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A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

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Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

 

Sea Sorrow reframes ideas that refugees are from a far off land.”

— Vanessa Redgrave

 

About Sea Sorrow (From the NYFF)

Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a documentary filmmaker is a plea for a compassionate western response to the refugee crisis and a condemnation of the vitriolic inhumanity of current right wing and conservative politicians. Redgrave juxtaposes our horrifying present of inadequate refugee quotas and humanitarian disasters (like last year’s clearing of the Calais migrant camp) with the refugee crises of WWII and its aftermath, recalled with archival footage, contemporary news reports and personal testimony—including an interview with the eloquent Labor politician Lord Dubs, who was one of the children rescued by the Kindertransport.  Sea Sorrow reaches further back in time to Shakespeare, not only for its title but also to further remind us that we are once more repeating the history that we have yet to learn.

(Still from “Sea Sorrow”)

The Documentary Choices

There are no definitive rules in documentary filmmaking and Sea Sorrow, which examines the historical context for the current migrant crisis, is no exception. A documentary can utilize the traditional three-act structure or nontraditional narrative format. Ideas can be presented objectively or subjectively. Documentaries can include stock film footage, still photographs, use talking heads, include the filmmaker in the story, employ live action, animation, dramatic reenactments, and voiceover narration or just have the subjects and images alone convey the narrative.

(A young Redgrave in WWII)

During the World War II bombing of London, a three-year old Redgrave was sent into the British countryside where she was taken in by the town’s residents. Redgrave, on camera, recounts this experience intercut with still photographs of her during this time, referring to herself as an “internally displaced person.”

Redgrave’s nontraditional narrative also incorporates a combination of archival footage (including Eleanor Roosevelt introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948), still photographs, talking heads, and live action, as well as a dramatized extract from The Tempest performed by Ralph Fiennes and Daisy Bevan (when Prospero tells Miranda the history of their “sea sorrow” and how they came to be exiles on a remote island, the former seat of his power and prosperity). Actress Emma Thompson also appears in the film, reading from a 1938 edition of the newspaper The Guardian, highlighting rhetoric heard today.

 

(Vanessa Redgrave at NYFF Press Conference)

Press screening Q & A with Redgrave and her producer Carlo Nero

Redgrave stated that she treated the film as if it were a poem, and chose film as the medium to deliver her message because: “Film is one of the arts — although treated like a prostitute most of the time, but it is an art — that can help people communicate and get rehumanized.”

Redgrave continued by saying she hopes Sea Sorrow will help audiences have compassion for the displaced people shown in the film:  “Do you realize how close we are? It could be us. What will we do if we are treated the way our country has treated other families? That can happen so easily and so quickly.” She continued: “Do people have imaginations? People don’t have time for imaginations. … Film, like theater, can. It doesn’t impose, it can help people stop reacting and start thinking.”

Sea Sorrow is indeed thought-provoking in its global glimpse into the refugee crisis, and it is personal.  The film reinforces the major theme that history has repeated itself but it also poses the question to the viewer that perhaps today, given what history has taught  us, that it will not be repeated.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

A Conversation with Lady Bird Writer and Director Greta Gerwig at the New York Film Festival

Greta Gerwig discusses her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother and searching for an escape route.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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“Someone’s coming of age is someone else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the coming of age.”

– Greta Gerwig

About ‘Lady Bird’

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman (Saoirse Ronan) trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and searching for an escape route from her hometown of Sacramento.

The Script

Gerwig: I had a very long draft of Lady Bird at the end of 2015 – it was 350 pages. Some of the scenes didn’t go anywhere, and then I figured out what was essential and the core of the story. I don’t decide on the core of the story before I write, I write to figure out what the story is. I think the characters tell you what they are doing and what is important to them, and in some ways it’s your job to listen to them and not just to write. To listen what they’re telling you.

On Directing

This is Gerwig’s first solo in directing. When Gerwig started production on Lady Bird, she had already been working on films for 10 years.

Gerwig: I apprenticed myself in many areas. I’ve been lucky enough to work as an actress with wonderful directors, but I’ve also co-written and co-directed, and held the boom, and costumed and had done makeup, was a production assistant, basically everything you can do on a film set. Even though it’s my first writing and directing venture, it’s also an accumulation of all I have learned over the last 10 years. I went to a liberal arts college, Barnard, and I learned by doing.

