The Cinephile | Ashley McKenzie (2 of 2)
*This interview was originally published in Dazed and Confused's January 2013 print issue.
The art of storytelling is a careful craft for 27-year old filmmaker, Ashley McKenzie. Somewhere between years as a diehard cinephile and the business of being small-town girl, she’s developed a propensity for narrative focused on the everyday and its gritty details. Her second short film, When You Sleep, earned screenings at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival this year, but the filmmaker is already buried in her next project. I caught up with Ashley to talk about her work, what’s next, and the sweet tones of home that keep her going.
Where do you come from and how does it affect your work?
I grew up and still live in a small town on the east coast of Canada called New Waterford. Home definitely plays a role in the kind of stories I want to tell. It’s a blue-collar town with a fairly grim, off-the-beaten-path milieu and loads of history. The pace is far from glamorous, but it’s interesting. It tends to escape more frivolous culture threads that a lot of the bigger cities have to sift through.
So you’re pretty specific in what you want to write/film about?
Yeah, I suppose. I like to play with the idea of agency– people that live in a world where their circumstances are already defined for them. Can they exercise some kind of freedom when the odds are stacked against them? This was a driving force for When You Sleep, and also for my next short, Stray. I’m interested in channeling the working-class model in tangent with the idea of fight or flight.
How’d you manage to get outside of the working-class model, yourself?
I remember always having it in my head that I wanted to be a filmmaker. But when I told this to my guidance councilor in high school, she sent me to the principal, who then offered to hook me up with the local meteorologist. They didn’t quite know what to do with me. I ended up applying to just two universities– neither with big film programs because the resources and information just weren’t on my radar, I guess. Although, I think if you have an interest you can usually find a way. It just takes longer. (laughs) That said, the people from home are the warmest, biggest supporters.
When You Sleep has gotten a pretty good response. Where do you go from here?
We’re scheduled to start filming Stray here in NW this month. My producer/co-writer, Nelson, and I spent a few weeks tearing around town scouting locations. It’s great because the area is completely untapped. There is so much character and history here that makes it perfect for filmmaking– The Pier, the old seal property around the tarpons, the train that runs by carrying coal for Sydney Harbour– it’s a goldmine for what we’re into, anyway.
Who’s someone you’d like to work with?
When I saw Grimes’ Oblivion video, I thought: “Who is this girl”. She’s so on point with a character in the feature I’m writing. It’s a story about a couple who are methadone addicts. They’re outcasts in a small-town wasteland who walk around with lawnmowers knocking on doors as a means of making quick cash. They see this place is a shithole but are tethered to it due to the fact that they have to get methadone every morning. That’s not to say that Grimes looks like a drug addict, she’s just got a peculiarity that I like.
A quote to close things up?
“A film is never finished, it’s only abandoned.” –Orson Welles
You can find Ashley online at Grassfire Films and on Twitter here.
Ashley McKenzie (Interview: 1 of 2)
When I sat down with Ashley McKenzie, she’d just returned to her Cape Breton home in New Waterford after a busy few months taking her short-film When You Sleep to the road. Screening at Cannes in Telefilm’s Not Short on Talent showcase and the Toronto International Film Festival this year, 2012 has certainly granted some great successes, yet the 27-year old filmmaker isn’t taking time to revel.
Her next short film, Stray, is set to start filming in November in New Waterford–– the backdrop of which much of her intuition as a filmmaker draws. She prefers grim, working-class stories to lavish plots, and a minimalist approach for her characters’ reveal. It is with clear sights on style and narrative in the kind of film she wants to make that Ashley McKenzie continues to lure an increasing international audience. Years spent as a hard-nosed cinephile can’t hurt either.
I spoke with Ashley about her craft, film festivals… and meeting Michael Haneke. This one was a tough edit, as our conversation extended into many branches; her perspective, absolutely plump. Personally, I can’t wait to see the next finished product. See some highlights of our chat below:
You’ve said your work as a filmmaker is heavily influenced by your hometown New Waterford, Nova Scotia. How does this spot play into your stories?
I’m inspired by real places, real people. In film, I’ve always liked the formalist attitude of French cinema, and the realist aspect that British film has offered. New Waterford is rich with the kind of character that sides with such aesthetics. The people I’ve known– the surroundings I grew up amongst– have a certain something that I strive to show in my filmmaking.
Jean Paul Sartre once said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”. In my films, I’m interested in putting people in situations where sometimes the odds are stacked against them. How will they endure?
The idea of editing short-film strikes me as something that could be daunting as a creative. To take a story and its details, and then cut it down to fit a 10 minute picture would require a certain amount of discipline. (And heartbreak?) How do you strike a balance here?
They say with short-film, you should come in at the last possible moment and get out at the first possible moment; to project a“slice of life”, so to speak. In my films, I’m interested in duration. Within that very small slice, I like to have a lot of space to zero in on the everyday mundane as oppose to having this heavy plot breathing down my neck. To take a two-minute story and make it a twelve-minute film, I think it’s important to let the story breathe. Things can get lost when too much is served to the plot. That’s how I felt in my last few films, though it’s definitely a struggle…
How were your first experiences at TIFF and Cannes?
Both were really great. I got to see more films at TIFF than at Cannes– it was tough to get into screenings at Cannes because you’d wait for hours only to find out the film was at full capacity. At TIFF, I got to meet one of my favorite directors, Michael Haneke, at a session for filmmakers called Talent Lab. He did a presentation, and I took the opportunity to ask him a question during Q&A. I think he liked my question.(laughs) He had a translator with him, but started nodding immediately that he got it. It was definitely a highlight.
That’s pretty great. What did you ask him?
I asked him to shed some light on how he makes use of off-screen space in a scene and how important it was to his filmmaking. He does this so brilliantly in much of his work… so I was curious.
And his response?
Well, say in literature– as a reader you are able to conjure an image based on the words. In cinema, however, we are imposing images on people. The more you can leave to the imagination for the viewer, the more they are able to actively participate in the film’s unfolding. It’s a less-is-more kind of thing–suggesting things outside the frame all the time. He’s so good at doing that and it definitely makes for a great hook.
Film festivals like TIFF and Cannes are known to get a little excessive and glitzy, and on a certain level can get away from the core of filmmaking. What’s your perspective on this?
I think there are lots of different ways you can go into a film festival. For some it’s about the parties, for some it’s about networking/business, and for some it’s just about going to watch film. I actually didn’t see one celebrity at TIFF. I knew the films I wanted to see and the events I needed to attend, and I pretty much just stayed inside that compass.
On the writing side, how do your stories surface?
I always make little notes when something comes to mind. With When You Sleep, it was the idea that a relationship coming to an end is paralleled with a rat infestation. I’d been going through a breakup and had more than one experience with rodents in different apartments I’d lived in. Overtime, this correlation became a story…
Usually, I get a sense of some story, an image, or a character in my head and it will just develop over a long period of time. It sits and marinates, builds and evolves without me ever picking up a pen. With some of the features I want to make, it’s important to let them percolate in my mind and grow organically. I didn’t actually sit down to write When You Sleep until it was pretty much entirely worked out in my head. As certain things in my personal life started to form, that’s maybe when it accelerated into a full picture.
And….. Give us a few of your favourite films?
The Butcher (the worst DVD cover ever… but one of my all-time favourites), The Piano Teacher, and The Saddest Boy In The World.