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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Hybrids: Marisa Zanotti

During March 2010, I met with dance trained director Marisa Zanotti to talk about her transition from live work to screen-based practice and how her influences and experiences come together in her current work.

Chirstinn Whyte - I wanted to begin by asking about your experience of working as a female director within a fairly traditional, industry-based production model.

Marisa Zanotti - Well, I think I’ve had quite an unusual experience in that I was commissioned to direct a drama really very quickly. In fact the first proposal that I made was commissioned by BBC Scotland for Tartan Shorts. I’ve also worked with a female producer for quite a long time and I’ve worked with relatively large crews, and I think that in the culture of independent film, the dinosaur attitudes of the past are challenged and people just want to have an environment that’s conducive to making good work. The statistic that everybody always talks about - that 8 per cent of directors are now women and the rest aren’t – I think that’s really going to change with the advent of new technology, as it becomes available to everybody. I think that will remove – well I hope will remove - a lot of the barriers to women entering the industry. I always remember the story of Lynne Ramsay who wanted to be a cinematographer and was told she shouldn’t do it because the cameras were too heavy – those sorts of stories – I think that will change.

C.W. - I know that you’ve developed a number of collaborative working relationships over the last few years, with the writer David Greig and with editor Ian Ballantyne, and I wanted to ask about your role within those working partnerships.

M.Z. - Both those partnerships have evolved over a long time now. I first met David In 1998. I’d done some work on his plays and then we started collaborating together in 2000. Our roles were quite clear-cut - he was the writer and I was the director - although we had directed together, in theatre. That’s changed a lot, and for lots of reasons. I’ve come from a background of choreography where you’re sole author in many ways - recognised as sole author although your practice may not be about teaching people steps or writing steps – but in working with somebody else it’s taken a while to evolve and define how that relationship works, drafting, re-imagining, and re-editing the script. One of the reasons I really liked working with David’s writing in the theatre was it left a lot of space. Working in a screen practice where its script-led and where a lot of people need to see exactly what needs to happen it became more important to be part of the process of putting those things on a page. So now we’re writing together and that’s a really great process. It’s happened quite organically and we don’t live in the same country, so we do a lot by email where we just send things back and forward. I think we both really enjoy that process because it’s not a hothouse situation. It’s also happened practically because we both work on other things, so there’s quite an interesting thing about how something develops over time. There’s also a lot of trust - we both have the ability to tell each other when something is really crap without there being a great deal of offence and that’s a really nice thing - and we’re quite efficient. I suppose you can work faster when you know somebody very well, and when you share the same kind of interests and the same kind of languages. Ian Ballantyne comes from a fairly traditional industry background in editing, having done both online and offline work and a lot of documentary practice and so I think there’s a bit more – I wouldn’t say tension because it doesn’t really work like that - but there are more challenges of trying things out that probably won’t work. We worked together on screendance projects as well as straight drama projects so you’ve got two people who have a lot of knowledge of different kind of fields coming together and exchanging that knowledge and that’s kind of great. And it’s very much a partnership that grows - again there’s a thing about trust and there’s a thing about understanding each other - the thing that’s really great with Ian is that he’ll trust my eye, even when I’m suggesting something that isn’t the traditional way of doing it. I think I’m always going to be interested in choreographic ideas, but I really love drama, absolutely love it, more than anything I think.

C.W. – I wondered how you’ve found your own work developing in relation to that distinction between screendance and drama.

M.Z. - What I’m interested in more and more is bringing in ideas from my choreographic background of more the way I think abut space or the way I think about exploring something into a drama process - whether that’s a writing process, through thinking about landscape and the body, or whether it’s through setting up shots about how you can work choreographically in the frame - whether it’s directing actors and bringing together lots of ideas about the body, about the voice, about those kinds of things which come from live practice. I still go to the theatre a lot, and I still go to see dance a lot so I’m interested in performance in the same way that I’m interested in choreography and space – they’re sort of broad areas and they find expression now through this thing which is called drama.

C.W. - That brings me to another question that I was going to ask about your recent work Being Norwegian, which I know was developed from the bare bones of a radio play but has evolved into a highly visual and spatial engagement with the material.

