How I Think

to read Patricia's article about Harold Pinter from Brick. This is a PDF file.

Interview with Patricia Rozema, screenwriter for the upcoming Grey Gardens film.

The gears are turning for the production of the Grey Gardens movie with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. Here's some background on the film's screenwriter, Patricia Rozema.


Becoming devoted to the real

From the squalor of Grey Gardens to the graphic sex of Tell Me You Love Me, Patricia Rozema's films and TV shows have a whole new sensibility, Gayle MacDonald writes
Toronto filmmaker Patricia Rozema answers the phone in her temporary digs in New York's West Village sounding slightly breathless and more than a little distracted.
As her fingers continue to zip across her keyboard, the 49-year-old writer-director explains that she's frantically trying to finish her most recent screenplay, Grey Gardens, so she can hitch a ride by 3 p.m. to an East Hampton historic mansion with Jessica and Drew.

That would be the Academy Award-winning Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, who are both starring in the $12-million (U.S.) film Rozema is penning about the mother-daughter duo known as "Big Edie" (Lange) and "Little Edie" (Barrymore), so named because they both were christened Edith Bouvier Beale.

Slated to begin shooting in Toronto later this month, the HBO Films feature is about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis's eccentric aunt and first cousin, who were immortalized in a 1975 documentary - also called Grey Gardens (the name of their Long Island home) - by New York's Maysles brothers. The acclaimed doc revealed the former Park Avenue debutantes/socialites living in squalor with 50 cats, opossums, squirrels, fleas, and mounds of human and animal excrement. (The fleas were reportedly so thick that Albert and David Maysles wore flea collars around their ankles during the filming.)

"Have you ever seen Grey Gardens?" asks Rozema. "It's the wildest thing. It's a piece of cinematic American history in the lore of American royalty."

The CBC-journalist-turned-filmmaker (Mansfield Park, Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach, When Night Is Falling, I've Heard the Mermaids Singing) practically hums with excitement when discussing the new film, to be directed by Michael Sucsy.

"It's a mind-blowing story," she says of the tale of the women's lives, which also was made into a Tony-winning Broadway musical last year. "The Maysles's documentary had a massive influence on me as a young filmmaker. ... This film addressed one of the gnarliest issues of our times, which is, how much access is too much access? And if people are going to self-exploit, do we go along with it?

"I used to be much more attached to the internal goings-on of my characters and I'd manifest them in magical expressions. But in my old age, I'm becoming more devoted to the real," says Rozema, laughing. "I'm more interested in reality and all its wonderful beauty."

Which may explain why she signed on to direct the first three episodes of another new HBO series, Tell Me You Love Me, which premiered in early September (on The Movie Network and Movie Central here in Canada) and has been dubbed by The New York Times, Time Magazine and The New Yorker as the most explicit sexual program to ever air on television.

Tell Me You Love Me follows four couples, whose graphic sex scenes (Time christened the show "Dirtysomething") had TV critics who saw early previews asking creator Cynthia Mort if the sex was actually real rather than simulated.

Rozema says she pulled off the realistic look of the intercourse, masturbation and all manner of foreplay by sticking to three basics: no fancy lighting, no flattering shots and staying in real time, not speeding things up. But she admits she finds it "odd" that the graphic quality of the sex has become the focus of attention.

"I'm not surprised, because I'm aware it's kind of new. But I think there's something wrong with our culture when that becomes the headline.

"Because ... how can you give some insight into how people function with one another if you cut to a clock or a curtain before you see them get truly intimate?" adds Rozema, who has two girls, age 3 and 11, with her partner, the film composer Lesley Barber, who works on all of Rozema's films.

"I really do believe that fiction is a place to explore all the frightening, delicate and embarrassing things that we might not dare talk about at a dinner party or even with our friends sometimes," says Rozema.

Rozema signed on to direct the pilot for Tell Me You Love Me (shot in Winnipeg) and episodes 2 and 3 (filmed in Los Angeles) after receiving a cold call from Mort, who had seen Rozema's adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and thought the Kingston native (who grew up in Sarnia, Ont., and graduated in 1981 from Calvin College, a Michigan-based Christian liberal-arts school) would bring the right touch to this edgy drama.

"She felt I could handle the gravity of it," says Rozema. "My goal as a filmmaker is to address complicated and important aspects of life. This show explores how to be intimate in a monogamous context, and how to raise children."

