An interview with Alison Maclean
on Kitchen Sink

Richard Raskin

NB. It is in connection with a visit Alison Maclean's was scheduled make to the Department of Information and Media Studies in March 2008, as part of the 13th International Short Film Symposium, that a portion of this issue of p.o.v. is devoted to Kitchen Sink. Unfortunately production on a new feature film prevented her from taking part in the symposium. Nevertheless, articles written about Kitchen Sink are included in this issue, and the following interview with Alison Maclean, which originally appeared in p.o.v. Number 13 (March 2002), is also reprinted here.

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You stated in an earlier interview that the story for Kitchen Sink came to you little by little, and I know that you wrote a detailed screenplay for the film. But did the story change at all along the way? Does the film depart in any significant ways from the original concept?

I came up with the idea in response to a kind of brief on the New Zealand Film Commission. They were asking for ideas for 13-minute shorts. It was a set budget and a set length. And I literally sat down one day and tried to think of a story that could work for that kind of scale. And I thought: something involving a woman, basically alone at home, where something might happen to her. And then it really kind of came very quickly in sequence and I saw the whole film. But the part that stumped me, that took me a long time to solve, was actually the ending. The rest was very clear to me, I could see the whole thing, right up to when this creature wakes up as a man, but I really didn't know what to do from there. And that probably took about four months or so, and I was mulling it over and trying out different ways of ending it - like having him speak, and making it kind of complicated - and then I finally thought of the final image, that seemed to bring the story full circle. But that took a bit of time.

Can you tell me anything about the casting of Theresa Healy and Peter Tait in the main roles?

Peter Tait was an actor I had used in another film I did called Talk Back. I just loved his face and his presence. Actually, in that other film, he had played a kind of ex-con and so was a very different kind of character - a bit more aggressive in a way. But then he came in and did an audition for me for Kitchen Sink, and he just had this amazing quality - like someone who had just been born. A certain kind of innocence that is at odds with his appearance. He just has such a very strong, physical presence. So that was a very clear decision.

And then Teresa - I hadn't known her but I saw her photograph in a magazine. She was looking over a man's shoulder and straight out at the camera. And I decided when I saw that photograph that she would be perfect.

Can you give me any details about the shooting, working with Stuart Dryburgh?

We had worked on another job together when he was the d.p. [director of photography] and I guess I was a first a.d. [assistant director] or something. I knew him, from a couple of jobs actually. We worked pretty closely on the storyboard together. So we spent quite a bit of time working together and he storyboarded the whole film with me. He was great to work with.
Probably more than anything that I've ever done, it was a very charmed experience making that film. Everybody who was involved just rose to the challenge and came up with something that was beyond what I'd imagined. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The people who did the special effects, and Stuart's work, everybody's work hit a level that I hadn't imagined. It was really a very special experience. Of course I thought that filmmaking was always going to be like that after that - but it hasn't been so much since [laughter].

I noticed that in one of the descriptions of Kitchen Sink, the film was described as a "minefield of metaphors," which I thought was quite appropriate. I'm usually reluctant to interpret films in Freudian terms but in this case, it's simply unmistakable. That there is birth symbolism seems fairly clear: a little creature is pulled up out of a hole, with what resembles an umbilical cord coiled up beside him. Do you see it that way?

But to me the story was about metamorphosis, so it was like a metaphor that kept changing - it was birth, and garbage... It just kept changing through all the different stages of that creature's evolution, and of her relationship with him. That's what I was having fun with. And I kept thinking about it as a strange, Pygmalion kind of story. That was the main idea I had.

O.K. So not so much the birth part...

Oh that's absolutely there, of course. That's definitely part of it but it's not the only part of it. It goes from a birth thing to a lover thing, so it totally changes.

Hair is of course very central. The story starts with hair in the drain, then the woman shaves off the creature's hair, and he touches her hair, and she pulls at hair on his neck at the end. Does hair in this story represent the animal part of human nature?

Maybe. I wouldn't have described it that way. It's funny. Hair seems to come up for me quite a bit. I'm not quite sure why that is. I honestly couldn't say. Because the first image I had was of a hair, and so everything came from that. And then it just seemed to be about continuing that image throughout and having it evolve. One of the visual references I had and thought about a lot as I was making Kitchen Sink is a film called Woman of the Dunes. Very sensual textures of skin and hair and sand.

