From well meaning parental wishes to the dominance of ‘happy ever after’ endings, the idea of the unity of the romantic couple is pretty much a universally lauded concept and something we often feel compelled to throw ourselves into with reckless abandon. But when such a relationship ends, how do you disentangle the ‘I’ which came before, from the symbiotic ‘Us’ you’ve thoroughly entwined yourself in? Actor/Director Anna Maguire explores this emotional discordance in her reflective short She Would Move the Tree Rather More to the Middle, and reveals how she managed to quickly find her filmmaking footing in a brand new city to enable her to fill simultaneous roles behind and in front of the camera.
Alongside your work in film you also create photography books. How does your approach to visual narrative differ between these two mediums?
I came to making films through acting, literature and photography. When I graduated from university I started assisting a photographic artist called Andre Penteado as I had spent the last three years studying words and books and narrative told in that way. I had started taking a lot of photographs, and decided I wanted to know more about visual stories rather than ones with solely words. (This is also why the first films that I made don’t have much or any dialogue!)
In terms of the approach or process, I haven’t worked on a book where the shoot has been set up beforehand, rather weaving narrative from photographs that I have already taken, or in the case of Pulp & Paper, setting out to record a more emotional response to the landscape and the urge behind why I want to take photographs as well as the story of my inability to go ‘home’. That particular project was an attempt to document the space and surroundings of where the farm my mother grew up on used to stand. It was forcibly bought by the Government in the 1970s to make way for expanding motorways, and I have the strange sensation that that side of my family has constantly been moving, searching for something. For the last 4 generations, no one has stayed in one place – my great grandparents and their parents moving from Italy and Norway to the USA, their children moving to Québec, my mother moving to the UK, and then me returning to Canada. I wonder where it ends!
If anything, I feel that taking photographs keeps my eye sharper for visual storytelling within the films I make. I can play when taking pictures or respond to a moment that’s accidentally beautiful, and then recreate something like that in a film. For example there’s a photograph I took of my friend in the orange glow of the sun at the end of the day quite a few years ago, and that lighting state really inspired the transitional lighting from day to evening in Your Mother and I. Photography allows me to explore ideas more instinctively, rather than thinking about what it means first, and that’s a trap I can fall into with a literary criticism background! But in terms of stringing visual narratives together, currently taking the image comes first and the narrative second in the photography work, whereas with film it’s more the other way around, (though there are always lucky or unlucky accidents!) I do have a book that I have been working on slowly that is more the other way around entitled Terrible atrocities have happened here, but again, at the moment, whatever ideas I have going into a project, I always have to respond to what appeals to me in the moment.
What led to your commission with the London Short Film Festival and The Milan Festival of Letters for She would move the tree rather more to the middle?
I was very lucky because my first film Don’t Forget Your Mittens, which is a stop motion animation about the trials and tribulations of growing up, premiered at the London Short Film Festival in 2014. Having very little knowledge of film festivals or how that side of filmmaking ‘all worked’, Philip Ilson very kindly offered me some advice on the whole process, and I attended some of the talks at the festival that year, which were very informative! After that, I think Philip knew I wanted to have more opportunities to make films, and I had just completed another three shorts in quick succession (it was a busy year!) – How (Not) to Rob a Train, The King and Queen of Halloween and the more experimental Trigonometry with Claire Pepper. Philip put my name forward to the Festival of Letters, and I think, based on Trigonometry they felt that I would be a good filmmaker to interpret a letter.
How did you approach devising the scenes which would visualise Giulia Micheli’s original letter?
I tend to let ideas gestate for a while, rather than devising scenes. When I received the letter in July of 2014, I had just moved to Toronto to attend the Canadian Film Centre. It was a hot, sticky summer, and there were parts of the city that felt very alive and colourful, or somehow important, like Spadina which is the China Town of Toronto. There were all sorts of fruits and vegetables sitting by the busy road like baubles, rotting slowly in the hot sun. The smells and the noise and bustle felt very alive in comparison to the crowded street cars of people going to work, going about their daily routine. I also felt quite alone, as I was in a new place, and didn’t have many friends to begin with. I felt like I was observing a lot of what was going on, rather than taking part in it, like I was somehow melting into the fabric of the city. There is something of that, I think, that inspired the film, or the setting at any rate. Equally, I had just been re-reading To The Lighthouse, and I found it difficult to imagine being in the orbit of another person, having left my friends and family and a difficult and confusing sort-of relationship. I understood the character in the book – Lily’s longing for that feeling of connectedness, as well as the need to or power achieved of ‘jutting out’, singularly away from another’s influence.
I liked the thought of peeling someone off, like a skin, to become yourself again, new born.
Reading Giulia’s letter in various parks and on various street cars, and sitting by the lake made my experience begin to fuse with hers, and I felt strongly that her letter was expressing a broader concept of independence, rather than just one break up between two people. She was expressing a truth about herself, and one I identified with, about a need to be free, to venture forth physically or creatively. Like Lily, she choses not to be ‘diluted’. From this concept, I also thought about layers, about how we build up patinas of routine and familiarity, and I visualised it with clothes – the idea of genuinely morphing into the other. I liked the thought of peeling someone off, like a skin, to become yourself again, new born.
