Canadian director Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Mansfield Park) discusses her latest feature, Into the Forest, which received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and its relationship with her body of work. This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in September of 2016.
The Seventh Art: A good place to start would be your interest in adaptation, which has been involved in most of your films since Mansfield Park, maybe not Kit Kittredge.
Patricia Rozema: It was – there were a series of books, but someone else wrote that [screenplay] and I did some ghostwriting on it. Grey Gardens I wrote and the new one I haven’t shot yet is based on historical information, but it’s an original script. But yeah, I’ve done a bunch of adaptations. When you do an adaptation you have two masters: you have to honour the original and you have to make a good, new story. Generally, novels are too long for good movies, so I’ve often thought novellas or short stories would make better features. I’ve instead struggled with novels, tried to make them just not feel like adaptations, that you’re just hitting the key parts of the story as written. You have to really re-create something new. I have a kind of radical view of adaptation, which is that the source material is just source material. It’s not a prescription, you don’t have to hit every story point because the transformation is so radical from the page to the script to the screen, that you have to reinvent, you have to find a good correlative for certain elements in the story. Adaptation of a novel to the screen is like taking a poem and making it a dance, or taking a meal [laughs] and making it a piece of architecture. It’s a profound change in form, so the so-called adaptation is a dubious concept, I think. You have to respect the spirit, but you have to pretend that you’re the author of the original, who is doing a whole new thing. You’re respecting the spirit of it, the intentions, but you have lots of room to play.
With Mansfield Park you had a formal coup with the direct address technique, it was an interesting way of dealing with that text in a cinematic way. Was there anything that stood out in Into the Forest that you came across as a very cinematic device for something in the book?
I only took the second-half of the book and dramatized that, because it was too long and the story took place over many years. It would have had this episodic feel if I did the whole first-half and the real drama happens in the second-half. I don’t have any direct address, that thing I often do, which I love [laughs], but I did do a lot of “sequences” (I called them): non-verbal sections that are just music and image that tell the story. I didn’t want it all to be three-four minute scenes all in a row. I don’t think that’s how time works, especially in a situation like this where the world has ended and you don’t know if it’s going to begin again. I think time is very elastic and I wanted to play with that in the film.
Those direct addresses tend to represent the self-representation characters go through in your films. They’re very conscious of how the represent themselves or how they express themselves and I noticed that again in Into the Forest – maybe in a more subtle way – through the dancing. The importance of that as the world is crumbling seems like a corollary to your other work.
That’s interesting. Yes, that character didn’t speak much and she was a little bit cool, there wasn’t easy access into her personality. The dance was supposed to be the way she spoke. She’s physical, she speaks through her body; her body is her language. [It involved] choreographing that, getting Crystal Pite to really understand the character – she did beautifully, I thought – and where that character was at whether it’s sharp, angular movements because she’s so frustrated to not have music, or whether it was flowing and expansive. That really was her dialogue… or her monologue, really – her internal monologue that we had the privilege of seeing. It’s also just pleasure for me; I’m happiest when it’s music and picture and motion – I’m just a pretend director [laughs]. I’m kidding. Sometimes I think music videos would be something I would love to do – just music and image, I’m happiest, I just feel like I’m in the sandbox playing.
How has your relationship to shooting movement evolved throughout your career? Re-watching your films, I noticed that there’s more handheld shots than I ever remember, especially Mansfield Park, and then in this one there is in certain moments when things are more chaotic vs. the more stately, flowing movement in other scenes.
How the camera moves, where the camera is positioned is completely dependent on what’s happening in the script. When I’m figuring out how to shoot something, I look at the verbs in the scene. So if it says, “She stares fixedly,” the camera will stare fixedly. “She feels the world is falling apart, there’s chaos,” will call for handheld. This whole movie, my goal was that it was accidentally beautiful. I couldn’t do a slick, composed, elegant story about everything falling apart. It had to have this feeling of falling apart all the time. It’s my most ‘rough’ – I hope it’s poetically rough – but it’s my most ‘rough’ looking piece. I once heard a critic, Andrew Sarris, say there’s two kinds of movies: one is the objet d’art and the other is contre sens du poil – against the grain, basically. I immediately felt I make objet d’art, but that was years ago because I just felt like “refine it and get it perfect and make it beautiful and have each shot be one that you would want on your wall,” and over time I’ve come to really appreciate trying to get that feeling of reality – that it was just caught. That it’s just happened and you happen to have a camera and you happen to have good lighting [laughs]. So I had this [new] period with Tell Me You Love Me, something I did for HBO, and this film to some extent is much rougher, but I’m trying to make it rough and beautiful now. To make it look like it’s just breathing, it’s almost documentary and yet it’s lovely. So this one has a lot more handheld than anything I’ve ever done and the next one I plan to have it more elegant and smooth – really static, stately, symmetrical shots. More careful.
