by Liz Cole, edited by James MacGregor, published in July 2005|
People say they want freedom but in reality they are desperate to give it away to someone else. The easiest thing the world is to get people to follow the leader. It doesn't take coercion. If you gave people freedom, they'd run screaming.'
Director, MOUTH TO MOUTH
If you've ever seriously, sincerely and joyously been involved with activist politics and lifestyle and you compare your experiences with those of major activist groups, you might see common problematic themes across the board. Groups that set out to challenge power structures are often as disorganized and half-assed as the society they try to change, the same abuses of power take place, only delivered purer and more distilled by an intimate setting, and justice is meted out arbitrarily. And the attractive and charismatic folks at the helm can be just as vice-loving and capricious as the higher ups they hope to overthrow. Mouth to Mouth touches on this and more. It is Alison Murray?s first feature film as a script writer and director, an intense psychological drama that explores power dynamics and the deficiencies of human nature in an articulate and smart way while serving as a warning against hierarchy and cult-of-personality.
(Alison is now in Buenos Aires, where she is screening Mouth to Mouth)
What?s going on in Buenos Aires?
The Buenos Aires film fest is going on and Mouth to Mouth isn't in it! It's a proud, long list of festivals that have rejected the film. I keep doing this guerrilla thing of screening it next to other festivals and people think it is part of the festival. Mouth to Mouth did win a lot of awards in the Brooklyn International film fest.
Did you script Mouth to Mouth?
I scripted Mouth to Mouth. I did the 3rd draft in 1997. It was a long haul.
And how closely does the story follow your own experience?
Not that closely. The characters are distillations of people who I've met and people I've been enemies with. The story is inspired by my own experience, but it's not the same as what happened to me when I left home at sixteen and was traveling around Europe. My own story is less dramatic.
What is your real story?
I'm more into talking about the film, but in a nutshell: I left home at sixteen and met a group of political activists who were trying to do something to change the world. In fact they were doing something a little more sinister and with a strange personal agenda on the part of one person running the show.
Getting Ready for Production
How did you get involved with your lead actresses, Ellen Page and Natasha Wightman?
Ellen came to an open call screening in Toronto. I worked with a big casting director in NYC who was doing us a big favor by helping us out. He brought in a lot of great people, but no one was really right for the part. They were all groomed for stardom. Something vital was missing. So we did this call in Toronto, and Ellen came in. I was so relieved to get someone who 'got' the character, because I was beginning to doubt my writing. I thought I had written this annoying brat because everyone played her as such. They tried too hard to make her rebellious, whereas Ellen was really natural. And she was having these experiences in the movie for the first time, and that's where the freshness of her performance comes from.
I was nervous because Ellen was fifteen and her parents had to read the script to decide whether or not they were comfortable with her playing the role. There are a lot of things in there that the parents of a 15 year old wouldn't be happy about her playing on the screen.
Natasha came to an audition in London. She was passionate about the role, passionate about the story, and had good chemistry with Ellen. Oddly enough, we had already cast the role twice and neither actress wanted to shave their hair, [all S.P.A.R.K. members shave their heads halfway through the film] even though I made that requirement clear at the auditions. Somehow two actresses accepted and thought they could wriggle out of the hair shaving. Then we got Natasha, and what can I say - she was very brave about it.
We lost another actress who played one of the group members. She's in early scenes of the movie. She came up to me a few days into shooting and said, 'By the way I'm not going to shave my hair.' It was like the cast was a cult in and of itself and to be a member of the cult you had to shave your head! I told her to get with the program or leave and she left.
It's not quite as bad as making them sleep with the skeevy cult leader...
But they all had to sleep with the director! Joke, joke.
How did you fund Mouth to Mouth?
The film was a German / UK co-production. We took advantage of some private investment. At one point we had Canadian funding from Telefilm Canada. Our executive producer was Atom Egoyan. If you made a film with Telefilm Canada and the film makes money, you have a say in how the money is reallocated through Telefilm. So Atom wanted to redirect his film's money to Mouth to Mouth. However it had to be spent by a certain date, and that date came and went so we had to give it back.
What size budget were you working with?
One million, I guess. Luckily I wasn't that involved in how it broke down, that was the concern of the producers.
What was it like being on the set as the actors got more and more in character and as the tension built?
