Interview by Zachary Naranjo-Morse of FVC, NMAI
ZN-M: Thank you for being with us here today, Laura. Can
you a little bit about where you're from?
LM: Well, I come from Toronto, I was born and raised there.
But my family, my father specifically, is from the Kettle and
Stony Point First Nation in Southern Ontario, which is a Chippewa
community. I never spent much time there, I spent my whole time
in Toronto, and that's where I...have had my business, Big Soul
Productions, for the last seven years.
ZN-M: Can you tell me a little bit about Big Soul Productions,
how it started?
LM: Sure, Big Soul Productions was a partnership with
Jennifer Podemski, who is a well known Canadian Aboriginal actress.
The reason we started the company was because we partnered on
a project called the Seventh Generation, which was 39 episodes
of an Aboriginal youth role model series. In the course of three
years we profiled 91 Aboriginal youth role models in Canada and
the United States. It was a highly successful project and we managed
to raise about half a million dollars per season for that show,
most of it public funds. I think at the time we knew that we were
on to something really good together creatively, but also on a
business level, that's when I realized that I knew how to access
money for the projects that I wanted to realize
Since then, Jennifer and I have gone in our own directions, but
we still remain together as a producing team for Moccasin Flats,
the dramatic series, which is the first ever Aboriginal produced
and written and acted and sometimes directed National television
series. (It) has been on for three years on APTN and Showcase
Television Network. So, we are very proud of that. Big Soul continues
to operate under my sole proprietorship.
ZN-M: Can you tell me a little bit about the evolution
of Moccasin Flats?
LM: Sure. It was really interesting, because Jennifer
and I were sort of on this path of working with Aboriginal youth,
it was amazingI woke up one day and I thought, "Why
are we not engaging youth to work on real film sets, so that we
can train them and make subject material that is relevant to youth
by working directly with youth to make short films?" So I
thought, "Let's use the actual set as a platform for the
training. Then we will also have a product that we can actually
begin distributing and have screened, hopefully, all over the
world." So, we had a few of these training programs which
we called RepREZentin'. We had had one in my own community,
which was sort of the pilot project ...our second one was called
RepREZentin' in Fort Chip, and that was also a very successful
program. Then we had our first urban RepREZentin, in Regina.
It was very hard for me to find youth to come out and actually
audition, but the ones who did were amazing! We brought Randy
Redroad up from New York, and he directed the piece that was called
RepREZentin' in Regina at the time. Then he said, "Let's
call it Moccasin Flats," because that's what people
call inner city Regina.
So, anyways, we ended up with a short film, went to 50 film festivals
all over the world since then, which was four years ago. It's
garnered numerous awards, and it was still in the rough cut stage
when we took it to the network, and we said, "Look at these
kids in Regina and how amazing they are. Look at this world and
how interesting it is and how compelling it is. We want to make
a television series about it." It was when Moccasin Flats
the short film was premiering, making its world premiere at the
Sundance Film Festival, that we got a call from Showcase Television
and they said "Why don't you do a treatment for six episodes
and get it to us right away?" So the whole time I was in
Sundance for the premiere of Moccasin Flats, I'm working
on a treatment for a series. Then, lo and behold, we sold it and
it lived for three years, which is a great life span for a series
in Canada, especially for first time producers. And now we are
working on Moccasin Flats the feature film.
ZN-M: The feature filmwhen is that scheduled for?
LM: We were hoping this fall of 2006, but most likely
spring or summer of 2007. The script is being written right now,
and I'm very excited about it. And of course we will continue
to use a lot of the same actors that we actually discovered in
Regina four years ago.
ZN-M: The originals?
LM: Yeah, exactly. That's what's really important, building
a capacity in our community so that we can employ Aboriginal peoplewriters,
directors, actors, craft people of all kinds. That's what we should
be doing and that's what Big Soul strives to do through its training
programs and its projects.
ZN-M: I'm interested in the workshops that you have for
RepREZentin'can you tell me a little bit about the
LM: Well, I think it's been very successful. We had under
the RepREZentin' banner about five or six projects, some
urban, some rural, and we always ended up with a product at the
end that we could market, and, hopefully, inspire other youth
to do the same. I find that it has an impact on people. First
of all by the recruiting of the trainees who actually work on
the project; the ones who get the hands on experience who will,
hopefully, go into further work in the industry or seek training.
The other way is actually disseminating the information that we've
been producing with the youth, so people all over the world will
see it and....understand that there are issues and Aboriginal
youth subjects that we need to pay more attention to. There's
also the issue of capacity building, which I believe we do through
these projects by hiring the Aboriginal mentors who train the
Aboriginal youth. Then there's all of the other youth who see
role models on screen, who aren't necessarily famous people, but
are people who had the courage to do something they've never done
before. And, also, the team experience. When the youth get on
the project, there's nothing like a film set that builds a team
or a family. It's a microcosm of all of these different kinds
of dynamics. I always thought it was one of the most empowering
experiences, which is why I wanted to use it as a training platform.
When we first did it, we just thought, let's bring in like 30
or 50 kids or whatever and let them do what they want. It was
just out of control. Then we made it very regimented, it's exactly
like a film set (with) call sheets every single day. We have some
sort of crash training for the youth before they get on the set;
they meet their mentors, they have an interview process so that
I can figure out where I want to place them. If they're going
to be an actor, they have to audition. If they're going to be
a camera person, they have to interview for that. And if they
don't know, I just put them somewhere where I think they should
be. And sometimes you know, sometimes its my feeling for the person's
personality, where I think they might get along or might notit's
definitely not without its problems.
