Patricia Rozema is the writer, director and producer of Mouthpiece, which is now in theaters through Crucial Things and First Generation Films. After an Honors B.A. in Philosophy and English from Calvin College in Michigan, she distinguished herself as a writer/director with her internationally celebrated first comedy feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, where it won the Prix de la Jeunesse. It then opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 1987. Other highlights: writing/directing the contemporary lesbian love story When Night is Falling, adapting/directing the politically progressive Miramax JaneAusten feature Mansfield Park with Harold Pinter, and co-writing HBO’s Grey Gardens, starring DrewBarrymore and Jessica Lange, which won her a PEN Screenwriter’s award, an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe. She also won an Emmy for writing and directing a Yo-Yo Ma/Bach film, Six Gestures. In 2015, Rozema adapted and directed the apocalyptic thriller Into the Forest, with Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. She has also directed Anne with an E and Mozart in the Jungle for Netflix/CBC and Amazon. She is a member of theAcademy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
I never expect my films to be liked. Or successful. People want reflections of themselves. Echoes. Advice for their own lives. Tips on what cool, conquering ways might work in their own environments. They want their own hearts and minds there on the screen. How could a lapsed Calvinist, a woman, a lesbian, daughter of Dutch immigrants in a small petrochemical town in Southern Ontario ever, ever attract the attention, let alone admiration, of all the men who were funders, critics and ticket buyers?
I am of the same stock as Paul Schrader, writer of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, director of Mishima, Hardcore and First Reformed. Thirteen years before me, he also studied philosophy at my college, Calvin College and Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Alma mater too of one Betsy Prince who was on my floor in my Noordewier-VanderWerp dorm. She left the next year to marry into the DeVos family and eventually contribute to the demise of the school system in the U.S. as Trump’s Secretary of Education.
Anecdote: Paul Schrader came back to speak at Calvin College when I was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, Chimes. After he spoke, we went to The White Rabbit bar to talk. I asked him to contribute to a spoof issue of the newspaper that I was spearheading (“Chimera”) and he had said no, that he wanted nothing to do with Calvin. He was like “a man running from a burning building,” he said. Later in his hotel room (with others), he jokingly offered me his watch instead, the one Richard Gere had worn in his movie, American Gigolo.
Paul too had been editor-in-chief of Chimes and before his early flight the next day, he wanted to revisit the offices to look through the keepsake cabinet we called the “Ark of the Covenant.” There he signed over, in front of a few others, his $250 honorarium check for speaking. A few days later, I was called into the Chaplain’s office. He said I was seen late the night before with Mr. Schrader in his hotel room and early the next morning in the same clothes with him and then known to have received money from him. “Is it true that you slept with Paul Schrader for $250 dollars?”
This is the world I grew up in: a world so suspicious of sex (there was no dancing, or cardplaying and obviously no “pre-marital” sex allowed – lesbian sex wasn’t even contemplated) that sexual impulses were seen everywhere. In everything. One professor wrote an article about how the beat of rock & roll was timed to synchronize with the contractions of an orgasm. What?! I hadn’t even known about the contractions of an orgasm at the time.
I tell the Schrader story not only to bask in his reflected glory (along with Betsy DeVos’ reflected shame) but to give a sense of the profound otherness of my upbringing and hence my feeling of otherness to this day. My family was the far left of an extreme right group. The northern European mindset and the Calvinist assumption of deep evil in the hearts of all humanity was in fact a dandy preparation for the life of an independent filmmaker. I can survive, perhaps even thrive without compliments. Rewards and accolades are strange accidents, about as reliable as the weather.
When I made my first film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, I steadfastly refused to imagine success. If my mind wandered to wishing it, I told myself that such thoughts would trivialize the work; all I needed to think about was my wish to see something I hadn’t seen before. I dutifully focused on the work itself, that series of shots in a row. I imagined a release in my basement or maybe a festival or two. My work ethic and sense of fiscal responsibility demanded that I try my damnedest to return the dollars spent on making the film (government equity investments). But that feeling of being understood was never even hoped for; I knew I’d be alone in “getting it,” but that was enough.
So when I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing was accepted into the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and there was a standing ovation and it was a runner up for the Caméra d’Or (best first film) and it sold to 40 countries in a few days (including to a new little-known company in the U.S. called Miramax, fronted by one Harvey Weinstein), I was dumbstruck. It was like I had been humming a soft song to myself and then there, on the Croisette in Cannes, in front of thousands, that tune was broadcast and others sang along, responded, cried and laughed at all the weirdnesses and wonders that moved me. At the press conference, I was asked about how much I was influenced by Fellini’s La Strada (I’d never seen it – gasps! I’ve since seen it and love this reference), about Frank Capra (didn’t know him – louder gasps!). My lack of film training or knowledge (aside from a one-month academic study at Calvin College of Ingmar Bergman’s imagery) made me into some kind of novelty act.
Harvey offered me the heavens, but I didn’t trust it. He said I could get Meryl Streep for a role in a Nancy Drew sci-fi spoof I’d written and I said, not so fast, I’d have to sit down with her and hear her those words in her mouth. And several from Hollywood came calling. I know now that they were powerful, but at the time I knew nothing. I thought, why would I go work for a corporation that shares none of my values rather than run my own small company? Why wouldn’t I get funding from a source that believes film is an artform not a business (even though I respected the need to sell your wares)? I wanted to make one movie after another until I had beside my rocking chair a series of stories (I imagined 16 mm & 35 mm film cans) that added up to my particular world view. My prismatic picture of all my loves, fears, jokes and the most compelling metaphors I could muster. Untainted by current commercial concepts of effectiveness or usefulness.
