filmmaker Patricia Rozema (Iíve Heard The
has liberated Jane Austen and Austenís work from its pretty prison in her
adaptation of Austenís Mansfield Park.
Not only does Rozema expose the raw sexuality of Englandís Regent
period, but she also tackles the slavery abolition issue of that period. And while, the film Mansfield Park
has pastoral scenery that resembles Impressionist paintings, the storyís
characters are not mauve or discreet, neither is the central character Fanny
Price soft or passive. She champions her love interest and she would rather live in abject
poverty rather than marry a man that she feels is insincere.
As in Ang Leeís adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Rozemaís characters prove to be strong and intelligent as they deal with the issues of their time. However, while the Angís characters skirted around sexual issues, Rozemaís characters faced the issues of sexuality straight on without flinching. Not everyone, especially the British press, was happy with Rozemaís adaptation of the Austen novel, but itís not a filmmakerís job to please the press or Austen fanatics. After much research, Rozema created memorable characters that will take Austenís work into the next century in a dynamic fashion despite the controversy.
I spoke with Rozema about her adaptation of Austenís novel and the Canadian film industry in general while she was in Seattle to promote the screening of Mansfield Park at the Women in Cinema Festival last November.
Herlevi: Can you elaborate on the
adaptation process that you went through in writing the adaptation of Mansfield
Well, the main character in the novel is not a fully-drawn character and
what we do get from her is that she is sort of quivering and shy. And she doesnít speak very
often. I didnít think that movie would actually get made through a script that
was sort of a literal, but there so much else that is interesting about that
novel. Itís very different from the rest of her work in that it
has darker currents running through with the slavery business and even the whole
atmosphere of sexuality in Mansfield Park. The authorities are not necessarily benevolent and the
presentation of poverty is much more extreme in this one. Itís usually kind of a passing one little poor scene in her other
novels and here she is thrown into the midst of abject poverty. I think Austen herself had a great fear
Is this a case of the author being
more interesting than the fictional character?
So just reading it drew my attention to the author and I couldnít figure out
why she would write a character that was annoying because she is capable of
writing completely fascinating articulate and interesting protagonists. I was
drawn to reading about Austen. I read a few biographies and I found this almost
anarchic spirit in her when she was writing her first works especially and I
just thought it would be interesting to write this meta-fictional mix or
something. Iím not sure why but it felt like a contemporary strategy to
include the reality of the author and her other fiction into the authorís work
of fiction (Mansfield Park). Thereís
a collage or prismatic like approach. Everything you know is mixing reality and
fiction now anyway. You get your newscasters in fictional films playing
newscasters reporting on fictional events. Major political figures are showing
up in works of fiction. Thereís a whole blur between those two levels. So I made my
character more like Austen. Thatís who
I was interested in when I was reading the novel. Thereís always that
automatic interest when youíre reading someoneís work. How much of this is
you? What do you know? How is this you?
PH: How would you define your characterís position in
life? Do you find that your women characters resonate powerfully in your films?
I donít necessarily believe that they are power people. Right? They donít
have positions of power in their world. Theyíre dismissive often then over the
course of the film I make them more worthy of our affection. Men tend to do male
characters and women tend to do female characters. I think that the great male
directors can do good female characters and I hope that I can do good male
characters. That is definitely a point of pride for me that the male characters
are believable and interesting human beings. Itís far too simple to make all
of the women good and all of the men bad. Itís nutty and not even worth
PH: Your male characters in Mansfield Park are more prominent than the male characters
in Sense & Sensibility
PR: Thatís true, isnít it? Between Sir Thomas, Edmond and Henry Crawford there seems to be a strong male presence.
PH: Besides the strong male
characters, you also take on heavy themes in Mansfield
like slavery, for instance? Most
people expect movies based on Jane Austenís books to be light.
Thatís why I felt the need to do that.
PH: You had more of an emotional edge to your film by
bringing up issues of slavery and sexuality.
At the beginning of my draft I had written,
ďThis ainít no garden party.Ē because I dreaded doing another kind
of little genteel nostalgic celebration of politeness. I donít want to
criticize Sense and Sensibility because it had something good about it.
Itís my favorite one. I didnít much care for Emma
It was a little too sweet.