Aboriginal youth have...statistically the numbers are highest
for them in areas like incarceration and drug abuse and teenage
pregnancy and high school dropout and youth suicide. It's a scary
situation right now for Aboriginal youth, and that's another reason
behind what I do. They're not empowered, they don't feel like
they have a voice, they don't feel that they have any respect
or a solid future. Most of this stems from what you see of the
residential school experience, so that's something that this strives
to do, build self-esteem and confidence in these youth, so even
if they don't go off and become a great filmmakers, maybe at the
end of the process they're just going to feel better about themselves.
So what's become a little difficult for me is that I sometimes
wonder if I'm a producer or if I'm a social advocacy organization
(Laughs). I think a bit of both and I think I've proved that by
giving them a very, very, very, professional experience on a set
that, you are there on time every single day or you get fired,
just like in the real world. And the great thing is all of the
youth who work on our training projects get paid, too. I think
that's important. So that's the long, long answer for a very short
ZN-M: Excellent answer, I'm wondering about you growing
up and your experiences with film and maybe you could share with
me...you were at one time these kids age, what drew you
LM: I love that question, only because I had absolutely
no interest at all in filmmaking when I was growing up. All I
knew was that I was a complete television addict and for the most
part it was because my parents both worked, and I found a lot
of times after school, no one's home what do you do, you watch
And as I was growing up I was very good in school, great in drama,
I was very artistic, I was in bandI knew that the creative
realm is where I belonged. So anyway, after high school I had
no idea what to do, and I ended up in a dead end job. One day
I woke up and I just went to work and I quit...I went to community
college, signed up for journalism. I thought, "What am I
doing in journalism?" Ended up working for a national business
magazine called Canadian Business, got a lot of corporate
and advertising experience. So, before I knew it, all of these
things had come together, all of the experiences that I had, artistic
and otherwise...these skills that I had acquired that I didn't
realize were all the skills that it took to be a good producer.
So, I get this call from John Kimbell, who ran the National Aboriginal
Achievement Awards. He actually head hunted me and he said, "I
want you to come and produce my television show." He did
like a three million dollar live-to-tape stage show that was broadcast
on National television. It honored 15 Aboriginal role models in
Canada; it's the biggest award show of its kind in the world....I
went and I did it and...made a lot of mistakes, but knew from
the first time that I started producing that show, that what I
wanted to do for the rest of my life was to produce.
People ask me all of the time, "Don't you want to act, don't
you want to direct?" I have no interest in that. There are
people who are meant for that. I'm a producer, that's what I do.
I recognize talent, I know how to get money, I know how to recognize
a good story and make it all come together.
I think as a producer, though, you need all kinds of experience....It's
probably a good idea if you go and P.A. on a set, or work in craft
or in the camera department....so when you're actually putting
together a budget, or when you're actually breaking down a script,
you know everything that its going to take, you have an intimate
awareness of what goes on on the set. That's something that I
didn't have at first, so I really screwed up a lot. But I guess
ZN-M: Being a producer and also being a selector for
the Native American Film and Video Festival, have you seen some
works that have inspired or excited you?
LM: A lot....I feel like theres so much more that
I could be doing when I see these amazing feature films, short
films and some of these music videos....especially when I look
at Canada and I see...how many amazing producers are there and
how many amazing production companies are emerging. I go, "Oh
my God, I'm in trouble!" But amazing work; I'm just so proud
of the filmmakers and the producers. I also think that we have
some incredible talent emerging...writers and directors who definitely
have the potential to cross over into a bigger market, into a
mainstream market. Which isn't something that they necessarily
have to do, but if they wanted to, they definitely could. So that's
really heartening to see that people are taking this so seriously
and the people here care so much about it.
I remember last week at homeI think it had been one of
many nights that I had been watching the films (as a festival
selector)and I just started crying. "Why do we have
to keep doing films about residential schools and why do we have
to keep doing all these pained movies and I don't want to cry
anymore. Why can't we lighten up a bit?" I remember it was
just before I came here, and I went, "That's why that we're
making these thingsbecause it's still happening, because
it's still there, because it's still what hurts us, because its
still what dictates what's going on in our communities and in
our lives." We have very unique and very different stories
to tell and we have stories to tell that the world cannot turn
its back on and the world cannot ignore. That's why being an Aboriginal
filmmaker is so important, and it's so important that Aboriginal
people are telling these stories.
I think that sometimes if there is an Aboriginal person who wants
to tell a story and needs to engage a non-Aboriginal person, that's
OK. Or if a non-Aboriginal person has gotten their hands on a
story that has to be told, I think that is important too. But
I also think it's really important for Native people to give it
their own perspective. Even if it is a non-Native filmmaker, that
perspective is what makes it an Aboriginal piece and what will
give it relevance, not only to an Aboriginal audience but to a
So it was that moment of realization that when I was sitting
there and I went, "Oh my goodness", I was like, "OK,
I've been in dramatic series producer mode for too long,"
and I was really grateful that this experience actually sort of
pulled me out of that and made me really remember why producing
Aboriginal content, with Aboriginal people is so important and
making sure that it gets out to the world.
ZN-M: What are your hopes for Big Soul Productions within
the next ten years?
LM: That's a good question. I've been thinking about that,
too. My main thing for Big Soul Productions is that I want us
to be financially stable and self-sufficient. I would also like
to be in a position that we can build more capacity in the film
community in Canada, the United States, around the world with
Aboriginal and indigenous filmmakers. Eventually I would like
to be able to purchase scripts and to develop more projects with
more filmmakers, and to be able to access development financing
so that I can take a lot of projects to the next step. And continue
the education of Aboriginal youth, too, and just be a part of
building this community...to a place that is very empowering,
educational and inspiration for the world.
ZN-M: Well, thank you so much Laura, It's been a pleasure
having you. Thank you for sharing.
LM: Thank you, it's been fun!
Laura Milliken - photograph by Tim Warner