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It's All Painting, in a Way: Interview with Filmmaker Patricia Rozema

Ellise Fuchs

What if I make the work that really, really touches people? And they feel, “Hey, my God, that’s genuine human emotion put out there for all the right reasons." I guess I am entirely an idealist. I believe that authentic communication can cut through.

While volcanic smoke and ash floated over Europe, keeping many people grounded, the 25th Torino International GLBT Film Festival: From Sodom to Hollywood, was as explosive as ever. Between 15 and 22 April, the schedule offered the usual feature, short, and documentary sections, along with a series of special sections including “25 Films That Changed Our Lives," "Homosexuality and World Religions," and retrospectives dedicated to Maria Beatty, Holly Woodlawn, and Patricia Rozema. Ms. Rozema flew in from her hometown of Toronto to be on the feature film jury and present some of her films. Funny, gutsy, and perceptive, she shared some thoughts with PopMatters on her work, her background, and her pursuit of authenticity.

Last night, the Festival screened your two first films, Passion: A Letter in 16mm and I've Heard the Mermaids Singing. You told the audience that the "thuddingly pretentious" short, Passion, is now difficult for you to watch. Do you often have this reaction when seeing your own work?

Well, first of all, “thuddingly pretentious" is exactly how it went. When the short went into the Toronto Film Festival, the catalogue listed it as a “tour de force." So the criticism ranged from that deeply disturbing comment to a wildly enthusiastic response, and you must know that you live somewhere in between. Learning that early on was very important for me. I had to learn to put aside the criticism and just do it. It's very hard to hang onto that sometimes.

Do any of your other films make you feel that way?

I've never listened to a commentary that I've done on my own work. I can't stand to hear myself. It's not so much a loathing of myself, it's a wish to stay genuine. Because the quality I like most in everybody -- in acting, in everybody -- is authenticity, and I'm afraid of becoming canned. I'm afraid of saying, “Well, these are my scenes and this is my shtick." That's my greatest fear.

But you seem to have avoided a particular “shtick."

I have stories I repeat. You loathe yourself for repeating them, but you do. [laughs]

I'm interested in your upbringing. It gets mentioned...

... all the time.

You are described as growing up in an “austere Dutch Calvinist community." What does that mean? Do you think your background has affected your filmmaking?

Absolutely. I was raised in a Dutch immigrant community. They came from Holland. All of my friends' parents had Dutch accents.

Was everyone speaking Dutch at home?

Often. I spoke Dutch first and my parents spoke Dutch half the time. And our whole social circle was Dutch. As you know, in an immigrant community, they tend to hang onto the culture from the time that they left. And it doesn't necessarily progress. So it was more conservative than Holland was. It was the Netherlands of the '50s that I grew up with, well into the '60s and '70s.

But I think, even if you reject tradition, it leaves a deep imprint in the form of your rejection. It's negative, not in that negative sense, but in the sense of being reverse imprint. It has affected my work. I think I strive for some kind of purity and some kind of ideals, an attitude of reverence, ecstasy. I remember talking to this woman about religious experience and its relationship to art. I was working on something called Tell Me You Love Me, an HBO project that was a very graphically sexual story. I pointed out that it was probably a little odd, given that I'd had such a religious upbringing, and she said, “Oh not at all. It's like a given, because both experiences are striving for transcendence. They're both a hunger for an out-of-body experience, something beyond the mundane and the pedestrian. You're looking for something greater than the ordinary." It actually makes a lot of sense.

Lots of people talk about the overlap of sex and religion. Madonna, that was her shtick. She did it a lot to be a shocker, that was her goal. I'm a very goal-oriented person. I'm on the jury here, for example, and I judge a work by its intentions. What's your goal here? What are you trying to tell? What are you selling? What's your point? It's certainly not just story or just execution or mastery over the materials. But what really is your message? Because it's all message, whether people really realize it or not. I was taught from the cradle on: origin, purpose, and destiny were my questions [laughs].

