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.
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.
Seventh Row (7R): My understanding is that the play is physical theatre, and the film is naturalistic, which is a very different acting style.
Patricia Rozema (PR): What is physical theatre?
Amy Nostbakken: Physical theatre, to me, reflects the process. You start with the body first, and you don’t write the lines first. You improvise everything. In order to create the character, you enter the body so you make those tiny decisions, what part of the body do they lead from, how fast do they walk. Do they walk in straight lines, or meandering?
Norah Sadava: Do they always look out of the corner of their eyes?
Amy Nostbakken: You make a bunch of choices, and you enter an improvisation with it, and you see what text comes out after you physicalize. So the end result, in terms of physical play, can be you are just watching theatre. But to me it speaks about the process. Most physical theatre, you end up doing a bunch of larger than life movement, which is of course true of Mouthpiece the play, which is extremely physical and gruelling and big.
It means that all the characters are kind of one-dimensional, other than Cassandra, because you are just doing little snapshots. In order to essentialize who a person is, you sort of create a one-dimensional cartoon of that person. So the aunt, and even the mother, the friend, it’s very punchy. And then when we translate it to screen, it’s like, “Oh yeah, they’re real people.” You have to be kinder to them.
Patricia Rozema: I discover that over and over in my filmmaking. When I did When Night is Falling, it’s a woman who is set to marry a guy, and then she falls in love with another woman. But there’s a preacher who is terrible about it and damning and says, “You can’t do that,” and “You people!” and all this sort of stuff.
But then, as soon as I was shooting the scene, he didn’t feel like a real person. I had to be nicer to him. I had to understand and be kinder to that terrible man who represented so much horribleness to me and my personal life. But good quality fiction demanded I was kinder to that character.
Norah Sadava: There was definitely. on set, especially when there was text that was right from the play in the film… we’ve done the play for four years, and it’s in us in a certain way, like muscle memory.
Amy Nostbakken: The play is so tight, tiny little movements we do together in sync. We breathe together.
Norah Sadava: So the camera would be rolling, and we’d do the thing like we do in the play, and then Patricia would go, “That was good. We got that. Now, do it like a normal person.” And you’d be like, “Oh yeah!” We had to unlearn, and then try to find it again, in a way that felt natural. It took a few times of that happening before we were like, “OK, now we understand. The play has to go.”
Patricia Rozema: Not the play, but the performance style. I have a very difficult relationship with theatre because it’s so big, and I love a raised eyebrow telling you the whole story. Or nothing. A stone face.
[Director Robert] Bresson calls actors models, and he says that the story should work if they do nothing. Never rely on the acting itself. What a sequence of shots are telling you is the film itself. And I kind of believe that, and the acting is a bonus. But it should be ever so subtle. I don’t know how I went to something that was so gestural, honest, and true, but something that big, and to think that it could be a movie.
I saw the play again after we made the movie, and I kind of had a little bit of a panic attack in retrospect: how did I think that could be a movie, and a realistic movie?
Norah Sadava: Everyone else who Patricia talked to about making it into a movie was like, “No! It won’t work.”
Amy Nostbakken: Just the conceit, two people playing one. It’s not going to happen.
Patricia Rozema: They say how are you going to do that? You just do it. But how? Well, you just put two people there. But that’s not real? I just said, “Yeah, that’s true.” I’m happy that I dared, and we all dared, and Oh Canada, that TeleFilm, Breaking Barriers, Ontario Creates, and then our beautiful angels — we actually went to real life human beings who love the arts who gave us their own money to do it. Thank god we had them.
Norah Sadava And it happened really fast. We went to camera within a year of meeting.
Patricia Rozema: It was just us coming up with stuff. You don’t even know how rare it is to have a whole film team, a whole film crew, and no one saying, “Wait a minute, that’s not what we talked about.”
Norah Sadava: Even on set. We were talking to everyone [like the costume designer and production designer] because we know this character, and we’d been living it for three years. We were like, “She’d never wear that. It’s ugly. Or it’s too good looking: put some more holes in it; it needs to be dirtier. Stop fixing my hair; it’s supposed to look shitty!”
Patricia Rozema: Do you know how hard it is to find actors who will do that? Who won’t have their hair brushed every minute? I’ve fought actors my whole life that want to be coiffed, to be lovely looking.
Norah Sadava: My mom said, “You know what’s one of my favourite things about the movie? How gross your hair looks all the time.”
Patricia Rozema: Someone else said, “I love the perpetual bedhead.”
Amy Nostbakken: When I see all the stills coming up for the PR, I’m like, “Yeah. It’s not very flattering.”
