Interview with Patricia Rozema

December 1995


When Night Is Falling is Patricia Rozema’s third feature film—following the highly acclaimed commercial hit, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and the innovative, brooding White Room.

Patricia Rozema (pronounced ROSE-ah-ma) was born to a Dutch immigrant family in a small industrial town in southern Ontario. After receiving her honours BA (double major in philosophy and English literature) at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan (alma mater of Paul Schrader), and several awards for writing and directing theatrical productions, she returned to Canada in 1981 to work at the CBC’s nightly news program, The Journal.

In 1985, after taking a five-week night course in film production, she began her film career with the short work Passion: A Letter in 16mm which won her the second prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. While writing and developing her first feature, she worked as an assistant director on several television series, as well as on David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

In 1987, her brilliant feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, which she wrote, co-produced, directed and edited, was selected for the prestigious Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and won the coveted Prix de la Jeunesse.

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing has been distributed theatrically in over 40 countries and has been voted by 100 international critics, filmmakers and scholars as one of Canada’s 10 best films ever. It was distributed in the US by Miramax and went on to receive numerous awards in France, Belgium, Spain, Sweden and the US. In Canada, it won two Genie Awards, in the categories of Best Actress, Sheila McCarthy, and Best Supporting Actress, Paula Baillargeon. Rozema’s second feature, White Room, which The Washington Post described as "a suburban gothic fairy tale, a work of dark, conflicted magic that might have been cut from Blue Velvet by Edward Scissorhands," opened the Perspectives Canada section at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1991. It won awards at the Creteil Festival in Paris and the Avoriaz Festival of Fantastic Films, also in France, and it was nominated for three Genie Awards in Canada including Kate Nelligan for Best Actress, Mark Korven for Best Music Score, and Best Original Song, "Hello, I’m Nobody" and "A Certain Slant of Light."

In 1992, Rozema wrote and directed a 20-minute film entitled Desperanto, the innovative and humourous contribution to the anthology film of Canadian directors Montreal Vu Par....

Patricia Rozema currently lives in Toronto.

I had a chance to talk with Patricia Rozema on a Wednesday afternoon in the lobby of the Mayflower Park Hotel in downtown Seattle and discuss her latest film When The Night Is Falling. When she showed up she approached me very slowly, as if in slow motion, which really disoriented me until I realized that under her large chocolate sweater she was pregnant. And it must be a linebacker by the looks of it, because although she was only just into her third trimester it looked as if it could drop any day. No, she doesn’t know it’s gender and doesn’t really care to. Even though there are three names for each gender picked out already. One of which, she told me, is Malcolm.

ML: I’m fascinated by the rumor that you weren’t allow to see any films until the age of 16.

PR: That’s not completely true. I do now remember going to a theatre to see Snow White somewhere before sixteen. But I think the first time I went to a theatre was on a date when I was 16 with a guy to see The Exorcist.

ML: (gasps) Oh my God!

PR: You can’t imagine. I mean, here is someone who actually believed in the devil at the time—

ML: --that movie is enough to make you want to believe in the devil!

PR: I was so traumatized by that movie. Horrifying movie. And I didn’t have any kind of defenses built up "It’s just a movie" kind of callousness or anything. Really, it just shook me for a long time. Really rattled me. I would go for a drive and look in the rear view mirror and see the lights of the car behind me and that would be the eyes. Or someone would drag a chair across the floor and I would hear that sound and that would be that sound she made.

But the point is I didn’t see that much. We had a television at home but my parents would take the knob off the set when they went away. So we generally saw Disney on Sunday nights at 7 o’clock or Wild Kingdom.

ML: Where were you raised?

PR: A small town, like 50,000, a petrochemical, industrial town in southern Ontario called Sarnia, about 400 miles from Toronto, right on Lake Huron, where Lake Huron and the St. Claire river join.

ML: So you didn’t have much exposure to films.

