Atlantic Filmmaker Focus - Shandi Mitchell

The Atlantic Film Festival is a champion of Atlantic Canadian filmmakers. In keeping with this promise, we will be profiling some of the most incredibly talented people in the filmmaking industry, today. Here, we look at writer/director, Shandi Mitchell.

Shandi's latest film, THE DISAPPEARED, is a feature film about six men lost at sea, fighting for their lives on the beautiful but unrelenting Atlantic Ocean.

THE DISAPPEARED opened last Friday, April 19th and is currently screening at Empire Theatres (Halifax, Bridgewater and St. John's).


Shan​di Mitchell - Writer/Director/Producer

Originally from -  Chatham NB raised from away
Currently resides - Near Halifax
Next project(s) - A manuscript, I’m back with fiction. Trying to get the words on the page. I am considering writing a film script.  I’m kind of leapfrogging.

AFF: What first got you interested in film?

SM: I knew I had a yearning to tell stories but didn’t know how. I didn’t grow up exposed to film. Today’s youth have access to things like ViewFinders (the annual youth film festival presented by the Atlantic Film Festival) to let them know that the world of film is in reach that it ‘s possible. I always dreamed but never believed.
AFF: When did you decide filmmaking would be a career path for you?

SM: When I was in my early 20’s, I was on film sets in school.  But I was a latecomer.  I came to DAL (Dalhousie University) to study English. I thought I would be a writer. I just loved telling stories. I became interested in theatre and thought, “What the heck!” So I switched over to theatre.  I watched European films and I loved the storytelling and how they were character driven and thought, “Oh my god, this is cinema.” I fell in love with this way of story telling and thought, “I want to make it.”  One day I was asked to be a production secretary because I had a laptop, so I did. Then I was asked to do other things and unbeknownst to me, ended up doing the job of assistant director.  Later, I trained with Stephen Reynolds and the rest is history.
AFF: What, in your opinion, makes a good film?

SM: For me, it’s heart… something that surprises. Something true... whatever that means. Something honest to the story and that can come in any genre.  Just make it yours.
AFF: What advice would you give a young filmmaker?

SM: Find your voice and protect it. Don’t imitate. Be unafraid.
AFF: Where did the inspiration for the Disappeared come from?

SM: I had a chance encounter with a 92 year old fisherman on the Prairies. He told me about a time when he and his crew rowed 300 miles to safety after having to abandon their ship. I felt it was a story that had never been told and I held it for years. I didn’t know if I would ever tell it. For me, the ocean experience had never been captured in the way I felt this man’s story did.  The ocean reminds me of standing in the Prairies. It’s just so finite.  Being in one of these places seemed like a place where everything stood still. Where you can hear every question about life, a place between life and death.
AFF: What were some of the challenges unique to this film?

SM: Well, it was all shot on the ocean. No fancy technology or bells and whistles. I had to shoot chronologically because once I had started a scene, I would not get that same light again.  No back and forth shooting scenes. However, it really allowed the cast to get in and stay in character. They were able to lend themselves to what was around them. They were allowed to be influenced and made by their surroundings. It helped as well to make everything look natural. There were times people were cold and tired and there was very little make up. There weren’t many perks for the cast and crew and that also helped them get into character.
The weather was a challenge. We were completely susceptible to it. The ocean was  a very unpredictable set. We had to be very conscious of everything around us. Even the idea of dropping a crust of bread might shut production down for ½ hour because gulls could swarm us. But you know, it’s no different than anything else.  Every day we could think of things we have to overcome. But you just look at the good stuff. Being out there in the immense beauty. Watching light shifting, you feel lucky to be witnessing that.
AFF: How did you decide on this particular cast?
With Billy Campbell, I think of him as an adopted local. Someone told me he was building his schooner in Lunenburg and so we talked and that kind of just happened. Sean Doyle was high on my list of people to work with. We had never met and so we talked over the phone and he said, “yes”. Everybody else was auditioned.
AFF: Is there any local talent you haven’t worked with that you would like to?

SM: Well, I would invite the opportunity to work with everyone from THE DIASAPPEARED again.  There are too many to name…  Hugh Thompson. I would love to work with Sue Goyette to see if I could visually interpret some of her poems. And there are many, many more. Again, too many to name.
AFF: How many of the film crew was local? How important is that to you?

SM: All of them were local and that is extremely important.  It was like a big family coming together and of course we didn’t have the fancy technology or big budget, a lot of films operate on. We had to do things the old school way so we really relied on each other, for our decades of knowledge. Here in the Maritimes we have this, “Just do it,” artist community. Storytelling is essential; it’s not an extra-curricular. We dare to do it. The community here is so supportive. There is a real sense of celebration when a film gets made here because it can be a miracle.
AFF: What were some of the key themes/messages you wanted to convey?

SM: I’ll leave that to the audience. I was interested in that place that questions who we are when everything is stripped away. I was searching for humanity in those boats. I was looking for me in those boats. Maybe that’s enough. 

AFF: How did your experience as a writer inform your filmmaking process?

SM: As a director, I made the writer go away. I only bring her along for rewrites. I take off my storytelling hat and give it to the actors and surroundings and creative but my director is always aware of my writer intentions. I don’t know if I could ever give my work to someone else.
AFF: Was there anything that surprised you during making this film?

SM: There was something I might have hoped for but wasn’t prepared. I don’t know quite how to describe how deeply the cast, crew, community gave themselves to telling the story. There was a great sense of honoring the story from everyone. There was a real desire to get it right. Everybody has some connection to the sea and we were all telling a story bigger than ourselves.
AFF: Was there a special scene or moment you will always remember?

SM: That’s a hard one. The scene with the red boat profoundly affected the cast & crew in a way you didn’t expect.  I can’t describe it other than saying what we were hoping to capture on film, what we captured in person.
There were so many moments of beauty. Seeing the fog roll in and getting to see a fog rainbow. At nights, the birds were flying and shimmering through our light. It was like we entered this other realm.
The last day was sad. We were leaving and weren’t coming back.
We fell in love with the sea.

Thanks Shandi! We wish you and your team continued success with THE DISAPPEARED!