Director Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s directorial feature debut The Wanting Mare (2020), is a captivating fantastical and dreamlike vision. Set in the world of Anmaere, north of the city of Whithren, horses are shipped across the sea once a year. The event provides people seeking an escape a brief window of hope. Meanwhile, a young woman continues the lineage of a dream about a mythical and magical world that has been passed down through the generations from mother to daughter.
In conversation with PopMatters, Bateman talks about his desire to remain hidden behind his films, the fear of drawing from the personal, and films as images from our dreams and subconscious minds.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
There have been points in my life where films and filmmakers have made me want to make movies, all of which are very different experiences. From seeing The Fellowship of the Ring (Jackson, 2001) in the theatre, seeing Magnolia (Anderson, 1999), and seeing an Ingmar Bergman movie for the first time. These sequential but very different films spoke to different parts of me. The core of it is that to wake up and exist every day, I have to make things, and I don’t have the discipline to be a painter [laughs].
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I was an intense extrovert as a teenager and in my early 20s. I’ve become more of an introvert over time, which is a fascinating riddle, but it also speaks to my pouring more time into trying to make films.
Talking with filmmakers and actors, I’ve found many to be introverts. Can the creative and storytelling process create a comfort zone for the introvert to become extroverted?
The process is also about how you want to be looked at and examined. …Strangely I don’t want to be looked at, I just want the pictures to be looked at, which I hope is healthy. I’d be terrified if I wanted to be someone who has a following on the internet because I make movies, and people want to hear from me.
When we look at films we naturally try to understand the filmmaker through their work.
I didn’t go to film school, and I obsessively read every biography I could about filmmakers. Part of me doesn’t want to talk about the movie at all, I just want people to watch it and have their own experience. I don’t want to ruin it. On the other hand, I’m aware there are very interesting ways we technically made the movie, that wasn’t possible four years ago. If I was a teen trying to make a movie, I would want to know everything I could about it.
I grew up in the theatre and I still look through this lens. It’s a trade that’s apprenticed and passed down, and talking about how films are made is a continuation of that apprenticeship. I’m still in the apprentice category, and the idea of saying here’s how we made this, and the process of making the film, is a hopeful act.
How have your theatre experiences influenced your approach to the filmmaking process, and specifically the aesthetic of The Wanting Mare?
The sense of digital sets in the film is an extension of my life beginning in theatre. It’s a shrinking of details, like realism, where all the details are there because it’s real. If you’ve taken everything out and you’re picking what you want to put back in, those choices, subconsciously and instinctively, become about the story.
I love and I want artifice. It’s a hopeful act and I’m trying to have moments of truth and stunningly unique unplanned events. I want to have the big built stage, and I want someone to do something remarkably human in the middle of it. I’ve never talked about it in this way, but this is how the movie was technically constructed.
We were filming it how I’d read that [Bernardo] Bertolucci had filmed Last Tango in Paris (1972) – very grand – but the actors were going to be doing something different every second. It’s a strange contradiction that excites me, where you have this great painting and in the middle of it this group theatre.
In storytelling, you create a timeline and delve into the emotions of the characters, but here you choose to splice through time. These types of subversive choices are important to explore the boundaries of film, to discover what the art form can become.
All of the attempts to do these unique things didn’t work. What wound up being very strange and unique about the movie were those things that were instinctually decided – the removal of what you’re used to, exposition, knowing where you are, knowing the rules, and who’s who.
I don’t know if it all works, and I don’t even know what that means. I’m concerned about how audiences are ruled by the “what?” of the story in cinema and television. It’s all about how good was the story? What happened in the story? Were you surprised?
They’re good competing outlines, and there are a lot of the stories I’d like to make are like that, but it’s only leading you towards the theme. What is this about? Where should your mind be? Where are these dreams placed? The very spare outline of The Wanting Mare is leading you toward where you should be, or where I’d like you to be experiencing the film, which is that state of confusion of saying, ‘Is this person this person?’ Or, ‘Is this person that person?’ Those are the questions that the film is about, and they don’t need to be answered.
Picking up on your reference about dreams, my criticism is that the conscious awareness of trying to craft a dream prevents it from being authentically dreamlike.
I have a hard and fast rule that I never put dream sequences in because the film is a dream, and I never use slow motion. It’s similar to saying, “Now we’re going to do something unreal”, I believe watching people be people is in itself unreal and surreal. Any time there’s a dream it breaks the contract with the audience because you’re saying they weren’t dreaming. The movie is designed structurally to say you’re going to sleep now, come into this place and awaken from it.
I’m a very poor student and obsessive of Carl Jung and the idea that we discard a third to a half of our lives of dreams because we don’t consider them to be real. It’s our great injury and the obstacle for us all being whole.
Moving forward I’m trying to motivate this sense of films as images, dreams, and our subconscious. The last two years of writing have been unlike any other, because I’ve been writing things that are unbelievably personal, to a point of me being horrified that I’m going to make it into a film. My hope is that if I head down that path, it’s the only way to maintain the dream because I think my family is your family, and my worries are your worries. I’m going to try to motivate that through people and the fear of waking life.