Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Interviews with Five Emerging Women Filmmakers

To expand upon a recent blog-post on Emerging Women Filmmakers; Nadia Litz, Sofia Bohdanowicz, Leslie Supnet, Sophie Goyette and Ashley McKenzie were kind enough to follow up with these interviews. – D.D.
DD: What I was particularly struck by in Hotel Congress is its sophisticated script. I liked how it’s described as a "a romantic film for the unromantic." How did you go about writing the screenplay and how accurately was it reflected in the finished film?
NL: Thank you very much.  I think there are certain tropes within micro and low-budget filmmaking that belie sophistication. But, it need not be so, because writing and, by proxy, ideas are the least expensive part of making a movie.  Going into the $1000 Challenge, I think the Hotel Congress core team Michel Kandinsky, Philip Riccio and myself all wanted to specifically retaliate against some familiar Canadian low-budget ground. We didn't want to shoot it in a familiar location, we didn't want it to be too goofy, or stoner or overtly sexy or horror-based. We wanted to create atmosphere. Cinema promises to take you away from your day-to-day life. That's also the promise of an affair. We wanted to create that. It's also innately Canadian, in a way that Canadian films never seem to want to represent, to yearn to escape Canada! We wanted to represent that. We shot it in the scorching hot dessert, in a historic hotel in Tucson, famous for its nefarious associations to bank-robber John Dillinger. We wore the Parisian clothing line A.P.C., set it to the music of Interpol's Paul Banks and we made the characters talk a lot. We wanted you to feel like a voyeur on the character's decision to have an affair or not. We wanted you to feel like you were eavesdropping on the best conversation in the hotel. That's a fun thing that cinema can do. Just put you in a room. With people and their obstacles. I always think those love stories are fun to watch. The romance comes in unexpected ways. The critic Andrew Sarris famously wrote about Rhomer's My Night at Maud's, "there's nothing more cinematic than the spectacle of a man and a woman staying up all night talking." I kind of built the structure of the script with that in mind. As well as the early films of Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, Linklater - which are just interesting conversations at their core. I wrote the script in 12 days, and during that time I would send stuff to Philip and Michel and say, "does this feel right?" The finished film is the exact script. Nothing is improvised. We didn't have time to veer from the script, as we shot the feature in 4 days. We were doing one-takes and devised the direction of the film from that perspective too. I think it works. There would obviously be a few things we'd like to do over, but constraints of time and budget were helpful in a breeding creativity, actually.

DD: I like the character you play in Hotel Congress, Sofia. Since you not only directed the film but also wrote and starred in it, this gives the film a very personal quality, especially in regards to Sofia’s views on relationships and life. Do you think other movies or television shows do justice to representing how women feel and think about these issues?
NL: What I have that is in keeping with the film is a malleable point of view on big life questions when it comes to love and sex and relationships, especially. I'm stubborn, but I also give myself the right to change my position over time. So, the back and forth between Sofia and Francis might be an elaborate version of a conversation I might have with myself on a moral quandary. I also believe in happy endings, but ones that are even more meaningful than what cinema can ever conceive of.
I don't know that media has conquered representation (of women or men!) quite yet, nope. But, that is what we have indie films for: to test boundaries.  We just hope that HBO or AMC takes note and makes us proper one day.

DD: Having worked with some impressive directors (Harkema, Cockburn, Refn), did these experiences teach you anything about the filmmaking process or make you want to direct your own films?
NL: I liked working with all of those fellows. Refn didn't know I was an actress. He saw me in a hotel lounge in Winnipeg with my Mom and fired someone to cast me as a waitress with a few lines opposite John Turturro. I loved how he had a gut feeling and followed it, even for a small part of his film. Cockburn is not afraid to be cerebral. Harkema understands how to cast for chemistry. I've been fortunate to work and meet interesting people my whole career. I think I would have been a director eventually, anyway, without those dudes though. They would be the first to say that, too.