No, This is not an Autobiographical Film

Gerwig: Nothing in my life is in the movie. It has a core of truth that resonates with what I know. I wanted to make a movie that was a reflection on home, about what home means, and what leaving home means. What it means for someone who wants to get out and then realize they loved it. It was a movie framed around this family and following them, but secretly it’s the mother’s movie as much as it is a film about Lady Bird. I wanted that catch. It’s also the mother’s story; I wanted that reversal to happen. Someone’s coming-of-age is someone else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the coming-of-age.

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother and searching for an escape route.

Saoirse Ronan (L) Laurie Metcalf (R)

Family Relationships

The family dynamics and the conflicts that arise between Lady Bird and her parents, brother and his girlfriend are relatable and avoid cliché sugar-coating. Lady Bird, a name she has chosen for herself (her given name is Christine), is just one of the defiant steps she has taken to show her independence from her family and the strict rules of the Catholic school she attends.

While the story follows Lady Bird’s journey in her senior year as she discovers first love and dealing with social and class conflicts, what distinguishes this high school coming-of-age story is the poignant mother and daughter relationship.

The characters are distinct and who they are and the choices they make are empathetic but not necessarily sympathetic.

(I wrote about family relationships in an earlier article for this publication.)

The center of the story is the mother and daughter relationship; Marion is often demeaning and overly critical to her daughter, Lady Bird, but this behavior is complex as we come to learn more about her own backstory, and see her navigating her current life and work. Her fear of losing her daughter to a college on the east coast pushes her daughter even further away; a realistic and layered character choice.

The Era and Setting

The film opens with a Joan Didion quote about the director’s hometown, where the plot takes place: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

Gerwig: I felt the story was a love letter to Sacramento.

The choice of setting in the story in 2002-2003, in a post 9/11 world was deliberate.

Gerwig: We were ushered into a new age of global politics. It was the beginning of not just a geopolitical movement but the Internet, cell phones, and the glib answer – to make a film now, it’s not very cinematic to show teenagers on their cell phones and I thought this was the last generation you could make a film about without doing that.

A Conversation with ‘Faces Places’ Documentary Filmmakers Agnès Varda and JR at the New York Film Festival

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR travel through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

FACES PLACES (VISAGES VILLAGES)

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR journey through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places (Visages Villages).  Winner of The Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival and Golden Eye at the Cannes Film Festival Faces Places played at the 2017 New York Film Festival where the filmmakers spoke about their work.

When I interviewed Varda at her installation at the Blum and Poe gallery in New York City in April 2017 for this publication, she talked about the upcoming release of Faces Places at festivals.

Varda: JR and I got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul.  Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years. I like taking the time to listen to people.  The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”

We have to share words, share time. If our film reflects that, then it’s a drop of friendship and compassion in the world. That’s what we know how to do and I tried to do it well.

Faces Places can been described as a film memoir. A road trip of two artists. The film is about their journey, not necessarily the destination.

“Making documentaries is a school of life,” Varda told me at the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival where I asked her about her writing process, describing her style as cinécriture – writing on film. “In The Beaches of Agnès I am turning the mirror to the people who surround me. It shows how you build the life with others.”

Varda is the sole female director associated with the French New Wave, even labeled the grandmother of the New Wave, a title she disputed for several reasons, one being she was the same age as her male directors of this category.

Consider this label instead: A storyteller not bound by convention.

(L-R) JR, Varda, Taubin

Varda’s visual memory is reflected in this film as it captures her shared artistic sensibilities with JR: two photographers, two artists, two friends, sharing this journey together with the intention to also share it with others. The idea of community is one of the themes that the filmmakers discussed at their talk at the New York Film Festival with film critic Amy Taubin.

Listening to Varda and JR talk on stage, we witness two friends teasing the other and joking, but their respect and love for each other is undeniable.

Taubin asked how they decided to work together.

Varda:  It came in a strange way. We met once because someone said we should meet. And JR came to my place. And then we decided to do something together, we didn’t know that it would be a film.

JR: I didn’t know if Agnès was a nice lady or would beat me with a stick of wood. (They laugh then he looks at Varda): “It was friendship at first sight.

Varda then remarks on JR’s photography murals: “I love that he is making people bigger than life.”

