Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema has long been captivated by films that focus squarely on women and their experiences in the world, as evidenced by features like her seminal lesbian dramedy “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing,” the murder mystery “White Room” and the Jane Austen adaptation “Mansfield Park.” For her latest film, however, Rozema turns her eye to something slightly different — still women and their experiences, but ones that take place beyond the existing world.
In “Into the Forest,” sisters Nell (Ellen Page) and Eva (Evan Rachel Wood) live through some kind of cataclysmic event — the film, based on Jean Hegland’s book of the same name, never quite clarifies what has happened, a narrative choice that Rozema effectively translates to the big screen — and then attempt to carve out a new life for themselves in and around the isolated area that plays host to their parents’ home. The sisters’ bond is routinely tested, as is their endurance, but the film is a rare female-led apocalyptic drama that has as much to say about the (maybe) future as it does the present.
Indiewire spoke with Rozema at the Toronto International Film Festival, where she experienced her pleasure at the film’s positive reception and looked forward to a female lead-filled future.
How is your festival going?
Well, I have a very solipsistic view of it. But I’m feeling really good. I’m feeling like the film is speaking to people I respect. I’m not particularly prolific for some personal, some societal reason, but I’m thrilled.
As you say, you’re not particularly prolific, you’ve been making movies for a really long time and you have incredible range in your films. Why did you want to make this one?
Well, I love Ellen. I don’t usually go to a project because of the casting, though. I feel like that is a false draw. Almost every script that comes across your desk, they say they’ve got Jesus Christ attached. It’s very easy to be seduced by that, but I always ask myself, would I make this if it had no names in it? I felt like it was a place to play, it was a place to express both fear and comfort, and those things felt like really great companions, tonal things, she said articulately. [Laughs] It just felt of a time. I feel like as a species, we’re trying to figure out a new relationship to the natural world. We’re not sure we want to live like primitives, but part of us fantasizes about that, as we get information from every machine around us, and part of us is terrified of that.
I just felt like it had this contradiction at its heart that would be thrilling to do. I just love painting. I am a painter, I can’t really say that. I paint when film is too frustrating. But just on an image level, this would be really exciting.
And then the sister relationship. I don’t have a sister, but I know that the sibling bond is a complex tangle that has a really, really profound impact on our formation and how we function in the world. I have two brothers that I adore and I had a really, really strong family. I lost my mother early. I look for things I can connect to. I love the contrast of their characters, the intellectual and the artist. It just seemed that between the two of them, you get a really fully rounded reaction to the situation.
With siblings, they are you, but they’re not you. You explore that idea so well in the film.
Thank you, thank you. That’s so exciting for me, because nobody’s seen it. I’m just getting dribs and drabs of response, and some people don’t get it and other people are really getting it.
Whether or not you get along with siblings is sort of luck of the draw. You may share a genetic material, but you could be radically different human beings. We’ve all seen that or experienced it. That’s why I felt okay about them not looking a lot alike, I tried to have them more represented in their parents visually. But we’ve all seen people who just seem to be from another planet. So I didn’t plan it, but they become closer over the course of the story, I think.
The whole arc thing, sometimes I know it’s what we are trained to love it as audience members, but I find that people stay a lot alike.
In movies, we are expected to love and anticipate the character arc and to get excited when people change, but in real life, most people don’t really change.
In some movies, this is one, where the world around them changes a lot and that brings out something in them. I love that when Evan’s character says, “let’s use the gas,” you think she’s nuts. Everyone’s on Ellen’s side, but by the time they use the gas to watch the home movie and watch dance, we’re entirely convinced, or at least I am, that that’s the right thing to do. We need the nourishment of art.
But in a really delicate or indirect way, I feel like the film also asks what is the role of those gentler things, like music and art when we have a few ounces of gas left or a few ounces of gold in this world. Can you spend your gold on these things? That’s always the question that comes up in every culture.
I’m very aware, as you get older, you’re running out of time. You don’t have that many movies to make, and my bones will be dust, and I will have the eternal satisfaction with something I love. That I get to have the image fully out of focus once in a while because that pleases me, how often do you really, really get to play with image?
So many of your films have been driven by female characters, and this is another obvious example of that. Did you have any trouble getting it made?
Yeah, there’s always trouble. It had an individual history, this one. It started out as an American independent. Then, I came on and we thought we could get some Canadian money. But you can’t get Canadian taxpayer money and put it in American producers’ pockets, so it became a Canadian film, but we still had great collaboration with American producers.
The female lead thing, I don’t know, no one would ever tell you that. Only a moron would say, “Two girls…no one’s gonna watch it.” You just never know, so I just ignored that and plowed on. I’ve actually made a decision to do films with female leads now for the rest of my life. The history of cinema is so horrifically unbalanced, that the little that I can do to rebalance it — I love seeing women be interested and complicated and strong. If the men are doing male characters and I am doing male characters, then who is going to do the female characters? So it makes sense.
No one ever sits in a Q&A and says, “So how did it feel to be a male filmmaker? And having two male leads, was that difficult, was that interesting to you? Why did you have two male leads?” I would love to get to the point where that sounds as absurd as it does when you flip it.
Do you think these things are getting better?
Of course they are. It’s glacial. It’s a glacial change. But it’s happening.
I’m someone who lives on hope. You can’t not be that and be a filmmaker. There’s definitely more female filmmakers than there were. It used to be a weird novelty act. Now, I go to a party and there’s Rebecca Miller there, there’s this panel with Catherine Hardwicke. A good 45% of the short films at this festival are female authors. So it’s changing slowly.
It’s still slow change, but it’s change.
Yeah, and that’s partly technological. It’s cheaper to make movies.
But I feel like the way to get there, to a more equal representation of male and female perspectives, is not to say, “hey! We want more, we deserve more, you should give us more, give us your power and we will take it,” but it’s to convince the world that a multiplicity of views on what it is to be human today is better for everyone. You can live more accurately, your eyes are going to be open wider, you can understand a little better if more than one small power minority gets to speak. By power minority, I mean white males. They are a minority, but they have the power, but they are a minority. So the majority of people of different colors and different genders and orientations have to be allowed to speak.
It’s happening, it’s happening, it’s slowly happening. Unless ISIS takes over, we’re moving in that direction.
I think so, too.
Me, too. I mean, gay schmay, that’s old news now. I mean, transgender’s almost over as a civil rights frontier. I’m not sure what’s next.
There will surely be something.
I’m kidding. I’m being flip.
I know you are.
[Laughs] I know you know I am.
“Into the Forest” premiered at this week’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it was picked up for U.S. distribution by A24.
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