PR: Like a little. Put some syrup on your candy. Thatís what I lived in dread of. The novel itself doesnít lend itself to that kind of treatment and I set out to make something that had an aesthetic that would appeal to me. I normally donít like costume dramas as they call them and I could be less dramatic. I tried to minimize the difference. I just thought Iím only interested in the kind of emotions or dynamics that are eternal or at least last a century or two. So I just stayed a lot in close ups. I wrote it first as a contemporary drama and then I translated it into the period. So I went from old to new to old again, so I could be sure that every joke would work now and that every dynamic or argument would work now. I think that it pretty much holds.
You worked with a dynamic cast as well.
An embarrassment of riches, I tell you. Thereís a tendency, especially with
the English actors working with one of their greatest writers, toward expressing
a preference as to how they would like to present the line. Harold could get a
bit declamatory too and itís legitimate if it is the style the director is
going for, but itís not my style. I like to just throw it away. I like to make
it look accidentally dramatic.
PH: What was it like working with Harold Pinter or another
director in the role of an actor?
He said, ďPatricia, I always
listen to my director.Ē and I would say, ď Harold,
I always listen to my actor.Ē
Even the greatest actors need a director. If theyíre great they know
that they need someone to keep an eye on them. And itís just so moving as a
director. I did a film once with Kate Nelligan. She would do her scenes, then
look at me and she would ask, ďIs that OK?Ē
that you ask me, yeah, I can remember that there were a couple of problems. You
pretend to not be intimidated and they youíre not and youíre not in the end.
Heís not the one whoís going to trot around doing interviews on it. Heís
not the one held responsible for it. I am and I always know that and I always
know no matter what a challenge there is to my right to decide and whatís in a
scene. I know that I wrote and directed this thing. If I let the control go away
then thatís my responsibility. I have to live with this and Iím going to see
this when Iím eighty. It has to be what I hope for, you know, so that always
helps me to be assured of my right to control.
always the hard thing to know when to listen because everyone would like to make
their own movie. Everyone has their own take on everything especially in the
movie business: there are a lot of
people who would like to have their own thumb print on it, but not actually
stick their neck out and put their name on it.
Over all though, what was it like
working with a talented cast?
What was it like? It was fun. I think that I was an old man in my former
life or something. I get it and I understand that sense of entitlement and
amount of respect.
Speaking of respect, how are women
directors treated in the Canadian film industry?
I would think better than here in the U.S. I think that it has something
to do with the fact that weíre not a world power. We donít have the biggest
dick in the world.
not part of our identity to be the dominators so we have such a tradition of
women writers, strong women writers. Film has been respected as more of an art
form and more than a business. Here it is more of a business so if itís in the
context of art, women are allowed to be artists in Canada.
the same in Australia. There are more women directors coming out of Australia
per capita and in Canada than in the US probably. I donít know why it is.
a woman isnít even an issue. I mean there isnít a ton of women directors in
Canada. I mean itís a hard job and when most people figure out what it takes,
they donít want it.
Perhaps they would rather be actresses instead.
Or a writer-- not that any of those jobs are easier. The hours and constant
struggle of being a director is pretty demanding, which is why I donít do it
very often. I love having the writing stints in between. Writing makes me feel
like a real human being. I get to actually really focus on something and Iím
not on and out there sending myself out and promoting or organizing the world.
Iím just engaging. So itís a nice rhythm. Interior for the writing then
exterior for the directing then interior again for the editing and exterior
again for the promoting and the releasing of it. I canít wait to get back to
the writing. Because itís all there. Thatís where movies are made. Movies
are written. Actors flock to well-written things. The scenes direct themselves
if they are written properly. Itís real easy to know what the right thing is.
When the scene is not clear, you donít know what the intention is: then you
donít know where to put the camera.
PH: I have noticed a variety of talented directors coming
out of Canada. I call it the Canadian film wave. How has this come about and why
is the international film market now being showered with many films made by
There is support from the government for artistic films. So a group of
filmmakers have been allowed to pursue their own taste and to develop their own
aesthetic style. And weíre all kind of different. Thereís not a school where
weíre all following the same principles. For instance, Atom Egoyanís work is
very different than mine.
was government funding for art-council films so we were all making art-council
films and we all got to make films. Now weíre coming to a point where itís
becoming international, but we were beaten up by the market place early in our
careers. We werenít required to draw in huge numbers and lots of Canadians
criticized our work because we werenít commercial enough, but now that weíre
doing more accessible things or at least getting more recognition for doing the
same thing. I think that it was a matter of support for work that wasnít
thatís a really important part. Itís like supporting kids or paying for
schools. You donít expect to get money back right away. Itís R & D in
the countryís emotional cultural wealth.