Mansfield Park 
A Conversation with Patricia Rozema
feature by
Patty-Lynne Herlevi, 11 February 2000

Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema (Iíve Heard The Mermaids Singing) 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.  

Patty-Lynne Herlevi: Can you elaborate on the adaptation process that you went through in writing the adaptation of Mansfield Park?

Patricia Rozema:  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 of poverty.  

PH: Is this a case of the author being more interesting than the fictional character?

PR: 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?

PR: 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 talking about.

PH: Your male characters in Mansfield Park are more prominent than the male characters in Sense & Sensibility and Emma.

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 Park like slavery, for instance?  Most people expect movies based on Jane Austenís books to be light.

PR:  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.

PR: 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 at all.

PH: 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. 

PH: You worked with a dynamic cast as well.

PR: 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?

PR: 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

Now 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.

Thatís 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.

PH: Over all though, what was it like working with a talented cast?

PR:  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.

PH: Speaking of respect, how are women directors treated in the Canadian film industry?

PR:  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.

Itís 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.

Itís 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.

Being 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.

PH: Perhaps they would rather be actresses instead.

PR: 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 Canadian talent?

PR:  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.

There 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 immediately commercial.

And 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.

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