Leah Johnston — who grew up in Truro, N.S. — won a $35,000 grant from Bell Media’s bravoFACT on Sunday in Halifax. The grant will go towards the making of her newest short film, a commentary on Alzheimer’s disease.
BravoFACT, a foundation dedicated to supporting Canadian shorts, partnered with Women in Filmmaking and Television Atlantic (WIFT-AT) to launch a pitch contest at WIFT-AT’s annual Women Making Waves conference held on Sunday. The five finalists for the grant pitched their short films to a panel of four industry professionals on Saturday.
While working in Los Angeles, Johnston wrote a sprawling 35 page epic that she says wasn’t possible to make into a short film. That was the first draft of “Ingrid and the Black Hole,” which is about two children imagining the possibilities of time travel.
It wasn’t until she moved back to Truro as a part time caretaker for her grandmother — who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s — that the concept began to fall into place. “Ingrid and the Black Hole” is a tale of children and time travel, but is also a commentary on the disease.
While caring for her grandmother, Johnston watched Alzheimer’s at work from a sobering front row seat. “Suddenly I knew how to tell the story and have the same themes, but tell it in a shorter and engaging way,” she said.
As a young girl, Johnston realized her love for film and theatre. She was cast in Neptune Theatre productions, and went on to complete a BFA in acting at New York University. However, waiting around for auditions and potential gigs proved to be unfulfilling.
Johnston moved to Los Angeles after seven years in New York and took an interest in photography. “Acting is a very collaborative process,” said Johnston, “and you can’t really be creative on your own.”
Through shooting conceptual pieces, Johnston flexed her creative muscles and began gaining a small online following. But photography wasn’t enough — she wanted to make her pictures move.
That’s how Johnston found her calling as a director. “I love directing because I get to be in control,” Johnston said. “It’s a symphony of the arts.”
Hoping to combine her passions of acting and photography, Johnston wrote a script and shot her first short on a 5D camera in Los Angeles.
“I was ashamed of it for awhile,” Johnston said of the short, “Another Man,” that she both directed and starred in. It later won the Jury’s Choice and Audience Choice Awards for best short at the Parrsboro Film Festival.
The grant from bravoFACT will cover the budget for “Ingrid and the Black Hole,” and Johnston says it’s the biggest cash budget she has ever had for a production. She hopes the short, which will be shot in Nova Scotia, will make its premiere at next year’s Atlantic Film Festival.
“People here are really genuinely passionate about their work,” Johnston said of filmmaking in Atlantic Canada. While unsure about the future, Johnston dreams of drifting back and forth between Halifax and Los Angeles.