Filmmaker James Stewart talks about his hit series ‘Chateau Laurier’

James Stewart
James Stewart. Photo Credit: Michael Muncatchy

Filmmaker, co-creator, and director James Stewart chatted about his new series “Chateau Laurier,” which is up for 15 Indie Series Awards.

Stewart was the creative force behind the 3D version of Werner Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, a film that won the 2010 Lumière Award for Best 3D Documentary, a film that regularly makes the lists of All-time Best 3D films and was described by The Guardian as “the reinvention of the cinema medium.” A TED speaker and East Timor advocate, James has twice been awarded for his directing work supporting PTSD awareness among first responders. His first short film TEEN, a story of childhood sexual abuse, won the audience award at the Belfast Children’s Film Festival.

More recently James worked with Oprah creating Elliot Page’s first ever interview – an intimate virtual experience connecting 6 times zones and 3 cites (GLAAD Award winner). James produced and directed the 6-episode Season 2 of his historical drama series CHATEAU LAURIER which was nominated for both the 2019 CSA and WGC awards. Other 2021 projects include BET ON YOURSELF a 12 x 60:00 series with Fred Van Vleet and THINK – a 90-minute branded content film about technology shot across Canada.

He is the winner of the 2019 Telefilm Canada New Voices Award and is a writer/director best known for his award-winning film FOXED! which has over 30 million views and opened #1 on iTunes. His gothic tragedy DAILY BATTLES premiered at TED and has screened around the world at art galleries and over 20 film festivals. In addition, James has directed over 100 commercials, 3D and VR projects. His first feature-length screenplay FOXED! won five major competitions including the 2019 Vail Film Festival $10,000 Grand Prize. FOXED is a fantasy adventure about coexistence, inclusivity, and oppression. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

What inspired you to co-create, produce and direct “Chateau Laurier”?

I grew up in Ottawa, which is the capital of Canada and I always wanted to do a show about the grand dame Hotel Chateau Laurier. It’s a century old hotel that has a lot of intrigue and has a lot of stories similar to the Park Plaza in New York City. There are lots of amazing things that go on – even to this day there are rumored to be ghosts, there are romances, political intrigue… The stories never end. It is right beside our parliament buildings so it is always at the center of some drama. If the walls could talk, it might look something like our show.

What was your favorite part of that experience?

Working with writers Kent Staines and Emily Weedon to craft material that was so strong that it would attract top talent was a key part of the process. Every actor and collaborator read the scripts and said “Wow! Yes, I want to do this!” It is a tribute to great writing. Surrounding myself with talented people made the experience much easier on me as Producer/Director. I just had to find a way to help elevate their work and make every department come together on the screen.

There is a huge appetite for period drama, particularly one that is set in a hotel in 1912. We have seen it with Bridgerton, The Gilded Age and The Crown. White Lotus has shown that hotel shows can have endless characters and drama. One of my favorite parts of this very difficult production process during COVID – with actors in a bubble and masks and daily testing etc. – was getting together a group of truly fine, fine actors. We have a magical ensemble, including Kate Ross Leckie, Luke Humphrey, Fiona Reid, Tymika Tafari, Emmanuel Kabongo, Brittany Raymond, Fraser Elsdon, Jason Gray… some of whom have nominations this week at the Indie Series Awards.

What was it like working with Kate, Luke, and the rest of the cast?

Kate is such a pleasure to work with. She is such a fine classically trained actress and she just has an incredible capacity for passion and empathy that she brought to the lead character of Hattie. Luke is one of his generation’s finest actors and being able to direct him and to talk to him about his performance and his character was always captivating. Fiona Reid is a stage legend and brings such a kindness and wit to the set. Emmanuel is is a true force of nature – I never knew where he was going to take Gabriel Sabot. From the first table read, Emmanuel brought the crazy Cajun/French character to life and never looked back. 

How does it feel to be a filmmaker in the digital age? (Now with streaming and technology being so prevalent)

There are challenges and there are also benefits to working in this new digital age. The good news is there are many platforms to distribute your content and tell your stories.  The bad news is a lot of people are doing it, so it’s very competitive. I feel very blessed to have a hit show like CHATEAU LAURIER win awards on the festival circuit and to see the audiences responding so well. When your show plays at home, as a filmmaker, you don’t get to feel the audience’s reaction so I have been fortunate to have some festival screenings in cinemas. It feels like there’s so much opportunity out there now for Indie filmmakers to find an audience, whether you are self-distributing or whether you’re doing an SVOD platform.

Congrats on earning the most Indie Series Awards nominations this year… How does that feel?

It was a great feeling to get 15 nominations. Wow! I am so grateful that the jury enjoyed the show, and was able to recognize so many of our actors and my creative collaborators. One of my tricks as a director is to surround myself with the most talented people I can find, and it was really great to see them recognized with craft nominations such as cinematography (Arthur Cooper) Production Design (Glenn Charles Landry) and music (Michael Stanutz) among others. 

What do your plans for the future include?

The first season of Chateau Laurier had three million views, so we hope that the fans from Season One carry over as we have now moved on to bigger platforms like Apple TV and Prime Video worldwide. I think the festival awards are helping get the word out and the word of mouth has been very positive. Season One is available free on Facebook but like Bridgerton or White Lotus you don’t necessarily have to see Season One before you see season two. Our goal is to continue the story of the Mutchmor family and their battle for control of the hotel and grow it into a longer form series on a larger streaming platform like Netflix, HBO, or Hulu.

What is your advice for young and aspiring filmmakers?

Be prolific. Tell your stories in any way you can. Don’t get bogged down in raising funds, and let years pass without producing something. The more you are able to get something made – even with a low budget- the more you will learn the craft. And never stop learning.

What does the word success mean to you?

To me success means being able to do the kinds of projects that I want and to tell stories that resonate with people. I am very grateful to be able to work as a director and stay busy after the pandemic shutdown. I also feel a lot of gratitude for the support I get from my wife Liane to keep productive, healthy and to hopefully tell stories that entertain and help make the world a better place.