I was lucky because making a film in a city where you know no one is not an easy feat! I arrived at the CFC in July and was like: ‘Nice to meet you, can you help me?!’ and everyone did! The people in charge put me in touch with an incredible crew who I have continued to work with (I will forever be indebted to Erica for introducing me to Maureen Grant who edited the film, and who has edited two other projects of mine since!) I had a great collaborative relationship with Robyn Macdonald who bravely jumped into a film all about costumes with a very small budget. She came up with the perfect character for the boyfriend through his wardrobe. Sara Law, my wonderful make up and hair designer made me look like David who played my boyfriend in the film, finding me a beard and moustache, again, with a tiny budget. Equally, working with Cabot, the director of photography was wonderful, as we worked on a shot list together before, however he is rather instinctive on set, and as I was acting and directing, it was great to be able to trust him to find new ways of telling the story visually, away from the shot list. We played a lot and had a lot more footage than we had originally ‘planned’, which was such a treat in the edit, as we could really craft a whole new film after the shoot!
Freshly arrived in Canada, how did you get your filmmaking bearings to enable you to make this film in your new home?
I guess some of that is answered above, but really I have to thank the Canadian Film Centre and Erica and Larissa and Kerry who connected me with a great crew. Jesse my producer was amazing as she knew everything that needed to be done. Canada is a bit stricter than the UK in terms of how short films are produced, so I had a good guide. It fell together very fortuitously, as I had gone to a party at Eric, my designer’s house the week before, and thought ‘hold on, this is perfect for the apartment!’ he agreed and we totally remodelled his flat-mate’s room. (Thanks Alex, as I was a total stranger then!) The office was a family friend’s architecture practice, which she kindly entrusted me with, and the cameras we used were leant to me by other participants on the CFC programmes, no questions asked! People were supportive and generous with their time and knowledge, all the way to really great actors and producers coming down to have minuscule roles in the film (Erin Carter, Eliane Gagnon and Lora Campbell, I’m looking at you.) It was a wonderful first film-making experience in Toronto, and one that made me want to work more there. People are very nice in Canada!
The film’s structure required you to emote solely through expression and movement whilst also directing your own performance. How did you manage your dual roles on set?
This was my third experience ‘directing’ myself, and the most ambitious and actually, I’d like to do it again! It required a lot of planning beforehand, so that once on set, I could concentrate on the performance and the directing. It means you need a very strong crew, and Jesse was my life-line on the day, trouble shooting and sorting things out that went wrong before I even had to know about them. Equally, Cabot and I had spoken before about how we envisaged it being shot, how to tell the story visually, as it was essentially silent. We were very much on the same page and I knew when we were on set I could fully trust him. He captured what I had hoped to capture but much more subtly and beautifully than I could have imagined. It was very collaborative in that respect, and as we only had one day, I had to put my trust entirely in my crew. As I didn’t have many other actors to direct, it was simpler than it could have been performing both roles – the next film I want to do will certainly be more complicated! It’s funny deconstructing it now, I guess the situation emerged partly because I was new to town, and I just thought ‘oh it’ll be easier if I do it!’ but also, as an actor the role really appealed to me – the idea of a silent performance. It definitely made me want to explore self-directing more.
You’ve said that this is probably the film you’re proudest of – in what ways do you feel this project progressed your craft as a filmmaker?
I feel like it successfully tells a complex internal story externally (or at least I hope it does!) I’m very interested in internal worlds, internal narratives of self, and I’d really like to try and find ways to express the private internal world of characters and connect to people in this way. I guess it’s a visual metaphor of a film, and maybe that won’t appeal to everyone, nor will everyone connect with it, but when people do, I hope that they connect powerfully. I guess I can’t speak for other people! But I think it has pushed me to explore the edge between what is hidden and what is shown, and how subtle I can be in terms of telling or narrating an internal process or emotional state that doesn’t usually have one answer. I hope that I can keep moving in that direction!
What can you tell us about your recently finished short Your Mother and I? Are there any other projects in the works?
Well, it’s an adaptation of the original short story by Dave Eggers, and he very generously let me interpret his original work! The short story is essentially a monologue, a father talking to his daughter. I loved the story that was being told about this man and his wife who had changed the world in some funny, some inspirational and some more questionable ways, however what I really wanted to understand was how the daughter, Johnna was feeling. You get clues by how she responds to moments in her dad’s speech in the story, so I wanted to draw these out and give her an identity where she is frustrated with her father, with his short comings, with his inability to connect to her, with the fact it’s all about him, but at the same time she loves him, and seeks his love. However I really enjoyed the ambiguity of who this character, Johnna was in the original story and wanted to keep this quality. I hope this complex relationship between a father and his daughter as she transitions to teenage-hood is tangible in the final film, without being heavy-handed or expositional. I was very lucky to work with two wonderful actors, Don McKellar and Julia Sarah Stone. Don brought much needed humour and an infectious vivaciousness to the father’s character, as well as the necessary spike of vanity and a fear of making himself vulnerable to his daughter, and Julia has such an amazing expressive face, she was able to communicate subtle shifting emotions very truthfully. She is such a wonderful actress to work with!
I’m currently working on my next short, tentatively entitled Constellations which has similar themes to She would move the tree rather more to the middle, however pushes these ideas further, asking the question ‘how free is someone able to be in a relationship?’ It does this partly through looking at our sexual urges or desires that need outlets and release and are not always fully understood or something we can explain. I hope to shoot towards the end of the year. I am also working on an adaptation of a novel into a feature film script, as well a film about the excess, beauty and depravity of London today, as well as London’s housing crisis, through the lens of a young woman who must return to the outskirts of the city to care for her mother who has recently attempted suicide. I am hoping this will be my first feature! But we shall see what happens…