Hey, aren't you … ?: Yeah, yeah, it's Lucy from Degrassi Junior High

Hey, aren’t you … ?
Yeah, yeah, it’s Lucy from Degrassi Junior High. But she’s 28 now and she’s written and directed a road movie about sisters of different colours

Katrina Onstad

National Post

Tim Fraser, National Post

Producer Vicki Gryspeerdt, left, was eight months pregnant during the On Their Knees shoot last May. She often brings her baby, Charlie, into the Have Mercy office, which is actually the apartment of Anais Granofsky, right.

In a pivotal scene in On Their Knees, screening for the public tomorrow at the Toronto International Film Festival, a door opens to reveal a large, handsome family seated around a dining room table. The faces looking up at the open door contain all shades of black, brown and white.

“Within large black families, there isn’t one colour,” says writer, director and actor Anais Granofsky, who played Lucy on Degrassi Junior High and cannot go a day without being reminded of this by strangers. “A family will go from blond and blue-eyed to dark skinned, dark black hair. There are 15 brothers and sisters on my mom’s side, and you have that range.”

Granofsky, lanky and black, is one of the two people who open the door. Next to her is Canadian actor Ingrid Veninger, short and white, playing her sister (same mom, different dads). The two are on their way to the Maritimes to bury their dead Nan who’s in a duffel bag in the back of the ice cream truck they’re driving.

On Their Knees hits a lot of road trip clichs — gotta rob, gotta run — but redeems itself with some original turns (a spectacular golden sunset funeral, a roadside hand job/burglary). The movie’s great charm is in its relaxed treatment of difference. Race, in On Their Knees — which won the Best Film Award at this year’s Black Film and Video Awards — isn’t a Farrelly brothers punchline or touchy-feely learning exercise. When a bartender notes, quite late in the film: “You sure don’t look like sisters,” it is the question, not the explanation, that is almost startling. One hopes Granofsky’s casual way with this touchiest of themes announces a new, younger mood in Canadian film. She is 28.

“We didn’t want to cast because people looked alike,” says Granofsky. “We wanted to cast because they were into the project. We didn’t want to cast body types or hotties. There’s enough people putting hotties on TV.”

At a festival where an Ethan Hawke movie can get passed off as “independent,” On Their Knees is a true indie film, shot in 18 days in 30 locations for less than $500,000 (from private funds and Telefilm). Now they need a distributor.

“Our main objective is to get it out there,” says Vicki Gryspeerdt, 27, Granofsky’s partner in a production company called Have Mercy Pictures (they just hired their first employee). “It’s not about money.” Pipes in Granofsky: “Certainly at some point we hope it will become about money.”

Though not yet 30, Granofsky and Gryspeerdt have a slightly disarming worldliness unique to an industry that requires winning over everyone to get stuff done. In the downtown home of their publicist, they bewitch the photographer with their giggles while professionally controlling the pictures: “What’s my eye line?” asks Gryspeerdt, jokingly adding: “No double chins.”

At a screening of On Their Knees last week, they were introduced as “the two sexiest women in Canadian film,” and as the two stood at the front of the theatre, smiling widely, both hovering around six feet tall, it was hard to disagree.

Gryspeerdt is a music video producer — David Usher, Jellystone — who helmed the k.d. lang campaign for MAC cosmetics at age 21. Granofsky studied film at NYU, which she attended just after graduating from high school and wrapping Degrassi High. “I’d been living with Degrassi for eight, nine years. New York was freedom. Nobody knew me. I could get loaded and puke naked in the corner and no one would say: ‘Hey, aren’t you the chick from Degrassi?’ ” (The legacy continues, however: She’s working on the new CTV series Degrassi: The Next Generation, which starts Oct. 14, and Snake, a.k.a. Stefan Brogren, was loitering in the lobby at the On Their Knees screening.)

The two women met, Granofsky says, “through men. Actually, both men are long gone, but you don’t have to write that.”

For their first picture, Have Mercy, about a talent show in a mental institution, Gryspeerdt pulled together the crew through her video connections, while Granofsky rounded up the cast. On Their Knees features cameos from every actor in Upper Canada, or at least it feels that way: Clark Johnson, Maury Chaykin and Jackie Burroughs appear — an impressive lineup for a neophyte director.

“I’ve been in the business 18 years. Everyone knows everybody,” says Granofsky. “People are in the phone book. This is Canada.”

With a limited budget, the women turned Port Hope into the Maritimes. As they tooled around the town in the ice cream truck (seated next to the ice cream man who came with the truck and stayed on set the entire time), little kids would hear the jingle and run out on to the street for ice cream. They were disappointed.

“It was kind of sad,” says Granofsky, sending the two into fits of laughter.

Gryspeerdt’s baby daughter, Charlie, is often in the Have Mercy office. Gryspeerdt was eight months pregnant during the On Their Knees shoot: “I think it made me very even keeled, because when you’re pregnant, nothing’s a big deal.”

The “office” is actually Granofsky’s apartment, but when the company gets a real office and a real staff, a daycare will be included. Making it easier for women to work in film is part of the Have Mercy agenda, about which they are unabashed: “We want to make women-centred films that are real,” says Granofsky. Her main writing obsession these days, she says, is “the things that make women bad.”

On Their Knees was shot last April and May, and the two recall the chaotic time with a palpable nostalgia.

“I remember this one day, I turned around and the actors were carrying sandbags. Everyone was schlepping,” says Granofsky. “I looked and the producer was helping the art director wrap the set. Everyone was running to try and get the light which we were losing, and I felt, this is what filmmaking is about. This is community.”


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