PR: No, I didn’t grow up with any sort of romance with Hollywood at all. I actually, once, when I was 23 or 24 I was at some friends house and they had this picture of this beautiful women on their wall. And I said "She’s really beautiful" and they said "Yeah, that’s my mother," and I nodded and then they let me in on the joke: It was Joan Crawford. (laughs) I didn’t know. So, I’ve learned all of the stars in my adulthood.

ML: What were the first films that made you think "I want to be a filmmaker."?

PR: I remember the Bergman films, a double feature of Persona and Face to Face. And not so much that I wanted to make films like that, but that there was such a wide range of styles in film that you could make films that had your own personal signature style. I’d only seen completely narrative driven stories that might have a metaphor here or there but they didn’t have such an elliptical, mysterious tone to them. But that was in college, I studied philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan., but I still didn’t imagine that I would make them and I the only way I knew of to tell stories and make a living at it was to be a journalist, so I became a journalist for a while, and it so happened that I went into broadcast journalism and discovered that I loved playing with images and putting sound together. And then I started writing screenplays and applying for arts councils grants, but I always imagined that it would just be this hobby I had while I made my living as a journalist. You know, once in a while I’d take some time off, make a movie, but I couldn’t ever imagine making a living—I didn’t fantasize being a filmmaker, I didn’t dare to think like that.

And then I made I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing and because of Mermaids I was invited into the Directors Fortnight in Canada and sold the film to 40 countries in a couple of days, and pretty soon it was winning awards and being shown all over the world and it was just a really joyful moment when I was welcomed into the field.

ML: I was curious as to what happened with White Room and also Montreal Sextet because I hadn’t even heard of them.

PR: Oh, I know, it’s terrible. Both of them got caught in limbo.

ML: Distribution things?

PR: Yeah, legal know, one company goes under but still has the rights and doesn’t want to release it to another company. Filmmakers wishes are not honored.

ML: Have they been officially "released" then or are they on the shelf still?

PR: No, White Room had a couple of screenings in the US, but not really. Someone told me there is a copy at Scarecrow, but it’s obviously a bootleg copy because it was not released in the US. If you want to see it, it’s there apparently.

ML: Will either of them ever be released?

PR: Well, now they’re circulating the tape for White Room to different companies to see if there might be any retrospective interest because of When Night Is Falling.

ML: Speaking of When Night Is Falling, I was thinking about the character of Petra and I was wondering why you didn’t make her Caucasian.

PR: Because when I wrote her, I didn’t even think of her skin color, I guess I sort of assumed that she was white when I wrote the character and the casting director said "Is there any ethnic group or race that you’d like to eliminate?" and I couldn’t think of any reason why, because it’s a circus character. Someone who lives in a circus is not establishing their life in a neighborhood or a certain socioeconomic class, I mean, it’s a circus, it’s open to everyone. So, when she came along, she was an incredible actress. I believed her as a performer, I believed her poise, she had a wonderful vulnerability, she had a sense of humor, she was beautiful enough to be a performer, like a star in a circus, and I immediately wanted her to do the role, and I had long conversations with her about her whole attitude towards sexuality and everything and everything was perfect in every way, and I thought "Can I put someone in who is a different race without addressing it over the course of the film?", and I thought "I can’t not give her the role because of the color of her skin." That’s a clear case of discrimination. So it’s just going to be one of those films where race just isn’t an issue.

ML: I was thinking of the whole concept of the noble savage: A very white woman drawn into the "strange world" of performing, and marijuana and everything that’s antithetical to the church.

PR: But, Petra’s character is more the norm these days than the character of Camille. Camille is the exotic freak. She’s the odd one. So, if you want to say which one is exotic, or the freak, it’s Camille who is not the norm of 1996 in modern urban life. I resist anyone using the word "exotic" for Petra. She’s free, she’s a worker, her job happens to be she’s an artist, which I presented as a job, but it’s a job not without it’s own kind of economic problems and she’s actually the most stable character. Camille’s the wingy one.

