Shandi Mitchell and The Disappeared.

Water log: Novelist and filmmaker Mitchell is shooting her first feature film in the North Atlantic.

Shandi Mitchell keeps her balance out on the water.
Shandi Mitchell keeps her balance out on the water.

"Damn that writer," says Shandi Mitchell, laughing, days before she begins her maiden voyage as a feature film director. The Disappeared is a psychological drama about six fishers adrift in the North Atlantic after their boat goes down, a story that, Mitchell hopes, won't end up as an allegory for the production itself.

This is especially true because Mitchell won't be able to point the blame elsewhere should practical problems arise---that writer she's damning is herself. She's the one who scripted the movie and decided that a low-budget ensemble piece filmed out on the open water was the way to get her feet wet as a director. She is responsible for what even seasoned filmmakers might see as a logistical nightmare.

 "I don't choose the story. As a writer, the story tends to choose me," she says. "You create it and you think, OK, I can see this film in my mind's eye. And then I realize what a mad pursuit it would be to create it."

 Mitchell describes her feeling leading up to the start of shooting as a "mingle of sheer terror and excitement." It helps, though, that she's spent plenty of time in the film business, serving as an assistant director and doing some second-unit work on movies such as Poor Boy's Game, Margaret's Museum and Love and Death on Long Island and helming her own short films.

 Based on this experience, and the lessons she's taken from the filmmakers she's worked with, The Disappeared figures to challenge her without drowning her, metaphorically speaking.

 "The bottom line is that when we're out there, we have to be open," she says. "It's a contradiction. Film is about controlling every aspect of time and money and every detail, and yet we're going to have to work against all that because we're in the sea and we have to relinquish control to that environment.

"You're the one holding the entire picture in your hand. You need to know what's important on the day. You need to know what to fight for and what to let go."

 For Mitchell, also a fiction author who penned the novel Under this Unbroken Sky, part of what she's looking forward to is collaborating with her small cast and crew. Actors Billy Campbell, Shawn Doyle and Brian Downey are among the group she's currently sailing and shooting with off Lunenburg's shores.

 "It's MacGyver filmmaking," she says, noting that, without a multi-million dollar budget, she and her colleagues must find creative solutions to practical problems. "People wanted to try this movie because of the possibility we could make something special and capture an environment that hasn't really been shot in the way we're attempting."

 As for the story, which Mitchell describes as "six men, two dories and the North Atlantic," she was inspired by the idea of both physical and mental struggle. "It's a psychological study of what could happen when you're somewhere between life and death, where all that you thought you were is lost. And who are you now? And how do you save yourself, metaphorically and literally?

 "I like pushing characters to the edge and seeing what happens. I like exploring breaking points and how people cope."

 That she may end up exploring her own breaking point in making her first film under difficult conditions isn't lost on Mitchell. But she may end up coining a new genre in the process. "We're calling this an 'Eastern,'" she says, laughing. "We'll see if we pull it off."