After a 30-year career in the Canadian film industry, how Jennifer Jonas balanced her company and mother proves she’s the REEL thing
Jennifer Jonas brings an unwavering passion for Canadian film and entrepreneurial zeal to her production company.
Story by: N. Naeme El-Zein | Photography by: Maxime Bocken
These are the two words of sage and succinct advice Canadian producer and director Jennifer Jonas offers up to those trying to break into the film industry.
Jonas has lived these words, climbing through the ranks over a nearly 30-year career that began as an eighteen-year-old production assistant. These days she is preparing to see the release of Trigger, on September 30, the tenth and latest feature film she produced by the company she co-founded, New Real Films.
The film was selected to open this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and was the inaugural film to christen the new Bell Lightbox venue on King St. – a benchmark in her career. The much-anticipated film, co-produced by business partner and husband Leonard Farlinger, and directed by Bruce McDonald, is Jonas’ biggest undertaking and challenge to date.
To think all this began with a plot twist from a twisted ankle. As an eighteen-year-old, completing a degree in English literature at McGill, Jonas planned like many of her peers to make a pilgrimage west over her summer break to work at the Banff Springs Hotel.
But she broke her ankle, and soon found herself in search of an alternative summer job, closer to home. After getting some advice from a few actor friends, Jonas offered her services to a couple of local production companies, getting hired on as a production assistant soon after. She quickly became the go-to person, delivering movie posters and movie canisters from point A to point B.
When a golden nugget opportunity arose for Jonas to scout a location for renowned director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire (1981), she attacked it. Using her background in history, she recalled the primitive drawings inside caves along the Niagara peninsula and through word of mouth found some untouched caves under a local farmer’s fields. Drawing up a proposal for the ideal location, Jonas impressed her superiors.
“I was lucky to work with such a visionary director [at such a young age] with such serious and rigorous ideas and to [witness] how they should be organized,” she says.
The caves were chosen for the film and Jonas, now upgraded to a location scout, was hooked.
Working over the next four summers while studying comparative literature at Cambridge University, completing another degree, Jonas took on higher roles with greater responsibilities on various film sets.
“At a certain point I felt there were stories I wanted to choose … it was [also] very obvious to me at this point that I knew more than anyone else,” she says.
“I was tired of being the one with the best judgment. [I thought] that if I have it I should be enacting it.”
It was at this crucial time that a serendipitous meeting of the minds happened. On the set of François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993), while working as the first assistant director, a challenging job that involves organizing allotment of both the film’s time and resources, Jonas met her future husband and partner, Leonard Farlinger.
In what Jonas describes as an organic progress over the next six years, she and Farlinger married and gave birth to two children and one film production company, New Real Films. In 2000, Jonas produced Farlinger’s first feature The Perfect Son, which earned both leading actors, David Cubitt and Colm Feore, Genie nominations for best actor in a leading role. This was a huge vote of confidence for New Real, and the husband and wife team have not looked back.
Setting themselves apart, New Real Films promotes Canadian artist- and author-driven films, selecting films based on the vision and idea versus genre. It takes a certain level of toughness to survive in the Canadian film industry. Jonas has fought hard for Canadian audiences to have the opportunity to see Canadian stories told, with American films holding a monopoly on screen time in this country.
“Part of [the struggle] is accessibility and part of it is an awareness conundrum,” she says.
In the face of this challenge, Jonas does a minimum of an hour of activist and lobbying work a day. Holding a leadership role on Film Ontario’s board, and acting as the private sector co-chair of the advisory committee of the Ontario Media and Development Corporation, Jonas works to improve matters, creating space for and bringing attention to Canadian films.
Her passion is what fuels her success.
“I care all the time, a lot and about everybody top to bottom,” she says.
With a career that involves flying across the globe at a moments notice, how does this mother of two find balance? Jonas credits the mutual decision her and Farlinger — whom she calls her “favorite creator of them all” — made to embrace all that came with their careers with their children, making them part of the adventure.
This meant that when Jonas had her first child, she came along on set with the jet-setting Red Violin (1998) cast and crew, getting Austrian and Italian stamps in his pint-sized passport. “[When my daughter was born] I breast fed [her] at the monitor for Perfect Pie… She became like the set mascot,” she says.
Call it Jonas’ maternal instinct or natural aptitude but her ability to think with her heart and head, creating a safe environment for her artists to embrace their full creativity, has led to a string of fine Canadian films.
Trigger was completed under tragic circumstances.
With the heartbreaking news that leading lady Tracy Wright had terminal cancer Jonas, Farlinger, McDonald and writer Daniel MacIvor rallied to produce the film. The process was intense and physically exhausting, with major creative decisions being made daily.
“Aside from childbirth, this was the hardest thing I have ever done,” she says. “It was like a beacon of light shone from within this film as people behind and in front [of the camera] wanted to make this happen.”
On August 10th, at the Canadian Press Conference for TIFF, Trigger’s trailer played to a full house. The air was heavy and silent with the knowledge of Wright’s passing in June.And yet, when the clip ended, the audience erupted in joyous applause and laughter.
As for Jonas’ reaction: “To see the audience getting off on it was just fantastic!”
Jonas was looking forward to TIFF and Trigger’s premiere with excitement and a degree of hesitation due to the unique emotional circumstances surrounding it.
Soon she is heading off to Norway for another film. Then there is the financing of I’m Yours, another Farlinger feature film she is producing.
“Each movie [for me] is like a child — you want it to go out into the world [to reach its full potential],” she says. “In a way a film is not fully born until it’s watched by an audience.”
Spoken like a true mother of movies.