From Manitoba to Spain: a talk with ‘Menorca’ filmmaker John Barnard

For his first fictional feature film, veteran television and short film writer-director John Barnard has created a dark comedy about a woman pushed too far by life who’s forced to go on a journey of self-reflection and discovery.

In Menorca (opening in select cinemas this weekend), actress Tammy Gillis stars as Claire, a hard partying, heavy drinking soccer mom who has grown fed up with the stagnancy of her life. One day after leaving her son’s soccer practice to steal a van and go on an impromptu alcoholic bender, she’s told by her husband and child to never return home. Claire embarks on a road trip that will lead to her getting robbed by a handsome hitchhiker, befriending a stripper, and eventually to the titular Spanish city to return a rock that her son picked up on a family vacation. The purpose of returning the rock to Menorca: her son felt bad about taking it because he felt like he stole something. After everything she goes through, the eventual roads that lead Claire to Spain will become a mission of hope and self-forgiveness.

Filmed in Manitoba and Spain, the Canadian produced feature shifts tones while following Barnard’s flawed protagonist, and we caught up with the filmmaker over the phone earlier this week to talk about this delicately constructed tale of a flawed anti-hero, how the film came together, what Gillis brought to the project, and how a lot of Menorca’s humour and pathos comes from real life experiences.

You can catch Menorca in Toronto starting this Friday at Carlton Cinemas.

This is a unique kind of film in terms of how it’s structure and how it plays out. It’s also really different from anything you’re previously worked on. When did the idea for Menorca first gestate and where did it come from?

John Barnard

John Barnard: It came from wanting to do a story where I was able to extrapolate really complicated emotions from a simple task. I wanted to try that, and the simple task here was just the idea of dropping a rock in the ocean. I wanted to make a movie about a woman dropping a rock in the ocean and extrapolate upon that all these ideas and see what characters could arrive at and what adventures they could take from that one idea.

It’s interesting that the rock is the starting point for you on this because it feels like Menorca travels through three different kinds of films. It starts as a Leaving Las Vegas styled movie about a woman on a bender. Then it becomes kind of the quintessentially Canadian road movie, and then it ends up becoming this redemption tale. Did you envision each of these turns in the story separately or did it come organically while trying to see what worked with these characters and these stories?

John Barnard: Good question. I think what I did was I did it all at once, but I did it all quickly at once. I drew up the whole framework for the story knowing where Claire was going to start and where she was going to end. I guess I drew a really rough, point-form outline of everything that was going to happen in-between. That sort of encompassed everything, but from that I expanded everything into a 35 or 36 page rough script that had every event in the movie. It didn’t have all of the dialogue yet, but it had every plot point. Then I expanded that further into the full screenplay, and I finalized that only after I had been to Menorca and finally seen the place. (laughs) I made some little changes to adapt to what it was actually like. But I guess the answer to your question was that it came all at once just from seeing where it took me.

The film opens with a pair of scenes where Claire is engaging in some dodgy behaviour, and one of the first things she does before we get to know her is she’s getting drunk at her kid’s soccer game and she decides to steal a minivan and leave her family behind. Something like that could be played for laughs, but I always took Claire’s unhappiness quite seriously no matter how sarcastic and witty she was. Was that a tone that took a while to take shape?

John Barnard: Well, I mean, the soccer game was something that came from my own experiences of taking my own kids to their soccer games. (laughs) If you’re someone who doesn’t like sports, it can be so hard to endure because the kids don’t know where they’re going half the time, they barely know what they’re doing, and you have to sit in the sun the whole time. If you’re not interested in what’s happening, that’s an endurance test.

For me, I thought it was an interesting idea to think of that moment as the last straw for somebody, and, I mean, it’s funny to some, but I could see these kinds of events as real feelings that people could have, so the tone kind of arises from that. I guess it’s rooted in real experiences, and that’s what I keep going back to. I’m always fascinated by personal paradigms and the choices that we make that are really serious, but they can have moments of levity to them. Everything to some degree is absurd, serious or not. There’s always some degree of absurdity to everything that we’re told we have to or should have done for our children whether they want it or not. Then there are just the expectations people have on parents, particularly on mothers. That’s challenging, and the pressure we put on people in those positions is absurd, so that’s maybe where that kind of tone comes from. The situations are recognizable, but it can be seen as funny and sad at the same time. That’s a longwinded answer, but I think that’s where it comes from.

I’ll also freely admit that I have since changed my perspective on children’s soccer since then. (laughs)

So we as the audience know almost immediately that something is wrong with her, but did you and Tammy Gillis talk about Claire’s backstory and the events that would lead her to such a place before you guys started shooting?

John Barnard: I had some ideas and predictions about it, but most of the character work and backstory was filled in my Tammy on her own. She came up with a lot of the ideas of how the character would react to situations herself, and I kind of brought the ideas of where the character would end up. Most of what was built was her own, and that’s always the way I would like to do it. I loved leaving that work to her.

As a writer and director on a film like this, do you think you need a collaborator like Tammy who could take the lead like that regarding her character?

John Barnard: I would expect that of anyone, really. That’s one of the most interesting aspects of filmmaking to me. I wouldn’t have been able to do this over the two years it took me to make it if there weren’t discoveries to be made along the way that I didn’t discover myself. To me, that’s the fun of doing this. When I started this script, I had no idea what the answers were, if there was a theme, or if there was a message. After I found what it was to me, I worked hard to erase any of those traces so it wasn’t immediately visible. I like worlds that reveal themselves to others without the world explaining directly what it is to people in every tiny respect. I didn’t have any solutions while I was making it, so Tammy’s collection of backstory and creating everything behind the character is a huge part of it.

The narration of the film is also quite beautiful, well written, and delivered by Tammy. It feels like it was written almost like a novel or prose, and I mean that as a compliment. Was that how you envisioned it when you were writing it?

John Barnard: (laughs) First, thanks for that. There was a little bit of, I guess you could say, bureaucratic reason for it coming across that way. That was because I was working with really limited means. I wasn’t sure what I would be left with in the film in the end, so I wanted the flexibility to push and pull story points after the film was made. I wanted to make sure that if something needed to be juiced up in post or be brought back a little bit, I could do it with the voiceover. That was the initial intent of it, but I also wanted to be able to jump through time a bit and jump the distance between Canada and Spain physically. It’s just practical in this case, I think, for the film to have it. Sorry there isn’t a more poetic answer for that. (laughs) I think it does it’s business.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.