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Categories: Jammers Of The Month

Our Jammer of the Month for August is Melissa J. Woodside, an actress, writer and director whose work includes the shorts “When He’s Gone” and “Green Sweater Guy”.

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Captured by Jamie Kingston

Melissa J. Woodside is a versatile filmmaker who has worked in numerous jobs in the industry as an actor, writer and director. Born in Vancouver, Canada and of Irish, Norwegian and Scottish descent, Melissa originally considered a career in law, moving to Leeds and London to work as a media lawyer. Soon, though, Melissa decided that her talents could be better put to use on the creative side of things, and switched her focus to acting.

As an actress, Melissa has a range of credits in her filmography, including two films which screened at Cannes 2015: Terry Marriott’s Sanctuary, and Temilolu Tokosu’s Ashes. As well as acting, Melissa has also branched out to writing and directing, with two original shorts – When He’s Gone and Green Sweater Guy – to her name as writer, director and actor, and Podsnappery – A Question of Conception, as both writer and actor. We spoke with Melissa about her life, career, and her thoughts on the state for women in the film industry.

Before film, you planned on being a lawyer. How does your background in law affect your approach to filmmaking?

Yes, I wanted to be a media lawyer. I gained many skills which, if I ever use in filmmaking, could technically made me a fool according to Abraham Lincoln: “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” 

Brainy quotes and unfunny jokes aside, the law has helped my filmmaking and acting in a positive way. As long as I don’t represent or advise myself in court…

It helps my acting craft because I’m good at memorizing, and with active listening after absorbing huge quantities of information in case law. I draw a comparison between a script and a case (how romantic of me, I know!). I am able to delve deeper into the tone, intentions, and actions behind the words as opposed to just taking them at face value (the cool latin word for this is Prima Facie), like I may have if I wasn’t as well read as I am now.

Active listening is another skill the legal world has endowed me with. The fact I can listen to a fellow actor/director/producer and not interrupt has saved me from embarrassment countless times. Staying calm in many heated legal meetings is good training for film meetings and rehearsals where things can get heated as well!

But filmmaking is another beast. Organisation and planning is key. The ability to draft contracts for cast and crew, research risks, insurance clauses, and making use of various experts all come from my legal background. Sometimes my friends get scared of my legal background but I assure them I hate suing. I really do. It’s boring.

When did you first know for sure that film was the right career choice for you?

I always dreamed of working in film since I was really small. Growing up, I travelled a lot for my father’s work, so seeing different cultures really inspired me and gave me insights into smells, views, and atmospheres that I felt only the medium of film could capture a fraction of. Film never seemed like an option, only a luxury hobby.

You have worked in a variety of positions, from acting to writing to directing. Which role do you think suits you best?

Acting and writing are my first loves. I can never stop writing or dreaming of characters or situations. I have been doing both since I could walk. I would write plays with my sister and friends and charge the parents and dinner guests money to watch our performance. When I’m acting on stage, I embody the script. There are no problems. There is no past, no future. I am 100% there in that moment.

Directing is something I got into later more out of necessity and has surprised me lately. I was working on a short film called Green Sweater Guy and the director left the project and I was asked to step in. That went on to win an award at the Canada International Film Festival. I am more of a creative director as opposed to a technical one. My acting helps the directing, as I’m able to understand and manage the team.

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Photo by Terry Marriott

We hear you are working on a “female-dominated feature film project”. Can you tell us more about this?

I have teamed up with Natasha Marburger (founder of Beyond Illusion Productions) and Diane Messias (Founder of scriptwhizz.com) to develop a feature film I’ve scripted. Whilst we can’t say too much at this stage, we can announce that we intend for most heads of departments to be women.  This is unique, especially in the genre we’ve chosen – adventure/thriller.

Natasha is a scintillating producer to work with and we really get riled up for each meeting, knowing we are creating exciting work and meeting exciting people. There is a trust there; she does so much behind the scenes and drives things forward. She is a professional and I’m very lucky she likes my writing and acting! Diane keeps things fresh, honest, and her years of experience keep me in check. Her wisdom is invaluable. Together we make a good core team. Both are very powerful women I am fortunate to have as teammates.

