by Lauren Neal, published on July 27, 2016 - 12:00 PM|
Out writer/director Patricia Rozema speaks with a cogent mix of cerebral hawk-eye and flowing fervency. Her films do the same. Just slip into Mansfield Park, her luscious film adaptation of the Jane Austen book, and get carried away by the ache and swirl of a young girl in a man’s world. See how she makes a glance between Mary and Fanny ripple layers. Or catch her new film Into the Forest, starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood, in theaters this Friday. A powerful modern fairy tale, the film follows two sisters who navigate the border of emotion and grit while alone in a remote cabin after the national power grid crashes.
The Emmy-winning filmmaker first grabbed headlines with an award at the Cannes Film Festival for her debut film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, now a lesbian cinema classic. She then turned up the heat with the acclaimed forbidden lesbian romance tale When Night Is Falling, followed by the Grey Gardens film for HBO. She is currently shooting an episode of the hit Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle.
AfterEllen.com: We’re very excited to spotlight you.
Patricia Rozema: AfterEllen was such a pioneer of an entity and really created a space and a meeting place for people in the margins, so long before anyone else did. It’s quite a historically significant place, so anyway, I’m honored.
AE: Let’s start with Into the Forest. From what I understand, this film is very much a collaboration with your producer and actress Ellen Page and actress Evan Rachel Wood, lesbian and bisexual women. What was that dynamic was like, all of you working together?
PR: We all had a kind of ease and understanding of each other because our orientations had major overlap, so that created a trust, I think. And even though the material isn’t explicitly LGBTQ, it still permeated the atmosphere, and I almost felt like there was something very progressive on a queer level for having Ellen come out so publicly, so beautifully, so historically and then have her play a straight girl. I thought there was actually something really important about that, and this film gets attention both in the lesbian world, but also in the straight world, because she’s just being an actor.
And that’s always been the question whether or not someone comes out as gay—whether or not they’re allowed to play straight people anymore, whether people are going to trust them. And we know that the media has embraced her and her coming out, but has the rest of the world? Will studios and will audiences embrace her? That remains to be seen.
Anyway, the atmosphere was great. We loved each other. We just hung out, and we loved each other. I have a very funny little video where they’re sitting in the back seat of the car, and I’m the driver and I’m in the front seat, and they’re pretending to be sisters who are driving each other nuts in the back seat of the car:
“Mom she touched me!”
“I did not touch you! I did not cross the line!”
And I’m yelling, “Girls, girls, shut up, or we’re not making this movie!’
Anyway, we had a riot.
AE: Is it important to you to work with women and with LGBTQ women in particular? Does it bring something different to the set?
PR: I have always tried to have a 50/50 crew, in terms of men and women. If I could have 100% lesbians, well that would be delicious.
AE: It would be like Dinah.
PR: [Laughs] I’m kind of kidding. But I actually believe in diversity, which means a lot of everything. Because I do think that there’s a big benefit. It creates a more expanse of humanity to have different kinds of people looking at it. Because your crew is your first audience, and I always encourage my crew to tell me, “You know what, I’m not buying this,” or “Wouldn’t he? Isn’t this a bit coincidental?” or “Hey, look at that light over there! Let’s shoot that way!” I encourage it, and sometimes I have to make a joke and say, “Well, can’t wait to see your movie,” but sometimes it’s really great. The more enlightened and expansive the view that you have from this first audience, the better your movie could be.
My cinematographer is this beautiful, very elegant and eloquent and sensitive young man named Daniel Grant, and I was telling [lesbian author] Anne-Marie MacDonald about him. She said, “Oh, is he under 40?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Oh, men under 40 are the new women.” I’ve worked with men who are more feminist than some women we know. Your identity doesn’t necessarily mean that you have variable politics.
I just came back from Venice. I’m shooting Mozart in the Jungle. The people I’m working with on that are very sophisticated and progressive in their politics on sexuality. Anyway, I’m all for diversity, and not just women on my crew. I find a balance.