Together Varda and JR embarked on their road trip in JR’s camera-van (a photo booth that prints out large-scale black and white portraits of its subjects), which they then paste onto walls and buildings along with their subjects in their communities.  We watch the before and after process as the filmmakers interview people reacting to their murals, giving the viewer insight into how they see themselves, how they are seen by others and the world in which they live.

Seeing, more specifically whether it’s the eye of the camera lens, JR’s eyes hidden behind his dark glasses or Varda’s failing vision, is a thematic thread that runs throughout the film.

Varda: We see enough for what we wanted to do. You need the mind to look, the heart. Looking at people is not just an eye problem.

JR: The photos are made to be part of the community.  When I take photos anywhere I let the people do their own projects and I send them back their prints. So they really decide if they want to become empowered by the art and the message they have behind it.  That question comes up when you are a filmmaker, creating projects with people in each place.

Walking with Agnès and going into small villages, I wanted to know what she was seeing in her eyes, and she wanted to know what I was seeing behind my glasses so we got to know each other.

(Residents of Pirou in Faces Places. Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Varda: “JR is facing my greatest desire. To meet new faces so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”

Varda then discussed that they didn’t want to do just sketches of people, and their intention was not to do a travelogue.  JR added that there was no screenplay and no special effects in the film.

Taubin commented on the working class pride that their subjects demonstrated.

JR: That’s who we met. We didn’t scout for that.  We made sure we didn’t interview the mayor, for example. We interviewed the mailman; this was important because of the relationship he had with everyone in the community. Everyone knew him already. He explains that his work is disappearing. In the past he would go home with fruit from the people, and about the communication he had with the people, and how people are now disconnecting.

Varda: We never asked who they were voting for or their politics. We were interested in person-to-person.

JR talked about how using paste and water the people put up the photographs and how they reconnected this way; they had to speak to their neighbor and reconnect.

JR: The process of people gathering, making the artwork, the community around it and their reactions to it are an important part of the artmaking process to me.

Varda: We met these workers in a chemical factory. It’s a tough life for these workers. We asked, if we can make a collective portrait of them. Link with us. Link with the audience. Can we share their life and we are the go-between so their life comes to you. Can we get something of them that’s unique and important, and JR makes it big with images.  We learned what it means to work at the last day at a factory, we learn about the lady, who is the last one living on the street. After the film she had to leave, she’s gone. We had the feeling it was precious to film that at that moment.

We try to capture time because time is always going away, so is my life.

Agnès Varda (left) and JR (right) in Faces Places directed by Agnès Varda and JR. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Faces Places is now playing in Manhattan and will open in Los Angeles October 13, and more cities to follow.

Learn more about the Faces Places.

A Conversation with ‘ZAMA’ Writer and Director Lucrecia Martel at the New York Film Festival

A Conversation with ‘ZAMA’ Writer and Director Lucrecia Martel at the New York Film Festival

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviews ZAMA writer and director Lucrecia Martel.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviews ZAMA writer and director Lucrecia Martel.

Amy Taubin (L) Lucrecia Martel (R)

“Our history was written by white men, so falsifying that history didn’t seem like a big deal to me.”

–Lucrecia Martel

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin opened her interview with Lucrecia Martel, with the news that the Argentine Film Academy had just announced that Zama will be the country’s submission to the Oscars’ foreign-language category.

About ZAMA

Lucrecia Martel ventures into the realm of historical fiction and makes the genre entirely her own in this adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 classic of Argentinean literature. In the late 18th century, in a far-flung corner of what seems to be Paraguay, the title character, an officer of the Spanish crown (Daniel Giménez Cacho) born in the Americas, waits in vain for a transfer to a more prestigious location. Martel renders Zama’s world—his daily regimen of small humiliations and petty politicking—as both absurd and mysterious, and as he increasingly succumbs to lust and paranoia, subject to a creeping disorientation.

About Lucrecia Martel

Award-winning director Martel began her career making short films and documentaries for television.  Her three features La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2006) were set in her hometown of Salta in northwest Argentina; an area known as socially and religiously conservative—a subject she addressed in these films that center on the Argentinian self-absorbed bourgeoisie.

ZAMA Literary Adaptation

This film is Martel’s first literary adaptation and her first period film. (Among the other ‘firsts,’ it is also her first film set outside her native Salta, and her first film with a male protagonist.)

Not intending to be historically accurate, the film challenges conventional historical style, and linear time with the use of narrative ellipses.