The first three features [I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, White Room, and When Night Is Falling] are all Toronto-based and this film is more rural, kind of like Mansfield Park. How do you approach shooting a forest vs. how you shoot in an urban space? And that said, even in the first three films there are noticeable moments where green comes into the film.
I’m a little afraid of nature because it’s messy, it’s not composed. I love angles and hard lines and shapes, I’m much more drawn to something that’s more graphic. To create that in the woods is tough. In Into the Forest I embraced that, I embraced the mess of it. A lot of the time they spend in that home, which has clean lines and elegant shapes, but once they’re out into the woods, it’s rough and raw. This film is a little bit of a fantasy for some, “Let’s just go live in the woods and won’t it be great?” And yet, as Canadians, we know that that’s not a dream come true. I try to keep those two, that romance and that fear, in balance together. The film is not a cautionary tale, there is hope in it, but there’s fear. I tried to keep the hope and fear in perfect balance the whole time, because I like to think we could handle it – the worst could happen and we could handle it – but… it could be hard [laughs]. Nature represents that rawness I’m drawn to because it’s so authentic and basic to our natures, but there’s no comfort there; no one cares out in the woods [laughs].
There’s some fear with the city in the first three films, though. Maybe it’s more obvious in White Room because it’s someone leaving home and going into the downtown core for the first time, but the other two are also premised on finding something in the urban space that you otherwise wouldn’t know about – it’s kind of dangerous because you don’t know it, there’s a strangeness there, too.
That’s true, there’s danger everywhere. I mean, a film needs danger otherwise you wouldn’t have a story or you have no conflict that elevates the tension. It’s all about maintaining some degree of suspense, even if it’s a slow brooding suspense, which I think is in Into the Forest. But yes, urban environments can be frightening as well and I suppose I’m just feeding off my own past, coming from a small town – we weren’t suburban where I lived. I had lots of access to nature, but I really was always hungry for the big city and terrified of it at the same time. White Room certainly has a conflicted feeling around what the urban environment can deliver. In the end, I have a fairly… I suppose I like to think of it as a ‘tender agenda’ [laughs]. I feel like when you’re young you often want this tough and hardcore experience, but in fact ultimately we’re looking for some kind of peace.
There’s so much potential for derision and there’s so many ways to lose your dignity. I’m always drawn to characters who are marginal – possibly because I’ve always felt kind of marginal – to give them dignity, to give them grace, to give them some form of transcendence is something basic to my agenda. I walk around in the city and I see people and I think, “Oh my god, your lives are so hard, you just have to stand at this bus stop forever in this cold or this rain, then you go to this job where you probably don’t get any kind of respect, then you go home to these horrible homes with dry-walled walls that are scuffed…” If I can give them something that they watch and they say, “Yes, I have this internal life. Yes, I have these big, expansive dreams that no one else sees.” Then I feel like I’m doing something of value with my time on the planet.
Your mention of transcendence made me think of how often you used slow-motion during heightened moments of epiphany or transcendent joy, which seems like it’s not as prominent in the later work.
There’s some slow-motion in Into the Forest, for sure. Not hugely slow, but one of my favourite shots is of an eye and it’s blinking in slow-motion, that’s a pleasure, and some of the dance is in slow-motion. I feel like it brings forward intense gaze. I once heard that any square inch of the planet is fascinating if you look at it carefully enough and slow-motion helps you to look at it carefully and with love. I’m always drawn to it. By nature, I want things to be very beautiful and maybe it comes from having a religious background, but to give it height and grace and majesty. And then I’m a little embarrassed about it so I have to do something kind of mundane [laughs] and humiliating for my character. So I feel like I earn the high moments by exposing the low moments.
