Moving away from the obnoxious harp playing in the dining room of Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel, I spoke with directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak about their new film, Maya Dardel, which I reviewed as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival. Friendly-faced and confident, they sit down opposite me in the quitter bar area to discuss the modern state of writing, meticulous direction, and robots taking over of the world…
Where did you get the inspiration to make Maya Dardel?
- Magdalena: It’s always hard to talk about inspiration with authenticity, but we are writers and I wanted to tell a story of a writer who has authored not only novels, but also a very complicated literary persona in the vein of authors like Oscar Wilde and Susan Sontag. In a way, it was an exercise in creating a complicated, meta-cognitive, neurotic character.
With the film taking place in a singular landscape for its entire duration, how did you decide where that would be?
- Zachary: That land belongs to my family, so I know it well. We used to spend a lot of time there, but we’ve moved to London now.
- Magdalena: It used to be a sort of writing retreat actually. We’d work on our books – he’d work on his poetry. That partially inspired the character as well, because of the locations in the film: the shipwrecked boat, and the vineyard, and the junkyard – they are all located in proximity to each other.
And is the fact that it’s single location important to the story?
- Z: It’s about a reclusive writer. I suppose it’s important, because that’s who she is. She makes the men come to her – she doesn’t travel to see them. It’s like an Artemis myth.
The set design is filled with a lot of meaningful imagery, from fragile glass to dying flowers. How much work did you do to the existing location and how much did you leave as authentic?
- M: I’d say everything we do, we do consciously; and we try to imbue everything with as much complexity as possible. So it was a combination of already having a pre-existing location, and designing it as well. And, of course, each shot was designed separately, so we tried to build it layers upon layers.
- Z: I feel that there’s a popular idea – that’s not necessarily correct – that filmmaking comes from wild improvisation, and being sort of a guru or a mystic or something like that. But, you know, Kubrick said that if chess and filmmaking have anything in common, it’s discipline and decision making; patience and deliberation – I don’t see why that can’t have its own mythic proportions. Chess masters are people of mythic proportion, so why do you have to be like a guru? You can be a very deliberate director and still have a mystique – I mean Kubrick does right?
Lena Olin gives a phenomenal and singular performance in the title role – how did you go about choosing her as your lead actress?
- Z: She was always the one: her very likeness and being was what led us there.
- M: And also her role in After the Rehearsal: her first film.
- Z: She comes from the Bergman tradition – it was easy.
- M: She did work on stage, so she’s always had a very intimate relationship with text, which is very important in terms of playing the writer.
- Z: Actors tend to not be self-conscious, but what happens if you cast an actor in the role of an imminently self-conscious person who’s constantly turning things over in her mind? It’s very difficult to play subconsciousness, subconsciously. It’s not a paradox actually – it’s a real thing that people do – and Lena is one of the few actors who has already shown that she can do it on screen. You watch After the Rehearsal, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and you see her playing an artist in a very meta-cognitive way. And so she plays subconsciousness on subconsciously, and that’s very difficult. There are other people that can do it, but certainly not everyone. We based the role on academics that we’ve known and famous writers. It’s a composite.
- M: it’s impossible to directly trace that DNA.
- Z: Once we had the script written, it was obvious to us that it was for her. She hadn’t done an indie before, as far as I know, so we didn’t expect her to say yes – but you have to try. I saw her first at Future Film so it was very lucky – she’s done us a huge favour. Apparently when she first saw it she asked, ‘is there a zero missing from the budget?’.
- M: That was actually her husband.
What, for you, is the significance of sexual activity in the film?
- Z: Life is degrading, it had to be authentic (laughs).
- M: Sex often is about degradation, and violence, and domination; something that people have forgotten about. It’s a retelling of the Artemis myth – if you get too close then you’ll die. You know what the French call orgasms? La petite mort.
Is there a particular reason you made Maya such a harsh, acerbic character, who feels the need to break down the applicants?
- M: I think that we believe in power politics, and we just have a very unsentimental outlook and reality, so we know that most people are motivated by power, and it’s often hidden under a fake veneer of humbleness and hypocrisy. We wanted to make a film about a character who is able to put that aside: who is experienced and unsentimental. I think it was Graham Greene who said that a writer has to have a piece of ice in his heart.
