After a string of short films, including the award-winning The Things You Think I'm Thinking, and taking up the director’s mantle on several Canadian television shows (Run the Burbs, Kim’s Convenience), Sherren Lee makes her feature film directorial debut with Float.
A summer romance starring Andrea Bang as Waverly, a young woman beginning her career caught between familial obligation and living her own life, and Robbie Amell as Blake, a local lifeguard, Lee and co-writer Jesse LaVercombe adapt Kate Marchant’s Wattpad story to be decidedly more Canadian and decidedly more Asian. “It was a really cool opportunity to bring my own story to the project,” Lee explains.
“It was kind of uncanny how much I could relate to the character [Waverly]. For me, the story was so much about belonging, which is something that I was really interested in talking about,” continues the Montreal-raised filmmaker. “Also, this idea that [Waverly] had tension with her parents, and then falling in love and not knowing how to swim while on vacation is something that I've been through myself.”
Ahead of Float’s theatrical release, Lee spoke with The Asian Cut about transitioning to feature film and her love of the romance genre.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TAC: Your last short film, The Things You Think I’m Thinking, feels really different to Float. Can you talk about the transition going from your shorts and television work to the film?
Sherren Lee: I approach each project independently and envision them as what they need to be, but always through my own perspective and my own voice. But interestingly, when I started filmmaking, I thought I was going to be this rom-com director. I made a lot of short films, before I even went to the CSC [Canadian Film Centre] in 2014, and they were all romance-related, most of them. I made this web series called Someone Not There that was romance and romantic drama. And I guess The Things You Think I'm Thinking is about a date—it's a drama, but it's also a romance.
I'm always interested in stories about characters that you don't normally see on screen and normalizing them, their community and them as characters. So that's what I'm really doing. With Float, it was a great opportunity to have this Asian woman at the centre of this romance. It's not that common to have a female lead in this kind of film.
Going back to your love of romance films, is that your preferred genre to watch?
It definitely was growing up. I think that's why I thought I'd be making rom-coms. In my community my group of friends I've always been the romantic, always talking about love and advice with friends. Of course now, as I'm growing as a person as a filmmaker, my taste has definitely broadened. [Romance] isn't necessarily what I watch the most, but I definitely am always interested in the romantic films coming out.
What was your favourite rom-com growing up?
I really loved Here On Earth. Do you remember Here On Earth with Leelee Sobieski?
Oh my god, I haven’t thought about Leelee Sobieski in so long.
I know! [laughs] It was Josh Hartnett and Chris Klein. I remember being blown away because it was the first film I had seen where there was no bad guy. She was picking between two guys but they were both good for her and I really loved that. The hot dude wasn't bad for her, and — spoilers, but she was dying. Ultimately, Josh Hartnett was her high school sweetheart and he was stepping aside for her to pursue this new love. I just thought it was so beautiful. Anything in the name of love.
What is it about romance that interests you so much?
I realized that we all want to be loved. We're so consumed by romance and I'm very curious about why we're so fixated and intoxicated by these things. I'm also very interested in what makes a healthy relationship, and that has broadened to other relationships, like family relationships, friendships, work relationships.
At the end of the day, it comes down to boundaries and what are healthy boundaries, and when it comes to love, it blurs. You are taught to sacrifice, to do things for the people that you love. I'm still figuring out where's the line between what's toxic and what's healthy.
Spoken like a true Asian-Canadian. I feel like I have this conversation with so many friends and I think a lot of it comes from our parents. Speaking of which, I understand that you went to McGill University for your Bachelor of Commerce degree, was that a decision to make your parents happy or did the creative bug hit you later on?
I grew up wanting to be a performer and actor, all of that. So I had my eyes set on: I'm going to graduate and I'm going to audition. My dad, ever since we were kids, he would tell us that his dream was for us to go to one of these five universities, and McGill was one of them. I never questioned that. I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm gonna go to university, and then I'll do my own thing.’
I picked Commerce, because I've always been in an organizing role ever since I was a kid. I had this sense that I wanted to start my own business, but be a performer. When I found directing—I directed for the first time in university—I stopped acting. I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do,’ which made so much more sense considering the kind of leadership aspect of it.
I wanted to talk to you about the Aunt Rachel character who was such a guiding light for Waverly. Did you have an “Aunt Rachel” in your life who helped you navigate life and career?
We immigrated from Taiwan when I was six, so I didn't have a ton of family in Montreal, but we had this family friend that we grew up with. She was the opposite of my mom—very kooky, I remember her saying to me, ‘When you're old enough you make sure you go to a concert because the experience is like none other.’ I just thought she was so cool, and she was a working woman. She was definitely my idol.
Did you share with her your dreams of performing early on or was that something you kept to yourself?
I feel like everyone knew. My parents knew, but they didn't take me seriously or anything [laughs]. I remember sending my headshots—you know you get school photos? I sent those to agents on my own...got of all of them sent back to me [laughs], at 12 years old or something. But my parents didn't stop me...they just thought it was a phase.