Born: 1946, Edmonton
One of the original rebels, it often seems the entire western film tradition sprouted from Anne Wheeler’s loins. If not on a formal level — then certainly on a spiritual one. Exuding a sense of quiet, calm confidence, she has been referred to as a “Dalai Lama-like” presence by the legions of young actors and film-makers who have shared her many movie sets.
“All of us dream of being like Anne,” noted Lynne Stopkewich, fellow west-coaster and director of Kissed. “She just flows.”
Director of several features, including the critical success Bye Bye Blues (1989) and the commercial hit, Better Than Chocolate (1998-9), Wheeler has blazed her own trail through the wilderness — not just in film, but in life as well.
Growing up the little sister to three older brothers in the already hostile landscape of Edmonton, Wheeler says she was “determined to catch up” with her older siblings, regardless of whether the pursuit was athletic or intellectual.
While the all-male experience made Wheeler resilient on many levels, she was put to the test as a teenager: shortly after the death of her father, she was raped and impregnated, and told it was illegal to have an abortion.
Wheeler’s entire world view shifted, and she began to question the status quo. After travelling the world and studying with a guru in India, she tried her hand at teaching and a variety of performing arts, including singer and stand-up comic.
“I guess I could be called subversive. But mostly I just ignore the status quo. I never put much weight on what other people think or how other people live their lives. I never even lived with anyone until I was 32,” says Wheeler.
It was only after getting married and giving birth to twins that Wheeler’s film-making career began in earnest with a documentary short all about the ins and outs of oral hygiene.
From that bright and squeaky start, Wheeler soon found a group of film-minded Albertans and began writing the stories that brought her fame, such as Great Grandmother — a frontier woman’s tale inspired by her own grandmother’s journey to western Canada, and A War Story, another documentary with personal meaning. The film was based the experiences of her father, Dr. Ben Wheeler, who had been a POW during the Second World War.
The National Film Board was impressed with her work. Soon, there was an NFB studio in Edmonton and Wheeler was on the verge of making her first feature, which she wrote, directed and produced: Loyalties, the story of a working-class First Nations woman (Tantoo Cardinal) and middle-aged white woman (Susan Woolridge) who discover the complexities of their relationship after a revelation involving the sexual abuse of a child.
Wheeler returned to her prairie roots once more for her next project, Bye Bye Blues — a wartime romance about an Alberta housewife who stumbles into her own identity while waiting for her husband to return from overseas.
Cowboys Don’t Cry, the kids’ film, Angel Square, and television movies followed, including The Diviners, Mother Trucker — The Diana Kilbury Story and The Sleep Room.
“I’ve never been to film school,” says Wheeler. “I just think of the best way to tell a story. When it comes to character, I let my life experience tell me what works. And when it comes to camera moves, I’m usually open to suggestions.”
When Wheeler isn’t working on her own features, she’s either writing, playing piano or directing one of the many TV serials shot in Vancouver, where Wheeler now lives.
“I’m on the good guy side. I want to reinforce the good in people. I don’t really feel I’m on the frontier. But then again, who ever stands back to look when you’re so busy planting and getting ready for the next winter,” she says.
“The Canadian industry is great right now. We have so many talented people. We have excellent crews. But we still lose a lot of our talent to the Hollywood mentality. A lot of indie film-makers with the same mentality in the U.S. though. It’s always hard to find money to make a movie. It’s even harder when there isn’t a tradition of giving film-makers money, as there is in the U.S. But these are global problems,” she says. “Denmark and India are telling stories that are close to their truth… and they are commercially successful there. There are reasons to be encouraged. We’re starting to see more real people. Think of a movie like Secrets and Lies, it’s about real people and it did really well. Hollywood is in a bit of a rut. They can’t come up with ideas any more.”
Wheeler says one of the best ways to avoid the pitfalls of cliche is to reinvent it at every turn and look for greys instead of black and white. “There are no villains in my movies. There are just people who make mistakes. That’s because I basically believe people are good. We need to search ourselves and each other for understanding. Humour is good for that. I think, actually, that my sense of humour is responsible for my survival…. I think having dreams is great, but when they don’t come true, just be realistic and push forward.”
— Katherine Monk
FILMOGRAPHY: Great Grand Mother (short, 1975), Augusta (1976), Happily Unmarried (1977), Teach me to Dance (short, 1978), A War Story (1981), One’s a Heifer (short, 1984), To Set our House in Order (short, 1985), Loyalties (1987), Cowboys Don’t Cry (1988), Bye Bye Blues (1988), The Comic Christmas Caper (Angel Square) (1990), Mom PI (TV series, 1991), The Ray Bradbury Theatre (TV series, 1992), The Diviners (TV movie, 1993), Other Women’s Children (TV movie, 1993), North of 60 (TV series, 1992-93), The War Between Us (1995), Jake and the Kid (TV series, 1995), The Sleep Room (1998), Better Than Chocolate (1999), Marine Life (2000), The Orkney Lad: The Story of Isabel Gunn (2001), Suddenly Naked (2001), Edge of Madness (2002), A Beachcombers Christmas (2004), Dancing Trees (2009), Living Out Loud (2009), The Gambler, The Girl and the Gunslinger (2009), Born to Fight (2011), The Bouquet (2013), Chi (2013), The Colour of Rain (TV movie, 2014), Heartland (TV series, 2014), Strange Empire (TV series, 2014-15).
AWARDS: Order of Canada, 1995.