WIDC Feature Voices: Back Story, April 2021 – We met with WIDC alumna and Talent to Watch Mentorship Award winner, Leah Cameron to talk about the launch of her debut web series, The Communist’s Daughter, now available on CBC Gem. In this Back Story interview we covered five big C’s: the Calling, the Creative, the Collaboration, the Cast, and the Completion. Enjoy!

The Calling…

Q: Leah, what do you love about storytelling?

I love putting places, voices and characters we haven’t seen yet on screen, on screen. I love reflecting the world I see around me in Toronto back to viewers.

Q: What has been your path to this current spot in your career?

I graduated from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in 2011 and moved back to Canada shortly after my father passed away in 2012. It was a hard transition. His passing was unexpected. I expected to move back to LA, but Canada has been a supportive and exciting place to be! I’ve worked as a researcher and writing room assistant to Morwyn Brebner and Wil Zmak, story edited three seasons of the host driven Where Cool Came From and was a story editor on Seasons 2 and 3 of Coroner and a writer on Season 3. I also directed a short with the support of the National Screen Institute and BravoFACT! and attended WIDC Story & Leadership 2018, through which I first started developing The Communist’s Daughter for the web and later received the WIDC Talent to Watch Mentorship Award. Producer, Natalie Novak and I applied for web series funding shortly after. We nabbed Independent Production Fund and a win at Just For Laughs. Lauren Corber of Loco Motion Pictures came on board as Executive Producer and helped us close our financing.

The Creative…

Q: What is The Communist’s Daughter about?

The Communist’s Daughter is a fish-out-of-water story about a teenage girl who struggles between fitting in at a new high school and upholding her family’s ultra-Lefty beliefs, which she holds dear. It’s set at the height of the Reagan 80’s — an ultra-conservative and ultra-consumerist time —because I wanted to throw her socialist and Marxist values into sharp relief. When her father, Ian, decides to run for municipal election it only heightens the awkwardness. On another level TCD is really just about the questions a lot of us face throughout our lives — do I stand up for what I believe in and who I am, or do I conform so I can fit in?

Q: Where does the story come from?

I’m a big believer that we all have unique stories to tell if we look close enough. I think these are the stories the world wants, even if we’re not always told they are as creators. People respond to stories that have authenticity baked into them. I mean, look at I May Destroy You. A few years ago, I was thinking about the unique stories I had to tell. My father went through a very fervent Commie phase during the 80s and I said, “Well, that’s odd, funny-slash-weird.”

We drove Soviet cars and had subscriptions of Soviet Life magazine delivered to the door. We lived in Leaside, which was a small “c” conservative riding [in the Greater Toronto Area] at the time, so his politics couldn’t have been more different than those of our neighbours. He thought American media was suspect as were propagandist movies at the time like Red Dawn and Rocky IV.  My Dad never actually ran for the Communist party (he voted for them on several occasions), but he had really strong anti-colonialist and anti-establishment leanings which is I think what appealed to him about Marxism. Marxism sounds fair, at least in principle, right?

He was a dreamer, and his bookshelves were full of books with titles like “Class Warfare,” Che Guevara’s “The Motorcycle Diaries”, lots of books by Chomsky and my favourite “Soviet Economy.” I love characters who tilt at windmills, so I thought it would be funny to do a story about a communist daughter and her father, who was like a Bernie Sanders but living in the wrong time.

Q: Why this story / why you?

The characters I created and the world my team and I made for them to run around in delight me to no end. I wrote the half-hour TV pilot years ago and the characters and concept have never stopped delighting me.  I think we need more stories populated with the specificity of the people and places we call here. I think English Canada looks to our neighbors to the south WAY too much to be given permission to try things — what speaks to you as a creator about the place you live? What do you have to say? What’s your unique perspective? Don’t wait for someone else to do it first.

Q: Why a web series?

We’re really fortunate in Canada that there is a lot of funding for short form digital series. I think web series are an excellent place for creators to take risks and try stories that are a little riskier than the mainstream. I’d make another one in a heartbeat.

The Collaboration…

Q: What was your process working with your keys? Any new relationships? Established relationships?

I’m fortunate to have worked with an amazing creative team throughout this process, including a room of really smart and funny writers who helped break the broad strokes of season one over three days.

As for my keys,

  • Emma Doyle, my lead costume designer, is a friend and she has been on board since Natalie, and I shot the teaser in 2019. I just had to say “80’s” and “Toronto” and she was like “LOVE. IT. SO. IN.”
  • Mahi Rahgozar, the co-editor on the project, and I collaborated on a documentary in 2008 shortly after Mahi moved to Canada from Denmark. She’s a true cinephile, has an exquisite eye and an ear for composition. She also cut a comedic short that won an Oscar, so I knew I wanted to work with her.
  • Helen Kotsonis, my production designer, was someone my EP Lauren Corber suggested, and she is simply excellent. Since shooting the teaser, I was pretty clear that I wanted a Freaks-And-Geeks-meets-Soviet vibe inside the McDougald home and a bright, fun, 80’s feeling at the high school. (Like Dunyasha is entering an 80’s comedy.) Helen took that and elevated it.
  • Conor Fisher, [director of photography] was recommended through my producer Natalie Novak. I knew he would be right for the show when I interviewed him because I could tell he was a true cinephile and we nerded out over Roger Deakins and other references he brought. Conor and I talked a lot about character point of view and which scene belonged to whom as we shot-listed. Conor is also Senior Colourist at Alter Ego so it was great to work with him in post as well.
  • Last but not least there is Peter Chapman, our composer, who, what can I say? Wow. The guy ordered a balalaika from Russia and used all kinds of 80’s synths to compose our Soviet-inflected, 80’s soundtrack.