I also have noticed a lot of dissolves in your work that come in key moments, maybe it relates to that fluidity you mentioned, especially in Into the Forest when it accompanies dance.
There’s not many dissolves in Into the Forest, very few in fact.
There’s the opening sequence.
Yes, the opening has a big dissolve where a mountain-scape is mimicked by a woman’s body, absolutely. That’s actually one of the few. I do go for flow, though, I feel like music is the art form we all aspire to and I often think of a piece of music when I construct the flow of a scene. Is it short, sharp beats, is it flowing strings that rise to a crescendo? There’s a musical notion that governs how I’ll design a scene, but also how the whole film is designed. I tend to like songs that have lots of atmosphere – I love all kinds of things – but with lush atmosphere that builds and builds and builds and then explodes at the end. That’s something that taps into some probably neurological design inside me [laughs] that I put into my movies. It might feel like dissolves, I’ve certainly used them more before, because I like to have things flow. I’m more aware now, much more than I was before, of the eye’s path. So I know that the eye is in the bottom left of frame, if I cut to something where the focus is top-right, it’s going to be a jolt. So I’ll have maybe several shots where the eye stays in the same part of the frame and then do a jolt. That can create a kind of flowing feel or a choppy feel, depending on what you’re after.
There are two shots in the new film that stood out to me: Nell’s (Ellen Page) nightmare and the rape scene. Both involve a framing where the viewer thinks that the character is vertical, but they’re actually horizontal and you notice when the camera turns. I was curious why you chose that framing – did you plan those two be set-up in the same way?
There’s an attack scene where I really struggled with how to present this in a responsible way, because the world is awash with demeaning images of women being abused. I didn’t want to add to that tragic heap. I thought the way to do it is to stay focused on her pain. I thought you couldn’t do a plain old close-up. It was actually quite last minute that I said, let’s turn the camera on its side, let’s get the dirt [on the ground] in the foreground, because everything is askew – everything is awry. I shot it in slow-motion and as I was watching it, it’s such a weird conflict to be thrilled at this terrible attack, but I knew I was getting gold in this from Evan Rachel Wood – from the situation, from the shot itself. It was a thrilling moment and it still stands out for people, that moment is one of the most extreme moments. It was a new way of shooting a situation like that, that I haven’t seen before. With the cinematographer, we work out a shot list, I have storyboards, I bring them with me to set, we often follow them. It’s quite carefully planned out and then sometimes a new idea strikes on the day, or the actor has an idea where they say, “Wouldn’t I walk away at this point?” And that kind of throws everything into a new form. It’s pretty plotted out, but I really hope it doesn’t look that way.
I remember early in my life I was learning to write and I came across this phrase: “I write with pain that you may read with ease.” I shot with pain that you may watch with ease. I often have fairly tight first-person point-of-view, because I think intimacy is the hardest thing in life and in movies, to feel close to this person, so if I can just find this one person and get in their life, shoot the situation as if we are in their heads – whatever feeling they’re feeling – then I’ve done my job. That’s how I make decisions for camera. Ingmar Bergman said, “There’s only one place for the camera.” I think that might be true, there’s one place that you should be and it’s almost a moral choice sometimes. It’s those choices that really define that moment and define you.
There’s also the moment where Nell is waking up from the nightmare that has the same shot.
Right, she’s lying down and the camera is on its side. She sits up, can’t find her sister, then we go into the nightmare. Then we cut to a shot where it seems like she’s vertical, I was hoping it would feel like that transition between waking and sleep. She’s vertical and the camera turns and you see that she’s lying down.
In both there is that sharp line in the middle, the horizontal axis turned, and I noticed in the house you use the windows to segment different characters in the composition. It seems like that early interest in sharp lines hasn’t fully gone away, even if the rural environment gets rid of it a little bit.
That house we chose because every room had at least five ways to look at it: doors you could shoot through, windows you could shoot through. The nightmare is to be in a room where you can only be in the room or maybe shoot through the door, but to find a house that has multiple points of access – because we spent so much time in that house – we needed variety. The line… it’s just gut, where you think is a good frame. It’s an instinctive reaction.
