Like many millennials, director and actor Samantha Wan came of age just as the world began conquering the digital space. While having an online presence now, for most artists, is almost certainly an inevitable cog in the machine of branding, exhibiting, and promoting one’s work, it wasn’t necessarily the case 10 years ago. YouTube, Instagram, and the like had indeed established themselves as prime platforms for visual media artists, but there was a period between the late-2000s and early-2010s when these sites and their users were still figuring out the breadth of their capabilities.
For Wan, and other artists of colour for that matter, the ability to tell her own stories and to create opportunities for herself — particularly at a time when diversity and representation weren’t mainstream ideas in the film industry — was a game-changer.
“I originally started Second Jen for acting. It was an acting vehicle — that’s what I loved, that’s what I wanted to do,” Wan says in our Zoom interview regarding her 2014 digital short, in which she starred and co-directed. “And then, it just became so evident that we needed more vehicles for actors of colour, and therefore we needed to create more.”
Prior to the short, Wan had appeared in and written a few web series, including as the lead in LESlieville, and though she proclaims she might have been content with just being an actor, Wan couldn’t ignore the severe lack of voices of colour behind the camera. After having co-directed Second Jen, she knew being in the director’s chair was the best place to offer a different perspective. That said, it would be a handful of years before her directing career would take off.
Second Jen, the short, eventually became Second Jen, the TV series, which Wan co-created with Amanda Joy (who also co-produced and starred in the short) for Citytv and Omni Television. Running for three seasons between 2016 and 2021, the series was a major step forward for Asian representation in Canadian television. In addition to creating and starring, Wan also wrote 12 and directed four of the 18 episodes, and, most notably, became the youngest person (at age 23) to have a primetime comedy show in the country.
In 2019, Second Jen’s second season was nominated at the Canadian Screen Awards for Best Comedy Series. This wouldn’t be the only time Wan’s work would be recognized by the Canadian Academy. Earlier this year, in fact, she was nominated for Best Direction (TV Movie) for Love at Sky Gardens, a film that marked not only her feature-length directorial debut, but also her first time solely being in the director’s chair.
“After Second Jen, I was looking for more opportunities to just be a director,” says Wan. “I was approached to be the director of [Love at Sky Gardens], which was really flattering and exciting to me because everyone had seen me as an actor, so I was like, yes, I’m ready to just be the director.”
A modern romantic comedy, Love at Sky Gardens follows Deirdre (Jenny Raven), a barista and wannabe rooftop-garden designer, who’s crushing on one of her regulars, Marcus (Andrew Bushell), a top event planner’s assistant, gearing up for a major promotion. By accident, Deirdre compromises Marcus’ chance at being promoted, but upon finding out that his firm is planning a big celebrity wedding, she offers her designing services to make up for it.
“This [movie] is a character piece, which is my strength as a director. I also liked that it was a little bit urban. A lot of rom-coms, like the MOWs, take place in a small town and [feature] the city girl, and all that. I liked that it was a little urban, and I had a vision of wanting to play a bit more with that.”
Interestingly, because of the production nature of an MOW (movie of the week), Wan and her team shot Love at Sky Gardens in a brisk 13 days. Additionally, about half of her crew, like hair and make-up, were moving from one MOW to the next, with only a weekend break between their last film and Love at Sky Gardens, so there were some she had only met two days before shooting began.
What’s more, due to COVID-related restrictions, Wan says that the amount of prep time she had was limited. She, for instance, wasn’t able to visit certain shooting locations prior to production, and ended up relying on her production designer’s eye. Naturally, she says all of these hurdles taught her a valuable lesson: “It was a learning experience for me to just go with the flow, which is why I’m glad I was just the director. In the moment, I had to be like, ‘This decision. This decision. Let’s do this. Let’s do this.’ Because we wouldn’t plan everything up until the beginning.”
Of course, between producing her own digital shorts and creating a primetime comedy series, Wan was able to lean on her now-ample production experience when navigating the shoot for Love at Sky Gardens. “I was very competent in my problem-solving, and I’m very collaborative with people I trust. I trust my team and talk with them,” she says. “When I first made Second Jen, I didn’t even know what a producer was. I didn’t know that I was the producer until someone was like, ‘That’s producing. You’re producing this.’”
Since Love at Sky Gardens, Wan has directed seven of the nine episodes of the web series, Lady Ada’s Secret Society, all of which can be streamed on YouTube, and sophomore feature, Road Trip Romance. With a Best Direction CSA nomination under her belt, she is certainly entering a new era in her career, one in which she’s calling the shots. And based on our interview, she’s more than ready to show the industry what she’s capable of.
“This year, I’m openly pushing more [of the statement] that I’m a director. I’m even part of the Women in the Director’s Chair program. I’m really branding myself as a director, more so than I did before. So, we’ll see.”