Norah Sadava: But it is important to us, on an activist level, to portray women in a way that’s truthful and not groomed and glossy, just human.
Want to learn more about deeply collaborative filmmaking?
When Mike Leigh makes movies, his actors also collaborate with the costume designer, production designer, and makeup designer to make sure they get the characters and their environment just right.
Seventh Row (7R): One of the opportunities when you are adding these other actors is that you actually get to interact with other characters. How did that change things for you?
Norah Sadava (NS): It was fun. We barely acted with Maev [Beaty], as the mom, because most of her scenes are with the younger actor who plays Little Cassandra.
Amy Nostbakken (AN): The one I remember was [when she gives me] the [pink] sweater and then [I’m] screaming at her face.
Patricia Rozema: And also, “So you want me to whore myself out for a few extra bucks?”
Amy Nostbakken: They are all kind of combative.
Norah Sadava: I remember, several times, the actors we were in scenes with were going, “OK, which one of you am I allowed to look at? Am I allowed to see both of you? You’re the one. You’re not here. For them to figure out, it was hard.” Everyone, in the end, got it, but there was the learning process, like with the dad, the guy she sleeps with, and with the best friend Jess, going, “You’re not here. I’m ignoring you.”
Amy Nostbakken: It was weirder for them. For us, it was just, “I’m playing this scene.”
Patricia Rozema: Norah’s talking to them, and I’m smashing things.
Amy Nostbakken: We both get to play it out. What’s cool about the conceit of two women playing one is because you have two, you know, as Patricia was saying, we’re skeptical. We have a barf-o-meter that has a low threshold. Cassandra herself has a very low threshold of emotiveness: she doesn’t want to seem one way, whatever that way is.
Because you have two, one can get totally emotional when the other one doesn’t give a shit, or vice versa; one’s really pissed off, and the other one is flattered. It gives you license to just play out that one reaction. As a writer, I’m thinking in that way. That’s a joy to play. You just have to go for it, and you don’t have to doubt yourself.
Patricia Rozema: You can have a non-one note character even if each of you are only playing one note [at a time].
We had one reaction that I really liked during a rough cut, which was that it was thrilling to imagine that your best friend is inside you. I loved that idea.
Seventh Row: That’s interesting because they are so combative. She’s grieving, but she never hugs herself until the end.
Patricia Rozema: And there’s the bathroom [scene], after sex, when she’s wiping her tears.
Norah Sadava: But she still says, “Aw, blotchy face.” But definitely there’s no coddling of each other, because she’s all fucked up in her head. She’s not hugging herself.
Patricia Rozema: The idea was that when they come together, at the end, as one, that that is longed for. That that will be more satisfying if they are never quite together. The only closeness they show is when they go into sync, when they’re doing stuff in perfect synchronicity. We were trying to create a longing for unity so that the ending would feel completely earned.
Norah Sadava I think that Maev [Beaty] said [Cassandra] is her [own] best friend when we were shooting [the scene where we’re] laying in bed, watching the romantic comedy, and joking with each other. There’s a little bit of kindness in some moments, but it is mostly combat.
Patricia Rozema: I felt very lucky to make this movie, to have this artistic authenticity and energy, and to make it in my own city, and talk about things that are urgent and of the moment. It’s very freeing.
How Patricia Rozema developed the aesthetic for Mouthpiece and collaborated on-set with Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava
Seventh Row: How did you think about developing the aesthetic for the film. It’s starkly different from two people in a bathtub.
Patricia Rozema: In the writing, we decided any technique was fair game, because if you think about it, it’s all happening inside a head, and not only inside a head, but a head in distress. Inside my head, there’s a lot of ricocheting around. There’s flashes of imagery; there’s words; there’s memories; there’s wishes; there’s wants; there’s sexual fantasies, whatever. There are so many different things.
The real strong impulse is to have one look for the past and one look for the present, but I don’t have one look for the past in my head and one look for the present in my head, do you? I felt like I don’t like being deliberately obscure or have people be confused for no reason. Confusion isn’t useful really, unless you are holding something back for a purpose.
Jakob Ihre took a similar approach to flashbacks in Louder Than Bombs, not differentiating, visually, between past and present. We talked to him about this choice and more.
So with Catherine, the cinematographer, we steadfastly resisted having one look for each thing, and we let the emotion of each scene define the look. If it’s a soft and gauzy moment of mother and daughter reading a children’s story, then we had the coral lens, the pinkish stuff, on it. Other times, we would have a whole half of the frame out of focus, and then the other half completely sharp.
