Defying Filmmaking Grammar in 16mm Experimental Sundance Film 'The Royal Road'
Preeminent experimental LGBT filmmaker Jenni Olson grew up watching classic Hollywood films to escape "growing up in the Midwest as a gender dysphoric tomboy."
Having crafted a body of work experimenting with classic cinematic forms, it's no wonder that her latest film The Royal Road, which just premiered in the New Frontiers section of Sundance, is a film about film.
No Film School sat down with Jenni to talk about anything from shooting on regular 16mm with its 4:3 aspect ratio, breaking the fourth wall with narration, and the future of experimental LGBT cinema.
Before you read the interview below, be sure to take a peak at the trailer for the unconventionally idyllic film The Royal Road:
NFS: The Royal Road is a "cinematic essay." Could you explain what that means, and what the process is for making that kind of film over a conventional one?
Jenni Olson: I've never been interested in making conventional films. I consider myself an experimental filmmaker. I think describing my films as essay films gives a little bit of an idea of what they are more than just saying "experimental film." They're kind of stream-of-consciousness films. I feel very influenced by filmmakers like Chris Marker, Ross McElwee. You have something to say, but I also feel like I have many things to say, and not often in a very linear fashion. There are different elements that I want to put into my storytelling. I'm really interested in avoiding conventions so as to open it up for viewers to have a really different experience. I think that one of the things that happens in film that we're often not aware of is that there are all these conventions, this kind of grammar of filmmaking and film watching that are really great in many ways, but limit the way that we experience film storytelling. Even in a documentary, you're like, "Oh, here's the shot where they do this and then they do that," and the music comes up, and you go, "Oh my God, that's so inspiring. There's the violin." You're being manipulated. Which is great, and it's part of the craft.
What I'm most interested in as a filmmaker and as a storyteller is trying to use the forum to tell stories in a different way. In this more essential way. I've had this fetishization of 16mm films -- love of 16mm film, which is a love of film itself. Shooting these landscapes is the baseline of the whole film, -- in these very static long shots, landscape shots -- where there's not a lot happening in the frame, but there is the changing of the light, a little bit of wind. A lot of the heritage of that goes back to one of the original forms of experimental film -- a light and motion study, where you really do just have a shot of seemingly nothing, or a mundane thing. What is happening is that the light is changing.
To me there's this underlying, kind of spiritual, almost Buddhist quality of, "Okay, here's the camera showing you this real thing, and just look at it and be present," -- how emotionally meaningful that is. There's this whole thing about conventions and being manipulated. I'm really just manipulating you in a different way. Which is to say, with this method I'm forcing you to slow down and just look at something. Look at the light. Hopefully, for me at least, I have an incredibly profound emotional experience with that. It's very Buddhist, giving that space for you to have some emotions that are really authentic. They're still manipulated, but it just feels like there's something more authentic about that. I find that viewers have very unique experiences. Every person is seeing a different film, because they're bringing their own emotional stuff, and their own life history, and their own associations with whatever those images are. That's this fundamental baseline thing. Then there's the actual storytelling of whatever the voiceover is.
NFS: A huge component of the film is your voiceover being paired with these very long takes. The voiceover and the picture aren't on the same track, but at the same time they seem obviously very consciously paired. What does it mean?
JO: I think that most of the time there is this oblique relationship between the landscape in the image that you're seeing and what's being said on the voiceover. There are many times where it matches up, where I'm talking about Junipero Serra and you're seeing a statute of Junipero Serra, or I'm saying, "At this moment we're standing in front of Mission Dolores," and here's a shot of Mission Dolores. Most of the time, it's much more associative. There's a quality of melancholy, a little sadness, but it's more than that. It's not just like, "Oh, this is so sad. This character is wandering in this lonely empty landscape with no people in it." Which is a little bit what it feels like. I was just reading something where someone said, "When we're present in the moment, one of the first things that we feel is a little bit of sadness. When you're really present in the moment, you realize that the moment is passing, and it's sad. We're headed towards dying. T.S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." It's really intense to be there. It's a sadness, but with a kind of joy, I think.
NFS: I won't give away too much, but in the beginning of the film there's a very conscious alert to the audience with the voice-over, kind of a breaking the fourth wall. What is the strategy behind that?
JO: I talk about a lot of other movies and other texts [in The Royal Road]. I say, Sunset Boulevard is a Hollywood movie about Hollywood movies. I think that The Royal Road is a film about film. At the beginning, I have a voiceover thing, and then I have this line from the Michel Chion book, The Voice in Cinema, which is a study of voiceover films and how they work. He says, "when we have a voiceover film where we haven't seen the protagonist, we have this person who is this kind of walking shadow, which is kind of saying multiple things. It's kind of saying, the person you're listening to right now is this shadow being, this odd character. Who is this?
