MOVIES: Filmmaking couple want to make a mark with Beauty Mark in Whistler

GLEN SCHAEFER
VANCOUVER DESI

Vancouver filmmaking couple Nimisha Mukerji and Mark Ratzlaff were excited enough Thursday as they awaited the Whistler Film Festival world premiere of their new short film, the dark drama Beauty Mark.

But then the city-bred pair saw a bear on a walk through the resort. We’ll let them tell it:

The couple are romantic as well as professional partners, having first worked together three years ago when Ratzlaff wrote and directed the stylish, funny period short Voodoo, and Mukerji served as producer and story editor. They spent most of the past three years working on the feature-length documentary Blood Relative, with Mukerji directing and Ratzlaff producing the story of the fight against a blood disease that affects millions of children in India.

The idea for Beauty Mark, their latest film, came last year as they were heading to a film festival in Sedona, NM, to screen Voodoo.

“We were on the plane, stuck with very limited options about what to watch on an airplane television set,” Ratzlaff recalls. “They had a TLC channel which had . . .”

“Toddlers and Tiaras marathon,” Mukerji says. They have a tendency to finish each other’s sentences. “It’s a very popular TV show and we got sucked in. We started watching.”

“No breaks, so you say I’ll watch one more,” Ratzlaff says.

The cutesy documentary series depicts pre-teen beauty pageants. “We got our fill. We got down to Sedona, checked into our hotel, turned on the TV just for filler, and it was on again. We were just bombarded.”

They started talking about an idea Ratzlaff had for a short scripted drama about mother-daughter relationships. The kiddie pageants gave them their setting.

“It was a sign,” Mukerji says. They wrote up a first draft of Beauty Mark in August of last year while they were editing Blood Relative.

“We were taking it to a darker level,” Mukerji says. “Kind of in response to all the pop culture, how everyone makes it seem really glamorous and really fun. We wanted to take it in another direction.”

They wrote the script together, teaming up on the writing for the first time.

“It was great to be able to work with Mish again,” says Ratzlaff. “We’d come off the documentary and now working in the narrative world.”

Beauty Mark follows a reluctant pageant star, played by young actor Taya Clyne, and her overbearing, ambitious mother (Christina Cox). Mukerji was responsible for some of the script’s darker touches, like when the mother stuffs padding into her daughter’s bra.

“I made the suggestion to Mark and he was no, no. But because I am a girl, it’s like saying well, that’s what really would happen. He said ‘Well, I don’t know how I’m going to direct the scene.’ I said it’s coming from a true place, it’ll work,” Mukerji says. “Co-writing was fun . . . he would do a draft, then I would do a draft. We didn’t really sit together that way it became looser, I could take it in a direction and he could respond to that.”

They submitted their script to the Whistler festival’s annual short film pitch competition, and won the green light over four other finalists last December. They got $15,000 cash and $100,000 worth of in-kind support, and a premiere screening slot at this year’s festival.

“They noticed quickly that it was darker than past pitches,” Ratzlaff says.” I’m glad that they went for it. I think it brings up an important discussion. We wanted it to disturb, upset, to make people uncomfortable.”

“It’s a timely story, it’s happening now,” Mukerji says. “The goal was not just to make it a surface film, but to make it a short film that would really get into the heart of the characters . When it’s building to this unexpected climax, that people would believe that this was possible.”

It is that, disturbingly believable. They filmed over five days, using eight interior and exterior locations and dozens of actors to recreate the kiddie pageant milieu. They had to act fast when a Vancouver school, apparently spooked by the script, pulled out as a location two days before filming.

Acting fast was Mukerji’s job.

“This is a massive production, it’s not like a small independent short film,” she says. “We had so many professionals donate their time. On any given day we had as many as 60 people, we had an enormous number of pageant people, background people. For Mark, his focus was the actors, so it was really managing everything that wasn’t happening on camera.”

It seems the couple are trading off directing duties on each project.

“I think we both at the end of the day want to direct,” Ratzlaff says. “It has just worked out that we’ve been able to make films together, which is kind of a really great blessing in the last couple of years. I can’t imagine how much we’d see each other if we were doing things independently. It’s been nice to overlap.”

“Blood Relative took three years,” Mukerji says. “Our whole relationship was making Blood Relative. In the middle of that we decided to do this. I like producing when it can be creative and when you can see it through from the beginning. To write with Mark and then to see it all the way through to the finished product, That’s a really rewarding experience for a producer.

Says Ratzlaff : “She brought such an important insight. Mother and daughter relationships are different . . . I think mind games.”

Adds Mukerji: “I think it was fun to collaborate on that dynamic while writing a script together. We balance each other out. I love my mother, we have a great relationship, but we know how to push each other’s buttons. Christina Cox brought a lot to that, playing the mother. These little comments that can drive someone a little closer to the edge. She understood the complexities of the mother roles.”

Beauty Mark gets its world premiere 2 p.m. Saturday at Whistler’s Millennium Place with a program of short films. It plays again 7 p.m. that night at Maxx Fish. They’ve started submitting it to other festivals.

Now, they’re both working separately on feature scripts.

“That’s what’s fun about it, we can get feedback, go back and forth,” Mukerji says. “When it comes from a place of love, it’s easier to accept. We’re really lucky.”





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