A Room of Her Own: Jill Riley

By Natalie Escobar

With a passion for making short films, Jill Riley hopes to make her mark in the world of small screen cinema. Born in Winnipeg, Riley says her hometown was the ideal place for filmmaking. “When I first moved to Toronto, a lot of agents said ‘there are a really disproportionate number of talented people from Winnipeg, what’s that about?’”

Riley’s answer: “It’s just too fucking cold. You can’t go outside, you have to be creative.”

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Courtesy shot, Illustration by Laura Cicchirillo

Riley started her career as an actress, playing diverse roles in seven movies spanning from 1991 to 2000. The move to producing and directing came when she decided that she wanted to be on the other side of the camera. She has produced seven films, three of which she directed: With Wings which she co-wrote, The Hard Facts of a Rock n Roll Crush (Parts I, II, & III) and most recently The Princess of Selkirk Avenue.

The 39-year-old self-professed feminist has had success in the independent circuit. Her films have screened at the Sugar & Splice Feminist Film Festival (Winnipeg), NXNE Music & Film Festival (Toronto), LIFT Salon des Refuses (Toronto), and The Female Eye Film Festival (Toronto). Her directorial debut With Wings, which Riley describes as “a silly little chick flick,” won the audience choice award at the film festival in Winnipeg and was bought and aired by the CBC in the fall of 2005.

With her quirky personality embedded in her films, Riley manages to tell a story in the fraction of the time it takes a feature to unravel its punch line or proverbial lesson in morality. She describes the prounfortunately cess as “easier, cheaper, faster, and more achievable than a feature, without major funding.” But it’s not the ease and finances that draws Riley to shorts. “A really good short film, well there is nothing like it. It’s like a great short story. It is so compact and there can be so much in just a few minutes.”

Riley works with a tight-knit crew that includes talented musicians and writers. “I love filmmaking because it’s so collaborative. You gather, and each person brings their own ideas, creativity, and interpretation. It’s exciting,” she says. A contributing member to her crew is Ron Hawkins, her partner and the father of their baby Ruby. While to some, living and working with one’s partner may not seem like an ideal situation,
Hawkins has no complaints. “I’m pretty stubborn and determined in what I want. She’s pretty open as a director. She leaves me a lot of space with the score.” Hawkins, a talented musician and member of local band Lowest of the Low, provides some scores for Riley’s films, allowing her creative input and personal touches. Hawkins, who played the lead role in Rock and Roll Crush, says, “I think she’s trying to strike a balance between the heart being really big and also having very profound points to make.”

Riley’s new project The Princess of Selkirk Avenue is a love story set in the 60s. She shudders when describingthe process saying, “I think every filmmakergoes through this stage when editing a picture, wherethey absolutely, unequivocally hate their movie. I unfortunatelyhit that stage right before Ruby wasborn and because I didn’t get back to it until overa year, it was about a year and half that I hated thatmovie and was depressed about it.” Riley receiveda $4,000 grant from the Toronto Arts Council for Princess. As a result of deciding to use film ratherthan digital she’s $20,000 in debt, describing film as“exorbitantly expensive.”

“This new movie, while it’s a comedy, it’s more mature. I enjoy making anti-romantic, romantic comedies.” Princess was shot and set in Toronto, but as Riley notes, “in my heart and soul it’s absolutely set in Winnipeg because it’s how my parents met.” Kathleen Olmstead, Riley’s Wooden Nickel Productions partner, describes her as “a crazy mix of ambition and sentimentality. She’s ambitious for herself and for everybody around her.
We always said everyone deserves someone like Jill in their life.” Regarding Princess Olmstead says: “You are seeing something come to fruition that’s been planned for a long time. It’s personal because it’s, in a very vague way, a family story. It’s something that is hers. She wrote it, she directed it, she produced it, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

Riley has ambitions to eventually make a feature, having three ideas in the works. “I sort of have a psychic block since we’ve been living in an open space for the last four years. We’re moving into a house and I think that is going to be very important to have, as Virginia Woolf would say, ‘a room of one’s own.’ I’ll have a door to close. I’m looking forward to that, because I need to nip that in the bud and write that feature, even if it’s terrible.”

 

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