Johns readies Dolly film

Production is underway in Manitoba on debut feature director Tara Johns’ Prairie coming-of-age story The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom, which was inspired in part by her adolescent reverence for Canadian singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell.

‘My mom went to school with Joni Mitchell,’ Johns tells Playback Daily. ‘When I was around 11 or 12 I would listen to Little Green and began to fantasize that I was really her daughter and that she had given me to my mom to raise because they were friends, ” recalls the director, referring to the song Mitchell penned about the daughter she gave up for adoption in the early 1960s.

The $3 million coproduction between Montreal-based Palomar Films (majority) and Winnipeg’s Buffalo Gal Productions began filming in Montreal April 12 and will wrap its 14-day Manitoba shoot at the end of May.

The Calgary-born Johns, who has lived in Montreal for most of her adult life, also wrote the film, which is set in an unnamed Prairie city. The main producer is Montrealer Barbara Shrier, who is behind the francophone pics Un été sans point ni coup s°r and the award-winning Mémoires affectives.

Set in 1976, when Dolly Parton was a major country star, the film is the story of 11-year-old Elizabeth (Julie Stone) who discovers that she’s adopted and becomes convinced her real mother is Dolly Parton.

‘She goes on a quest to come to terms with her identity,’ explains Johns. ‘And Parton becomes a major role model for her.’ The parents are played by Macha Grenon (L’âge des ténèbres) and Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal).

Winnipeg is an ideal location because many of its neighborhoods seem frozen in time, says the director. ‘It is very well preserved. It hasn’t had the same kind of boom as Calgary. It feels like development there eased up in the 1970s, so it still has a lot of texture.’

Quebec’s film financing agency SODEC and Telefilm Canada are both supporting the project, and Parton is on board as well. The country star lent her songs, her name and her voice to the film, says Johns. Canadian artists Martha Wainwright and Patrick Watson will also contribute to the soundtrack.

The film will be distributed by Mongrel Media, likely in 2011.