DD: What is your next film The People Garden going to be about?
NL: The People Garden is being produced by Daniel Bekerman at Scythia Films. Telefilm Canada has supported it during the script writing process. It has just been accepted to a TIFF Intensive for its final pass, before going into production, so that will be fun. I'm very excited to make it. It starts with a young woman named Sweetpea, telling us her "sweet and terrible" boyfriend will be dead in 3 days. She then boards a plane to Japan. The tale unfolds from there. It's a mysterious film about how to find your way to the human-spirit triumph parts of life, within the darker sides of love and life.
DD: What inspired you to make these films from your grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa's poems?
SB: A few years ago I was bored to the point of googling names of high school acquaintances of mine to see what they were up to. I eventually moved on to researching what kind of dirty laundry old relatives in my family might have online, and then suddenly remembered that my great grandmother was a poet and wondered if I could find any of her work online. I did a little bit of research and I found her poem Dundas Street somewhere on a Canadian Encyclopedia site.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I decided to borrow a copy of my great grandmothers poetry (which I still haven’t returned) from my uncle John and decided that I wanted to make a film out of Dundas Street. I still remember biking up the Toronto west rail path to his house in High Park to pick up a book of her poetry and was very excited to discover more of her work, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to find. After reading her poetry I knew that I wanted to make a film based on Dundas Street but wasn’t really certain how to do it.
A couple of months later a dear friend of mine Joanna Durkalec, wrote me a note that said that she was interested in working more in film and theatre in Toronto and said that if I needed a hand with anything that I should get in touch with her. Seeing as I regrettably don’t speak Polish (and she does) I contacted her when I wanted to make Dundas Street and we ended up co-directing it together.

DD: I like how instead of being narratives these short films are more like visual poems. How did you decide on the style of filming them?
SB: I made my first poetry film accidently when I had written a poem about ‘the end of a relationship’ and decided to turn it into a film titled falling with force., which is a four minute film that I shot with about 15 female friends of mine in Toronto in 2009. It’s an experimental piece, and I suppose you could consider it a poetry film but I didn’t really realize that’s what it was when I was making it.
It was a wonderful experience to have screened Dundas Street at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin because it was the first time I was able to connect with other poetry filmmakers. Many of the artists there didn’t realize that poetry filmmaking was a genre and we all couldn’t believe how many people were making films based on poems.
But in terms of deciding on a visual style, I never decide or plan on how I’m going to approach the projects, I just make them. This sounds ridiculous, but the way that I conceive my work is that I am always thinking in transit. In my day to day interactions, I’m not really very present and that’s because I’m always working out a new idea in my mind or imagining how a certain situation that I’m currently living in might look on film. I think about what kinds of films I want to shoot while I’m biking home, cooking, in conversation or while I’m at my day job (maybe not a good thing to admit). I’m always very busy and try to multi-task and manipulate different ideas in my mind and as a result I’m always kind of half here and half over somewhere else.
If the idea survives a two-week incubation period, I know that it’s right and then I go for it. I don’t like to plan too much and make sure that I work under a very loose and comfortable structure. I like to work on my own, with my partner or with close friends of mine. It’s important for the production of whatever I’m shooting be as low stress as possible and for it to be a collaboration between myself and whomever I am filming with. 

DD: Were there any directors that inspired you?
SB: While Joanna and I were working on our script for Dundas Street we watched the entire Decalogue series by Kieslowski. It was at this point I decided that I wanted to make a series of films based on Zofia’s work. Watching a series that was so beautifully interlinked and masterfully put together ignited a desire for me to make a collection of films that represented her poetry. 
Fridrik Thor Fridriksson an Icelandic director is a filmmaker that has deeply inspired my work. His films Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar) and Mamma Gógó touch upon themes of aging, deterioration, compassion and death like no other filmmaker can. I am also very in love with Rúnar Rúnarsson who produced Volcano (Eldfjall), a predecessor to Haneke’s Amour (which came first the chicken or the egg), long story short, I loved Volcano much much more.
I respect the work of the Varda, so very much. Her ability to melt documentary and fiction together so seamlessly is quite captivating. She made her first film La Pointe Courte without much study or even watching many films before shooting, she just made it because it was a story she wanted to tell. In order to finance it she convinced her parents to re-mortgage their house just to get her through production. She wasn’t able to pay her crew or actors until ten years after completing the feature, this is a woman with nerves of steel.