Q: Could you share some stories about achieving your creative intentions and any fun discoveries or events along the way?

As a creator, once I establish the main story arc, characters and the world they are living in, it’s really fun to elevate that with the input of other creators. I went into the writing room with an outline for the season arc for both Dunaysha and Ian, my lead characters, and it was fun to expand upon it with the other writers. We had an incredible team.

Fun discoveries include the Little Orphan Annie musical which was Waneta Storms’ suggestion. (In the original script the musical was going to be a version of Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha). Waneta grew up in a Commie household in the bush in B.C. When she told her father, she wanted to be in Annie he was not thrilled. Annie is one of the most pro-capitalist musicals ever made. (The movie version that came out in the 80’s even has a musical number about tax breaks for the rich).

Oleg, who is played by Vieslav Krystyan, is a lot of peoples’ favourite character. He was my boyfriend’s invention. We were watching Ozark and there is a lovable old man in Season 1 who lives in their basement. My bf was like, “What if there is a guy living in their basement, but he’s like this weird, mysterious Russian dude?”

[Apparently], it was a thing during the Cold War that Russians with names like “John Smith” would work as professors at universities [across North America] while they stole state secrets.

The Cast…

Q: What was your process with your cast? Finding them? Working with them?

The mock casting process at Story & Leadership gave me a good sense of how the comedy was playing and the type of actors I wanted for the roles. Natalie and I cast Aaron Poole, Jessica Holmes, Hilary McCormack, Bruce Novakowski, Nadine Bhabha and Laurel Brady in the teaser, who were all excellent and just so game to be part of our labour of love. We were surprised Jessica and Aaron said yes right away. They are both great actors and just both so game to try anything.

For the show itself, we needed to make some adjustments because some of the actors looked too close in age on screen. So, we recast our lead, Dunyasha, as Sofia Banzhaf, who is incredible — she can go from self-righteous to completely innocent with ease. She anchors the show and she’s so funny because she plays everything straight. We recast Ryan Taerk in the role of Boris, who is hilarious and has a real 80’s, Alex P. Keaton vibe.

WIDC caught up with series lead, Sofia Banzhaf and here’s something she wanted to add to the conversation:

“Leah has such a strong comedic voice, and it was a thrill to help bring it to life. I fell in love with the scripts and how specific and unusual the setting for this coming-of-age story was. When I found out it was loosely based on her life, I got super excited because I knew she would infuse it with details only someone who’d lived it could know. I loved living in her (fictionalized) 16-year-old shoes for a few weeks.”

I had a sense going into casting that I wanted to work with Sandra Battaglini and Chris Locke, because I’d seen them both do stand-up. For other roles, we were open to who came through the door. Jenny Lewis, who is our casting director, is excellent and really got the material. Her father and mother are Stephen Lewis and Michele Landsberg and her sister-in-law is Naomi Klein, so you know, Canadian Lefty royalty. She brought in a lot of great people including Neema Nazeri who plays Cyrus. My producers and I fell in love with his comedy after watching his Instagram where he does all these GTA characters and accents. And we were like, “That’s Cyrus. That’s the guy.”

L to R: Neema Nazeri as Cyrus Manouchehri, Kolton Stewart as Marc Beauvais and Nadine Roden as Chanel Bigmann, in episode 7, “The Great Ward 5 Debate”

I like to give actors room to improvise lines of dialogue once we’ve got what’s in the script. So, it was so much fun to play with Aaron, Jessica, Chris, Sandra, as well as Nadine Roden and George Stroumboulopoulos who also have great improv skills. All of them came up with character moments and lines of dialogue that are in the final show.

Leah Cameron directs George Stroumboulopoulos and Chris Locke in The Communist’s Daughter

The Completion…

Q: What did it take to complete this project and get it out to its audience?

It took a lot of love and sweat from me and a lot of other creative people. The best metaphor I can come up with is that it was like pushing a broken-down Lada uphill! Pushing and testing the teaser online for a month for the Independent Production Fund showed us there was a real appetite among lefties who grew up in similar households, people who lived through the 80’s and the Cold War, or just people who loved political comedy (e.g., Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert) to see something like this onscreen.

Natalie and I went through a similar process with our Kickstarter Campaign — it was a full-time job for a month — which helped build a devoted and eager audience for the show. I joke to Natalie that we made a web series (our Kickstarter campaign) to make a web series. Shout outs to Natalie, Lauren and the whole team for getting us over the finish line.

Q: Who is the audience?

We’re aiming for older Millennials and younger Gen Xers. They’re the people who really get it, since they lived through the time. People from Lefty families really relate too and Russian and Soviet-bloc ex-pats find it weird and hilarious. Many have a funny story to tell that involves a Lada breaking down.

Mike Layton (Jack Layton’s son) tweeted about the show and said there are memories of his childhood in it.  And then we have a few fans who are Communist’s Daughters themselves.

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Thanks for sharing, Leah!

As Dunyasha’s Dad says, “Sharing is caring” folks.  Please feel free to share this story and the link to watch Season 1 of The Communist’s Daughter on CBC Gem!

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