Madness & Animation: Mystery of the Secret Room
Scene one: Young Grace and her mom have just boarded a bus, and are trundling along a rural Newfoundland road, heading to a mysterious appointment in St. John’s. The girl looks up from her book, a well-thumbed children’s detective novel, gazing with quiet concern at her distracted and troubled mother…
The unusual story of a girl thrust into the role of caring for a mentally ill mother is rendered with poetic economy in The Mystery of the Secret Room, an animated short currently in production in the Quebec-Atlantic Studio.
At the helm – and directing her first film – is Newfoundland writer Wanda Nolan, pictured below. “So many people will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives, and its repercussions are far reaching,” says Nolan. “I’m exploring the terrain through the perspective of a care-giver — a young girl, too young to fully grasp the implications of her mother’s disease, yet deeply invested in caring for her. At the same time, as someone who loves reading and writing, I want to acknowledge the strange power of storytelling, how the literary imagination can keep us afloat in rough waters.”
Nolan’s key collaborator on the film is Montreal-based animator Claire Blanchet, who won accolades for The End of Pinky, a striking 3D animated short based on a short story by Heather O’Neill who also narrates the film.
“The project gives us the chance to bring together two exciting artists,” says associate producer Jon Montes. “Wanda has brought us a powerful script, anchored in a specific world, that presents mental illness in an utterly original way — and there’s a brightness to Claire’s animation, a light touch, that offsets the gravitas of the story beautifully.”
The film was greenlit in the fall of 2014 and Nolan has been driving the project from St. John’s, collaborating at a distance with the Montreal-based Blanchet. “There’s seems some magic at work in our partnership,” says Nolan. “There’s inevitably lots of back-and-forth, as we exchange notes on specific scenes and sequences, but we’ve have been on the same wave-length from the beginning. Claire has this amazing knack for hitting all the right emotional notes in the story.”
“We’re always looking for stories from places and perspectives that are under-represented in mainstream media,” says producer Annette Clarke. “We were not only struck by Wanda’s distinctive voice but also her perceptive nod to the power of the imagination and reminder of the beauty of books. And we immediately fell in love with our ten-year-old female protagonist!”
Work on the animation sequences continues until December, with music and sound design to begin in January. The Mystery of the Secret Room, scheduled for completion in spring 2016, is a production of the NFB’s Quebec-Atlantic Studio. Jon Montes is associate producer and Annette Clarke is producer.
Wanda Nolan is the recipient of the 2015 Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award, presented to her by the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival for her short film script Crocuses. Her original feature screenplay The Magic of Boxer Connors, winner of the Inspired Script Award at the 2012 Atlantic Film Festival, is currently in development with St.John’s-based Pope Productions. She has worked as script consultant on the NFB films Danny and Song for Cuba, and has contributed to the Cuffer Anthology, which showcases new short fiction from Newfoundland and Labrador. Her story Nancy Drew won The Telegram’s 2012 Cuffer Prize for short fiction.
Claire Blanchet, a graduate of Concordia University’s animation program, began her association with the NFB in 2009 with The Wobble Incident, co-directed by Sam Vipond and originally produced in 3D Sandde technology. Her 2013 release The End of Pinky premiered at TIFF, going on to make TIFF’s 2013 list of top ten shorts.
Here’s a clip from that film:
Photo of Wanda Nolan by Ian Vardy.