As seen in Martel’s three previous features, Zama’s themes address class, gender, race, and place.

The Interview

Amy Taubin: You had been developing a science fiction film for a while and that didn’t happen.  (This was an adaptation of El Eternauta a cult comic in Argentina.) “It seems to me that this film is both something very real with its roots in colonialism but it’s also looks like a science fiction.”

Martel: Yes, I had been working on a science fiction film from 2009 and when the film didn’t work out I went away on a trip and brought the book from which Zama was adapted. So, I also escaped on a boat and I read Zama.

I was allowed to think with a lot of liberty in science fiction but in a historical document you’re constrained to thinking about how it was in the past. When I decided to do Zama I went about thinking about it in the same free way that I had planned on working on El Eternauta. For political reasons our history was written by white men, so falsifying that history didn’t seem like a big deal to me.  As you can see I made decisions that contradict history, for example like representing the Catholic Church. (There were no crucifixes or symbols of crosses.)

It is also about existential conflicts too. I don’t think the film is that far off from the intention of the novel, regarding this very Catholic idea of waiting.  This very Catholic idea that the meaning of life comes at the very end and all the suffering that we undergo acquires some kind of reason once it ends. I wouldn’t say that the character of Zama is the anti-Christ but he does push against that.

Taubin: All your films begin and end with the body, the experience of the body. When you read the novel, there’s a lot more about character and thoughts, but this film, out of all your films, is most rooted — in every scene with the experience of the body.

(Taubin then commented on this period of Colonialism and how Martel examines how “the body manifests itself and how the others relate to the body and particularly violence on the body”.)

Martel: I think we are all in our bodies. We are alone in this island of our bodies and we invent ways to get off this island through language, through expression. We do all these things to transcend the existential solitude we feel.  Especially thinking about colonization, which imposes violence and dehumanizes the body as its first step. The first thing to do to destroy another person is not to see them. Negating other people to justify that violence.

(Martel responds to a question about the music used in the film.)

The pretentious element of the music reflects on Argentina in the way that it doesn’t identify itself as Latin American but it identifies itself as situated between Miami and Europe.

The music in the film also makes me reflect on situating the film in the past.

The novel is set in 18th century but it was written in the 1950s, and I’m here producing this film in the 2000s – so what time is it actually set in?  And in that sense, narrative time is also occurring in the present; it has to make sense today.

The 55th New York Film Festival runs from September 28 – October 15.

READ MORE HERE

Join Susan’s ‘Fundamentals of Screenwriting’ 4-week online class starts 10/5/17

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SCREENWRITING 

This four-week class is the perfect introduction to the world of writing a script, from the fundamentals of the story down to the revision process. In this course, you will gain the tools to structure your scenes, your acts, and your plots.
At each step, you will receive comprehensive feedback on assignments targeted to develop the skills needs to thrive as a screenwriter.
The lessons in this course include video instruction.

 

READ MORE HERE

Join Susan’s Online Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop October 5

Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop at Screenwriters University

This ten-week workshop is broken up into five sessions that each focus on individual elements of the rewriting process. Each session, you will submit a section of your screenplay for review. Each session will also have focused lectures that help you on each step of your revision process. The lectures are there for support, but the focus of this workshop will be on your screenplay. Each session, you will submit to your instructor for private review, and also you can submit to the other workshop participants for peer review.

Register here

 

 

Don’t miss Susan’s Online Class: ‘7 Weeks to Your TV Spec Script’: 9/28-11/16

Join Susan’s Online Class: ‘7 Weeks to Your TV Spec Script’: 9/28-11/16

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script

In this workshop, writers will learn all the key elements to a successful “episodic spec,” and will receive ongoing instructor guidance in building their own—from basic idea through finished outline. It begins with knowing how to choose the right kind of show to spec, then understanding which elements to study, in order to really grasp how a typical episode functions well enough to write one. Students will then learn the elements of great story ideas for a spec, and be given a chance to pitch and re-pitch multiple ideas for their episode, before finally settling on one to write. At that point, they will begin “breaking story” (figuring out the key “beats” of each “act”) over several weeks, getting instructor feedback along the way. Finally, they will be guided in crafting a scene-by-scene outline, from which they could then go on to write the actual script.