In the end, we did go a little bit more warm towards the past, but only if it was a warm memory. We did add some more golds and warm up the skin tones in the final [colour grading], but we didn’t shoot that way.
Norah Sadava: Any time a frame looked too normal, she would also mess it up somehow, either by shooting through something… She took her lip gloss and said, “It looks too normal,” and put it on the actual lens so she was shooting through something.
Amy and I have never used the tools of cinema before. It was cool that you can fracture the person by shooting it in a certain way. You can say so much by having this thing in the middle of the camera, and it makes that part one way and that part another way.
Patricia Rozema: These guys have won awards for directing before.
Norah Sadava: Music videos.
Patricia Rozema: Yes, but still, you’ve worked with the language of film. They weren’t dumb about it or didn’t get it. It was the three of us figuring it out. I know a bit more, but they knew the characters. I couldn’t live with the idea that I’d make something they didn’t like. I had final cut on it, but it would be disgusting if I made their play into the movie, and they were embarrassed of it. And that happens all the time.
Amy Nostbakken: We feel extremely blessed. We knew during it. I would say to Patricia, Norah would be doing the scene with the brother, and I would say, “I don’t think he’d say that”, and then to Patricia,
“Maybe it’s more like this,” and she’d be, “Yeah, it is,” and then she’d say, right there, to Jake [Epstein, who played the brother]], “Say this instead.” I don’t think that’s standard for another actor on the set…
Patricia Rozema: You were a writer.
Amy Nostbakken: That’s not standard! The actor/writer situation. And we would just change things. If these were not the spines of the books she would have by the bed, I would just change it.
Patricia Rozema: What was shocking was how often I was looking at something going, “Does it feel right?” And one of you would say something, and it’d be, “That’s it! That’s why it’s not.”
Amy Nostbakken: There was a total equal respect, and it felt like we were all making the movie. It wasn’t like. “Patricia is now making this movie…”
Patricia Rozema: And shut up!
Amy Nostbakken: I feel like everyone said, anyway, that it felt like we were all making this movie.
Patricia Rozema: In the end credits, “a film by” rolls up: it has my name, and then ”a film by” stays up, and the whole crawl happens. I did that with my first film, and I love that idea, because it is by a lot of people.
Amy Nostbakken: I don’t think they always feel that.
Patricia Rozema: No.
Amy Nostbakken: But they say that they really did on this set.
Patricia Rozema: That’s how I like to work. I really do respect the contributions of other people.
Amy Nostbakken: Patricia insisted on no phones on set.
Patricia Rozema: No phones, no water bottles.
Amy Nostbakken: Everyone was so focused. Some of the stuff was really intense to shoot, for us, because it was crying all day, thinking about my mom dying, and it felt like it was a sacred space. The whole creative team was there supporting the entire process and not being dismissive or casual about it.
Patricia RozemaPatricia Rozema: I loved that you have the feeling. It’s really important to me. I love filming. I enjoy the process a lot, probably because I’m entirely secure in that I have to like it all.
If we disagree, we just kept talking until we all like it, but I have to like it all. It says directed by Patricia Rozema. I don’t have to prove that; that’s just a thing. And then I can just get all the great ideas I can from everywhere and get the reviews while they are still useful from the people right there.
The tone of the set is very important. I think people can feel lit when they watch the movie. People aren’t dumb. Audiences taste the tiny, subtle little shifts in flavour and feeling.
Making an ‘unapologetically Canadian’ movie
Seventh Row (7R): How did you figure out where you wanted to shoot in Toronto?
Patricia Rozema (PR): A lot of locations are written. Communist’s Daughter [a bar in Toronto] was written in.
Norah Sadava: The changing room in The Bay.
Amy Nostbakken (AN): They are just places from our real lives.
Norah Sadava: I think it’s really cool we filmed in the Communist’s Daughter, because it’s in the play that she goes to Communist’s Daughter..
Patricia Rozema: And we filmed on Palmerston, where you supposedly live.
Norah Sadava: So authentic.
Amy Nostbakken: We shot guerrilla on the streetcar.
Patricia Rozema: Yeah, we just went there with the camera and these two guys and one AD.
Norah Sadava: She had a code word for when she wanted us to do stuff in sync, but she didn’t want to say action because then people would look at the camera. I think it was pineapple. “3 – 2 – 1 – Pineapple,” and then we’d do the scene at the same time.
Patricia Rozema: Catherine and I would drive around. I have a funny video of us videotaping at Ontario Place where all those Christmas lights were. I’m filming what the shot might be, and she’s driving, and we’re saying, “Great, the lights would be behind, and they would be in silhouette here, and Oh My God, look how icy the sidewalk is! It’s all ice! Well, OK, we’ll do this one last in the day.”