During the film, we are repeatedly reminded of the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of the potential suiters. Do these, to your minds, represent trends in contemporary American writing? And if so, what would these be?
- Z: Well, we came up through the American graduate creative writing system: I did go to the workshop where two of our characters went, and Magdalena did go to Columbia where it’s very similar. So, in a sense, I suppose we’re kinda making fun of some themes among young American poets these days. I guess in a broad way each one of their styles is based on one of the dominant schools but we went out of our way not to make them clichés.
- M: We’re putting them in a very unfair situation, because they are the victims of her games and manipulations. It wouldn’t be fair to make them archetypes of literary trends.
- Z: When I was writing the poetry for the characters, which I hope doesn’t look like my poetry, the first instinct is just to make it humorously bad, but then I thought ‘no, you can’t do that’ so I actually went out of my way to make even the ‘Holy Shit’ poem good. If you look closely, then I hope you see there’s something quite clever about it, but clever in a way that we’re sort of tired of.
- M: He’s in trouble because people have been really enjoying ‘Holy Shit’.
- Z: Yeah, some of my friends said ‘you should write more of those ‘Holy Shit’ poems, cause those are good’. That says more about them than me. (laughs)
Do you feel like good authors are a dying breed?
- Z: I don’t know, we’ll have to see. I think they’re an endangered species but maybe not extinct.
- M: Especially in America, they’ve lost their position at the helm of culture. People have been denigrated into niche environments.
- Z: There are some great writers out there though: they’re not extinct, they’ve just lost their cultural importance. There has been violence exacted to certain inspiring paradigms for writers, and the violence has been done by the internet; it’s been done by social networking; it’s been done by the rise of digital and visual culture which has side-lined textual culture. But we’re the last people to advocate some sort of nostalgic reactionary position. We’re happy to welcome the end of the primacy of ink on paper.
- M: We’re perversely celebrating the death of it – it’s a farewell party.
- Z: We wanted to make an elegy for this sort of culture, but nothing dies cleanly – it’ll keep on struggling for centuries. You know, we’re eager to transition from literature into film, and from film into virtual reality, and who knows what.
- M: There’s a revolution on the horizon. When machines take over and there’s the creation of a so-called ‘useless class’, people will be so bored that they’ll become a sort of 21st century aristocrat, where appreciation of fine art is at a high.
- Z: At that point, the value of the humanities might resurge because that would be one of the last things that computers could not do.
How did you go about writing the poetry for the suitors? Did they originate from the verse, or did the verse originate from them?
- Z: We wrote a script, and then I wrote the poems for each of the characters as part of the script. Those poems exist only in that film, they’re not in any of my books or anything like that.
- M: I mean there was an idea to have a book of poetry by Maya Dardel.
- Z: There’s the poem in the credits, and there are other poems that I wrote in Maya’s voice, but I don’t know what to do with them because they’re not in the movie.
What’s it like working as a team, rather than as a single director?
- M: I think making films is very collective. And we live together, it’s basically a continuation of a style we started many years ago so….
- Z: Most of the unique ideas happened before we got on set. Plus we’re synthesised – we didn’t want to shoot it two different ways.
- M: We always say we’re like a four-legged hermaphrodite, because we have toxically and neurotically merged into one person so we have a complete trust in each other and each other’s decisions.
Although the story is quite wacky, and the landscape can be at times whimsical, for the most part you maintain an ambient, realistic soundscape – were there any particular reasons for this?
- Z: We see the place with the boat, and the junk, and the couch and stuff as not our choices but the characters’ choice, so for us it is psychological realism, and realism about a whimsical person. She has a bird with a Venetian mask on her table; she has a couch in the woods; she has broken mirrors around her property; but then the soundscape would have to be naturalistic because she doesn’t control the birds and the trees.
Lastly, can you define subdermatoglyphic?
- Z: Subdermatoglyphic? Writing under the skin. It’s a word. I read the dictionary for fun.
Featured image: FilmTV.