"You have to make people feel. And it is the most gratifying thing ever. Even if people laugh at the wrong part, I love it."
March 21, 2018 - written by Andre Bourbeau
Jennifer Allanson started acting at the ripe age of four, and as she grew her passion for the craft did as well. After a hiatus, Jen transitioned from theatre to film in 2012, when she acted in Divorce, a short film by Say Ten Productions for the Digi60 Filmmaker’s Festival.
Over the course of the last 6 years, Jennifer has continued to act, but also expanded her skill set as a Writer, Producer and Director as well. Having completed many short films, Jen wrote her first feature film Hens Night in 2014. Hens Night is currently available for rent or purchase digitally on Vimeo.
Her second feature film Unholy Night, was produced alongside other Digi60 alumni Randy Smith, Chris Chitaroni and Kristian Lariviere. Distribution information for Unholy Night will be announced in 2018. Moving forward, Jen’s next project will focus on creating opportunities for female filmmakers to collaborate and showcase their art.
We sat down with Jen at I Deal to discuss acting, Digi60, Ottawa’s film community, horror, Jamie Lee Curtis and much more.
Andre Bourbeau: Let’s start off huge. Why filmmaking? What is it about filmmaking that you love?
Jen Allanson: I started acting when I was four, but creating your own material is the most gratifying experience in the world. In film, you have the freedom to observe the world as it is, and see how you can pull it into your art at any given time, which is really, really nice. My filmmaking is a matter of, “I want to try this!” and, “I want to try that!”: there is always an element of learning [in filmmaking], which is great.
AB: You started acting when you were four. What was that in? Do you remember?
JA: My parents put me in community theatre. I even had an acting coach. I really enjoyed acting and, “getting better at my craft,” because I was a very pretentious four year old. I started quite early and moved from theatre into film.
AB: And at what point then did you make the theatre-film transition?
JA: I quit theatre when I was nineteen, and picked it up again when I was 27. When I came back to acting it was in film, and I haven’t stopped since.
AB: Why did you quit acting?
JA: Theatre for me went from a sensation in my stomach to violent anxiety. I wanted to live my 20s like everyone else was living their 20s. I had to be a bit irresponsible. When I decided to stop being irresponsible, I felt the acting itch come back. But I wanted to do it differently.
AB: You’re an actress, but as of late, you’ve become a producer and writer as well. Do you prefer being in front of or behind the camera?
JA: Lately, I’ve been enjoying being behind it more. It’s a new challenge for me, but I love creating. With acting, there is an element of creativity, but it’s measured. With writing, I have free reign. I can do whatever I want, regardless of whether I fail or succeed.
AB: Let’s get back to acting. Who or what inspired you to become an actress in the first place?
JA: This may be bizarre considering current events, but I was an obsessive Cosby Show fan. I would watch and tell my mom I wanted to be on the show. Relentless hours of bugging them paid off. It’s strange, I know, because I write from a feminist perspective, and what inspired me to act was everything that I’m against. But it’s the truth.
AB: You’ve make many different pictures for Digi60 and independently, short and feature length. If someone came up to you and said, “I can only watch one of your films,” what would you tell them to watch?
JA: Unholy Night. It’s singlehandedly the film I’m the most proud of. It’s not out yet, but I’m working with a sales agent to get it distributed this year. However, I will always have a special place in my heart for my first feature, Hen’s Night. I like to explain it as, “the most terrifying bachelorette party ever”. It’s getting released this month, actually. We shot it in 2015, but when you don’t have disposable income, you have to make things work, and you have to make them work when they work with your team. We tried submitting it to festivals.
AB: How did that process go?
JA: I won’t lie: Hen’s Night is an acquired taste. The horror crowd is going to think that it’s weird for half the runtime, but they’ll get their gratification at the end. People who hate horror will love the first half, and will be scarred by the second. You’ve got to stick with it to love it. The festivals said, “we don’t know where to put this.” I wrote it because my girlfriends would chastise me for watching horror pictures. I wanted to prove to them that they did like horror. They just needed to find their kind of horror film, which is Hen’s Night.
AB: What is the best part of making films, and what is the worst?
JA: Distribution sucks. The process is a shot in the dark. It’s becoming more clear for me, as every experience is a learning experience. I also wear many hats on set, and it’s hard to juggle everything and the sleepless nights. As a producer, I oversee everything on a set. Half the time, I’m hoping something doesn’t fall to the wayside. But best part is showing something and seeing their reactions. It’s my favourite thing in the whole world. I love making people feel things: indifference is my fear. I like when people say they hated my film. I just want them to have an opinion.
