Filmmaker, Writer & Director
Tracey Deer is an award-winning Mohawk filmmaker with multiple credits to her name as a showrunner, writer and director in both documentary and fiction. She recently completed five seasons of the critically acclaimed dramedy Mohawk Girls, produced by Rezolution Pictures. The series garnered consecutive nominations for Best Comedy and she was nominated three years in a row for Best Direction in a Comedy Series at the Canadian Screen Awards.
How do you stay motivated in this industry?
This is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was twelve years old so I know this is where I’m meant to be. That clarity of purpose helps to keep me focused and motivated. Plus, when you love what you do, that passion feeds perseverance – and you need lots of resiliency to stick in out through the ups and downs of a career in this industry, the financial instability that is a constant no matter what level you are at, and your own inner critic.
When I need a boost, attending film festivals or workshops/talks helps to reignite the magic of it all. These kinds of events remind me that I’m a part of an amazing creative community and that I’m not alone. Plus, I’m inspired by the work of my peers and enjoy learning from their experiences.
Advice to someone just starting out?
My first piece of advice is to be as authentic as possible. Figure out your voice: what do you want to say and why? Very often it’s your motivation and your connection to the story that will make your project compelling. Look inward and tell stories that mean something to you. The best advice I received when I was just starting out was to figure out stories that only I could tell – and I’ve been doing that ever since.
My second piece of advice is to team up with producers who are just as passionate about the project as you are. It’s a long road to get a film or television show made and there will be a lot of closed doors. If the producers don’t want it as badly as you do, they may stop at the first or second closed door. You want to team up with people who will champion your project all the way.
My third piece of advice is to find experts to collaborate with. A good story editor will elevate your project. Listen and learn from them. It’s also very important to click with this person – don’t pick someone based solely on an impressive resume. Creative work is personal work so find people you like and respect. They are there to help you. Let go of the reins (I know it’s hard) and it’ll pay off.
Who impacted your career the most?
In the beginning of my career, I sought out every opportunity I could find to meet, learn and shadow other directors. I’ve had the privilege to be mentored by Norma Bailey, Tim Southam and Jane E. Thompson. They were all so generous with their time and energy, because I had a million questions for them. There are so many things you can only learn by being on set and watching the creative machine at work. I also credit producer Adam Symansky of the NFB for helping me to find my voice as a storyteller early in my career. His unconditional support and fierce belief in me really gave me the confidence I needed in order to succeed in this industry. On the creative spectrum, producer Catherine Bainbridge of Rezolution Pictures, who has been a champion of my work from the very beginning, taught me to not be afraid to be guided by passion and to trust my instincts. As a strong, successful woman in this industry, she was (and still is) a crucial role model for me.
How did you build the team around you?
It is extremely important to me to team up with people that have a positive outlook, the desire to have fun and love their work. We work long hours with lots of pressure and something is ALWAYS not going according to plan, so I want to be around people who can handle that with grace. I’ve learned to always meet in person and not be convinced solely by an impressive resume. By the end of the meeting, if I want to spend more time with that person, that is a great sign.
Was it luck or strategy that helped you find success?
I set the goal to become a filmmaker when I was twelve-years-old and I’ve made decisions every step of the way to attain that goal, so I think I’ve been a strategist since elementary school. I highly recommend a proactive approach because of how tough it is to break into this industry. You need to make (art), meet (people) and manage (everything – finances, expectations, time, paperwork, etc.) Luck is fantastic and we all have moments when it hits, but that does not make a career. Everyone I know who is successful has worked really hard for it – and most importantly persevered when it got incredibly hard – and when luck appeared in his or her path, it was a well-earned reward.
Did you ever give up hope that you’d not make it?
I think one of the reasons I am where I am is because I’ve always believed this is what I’m meant to do. That singular focus made me very determined, which helped me to get up over and over again when I fell flat on my face. So, I’ve definitely had moments when things were really tough, both practically (not working so can’t pay bills) and emotionally (am I actually any good at this?), but because my vision of what I wanted my life to be was so unwavering, I kept at it.
What was your worst experience in this business?
My worst experience in this business would be my own #metoo moment. It was very early in my career and I was at a causal industry get together at a bar. As an introvert, these “mix and mingle” situations are when I really need to push myself because I find them very intimidating. In the midst of a conversation with a male producer, he causally slipped his hand into my blazer and placed his hand on my hip. I was shocked and uncomfortable, but he was so nonchalant about it that I doubted my feelings. As my mind raced through options on what to do, I kept listening to him talk as though everything was fine since the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass or insult him - he had the power to hire me. Before I could come up with a plan of escape, he slipped his hand down the back of my skirt. I was horrified and felt sick, but again I didn’t react for fear of upsetting him. The overwhelming urge to flee did motivate action this time – I told him a friend was at the bar beckoning me over with a shot and excused myself. I left instantly and cried the whole way home in the taxi. I never told anyone. I’m so happy our industry is addressing this disgusting behaviour and I’m proud to be a part of the movement to ensure our sets/workplaces/events are safe spaces.
What was your best experience in this business?
I have so many “best experiences” that I can’t choose just one. I’m so grateful to be living my dream that I relish all of it. But I can say that my absolute favourite time is when I’m on set.
Is there a theme in the work you pick?
I love sharing stories that explore Indigenous realities, have a strong female perspective and that have the potential to build bridges between our communities.