The technology in Into the Forest interested me because in the past technology has been interwoven into your films and how the characters interact with the world around them, it’s part of the texture of the film, and in this one it’s about the absence. What has been your relationship with technology throughout your films, how has it evolved?
Personally, I love technology. I love the hope in it where I’m always excited about what’s going to be next; I’m an ‘early adopter’ of everything. Way back when I had one of the first little thin laptops and people would gather around, “What is that thing?” I love the excitement of it, I’m pretty sure I got that from my dad, I remember him bringing home an adding machine [laughs] and unveiling it on the kitchen table – and we were amazed because you could plug it in and it could do things, and it was so tiny. It was like the size of a breadbox and we were so amazed. He said, “By the time you’re adults, they will make it the size of a card you can slip in your pocket.” And he was totally right, he sort of understood the whole miniaturization process and everything. I love it, my brothers also love it, we’re technology fans. So with Into the Forest, I had to predict what’s it going to look like in four or five years and I invented a clear TV – I thought, “Wouldn’t that be cool?” If it was just a clear thing that you can see through when you’re not watching it – that you can see from both sides. So it can be anywhere in the room without being a big black box or a big black thing on your wall, it’s just a clear plexi. And the same thing for the smartphones, it was just a clear, ergonomic piece of glass. I took current technology and invented a little bit.
My relationship with technology is one of admiration and love [laughs], I love technology, which is a good thing when you’re in film because it changes every time I make a movie. I have to learn all of the new gizmos: which sound system’s going to work, which cameras are better. I’m old enough to know that every new technology comes with a sense of wonder and a choir of holy angels singing its glory… and it’s not always true. There’s lots that are still better, you know? Some digital cameras are terrible and they look crappy in daylight exteriors especially – it’s really a trashy look. Film does some things better still, there’s no question about it, but I am in love with a lot of the flexibility of digital: I’ve changed my shooting style because of some of the technology. You roll camera, you get it and you say cut, and you re-set, but now I just say, “Back to ones! Back to ones!” I don’t cut, I just keep it rolling and rolling and rolling. Because everyone dissipates, everyone has to go off and pee and get make-up and hair done. Now I can say, “Back to ones,” and keep rolling, which you could never do with film; you would be wasting so much money. It’s certainly affected my process of shooting. I love shooting with multiple cameras now when I can, because if magic happens and you have it from three angles, then you’ve got your magic! But if magic happens and you have to get another angle and it doesn’t happen again… It’s all about catching magic, catching little sparks that are unpredictable. I don’t like to full-on rehearse and Ellen Page fortunately was like that and Evan Rachel Wood, too. I was just talking to a new actress for the next film and it’s the same thing: don’t put on the full show, save it, build the emotion around it, talk about it, but save for the screen, for when it counts. Sometimes I’ll say, “Guys, it’s now or never. This is your moment, this is going to last forever, I don’t think we’ll be able to get it again.” Either the light’s going down or whatever, this is it, create a sense of momentousness so that they really pour it on. Especially if you’ve got kids or animals, if you have the luxury of having multiple cameras it can really change things. The downside of that always is that it’s hard to light beautifully in many directions at once, but if you’ve got a really talented cinematographer, you can do it. Or you just make a decision that reality and freshness is going to be more important than beauty at this point.
When did you first use these new techniques, the momentous advice to actors or the first use of multiple cameras?
When I did Kit Kittredge, actually, was when I first said that what’s wrong with most kids’ movies is how stagy it is and I had lots of animals in that. Re-creating moments is just a nightmare, so I had three 35mm cameras and I said, “That’s the way I need to shoot this.” So that I could have that freshness and aliveness. That’s where that came from and I’ve tried to have it – on Into the Forest I had two cameras most of the time. I ended up working with shots that Daniel Grant did because he’s just got a natural eye – he’s really talented. Another thing I’ve discovered, that I came across on Tell Me You Love Me, was rehearsing in the location. Just you, the actors, the cinematographer and maybe an A.D. standing outside, just going through the scene. No pressure, no time, no lights to deal with – nothing – just here’s the reality, how it would happen. “Oh yeah, it would be better if you had a mug of coffee, wouldn’t it?” Really refining the moment when there’s no pressure and the cinematographer can be pre-lighting before you get there on the day. Everybody’s relaxed because they know exactly what they’re doing, I’m relaxed, I’ve got drawings I can share with everybody, and off we go. Then you’re raising the whole thing to a new level of detail, not just scrambling to make sure you’ve got the scene. Rehearsing in the location is another luxury I love to have, because the space is so important to people.
