Director Patricia Rozema and actors Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, all of whom co-wrote the film together, discuss adapting Mouthpiece from stage to screen, telling an unapologetically Canadian and feminist story, and much more. Listen to our podcast on the film here. This is an excerpt from our ebook The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook, which is available for purchase here.
By Alex Heeney / June 8, 2019
The best movie of the year, Mouthpiece, is Canadian, set in Toronto, and written and directed by women and about women. Director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) — in collaboration with Toronto theatremakers-actors-writers Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava — has effortlessly adapted a piece of physical theatre into a naturalistic film that gets up close and intimate with the characters. The film’s innovative conceit is that the main character, thirty-something Torontonian Cassandra, is simultaneously played by two actors, Nostbakken and Sadava. This dual performance, where the actors sometimes mirror each other and sometimes diverge or even conflict, allows them to represent two sides of a complex woman who is constantly in conflict with herself. It’s a meditation on the things we think and the things we do, and how they can be contradictions, how every moment is charged with multiple emotions.
Set over the course of a couple of days in the dead of winter, Cassandra grieves the unexpected death of her mother (Toronto theatre treasure Maev Beaty), as she tries to write the eulogy. It’s made even more difficult for her because her last interaction with her mother was a nasty fight, and their relationship was always tense: Cassandra both worshiped her mother and was frustrated by her because she was unable to see her own worth and meet her own potential. As Cassandra grieves, she also goes through an existential feminist crisis, realising that so many of her choices have been a reaction to or rebellion against her mother; it goes so deep she doesn’t even know where the rebellion ends and she begins.
After the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the film was selected as one of Canada’s Top Ten films of 2018. We at Seventh Row declared it our favourite Canadian film to have premiered in 2018 on our podcast about Canadian Cinema, and we went in even deeper on the film on this week’s podcast. Continuing our coverage on this amazing film, I talked with writer-director Patricia Rozema and writer-actors Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava about their collaboration in adapting the play from stage to screen and telling this timely, feminist story.
Turning Mouthpiece the play into Mouthpiece the film
Seventh Row: What made you decide to do a film of this play?
Patricia Rozema: I saw it and just loved it. I didn’t know what kind of film it would be, but it would be a great jumping off point. My jumping off points are often dance or a field. It always is a very different thing that makes the movie so it wasn’t a stretch that this very different, very abstract, very lean play.
Amy Nostbakken: It’s the two of us playing one woman, wearing white bathsuits with nothing on stage except a white bathtub and microphone. We play all the characters and everything you see in the film, we do and we create the settings. One of the interesting parts of the translation from stage to screen was we did a preliminary shoot to make sure that we could act on film. We asked for it.
Patricia Rozema: Because everybody said, “How are you going to do that on film?” So I thought, “I’m going to do a little movie to show the investors.”
Amy Nostbakken: So we went to Patricia’s house and got into her bathtub and did the opening scene of the play, translating that into film. In the play, we sing a song in the dark, and then lights up, and we say, “I’m 30 years old. I live on Palmerston Ave. I woke up this morning, I masturbated, and checked my messages and found out that my Mom’s dead.”
It’s very texty. We say it in perfect unison. We describe everything. It’s just us, static, in the bathtub, doing a few simultaneous gestures.
To translate it to screen, I remember cutting it down, and cutting it down — now it’s still too wordy — and cutting it down for screen, and finally, it was no words. Of course!
Amy Nostbakken: We had the money to go, and our editor [Lara Johnston] read the script, and she said, “So much talk at the beginning!” So we threw it all out before we shot. It’s the whole thing: you show, don’t tell. When you can see, you don’t need all that text to talk.
Norah Sadava: In the play, you don’t see anything. We are putting you in a place, so it necessitated that we describe it. It’s hyper-stylized. And the play is largely sung. There’s a lot of singing in it. We sing harmony, a capella, our two voices, for almost the whole thing.
Patricia Rozema: The play is 60 minutes, but for the film, we added stuff.
Norah Sadava: We had more musical sequences in the screenplay than ended up in the final cut. We thought we could translate the music from the play into the film, but Amy ended up composing a completely new soundtrack.
The language of sound in cinema is just different than the language of sound in theatre. So we learned as we went along, trying to translate things, and figuring out which could stick and which couldn’t.
Patricia Rozema: Also, we shifted tone when we added the mother [to the film]. She wasn’t really fleshed out in the play. When we got together to write the screenplay — I’m a mother, and my mother died when I was their age — I felt like I had something authentic to add that wasn’t weird fakery for me to insert myself into this thing.
We just talked and brought out stories of their mothers, and my mother, and me as a mother, and put it all together. But it shifted in sympathy a little bit towards the mother. We could feel the great loss of her potential, the life she could have had and didn’t. In that shift, the music [in the play] was a little bit brassier and in your face, a little younger and angrier.
Norah Sadava: The whole play was a little big younger and angrier. Sweating, and muscles, veins, pulsing and popping.
Patricia Rozema: It found its way in between our age differences in terms of tones. So that’s where the music I think had to change as it couldn’t be as brassy or brash.
Norah Sadava: The play is also acutely about a woman going through a feminist awakening, finding out she’s a hypocrite, and dealing with the realities of that. The movie has that in it, but it’s also about grief, which the play just doesn’t really deal with.
Patricia Rozema: And unfulfilled potential.
