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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Jenni Olson – ‘The Royal Road’

Sundance Women Directors: Meet Jenni Olson - 'The Royal Road'

Jenni Olsen is a pioneering filmmaker, journalist, curator and film historian. She is also one of the world’s leading experts on LGBT cinema history. In addition to The Royal Road, Olson has had four other films play at Sundance: 575 Castro St. (2009), The Joy of LIfe (2005), Meep! Meep! (2001), and Trailer Camp (1996). (Press materials)

The Royal Road premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 23. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

JO: A cinematic essay set against a contemplative backdrop of 16mm urban California landscapes, The Royal Road offers up intimate reflections on nostalgia, the pursuit of unavailable women, butch identity, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo alongside a primer on the Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican-American War. Featuring a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JO: I’ve been making 16mm urban landscape films about San Francisco for many years. I choose different nonfiction themes to investigate and am generally interested in surfacing lesser-known histories (in this case the Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican-American War). I like to investigate and illuminate these histories, combining them with my own unconventional storytelling style, which is generally a stream-of-consciousness voiceover involving a steady stream of personal reflections on pining over unavailable women (this may sound like a non-sequitur but in practice it works quite well). I find that I always also manage to incorporate a simultaneous reflection on cinema history into my films (in this case Hitchcock’s Vertigo).

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JO: While the creative aspects of my filmmaking style are challenging in their own ways, I have developed such confidence and passion over the years that it has become much easier. I definitely find the technical aspects of post-production generally quite overwhelming. I feel most challenged by the relative lack of funding available (and the corresponding amount of time and effort that goes into fundraising to be able to facilitate production). That said, I did run a very successful Kickstarter campaign and even wrote a post for Filmmaker Magazine outlining some tips and suggestions. I would encourage all filmmakers to take a look (and be sure to lean on each other for advice and support).

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

JO: I want people to have a new way of looking at the world when they leave the theater. I have always been interested in crafting films that use long, static urban landscape shots as a way of manipulating the emotions of the viewer and forcing them to slow down, which I think simultaneously makes them more vulnerable as spectators, and also puts them in a position of being more than just spectators. By opening up all that space, it really makes room for the viewer to bring their own thoughts, feelings, and personal history into the experience so that truly each person has seen a unique version of the film.

Sergei Eisenstein wrote about how he wanted his films to have a physiological impact on the viewer. Specifically, he tried to achieve this though his pioneering montage techniques, which had a kind of jolting impact and I think really do create a physical response. I have always felt similarly, in that I want my films to have a physiological impact on the viewer, but from the other end of the spectrum. Rather than Eisenstein’s fast and hard cutting, I like to hold the shot very still and for longer than we’re accustomed to. For me personally as a viewer, this technique invariably causes me to have waves of emotions that I think arise from a profound form of mindful awareness and the feelings that go along with that. I am frequently brought to tears by this kind of existential cinematic technique.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

JO: Stop helping everyone else make their films, and enlist them to help you make yours. This is an exaggeration, but the point is — you are the one person who cares the most about your project, so you have to take the leadership in driving it forwar). It is vitally important that you prioritize your film and use your time and energy and resources to make it happen. Stop waiting for things to fall into place. Start doing things right now to make it happen.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

JO: I think the biggest misconception about experimental film in general is that it is always difficult and inaccessible. Certainly my films are cinematically unusual, and quite contemplative in their pacing compared to conventional films, but I think overall they are quite engaging, accessible, and even funny. My work is not for everyone, but I think if people give it a try, they may be surprised by how entertaining it is.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JO: My fiscal sponsor, the San Francisco Film Society, helped me manage a substantial amount of individual donations as well as being a funder of the film. And the San Francisco Arts Commission was my largest organizational funder. I really am extremely grateful to Kickstarter. It is an incredibly powerful tool that enabled me to raise a considerable amount of the funding for the film. Because of it, I had more than 400 individual donors. It is truly humbling to have the support of so many people who believe in the importance of the arts in general and my unique filmmaking vision in particular.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JO: What a wonderful question. There are so many of them. I have to name three. Jennie Livingston’s legendary and pioneering documentary Paris is Burning is one of my all-time favorite films of any kind. Angela Robinson’s fabulously fun girl-power comedy, D.E.B.S., is a masterful spy movie spoof that manages to be simultaneously wholesome teen entertainment and a sexy, satisfying lesbian love story. Su Friedrich’s exquisitely poetic short, Gently Down the Stream (or any of her films, really), demonstrates the power of experimental celluloid artistry.  

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