There's a shot where a King Kong poster is visible. Is that a joke?

Yes. Just the idea of a big, hairy creature. And the sexual overtones of that. Yeah, it was a joke [laughter].

One of the things your film was praised for was that it combines art film with horror movie. Can you say anything more about that combination?

I guess that tends to be the territory that I'm interested in generally. I am quite interested in genre and those kinds of narrative structures and playing with people's expectations, in terms of thriller or horror. I am quite attracted to that. But then, it's never a pure genre. It's almost just like a kind of framework to look at other more psychological things.

You know, I was quite inspired also by The Fly, which also does that. It's a horror film, but it's also quite a tender love story. I love the collision of those two dimensions...

Doesn't the guy in The Fly also have hairs growing out of his back?

Yeah, he also has little bristles.

Your film has also been described as replacing "female gothic" with "feminist fantastic." It's the word "feminist" that I'm especially interested in. Do you see Kitchen Sink in feminist terms?

I'm not quite sure what it means any more. I think it meant something in the 70s, in the earlier stages of the women's liberation movement, but now I'm not sure what it means. Only in the sense that it's about female subjectivity and an interest in stories about women that haven't been told... If you turned the Kitchen Sink story around and made the main character a man - like the Pygmalion story, falling in love with a statue that he created, that kind of classic story - you wouldn't think it was a male story, you'd think it was a kind of mythical, universal story. It's funny that Kitchen Sink is called feminist, when it's just that the gender is the other way around.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you've been doing since 1989?

Well, I made Crush in 1992-1993 in New Zealand, which is the only feature I've made. That was something I had spent two or two and a half years writing, with another woman, Anne Kennedy, but largely alone. By that stage, I had already moved to Sydney and I just came back to make that film. Only about a year after that film was finished, I decided to move to New York. I came over here because I had some opportunities. I actually had a development deal for a while with Touchstone Pictures and was developing a script with them - which didn't work out, but that brought me over here and I ended up staying. Since I've been here, I've really concentrated on writing. I can't believe that I've done it, but I've written close to three feature scripts, and if someone had told me that I was going to do that before I got a chance to make another film, I would have felt like giving up. I've spent most of the last four or five years writing these scripts and trying to set them up, and for one reason or another being quite frustrated in that. Two films that I thought were almost certain to happen, haven't happened and are quite stopped for a variety of reasons. It just seems to be the nature of the business and the kinds of films I want to make. It's not easy. They're perceived as risky and they're perceived as a little more idiosyncratic, so it's harder to get them financed. So I've worked on those three scripts, and I've also been involved with the development of a couple of others, and one which I didn't write and which is based on a book called Jesus's Son, it looks like I'm going to do in September. So I'm now in early pre-production for that.

I know you've also been doing some music videos.

Yeah, that's something that came my way recently, at the end of last year. And it's actually been really good for me. I've just finished my third one for this one woman who's an Australian girl called Natalie Imbruglia.

Torn is shown ten times a day in Denmark.

I know [laughter]. She's phenomenally successful, and this has all happened very quickly. It all happened after I made that video, because she was completely unknown then. It's been a blast. It's been great for me, because it's gotten me back into directing and making short pieces. Also I've gotten to try out some things that I've never done before. What I did with that first video with her had a kind of formal concept to it. But within that, there was a lot of freedom and a lot of improvising and play, and that's quite different from what I've done before, and I've always wanted to push myself in that direction, so I feel like I've given myself some confidence in just kind of working things out with actors on the spur of the moment and seeing them come to life. And that was really exciting to me. So it's actually been really rewarding. It's not that I want in any way to make a career of music videos. So now I've just made my third, and in a strange way, they're kind of a triptych, one develops from the other. So it's been good.

On one of MTV's "pop up" video programs, they said that you didn't let the singer know when you were filming. Is that true?

Yes. It was sort of odd because the idea was to film in all the in-between parts. I got the idea from hanging out on the film set and watching the monitor. Just watching all those incredible "chance" things that happen when people don't think they're being filmed. Those were the moments I was interested in. So I gave them a script that was actually a re-written version of a scene from Last Tango in Paris that they were doing, and we were kind of working out the scene together, as you would with actors and a director, and then I had the shutter control and I was just turning it on and off. And any time I saw something interesting in front of the lens I would turn it on. And then any time I would go up to work with them or explain something to them, the d.p. would film me without me knowing it. And after a while we were all completely confused about when it was on and when it was off. It was a lot of fun.

