Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Interview with filmmaker Rosina Hickman

Clear Sky will premier at the Straight-Jacket Guerrilla Film Festival

*How did you get into making films? 
I did a course at a television studio after I left high school. I learnt how to edit on old U-matic decks, which was practically an obsolete skill even then, but I guess it gave me the confidence to try my hand at filmmaking. Later, I studied film at university and became interested in art directors such as Bergman, Bresson, Dreyer, Antonioni. My first film, made during my honours year, was about a group of 14th century pilgrims travelling across Europe during the plague, a really obvious choice of subject when you live in the remote South Pacific! It was meant to be a short but I was a class of one and doing my own thing so it ended up an hour long. Looking back, it was absolutely crazy trucking a horse, goat and ensemble cast around different locations. Some of the dialogue was even in Latin. That was eighteen years ago. Since then I’ve made 20 or so films of varying lengths, whenever inspiration and resources have come together. 

*What inspired you to make your movie? 
I wrote Clear Sky in my head during a screening of Albert Serra’s Birdsong. (It’s no coincidence both feature very long shots of characters walking through vast landscapes and little dialogue, although the tone of the films is very different.) I never wrote down anything resembling a conventional script, just mapped out a general scenario and some scenes. Ollie and Rosie, who play the two characters, came up with most of the actual lines spoken in the film. Ollie’s interpretation of the male character is somewhat different to what I had originally envisaged but I think it upped the tension and contributed a lot to the dynamic of the film. Overall though, the film changed remarkably little from its initial conception. In some ways it’s quite loose and improvisational, and in other ways very precise, if that makes any sense. The fine line between boredom and fascination is what intrigues me; I like to withhold information and draw out a scenario as far as it seems to stretch. 

*How has your style evolved? 
Over time I’ve gravitated towards a hardcore slow, minimalist cinema of mostly long takes (think echoes of Béla Tarr, Miklos Jancsó, Chantal Akerman, the ‘70s post New Wave of Eustache, Pialet, Garrel, early Rivette), which is essentially career suicide as hardly anyone will screen a two-hour film that’s likely to alienate most viewers (especially in New Zealand, which has a pretty conservative viewing culture). I wish festivals justified why they turned down your film. I read an interview with Jacques Doillon recently. He had the idea of submitting a screenplay by Bergman without his name on it to a TV station. It wouldn’t get funded these days of course but the readers’ reports would most likely be hilarious. I make the kind of film I want to see and if it divides audiences I feel like I’ve probably got it right. I once drove a lot of people out of the local film society with a film featuring my neighbour’s cat fidgeting for 14 minutes accompanied by a loud drone noise track. In a way I’m quite proud of that moment! Probably the most complimentary thing anyone has ever said about my filmmaking was the message a friend noticed the guy next to him typing during a screening: ‘I’m going to be late. This film is endless.’ My film was actually only 20 minutes long! I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve made 20 minutes feel like forever!’ That’s really powerful. So yeah, I guess to an extent pushing duration to its tolerable limits has become a thing for me! I think my films have always been about an experience of being in the world, either alone or with other people and the inherent difficulties that attend both these states, but I’ve increasingly stripped away unnecessary elements. Clear Sky is set a century ago not so much because I wanted to tell a story about life just after World War I, but because I wanted the characters to be stuck relentlessly in each other’s company without the possibility of even phoning someone else. Many rural areas of New Zealand were still pretty isolated in the early twentieth century, so that became the setting for Clear Sky. If I was making it now I suppose I’d set it during COVID-19 lockdown. Hopefully it will resonate with some viewers. It’s very much a film about being absolutely alone with the person you love, which sounds great, until it’s not... 

*Tell us any strange or funny stories while making the film? 
Ha, well, shooting a film set in rural New Zealand a century ago in the middle of a city is maybe a strange idea in itself. Most of the film was shot in suburbs near where I live, the interiors in my own house. The graveyard is actually just by my office at the university. Point the camera in the other direction and you’d see the CBD. Wellington is supposedly the windiest city in the world, which is fun for recording sound. The airport is also just over the hill from my suburb, so planes go over continuously. A Boeing 737 doesn’t sound much like a 1920 biplane alas (which would have been pretty few and far between in the back-blocks of New Zealand anyway). Clear Sky was actually filmed in 2011 so my memory is probably a bit dim as far as incidents during filming are concerned. I’m always amazed what people are willing to do on a film shoot when I ask. The bush valley is actually much steeper than it looks onscreen. I think Campbell was seated with the camera in a rotten tree stump on a precipitous incline for one of the shots. The funniest moment I can recall is that during the final shoot when we were recording the interior scenes, Colin, who was doing sound that night, suddenly raised a grave concern. We were expecting him to say something about the sound of course, but no, it was actually about the (offscreen) cow that hadn’t been milked for several days while the couple were away. Did the poor beast now have mastitis? The penultimate scene is a single 20-minute take so there was a certain amount of tension in the room around getting it right without doing numerous takes. Pausing to consider the welfare of the cow was perhaps the perfect way to diffuse just the right amount of that tension. In the end, I think we recorded only two takes, using the initial one in the final film. 

*The Misrule Film Movement & Pink8 manifesto bring what to mind? 
Should I go through it point by point? I’ve never felt compelled to write a manifesto myself, but I think most of my filmmaking fits roughly into Pink8. Have outlined above how useful television school was. Certainly I’ve never received any money to make a film. My films have mostly been shot on borrowed and usually somewhat obsolete equipment, with friends volunteering their time. Special lighting? Do candles count? HD camera? That might be nice I suppose… most of my films have been recorded on tape… I do play the protagonist in a couple of my films, which was awkward because I was also the cinematographer… Did try working with an editor once (I’ve recut that film several times since – see below)… Have made both features and shorts so I guess I’d have to argue with that point (although maybe a little voice inside me does say only features really count; anyone can make a short…) “Bewildering, vague, self-indulgent, plot-less, risky, egotistical, limpid, raw, ugly, and imperfect are perfect.” Yup. ’Nuff said. 

*What can we expect from your next film? 
I have a couple of projects in mind. One is based around a fascination I’ve developed with an old home movie I downloaded from the Internet Archive. I don’t know anything about the film itself, although it appears to have been recorded in the 1930s. Just some anonymous vacation footage, nothing unusual or exciting. My PhD examined the reuse of home movies in cinema and archives, so my film will perhaps (among other things) be about teasing out a question I raised: can the images of one person stand in for the experiences of another? Is there something universal in amateur footage despite its apparent specificity to a particular individual or family? There isn’t much footage on the reel so it probably won’t be a very long film. I’m also in the process of recutting a feature I shot in 2004 but never completed. So another period piece of sorts but an unintended one. Now it seems very much about a befuddled last of Generation-X in the new millennium. (There’s a discussion, for example, about whether sending a text message is an appropriate way to ask someone out.) Nowhere near as stark as Clear Sky but an oddly mature 25-year-old vision in some ways, or at least it seems to capture what I recall about being twenty-something, so I guess I’d like the film to make it into the world eventually in some form. Given I’m limited by the scope of the scenes I recorded 16 years ago, it won’t be the rigorously singular work that Clear Sky is, but I’m working on teasing out what’s there and inserting other bits of found footage around it. I’d like to make a film about being middle-aged at some point too, since I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the contemporary twenty-something zeitgeist. Or maybe I’ll tidy up my medieval pilgrims and give them a twentieth anniversary airing in a couple of years. I have a habit of revisiting old footage. Whether it’s a good one I’m yet to decide.