DD: You were saying that Modlitwa still hasn't premiered anywhere. What are your thoughts on the financing and distribution side of filmmaking?
SB: I don’t have many thoughts, really, because my work has never been financed or distributed. If that ever happened I would be over the moon but this isn’t why I’m producing films. I do it because it feels good and because I love it. If my films are screened, financed or distributed I feel like this would be a real treat, but otherwise I feel very lucky to be able make what I make and do what I do.
I’m a little bit of a rookie when it comes to financing. I pay for it all myself and make sure that it’s done a cost effective as possible. I’ve recently gotten better at writing grants and those can help quite a bit. I am very grateful for all of the financing opportunities we have here in Canada, it’s pretty incredible.

DD: What new projects do you have in the works?
SB: My new film Last Poem that I shot in Iceland is about myself struggling to shoot a music video with a very distempered ‘Herzog like’ German boy named Tobi will be screening at Video Fag as a part of Birdtown and Swanvilles’ Friends and Outsiders series from June 21st to the 24th. It’s an evening of film, performance and theatre programmed by my pals Nika and Aurora. All are welcome! Please pop by! Say hello!
I have a trilogy of films that I shot in my Grandmothers house (Modlitwa is included in this trilogy) and I am currently editing up a storm trying to finish up this little three-part series which will be screened somewhere at some point! My Grandmother (not to be confused with my Great Grandmother) passed away in the fall and since then I have had a strong urge to make more work. It’s exhausting, I usually don’t have so many ideas but I’m suddenly making more films with so much energy. I’m just going to roll with it.
This summer and into the fall I’m also working on a documentary titled, Never Eat Alone that is being supported by the Ontario Arts Council. I am filming it in my building with the residents at 180 Sudbury. It’s a slow meditative documentary that focuses on the way that people eat. And that’s about all I can tell you right now. I am hoping to have it completed by next spring but then again, you never know.
And my film Dundas Street is going to be screened in London at the East End Film Festival on Thursday, July 4th.
DD: When did you start making animations? How would you describe the subjects of your drawings? And has your interest and style evolved over time?
LS: I began tinkering with animation in 2007, after taking a circuit-bending workshop at Video Pool Media Arts Centre in Winnipeg. It was my first experience with artist-run culture, and I was hooked. I looked into what else they had to offer, and they had an animation workshop coming up a few months after. 
I draw (pun intended) from personal experience - memorable moments of heightened emotion with respect to loss and tragedy. I try to temper all the sadness with some dark humour. Animation and cinema definitely has taken away a lot of my attention from drawing one-offs nowadays. It's hard for me to not think of telling a story without movement or sound. I feel my work is evolving though, paralleling the changes in my life. Getting older, prioritizing different issues and concerns.  

DD: It was great to see your work on the big screen at Videofag and then at the Images Festival. Do you make your short-films more primarily for home viewing on Vimeo or is one of the goals to have them screened in a cinema as part of a festival?
LS: Thanks David! I prefer my work to be seen in a cinema, but I'm definitely not opposed to my work being viewed on the internet, on various devices. I want to connect with as much people as possible. I've taken part in online festivals too. It's all good!