Next session:
September 28  – November 16

Susan Kouguell Interviews Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz for SCRIPT Magazine

Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Susan Kouguell interviews Ramona Diaz, filmmaker of Motherland, a poignant documentary in the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Ramona Diaz (Photo: Justin Tsucalas)

I had the pleasure to speak with Ramona Diaz about her gripping documentary Motherland, now playing in New York City’s Cinema Village, kicking off its theatrical run. Shot in a vérité style, the film foregoes any formal interviews, archival footage, experts’ opinions or narration. The film is intimate and powerful with moments of humor gently underscoring the poignancy of the subject matter.

About Ramona S. Diaz — Director, Producer, Writer, Co-Editor

Ramona Diaz is an award-winning Asian-American filmmaker. Her films include Spirits RisingImeldaThe Learning, and Don’t Stop Believin’ which have been broadcast on POV and Independent Lens, and have screened and won awards at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Silverdocs, IDFA, and many other top film festivals. She has received funding from ITVS, CAAM, Sundance Documentary Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Institute, Catapult Film Fund, and Chicken & Egg. Recently she was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Ramona has been a film envoy for the American Film Showcase, a joint program of the U.S. Department of State and USC that brings American films to audiences worldwide.

About Motherland

Motherland takes us into the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. The film’s viewer, like an unseen outsider dropped unobtrusively into the hospital’s stream of activity, passes through hallways, enters rooms and listens in on conversations. At first, the surrounding people are strangers. But as the film continues, it’s absorbingly intimate, rendering the women at the heart of the story increasingly familiar. Three women—Lea, Aira and Lerma—emerge to share their stories with other mothers, their families, doctors and social workers. While each of them faces daunting odds at home, their optimism, honesty and humor suggest a strength that they will certainly have to summon in the years ahead.

KOUGUELL: Initially, you started with one idea for this film but it shifted.

DIAZ: I was in Manila researching a completely different film having to do with reproductive justice, reproductive health, and women’s rights. I was following a legislative bill, the Reproductive Health Bill, and I was interested in the social and political drama around it. When I got to Manilla I realized that the conversation there was very black and white, either for or against the bill, and I couldn’t find the nuance. Someone told me to visit the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital for my research. It’s called a baby factory; that’s how they refer to the hospital. In the first half hour I realized this is where my film is.

Walking around the ward, listening to the conversations the women were having, drew me in. The hospital is also so cinematic. I realized too that I could still include the themes I was interested in — reproductive health, etc., — all in one place. It was clear to me that this would make a better film.

KOUGUELL: How were you allowed access in the hospital?

DIAZ: First, there was the bureaucratic access: I had to go to the Secretary of Health to get permission. This hospital has been covered by media in the past, including CNN and the BBC, but only for short pieces and they were only there for a couple of days so they were used to media attention. But what I wanted was to be there every day for six weeks with access to all parts of the hospital. And they did give me access.

The more difficult type of access was making the staff really understand what I wanted, especially the nurses. To them, (the maternity process at the hospital) was so routine they couldn’t understand why it was special. I think people don’t necessarily think of their lives as being interesting. I knew the nurses were key because they know the ins and outs, and how that place works. Their average tenure there is 25 years. They were sort of the tribal elders; I knew if they understood what I was looking for then I’d get what I needed.

Because I chose to feature patients more than the staff, it made my life harder of course, because you can’t prep for that. Getting to know the staff was important, they sort of became my embedded producers because they knew I was looking for a younger mother, a much older mother and someone in the middle. And they would point out patients; they were on my side.

I chose the women who gave birth to preemies so I could follow them over time, a few weeks. Choosing the specific women was pure instinct.

KOUGUELL: Because you were there every day, the mothers felt they could trust you, yet filming them is very intimate. What kind of questions did you ask them to build trust?

DIAZ: I told them I was making a film about their lives in the hospital in however long their stay was, their everyday experiences. I said, we don’t want to get in the way of you resting, caring for your baby, we’ll never ask anything special of you, and we’ll have the camera on you. They wondered if that was interesting. I said it was interesting for me. I said, your stories will come out through the interactions with other people. Like Lea, she didn’t know she was having twins until giving birth.

We wouldn’t shoot the entire time we were with them, we’d put the camera down and we’d talk. That also really helped. They were interested in documentaries and what it is.

KOUGUELL: Talk about your choice to shoot Cinéma vérité and not use voice-over narration or title cards.

