Trailblazing Vancouver director brings first feature film to camera

Sabrina Furminger

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Vancouver director
Once told she couldn’t be a director of photography because cameras were too heavy for women, Shannon Kohli (left) takes the reins of All Joking Aside, a film about a female stand-up comedian in a male-dominated industry.

When Shannon Kohli graduated from UBC’s film production program in 2002, she wanted to be a camera operator and a director of photography — and she was subsequently mocked for her goals.

The mocking — not to mention the patronizing and the flagrant sexism — came mainly from men in the industry who, given their status and experience, could’ve helped her out, had they not been so mired in caveman thinking.

“I was told that women can’t be directors of photography, they can’t be camera operators, the cameras are too heavy, and I was too pretty to be behind the camera,” Kohli says. “I was told there are no women DPs.”

That last objection wasn’t really up for debate: there weren’t many women directors of photography in the Vancouver screen scene at that time.

But Kohli fought for her place in the industry. “When I got into the [camera operators’] union, I was the first female DP member in Western Canada,” she says. “It’s getting better, but it’s still a struggle.”

Which is why Kohli — now a director of episodic television (SupergirlThe Magicians, Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments) and an award-winning director of short films — knew she wanted to direct James Pickering’s script titled All Joking Aside for her first feature-length dramatic film.

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Raylene Harewood plays Charlene, an aspiring stand-up comedian, in the film All Joking Aside.

The film stars Raylene Harewood as Charlene, a stand-up comedian who is cruelly heckled during her first time at the mic by a man named Bob (played by Mad Men’s Brian Markinson). Bob used to be a successful comic but is now a broken, alcoholic mess who lost his family and his career — and he’s offered a chance at redemption when Charlene begs him to be her mentor.

Kohli felt a connection to the character of Charlene. “She’s trying to make it in a male-dominated industry, and she’s up against a lot of barriers and stereotypes and the pre-conceived ideas,” Kohli says.

Like the character of Charlene, Kohli recognized the value of a mentor early in her career.

“One of the DPs who hired me for 15 films was a man in his late 60s, and you never would have thought that he would have taken a chance on a young female camera operator, but he did,” Kohli says. “I saw that parallel between Charlene and Bob. I thought, ‘This is so similar that sometimes you just find unlikely champions.’”

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Richard Glen Lett appears in All Joking Aside as Dennis, a comedy club bartender.

If you think the character of Bob sounds a lot like Vancouver comedian Richard Glen Lett, you’re not far from the truth.

Lett was something of an inspiration for Bob, and he appears in All Joking Aside as Dennis, a comedy club bartender and friend to Bob. The role is much more a reflection of where Lett is now in his life versus where he was seven years ago, according to Kohli.

“Richard joked, ‘You gave my part away, I’m Bob,’ and I said, ‘You used to be that character, but now you’re the older, wiser, old soul who understands what Bob is going through,’” says Kohli. “Dennis is who Richard is now but Bob is who he used to be. He’s the one who is helping Bob. And Richard loves that.”

Incidentally, the documentary Never Be Done: The Richard Glen Lett Story, about Lett’s addiction battle and comeback, screens this week at the Vancouver Just For Laughs Film Festival.

All Joking Aside went to camera last week and is currently filming at locations around Vancouver. At least 50 per cent of the crew is female. “[Producer] Jon Ornoy said up top he wanted parity, and he’s been strong in getting that,” says Kohli, adding, “[We’re] not favouring women. We’re finding the best people for the jobs.”

As for the character with whom Kohli most identifies — the young female comic fighting for space in a male-dominated industry — the director says she admires Charlene’s drive.

“For me, it was very important that Charlene earn her way, that it not be handed to her, and that she fought for it,” says Kohli. “If she ran off stage crying and wasn’t ready to pick herself up and dust herself off every time it went horrible, then I wasn’t going to be sympathetic to her journey. You have to keep trying and not see failure as a negative. Turn it around and use it.”

Stay up to date on All Joking Aside here.