AB: Have you seen The Disaster Artist?
JA: Not yet!
AB: There’s a scene at the end where Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero premiere The Room in L.A. Of course, Wiseau thinks it’s a serious drama, but the audience laughs their asses off the whole time, and he’s so distraught. But he comes around, and sees that having the audience react and appreciate what you’re making is life’s greatest experience.
JA: You have to make people feel. And it is the most gratifying thing ever. Even if people laugh at the wrong part, I love it.
AB: With Hen’s Night, your Monster Pool shorts, and Unholy Night, you’ve fully embraced horror. You even did a horror Digi60 short, Puritans. Why horror for Digi60?
JA: Puritans came from a honest place. My husband [director Kristian Lariviere] and I are huge Raimi fans. We love campy horror. At the same time,  was a really depressing time in the world. The Steubenville rape cases had come out, and the topic of women being violated was in the news. There are pompous men in the world who feel that they can control what women do. So we said, “let’s do one for the girls,” and let’s do it our way.
AB: What was the reaction to Puritans?
JA: It pissed off some really right-wing assholes in the United States. It’s on Amazon Prime. One guy rented it thinking it was going to be a straightforward religious film. He sent us messages saying we were man-haters. In his mind, the woman in the film cuts off the man’s testicles, which doesn’t even happen.
AB: I know the Monster Pool films you produced were anthologies, and so is Unholy Night. Why anthologies?
JA: I had an idea for an anthology a long time ago. I like the idea of having all these like-minded filmmakers in one spot. And it just so happens that Vincent Valentino and Andrew Robinson came up with Monster Pool. Those films have become more anthology-like as time went on. I think we’re living in an age where we have pretty short attention spans, and when things don’t move quickly, they just don’t move.
AB: That’s what critics say about the modern day, for sure.
JA: It’s one way of getting your art out there. People can give us 15 minutes of their time to watch a segment rather than dedicating two hours to it.
AB: Who is your favourite horror actor or actress?
JA: Jamie Lee Curtis. I went to San Diego Comic-Con, and she was on a panel I saw. The moment she walked on stage, her presence gave me goosebumps. She’s a decades old crush that I have. It’s a talent crush, the most important kind. I looked over at my husband. He said, “are you crying?” I was.
AB: You must be excited for the new Halloween then?
JA: I am. I don’t know what they’re doing with it, but I’m excited to see Jamie Lee again.
AB: What about True Lies?
JA: It’s one of my favourite movies. True Lies I grew up on. I can act out the whole thing right now.
AB: Viewing your filmography, you’ve worked with Kristian Lariviere quite a bit. Can you describe what your collaborative process is like with him?
JA: Kris and I are a funny case. We met at Digi60. We are now married. We now have a bun in the oven. But our first babies are all the movies we’ve done and will continue to do. I met him the year I did Divorce. And we just clicked. Our visions are very much the same. I don’t even have to say anything, and he knows what I’m thinking.
JA: Yeah. It’s crazy. We have the same birthday. Our collaborative process is very easy: for example. It’s the middle of the day, maybe he’s playing a video game, I’ll get out of the shower, and say, “you know what I thought of? What do you think of a movie like this?” and he’ll say, “yeah, yeah, that’s great!” and builds on it, and our days become centred around the project.
AB: You’re lucky to have such a reliable partner.
JA: I can throw any idea at him. First of all, he’ll ask me, “why did your brain go there?” but he won’t judge me. One of the kills I came up with when I was writing Hen’s Night is very disturbing. I mean, this one is a whole other level. You could ask, “are you sure you want to put this in a movie?” You’ve never seen anything like it before. I was nervous when I pitched it to him.
AB: What did he say?
JA: He said, “you are so out there sometimes and I just love it. Let’s do it!” So we did.
AB: So what was the kill?
JA: I can’t give that away! People will have to watch Hen’s Night. It’s the film’s most shocking one. In terms of sub-genres of horror, I like possession and the supernatural because there’s a sense that that characters cannot do anything about it. Killers don’t really scare me, but I like to watch their motivations. I don’t like for things to be too gratuitous, but gratuitous enough.
AB: Let’s talk Digi60. How many years did you compete and how many films did you make?
JA: I actually didn’t participate in that many. There was a reason for that, because with each one I met different people and formed different collaborations, and eventually wanted to make things with them away from the festival. The great thing about Digi60 is that they give you a wheel of creativity. You come into the festival with a blank slate, and when they tell you the theme, it gets the wheels spinning. And then you see the things that other people can do, you can say, “that person is on my wavelength: I want to work with them.” My first Digi60 film [that she acted in] is Divorce, and I don’t think I did more than three or four.
