Scheme Engine director Wendy Morgan tells LBB’s Addison Capper about her debut feature film which tells the story of a talented but struggling musician who signs up for a sugar daddy paid-dating website in a bid to make money
Sugar Daddy is the story of Darren, a wickedly talented but unconventional and struggling musician. She dreams to make music like nobody has heard before but she's also broke, has multiple jobs to make ends meet and, as such, no time to create. Desperate for cash, Darren signs up to a sugar daddy paid-dating website and throws herself down a dark rabbit hole that forces her to grow up fast, in turn shaping her music and how she sees the world. It has since won Best Director, Best Feature, Best Performance, and Best Music at the Canadian Film Fest, as well as two awards at the Canadian Screen Awards.
To find out more about the story, its inspiration and how she went about telling it, LBB's Addison Capper chatted to director Wendy Morgan (who is repped for commercials in the US by Scheme Engine).
LBB> Tell me about the foundations of Sugar Daddy. How did the project first come about and why was the story something that you were keen to tell?
Wendy> I was recommended to Kelly McCormack, the writer and star of the project, because of my history in music videos as Sugar Daddy is a music film. The script allowed me to help create this singular character and shape her musical persona - it felt like a special opportunity.
LBB> Sum up Sugar Daddy for us! Not just the narrative but also the style. What genre does it sit within?
Wendy> The film is a drama, about a young woman (Darren) digging through the muck of patriarchy while trying to carve out a musical identity. She’s broke and has no time to create so, she signs up to a sugar daddy paid-dating website, throws herself into a world that forces her to grow up fast, shaping her music, and how she sees herself.
LBB> Why is this story important in 2021?
Wendy> I think it's important in 2021 because we are in the post Me Too era and this film, though it doesn’t aim to speak for sex workers, asks questions about sex work without giving straight or moralising answers. It also asks important questions about who gets to be an artist.
LBB> What are your favourite elements of this story?
Wendy> What I love most about this film is how it explores the gory excavation of womanhood, through what we dubbed the ‘atrocious woman’. ‘Atrocious’ describes the imperfect, the harsh, the bloody, and the obscene sides of our experience that are so real but rarely are seen in female characters in movies. Also, I loved the music side of the film, creating Darren's inner world of vision and creativity.
LBB> It sounds like a very character-driven story. Is that right? Tell us about Darren.
Wendy> Darren is not a straightforward, likable character and that is one of the things I loved most about her. We meet her in the ruthless and lonely gestation period leading up to the birth of her musical self and it's not always fun or sexy and this felt honest to me.
LBB> From an aesthetic and style point of view, where did you look for inspiration?
Wendy> When I look back at our board of references, it is mostly paintings. Courbet for the colour palette and I loved his soft glowing figures against a dark, ominous background. I also thought of the nude woman in his work ‘The Artist's Studio’ who is a reference to the classical style of painting that Courbet rejected in favour of Realism. In the painting we see the artist’s back turned away from the idealised woman, who stands behind him as he paints a landscape. It was exactly this idea that the woman only represents a ‘concept’ in Courbet’s world. I wanted to see Darren become her own muse, to see her use her body and power how she wanted.
LBB> What was the production process like? How did you bring this to life?
Wendy> I’m especially proud of the music in the film which definitely brought it to life. It was a very daunting task to create an inspired ‘sound’ for a fictional character. Kelly has a musical theatre background and I wanted the music to be futuristic, so our references ranged from Freddie Mercury to Lorn. We chose Marie-Hélène Delorme, our composer (aka Foxtrott) for her electronic style and she has an androgynous sound that was a perfect fit for Darren’s character.
LBB> The entire production crew was female. How did you go about building your crew? Tell us a bit more about the team.
Wendy> I had worked on a TV series with our DP, Kristin Fieldhouse. She has an intensity on set that I appreciated. Jessica Jerome (production designer) is a long time collaborator of Kelly’s, her mood boards blew my mind with their dark, psychedelic feel. Mara Zigler (costume designer) and Kelly are best friends. Seeing them work together and be so connected to the character was special to see. The editor Christine Armstrong has such a musical sensibility and was able to integrate the music scenes into the film in a way that felt elegant and unexpected at the same time.
LBB> You are best known for your music video work. How did that experience help you with your debut feature?
Wendy> Working as a music video and commercial director is a great path to features. It gives you time on different kinds of sets and, also, helps you find a personal style. Sugar Daddy has lots of scenes where Darren is alone and is composing or performing music. I drew on my music video experience to create more visceral, stylised images there versus taking a more realistic narrative route.
LB> As a flip side to that, what did it not prepare you for? What were the biggest and newest challenges when it came to making a feature?
Wendy> There are lots of details about narrative that you don’t think about very much in short-form work. Things like technical details in coverage and how to really build dialogue over a scene. Luckily, I shot a handful of television episodes before we shot the film which helped a lot. I guess the other big difference for me was keeping in mind the flow of a ninety-minute project, it's a big jump from four minutes.
LBB> The film won Best Director, Best Feature, Best Performance, and Best Music at the Canadian Film Fest. Congrats! What other kind of feedback have you particularly enjoyed about the film?
Wendy> The reviews have been validating mainly because we see that people appreciated the unfiltered, unapologetic female experience that we created. I also love the reviews that draw on the visual vocabulary of the film - “cathartic, uncomfortable, sumptuous, sticky, dripping….”. It’s been cool to see how all the collaborators on the film are getting recognition with nominations and awards. We also recently won two awards at the Canadian Screen Awards!
LBB> What's coming up next for you and the Scheme Engine crew?
Wendy> I've been living in Paris for the last few years and am about to relocate to San Francisco. It’ll be great to be closer to the Scheme Engine fam and my long-time EP, Jannie McInnes. Scheme is newly rostered, with incredibly diverse directors doing exciting work in different areas, from videos to docs to original content. They just won their first D&AD and I’m excited to be a part of a great company’s come up!