In addition to the female dominated crew, the script itself has a lot of girl power. We’ve got these kick-ass female characters that we just don’t see enough of in modern cinema. Mad Max is a testament that things are changing in this regard, but it’s only touched the tip of the allegorical iceberg. There could be a lot more leather too…(But that would definitely melt an iceberg. Nevermind.) 

Speaking of women in film, what do you think is the current atmosphere for women in the industry? Are we making progress?

Film is so varied and the numbers differ across types of film. From my bird’s eye point of view and in my flurry of daily life, it feels that I’m seeing more bodacious female producers with the courage to make decisions, big or small. I would like to see women getting more jobs and help them do so. I think we have a lot to offer each other. 

Despite my feelings, however, the statistics behind the scenes suggest the atmosphere isn’t as positive as I seem to think it is. Women directed 4.7% of studio films from 2009-2013, and 10% of independent films. Women represent a total of 30% of all speaking characters, 29% of major characters, 12% of protagonists, and 13% of leaders onscreen. There are also the comments I’ve overheard. If a male director makes a mistake, he is just being “creative”. If a female director makes a mistake, she is labelled “psycho”.

Whether it is an independent film or a Hollywood production, though, if one waits long enough to get past the glamorous credits of a film, they will note that the casting director is almost always a woman. As is makeup, and costume. Why is this?  

Angela Dixon (left) and Melissa (right). Photo by Terry Marriott

What other projects do you have lined up for the future?

I’m putting on a play at The Fringe in August. Then I’m off to Toronto to join forces with the Creative Minds Group and make another short film to be screened at TIFF in a special one-week category.

After those projects are out of the way, all of my efforts are going to developing the feature film. It will be hard, because I’m an indie-film junkie, and I can’t seem to keep myself off a film set!

This month’s issue of The Spread focuses on everything that goes into the production of movies. What are some tips you’d give to make sure production goes as smoothly as possible?

I’ve learned from making plays and films with my friends at the skateboard park in Vancouver with whatever camera we could get our hands on. Over the years I’ve watched many projects fail or go up in flames. I’ve tiptoed around the disasters I’ve seen and tried my best not to replicate them.  

I’ve come up with the following basic guideline:

1. Delegate, don’t try to do it all.

2. Make it fun. A film set is fun! If there’s a good vibe, if the script is enjoyable and well written for all to enjoy it really shows on the finished product on screen. But remember…

3. It’s still a professional environment. It goes without saying that there’s a natural hierarchy. I learned from doing extra work at 16 in Vancouver on major hollywood film sets that you shouldn’t be approaching directors or distracting crew or talent. Taking selfies all day. Trying to provoke or create jealousy or creating personal problems. Thats the quickest way to sink a ship. Seeing the day as a holiday or a jolly and over-excited on set is also not a good thing either. 

4. Going the opposite way, and taking it too seriously, is also a potential problem. Many indie filmmakers are too competitive. I don’t think we talk enough in this industry, about our favourite films, films we hate, tax breaks, what we ate for breakfast. Anything. We need to talk more and share information.

5. Getting the right team is key. Some people aren’t brave risk takers at all, and can’t even admit what they want to do, whilst others are driven leaders running on adrenaline alone. Its challenging to get the right dynamic and to figure out where you stand in relation to it all.

Essentially, 1-5 above its a balancing act within ourselves and within the crew as a whole. If the correct balance is struck, it’s magic. 

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Outside of film, I love supporting female designers and entrepreneurs like Arina Pritch who adventure with epochs and make us question female style and femininity. Her leather jackets are strong and fierce yet there’s a softness there as well.

My sister Alicia runs ultra marathons for Team Canada at world events. Even though I often fall asleep at her races, I encourage her and she jokes that I am her manager. She is evidence of girl power to me!

Follow Melissa on Twitter @missmjwoodside

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Posted on Aug 3, 2015

2 Responses to “Melissa J. Woodside – actress, writer, director”
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  1. This post is very good. Useful for me. Thanks for you post.

  2. Avatar Michelle says:

    Interesting interview Melissa!
    See you at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
    Best of luck with the play! : )

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