ML: I think that one of the best things about the character of Camille, and by this I’m actually flattering Pascale, is that she is really able to effortlessly portray this combination of confusion and also curiosity. All sorts of things are happening around her which she isn’t sure of, but she takes her time, you can tell she’s mentally processing it, and she keeps proceeding: "This is all what I’ve been brought up to understand on an intellectual level, there’s nothing wrong here." When I left the film and I was driving home, it wasn’t her attraction to Petra I was thinking of, it was why Petra was attracted to her. I mean Petra is sexy, she’s passionate, she’s whimsical, so I was trying to figure out what would draw her to Camille, and, if anything, I could see the two of them as the perfect balance. One probably needed more restraint, and one who needed to have much more of a sense of joi de vivre.

PR: Yes, well I think that they are radically different personalities and embody the two poles of society, of every culture. There’s an impulse towards orthodoxy and there’s an impulse towards progressivism and they always are in tension with each other and I think they are even in tension within ourselves. So I can externalize that and I have these two characters. Camille has found herself in this orthodox, tradition- oriented conservative world, and Petra is in a world of constant change, constant innovation and newness, and they need each other. I think every society needs each other and every individual needs the other one. If you’re just someone who just wants new all the time you can never have stability, you can never have any constancy in your life. It’s the same with a culture that doesn’t respect tradition in any way, it’s like a loose cannon.

ML: I was wondering if you named the character of Camille after Camille Paglia.

PR: No, but I admire her actually...but Camille is hardly Camille Paglia (laughs). Camille Paglia is a wild force.

ML: Feminism needs her more than feminism realizes.

PR: I agree completely. I feel that feminism is totally stuck in a rut and there was an anti-male strain and there was an anti-sex strain...

ML: And it got to be very Victorian.

PR. It was like the Women’s Temperance Union and I couldn’t feel part of it, actually, for those two reasons. And there was a kind of a victimization attitude of (adopts whiny little girl voice) men are so mean to us, here, why don’t we get ANOTHER man to legislate AGAINST those men, (laughs) you know?, and so that’s what I like about her, she’s got quite a powerful persona and she’s very pro-sex and she’s very pro- male, and it’s those three elements (that I agree with). Most people react to her public persona, and I think that half of it is put on. Half of it is performance art. She calls herself ‘La Paglia.’ It’s pizzazz, it’s two bodyguards, it’s a SHOW, and it’s brilliant because she actually, as an intellectual, got to the center-stage in the American media for a while, which is very rare for an intellectual to do. If you read her stuff, I think she’s absolutely really great.

ML: I’m a huge fan of hers.

PR: You are? Great. What do you like about her?

ML: I’ve been studying women’s studies for twelve years now because I was a junior in college before I realized I didn’t understand women at all, so I wanted to address that. I read, and wrote, about this stuff for many, many years and she understands that females are at a point in history where if they want power, they can have power, however, it’s not that easy.

PR: It’s not given, it’s taken.

ML: Exactly.

PR: And it’s never going to be physical. This whole emphasis of "women can do whatever a man can do". Come on, you know? Men are basically physically stronger, and that creates a certain set of realities for both males and females.

ML: I really like that quote of hers in her Playboy Interview from a few months ago, where she was saying that all it’s going to take is one natural disaster in order to prove that it is blue collar men who keep this world working. We have to have plumbers, we have to have electricians, we have to have people who know how to make a freeway, it’s these little things, it isn’t the interior decorators and the film critics. (laughs)

PR: (laughs) yeah, the academics. Although, on a broader scale, those that come up with compelling ideas have a gigantic power. If you can come up with an idea that motivates the people who put in freeways and plumbing, then that’s the real power. Democracy, for instance, wasn’t thought of by blue collar workers and intellectuals.

ML: What are you working on now?

PR: Well, I’m writing right now. A detective story. But not a Noir, standard detective thing. It’s kind of like a very, very surrealistic Nancy Drew. It’s actually fairly overtly comedic. Not ‘a comedy.’ I’ve never done what I think is just ‘a comedy,’ and I think it’s very moving at the end. It’s about fiction, though. Thematically, it’s about how we nurture each other through fiction. If we haven’t been loved enough, parented enough or cared for, that we define that through fiction and that’s how we—I don’t want to talk about it too much, I’ll get bored with it before I do it (laughs).