Norah Sadava: There was a lot of biking in very, very cold, wintery, icy weather.
Patricia Rozema: It does not look nearly as painful as it was for you guys.
Norah Sadava: Amy had to do the pedaling; I was just sitting. We were also biking off and maybe had a walkie-talkie in the backpack or something. We were like, “Are we still on? I don’t know, just keep talking.”
Patricia Rozema: I love what’s in, but I did have images of the ultimate series of definitive shots of Toronto, and we’ve got some beauties in there, but I still had hoped for more time. It’s really hard to not make it jiggly on a bike. We were shooting out of the back of a van, not even a van,
Norah Sadava: Someone’s car. That’s real scrappy.
Patricia Rozema: I love the guerilla style. I’ve done bigger things, like Mansfield Park where it’s like $15 million, and there’s helicopter stuff in it. But it takes forever to set up a shot with the horses and the chariots, and then you have to turn around, and you get two or three shots in a day. If you have an idea about the light being over here, it’s like turning an ocean-liner.
I took a course in aesthetics when I was studying philosophy, and there were three principles: unity, diversity, and fittingness. I always come back to it.
Unity was really important because I knew this thing could just fly off the handle easily. Our language was that I didn’t want it to be like a pizza with too many toppings. Every once in a while, we’d go, “Too pizza?” So it just became a shorthand of this unity principle.
But if it’s too unified, it lacks diversity, and it’s boring. We never risked that with this one. But then fittingness is the right tool, the right camera, the right moment, the right shot for the emotion, and also the right atmosphere on set for this film, the right people for this film.
I’ve never actually had as female-dominated a crew before: all female keys. I’ve never had that before, but this was the film to do that. It didn’t feel like it was an all female crew; it felt like it was a crew without bullshit.
I didn’t have to navigate anyone’s ego. I didn’t have to take anyone aside, especially if a guy has a problem with a choice of mine, and I’m thinking, “I can’t take him down in front of the other guys,” I have to step aside. Because gender loyalty is much more profound than loyalty towards the filmmaker. I didn’t have any of that.
Editing Mouthpiece and how Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava were involved in the process
Seventh Row: Were you guys involved in the editing process?
Patricia Rozema: I showed them cuts.
Norah Sadava: We gave lots of notes. We saw maybe five or seven versions through the editing process, I’d say.
Patricia Rozema: We had a lot of screenings with the public, sometimes small, sometimes large. Finding people who knew nothing about me or them or the play or couldn’t care less, and then I would do like National Research Group, what Hollywood does. Did you like this character? Which scene did you like? Would you definitely recommend, probably recommend, probably not recommend?
Anyway, we did one of those for each of the screenings because it can so easily go off the rails. There was no eulogy in the play and no eulogy that we shot, but I remember it was Jodie Foster who said, “if you make it a movie, you’ve got to make a eulogy in it,” and we said, “What do you know!”
Norah Sadava: Like, no, we don’t!
Patricia Rozema: The whole thing is a eulogy. That would ruin it.
Norah Sadava: It was late in the edit that we…
Patricia Rozema: Very late. I would always ask if it feels like it just stops, and do you want the eulogy, or do you feel that it is great there is no eulogy, and half and half every time. And then we just took a crack at it.
Norah Sadava: And we cut the secondary plot-line because a lot of the feedback from the test screening…
Patricia Rozema: Actually. there wasn’t a lot, but there was one that was so good. She just said it is device-y.
Norah Sadava: It hit the nerve. She articulated our doubts.
Patricia Rozema: And then it just lifted out effortlessly and didn’t affect anything, and that’s when you know you didn’t need something.
Norah Sadava: I found the editing process fascinating. I was so amazed. It was writing the movie again. When I walked into the room and saw all the cue cards and all the scenes and watched the first assembly, and I was really expecting to hate it, that I was going to hate watching myself, and I’m sure it’s going to be horrible.
Amy Nostbakken (AN): And everyone said the first cut, you are going to hate.
Norah Sadava: And I watched it, and I didn’t hate it all.
Patricia Rozema: [Amy] laughed so much. It was the most satisfying screening for me of all of them because you laughed your head off.
Norah Sadava: Coming back in through the process, and seeing how teeny differences would make this massive impact on how you felt the film. And Lara [the editor] is amazing. She was so collaborative
Patricia Rozema: She just won the Canadian Cinema Editing Award. And it was really nice for me and her because she had sort of stepped out of active editing. I had met her. She was an editor on Grey Gardens (2009) which I had written, but not directed, but I met her and thought, “Man, you are smart and cool.” She was subtle and her humour was really dry, but she worked, worked, worked.
