#DirectedbyWomen Catalyst Barbara Ann O’Leary had the pleasure of engaging in a rich conversation with filmmaker Katherine Canty, who shared insights about her intuitive approach to filmmaking.
DBW: Thanks for being part of the #DirectedbyWomen Conversation series. So glad to have this opportunity to talk with you about your creative work. We have so much to explore.
KC: Thank you for the opportunity! I’m very happy to be able to participate!
DBW: Shall we dive in with some conversation about your current project Venus in Retrograde? It’s labeled as an “anti-film.” Intriguing. Can you share a little about what you’re up to?
KC: I identify Venus in Retrograde as an “anti-film” because she is a step further away from the form of traditional narrative film, which you could say begins in January Hymn. She is something of a contrarian response, a kickback which is a result of the way I’ve been feeling about film for the past few years. With Venus, I’ve set out to see if I can manipulate certain formal decisions to serve the turn of my vision. The experience of writing and shooting Venus was a personal exorcism. She is the result of two years of waiting for the time and the temperature to be right, as it were. She’s a project I felt I absolutely had to make. I couldn’t have moved forward without making her. She is a personal testimony, an acknowledgment, expressed through a very pared back and considered formal approach, and focussing on my preferred aspect of my filmmaking—the face, the faces of the actresses, and the impenetrable face of loss.
DBW: Patience is a real asset in filmmaking.
KC: Yes, I think so too. It’s a strange process sometimes. Especially with writing, it’s almost like dealing with an entity which suits itself, and won’t just come when you call it. And, of course, when I’m developing a project, the time spent not working is working also. There’s an indeterminate gestational period, I find. It can only really be navigated by instinct, and with patience.
As a footnote, I sometimes refer to January Hymn and Venus in Retrograde as “she.”
DBW: And why not? Films have lives of their own… and are often vividly gendered.
KC: They certainly do. I think in this case it’s appropriate to speak of the work as though of a person, because as I’ve said it’s something that can’t simply be conjured at will. It tends to go at its own pace. All of this sounds awfully serious and analytical, but really it’s just a way to articulate the process of ripening or gestation of the work.
DBW: Can you say something about the topic or circumstance that Venus in Retrograde is focused on?
KC: Venus in Retrograde is a very personal testimony to memory and loss, and a particular kind of disorientation and alienation arising from that experience. In a way, it can be considered a sister piece to January Hymn.
DBW: Maybe this is a good time for us to talk a bit about January Hymn, your most recent film—a short that explores grief in a way that strikes me as deeply evocative.
KC: Thank you, that’s very kind of you.
DBW: I appreciated your having given me the opportunity to experience January Hymn earlier this year. It’s nuanced approach to the complexities of grief resonated with me. I re-watched it just a few days ago in preparation for our conversation and found it refreshing in its lack of excess and sentimentality—something so many films that deal with grief seem to suffer from.
KC: That was something I was acutely aware of while writing it, shooting it and editing it—all the way through the process of its coming to light really. My own experience of grief—and that’s what informs a lot of my work, and my approach to representation—has never been convenient or neat and I haven’t really experienced much catharsis, especially not from the film. So it was important for me to craft the film into an acknowledgment of my experience rather than presenting a tidy conclusion. I’m also very aware that this is only my experience of grief, and I’m very wary of talking about anyone else’s. This informs my decisions as a filmmaker, and is something of a preoccupation for me.
DBW: January Hymn, I believe, is another example of work that you needed to wait for, that needed right timing. Can you share something about how you found your way through the process—from the time you first conceived of the possibility of creating a film dealing with grief through the writing and into production? That may feel like too big a question, but what I’m really curious about is how you became clear about how to bring this into being.
KC: I began developing the script for January Hymn in 2013 as I was editing my masters degree graduate film at the Manchester School of Art. I think that all of my work is connected by a common thread. Each project is an aspect of a bigger story. I like to think that each film is like shedding a layer—is part of a process of refinement and coming closer to a more mastered expression of the story at the heart of the work. So my MA film was like the beginning of January Hymn. It was like beginning to master the language I needed to articulate it. After I graduated, I felt exhausted and somewhat “poisoned” even, and I went into a dip. Making Morning, Noon & Night brought me out of that. I think that film signalled a real departure in my work, a kind of ripening of what I’d started in my graduate film, and was very much the precursor to January Hymn.
DBW: Something I was hoping we’d have a chance to explore—and maybe now is a good time for that—is what are your visions for your filmmaking life?