What sort of time frame is involved in making music videos?

It varies. It basically depends on the budget. That was a simpler idea and we did it in one day. The second one, called Big Mistake, we shot in Barcelona. Natalie is walking down the street in Barcelona, and the camera just keeps moving through the entire video, from right to left. It's just one continuous move basically that's cut up. And so you cut between her walking and singing, and she passes various people and disturbances that she just walks past without them stopping her. And then there's a man following her and he gets snarled up in all of these things. Things fall on him, and a fight breaks out around him. The camera just keeps moving on her and on him, so the whole thing moves constantly from right to left. It's sort of inspired by that traffic accident scene in Godard's Weekend.

And then this new one was a three-day shoot and a bit more ambitious. It was done in a theater, and was much more colorful and theatrical. And actually inspired by Hindu musicals.

What about the editing phase. How long do you spend on that?

This last one will probably take a week. There's quite a lot of work. It's surprising. You have a lot of choice. To make it work with the song. I've loved that part of it too, because music is one of my favorite parts of the whole process of making a film. Working with a composer, or finding music, or seeing how that works with images. Music was a big part of my life when I was younger. I played the cello and guitar. I love that about doing these videos, that you're working with music, and it's rhythmical. The other thing that's fun is that it's like I'm exploring ways - like with this last video - to be more abstract, more stylized, and yet to still have emotion there, and some truth in the performances. Yet within a form that's really quite artificial. Those are things that it's hard to do in a feature film. And yet I think that you can also bring that experience into narrative films in a way that can really energize them. It's experimentation. It's good.

You were born in Canada but you moved to New Zealand when you were fourteen. Considering the size of New Zealand, I think it's quite remarkable that so many internationally important short films come from there. Do you have any way of accounting for the innovative quality of New Zealand short films?

I don't know. I guess it's partly the funding structure, which has been very supportive of short films in a way that just isn't possible here. If you're trying to make a short film here, you have to do it with your own money, pretty much. And there's no way of showing it. Whereas in New Zealand... Actually, it's a combination of things. There were a group of us back in the late '80s, who were making short films, and we lobbied together to create the short film fund. We were there at the inception of this fund. Also a group of us, including Gregor Nicholas, we were organizing our own screenings of short films, and advertising them and plastering the city with posters. And finding that there was a really big audience for them. But we sort of created it ourselves. That's a factor. And sometimes I think it has to do with the isolation that in some ways allows a space for originality, that you don't feel overwhelmed with the competition, the weight of all those other filmmakers out there or influences. You just feel a little bit removed.

And there have also been a few really important directors, like Vincent Ward and Jane Campion, who have been very inspiring to me and to many other filmmakers, because they have succeeded in making very strong, singular films that are uncompromising and that have at the same time been very successful internationally. So that sort of gives you confidence or courage that you could do that too.

Jane Campion I know but who is Vincent Ward?

He's really extraordinary. His features are Vigil, The Navigator, then he made Map of the Human Heart. He made a number of shorter films before that, that won many awards. He made an extraordinary documentary called In Spring One Plants Alone, about an older Maori woman and her handicapped son, who live in a very remote community in the North Island. He lived with them. He also made an incredible film called State of Siege, based on a Janet Frame short story that's really devastating. He's an inspiration.

I'd like to ask a more general question now about the art of the short film. Do you think that storytelling in the short film is essentially the same as storytelling in the feature film?

No, I think it's very different. There are only certain kinds of stories that can work in a short film. It's so much about compression, and it can't be as psychological. It has to somehow suggest those things while having a simpler trajectory or story line. It's actually hard to find a story that can work in fifteen minutes. It's about compression, it's about suggesting things as opposed to developing something over time. That's one of the things I find exciting about it.

What advice would you give to student filmmakers who were in the process of designing their own short films?

I guess the main thing is: keep it really short. I've seen a lot of short films in my time and occasionally I've been a judge for short film festivals, so I've seen a large number, and my main criticism of at least half of them is that they are too long. The shorter the better. [laughter] Under fifteen minutes is good. Even ten. Other than that, it's hard to say. Studying short films that really work. And keeping it simple.

New York, 11 April 1998

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