AB: Three is actually a lot. Do you know [fellow Digi60 alumni] Mike Horrigan? He only did three of four, not many more than you, for example.
JA: Yes. Very well. He shot one of his Digi60 films in my apartment. The one about the photographer [Relapse]. I still had a bachelorette pad at the time. It was shot there and in a warehouse, I think. That’s another thing about the festival. You’ll meet people and they’ll be looking for locations, and you can say, “I have that!”, and you help each other out. In that way I’ve helped people without actually appearing in their films.
AB: Digi60 seems to be almost more like a community than a festival. Does that sound right?
JA: Absolutely. Chris Chitaroni did a movie called We All Fall Down for Digi60 and I played the voice of a mother. People do those little things at the festival to help others without appearing in or working on their projects.
AB: What impact do you think Digi60 has had on your career as a filmmaker and actress?
JA: When I took my hiatus from acting and came back, I came back for Digi60. I haven’t stopped since. I met so many wonderful people through Digi60 who I continue to work with: friends, husband. Now, everyone I know is from Digi60 in some form. It’s had a huge impact on my life. I wouldn’t have met my husband if it weren’t for Digi60. I wouldn’t have started acting again if it wasn’t for Digi60. I feel very thankful to the festival, and I really hope it grows and flourishes.
AB: What is your strongest memory of the festival? When you think of Digi60, is there a memory that pops up right away?
JA: There is. I would say the whole experience of Puritans [in 2013]. Making Puritans was so much fun, and sitting there, watching the screening and seeing my husband win Best Director, was just amazing. So was the harsh awkwardness of having me up on stage, stuttering, and saying, “see you later.” That was a golden year, too. A lot of my favourite local filmmakers were part of that festival.
AB: Can you describe what it’s like to be a filmmaker in Ottawa?
JA: It takes a lot more effort to make a film here than in a city where everything is super accessible. But I find that people from other big film cities are more interested in [Ottawa filmmakers] when they find out where you’re from. When my husband and I went to San Diego Comic-Con in 2015, we met a screenwriter there who had written the Friday the 13th remake. We had a great time talking about his experience being on set for that film, but when he found out that we were from Ottawa, and not from L. A. like the rest of his peers, he said, “now I’m interested.” He thought we were so much more interesting because, in Ottawa, we have to put a lot more effort into getting a picture made.
AB: Why does it take more effort?
JA: You have to put yourself out there more. It takes a lot more research, but I love it for that. Ottawa is one of the prettier cities to shoot in. We’ve got so many fantastic locations. I love it. I love making films here. And people will donate their time to your project. I’m hoping that that changes one day if we get a good sale with Unholy Night, and everyone can get paid. But people will volunteer their time if they believe in a project.
AB: You’re proof that Ottawa’s indie scene and film community is healthy. But what do think could be done to make the city more desirable for bigger productions?
JA: Ottawa would be a great city for bigger films. I think we need more people at the higher level of the producing stage to help out with funding. We need a big studio. We need more programs. All of those factors will contribute to making it a more desirable location. One more thing: if there were more direct flights into Ottawa, that would be great. Think about it. If something is coming from L. A., they have to come from Montreal first, which is a huge pain in the ass.
AB: That’s an understated point.
JA: A lot of people will tap out of Ottawa just for that reason alone. They say, “why would I come to Ottawa if I can’t get there directly?” Maybe we need an independent airport or something to make it happen.
AB: What’s next on the horizon for you, film-wise?
JA: There’s a few things. We’re in post for Unholy Night, so were hoping to have some announcements about a release. We’ve released Hen’s Night. For me personally, June [her baby’s projected birth month] is going to be a big month. On top of that, I have a project that I can’t really talk about right now, but, I can give some hints.
JA: It will be launched next February , and we’re in preliminary planning mode. It’s not a film. It’s a creative project. It’s something that I’m very passionate about: something that will hopefully attract female filmmakers. I’m mixing two passions of mine, horror and helping other women. It’s going to create some opportunities for people.
AB: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers or people coming into Digi60?
JA: On an acting level, try to do your research on other filmmakers. Remember, we live in a digital age, so anything that you’re a part of, you’re always going to be part of. If you’re learning, it’s OK to take on projects that aren’t 100% there yet. Watch films made by your peers, and get to know who can do what, and who you want to work with. Collaborate. And at the end of the day, just fucking do it. If there’s a project you’re working on, come to Digi60, network and meet people. Go to Digi60, take advantage of its opportunities, and just make it.