Director Patricia Rozema and actors Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, all of whom co-wrote Mouthpiece together, discuss adapting Mouthpiece from stage to screen, telling an unapologetically Canadian and feminist story, and much more.
This interview is an excerpt. The full interview is only available in The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook.
This article was originally published on June 9th, 2019.
The best movie of 2019, 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. Mouthpiece’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 Mouthpiece premiered 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 Mouthpiece our favourite Canadian film to have premiered in 2018 on our podcast about Canadian Cinema, and we went in even deeper on Mouthpiece 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 Mouthpiece from stage to screen and telling this timely, feminist story.
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Turning Mouthpiece the play into Mouthpiece the film
Seventh Row: What made you decide to do a film of the play Mouthpiece?
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.
Watch our cinematography masterclass with Catherine Lutes and Ashley Connor
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 Mouthpiece is physical theatre, and the film Mouthpiece 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.
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 when making the film version of Mouthpiece?
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.