She wanted to have kids. Her husband was also an editor, and they needed a steady income, and she went into teaching. I met her and said, “Why don’t you come out of teaching and edit this movie?” She decided to give it a try. I interviewed a lot of the editors in the city, and she was the one I just felt would get it.
She had the right tone, the right “no bullshit” feel to her. She certainly had the technical chops for it. She’s very good, very good. When she won that award, she said. “Patricia will try everything to find exactly the right thing,” and I thought, “I guess I do do that.” I’m going to go through all the different options. We cut for a long time, went over-schedule but not over-budget.
Norah Sadava: You referred to the process of making the movie from beginning to end as a marathon of caring, which I think is a very good way to put it, but especially the editing part because we kept coming into the room, it’s this dark basement, and you guys have been in here for weeks on end.
Patricia Rozema: Months!
Norah Sadava: How do you have perspective on what it is you’re looking at anymore? You are wading through so much and making tiny shifts, and then you can’t remember what the other one was like, and it’s just an ocean of stuff you are swimming in. I found it so cool.
Patricia Rozema And you have little loves of a gesture or camera move, and you can’t explain why, but you really want to get it in, but it won’t work. The shot is on the other side, so you will try those two there, so you can have your weird little love there that maybe no one else gets, but you get.
Amy Nostbakken: You don’t know until you see it, and then it’s like, “Woah, it’s unlocking something else!” It’s so cool.
Norah Sadava: I think as a non-filmmaker, previous to this, editors are the least recognized team members who have the most impact. What a job! And people don’t go to the movies and be like, “Who edited that?!”
Patricia Rozema: But they should.
Norah Sadava: They should.
Patricia Rozema: Which is why I’m so thrilled she got back to work. People can tell that there’s a lot of editing. Except for that device we took out, the device-y part, and moving mom up, there’s not a ton of change in order [from our original script]. There’s slight shifts, but it’s basically what we conceived. But it took a lot of internal editing.
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Seventh Row (7R): Norah, you were saying it was really fascinating to see how small changes affected things.
Norah Sadava: Like if you cut before a breath, you feel one thing, and if you leave the breath in, you feel a totally different thing. That miniscule moment can totally affect the whole audience. We’d watch a cut and give notes, and what another cut. And some of it was like, “They took out the breath? But that was my favourite breath!” As you were saying, you fall in love with these moments.
Amy Nostbakken: We saw what was supposed to be the final cut after they’d done the sound, but then we all watched the screening, and Patricia had to leave before notes were given, and we were like, “It doesn’t work. The movie is ruined!” From the beginning, we’d always cried at the end.
Patricia Rozema: Even in the script, we’d cried.
Amy Nostbakken: But we couldn’t identify why. We just didn’t feel anything at the end. And Lara figured it out. The volume of the music had been brought down to hear the dialogue a tiny bit too much. They brought it back up, and was OK, it works.
Patricia Rozema: We were all crying again. I’ve never seen an example of something that delicate before. Usually, the emotional moments that work, they are strong, but that one was so delicate. I think it just suddenly FELT LIKE THIS VOICE-OVER rather than this meld of emotion.
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Seventh Row: What is next for all of you?
Norah Sadava: We are writing a TV series, and we are writing a new play at the same time. The way we make plays is a three-year process, so we are at the very beginning. We are just figuring out what that is.
Amy Nostbakken: It’s the best part of the process because no one has said no yet, so you just go, “We can do this! And there’ll be a ten person choir! And a huge set piece!”
Norah Sadava: And a massive set.
Amy Nostbakken: And we’ll say this.
Norah Sadava: We are going to get all the money in the world.
Amy Nostbakken: And people will feel this.
Patricia Rozema: And I have a movie that I started working on a couple years ago with another person about their life. I can’t announce it, but it has bigger movie stars. This was my labour of love.
Norah Sadava: Then she realized working with non-movie stars…
Patricia Rozema: The movie has no cast, is what people say about Mouthpiece. Don’t say that to the cast! So anyway, I’ve got a bigger project that looks like I’ve got the financing. It’s a European shoot. I can’t announce it.
But I want to work with these guys again.
Norah Sadava: We have ideas.
Patricia Rozema: We have some crazy ideas. We have a date.
Norah Sadava: At the cottage.
Patricia Rozema: We have some good ideas. Yeah, when it works, don’t fix it, man.