Our discussion charted her discovery of cinema which featured a healthy dose of classic American and French film, her long journey to feature filmmaking that saw a collision of the artist with her art, film as a means to express the human experience, and the motivations that lie behind Touchy Feely.
Looking back, how did your discovery of cinema unfold?
My parents introduced me to the films of Woody Allen and the French New Wave. My mom’s favourite film is Jules et Jim, which I first saw at a young age. But I also remember her taking me to see Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. One of the nice things about growing up in Seattle was that there were a lot of small art house cinemas that would show older films. This was before VHS, and so I was able to see a retrospective of all of Jean-Luc Godard’s films. I saw Breathless when I was still in high school. Those films had a huge effect on me, and I just loved being sucked into the world of the film, and the experience of a darkened theatre where I would become immersed in the cinematic experience.
Why a career as a filmmaker? Was there that one inspirational moment?
It was a long route to writing and directing narrative feature films. A lot of it had to do with my confidence level, but I had always loved films, and I always knew that I wanted to be an artist. The reason I was a long time coming around to filmmaking was because there was something about the collaborative aspect of it that intimidated me. I didn’t feel that I had the confidence yet to direct a crew who would be under my supervision, who I would need to get on-board, and set off with on a journey. Even now I am still a control freak, and back then I was loathed to give up control to anyone else. Of course at that time I had not realised how liberating and euphoric the experience was to communicate your vision to somebody else, to toss the ball to them, and then see where they took it. Usually it ends up going somewhere better, because the best collaborations drive each party to heights they couldn’t have gotten to on their own.
So I was a solo artist for many years with the exception being when I was in undergraduate school I studied drama, and then I moved from Seattle to New York to work in the theatre as an actor. Once I was trying to do it professionally I fell out of love with both theatre and acting, because it started to feel like an exercise in narcissism. It wasn’t fulfilling all of my creative impulses, and so I ended up going to graduate school where I studied photography. So I was doing street photography where I would go out on the streets of New York and take pictures of people. It was an experience I enjoyed a great deal, and then in graduate school I went on to take a video art, experimental film class and that was it – film forever; it turned my head.
From that moment of having your head turned, how did you end up on the path of writing and directing feature films?
Well then I started making films as you would create paintings. I did everything myself – I wrote, shot, directed, edited and did the sound design. By doing everything on my own I could experiment, and because I was making non-commercial work I didn’t have to think about an audience. The only thing I was thinking of was my expression.
For many years I was a freelance editor who taught editing part time. I had started editing a lot of narrative films, and when I came back to Seattle, which was a smaller pool of folks here, I was able to continue to edit narrative feature films as well as a lot of shorts. That’s when I started to think okay, I’m now ready to write and direct my own narrative work.
I was lucky because I was commissioned by a local non-profit film studio to write and direct my first feature We Go Way Back, which was shot in 2005 and premiered in 2006. Being on set with all of those people who were there to help me make my movie, it was in that moment that I knew I would never work on a piece of art as a solo artist again. All of a sudden everything had become about relationships and collaboration, and it drove me to be a better artist than I could be on my own. I also felt that this was what I was always meant to do, and I don’t think I could have gotten here any sooner. I was thirty-nine and I came to it after decades of exploring art in different ways. But I never went to film school.
Picking up on your point about how you became focused on relationships and collaboration, this professional evolution as an artist mirrors the theme of human relationships that threads your films together thematically.
That’s my endless fascination, and whilst relationship is definitely a focus, the compelling one, and the one that drives me is the relationship with oneself. Our sense of self and our perception of who we are changes during the course of our lives, and it also changes in relation to different people. There is also this disconnect a lot of times with the sense of who we think we are. There can be this moment where we are confronted with evidence to the contrary, evidence that tells us that we are made up of different things than what we thought we were. This could be that we have more or less limits, certain personality aspects, an identity that we have placed upon ourselves or a box which we think we are living in but actually it turns out that it doesn’t have to be that way. It is these minor personal revelations and how people handle that at different points that continue to interest me.
It is funny because I always thought that I was this anomaly in my family; I don’t come from artists. But then it occurred to me that my mother received her masters and her PhD in developmental psychology. Her fascination with psychology and human development is why I am endlessly compelled by the territory of what makes people tick, and also the question who am I? It is that continuous story of identity which always seeps into our relationships with other people. So much of the information of who you are comes in a reflection of somebody you are having a conversation with or a relationship with. That’s where we attain the information about our limits and whether they are less or more than we originally thought they were. Even if I end up dipping my toes into different genres of cinema, the character based examination of relationships and identity will always be at the core of my work because it is my endless fascination.