AE: Yes, I was going ask you about your experience directing episodes of the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, and it sounds like it’s been a wonderful experience.
PR: It’s been great. It’s really a bunch of smart, funny people. The whole show to me seems to be about how hard it is to be an artist. The craziness that’s involved. But how it’s really worth it in the end. I feel it’s an interesting portrait of a creative life.
And I love how the tone of it is so varied. Each episode seems to be its own creature, and that’s so unusual. And I think it’s because they’re encouraging people- they let each episode be its own piece.
AE: What’s next for you?
PR: I have been working on this story—a lesbian love story that I set in Paris in the ’20s and ’30s. It’s historically true; it’s a very cool piece. It’s Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, the origins of this woman named Sylvia Beach. It’s two female leads and a third male, and it’s hard to get enough money for it, and shooting a period piece costs what it costs, so that’s tricky. So I’m hoping, I’m hoping I can get that launched soon. Sylvia and Adrienne’s story—lesbian bohemian folk heroes that rivaled if not eclipsed Gertrude Stein in her importance in modern literature. It’s very sexy and very irreverent. It’s not precious, because the dread would be that it would be Midnight in Paris without the humor. Nightmare.
I’m developing a First Nations story; I feel like we haven’t even begun to address that issue and the horrors we visited on the people who were here first in North America. I approached a woman who was a Cree—a writer—so she’s writing something that I’d love to make. I’m being very careful. I just said, “Can a white girl do this story?” and she said, “Well, because you’re a girl, and it’s you, yeah.”
AE: Being a woman, being a queer woman, and a mother of two daughters, has that affected your career as well as your art? Do you think it has changed your path at all, your approach?
PR: They completely affect me. The fact that I’m of Dutch heritage, the fact that I was raised in a Calvinist environment, the fact that I was Canadian: they all have some impact. I sometimes wonder if my career would have been very different if I wasn’t female—whether I would have gone farther faster, but it’s so unknowable that I choose not to try to know it.
And I feel like sometimes when you belong to a minority group—not a numbers minority, but a power minority— you can spend a lot of time if you have a setback thinking, “Oh, is it because I’m female, or am I just not very good?” You can’t waste time on it. You just have to redirect your mind to, “What is it I want to make? What is it I want to do?” So I don’t really know if I would have become more known or had more money at my disposal. I just can’t know.
It’s probably true that if I was born today that people would be more ready to have my kind of stories—women taken seriously in complicated roles, probably more time and space for them on the dial and on the screen, but I don’t know.
Having daughters has affected me in terms of writing characters, because they’re both really intelligent people, but they’re intelligent in such profoundly different ways. And usually, when I draw a character, I say, “Well, yeah, she’s smart, and she’s not smart, or he’s not smart,” but we don’t define the thousands of ways that people can be smart. Humans are so much more complicated than we give them credit for, in our fiction most of the time.
AE: You’ve talked about your films as this place where your characters—especially your more marginalized heroes—can find some sense of sacredness and transcendence. Does that relate your identity as a queer woman?
PR: I’ve never connected those two. I’ve connected it with my religious past. Interesting. I grew up in a world where homosexuality wasn’t discouraged or shameful. It just was inconceivable. It just did not exist. It was so so far out of the realm of possibility that they didn’t even both to speak ill of it.
So I come from almost the Middle Ages in terms of queer rights and liberation, so I had to go so far to get to a place of comfort and peace in myself. I felt that who I loved was so wrong in the world that I lived in, but I knew that there was no changing it—that’s just how I was, who I was. So I had a secret beauty that I had to carry around by myself, and I feel like maybe that helped me in what I do.
The filmmaking business is really hardcore, and it’s tough and fast, and it’s about money and numbers and bums in seats. But at its core is something so delicate and so ecstatic, and every time you set out to make one of these things you have a chance once again to do something extraordinary that will last and will continue to sing when your bones are dust. So it’s this action, this opportunity for great, great beauty and intimacy every time you set out to do it.