KC: Interesting question. I have a vision for my work as a filmmaker. I’m in post-production on Venus in Retrograde at the moment, and working on a script which is a feature development of January Hymn—but what are my visions for my filmmaking life? I’m very interested in working with female-led casts as this is natural given the stories I tell. I feel very driven to put the faces that I want to see on the screen. I often feel very alienated by a lot of the female representation I encounter, so this is an important aspect of my work. I plan to continue working towards the development of my own experimental fiction, which is highly-performance based. I just plan to continue expanding my work, in whatever form it may manifest, I suppose.
DBW: I see your work as being deeply rooted in the rich expression of what is trying to arise through you rather than as ego attempting to push itself out into the world.
KC: Thank you. That brings me back to the concept of the importance of patience in my practice. Developing a project is like growing something, or observing something growing, again—at its own pace. So I can relate to the idea of something “arising through” me. As I’ve said the process sometimes feels like an entity in its own right.
DBW: Knowing that you have the gift of filmmaking and honoring that without reservation is crucial for you, I believe, if you want to bring through work that has power.
KC: Very much so. For me, it’s essential to maintain focus on the work, and the driving force behind it. I’ve been asked why I make films, and I find that a difficult question to answer in an absolute sense, but while I’m working—whether that be during development, rehearsal, shooting or editing—I’m constantly giving thought to the “why” behind the process, and following the “thread” that links everything together, which is the most important thing for me. I think that my work at this point in my life can best be described as a desire to testify to my experience, to create work which acknowledges it. That, of course, leads me to consider why this testimony is so vital; another question that’s difficult to give a concrete response to.
DBW: One thought that’s been arising is that film is still in the very early stages of evolution as an art form.
KC: Yes, absolutely. This troubles me a lot, because a lot of the big budget work that I encounter—or don’t really encounter, but pass by as it were, on the path towards my own work—appears to me to be lacking in a certain kind of self awareness, which I think is necessary in order to create work responsibly. Responsibility is one of my biggest preoccupations as a “maker.” Certainly it was an important factor in the decision-making process for January Hymn—whose story am I telling, and do I have the right to tell this story? What are the consequences of my representation? This may sound overly-analytical. People may say, “Well, it’s just a film, it’s entertainment,” but I would challenge that attitude. As with mental health, where you have to be careful what you tell yourself because you may end up believing it, I think makers of images, films, any kind of visual culture, especially one that is consumed as part of popular culture, need to assume and honour the responsibility inherent in creation.
DBW: In some ways the whole idea of the “film industry” is a siren song that threatens to dash filmmakers on the rocks. The navigation that is required to set your own course through the filmmaking seas needs to be guided by your own internal compass. I haven’t really thought of things exactly this way before, but it’s what’s showing up as we talk.
KC: It’s quite a comforting thought actually, working “outside” the industry, in many respects. I think that navigating the industry can be extremely difficult – I’m very interested in finding a way to work outside of it to a degree, so that I can give my work the time and consideration it needs, and allow it to develop at its own pace. I’m very interested in Pedro Costa’s artistic itinerary. He’s a filmmaker who works outside the system, to fascinating effect. He started out making work in an “industry” context, but then began moving away from that, and operating in a more intimate, less institutionalised manner with non-actors, producing work in a more “guerilla cinema” way, you might say. I find the idea of working independently of the “institution” of filmmaking very appealing. As I’ve said, it’s essential for me to maintain my focus on the elements at the heart of my work, and navigating the industry is a vital aspect of the maintenance of that focus—following my own course and observing my own modus operandi. I think that this is of the utmost importance when developing a new narrative, both in terms of the content and formal structure of the work.
DBW: Your willingness to wait to see what needs to emerge—and your awareness that you are not reaching neat conclusions—tells me you have a connection to meaning that is trying to emerge through you—and that is worth cultivating.
KC: Again, it’s difficult for me to respond with a completely concrete answer, but I can relate to that—at the risk of sounding vague—that “emergence” is very much at the heart of the work I make, and want to make.
DBW: You have some real advantages. One is that you have respect for the collaborative nature of the work. That attracts incredible allies.
KC: After the writing process, I feel that working with cast is the “heart” of my work. That’s also something that requires time, and patience. Tilda O’Grady, who plays Ava in Venus in Retrograde, put it very eloquently during one of our rehearsals this summer—the time spent not working is working also, as I’ve said earlier in this interview. I prefer to work with cast in short sessions over a period of time, rather than intense bursts of work. I find this is more conducive to constructing a bridge between what I see in their character and interpretation of it, and how they relate to it. So that collaborative process is very much my priority, as I identify as an actor’s director. Locating cast as much as possible within the work is essential. Everything outside of or around that must serve the vision of the performance.