Rozema is at work on another HBO project, the $13-million feature called Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery, spawned from the wildly successful American Girl doll company. To observers, the back-to-back pairing of Tell Me You Love Me with a film about a social-justice-minded young girl growing up during the Depression might seem odd.

"I don't really care about the whole American Girl franchise one way or the other," says Rozema, who re-wrote the original script and directed. "But it's a beautiful story that is an affirmation of little girls." After losing her job at the CBC's The Journal after a round of downsizing, Rozema got her start in film working as third assistant director with David Cronenberg on The Fly (1986). She counts fellow Canadian filmmakers Guy Maddin, Atom Egoyan and Jeremy Podeswa among her closest friends. Egoyan sees a natural progression in Rozema's move from whimsical films to boundary-breaking, voyeuristic projects like Tell Me You Love Me. "She's always been concerned with the idea of how to navigate a moral universe," says Egoyan. "In her early films, you really had a sense of somebody coming out of something of a bubble, which may have to do with the Calvinist school she went to. There's been a real evolution as a result of a number of factors in her life."

Rozema's deadline to hand over the script for Grey Gardens was late last week. She says she's loved immersing herself in the story of two exceptional women who began life at the top of the food chain and ended up being threatened in 1971 with eviction by the Suffolk County Health Department because their house violated every known building regulation. They were saved from losing their home only after Jackie Onassis paid $32,000 to have the house cleaned and 1,000 bags of garbage carted away.

"The young Edie, in particular, was beautiful, strong, charming, intelligent, and gracious ... but living with scores of diseased cats, with crap five feet high around them ... no running water or heat. She used to hang out in a social crowd with Howard Hughes and Joe Kennedy (Jack's older brother). He debut ball was at the Pierre Hotel in Central Park," says Rozema, referring to a woman whose fashion style included wrapping tea towels around her head and wearing skirts upside down.

Much as she wanted to, Rozema didn't accompany Barrymore and Lange to Grey Gardens last week. "I made the impossibly hard decision to stay in my apartment and write because I knew I'd get more done," she says. "Having a Calvinist work ethic robs the story of a little glamour from time to time."

By Patricia Rozema

This essay originally appeared in the 24th Toronto International Film Festival Programme Book. Patricia Rozema introduced and discussed Ingmar Bergman's Persona during the festival as part of the Dialogues: Talking with Pictures Series.

It is a mistake to think we know what shut her up and nailed her to the wall. The most tenderly formulated phrase will hover stupidly outside. We stand in the next room like anxious children full of kindness and good resolutions. Completely and utterly puzzled. She is frozen there, this Elizabeth Vogler, no warmth seems to thaw her, not the innocence of an adoring young nurse, not the surgical incisions of a doctor of the mind, not the caress of a broken child or the quiet probing of a man who has set himself on fire only forces her to clamp her hand over her own mouth with greater force.

Bergman seems skeptical that film itself--those touchingly ephemeral flickers of light--can see through to the source of the numbness. He is severe and loving. What opinion he reveals is so conflicted and divided up between the characters no final learning of judgement can be determined. Spitting, ugly cynicism share the frame with the sweetest, dewy empathy. They overlap in shot after shot. His formal surprises seem born out of a desperate need to reveal the unknowability (if that's possible) of not only his subject, but the tools for examining his subject.

Bergman knows too what it is to be exposed by all the voicelessness. Like Alma, he has spoken and no one replies. he can hear a snigger, but no reply. The long corridor of poses and glances leads nowhere, door after door remains shut. Bergman is a clingy child who (as he revealed in the final chapter of his final public words: Magic Latern) simply, simply yearns for his mother's hand on his forehead. He is also the blistered and blighted actor who hates his own bag of tricks. And he is the guileless nurse prone to fleeting lesbian crushes then reduced to groveling and finally scratching, bitching rage. He dreams for us, then wakes us up with the smell of human rot, then stares at it until it all seems unspeakably beautiful again. He teaches us not to want to make sense. But mostly he teaches us not to teach. Silence does that.

By Patricia Rozema

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Montage as part of the magazine's regular "Spirit of Place" feature. Filmmakers are asked to write about "place" in relation to film.