M.Z. - David gave me Being Norwegian a long time ago. I read it and didn’t like it, and then I was looking for something that was feasible to make and I wanted something that already existed. It was a radio play, although it had a life as well as a stage play, so David and I worked from the radio script and then we worked from the stage script to condense it. It’s a very dialogue-led work so the challenge was making it into something visually poetic without losing the immediacy and acuteness of the dialogue, which I really like about David’s writing. It went from forty five minutes to a fifteen minute piece. I wanted to set it in a very big factory location, and then as these things go, three days before the shoot we lost the factory, so it became something much smaller that happened in someone’s house which was the original setting. This was very much a film about two people in a room, and about the effect of interiorising your emotions - something I think anybody working in film is really interested in making visible, whether that’s through mise-en-scene or whether that’s in the body of the actor. One of the things I’ve been interested in - and David’s writing has definitely been interested in - is male identity, and Scottish male identity in particular. Before we’d set it in relation to a kind of cowboy theme - not just the cowboy as being a really important icon for Glaswegian culture, but also in terms of thinking about people living on the borders of society or people living in emotional deserts. So that’s what the first short, ‘At the End of the Sentence’ was about. With Being Norwegian I think the interiority is much more about fragility and vulnerability.

C.W. – As you say, your work is rooted in this very recognisably Scottish cultural context but you’ve been based in Brighton for the last few years and I wondered how creatively significant that is for you.

M.Z. - Yes, it’s taken me seven years for me to start developing an understanding of the landscape in East Sussex and West Sussex. Because I travel from East Sussex to West Sussex every day, I began to understand what the terrain was. It’s enormously challenging for someone who’s used to mountains to move to a place which is really quite flat, or that has very gentle rolling hills. Also coming from an industrial town I suppose I’d not really understood what the industry was in Hampshire or Sussex. It never really seemed as visible, which is nonsense because it’s very visible - there’s Shoreham harbour; and factories that are never really seen because they’re hidden in this pastoral place, and then of course no factories as well, which also says something about what people do and don't do. So that aspect suddenly began to make sense as well what it is to be a person who lives surrounded by space – surrounded by flat space. So with that in mind I’ve started writing something, again with David, but very much from the point of view of a Scottish person looking at life in West Sussex and Hampshire. I suppose this idea of not understanding the landscape is about the poetic images you make - I couldn’t really find any and now I’ve found them.

C.W. - I also wanted to relate that to your background as a performer and a maker of contemporary dance, and I’d wondered how the transition had come about from that very particular tradition to working in screenbased drama.

M.Z. - I think when you work in choreography and dance you have an affinity to screen practices anyway. I think a lot of dance practitioners find that. I think a lot of film practitioners also find it in relation to dance, in relation to how time is experienced. There was that somewhere in the practice that I had as a dancer and as a choreographer. I was also just interested in the possibilities of how moving image could be incorporated into live work so I did that for a while with edited backdrops which were very, very abstract. Then I started to work in theatre as a movement director to subsidise my contemporary dance practice, and became really fascinated by actors process and by writers process. I suddenly became very interested in text and script, and was able to watch lots of people realise those scripts and watch lots of actors processes. Then David invited me to co-direct his play San Diego for the Edinburgh International Festival which was a huge baptism of fire. From that we wanted to keep working together and the opportunity to pitch for a Tartan Short came up. I hadn’t made any screen drama before and I hadn’t really directed very much drama at all before then, but it felt very natural and I think it’s enabled me to bring together everything I’ve ever done in my career into one form.

C.W. - I wondered how you were thinking about your work developing from here on.

M.Z. - I think a couple of years ago I would’ve said ‘it’ll be developing into feature length scripts’ but I think it’s important to be open in terms of how your work is created and more importantly how it’s distributed, and not decide what form something’s going to take. I could definitely see it developing into longer form, but to be honest I’m quite happy to make short form because it’s very difficult but it really works. I feel really excited just now about the possibilities that there are for anybody working and who wants to make films - if we can still call them films, I don’t know if we can any more - because there are different ways of showing your work. Its not just going to be festivals. Last year I would’ve assumed that any screen drama that I made would be shown as festival output and now I don’t really think that’s the case any more. I think the internet has of course opened up really brilliant opportunities and the possibility to engage with people in a really different way. So it could be that I’m still making shorts that go to festivals or it could be that I’m doing lots of other things as well - in fact I am doing lots of other things as well anyway. I know that the core of what I do is that I want to tell stories, and I absolutely know that for certain in a way that, whatever I make, it will always have a narrative and that’s really important to me. I feel very clear about that, and I think if you’ve had a practice that’s had a journey that’s not linear, when you find the point at which you actually find what you want to do it’s actually quite strange and wonderful.


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