Shelley Thompson has been stealing scenes since her 1986 turn in David Bowie film Labyrinth, and she's never slowed down.
From Trailer Park Boys and Thom Fitzgerald's Splinters to Mike Melski's terrifying The Child Returns and Diggstown, Thompson has been a familiar – and versatile – face on the Maritimes film scene for decades.
A champion of local content, starring in short films, web series like I Am Syd Stone, and popping up in almost everything the last few years, she actually says writing and directing her new feature came from a decline in opportunities.
“In my career as an actor, I had no control over what people brought to me. My project choices became fewer and fewer. My need to keep working as a creative is what pushed this shift,” she said. “I just felt I still have something to contribute, and I have Dawn now.”
Thompson's feature directorial debut, Dawn, Her Dad & The Tractor, has taken the indie world by storm.
A sold-out selection at the Inside Out Film Festival in May and June, it has followed up in similar fashion as the Friday night gala selection at the FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival, selling out two socially-distanced in-person screenings in its first day.
“This is really exciting. I can't wait to be in a room and watch a movie with people. Producer Terry Greenlaw and myself can't wait to hear responses to the film,” she said.
“It's amazing that festivals found ways to exist online, but that was the hardest. Filmmakers take information and learning from audience reaction, and I'm so happy to have the FIN hybrid model right where I live.”
Thompson – who now lives in Wolfville – is so happy her film about a family loving and accepting transgender youth Dawn will finally be seen by a hometown crowd in Halifax. She's no stranger to FIN, as she will also be seen and heard in shorts Breakout, Mulligan and in Seth A. Smith's Tin Can.
Thompson has seen success at FIN before, with her Atlantic Short Duck Duck Goose and performance in Splinters, both winning honours in 2018. But Dawn may be a different experience.
“Because this is my first full-length feature, this learning curve was significant. I learned a whole lot through the process, and audience reactions and the whole thing will inform what I address differently in the future,” she said.
“I'm feeling fantastic about the support the film is receiving. But I'm most happy about the response from transgender individuals who tell me what the film meant to them. It's a movie where trans people aren't sexualized. It's about family, community, and how to create safe spaces.”
Thompson says the film is a reflection of her own journey as a parent, and that other teens have used it to show to their parents and help find a place for understanding. Thompson's son, T. Thomason, is a popular, openly trans musican and artist who also lives in the area.
“I'm just hugely proud of T. His father is enormously involved as well, and T. is my inspiration every day. He is a wonderful writer, terrific collaborator, and teaches me lessons on how to listen,” said Thompson.
“As a parent, you become an advocate for whatever struggle, challenge or preoccupation your children have. My only child dealt with a path that threatened his human rights and safety, and it was important I listened hard, spoke with T.'s community and told an important story.”
Thompson's film –which came with a $1.5-million budget – was a harder shoot than she expected it to be.
“Because I'd never done a feature, I expected it to be exponentially as hard as making a short, but it was more than that. Money is always an issue with filmmaking, whether it's if you have enough to do what you want to or whether you're going to recoup. The pandemic added a whole layer of expenses we didn't count on,” said Thompson.
“We had a lot of locations, people, and spectacle. I imagine how Hollywood would have handled this film. We had a big scene significant to the whole film with danger, and how we did it was so important. We managed to pull it off though.”
She was full of nothing but praise for lead Maya V. Henry, whose character comes home for her mother's funeral, surprising the family who were unaware she is now Dawn, not the son Donald they remember. This sparks a time for healing, growth and acceptance within the family.
“I hope people start hearing a whole lot more about her, because she's a beautiful young woman. She's based in Toronto, and a massive trans rights advocate. She has a huge YouTube following, and educates about transition. She offers not only a service to transgender people, but provides answers to questions some may be uncomfortable asking,” said Thompson.
“She's just an extraordinary human and a beautiful actor. There's an ease and ability to connect here that's incredible. She's able to be in the moment, and she's a delight to direct.
Thompson also surrounded herself with local, talented crew and cast. Included are Robb Wells, who is a far cry from his foul-mouthed character from the Trailer Park Boys. He's introspective here as a gruff father who struggles with his emotions. He's joined on-screen by Amy Groening, Reid Price, Taylor Olson, and the film features appearances from popular photographer Stoo Metz and storied drag queen Elle Noir.
Behind the scenes are cinematographer Kevin A. Fraser, producer Terry Greenlaw, producer and assistant director Melani Wood, and so many more Haligonian talents.
“On one level, it was always my intention to keep this film very local. The Maritimes may be my adopted home, but it is my home. I just want this industry to grow, and we need new people in to do that. We had both newbies and experienced folks on this set,” she said.
“We had a diverse and gender-diverse cast and crew, and I was proud of the outreach and selection that went into this. I've worked with many of those people before, and I just wanted to have people on set I love working with. I was proud every day of all of them, and I'd work with every single one of them again.”
Thompson hopes in the end, her film can bring families together and foster some important conversations.
“This is a movie intended for family viewership, and I hope they see it together. I'm so interested in the idea of re-imagining the need for films for families and the need to talk about the things we're seeing. It's important to measure that with the impact of a changing society,” she said.
“We have to see films about climate change, Black Lives Matter, the trans and queer community, and so much more. We need to make resolutions based on those films, and they can be so much more than entertainment. Movies can be tools for social change.”
Dawn, Her Dad & The Tractor has two sold-out in-person showings at Park Lane Cineplex on Friday, September 17, 2021, but tickets for the film on FIN Stream are still available. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit finfestival.ca.