That's just this additional level of cinematic storytelling, just the playfulness and the love of cinematic storytelling. I love retelling the plots of movies in the context of being a vehicle for telling one's own story. Particularly when, for me personally, I'm having a deep emotion or trying to connect, I will often use a reference to a fictional character or a fictional story to achieve that connection. It's hard to be more direct emotionally.
NFS: One thing that's so interesting about the landscape shots on 16mm is that they have this quality of nostalgia. You just think of older films set in those locations. Is that why you chose to shoot on 16mm and kept contemporary people out of your shots?
JO: The choice to shoot on 16 -- I just love 16 for so many reasons, but it is also very intertwined with this whole topic of nostalgia in multi-layered ways. Not only is it 16, it's a regular 16. People shoot on super 16, which mimics 35. I shoot regular 16, so you have this 4:3 aspect ratio, which in and of itself creates for the viewer some kind of nostalgia, or some kind of -- what I'm seeing is from the past or has these associations. I read an interview with Wes Anderson about The Grand Budapest Hotel where he talked about that, and that at one point in the film he uses a 4:3 aspect ratio for that very reason, to evoke something.
Similarly, with the framing, pedestrians are just too distracting. Immediately when you see a person, you want to go like, "Who's that? What are they doing?" It distracts from the story that I'm telling you on the voiceover track, so basically there can't be any pedestrians. Also in the framing of things, I intentionally try to frame out things, as much as possible, like contemporary indicators of the current landscape, certain kinds like either No Parking signs or new fangled parking meters, or billboards that convey nowness.
I also am more interested in either industrial landscapes or even residential landscapes that I try to have the compositions look like what you could imagine they looked like that 50 years ago. Not in a "Oh, this is a period; let's craft this in a really period" kind of way, but more in a calming kind of way. There's this thing about it that I can't help but think in our contemporary digital age that life is kind of stressful, even just walking down the street, because of capitalism, frankly, and the commercialism of what we have wrought. Everywhere you turn, we're trying to sell each other things.
NFS: Not on Main Street [Park City] of course. There's none of that.
JO: Exactly. Ironically, I work in marketing. I am part of the problem. Sometimes I think we don't realize how stressful that is on our psyche. You're walking down the street, and there's how many billboards? Every little space that used to be empty has something to sell -- on the side of a bus. I'm eliminating those things. There is something about, not necessarily just simple nostalgia, but there's something to be said for making our lives less stressful, less accosted by our environment, and more calm.
NFS: You're known as an expert on LGBT cinema. Where do you see LGBT cinema today, and where do you see the direction heading in relation to cinema in general?
JO: It's great that there are more movies being made. It's not as bad as it used to be. I think the more films that get made the better. My background is also partly as a festival programmer. I was at Frameline in San Francisco, a Lesbian and Gay film festival in the early 90's, when we were really really desperate. There were very few films being made. Now, I don't know how they do it! There are so many films being made, particularly short work and video work. There's a lot of films, independent films, which, to me, honestly are always going to be the most interesting and the most authentic, and having things to say. I love that there are more features as well.
My heart is always in experimental film. Partly, I just think that even though the distribution prospects for my film are limited because it isn't a commercial thing, it's still art. To me, I would rather see things that are more coming out of a spirit of art, and less out of a spirit of being interested in the marketplace. I would hope that there are more films being made in the future, queer films and all other kinds of films, that could just be focused on what is it that you want to say, and saying it in the best way possible without worrying about the marketplace.
Ursula Le Guin just gave this amazing speech a couple months ago at the, I think it was the National Book Awards, saying commercial publishing concerns are ruining literature. We're supposed to be writing, not worrying about who's going to buy it. I have a very passionate feeling around that, which is kind of not the answer to your question actually.
It's exciting that there are a ton of movies coming up. Roland Emmerich's Stonewall is going to come out this year; Todd Haynes' Carol, a Lesbian feature; Freeheld with Julianne Moore and Ellen Page should be coming out by the end of the year, or at least being in festivals. This film AWOL that I'm an advisor on just finished shooting, a Lesbian short that had been here at Sundance a couple years ago and is becoming a feature. Bessie, the Bessie Smith biopic by Dee Rees comes out in a couple months on HBO.
There are a ton of films coming up, and then all the things that are here [at Sundance 2015], there's I Am Michael, and The Amina Profile doc, the Larry Kramer in Love and Anger doc. Sundance is always a great place to get that little sense of the landscape ahead. Last year's Sundance had some of the biggest gay films of 2015. Love Is Strange world premiered here, The Case Against 8. It's a good looking landscape.
NFS: Do you have any advice for other filmmakers starting out in their careers?
JO: I don't know if it's good career advice, but for your soul, stay true to what you want to say and don't worry so much about the marketplace. That may actually be bad advice, but that's what I want to do.
Thank you, Jenni!
What do you think about the conventions of filmmaking and film watching and experimenting with them? Let us know down in the comments!