Joni Mitchell inspired filmmaker to create movie

by Katherine Monk
Saskatoon StarPhoenix
April 7, 2011

Idea for the year Dolly Parton was my mom came from adoption

The fantasy springs eternal, thanks in part to a culture steeped in fairy tales and a boxed Barbie sensibility: What if we were royal heirs without knowing it? What if our parents weren't our real parents, but impostors hired to cheat us out of our birthright? What if some prince is clinging to a glass slipper, in search of the right foot?

For Montreal-based filmmaker Tara Johns, it was, "What if Joni Mitchell is my real mother?"

Born in 1965, the same year Mitchell gave her daughter Kelly Dale Anderson (now Kilauren Gibb) up for adoption, Johns was one of several young Canadian women who entertained the idea that Canada's most enigmatic icon might be mommy.

"My mother actually knew Joni Mitchell, who was called Joan Anderson, then. They were friends in Saskatoon, and she knew Joni had given up a baby before she made it public. She told me to listen to the lyrics of Little Green and it was all there," says Johns, sitting in a Vancouver cafe.

"So for a short period of time, I thought, 'Hey, what if Joni had given up her baby to my mom? What if I were Joni Mitchell's daughter?' "

The idea was relatively shortlived, since Gibb soon emerged as the unmistakable genetic offspring of Mitchell and one-time lover Brad McMath, but Johns soon realized she had the kernel of a good idea growing inside her creative belly.

"I had this image of a woman driving a girl to meet her mother for the first time, and it stuck with me," she says. "We get a lot of comingof-age stories, but they're usually told from a male point of view, and they usually involve a sexual experience. Also, the parents are typically left out."

Johns felt the picture could be much broader with a little imagination, so she embarked on the six-year journey that led to her first feature film, The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom, set to open in Vancouver on Friday.

A tender and delicately framed story of a young girl who finds out she's adopted, then hangs onto the fantasy that Dolly Parton may be her birth mother, Johns' feature debut marks an impressive beginning for any director.

The movie is intimate, but not lacking in scope. It's also dramatically poignant, without saccharine or melodrama.

"I really took a lot of time with the script. I spent years working on it, and the first year was really a process of discovery. I wasn't sure exactly what I was writing about. It turned out to be a long process of elimination."

Johns could take her time. Thanks to a cash prize that came with winning hardware for her short films, she had the resources to scrape by as a screenwriter.

She also directed a few commercials here and there to pay the bills, but she never lost her focus. The driving force would be the Dolly movie. The only thing she needed now was Dolly Parton's permission to use her name, likeness and music.

"That was another situation where things just kind of came together. . . . I even used the Joni connection to see if I could get to her people."

With a little help from another filmmaker who interviewed Parton for a documentary, Johns eventually got in touch with Dolly's right-hand gal. She told her what her plans were, and sent off a package with the script and visuals.

"It was the make-or-break element with the film," she says. "One day we (Johns and producer Barbara Shrier) were in the office and there was a fax sitting there. Like, who uses a fax machine anymore? But she (Shrier) picked it up and started to read it," says Johns.

"At that point, she was sure I'd engineered it, because there was this big, sprawling letterhead across the top in Dolly's handwriting. She started reading it out loud, 'Dear Tara . . .'"

Johns leaped across the room, tore the letter from her production partner's hand, and felt a jolt of creative electricity course through her veins. Not only would she be able to make the movie she wanted, but Parton was on board for musical clearances and a small vocal role.

"Everything came together with a kind of synchronicity."

Johns says the casting of Vancouver child actor Julia Stone was a similarly fortuitous event. They'd been looking for a young lead for months without success, when they put out a Facebook call, and got four audition tapes. Julia's was one of them, but it wasn't the audition that impressed. It was the one-minute talk about who the character was that impressed Johns and made her comfortable casting a relative novice.

"Julia has no affectations, which can be hard to find in a child actor. You could tell when she spoke, she really thought about stuff. And she did a lot of research, but not research on adopted kids. She researched feminism, and the symbolism of magpies and butterflies," says Johns.

"I don't know. She went deep. She has something and you feel it."

By the time Johns put Stone and Macha Grenon (who plays the adoptive mother) in the same room, the movie seemed to walk on its own.

"So much of the process was about trust . . . about trusting myself, and others, on the creative journey; I had to. I tackled some pretty big taboos about mothers and daughters, and it felt really good to do it," she says.

"But my own mother hasn't seen it yet. She lives here (in Vancouver) and she wants to see it on the big screen. . . . So the journey continues, because in some ways, as a woman and as a mother, this is her story, too."

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