Film Discussion Interviews & Profiles

Seagrass – An interview with director Meredith Hama-Brown – VIFF 2023

Meredith-Hama Brown’s debut feature, Seagrass, is a powerful exploration of family instability and destruction, set against a backdrop of “socially acceptable” racism in mid-90s British Columbia.

Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay sat down with Meredith at VIFF 2023 to discuss her inspiration, the role of Japanese-Canadian identity in the film, and discovering two dynamite child stars.

Nicholas Lay: Seagrass dives deep into a family in crisis. What was your inspiration? Does it echo memories of your own childhood?

Meredith Hama-Brown: It’s easy to imagine that this is similar to my family, but it’s actually quite different. I would say 95-99% of the events that happened in the film didn’t happen in real life. There’s always one or two memories that you bring into your writing when you’re writing about a family, but it’s predominantly fiction. Even the family dynamics, they’re very fictional as well, such as the father character, who is completely different to my dad.

The reason my parents got divorced, which is something that happened, is very different to what you see portrayed, and I never saw my parents argue, which is a big part of what’s happening for the kids in the film. I wanted to clarify that, because I think it’s important to know in terms of how I got into the writing process. For the initial inspiration, I was really interested in looking at the underlying emotion of all of the characters, and their broken sense of stability. I wanted to look at the uncertainness that all of them are going through, which to me was more important than simply looking at the divorce, or the potential for divorce. It was really more an existential question for each of them that I was curious about.

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NL: You coax some tremendous performances from your cast. How did the cast come together and what was the atmosphere like on set?

MHB: You’re right, the cast is amazing. I feel so lucky. They’re all incredible. It was amazing how much work our casting directors put into it, and once we knew we had the money we found Ally Maki and started building the cast around her. I had only seen her comedy work, so I wasn’t really sure what she would bring to this more dramatic role, and I was completely blown away when I saw her in action.

In my mind it was clear she was the one to play Judith, if she was willing to take it on, which luckily she did. From there, we started looking for Luke Roberts’s character and the kids, which took a very, very long time. We didn’t lock them in until I think a week and a half before we shot, so it was very stressful, but sometimes from these stressful circumstances good things happen, and I feel lucky because I was just so excited to work with every single cast member. It’s really good to go into a shoot feeling certainty that whoever we cast is absolutely the right person.

NL: Having strong child performances makes such a difference. How extensive was the search for Nyha and Remy?

MHB: It was very extensive because we found them at the last minute and I was getting a little bit worried that we might not find them. First we got Remy Martella, who is incredible, but I was having trouble finding Stephanie’s character, and because they’re siblings we wanted to cast them at the same time. We knew the age difference, and I knew Remy was ready, so we just needed to find her sister. Then Naya Breitkreuz’s tape came in. It was the last tape. We had searched and searched and then finally this one tape came in and it was the one.

Kris and Kara [Seagrass’s Canadian casting directors] went to great lengths to find them. They actually wrote to every single children’s acting school in the country, and I’m so grateful to them for doing that, because with kids that’s what it takes sometimes. We knew we had to find Canadian kids because we’d already cast several non-Canadians and it would affect our funding structure, so we couldn’t just look all over the world. When we finally found them, it was wonderful working with them, just so much fun. They were a huge highlight of the shoot and they were so easy to direct, which is interesting. Everyone needs something different, and the kids being different ages meant they needed different types of direction, but once we got into that groove, it just felt very natural directing them.

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NL: Normalised racism from the mid-90s is now extremely overt and can be distressing to experience. How did you tackle that during the shoot?