DIAZ: I wanted to mimic the experience I had when I first visited the hospital. I wanted to drop the audience into this organized chaos and figure it out because that was my experience with it. I really felt that the narrative would emerge from the scenes that we were filming. It was purposeful. From the beginning I knew I wanted to do that.

I had conversations with my DP Nadia (Hallgren) and I told her this was pure vérité. I remember the first day we were shooting and we walked away from a nurse doing a procedure and she asked, do you want to interview the nurse, and I said no, and she said ‘great’.  Many filmmakers start interviewing people just in case, but the ‘just in case’ becomes a crux, a go-to when you’re editing and I just didn’t want that option when we were editing.

KOUGUELL: How did you find the structure of the film? Was it prior to the shoot, during it, or in post?

DIAZ: We found the structure in editing. We found it quickly. Typically I edit for nine months, we edited for six months.  What took the longest was pulling the scenes and translating them.

KOUGUELL: Once you started filming did you work from any type of outline or did you just let the camera roll?

DIAZ: It wasn’t a strict outline but I kept notes every day about the characters and places so I knew where we had to cover: the labor room, the waiting room, the ward room where most of the action takes place. It was that kind of list making. Once I got into the characters then I started writing short outlines for myself; I imagined what we could capture based on the stories that were emerging. Sometimes they were so off the mark and sometimes they were right. We followed five to six characters fully and I knew I had to follow them throughout the stay until they got discharged.

KOUGUELL: Your advice for documentary filmmakers?

DIAZ: Certainly, persevere and be passionate. Be clear on what you’re trying to say, and I’m not even talking message. Know what it is you’re trying to say with your film and what you are trying to convey. If you know this, then things will fall into place.

Motherland opens in Los Angeles on September 22nd at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica with a national roll out to follow.

Learn more about Motherland.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

Susan’s Script Magazine article: Jane Campion Talks Top of the Lake, The Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

Jane Campion Talks Top of the LakeThe Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion spoke with Dennis Lim at the opening night of her retrospective titled Jane Campion’s Own Stories, about Top of the LakeThe Piano, and being a female filmmaker.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Photo credit: Sally Bongers

“You can’t have the agenda to make someone feel.  You have the agenda to tell the story with feeling or tenderly, and how anyone receives it, is how it is received.”

– Jane Campion

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion spoke with Dennis Lim, Director of Programming, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s opening night of her retrospective titled Jane Campion’s Own Stories which runs from September 8-17.

Among Campion’s many accolades, she won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her 1993 film The Piano as well as the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, the only female filmmaker to ever receive that honor. Campion is also the second of four women to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.

Jane Campion’s work is often described as visual poetry; her distinct vision challenges the viewer with her thought-provoking and often nonconformist, psychologically complex, emotionally wrought and raw characters and their layered worlds.  A masterful visual storyteller, her work is underscored with nuances of consistent tones and distinct moods in every scene.

Campion challenges the themes of the female gaze – how women are seen and how they see and capture the world around them – as well as women’s voices (both verbal and nonverbal) in her films, such as The Piano’s mute Ada, or Dawn in Sweetie who imitates and barks like a dog when snapping at her family.

Whether in film or in television, Campion’s work continues to revolutionize how stories about women and their relationships are conveyed. She pushes gender boundaries with her psychological examination of relationships and the lives of her characters with a distinct and raw vision.

Top of the Lake

The award-winning television series, Top of The Lake, is Campion’s return to television since her 1990 An Angel at My Table, based on the autobiography of writer Janet Frame, which was first produced as a television mini-series.

When describing the motivation for doing the project, Campion talked about her love for novels and their length and the opportunity to go more in depth with characters and stories.

I was dying to explore more characters. I saw “Deadwood” and rose from my chair. It was so brave, amazing and raw, it touched me and inspired me; I was thinking, this is where the freedom is.  At the time of “In the Cut,” (2003) cinema was in a bit of a crisis. Everyone was always concerned about, ‘Will this character be likeable? Will this storyline be likeable?’ The thought of having to please people was uninspiring.

The Top of the Lake series was co-created with Campion’s film school friend and previous collaborator, Gerard Lee.

That was one of the gorgeous experiences to have a writer with you the whole time.

In thinking about Season 2, I felt we explored the scenes of Paradise and the wilderness, and so I thought about moving the story to Sydney and how Robin would kickstart her life again, and her drive towards finding her daughter.  I was thinking about the idea of her having adopted out a child and carry that thought of the child for the 17 years, and how her daughter, Mary, would have thought about the mythical mother.