Getting actors into some semblance of the clothing early is really important – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard major actors say, “Ah, once I’ve got the shoes of a character, I know who it is.” Something about the shoes [laughs]. The nasty character in Into the Forest, at once point you see he has two different shoes, and that was just wardrobe showing me alternatives, so I could pick one or the other, and I said, “That’s it! He’s got two different shoes.” I love those crazy details. Or I put a yellow rubber glove on this one guy when they stop at the side of the road – I don’t know how clear it is – it’s just… “What’s that for? I don’t know, but I’m scared of it – why does a man have a yellow rubber glove on?” David Lynch does that so beautiful, things that are kind of inexplicable and fascinating. I often watch people on the street, just in life, to see what normal background action is and people are always carrying things, but you don’t know why. A guy is walking along with a walkie-talkie in one hand and a cigarette in the other one, or people have a long pole and you don’t know why, but our movies are never as strange as reality. So I try to strange it up so it feels more real. I’m learning all the time how to make my films more real and somehow they feel more poetic.
When I’m something that’s historically true – like the Grey Gardens script or this new one I’m doing about Shakespeare & Co. – the ego in me is always saying, “Hey, I’ll invent this moment,” and I always shut that down. Maybe it’s the Calvinist in me, but I shut that down and say, “Reality is always more interesting. Reality has something in it that me and my little mind – and probably little heart – can’t invent. So go back to reality.” That reminds me of a Tarkovsky quote, which is maybe a bit grand to quote, but he said, “Art is the absence of conscious exaggeration.” I love that. I’m always struggling with that because my nature is to exaggerate a little bit, you know? To try and make things bigger and more explosive, but maybe the real art is to not consciously – you will exaggerate – and maybe you’ll really make art then. Maybe. Or maybe you’ll just be a sad little footnote. [Laughs]
Re-watching all your films I was trying to think of whether there was a thematic through-line, something that unites them, and the closest I can think of – it’s a bit broad because of those parameters – is that the characters have a private life that they’re discovering that’s brushing up against a public world. It’s either their private world that is becoming public when they don’t want to or in Into the Forest where the public world’s catastrophe is encroaching on their desire for seclusion to some degree.
That’s an interesting thing, that my work sort of deals with the conflict between public and private. That seems like a legitimate way of encompassing it, but I’ve often thought a lot of it is about the desire for belonging, which we all struggle with. I think a lot of artists or outsiders and their work does speak about that and mine probably does, too. I know I’m very drawn to characters who are not heroes, not respected in society and are hungry, hungry, hungry for it or just desperate for some kind of respect or dignity and just can’t seem to get it. I suppose much of my work reflects a reverence for what art can do for us, for our hearts and our sense of self and I sometimes thought that I’m just trying to replace religion. I’m always working it like I’m giving myself something, I figure if I’m pleased by something that maybe I’m normal enough that other people will be pleased by it, too. I try to find an overlap between my own personal loves and fears, and what I think the world’s might be. I feel like religion… I just can’t buy the hocus pocus any more, but there’s so much of it that gave us so much, maybe we can find much of it in art, in music – especially music – in all the different art forms, that we can find a sense of transcendence again. We can get outside of ourselves and find something that’s bigger, that’s collective, that’s emotion and really celebrates beauty and celebrates generosity. That would be a theme, I think, that you could find in a lot of my work, but I’m nervous when I put themes on my own work, because a) I don’t want to be limited by them and b) I feel like other people might be better at doing that, you’re probably better at telling me what I’m on about than I am. I can tell my intention, but not whether I succeeded or not.
When you were developing Into the Forest, what was the thing that drew you to the project?