I was wondering about your experience with multiple jobs in films, as director, writer, producer, and editor. Do you feel like you have enough control when you are just one of those people on a project?

Being in control of all those things is often just a function of poverty. I was location manager and worked on sound editing too. But with each film, I could let go of more roles.

And that was a natural progression?

Yes, it's just a natural function of my own authority, but it's also learning the craft in a way that was very useful. Really I just like to play, putting picture and sound together. I could just do that for hours, days on end. When I was editing When Night is Falling in Atom Egoyan's editing room, going over some footage and cutting together the music of the opening credits, I was looking at it back and forth, over and over. Then I saw this little black thing floating up in the air, very lightly. And I thought, it looks so beautiful, the slow speed... Then I realized something was on fire and it was ash rising. I called the fire station. It was late at night... That story is to illustrate how I can play until I catch on fire.

What is it that draws you to a project?

I never know. People think they know and they send me stuff. After Mansfield Park, they sent me lots of that type of movies. But I don't want to do the same thing again. Or right after, anyway. It has to be beautiful and new, or have potential for beauty in it. I think there can be a raw, rough beauty or it can be very elegant, refined, and cared for. It has to be in alignment with my point. I'm completely instinctive. I have turned down so much money. I've turned down numerous projects, especially earlier on, when people were trying to figure me out. It happens when you're younger and I had some real significant offers. But I know myself well enough that if I don't want to play with the footage in the middle of the night on a Friday night, then…

Is it a feeling that you have concerning the people, for example, if they're too "Hollywood"?

People, yes. Hollywood, not. TV or film, that doesn't matter. Rich, poor? Doesn't matter. I just said yes to a project for the National Parks. It's going to be in Canada and it's going to be all the National Parks, a director a week. They're bringing a cinematographer, a tent, a sound person, and a musician. I've got one of the guys from the band Arcade Fire and we're just going to go for a week, edit for three, and that's it. I heard about that project and thought it sounded like a kind of adventure.

I made one children's movie, Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl, and then said yes to another one. I generally think, “When in doubt, don't." I also wait to feel that I'll have some authority on the subject. Still, when I look at everything back-to-back, I can see similarities. Last night, for example, it blew my head off how much the two films were about ambition. I knew that, but I'd never seen them back-to-back before and I hadn't seen Passion for a long time. They were shockingly related. One is sort of the self-deprecating flip side of the other. I can make so much fun of my own work, it's incredible. I feel like I'm probably deeply laughable, which is fine because if you start there, then you don't mind if other people do.

Well, it makes you stronger, and probably more honest. It might help your working in so many different areas, from, cable TV to independent and mainstream movies.

And different colors as well. It doesn't matter what the dissemination organ is, whether it's sold in a store, given to a friend or put on a billboard: it's all painting, in a way.

Do you find there is more freedom in one venue than another?

I hated TV and wouldn't do it before, because of the commercials, but now you can get around that. I've only done cable. It's important to me that people can see my work in a sitting, that it's not interrupted by loud people selling me things. I've never done a commercial. I have no desire to sell. As for freedom… HBO was a good place to work on that. I was just the director, I wasn't writing on that one. Since then I've done Grey Gardens, which I wrote: they had a script and I came in and wrote it again.

I was just talking to this friend of mine, Mark McKinney from Kids in the Hall. We were talking about careers one day. He says there's the beginner's mind and there's the master's mind. He says the master needs to have control and they're often a person who has a very clear agenda and one who gets better and better at it, and often dies there. The beginner's mind doesn't sound nearly as impressive, but it's, “Wow, I wonder how you do this? That's exciting! I wonder how you do that?" I am like that. I just took up painting two years ago and it's thrilling to me. I love getting into different kinds of pigments, surfaces, and paper.