Jane Campion wrote the role of Mary, Robin’s daughter, with her own daughter, actress Alice Englert, in mind.

I loved writing the scene (when mother and daughter meet for the first time); it was one of my favorite scenes I ever wrote. It is such a cliché scene and it’s hard to put the air in something like this.

I do like crime stories. It appeals to that part of me that likes to find out the truth.  I get quite obsessive – about it mattering, does the truth matter?  A crime, a vacuous space around it, as much as you imagine it, there’s a reality around it. The mythic theme of the detective who has to go to the place where the criminal committed the act, it challenges you to imagine yourself. Crimes take you to the darkest places; it’s the restitution of society that it represents. We have the Elizabeth Moss character (Robin), particularly as a woman she holds the theme of being overlooked. She is restituting herself as well as Tui.

When you make films, you are telling stories and you try to do things that you personally are trying to discover in the world. When we made “Top of the Lake” and particularly with the women’s camp and the GJ character there is a particular take on life.

The Piano

One of the most commercially successful independent films of all time and one of the top ten grossing films of 1993.

We were actually surprised with its box-office success. We met Harvey Weinstein (Miramax distributor/producer) who was extraordinary in loving up this movie and bringing these types of movies to a wider audience.

The financier was a concrete maker, and decided in his last years of life to fund filmmakers and share the profits with them.  We were allowed to do the film exactly the way we wanted to do it.

Talking to people since then about the film, it’s such a female point of view. The fact that Ada doesn’t speak, her stubbornness, her interiority, her strength, her point of view, and the piano speaking for her, speaks about not giving a voice in the world – that is not to say you don’t have an opinion.

The Tenth Woman to Serve as Cannes Film Festival Jury President Since it Began in 1946

The Cannes Film Festival has been really good to me.  The year I was president, I suggested an all-female jury. I think it would be really great because for the first time, all those men filmmakers would have to think: ‘What are all those women thinking? What are the women going to like about my movie?’ But they wouldn’t do it. I’ve spent my whole life asking, ‘What are the men thinking?’ and I think it’s time for them to ask, ‘What are the women thinking?’ in a different way than they would have done before.

There’s that feeling overall, ‘Oh, the women filmmakers, let them have that moment.’ That’s what’s really irritating.

Preparing for the Shoot

I do a lot of drawing and sketching to work out my shot lists and to imagine the props, how things will look in a scene, the lighting and how that might be, how the camera might move. Then when you come to set, you know that you’ve thought about what you want and what you need.

Inspiration and Making the Film Your Own

I’ve always been a big reader. I read a lot of diaries as well. Diaries make everything feel very fresh and very real. I’ve always been nosey – like how people organize their bedrooms, their kitchen. I’d be happy to stare at people all day long. Gerard would say, stop staring, it makes people uncomfortable.

I love poetry. I think I’m very influenced by poetry, that sense of Keats’ poetry, all poets. They make something that is so easeful. There’s that sense of always having been there. They find that beauty, that ease, and that memorable quality to a phrase. That inspires me.

I want things to feel at once like they’re effortless and at the same time that they haunt you. Because I’m working in a visual form, one of the things as a filmmaker is trying to do your own stuff. One of the things that grounds me is that I have a seminal image; something that I might have seen on the street somewhere, something that is actually seen by me.

I remember for “The Piano” I was thinking about Ada and the little girl. I was driving down the street and there was a tall girl and a short girl and they were walking very close together and they had this brown hair that was shining and wavy together and I thought, that’s Ada and Flora. That togetherness, that was the image that made me know what to do with them.

That’s one of the ways you know it’s yours. It becomes embodied in you and therefore you know the truth of it. That’s true meaning.

Get more information about the retrospective.

Susan’s online WRITING THE DOCUMENTARY class starts September 7

WRITING THE DOCUMENTARY FILM

FOUR-WEEK ONLINE COURSE

Starts Thursday, September, 7,2017

Documentary writing requires research and an understanding of the audience’s expectations, and how the writer can keep an open mind when challenged by the unforeseen, including the exposing of surprising material and interview subjects’ unexpected responses. This course will examine and offer specific strategies for writing and planning a documentary.

READ MORE HERE

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