Patricia Rozema is what you might call a “working director.” Her first credit was second assistant director on three episodes of the acclaimed children’s series Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Elephant Show in 1984, and since then she’s written, directed and produced art-house shorts, film-industry documentaries, a music-and-dance film (Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach), a few TV drama episodes, Drew Barrymore’s Grey Gardens and a small handful of beloved but sometimes overlooked feature films, including Mansfield Park (1999), When Night Is Falling (1995) and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987).
Rozema’s résumé is all over the map, which to some cultural gatekeepers may mean she’s not “auteur” material (i.e., singularly focused on developing a signature style with prestige releases). But if you have the pleasure of watching her newest feature film, Into the Forest, starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as sisters surviving the apocalypse, you may have to re-evaluate your idea of what constitutes the term. This is a resonant work of great vision.
Into the Forest is a heavy movie (with hope), which makes the fact that actress-producer Page found Rozema while the two were working on a possible adaptation of beloved feminist children’s book The Paper Bag Princess (a project that’s yet to take flight) all the more interesting a choice. A safer option would have been a director who had already demonstrated fluency in the language and chaos of dystopia. But Rozema says she wanted to bring to the story something normally absent from big-budget, end-of-the-world pictures: elemental humility.
“The first sentence I said to [Ellen after I read Jean Hegland’s book was that it had to be a humble movie, and I think I meant aesthetically, that it couldn’t be full of glamorous shots in the woods,” Rozema says. “It couldn’t be an expensive-looking movie, because of the subject matter. It had to be rougher. I believe you can find beauty anywhere in any subject, but it couldn’t be self-consciously beautiful.”
The film is full of strange, subtle directorial decisions — the camera lingers for what seems like a few seconds too long on a Jeep’s taillights until they’re swallowed into a dark frame, like a gasp for air; a heated, dramatic moment is shown in extreme close-up with the camera turning slowly 90 degrees. It’s not always clear at first exactly why Rozema has made these choices, but as the scene plays out, the emotional logic becomes apparent, in-the-moment inspirations that work on a gut level.
“I didn’t decide until that day that I would turn the camera on its side for that scene. It needed to be a little more … fucked up,” Rozema says. She laughs. “I searched long and hard for that very delicate phrasing.”
Her process is usually more deliberate. “I almost always have storyboards, and I actually went over the ones we used on the film recently, and we mostly stuck to them, but I discovered a funny thing on this film. A long time ago, I took a Bergman course, and I remember he said, ‘There’s only one right place for the camera to be.’ I always think about where is the right place in this scene at this time, and I would discover it in the verbs of the sentences. ‘She stares,’” Rozema says, quoting the script. “So the camera has to be staring. ‘She reels,’ and the camera needs to reel. It’s a simple thing, but it actually makes sense. You have the camera doing exactly what you want the audience to feel.”
She applied this same common-sense simplicity to the adaptation process, eschewing some of the novel’s concerns about how and why the blackout happens. Instead, she focused on moment-to-moment realism.
“Everybody always clings to these apocalypse movies with a nice clear cause for everything,” Rozema says. “But I think if the power went out right now, and if it never came back, we would all just be guessing. There’s a kind of audio montage of newscasts at a certain point in the film. Most of its elements were from the 2003 blackout in the Northeast, and I loved the reality of them, and the confused mumbling, bumbling, slightly panicked tone better than the normal breezy, know-it-all journalism feel. In the 2003 blackout, I know there was a lighthearted adventure feel to it at first. It was a minor annoyance and people got together to BBQ their meat, but I thought: What if it just continued, and there was a creeping, dawning feeling?”
It’s not just dystopic scenes that are treated with realism; Rozema’s handling of familial relations is also a stiff drink of truth. Page's and Wood’s characters, Nell and Eva, are embroiled in the choreographed dance of sibling rivalry and support, each becoming what the other needs as time ticks on like the metronome to which Eva practices her dancing. But one of the more fascinating aspects of the story’s honesty is its “good dad.”
“I don’t see enough great dads on the screen,” Rozema says. “You see dads who love their child for a few minutes in the front of the movie, and then something happens and they’re off on a vicious rampage for the rest of the movie. Everyone could have made a lot more money if I made this a revenge fantasy, but that’s the go-to motor for movies right now. Revenge: There’s too much of it in our emotional and intellectual diet. It’s not healthy.”
Rozema studied philosophy and English literature at the strictly religious Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in lieu of a traditional film degree. She wasn’t allowed to see a movie in a theater until she was 16, so it's no surprise that there's an otherworldliness to her approach.
“In Mansfield Park, there’s a kind of survey of all the characters and where they ended up, and suddenly it just pauses, and it slips into reverie, and the voice-over pauses and music pauses, and it says it could have turned out differently … and it didn’t. And while I was shooting, Harold Pinter said to me, ‘I don’t know what you’re going on about here.’ And I said, ‘Harold, I don’t know either. It just feels like it’s right.’ And he said, ‘I can respect that,’ and then we went back to it. Sometimes it’s just pleasure, and I feel like those moments, in fact, made me stronger, because if you can synopsize your intentions, then maybe what you're doing is a little bit too ‘surface,’ too much in the head and not stirring about in the soup that is the rest of us.”
When Rozema talks about the process and theory of filmmaking, she can come across as philosopher as much as director, reaching back into history, literature and religion to explain her vision. Into the Forest has an artist’s hands on its steering wheel, but will Rozema — who began her career as a journalist and who likely will continue to work in diverse film genres and in TV and whatever else comes up — go on to earn that title of “auteur”? And what is an auteur anyway?
Technically, it’s a director who exerts ownership over a picture, trumping any studio or outside interference, to make the movie he or she wants — an increasingly difficult feat, especially when even Steven Soderbergh has to fight for a modest budget for a good story. Most directors’ outputs get stalled, or they turn to commercials or TV, as Rozema has. And with the definition of auteur frequently misinterpreted to apply not to how fully realized a director can make a single movie but to whether a director can make many of them in a similar vein, the auteur club is in many imaginations limited now to a few obsession-worthy stars.
The current lists include mostly men (Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, Nicolas Winding Refn, etc.), with a few women like Lynne Ramsay and Sofia Coppola, who are often guaranteed wider distribution of their films. But what if the director wants to experiment not just with genres outside of her norm but styles (if the studios would even let her)? What if she makes a great film once every five years, or once and never again? What if she's like Kelly Reichardt, who largely self-funds her projects, and gets limited distribution? If a perfect movie gets made in the woods and nobody sees it, does it make a sound?
Rozema is unconcerned with the titles. All she wants is to keep making the films she wants to make — slowly but surely — and to challenge the prevailing notion that a successful mainstream movie must glorify violence, tell the stories of men or flaunt a big budget.
“You try to draw on the highest part of yourself, and still be really honest and human and not showing off,” Rozema says. “I might credit religion with a little bit of that knowledge. I can’t buy into any kind of organized religion, and I think it’s what’s wrong with many cultures, but transcendence and the hunger for something beautiful that’s beyond the intellect … Well, maybe I was trained in that.”