Susan Kouguell interviews filmmaker of Mouthpiece, Patricia Rozema, diving into the adaptation process and taking risks in filmmaking.
Patricia Rozema and I met for our interview in a Greenwich Village hotel restaurant to talk about her new film Mouthpiece. It had been several decades since we had last seen each other; her film I’ve heard the Mermaids Singing was just picked up for distribution by Miramax Films where I was working in the story department. There was certainly a lot to catch up on.
When I first saw I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, I was immediately struck by Rozema’s distinct vision, story sensibilities, sense of humor, and her willingness to take chances. I closely followed her career since that time and continue to be inspired by her often rule-breaking work.
We started our interview talking about the expectations and sacrifices of mothers and daughters in relation to Mouthpiece, as well as with our respective daughters whose mothers work in the film industry—well known to have hiring and pay inequities.
There is a scene in Mouthpiece when a clip of Ruth Bader Ginsburg pops up on Cassandra’s laptop with Ginsburg���s words: “Women will not have equality until men are involved in raising the next generation.” Rozema commented: "That’s how RBG did it with her husband. I think there should never be a choice between developing yourself as a skilled human and having a family; you should be allowed to have both."
Mouthpiece is a powerful, funny and highly original look into the conflicted psyche of Cassandra Haywood—a fiercely independent millennial woman. Cass is a single writer who lives by her own rules. She’s also a bit of a disaster. Following the sudden death of her mother, Elaine (Maev Beaty), she finds herself in crisis, unable to think straight with a debate raging inside her head. This movie makes that invisible conflict visible: Cassandra (Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava) battles it out while figuring out what to say at her mother’s funeral. What unfolds is a wild careening through grief, anger, sex and self-sabotage in an exploration of the messy lives of women from both generations. Raucous jokes, musical numbers and heartbreaking memories add up to a deeply moving and political portrait of a mother and a daughter as seen through the eyes of one conflicted young woman.
PATRICIA ROZEMA – Director, Screenwriter, Producer After an Honours B.A. in Philosophy and English from Calvin College in Michigan, Patricia Rozema distinguished herself as a writer/director with her internationally celebrated first comedy feature, "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing" at the Director's Fortnight in Cannes, where it won the Prix de la Jeunesse. It then opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 1987. Other highlights: writing/directing the contemporary lesbian love story "When Night is Falling," adapting/directing the politically progressive Miramax Jane Austen feature "Mansfield Park" with Harold Pinter, and co-writing HBO’s "Grey Gardens" starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange (PEN Screenwriter's award, Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe). She also won an Emmy for writing and directing a Yo-Yo Ma/Bach film "Six Gestures." In 2015, Rozema adapted and directed the apocalyptic thriller “Into The Forest” with Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. She has also directed "Anne with an E" and "Mozart in the Jungle" for Netflix/CBC & Amazon. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
FROM STAGE TO SCREEN
Rozema was introduced to the stage play Mouthpiece by her now 22-year-old daughter (she also has a 14-year-old daughter) who was working as an intern at Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre. “It was so fresh and strong and tapped into a visceral feeling that I had never seen represented before” says Rozema, who then insisted that Alexandra Hedison and Jodie Foster check it out while they were working in Toronto. Foster and Hedison said, “When we first saw Norah and Amy’s breathtaking performance, we were speechless. Mouthpiece touches on every part of the female experience from birth to death using dance, music, and wicked humor with just a bathtub for scenery. The result is a new kind of feminist language which ignites pure, intravenous emotion. It’s impossible to describe and truly unforgettable."
The theatrical production consisted exclusively of Cass, played by Nostbakken and Sadava, wearing white bathing suits, often sitting in a bathtub. The film, on the other hand, is much broader and very visual.
KOUGUELL: Tell me about the adaptation process and collaborating with Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, bringing their play to the screen.
ROZEMA: We did a lot of talking. The thing I brought to it was to add the mother character. The play was one hour. I have daughters and my mother had died so I thought I had the right to be in it. We just riffed and told stories and wrote them out. Mostly I was at the keyboard, sometimes they were. They didn’t know the format of screenplays, like Final Draft, so I would write it, then after a session I would polish it up and then share it, It was like a writers room. I loved it. I always wondered if I would enjoy a writer room, but I loved it.
