Patricia Rozema’s masterpiece:

-By Jason Gorber

For decades now, Patricia Rozema has been one of Canada’s most established and celebrated filmmakers. Her breakthrough debut, I Heard the Mermaids Singing, won the Prix de la Jeunesse for best first-time director at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Since then, she’s had a diverse career crafting personal stories, experimental musings, and episodic television.

Mouthpiece, her latest film, may be her best yet. It’s a bold reworking of an experimental play by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, creating a moving, effective, and brilliantly-realized rumination on a young woman’s coming to terms with the death of her mother.

DTK spoke exclusively to Rozema during the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Your film has to essentially translate the play to the screen. Given the inherent theatricality in the portrayal of the character by two actors simultaneously, how challenging was that adaptation?The film really isn’t the play. Everybody said you can have two people playing one [character] in theatre but not on film. And I thought, Why not? Nobody had an answer to the why not. They said, “Well, how will you do it?” And, I said, “Well, you just do it.” I didn’t understand the world’s resistance. I’m not bloody-minded, but I’m enough of a high-risk person that I’m willing to just try something that could fall [apart] in front of my face. I assume I’m a bit laughable anyway, and I’ve been rewarded for my highest risks.

You had this explosive debut, this incredible award at Cannes, and yet you continue to push the boundaries. How have you maintained this level of chutzpah?I think that’s just something you’re born with!

Are you watching movies that are energizing you? Are you watching plays that are energizing you? Are you finding ways of making, so that your voice is continuing to evolve?I draw from life more than film. I don’t see that many films that I wish I’d made. I see many films that I love – I’ve got a huge pop streak. I’d love to make a big, old comedy one day. I once heard somebody say that there are two kinds of filmmakers. One’s about mastery, and they have an agenda, and they usually peak at around 40 because they master it; they’re done, and they don’t know what else to do. The other one needs to be in a state of learning and self-surprise in order to fell alive, and that person can gather all kinds of skills and then doesn’t actually start to know what they’re doing until later on.

Are you feeling you’re getting close to knowing what you’re doing?I feel like I can judge performance much more quickly. I know what cuts very quickly now. I know that I regret not going far enough more often than I regret going too far, so all bets are off.

You’ve recently been working in American television with larger budgets and larger structures, where your role is less as auteur and more as hired-gun director.It’s kind of my work, but it’s not my work. When I do Anne with an E, for instance, I come in and I have all of these ideas on how to do it. They say, oh no, we’ve thought about that, it’s going to be this way. With Mozart in the Jungle, I was given a lot of freedom on how to shoot that. They just kind of let filmmakers make their films on that one; it was very free, but those are exercises, not my work.

I think that you being able to build a sandcastle in someone else’s sandbox has given Mouthpiece a precision that I’m not sure has been there as much in some of the films where you had a much larger canvas, and, therefore, you could go to different edges.I feel like I’ve been honing my chops. I know a thing or two, and I can get there faster, so I can play. My goal is that it looks like life, or like a mind in crisis at work, ricocheting around, but, in fact, it’s all much more scripted than people think. I have a saying, when we’re shooting, “This can’t be a pizza with too many toppings, guys.” So, every once in a while, we’d say, “Oh, pizza.”

Do you always have that one scene that you fall in love with, and yet it’s the first one you cut out?I cut stuff out so easily; it’s ridiculous. I think [it’s] partly because I have a bad memory, but it also feels cleansing, like a purge or something. 

Would you have been a different filmmaker if you’d gone to LA full time?I probably would have been. Here’s the thing, actors are the tail that wags the dog. If you can get famous actors into your movie, into your little low budget thing, suddenly you have a giant following. If you make that same perfect movie with somebody they’ve never heard of, it may or may not see the light of day.

So, would you have made Mouthpiece in LA?It’s such a risky, out-there concept; there’s no market model for it. A bunch of people in LA watched it, possible financiers, and nobody stepped up. So, I think they’re less artistically adventurous.

Written on: October 7, 2019