I was really drawn to it because I felt that there was a humility in the whole story that felt good to me. It felt like it tapped into a universal fear and a universal longing to redefine our relationship to nature. I thought that fear and longing together, that’s a good core of emotions to start a project with. When I watched Into the Wild, I felt that it was a really romantic premise: this guy burning money and going off into the woods. I felt that this movie is really tapping into something that we’re all feeling, we’re damaging our planet, we’re cooking ourselves with these fumes and we’re hurting ourselves. We have to find a new way to live in nature, but we’re terrified of it, too, because nature’s red in tooth and claw, you know? It doesn’t care about little humans and their artistic visions. The book felt like it had this fear and longing together and I just loved the roughness of it – I loved the idea of these two girls running around in the woods. The freedom of the way we would shoot felt great to me and I was drawn to how rough it might look, I was drawn to the reality of the demise of civilization. There were no heightened tropes or conceits, zombies, and I love that you don’t know. That was actually my invention, because you do kind of know what brings the end of civilization in the book, but it’s all the things you would expect: the wars, the dependence on oil, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, the demise of the schools… it’s all the things you would expect could crumble our society. It wasn’t that interesting to go into it and say this was the defining last moment. It’s much more frightening to not know, to be out of communication. This is such an incredible phenomena right now where if people use their phone, they feel waves of anxiety. Getting power for your phone is like a blood lust for much of our society, so to be hearing disaster upon disaster fed to you through your radio and then it’s gone… And it’s absolutely silent. You and I would be running through the streets looking for people we know, we don’t even know each other’s phone numbers let alone be able to use any kind of land-line. It would be terrifying to be that alone.
The other thing that drew me to Into the Forest is that I felt that it’s not just about the end of the world, but it’s also a metaphor for a process that’s going on – even if our culture just trundles along happily (or bumblingly) – of cocooning. People are watching movies at home rather than going out to movie theatres, people are staying in way more since we can get access to the world – mediated access. It felt like it reflected the times. I liked the toughness of the story, the rawness of it. I love the butchering of a pig in the woods by yourself; what’s that going to be like? [Laughs] I’ve always wanted to have a reality dinner where everyone brings a live animal and has to chop it up and eat it [laughs]… We couldn’t do it, no one would come, it would be terrible, but we’ll happily sit and have lamb and chat.
The universal quality you mentioned is interesting given the earlier films where the characters’ idiosyncrasies are more pronounced – they still have universal themes below that – but this one seems less about heightened idiosyncratic characters and more about a universal fear.
Yeah, I was attracted to that in Into the Forest, that the people are more recognizable and less odd or set apart from society. In fact, they’re hungry to be part of society, Ellen Page’s character is definitely hungry to be out in the world. She doesn’t want to stay there, she wants to go to a big city, go to a big school. She just wants to engage with life. Her sister is the reverse, those characters are like two sides of one psyche. That’s how I thought of them, one’s internal, isn’t about words, isn’t about connecting as much as refining her own self and art form. The other wants to connect, wants the boyfriend, wants to go. I was definitely drawn to having a more normal psychology [laughs] and I love the dad. He’s an evolved human being, right? He knows how to love his daughters, how to engage with the world, he’s good with his hands, he’s good at everything. I love creating a character like that, it was really pleasing to me and it’s pleasing for an audience to have someone that accessible.
It’s true that this is a first for me, to have the world turn on regular folk, that was new. I’m actually realizing a lot of the films that have really struck me lately have been sci-fi: Under the Skin blew my mind, Ex Machina I loved. These sort of art/sci-fi movies. I realized there were a lot of books growing up that I was really drawn to that have a dystopic view of the world, but there’s actually a place in those for a magic realism that I’ve always loved. Instead of just having dramas with a touch of magic realism, I am kind of drawn to more sci-fi in the future.
I really feel that I want to try it all, that’s my nature. I love trying new things, I throw myself into new situations constantly and artistically I want to do that, as well. I’m just getting started… [Laughs] I feel like I had children and it was really important for me to make them feel loved and cherished, to give them time, because this quality time vs. quantity time is bullshit to me. It’s quantity time, that’s what they want and need – the day-to-day. My youngest still has some time, but I just feel that now I’m going to make up for lost time, so you’re going to see a lot more work from me.