When I was little and on the verge of growing up, I received a sex education pamphlet called "God's Temples." My body was God's temple, I was told, so I should not do anything there that wasn't somehow sacred. Hmm. Limits the options a tad. So I stretched the definition of "sacred" a bit. I'll spare you the specifics of my adolescent interpretations, and my subsequent ditching of anything that might be recognizable as religious faith. But those words, "temple" "sacred," those ideas have lingered. Just as the main character of Flannery O'Connor's/John Houston's story/film "Wise Blood" is trying to create an anti-religious religion, I sometimes feel like I'm the negative impression of my upbringing, a reverse image. So when I come to contemplate the notion of place I come quite quickly to think of the main character as the soul of a film and his or her home or environment as their temple.

When I look for a location, I wait or search until I am struck with some sense of awe; I wait until I am amazed. There must be a lightness and a substance, like a good poem. Even if what I'm looking for is mundane it must be spectacularly mundane. I dare to be inconvenient, to wait too long or ask too much, because in the end it is certainly not too much to ask to be amazed. I'm willing to "cheat" to be amazed. This front with that back with this inside. But I don't much like being accused of "cheating" I prefer to call it having an imagination. Call me arrogant. Call it what you will.

There's a place I've often included in my films (Passion: A letter in 16mm, I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, White Room, When Night is Falling, Six Gestures) merely because of its physical beauty, because it amazes me. It is an architectural moment of grace: the Royal Bank Plaza. A modern cathedral, a marvel of sculpted form. It's windows have been coated with a small amount of gold leaf, it's different from every angle and yet it is unified. I'm sure lots of what goes on in there is less than holy but the structure can claim, I believe, a little bit of the divine. Whatever that is.

Sometimes it is a city that is the temple. For Yo-Yo Ma in "Six Gestures", I felt he needed to be busking -- humbly, unbelievably humbly, like Bach himself -- at the heart of Times Square in the heart of the biggest city in the New World, surrounded by taxis and money lenders and busy, busy people.

For Polly in "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing" it is tiny hovel almost lost in the industrial section of Toronto (before it got groovy) under the enchanting shadow of a giant Kentucky Fried Chicken barrel with the CN tower in the BG. And the heart of this place is her little red private developing room, her bathroom no less, where she slips into her reveries. She goes to work at an art gallery pretentiously aspiring to the authority of spirituality (like this article perhaps?) with the name of "The Church Gallery."

For poor old Norman Gentle in "White Room" the entire story is his search for a home, for a calm, pure place to make true things. He had to escape his tiny perfect blue suburban house. In his search for expression, for something sacred, he comes across the glass house of a singer, the Margot Kidder character. He gets close enough to hear the music and to witness her murder but he can't do anything, he can't get in or get close. He meets a stupid would-be artist and shares her improbable Quonset hut in the middle of some mountains of salt but finally is drawn to the overgrown weirdness of the Kate Nelligan character's home. There, inside, he finds a pure place. Something sacred. But it's his and it can't last.

"When Night is Falling" features sharply contrasted spaces: austere stone and arches for Camille and her retro folk, versus the gilded junk, velvet and burgundies of Petra and her "Sircus of Sorts."

Then there's "Mansfield Park." It's almost too recent to try to apply interpretations but I've always talked too much about my work, so why stop here. I can say I searched for a majestic crumbling old beauty of a mansion instead of the expected trim and well-appointed estate because I felt that Austen intended to point to the rot at the heart of Mansfield Park, at the heart of slave-owning England. I felt I needed to show, physically, some of that decay. Fanny Price finally escapes with, yes, her true love to another place: a parsonage! Oh God, perhaps I've come full circle.

As much as I try to give importance to "place" in this article, it is the deeds that make a temple sacred or not. The halls, the streets, the condos and the palaces will always be filled with women, men, and children and their miseries, rebirths, half-dreams and dreams, shared love, wasted love, echoes and footsteps of the dead and half-dead, and sometimes brief, unbearably sweet smiles. It is all our pathetic little attempts at generosity, heroism and holiness that define us. In our fictions, as in our lives, it is the concrete steps towards or away from our ideals that say who and what we are.

Often these days, filmmakers choose to explore their own idea of the sacred through tales of its desecration. I have done this but not regularly. Mostly I strive for something ecstatic. Then I get embarrassed about my heaviosity and feel impelled to make some lame joke.

By the way, did you hear the one about the sacred place....