DBW: Yes. Holding the vision and inviting others to bring their gifts into the process. Let’s talk about how you engage with your cast. I was thinking about the performances in January Hymn. I’d love to know how you work with your cast to help them take the risk to be so natural on screen.
KC: I think that a director is only as strong as their cast. I’m fortunate in that I have a very strong instinct for casting. It’s an aspect of the process I find very engaging. I generally cast on instinct. I’m not much of a one for watching showreels really. I have a huge passion for working with performers. Because my work is so personal, I focus a lot on backstory—not just my own, but also that of the performer. As I’ve said, it’s important for me to create a connection between my experience and theirs, and then it’s not “acting” anymore. It becomes expression, or interpretation. It’s a process of paring back layers of performance. I’m very happy with the performances in January Hymn. The cast is very strong.
DBW: I agree. The casting is very strong. I am thinking particularly of the scene with the woman with her son—”I just wanted to pay my respects.” That is such a powerful moment in the film.
KC: Ah—yes, that’s Gina Moxley. That’s one of my favourite scenes in the film. Gina is very strong. I was very happy to have her for that role as it was very important to get that scene right.
DBW: I also wanted to know a little more about your choices of locations. It’s visually rich with a remarkable feeling of familiarity—and distance—that really brings the grieving forward.
KC: January Hymn was mainly shot around the neighbourhood in Laois where I grew up. The mountains are an image I grew up with. They’re a fundamental part of my memory of home, and my relationship to it. Once I can see the mountains, I’m almost there. I feel that they’re almost like a person, really. The wrought iron bed that appears in the film was my great grandmother’s—and mine, while I was living at home. So there are a lot of personal details in the film’s location. It was important to me that it be made in Laois—a place that’s become very central to my identity since my father died.
DBW: Ah.. I wondered if that was your home turf.
KC: It’s interesting that you would pick up on that.
DBW: It definitely feels deeply personal. That makes me want to leap back to your current project. You shot that in Manchester.
KC: I did, in the basement of the former Cornerhouse cinema.
DBW: And I’m getting the sense that this one has a very different rhythm and feel.
KC: It’s hard for me to know really just yet what Venus will be like, but I think she and January function as “readers” of one another in a way… or, at least I do now. Either way, they’re very much sister pieces, I think. Venus in Retrograde is to January Hymn what Morning, Noon & Night was to my graduate film—a kind of antidote to exhaustion, an elixir.
DBW: Post production is where so much of the discovery takes place, and then, of course, how audiences receive a work transforms it even more. We’ll have to wait and see. Any insights you can share about how you engage the editing process?
KC: I think it’s interesting to “follow the white rabbit” when editing. Again, time and patience are key. With Venus, as with January Hymn, I expect to have moments where it seems impossible to get to where I need to go, but in the end it always takes on its own shape and when it does, I’ll know. This is a part of the process where the work really starts to feel like an entity by itself, and assumes its own form. There’s a kind of loosening of the reins, and I feel my way through it.
DBW: Yes. That again is where connecting with what is trying to arise takes time—and moments of deep reflection. Keeping the process internal can fuel the creative work. So… don’t say any more about it now. Save it for the editing room. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we wrap up?
KC: Yes! I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about my work, and for providing such a great platform for female directors!
DBW: I am very appreciative of your willingness to share. I always like to ask… Can you share about any women directors whose work you find engaging? I’m always eager to help film lovers discover the work
of more directors to seek out.
KC: Chantal Akerman. No Home Movie. Very important! Both in terms of its content and form… I’m very interested in makers that work outside of the more received forms of film, and turn received ideas on their head. There’s something very gutsy or contrarian about breaking away from the institutions of high-end equipment and glossy filmmaking, especially when it’s done by someone like Chantal Akerman. That can yield very engaging results. And, of course, in the conversations with her mother, she shows us something that cannot be shown, and transcends that limitation somehow, through her acknowledgment of it. That’s something I’ve tried to do in Venus.
DBW: Ah… yes. That’s an amazing film. I had a chance to see it on the big screen.
KC: Yeah, me too.
DBW: I’m not surprised you’d like that one. It’s very observational in nature. I’m really glad we’ve connected. I can’t wait to see what you create next.
KC: Neither can I! Ha!
DBW: Thanks for being so generous with your time and insights.
KC: Thank you!
Follow Katherine Canty on Twitter: @katherine_canty.