DD: What are you currently working on?
LS: I've been doing a lot of collaborative work, so after the last project is complete I'm devoting my time to my own practice for a very very long time. In between these collaborations I've been shooting a lot of Super 8, and it's been great. I haven't animated since last fall, and might not for some time. I'm enjoying shooting people doing everyday things. I toyed with the idea of quitting art altogether after seeing I Remember A Film About Joe Brainard by Matt Wolf at Images this year. I thought of how freeing it must be to no longer identify oneself as an artist. But I haven't yet found a suitable replacement for creative process. So now I'm experimenting with different ways to capture what I feel is meaningful, and figuring out how I can express empathy in a way I'm unaccustomed to. 
DD: You've told me that Le future proche is your most personal and explorative film to date. Do you care to elaborate?
SG: Le futur proche is not an autobiographical story but it's really how I was feeling at the time. I had just finished my fourth film, La Ronde, which was my first financed film with a big crew, and didn't know personally where I was heading. I shot Le future proche when I was twenty-nine and you can see the number twenty-nine written in the first shot on the airplane highway to symbolize it, to mark it. When you question yourself about your future, you look at everything around you with a different perspective, analyzing details, being more in the "present moment". And a character feels that way too when they have just learnt terrible news, as the death of a parent, like the pilot Robin will experience. Time is being suspended; you question yourself, the past, the present and the future.
Also, I wanted to explore at my own rhythm the making of that story, with a smaller crew and more time than La Ronde. I had an urgency to just do it and didn't want to apply for grants, so I auto-financed it myself to already be able to shoot in the summer. I wanted to try things to aim for precise images and emotions that were in my head. It was the first time I tried voice-overs, the first time I asked for documentary style images from my director of photography even if it was one-hundred percent fiction... I wanted to experience the medium without any pressure, which resulted in my most explorative and personal film to date.

DD: There is a larger discourse going on right now regarding feminism and cinema. The magazine Cahiers du cinéma recently had an issue Enquête sur les réalisatrices where they asked women directors, including Anne Émond, about their thoughts on filmmaking. Two of their questions, which I will ask you, are is there a feminine directing style? And what are your thoughts on the role women have in filmmaking in Quebec?
SG: For me filmmaking is not a gender issue, you can't categorize it. Because a film is not about a subject, but about the personal point of view, the inner world of the filmmaker on that subject. We should never sense that a film could have been made by someone else other than the filmmaker. And because there are as many sensibilities and imaginations as there are different people, the possibilities are endless.
I didn't question myself about doing a story about a forty-four year old pilot in Le futur proche even if I'm not a man, because the film is beyond that.
There are great filmmakers with unique voices, and we couldn't categorize Andrea Arnold, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Miranda July or Carlos Reygadas just by their gender or nationalities. Of course it's in them and makes them what they are, but it's beyond that.
In Quebec, I'm in a generation where there's an equal amount of women and men filmmakers in shorts. I haven't yet stepped into the feature world. I don't know if I could see myself having a specific role on that subject, but if my path, which includes microbiology studies that I've left totally behind to go after my art, can inspire any female or male to also do so, than all for the good. And I know that I can, here today, think that way because great women filmmakers from Quebec and around the world have before stepped into it and stood their ground, as it was for the right to vote and other gender-equal issues. 
I had the privilege to be for the first time in nomiation at Gala Jutra (Quebec) this year, and four out of five directors in our "short fiction category" were women filmmakers. As for the feature category, there was one woman out of five. I think there's a change coming, in the near future...

DD: Your short-films have gained quite the critical reputation: La Ronde premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and Le futur proche was named one of the top twelve Quebecois films by 24 Images as well won the jury prize at the Breakthrough Film Festival. Do you have any projects in the works? And what are your thoughts on the differences between short- and feature-length films?
SG: I'm currently writing a screenplay for my first two features and a documentary. It's the idea that dictates the length of the film, because shorts and features are the same, they're both art. Some stories are better being told in five minutes. Others in two hours. For me, I didn't plan to write features, even less two at the same time, it just happened after five shorts, when I saw that those stories needed to unfold on eighty to ninety pages. It's another respiration. Short are like sprints, features like marathons.

