July 3, 2020

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Screen queen

New TV series continues Winnipeg-raised director's sci-fi streak

On some level, filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy must have been able to relate to Elida, the heroine of Vagrant Queen, the SyFy-produced series on which she directed two episodes.

Like Elida (played by Adriyan Rae), she had lived too long under the radar, until circumstances put her in the driver’s seat of her destiny. For Esterhazy, the change agent was a 2019 sci-fi horror film she directed, Level 16.

While she lived in Winnipeg, Esterhazy was a filmmaker who struggled unsuccessfully to work in the science fiction or horror genres, always being told: "Women don’t like science fiction. Women don’t go to science fiction. People who do like science fiction would never want to see a story about women."

In frustration, Esterhazy packed up and left for Ontario, where her career got a conventional-wisdom-defying boost when she directed and saw the release of the dystopian thriller she had dreamed of making since graduating from the Canadian Film Centre.

Marcos Cruz photo</p><p>The new SyFy TV series Vagrant Queen follows the adventures of Elida (Adriyan Rae, above), who flies all over the galaxy in her junk-heap of a spacecraft called the Winnipeg.</p></p>

Marcos Cruz photo

The new SyFy TV series Vagrant Queen follows the adventures of Elida (Adriyan Rae, above), who flies all over the galaxy in her junk-heap of a spacecraft called the Winnipeg.

"We had a great première at Fantastic Fest in Austin (Texas), where we sold out six theatres. It was a big hit at FrightFest Glasgow," she says. "And Level 16 won four awards at Toronto’s Blood in the Snow film festival — including best director.

The great festival reviews won her an interview at SyFy — an American channel specializing in science fiction, fantasy and horror — which in turn led to a gig on The Banana Splits Movie, a 2019 TV film she directed last year, also for the SyFy network, that perversely layered horror elements on the campy-tacky Sid and Marty Krofft TV series from the 1960s.

That gig led directly to Vagrant Queen, especially since the series showrunner, Jem Garrard, determined that all the directors of the season’s 10 episodes would be women.

"Jem Gerrard made hiring female directors a priority, which really opened that door for me," Esterhazy says, adding that it helped she was a good fit for the material.

"Science fiction is actually my favourite genre," she says. "I watch a lot of science fiction. I read a lot of science fiction. I’ve been wanting to do science fiction for a long time."

Marcos Cruz photo</p><p>The character of Elida brings together a bit of both Han Solo and Princess Leia.</p>

Marcos Cruz photo

The character of Elida brings together a bit of both Han Solo and Princess Leia.

Vagrant Queen puts its own spin on the genre, Esterhazy says, describing the show’s approach as "nostalgic space-opera action-driven humour" that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also engages with more contemporary issues.

"The author who wrote the graphic novel is a trans woman and the lead character is a black woman," she says. "It has a more diverse, more inclusive storyline which I really loved. And there’s definitely more fluidity and inclusiveness in the romance. The humour reminds me of Firefly or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s like Buffy in Space. It’s very snarky and hilarious."

Anyway, there was another reason she seemed destined to do the series. Elida’s personal spacecraft, her Millennium Falcon, if you will, was named "the Winnipeg." And no, that wasn’t Esterhazy’s idea. It was in the comic book that inspired the series.

"I’d like to take responsibility for it because it’s so great," Esterhazy says. "It’s a running joke on the show because the character of Isaac (Tim Rozon, better known as Mutt Schitt on Schitt’s Creek) is from Winnipeg and everybody in this universe thinks he just made that word up.

"It’s quite funny," she says. "There’s a lot of good humour about Winnipeg."

Marcos Cruz photo </p><p>Hath (Colin Moss) and Elida (Adriyan Rae) in <em>Vagrant Queen</em>. </p>

Marcos Cruz photo

Hath (Colin Moss) and Elida (Adriyan Rae) in Vagrant Queen.


If you think working on a series is a step down from feature films, Esterhazy corrects that notion.

"I had really been trying to break into episodic television for a few years now," she says. "I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and getting on some shortlists but not quite getting that first opportunity.

"It’s really hard for a director to get their first TV episode, even though I’ve been directing for years."

Esterhazy’s work streak is still going, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is currently at work in her Toronto home doing post-production, remotely, on the Lifetime TV film she recently shot. I Was Loreena Bobbitt tells the grim story behind the sensational 1993 crime that saw Loreena cut off her husband’s penis.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg-raised filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy directed two episodes of Vagrant Queen.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg-raised filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy directed two episodes of Vagrant Queen.

"It was strange going from a very light sarcastic tone (of Vagrant Queen) to going very dark and very serious but a really important story that I really wanted to tell," she says, adding that although many people are familiar with the basic facts of Bobbitt’s story, there’s a lack of clarity surrounding the circumstances. "It’s a story that a lot of people are familiar with, but had a lot of misinformation about the mitigating circumstances."

"It’s really exciting to have the chance to correct society’s understanding of what happened," she says. "Not a lot of people understand the emotional heart of the story and the dark abuse that Loreena Bobbitt experienced in her marriage to John Wayne Bobbitt. So the story is really an attempt to get inside of the emotional experience of what it’s like to be trapped in a situation of domestic abuse."

Esterhazy hopes the film helps explain why it’s so difficult for women to leave abusive relationships, and why society in the late ’80s and early ’90s was ill-equipped to help those women.

"We didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to talk about these topics," she says, "but things have changed for the better, though we haven’t completely improved."

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Marcos Cruz photo</p><p>Elida (Adriyan Rae) in Vagrant Queen.</p>

Marcos Cruz photo

Elida (Adriyan Rae) in Vagrant Queen.

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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