I became Cult Leader. We were in this utopian setting, but as the shoot progressed, the actors, if their character had a particular wardrobe, that went, their hair was shorn, they had to wear SPARK shirts. "Take off your outfit RIGHT NOW, cut your hair now!"
The relationship between Sherry and her mother became very heated. I think things become very real for actors, and they have to believe it and make it as real as possible. I can imagine it's very traumatic.
You say Mouth to Mouth 'explores the meeting point between politics and human nature.' Where is that, in the film?
My experience, when I was younger and a political activist, is that people set out to challenge power structures in society, and they usually recreate just what they are challenging. Orwell portrayed it in Animal Farm, and it is in Mouth to Mouth. Sherry and the group think they are creating a different culture, but it has the exact same structure as the one they left and the same abuses of power occur within the group. The leader of S.P.A.R.K. uses dubious methods to fulfill his desires but no one stops him. And, no one in the film has a gun put to their heads and commanded to shave their heads and join the group. They do it voluntarily.
People say they want freedom but in reality they are desperate to give it away to someone else. The easiest thing the world is to get people to follow the leader. It doesn't take coercion. If you gave people freedom, they'd run screaming.
Are you disillusioned with alternative lifestyles?
I think I've been disillusioned with alternative lifestyles, whatever that means, for the past 20 years. When I was a teenager I had been into an alternative lifestyle and its politics, but now I see a bunch of self righteous people who think they are making a difference by making small changes in their lives, changes that have no impact on the world at large.
You mean lifestyle activism, a movement limited in scope and practice to things like dumpster diving and roadkill freeganism?
That stuff is great and fine, just don't form a political party around it! On the brighter end, there?s a great group called the World Development Movement, and the Trade Justice Movement, people who work to change government policy on international trade and give the third world a fair deal. They address the fundamental issue of our day more so than, say, Food Not Bombs [an international volunteer-run organization that provides free meals to homeless and hungry people], which is a great idea, but it's not going to change the world at large over time. It's charity of a sort.
How many locations did you shoot on?
We shot in London for a few days, shot in Berlin a few days, and shot in Leipzig pretending it was East Berlin, since Leipzig looks more like East Berlin than East Berlin does these days. We wanted to get the look of East Berlin in the late 80's. Most of the film was shot in Portugal.
The flaming bus scene was shot in Portugal on a farm where they keep the trained bulls for bullfights. It was a grueling drive from the set to our hotel, so Ellen and I started sleeping on location. One morning while wandering around, we learned the bulls roamed free by encountering a herd of bloodthirsty human hating bulls. I thought that was it!
How long did you spend in post?
We spent six months in post. It was mixed in a studio built for Leni Riefenstahl, which is creepy.
Tools and Techniques
Getting it Seen
Where is it screening in UK and in Europe?
At the moment, no release or distribution. On the hopes of it doing ok in the US, maybe with a good review in the New York Times or something, we want to get a deal in Europe. It's really the kiss of death to not get into big European festivals because European sales agents are not interested unless they can pin their sales to an opening at a festival. So we are hoping it will build slowly over time but that remains to be seen.
What methods of publicity are you using?
It's happening on two levels. We are doing conventional pr, including targeting typical papers and magazines and typical poster campaigns, and working with Scott Beibin of Lost Film Fest who's is handling grassroots/viral promotion through a guerrilla street campaign. and on the internet through subculturally specific messageboards and social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook (www.myspace.com/mouthtomouthmovie). He and a group of people he's working with called Evil Twin Booking are organizing screenings in open art centers, universities, clubs, and other places around the U.S.. You can spend 10k promoting a film in NYC and get 500 people to the screening, or you can do small towns and spend $2k and get 5,000 people, and the latter is a really smart thing to do.
What happens next?
I don't know! It depends on this small release. I have a screening soon [in Buenos Aires], and a meeting with South American distributors. What happens after that is a question mark.
What happened with your last film, Train on the Brain?
That was a commission for Channel 4 (England) and TV Ontario. I was determined to use Beck's music in the soundtrack. I met with him in Spain and he gave me his blessing to use it, which is unheard of. There are stories of Nike going to him with suitcases of money and him saying no. However, he has no control over the cost of using his music. That's his publishers? say. So it was prohibitively expensive and we had no way of clearing the music up front.
I am doing a partner piece now called Carny, funded by Sundance Channel, TV Ontario and Channel 4. Train on the Brain will be re screened as a partner piece to Carny.