autobiography. It is her, the piece is her, it flows out of her. "