So I self-selected out of a Hollywood career because I felt I’d either have to go in disguise (artistically and personally) or live with daily personal and artistic rejection. Neither are conducive to the kind of open-hearted state that at least my kind of filmmaking required. I don’t know why the reception to I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing didn’t convince me that there could be a place for me in that system. I guess I preferred to live somewhere where Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro and Miriam Toews were rockstars. Successes. I also felt like after one perceived “failure,” I’d be chewed up and spit out like so much stale chewing tobacco. I also had no nostalgia or romance around the studio system because I’d seen very few movies. I considered myself someone of serious intent but who often used playful methods. Hollywood epitomized frivolity. As much as I love a good gag, I needed to believe it was in the service of something “higher.”
But this self-perception of artistic purity is a bit false. I see that now. With the most recent feminist wave (3rd? 4th? Discuss.) and interest in the cinematic voices of women, I find myself wondering why I got to have a career when so many others tried and couldn’t. What did I have or not have that allowed me to stumble through and keep going, keep making things? It wasn’t just the grant system in Canada. Because I did, once I grew up a little and learned some more about the independent scene in the U.S., started to work outside my country. I thought, “Well, god of authenticity, Leonard Cohen, lives in L.A., for god’s sake.” In the U.K., I made Mansfield Park, my Jane Austen film that acknowledges England’s debt to slaves for its wealth, and then the U.S.-financed children’s film that I did for my two daughters, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. (Wally Shawn called the latter movie my “thinly veiled socialist manifesto,” which I repeated during a press junket and the head of the American Girl company hauled me out of an interview with Filmmaker magazine to tell me if I used the word “socialist” again, I would not be allowed to represent American Girl in interviews anymore. I said, “I have only ever represented myself and certainly would be fine without doing any more interviews.” They let me go back and do them and I continued to call it a socialist manifesto, because it is.)
Upon reflection, what I think I had that allowed me to continue when others didn’t is a bit shameful to me. I think I lacked courage. I think I was a chameleon. Even though I am fearless (some would call it reckless) in some situations, I would never compromise my ability to get a film done. So, for instance, when I told Harvey Weinstein my idea of including the historical facts of slavery as an additional storyline to the fiction of Mansfield Park because Austen’s audience knew this context but my modern one didn’t, he said, “Rozema, that is so brilliant I want to throw you on this table in front of all these people (his staff) and fuck you hard.” I should have said, “Not cool, Harvey. Don’t fantasize an aggressive act when I’m just doing my damn job of sharing an idea. That is gross and wildly inappropriate. Not cool.” And demanded an apology. Or left. But instead I said, ambitious as I was and am, “Oh thanks anyway, Harvey, let’s just make the movie instead.” Chuckles, and onward ho. I wussed out. I didn’t call it. I wanted to make a (for me) large-budgeted movie that would add a political, racial element to what was normally delicate domestic canon.
Also when I was casting Mansfield Park in London and already had Harold Pinter and Jonny Lee Miller and Lindsay Duncan, I arrived at work and was informed that Angelina Jolie was cast as Mary Crawford, the English rose of the piece. I said, “Who casts someone without talking to the director?!”
Of course, such a Big Star was exciting, but I didn’t even know if she could do a Proper English Accent. Then someone told me, “Well, Harvey aggressed her and this is his mea culpa.” Now in my little Calvinist brain, I imagined he’d sworn at her. I ignored the dictum and cast Embeth Davidtz, who was perfect, and thought no more of it – until Angelina Jolie revealed recently that he’d pushed his way into her hotel room and God knows what horrors. Why did I not try to find out what caused this extreme insta-casting? Why did I not even think of it again? Ambition. Focus on my own little square inch of the planet. I don’t know what I could have done, but maybe even if I’d pushed and come to know 1/64th of the reality, I could have said, “Harvey, what are you doing?! Get a grip. Women are not snacks. It is their job in this business to be alluring — doesn’t mean they want you. You getting them work doesn’t mean you can use them like tissues. Such deep humiliation and exploitation can sometimes be permanently damaging. You are wrecking souls, or at least tarnishing them.” Maybe. Maybe it would have slowed him down. And saved a soul. Or two. Or 10.
But even before that, I didn’t make my femaleness and my homo-ness oppressive to others. I flirted with men. I let them think ideas were theirs so they would continue to help. I wasn’t one of those problematic complaining feminists and lesbians. I passed. I passed for hetero (even though I was always out in my life). I passed for one of the guys, but not alarmingly lesbian looking. I never publicly disagreed with a male crew member because I know gender allegiance is stronger than any allegiance to me as a female filmmaker. I didn’t want to risk mutiny. I joked many times when I should have risked the discomfort of conflict. And even when I made a completely lesbian love story, When Night is Falling, I made the decision not to use it as an opportunity to identify as queer when there was any kind of recording device in the room. My stated argument for that strategy was that I couldn’t bear to sit in a room with some creepy journalist from Cincinnati (sorry, Cincinnati) having opened the door to questions about my first sexual experience with a woman. Although it is true that it’s very difficult to be unselfconscious in even the most intimate, supposedly unguarded of moments in your life (see the sex scene in my latest feature Mouthpiece) and almost impossible once you’ve let the world discuss your intimate life, I shouldn’t have hidden from the public my most natural state of being. I was a coward. And it worked for me.
I do feel like I was honest in the work itself; I’m proud of that. I snuck that by. But in the making of it, I played the game. Did I lack courage? Should I feel shame for that now? Or is this shame just more knee-jerk Calvinist regret that I should be cured of at this point?