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TIFF Women Directors: Meet Liza Johnson

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
September 8, 2013 11:00 AM
1 Comment
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Still from "Hateship Loveship"

Liza Johnson holds a Masters in visual art from the University of California, San Diego and has had her artwork exhibited in such galleries as MoMA and the National Gallery of Art. Her directorial credits include the short films Giftwrap (98), Falling (04), Desert Motel (05), In The Air (09), and the documentary short South of Ten (06). Her features include Return (11) and Hateship Loveship (13).

Hateship Loveship is playing in the Special Presentation program at TIFF.

Women and Hollywood: Please give us your description of your film playing at TIFF.

Liza Johnson: Kristen Wiig plays Johanna Parry, who is a caregiver and a housekeeper who moves to work in a new household. The kids there trick her into thinking that the estranged father is in love with her, and she falls for him experiencing the demands of her own desire for the first time.

The character is very specific--she's a person who is very intense and insular and trying to operate in a world where the other people may have a more conventional and open emotional range. But the things that happen to her are the same as the things that happen to the rest of us when we fall in love. We all fall in love with the idea of a person, and then as time goes on we either accommodate ourselves to the real person or we don't.

WaH: What drew you to this script? If you are the writer too, why did you write this script?

LJ: I was really drawn to the way that the character changes. She comes from a circumstance where ambition and desire and longing don't really get you anywhere, but then when she finds out what she wants she really has to put herself at risk to get it.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge?

LJ: We went through some rough times in preproduction that were simply circumstantial, but they almost killed us in seven different ways. For example, right before we went into prep, Robert Downey Jr. broke his foot on the set of Iron Man 3. Their schedule pushed so far that for a while it wasn't clear whether Guy Pearce would be able to get out in time for our film, and we love him so much and had become very attached to the idea of him. I know that supposedly we're all interconnected and that if a butterfly flaps its wings that we're all affected by the ripples that it creates in the world. But it was still shocking to me that this unfortunate thing happened to a man I've never met and it almost collapsed my movie!

During that period, I actually had a dream that I had to be in hand-to-hand combat with Iron Man and it seemed unfair because he had the suit and everything. (Although since it was my dream I held my own better than you might think.) It was a total nail-biter, but Guy was released right when we needed him-- and then there was a hurricane!  Guy is such a committed person that he literally drove himself out of the hurricane zone in a rental car to get to our shoot.

This kind of contingency and an eventful financing period were much more difficult than actual work of shooting the film, which I experienced as a total pleasure. The skill set of the cast and crew was so great that the shoot just felt like a lovely series of performance experiments within the framework that we had defined.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

LJ: The thing that has helped me the most has been surrounding myself with a strong community of people with common interests and relevant knowledge -- other directors, artists, crew talent, and smart and fun people in other fields. With all directors-not just women-- there can be a tendency to think that there is a scarcity of resources and to behave as if we have to compete with one another to get them. But the most successful people around me tend to behave in the opposite way, knowing that if we help each other we all benefit.

Sometimes people think that the kind of community I'm talking about is just out there and you can go join it or that if you don't experience it that's because you're being excluded from it. But it's not like that. It's more like something you have to constantly work at to build and rebuild.

Because I also teach college, I am around a lot of young women who are just starting out, and I often see them coming up against certain expectations that may be more gender-specific. For example, when I was really young, I was reluctant to be perceived as bossy, and I thought that working with an ensemble was about generating a consensus all the time. Later on, I realized that it's actually generous to know what you want and to tell people what you want -- actors, crew, everyone.

That's what enables them to bring their skills to your project. It's more generous to say, "Here is the movie I'm making. Is that interesting to you? What can you bring to that?"

At least to my face, this has only generated a positive reaction. I guess I would acknowledge that when women assert this kind of control, I have sometimes seen them get called "difficult," or other one-syllable words that mean the same thing, and when men are sometimes truly difficult they get called "brilliant." Definitely be careful of men who are called "brilliant" because I think it often is people's way of forgiving them for being difficult!

WaH: What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

LJ: I know that it's common for creative people to feel like they're profoundly misunderstood but for the most part I don't feel like that. I think most of the time people read my work in the way I intend.

WaH: What are the biggest challenges and or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

LJ: That's not my specialty, but I have had a very good experience with new forms.

On the one hand, I will personally never ever get over the communal experience of theatrical cinema. I will never get over the scale of a big screen in relation to your small body, big sounds in a big room with a bunch of other people. If you can see my film that way or any film that way, you should.

But I've also had a very positive relation to VOD on my last film. A lot more people saw it on VOD than who saw it theatrically. I grew up in a town without a cinema and I like the way that VOD and other streaming stuff changes the geography of who can see what movies. Just because there's not a big density of people in some locations doesn't mean that people there aren't interested in so-called "specialty" films.

One time I was doing a project in this remote town in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. I asked these two boys to do a bunch of long takes, walking down a beach without talking. They kept trying to make up dialogue and I kept making them do it over in silence. After about the fourth time I made them do it one of these teenagers from a pretty remote Southern small town stopped and asked me, "Did you see that movie Gerry?" (I had, in fact, seen it.) It is kind of a great thing about Netflix, VOD, streaming, that this random rural teenager could have the cultural references that in my own generation or my parents' generation you would practically have to be born in Greenwich Village to know. I like the way VOD changes who has access to what we think of as sophistication or good taste.

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1 Comment

  • Nola | September 8, 2013 1:09 PMReply

    She seems great. Thanks for the article.

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