There's an aspect of your films that has some kind of childlike wonder to it. I like to call it "enchantment." I see it in Mermaids and also in Night is Falling. It's a sort of dreaminess, an other-worldliness. Are you attracted to this sensibility?

I'm definitely attracted to it.

Could this be part of a departure from your strict upbringing?

Sure. I grew up on stories of Jonah and the Whale. Up to a certain age, I believed that they happened. So, it makes sense to me that I would go into a sort of magical thing. Yeah, that's the goal. I have this feeling that I'm just getting it, that my best work is definitely coming. It's an exciting feeling because I've tried out many different tones and I actually -- this is the arrogant part -- feel I control many different tones. I have many colors in my palette and I feel like I can really paint now. Like I can pull together an orchestra -- it's an awful metaphor -- and do something.

It seems that all the arts are very close to you. Did you study music or play an instrument?

I did. I played music, I sang, and I acted in plays in college until I thought, “I want to make it up. I want to make the whole world. I don't want to be the person on stage." I remember seeing Beckett and thinking, "There's nothing and now there's this wild, strange, funny, Chekhovian thing called Waiting for Godot." And I thought, “What is it like to make that? Who does that? How do they do that?" That was the envy. Being able to create something from nothing.

You mentioned last night that in one of your next projects, the one with Ellen Page, there's going to be some animation as well.

Yes, the next children's film that I'd like to do.

What's your relationship with technology like?

Ahh. I love it. I buy every new gadget that exists. I love the gadgets. It's almost calming to research it for me, to find just the right thing.

And then you have this other side of you that is very hands-on with materials, like with paint.

Yes, very artisan-like, handmade. I love miniatures too. That's one great thing about having kids, is that I can build miniatures. The film with Ellen Page is a children's film, but “children's" in the way that a lot of these high budget animation films are, like Alice in Wonderland, where everyone goes to see it. One character in it is a dragon, but I'm thinking of having the dragon look like Bill Clinton, in 3D, and constantly shifting. That's the new part, to create an animated character full of emotion, to be able to feel its emotions. I've been doing some of these pictures that are like a forest, but then if you look at the top and the bottom, they're disintegrating, or sort of becoming painting. It's so gradual that you don't know where it begins and ends. I'm wondering if I can find a way to do it on film. While I didn't like the aesthetic of Avatar, it still was quite a work of invention. It cut in between animation and reality. I'd like to make it not so glossy and or hard-edged, not so CGI.

You've had this long, prolific career and avoided being “pegged" in an single category. Generally, people call you a "Canadian filmmaker."

Or, if it's a gay film festival, they call me a “lesbian filmmaker" or if I'm invited to a women's event, then they call me a “woman filmmaker." You become what people want you to be. If you're in a magazine that's kind of earthy, then they shoot you that way and that's what you look like. If you're in a glossy, women-can-conquer-the-world magazine, then that's what they make you into. I'm a bit of a blank slate, not entirely blank, but I'm someone that people can project onto, which I guess is what happens in some cases.

Has this been a conscious decision on your part?

No. I have resistance to being reduced, which is probably bad for branding. You know branding is reducing one down to a few key elements, and that's who you are. And you need good branding in order to get wide recognition. And so I've failed miserably. I figure that's not my job and I don't want to appear to be making it my job. I just won't sell myself. I'll do everything that's asked of me when there's a film to sell, but then when I'm between things, I don't do that much that's just about me "getting out there." I think you can actually become quite thin: people's lives can become very shallow, with no depth, with no variety.

And you don't have any down time, or time away from it.

Yeah. I don't want any down time. But I want other time. I want experience time. What's the hurry or the worry about being out there and having my face on a big billboard or something? Yes, I'm getting older and my marketability and my attractiveness to the world are going to get less and less. But what if I make the work that really, really touches people? And they feel, “Hey, my God, that's genuine human emotion put out there for all the right reasons" [laughs]. I guess I am entirely an idealist. I believe that authentic communication can cut through.

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