DD: I really liked the interviews with you at Nous Sommes Les Filles and Mange Ta Ville. Is there anything else that you would like to say?
SG: Go see movies at the theater! It’s a collective communal experience that can't be replaced by home viewing. And most filmmakers, at least myself, imagine our films, our images, our sounds, for the big screen, where the eye can explore everything in details, when we can have the sense that something bigger than us it taking place but will ultimately connect us back to ourselves.
DD: What were you trying to say through your first two short-films Rhonda's Party and When You Sleep? Were there any filmmakers that you took inspiration from? 
AM: I didn’t write Rhonda’s Party, but I remember after first reading the script I was left with a strong urge to tell the story so I could avoid offering up a typical happy ending. I saw in the story an almost absurdist worldview and I wanted to preserve that. I was interested in the question of how we make plans and remain open to life when it can be so unpredictable.
I remember drawing inspiration from Jane Campion’s An Angel at my Table. I saw Rhonda as someone who felt paralyzed by life and withdrew from it as a result, similar to the struggles of Janet Frame in that film. Or maybe it resonated because we shot Rhonda’s Party in the abandoned wing of an old psychiatric hospital. I also remember being inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and the cinematography of Harris Savides.
When You Sleep came out of a time in my life when I was struggling with the codependency of a long-term relationship. I knew a lot of young people in similar situations whose problems were confounded by unplanned pregnancies and poverty. I wanted to explore whether it’s possible to tap into some amount of personal agency when you feel the desperation of being trapped in a cycle seemingly destined to repeat itself.
The Dardenne Brothers were filmmakers I looked to while making When You Sleep. Films like L’enfant and Rosetta had characters and an energy that felt akin to the world inhabited in my story, though I wanted to capture something a bit more abrasive. I was inspired by the photography of Nan Goldin very much at the time and was also reading Just Kids about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
I also remember watching Andrea Arnold’s short film Wasp a couple weeks before shooting When You Sleep and freaking out about similarities between the two. I ended up tweaking my script and shot list at the last minute. I’m not surprised, though, because Arnold is the filmmaker whose work feels most familiar to me when I watch it. I always end up thinking, “that’s what it’s like back home in my town, or I knew that person growing up.” That said, the director I turn to most for inspiration is probably Robert Bresson. I don’t know if that comes out in my work at all, but I’m always reading Notes on the Cinematographer.

DD: What will your new project Stray be about?
AM: Stray is a short film that I’m finishing post on right now. It was the first script I ever sat down to write, along with my producer Nelson MacDonald, and is most directly inspired by my experience growing up in New Waterford. The story stemmed from a refrain I heard often when I was young, “Ashley, don’t cry over this,” and also an obsession I had with stray cats. 
The film follows a sensitive nine-year old girl, Savannah, who is searching for some intimacy in the harsh environment of her home and post-industrial town. It incorporates some of the fixtures of my life here, like the coal train that passes behind my house every day and the tracks I walked endlessly as a kid that lead nowhere. More than my previous two shorts, Stray is pretty stripped down. I approached it as a study of how this girl exists within a harsh landscape.

DD: How is it like being a filmmaker in New Waterford, Nova Scotia? What kind of community is out there?
AM: It’s exciting and sometimes lonely. I think I’m the only full-time filmmaker permanently living on the Cape Breton Island right now. My producer is currently living in Halifax even, though he is from here. I have a friend who runs a commercial video production company, and my best friend/editor is a filmmaker who divides her time between here and Montreal.
But there is no commercial film industry or community here. No place to rent gear, no actors union, etc. But’s that’s what I love about it. It’s more relaxed and authentic. The people and landscapes here inspire me so much; it feels like there are so many stories to tell. The island is like this giant palette in front of you that has been untapped. I feel a lot of ownership over this place – it all just seems like a part of my backyard.
There are, of course, many challenges about trying to make a living as an artist. We have the highest unemployment in the country here at almost 19%, so everyone is struggling really. And there is a camaraderie amongst the young adults who have decided to stay and put down roots here. Whenever I need to connect with other filmmakers, I just reach out to friends in Halifax, Montreal, or Toronto for support and inspiration. So I feel pretty lucky to have a network of peers in that way, while still being able to live and work in a place that feels like home for my art practice.

DD: Is there anything else that you would like say?
AM: Thanks for taking an interest in my work :)

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