Behind the Scenes
of Lilith on Top
by Angela Heck
In June 1999, Lynne Stopkewich was preparing to shoot her second feature film, Suspicious River, when she got a call from her partners, Dean English and Jessica Fraser. Boneyard Film Productions had just negotiated with Sarah McLachlan and Nettwerk Productions to create a documentary about Lilith Fair, Sarah McLachlan's all-woman travelling music festival.
McLachlan had already said 'yes' to the team going on the road to document the last year of Lilith Fair. But there was a caveat. She wanted a woman director. And she wanted Lynne.
Stopkewich was thrilled, although she had never done documentary work. She had met McLachlan while she was working on her first feature film, Kissed and McLachlan had agreed to lend a song to the soundtrack, the hit single, "I Will Remember You."
"I met Sarah for dinner and said, 'That's great that you want me to do this thing, but how do you feel about having a camera following you around 24/7 and me having the final cut?' Because she's very much like I am, we're both perfectionists in terms of our work and we like to control the final form. She said, 'You're the film person. I'm the music person. You tell me what you see, it's your baby.'"
What followed was a frantic year and a half of work on two films in the same stages of production. With producers Dean English and Jessica Fraser signed on and cinematographer Bob Aschmann on board, Lilith on Top began.
"We really just grabbed a couple of cameras and went on the road. I didn't have a set script; I didn't have a set concept. I didn't know what to expect."
You'd never know it watching Lilith On Top, a heart-stopping documentary that takes you back stage at the biggest women's music festival in history. Lilith on Top documents the colours, sounds, emotions and hi-jinx of the highly successful three-year run of Lilith Fair.
Featuring dozens of female performers like Indigo Girls, Bif Naked, Sheryl Crowe, The Dixie Chicks and Chrissie Hynde, the festival proved that an all-female line-up could make it in the dollar-oriented, predominately male music world. From the opening chords at the Nat Baily Stadium in Vancouver in 1996, to its last show in Edmonton on August 31, 1999, Lilith Fair travelled 12,327 miles to 139 shows and donated millions of dollars to charities dedicated to women's health and legal organizations. More than $550,000 went to women's shelters alone.
This is the environment that Stopkewich dove into.
"I could relate to the female dominant aspect of Lilith Fair, the idea that women were making it happen for themselves - I work in a male-dominated industry."
When the viewer catches the visual energy and general enthusiasm for the event that permeates the film, you know that Stopkewich has successfully navigated once unfamiliar ground.
You just have to look at the film's depiction of the on-going pranks between The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and McLachlan to get a feel for the fun of the fest. Hynde, not content to let McLachlan continue leading what she dubbed "Laura Ashley hymnals," strides to centre stage and with her rock-and-roll attitude snatches the mic from McLachlan at the end of their first show together and belts out Karen Carpenter's "Superstar," backed by the irrepressible Sandra Bernhard. But McLachlan will not be outdone. The affectionate battle climaxes when McLachlan suddenly reveals her "beautiful" (quote: Hynde) bosom to Hynde at the height of the Pretender's last set of the tour. At the sight, Hynde breaks down in hysterical laughter. The competition is a draw.
The greatest challenge with Lilith on Top Stopkewich says, was working with 400 hours of footage and an added 200 hours of archival footage.
It was difficult at times, she says, to "remain true to what the individual said, trying not to take their words out of context, trying not to manipulate it just through sheer juxtaposition and trying to find some kind of truth that was real to them and real to what I'm trying to say."
Usually, Stopkewich's biggest challenge is tackling serious, dramatic subject matter. Kissed is a critically acclaimed story of a young necrophile coming to terms with her sexuality, while the newly-released Suspicious River, focuses on a motel clerk facing extreme events of sex and violence. Based on the book by Laura Kasischke, Suspicious River (and Kissed) stars Molly Parker. The director recently made her television debut with a segment of Bliss, an anthology of women's erotica. And she's been green-lighted for an adaptation of the Margaret Atwood short story, "Man from Mars." Another feature in development is based on the book, People Who Knock on the Door, by the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith. It's an essay in guilt and obsession.
Not suprisingly, Stopkewich found documentary and dramatic filmmaking to be quite different.
"When you're making a narrative film, you have a script and you have actors and they stand on their mark and wear the costume that you've pre-approved. With a documentary, things are happening and you have to be at the right place at the right time and if you're not there, it never happened."
Filming Lilith on Top, Stopkewich and her crew found themselves drawn into a multiplicity of issues as Lilith Fair raised the public conscience and the ire of some critics.
"Sarah went out to create a musical event, but in a way she was also taking a political stand because no one had done this before," Stopkewich explains. "She was open about the fact that she was a musician and then suddenly a spokesperson for 'all women's music' and had to fulfil some sort of 'mandate.'"
Some people loved it and thought 'Why hasn't anyone done this before?' But, Stopkewich says, "There were many people feeling, 'How dare you?'
"It was interesting to watch her politicization through the process," observes Stopkewich.
But that was only a small part of Lilith. "It was about music. This thing was so massive that we had to just take one little chunk of it."
While the work on Lilith On Top was taking shape, Suspicious River faced a series of unforeseen obstacles. Plagued by almost unending rain and a flood that washed away one of her main sets, Stopkewich found herself editing the two films simultaneously.
With the editing suites for the two films located side by side, Stopkewich was literally rolling her work chair between them. "Here I was, with two movies cutting simultaneously: one a really dark, narrative film and the other a chicks-go-on-the-road-and-conquer-the-world movie. I sat in one room and could hear the music from the other playing."
Stopkewich succeeds in her vision for Lilith on Top. "Whatever control I had was always skewed towards reflecting something that I felt really existed, rather than creating it from scratch," she says. "I saw so many sides to all these different questions, that what I wanted to do was put those in there and allow people to come to their own understanding of which it might be."
Staking her reputation on pushing the envelope on film subjects, Stopkewich feels she too has found her own voice. "I've gotten to a place where I am a filmmaker, this is who I am. This is what I'll be doing for the rest of my days. That fact just thrills me."
Lilith on Top has been shown at film festivals in Toronto, Vancouver, Berlin and Austin. Angela Heck is a publicist for the National Film Board in Vancouver.
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