TIFF 2019: An Interview With ‘Black Conflux’ Director Nicole Dorsey

Director Nicole Dorsey joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her debut feature, Black Conflux.

Set in 1980s Newfoundland, the films follows the seemingly separate lives of an anxious, disillusioned teen girl and a troubled, alienated man as they fatefully cross paths in this haunting exploration of womanhood, isolation, and toxic masculinity. Black Conflux will have its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival on 6 September.

Q: ‘Black Conflux’ will have its world premiere at TIFF 2019. What does this festival mean to you?

A: It’s kind of my homecoming. I was born and raised just outside the city, attended Ryerson, lived in Parkdale for a while, but have spent the last few years abroad living in LA. So to come home and premiere not just at a world class festival, but to my parents and family is huge for me. It’s nice to come full circle with my work and journey.

Q: I saw a poster for the film that read: ‘A collision of youth, deviance and destiny.’ What did you want to explore through these different elements? 

A: The film follows two characters (for the most part) independently. Jackie represents youth and Dennis, deviance. In many ways the film is this unconventional coming of age tale that eventually leads the pair to meet. Is it destiny? Is it coincidence? It’s up to the viewer to decide. But there are a lot of themes in the film that will inform Jackie and Dennis’ collision.

Q: Jackie and Dennis both experience personal troubles. Can you tell us about the journey of these two characters and why destiny brings them together?

A: You beat me to the punch!

Well, Dennis is an isolated fella who, much like Jackie, is trying to find his place in the world. He’s grown up surrounded by images and media that project masculinity in a very specific way and a culture that expects a certain kind of power and dominance from men. And so he’s looking to hone that, but is increasingly frustrated by his own alienation from society and inability to reach those patriarchal standards.

And in many ways Jackie is the flip side. She’s a young woman discovering her femininity, her sexuality, in a culture that often paints women as objects. She’s in search of her unique voice. And so on their respective journeys in search of identity, they’re cosmically drawn to one another.

Q: I read that the film was inspired by Newfoundland and informed by your aunt’s experiences growing up there. What interested you about this setting and heading back to the 1980s for ‘Black Conflux’?

A: I’ve always loved Newfoundland since I was first there in 2010. The culture, the landscapes, the ocean.

I wanted to tell a story set in an insular community, and an island in the 1980s is fairly remote. My aunt’s experiences growing up there definitely helped inform the story from the perspective of a Newfoundlander, but I don’t think Jackie’s story is unique to my aunt or Newfoundland. Jackie is just as much a part of my story as it is many women’s. I think her arc is fairly universal.

Beyond that, I’ve always wanted to do a period piece and felt the 1980s was the perfect vehicle to tell a story like this – one where magazine racks were stacked with bikini-clad girls on cars and horror films often featured a sexualized woman running from a madman with a knife. It’s important to reflect on the past to understand the present.

Ella Ballentine in ‘Black Conflux’

Q: What was it like working with Ella Ballentine (who plays Jackie) and Ryan McDonald (Dennis)? Did you rehearse with them together or keep them apart until the ‘collision’?

A: They’re both a dream to work with. Incredibly open to my vision and enhanced Jackie and Dennis greatly. I love them both dearly. We did spend a chunk of time rehearsing, but always separately. I wanted their moment together to truly feel like a first meeting, nerves and all.

Q: You shot for a month in Newfoundland. How was the shoot and your interactions with the locals?

A: The shoot was ambitious and definitely challenging, but I must say we had a pretty incredible team and the support from the community. Not a ton shoots in Newfoundland, so I think there’s still that movie magic wonder that exists in the community. People wanted to help and be part of it. That’s very special.

Q: What was your approach to the visual language of ‘Black Conflux’ with cinematographer Marie Davignon?

A: “Make it weird” became our mantra. We wanted to create a foreboding, where things felt a bit off at times. Or we could push the framing or choreography to be outside of traditional coverage.

We were inspired by older American cinema as well as the works of P.T. Anderson and Lynch, amongst others. Someone called the film genre-bending and I think that’s pretty accurate. We didn’t want our approach to fit neatly in one box. The tone is consistent, but also unique.

Q: I was an admirer of your recent short film, ‘Arlo Alone’. It’s interesting and exciting to see you go from an ambitious sci-fi to a psychological drama. What drives you as a filmmaker and what type of films do you want to make?

A: Thank you! Well, I think for me I’m first drawn to character-driven stories. I love to move the camera and create visually dynamic pieces, but it’s always supporting the narrative and emotional arc of the scene. I like to play in all genres, whether it be a sci-fi, dramedy or thriller.

At the end of the day, it’s about looking at the complexities of the human spirit for me.

Q: What are your hopes for ‘Black Conflux’ at TIFF and beyond?

A: I hope the film finds its audience and makes its way out into the world to have a life beyond the festival. I hope to make people think and reflect, but also entertain them. As one of my actors called it, I hope people find Black Conflux to be a “delightful romp.”

Title image by Gemma D. Warren

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