Amy Nostbakken: We are looking at that through a feminist lens. We get to see two sides of this woman, but there are, of course, more than two, but all the time we are going, with the sex scene or getting dressed, “This is where we are spending our time? What do I wear? No, not this. Am I on the top or the bottom? What do I look like? Look at that stupid face I’m making. That’s not a real orgasm”
Norah Sadava: And not trusting her own voice, not figuring out how to speak without having all this raging insecurity, or beating oneself down, or not trusting to just speak.
Patricia Rozema: That’s what young women have really responded to, the self-compassion that it advises. It acknowledges how we beat ourselves up.
Adapting Mouthpiece from stage to screen in collaboration with Patricia Rozema
Seventh Row (7R): When you were adapting it, what was the process?
Patricia Rozema (PR): We just went to a little cottage I have by a lake, and they gave me a list of ingredients, and I bought food, and they did the cooking. And then we just talked. We had the computer out. I was mostly doing the computer, but sometimes, I would hand it over.
We would come up with stories that felt relevant to being a mother, to being a child of a mother, what it would be like to have a mother die, stories of how uncles died, and amassed human experience.
Everything came from our lives, and I love how these guys work. I didn’t know that at first, but it felt like that when I saw the play. I had such respect because it was so real, and it wasn’t posey, and we are all pretty suspicious: “You think that sounds smart, but that’s fake bullshit.”
Norah Sadava (NS): We took the play script, broke it apart, kept parts of it that we wanted to work with, and then adapted that dialogue to flesh it out to have a whole scene, for example, with the best friend, instead of, in the play, the best friend just leaves a message on her answering machine. What are they doing? They are smoking a joint in bed.
Then we get to develop these whole other characters, how they come into the story, and what part of Cassandra they support. And then we took some scenes that we had written in the play that we had not used. The grocery store [scene] was something that had been in the recycling bin from the play.
Patricia Rozema: And we went to the grocery store, and we walked around and imagined, “What would a crazy person do?”
And it was still pretty loose, what the point of the scene was when we got there, right? We arrived late to the idea this was about the ‘fierce mama’ image. There were other purposes to that scene at first, and then we landed on, “OK, she’s a super-hero, fucking amazing, you know…”
Norah Sadava: She can shop like no one else. And then some of the stuff was totally new content that the three of us developed by figuring out what the plot holes were.
We also knew we wanted a meatier narrative thread that had an arc that could hold the movie. So some of this stuff was totally new and was never in the play.
Patricia Rozema: And we kind of overestimated, I think, maybe, the need for that. Just having the hook of what happened at Christmas? Why does no one want her to say the eulogy? That was almost enough to pull everything together.
And then, giving the mother a story, about what happened to her attempt to get back into the workforce, that that was enough story to hang all of these events and moments and emotions on. We had another story in that we ended up throwing away in editing.
Norah Sadava: When we were coming to new stuff, it was like, “What will we get the chance to say?” We want to talk about childcare and the fact that women are not able to go back to the workforce because it’s not equal. How can we put that in, also? The things that we’re fired up about and we wanted to figure out how to jam them—
Patricia Rozema: Shoehorn them in there! Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that is a clear shoehorn.
Norah Sadava: I love that.
Patricia Rozema: I love that, too. But it was really hard in editing to make it feel like it had to be there. “Oh, there’s Ruthie!” We did think about that, is that true, did this happen, and what are we saying, and does it make us laugh or cry? Mostly laugh. We think it’s funnier than anyone else in the world. When we watch it, we laugh our heads off.
Norah Sadava: So much of the play and the movie is based on our lives in Toronto, biking around in the winter and getting caught in the streetcar tracks, and being in the hot mall with too many clothes on. It was really important to us. Patricia and [cinematographer] Catherine [Lutes] were both really excited to show Toronto.
Patricia Rozema: I haven’t done that since my first film, so that’s so thrilling to me. Usually, I’m walking around with a map, and the ADs [Assistant Directors] are pointing you in the direction, and you pick a location, and you’re not really sure the significance of it, and there I was: it’s Toronto. I know it, and the whole crew knew it, and it was really relaxing for me. In fact, I told the production designer, Zazu Myers, “This film is aggressively Canadian. So if there is something that can’t be anywhere else, put that in.”
There are little moments at the Christmas party where we had to fill a bit of a blank space in the party talk, and I asked [the actor] to make up a story with a snowblower and racoons and Canadian Tire. So that’s what you got.
And the Eaton Centre. We went guerilla in the Eaton Centre. They told us it was going to be $50,000 to shoot in there, so we just put a coat over the camera and shot.
Usually, when I work, the script is a little bit more settled… well it varies, but a little bit more stuck to in the process. These guys ad libbed a little bit here or there.
Norah Sadava: Patricia would also just put us in a scenario and go, “OK, now, fight!!”
Patricia Rozema: Wrestle! When they were wrestling in the snow.
Norah Sadava: And push each other down! Take her down now!
Amy Nostbakken (AN): Or we were in the bathtub, and she was like, “OK, now, drown her!”
Norah Sadava: It was not scripted.
Amy Nostbakken: We were there going. “OK…” And we were shooting that scene early on, and I don’t know the protocol.
Patricia Rozema: Do I have to actually kill her?
Amy Nostbakken: Like, am I going to ruin this shot by going, “Really, how should we do this?” Instead, I just went for it.
Patricia Rozema: So fantastic. That, for me, is a real joy, to have people who don’t have a real strong sense of how things should be done. Because as soon as I feel like something should be done in a certain way, I discover, “Where did that rule come from? Why did I think that?”
So to have people who haven’t been on a thousand film sets and have a set of assumptions about process or style is really liberating for me and everybody. It makes the film freer.
To read the rest of the article, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.