MHB: It was of course emotional approaching and tackling that subject matter, and we wanted to make it the safest space possible on set. Prior to going in, there were a lot of discussions. We had an experienced cultural sensitivity consultant there who did a talk on Japanese-Canadian history, and specifically chatted with the kids and talked out the scenes with them. I also chatted with them and their parents, checked in with them, and of course spoke to everyone to let them know that if they needed to step off or do what they needed to do to take care of themselves during the scenes, then we understand. No-one needed to take that break, and it seemed that people were in a head space where they knew that they were supported. It’s hard to say if anything came up personally for anyone, but we had so many good discussions with the cast and crew. I also had a great relationship with Ally, and we have a lot of shared history. Through our discussions, I think there was actually a lot of healing happening as well.

NL: The moment in the mirror with Ally Maki and Remy Marthaller hits very hard. How did you prepare Remy for that scene?

MHB: Remy’s mum, Amanda, was was a really great support system for her. She’s incredible. I consider Amanda a friend, and she was prepping Remy along with the cultural sensitivity consultant. Ally really had her back as well, and we were all there for her, talking her through it in a way that a six-year-old can understand. We told her, “What you’re doing is actually bad, but you don’t realize it”. Just talking about in a way she could understand so that she knew what was happening was the most important thing, to make sure that she was empowered by the knowledge of what exactly was happening in the scene, and why it was happening to her.

NL: How do you perceive the current cultural landscape compared to what is portrayed in the film?

MHB: Like you said, there’s a lot of racism that was normalised in the ’90s in the film. I think anyone who is a racialised person saw and experienced that, and we didn’t have language around it in the same way we do now. In the past ten years, or maybe even less, there has been a lot of new discussions. Maybe some people did have the language and maybe it was because I was a kid that I didn’t understand it in the same way. Words like “microaggression” or “being othered” are terms that I didn’t grow up hearing, so when things like that would happen, not just to myself but to other people, we didn’t know how to say,  “This is wrong”.

Again, perhaps some people did, but I think there’s a little bit more knowledge and discussion around that now. While I’ve been showing the film, it’s been really rewarding having those discussions with some older generations and explaining the terms and why some of these things were not socially acceptable, even if they were considered to be at the time. Looking at this through the lens of 2023, it’s shocking, but 20-30 years ago, it’s just what people were saying, and that’s been an important part of telling this story.

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NL: The treatment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II is not talked about or depicted that often. Why did you want to spotlight that history through Judith’s character?

MHB: I wanted to explore Japanese-Canadian identity and how the racism that Judith’s parents experienced created the situation that she is in during the film. You see a difference between her and Chris Pang, who’s playing a Chinese-Australian character. They have these different experiences, largely because her parents went through this hugely traumatic time that caused a lot of inter-generational trauma. That history was something I was interested in looking at, but in a film like this it can be misconstrued quite a bit.

There was one person who wrote that the film is about fixing the mistakes of the past, as in Judith fixing her mistake of not knowing enough about her heritage. The mistake is actually that her parents went through this and this is the outcome. This is the response to that, and obviously I don’t want to spell everything out, because it doesn’t make for a good film. I’d write an essay if that is what I wanted to do, but in a film, you have to give little bit of trust to the audience and hopefully pique their curiosity so that they will read about it themselves. It’s a bit of a challenge when the message gets misconstrued like that.

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NL: Let’s bring things back up…did you have a favourite moment on set?

MHB: It’s hard to think of one moment because every day was so frantic, but so much of it was joyful and exciting. Working with the actors was so much fun, so maybe it’s more of a general highlight, but I had a blast with all of them because they all work so differently. I learned so much from all of them in terms of what different actors need direction-wise, and it was really fun and insightful. And then there were the other creatives, Louisa Birkin, the production designer, and even working with Kris and Kara during casting was so much fun. Working with everyone in such a creative environment and seeing the film come together was the real highlight.

NL: What’s next for you, do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

MHB: I’m writing and working on two new projects that have some similar themes to Seagrass, but are very, very different as well, so we’ll see how they go!

NL: Thanks Meredith, really appreciate your insight

MHB: Thank-you so much!

Seagrass is on the festival circuit and is set for theatrical release in early 2024.

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