One of the ideas within Jungian psychology is that as children we learn about the world around us, and then as adults we learn about ourselves. Film is an insightful art form that offers a compelling exploration of the human condition. What makes film such a perfect art form to explore this territory, or is not film but more broadly the capacity of storytelling?
There are a lot of different art forms that can explore that territory, and writing does it in a different way. It is expressed verbally inside the consciousness of a person’s mind where you can hear it in a very explicit way. A couple of times I have tried to adapt a serial or novel into a film. But the constant struggle unless you want to use a voiceover narration is creating that inner monologue where all that information comes across cinematically. Though voiceover narration only works occasionally, and more often than not fails.
What cinema does do well in expressing the human experience is the visceral nature of being inside the subjective experience of being human. That psychic landscape can be captured in cinema in a way that it can’t be in any other art form. It is the closest to the human experience through the combination of sound (music and dialogue), the visuals and all of the choices that you have through the technical vocabulary cinema offers. Also film is a time based medium, and as a director you’re guiding the audience through the experience. This makes it much more immersive than any other medium, where you are able to enter a psychic space and to be drawn into another characters mind or world in a way that it is difficult for other art forms to parallel. I believe this is why I am a filmmaker as opposed to another kind of artist; it is the power of that. It’s an intoxicating, seductive and empowering art form to play with. I love allowing an audience to dive into another world, and it’s hard to do that in any other form. With novels I’ve certainly been drawn into another world, but personally I just don’t have those skills, and I’m more suited to the cinematic world.
How do you perceive the place Touchy Feely occupies in your body of work, and what picture does it paint of your creative evolution?
I had made three films in a row that had narratively had a similar structure. It was one storyline and two or three characters guiding you through. The timelines were always very similar – two and a half or three day period over a long weekend. So there was just this one kind of narrative driving it forward the entire time, and it was like you were parachuting in and just having this one experience with a group of people in one common key location that was completely improvised as well.
But I loved making those films because it was a collaborative experience, and I enjoy the process of working with actors to develop their characters. Whilst it was a great experience I felt the urge to break out of that mould on a number of different levels.
One of the main ones was that I wanted to expand beyond the scope of that microcosmic approach. I wanted to have an ensemble cast and different storylines interwoven and connected in a mysterious but not necessarily obvious way. Also it was interesting to observe by going back and forth between these parallel experiences that formed the stories arc, and seeing them in contrast to one another. Then expanding beyond a single location to get a greater context of the sense of place, and the different spaces within the city where these events were playing out.
But I was really interested in exploring characters and personalities. Paul and his daughter Jenny are introverted, awkward, excessively shy and socially neurotic, and I hadn’t explored characters like this before. I had been working with characters that found it easy to talk, and so they were very conversational films. Those awkward silences and moments where you do not know what to say or you are paralysed and stuck was what interested me.
I also wanted to look at and explore different psychic states such as depression, and what happens when you are suddenly seized with this paralysis. These are very difficult stories to tell because captivity is a difficult realm for both cinema and narrative. It is a lot easier to have characters who are driven, who know what their objectives are and are actively attempting to reach their goals. It is a lot more difficult to tell a compelling story about people who are stuck, passive and scared. But I wanted to take on that challenge, and tackle all of the intricacies of how we place ourselves and each other into these prisons of expectation. But also the way of thinking that you are this person and that is it; you don’t have any other possibility in your life.
This was the overarching influence behind making a film with those threads and those characters.
Where did the idea for the film come from? It is said that a story is made of not one but a number of individual ideas that are threaded together.
The first narrative seed of the film for me was this image I had of a massage therapist who suddenly couldn’t do their job anymore. After years of being on the massage table, I left one day as another person was coming in, and I was suddenly struck by the experience of the therapist and the masseuse. I thought I couldn’t do that; I couldn’t be a massage therapist. It was simply because I don’t know if I could handle the range of bodies and the landscape of skin that would be presented to me. I don’t know if I could work that intimately with a body of strangers just as a matter of course day after day. I couldn’t envisage it, and I wondered if people who did enjoy that line of work and who were well suited to it ever reached this threshold or limit where they couldn’t touch one more body.
It is such a strange thing – the intimate contact that you are having with a total stranger. Bodies are freaky and skin is weird [laughs] and you wonder if that ever pierces the consciousness of people who work intimately with them. I thought that was an interesting starting point, and it had been in the back of my mind for many years. When I worked with Rosemarie DeWitt on Your Sister’s Sister that idea suddenly came to the forefront of my mind, and I thought to myself that she’s the one I wanted to explore this with. So I gave her that pitch, and she was interested in working with me to see where it would lead us, and that was the start of the whole film.
Touchy Feely is out now on a limited release in the UK.