Their senses of humor are so close to mine and their B.S. detector is similar to mine. I also brought to the story was the Christmas section. I thought what was needed in the film, was a bit more of a narrative drive so, I thought, ‘What was the question that remains unanswered?’
KOUGUELL: The question of: What happened at Christmas?
ROZEMA: Yes, What happened at Christmas. It’s amazing, if you have one tiny hook like that, you can put so much on that’s emotionally and socially relevant.
KOUGUELL: Tell me about the shoot and post-production.
ROZEMA: The shoot was 28 days. We did a lot of screenings during the editing process. I said: Is this a pizza with too many toppings? The trick is that the film needs to be unified, yet diverse. If it's too unified it’s boring, if it's too diverse, it’s a pizza with too many toppings, and it’s a mess. I had test screenings with people who didn't know me and had nothing to do with the film every couple of weeks during the editing just to see what do they get, what do they not get, are they confused, and so on.
KOUGUELL: You have been working in both feature films and television, including ‘Mozart in the Jungle’—have you found any differences working in these various mediums?
ROZEMA: It’s all just storytelling; filmed fiction. I have a huge appetite for novelty, for newness, I can’t have done it before or seen it before. I’m very open as to length, format, decimation, it’s all just story. I tell my agent: big budget little budget, I don't care, just give me a story that needs telling, that is new, and let me play.
It’s interesting, Paul Schrader and I have the same background. We both went to Calvin College, we were both Calvinists, that was our world. Schrader was 10 years before me and I heard him speak recently about his film First Reformed and his nomination, and he was saying something about the fact that he never enters into the making of a film, thinking it’s going to be like this other film I saw, it’s always, 'I wonder if this will work’ or 'oh, I’ve never seen this before, I’m going to try this or try this crazy combination.' I thought, is there something about being a lapsed Calvinist that makes you seek out novelty? I wonder if there is something about our formation.
KOUGUELL: Maybe the strict rules?
ROZEMA: Maybe. They say when you leave that religion, you’re like the colt that escapes the coral, you have no rules. So, there are the rules of the 3-act structure for example, and I think let’s break some of these rules.
KOUGUELL: It was a powerful and effective decision not to portray the two sides (the bifurcation) of Cassandra as one good and one bad.
ROZEMA: I had so much pressure to do one good and one bad.
KOUGUELL: The overall choreography and particularly the physical battle was very moving.
ROZEMA: That synchronicity was in the play, and done with such natural gestures, and that thrilled me. I was hungry to put that into the film. There’s no trick to that. It’s work. Looking in the mirror. Take after take after take.
The fight scene was just a fight scene that we choreographed but we wanted it to feel harsh.I wanted it to feel like the things I say to myself, what we say to ourselves.
I loved how Catherine Lutes lit it, she did an amazing job; very classical, very eternal. i loved it being an empty church. That was in the play. I loved her throwing herself down eventually. I loved this idea of the fight, the self-defeating metaphor.
KOUGUELL: Do you feel there are more opportunities as a Canadian woman?
ROZEMA: Yes. I sort of self-selected out of the big Hollywood situation; I felt why would they be interested in me as a woman, a lesbian, with female leads as an inclination, and my work which is a combination of comedy and non-comedy.
KOUGUELL: You have a very unique sensibility
ROZEMA: There’s money for things that are not genre, that aren’t obvious crowd-pleasers, but even more profound than that, if I make a film that no one wants to see, my kids still have health care, and they still have good schools they can go to. That is profound. So, I can make dangerous artistic choices, I can take risks, I can experiment, and not risk starvation. That is a big difference for me, living there. It’s also very progressive and creative.
Finding collaborators who have just the right politics, sense of humor, worth ethic; that’s a needle in a haystack and I always like to try new things.
Mouthpiece opened 5/31 at the Village East, New York City
and 6/7 at the Monica Film Center, Los Angeles.
Check out all of Susan's Upcoming Classes!
Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script (NEW COURSE!)
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into