Producer Profile: Jennifer Podemski
Podemski talks about her new project—Unsettled for TVO and APTN—and the logistics of filming almost entirely on Nipissing First Nation.
Every month, CION aims to profile a producer who has shot in Northern Ontario. We get their input about the state of the industry and the Northern amenities, services and locations they took advantage of for their films.
Through her production company, Redcloud Studios (Empire of Dirt, Future History), and more recent initiative Shine Network, award-winning producer, director, writer, and actor Jennifer Podemski has made it her mandate to build capacity and economic potential in Indigenous communities, and increase Indigenous visibility in the industry, on screen and behind the scenes.
Unsettled, a new 10-episode drama series for TVO and APTN filmed almost entirely on Nipissing First Nation, builds on Podemski’s experience filming in North Bay and on Nipissing (she appears in Cardinal, which is also filmed there).
Co-created by Podemski and Derek Diorio (Hard Rock Medical), Unsettled is a fish out of water story about an urban Indigenous family relocating to a reserve in the midst of an identity crisis. Starring Cheri Maracle, Brandon Oakes and Pamela Matthews and featuring Podemski’s sister, Tamara, Podemski says Unsettled is about “losing everything and finding an entirely different way of life.”
Integrating Ojibwe speaking characters and language reclamation themes into the show
Podemski calls Unsettled revolutionary in what it’s about and how it was made. “As an Indigenous producer I did every single thing that I could do in my power to both engage the community and employ community members,” she says.
“As an Indigenous producer I did every single thing that I could do in my power to both engage the community and employ community members.”
Supported by Canada Media Fund’s Indigenous Program, 20% of the dialogue in the English broadcast is in Ojibwe, and there is also an Ojibwe version of the show, which was dubbed by Debajehmujig Theatre Group, based on Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory (Manitoulin Island).
Ojibwe speaking characters and language reclamation are central to the show. “We created a character who only speaks Ojibwe,” Podemski explains. “And integrated that character in a really deeply meaningful way to the show, through his commentary and position in the family.” That character, played by language teacher and translator Albert Owl (who also appeared in Future History), is the patriarch of the family, a role written with Owl in mind. “He has such good presence and is hilarious,” Podemski says. “And even though I didn’t ever understand what he was saying, he always spoke to me in the language when we were shooting. I just fell in love with him, he’s such a good human being.”
Many of the other characters on the show speak Ojibwe. “You hear the language everywhere,” Podemski says. “It’s just a reflection of life. You go to places where the language is being spoken, some are not fluent, but the language is in the show in a real way.”
Engaging Indigenous communities
Casting for Unsettled began in late 2019 via social media with auditions in January of 2020. “Through my Instagram and Facebook I did a real personal plea to come and audition for the show and I think we had something like 60 people show up,” Podemski says. “Which was pretty outstanding because they were coming from outside of the community, from North Bay. People were taking two-hour bus rides to get to this open call audition. Out of this 53 people were cast.”
The lead cast are all professional actors, but for some of the background actors, Unsettled is their first role.
Podemski also did her best to engage Indigenous talent behind the scenes. “Our costume designer, Lyndsay Reader, is one of the only Indigenous women costume designers on mainstream television,” Podemski says, “and our entire wardrobe team was Indigenous women.” Through a director-trainee program, Unsettled brought on Morningstar Derosier to run the 2nd unit with other local Indigenous filmmakers.
“Our costume designer, Lyndsay Reader, is one of the only Indigenous women costume designers on mainstream television,” Podemski says, “and our entire wardrobe team was Indigenous women.”
Because of COVID, some of the post production that would usually happen in studio had to happen remotely, which meant that composer Adrian Sutherland (Midnight Shine) had to build a music studio while in lockdown at home in Attawapiskat. “It was a huge challenge,” Podemski says. “he had to get everything brought in. It took weeks and weeks and weeks but he did an amazing job.”
Filming on Nipissing First Nation and North Bay
“Filming on Nipissing is very different from filming in North Bay,” Podemski says. “North Bay [where Hard Rock Medical was filmed] has a very industry feel. You could be at a hotel in North Bay and bump into tons of actors from Canadian television and beyond. There’s a couple really good restaurants [her favourite is Station Tap House & Steak Co. and she also loves Arugula; The Raven & Republic is best for industry hangs] that all the filmmakers gather at so it kind of feels like home; where you go and meet people from your entire career, and new people. And you sit around and have conversations, see people you haven’t seen in a long time, because people are there making movies. It’s special that way.”
“I think North Bay is entering its potential as a filmmaking hub, but it would be great to have some sort of studio set up and more production office locations; also there isn’t a lot in terms of housing and accommodations that are film and TV specific. They really took care of us at the Homewood Suites though.”
Podemski encourages producers to get in touch with Nipissing’s chief and council and communications department about filming there. “It’s a beautiful place to shoot, and they are well versed in the vocabulary of film and television,” She says. “Their communications department understood exactly what we were looking for. Everything from the letter to the band council that I wrote, and then going to a couple of meetings and presenting it, then getting permission, then reading all the scripts and allowing us to shoot there and talking about what kind of support we needed.”
Filming on a reserve requires a different approach, however. “You can’t own everything like film people like to do,” Podemski says. “That’s not possible because it’s a community that’s operating, you can’t just take over their gas station.”
Unsettled was filmed in the dead of winter, with production working around COVID restrictions. It was very cold, and whiteout blizzards meant a few scheduling issues due to bad road conditions. But Podemski describes Nipissing as “magical”: a large, spread out lakeside community with dense forest and open sky. “It’s so gorgeous no matter what weather you are dealing with,” she says. “It’s just out of this world, it really is. We were shooting on the lakefront and you’re on this beautiful white frozen lake with these incredible sunsets and vistas and horizons, and the backdrop of where it meets the bush. It’s incredible.”
An important location for Unsettled turned out to be Podemski’s go-to local coffee chain, Twiggs Coffee Roasters. “One of the things that happened organically was I was informed that the woman who owns Twiggs is an Indigenous woman. I thought, ‘this woman is a major entrepreneur,’” Podemski says. (Jennifer Twigg won Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2019 Northern Ontario Business Awards.) “We worked out a partnership where she would essentially give us one of her locations, which was on reserve, and [we would] be able to shoot there,” Podemski says. “It became not only a relationship but an expression of the community.” On Unsettled, Twiggs is a Twiggs – it’s a café, but also a gas station, a radio station. “It’s everything, like you would find on a reserve,” Podemski says.
Podemski is one of dozens of producers who have discovered Ontario's North as the perfect shooting destination—but the secret is out, and more and more productions are moving to the North. To discover everything Northern Ontario offers producers, or get help setting up your production here, contact CION's film supervisor, Rob Riselli.
Find out more about how CION can help your production in the North. Check out our guide for producers, regional resources and services, crew database, and the Hotlist of films currently in production.