INTERVIEW- Elisabeth Subrin: On female identity and funding a vision

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It’s been a long road for filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin. After decades as a video and installation artist and experimental filmmaker creating works on the subjects of memory, history, and subjectivity, she completed her first feature film, A Woman, A Part, which had its premiere in January at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. How did the director of conceptual films such as Shulie and Sweet Ruin arrive at the conclusion that she wanted to make a feature film? “I like not knowing how to do things and then learning how to do them,” she says.

I once read that it’s impossible to ever truly capture a cat’s expression in a drawing. I concluded this was true after much effort on both my part and the part of my model, a tabby named Domer who required a bribe of tuna before agreeing to participate in my experiment. Capturing the essence of human existence is similarly difficult—in any medium. The process takes time, effort, and dedication. Existence isn’t always exciting, and art dealing with the topic of existence can sometimes suffer from being too passive. People (I’m told) love action and concrete ideas, but existence isn’t always concrete. It’s more like a waffle—soggy with syrup in certain places and completely stiff in others.

My stomach’s growling. It’s lunchtime here—a lunchtime I skipped to finish this piece, which was technically due two months ago. Although I’m a capital-A Adult, the process of writing is much the same for me as it was in school. Each time I start for fun and slowly build up to dread as the deadline approaches.  I’m sure I’m a nightmare to be around during these weeks—all that secondhand stress. Probably it’s a sign that I’m not cut out for the writing life, but I’m nothing if not stubborn, so I’ll press on.

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Back in January (time flies fastest for a procrastinator) I planned a piece on Elisabeth Subrin, and after coordination of calendars, I conducted my interview with the director. I did research for weeks, reading about her process and past work. I felt fully prepared, if a bit overwhelmed. She’s a well-known filmmaker and I’m a paralegal who orders Diet Coke at Rally’s and takes notes in her car over lunch. She’s lightyears ahead of me in terms of feminist thought, and I can only hope to continue to grow in my own path. It’s possible I need to stop putting my interview subjects on pedestals, but that’s harder than you’d think. Smart women are so goddamn intimidating.

So I called her, finally. She spoke a bit on the process of developing a feature film, and how she came to be interested in making her first feature narrative, A Woman, A Part. “In the ’90s, I began by making experimental films and video art that screened in media arts festivals, museums and art centers. I was encouraged to turn Shulie into a limited edition and present in commercial galleries, but I believed that film was a democratic medium, and I didn’t want to limit my audience to collectors and commerce.”

 Somewhere during that time, it hit Subrin that what she wasn’t just being an artist, what she was doing was directing actors, and she ran with that. “At a certain point I had said what I wanted to say in conceptual and experimental non-narrative forms, and I was ready to try something new.”

She first wrote a script about a bipolar photo archivist swept up into the dotcom business explosion of the late ’90s, formerly titled Up. Ironically, following the market crash and the writers’ strike, the project proved financially unrealistic at this time, although Subrin had Rachel Griffiths and Kal Penn attached for the leads.

 Elisabeth Subrin didn’t abandon her vision, but rather returned to the art world and made several video installations, including Sweet Ruin, featuring Gaby Hoffmann (Girls, Transparent) and The Caretakers, starring Cara Seymour, who is also a co-star in A Woman, A Part. “It was kind of like getting my training wheels,” she says of the experience. She began to rewrite Up as a lower budget experimental film, but eventually the script transformed into an entirely new story, completely unrelated to Up.

The screenwriting process is not one she relishes. “It’s tortuous and goes on forever because the script has to be perfect, at least for me,” Subrin says. She also says this is especially true of narrative film, explaining that it’s not atypical for experimental filmmakers to shy away from dialogue-heavy scripts. Knowing this, the director set out to challenge conventions. “We didn’t want to make a film where nothing happens,” she says of the process of writing A Woman, A Part.

 “A narrative film is so different from conceptual art,” Subrin says. “A Woman, A Part is really a very classical work of art—it has a three-act structure and utilizes the conventions of screenwriting, at least in terms of that structure. It’s deceptively classical, though. In fact, there are levels of visual and textual subtext that are very similar strategies to my experimental work. I see A Woman, A Part as deeply connected to my prior work.”

As a female filmmaker, Subrin says, funds were limited. She used Kickstarter to supplement post-production costs, but wouldn’t call that a realistic financing strategy for an entire film. “Filming a feature requires an obscene amount of money compared to an experimental short film. You have this support for independent cinema in Europe, and then you look at the United States. It’s just a model we don’t have. Complex, interesting voices cannot get financed by the industry.”

A Woman, A Part addresses the intersection of woman and artist. In the film, Anna Baskin (played by Maggie Siff of Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy and Billions acclaim) grows weary of playing the same role on television and returns to her past life in New York City. Subrin says her film is as much about one actress’ journey as it is a universal search for identity and meaning, and questioning the value of one’s life choices. “We all go through times like that. We’re all looking for that insight.”

Women in particular struggle with these issues. According to Subrin, the actress is a metaphor for women. So much of being a woman is performative, and in this way, A Woman, A Part was able to offer its critique of Hollywood while also addressing the broader topic of womanhood and existence. “It’s not really about her being an actress—it’s about being a product of voices that aren’t her own.”

As philosopher Helene Cixous once wrote, “Women must write about herself. Must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” Virginia Woolf said essentially the same thing in A Room of One’s Own, and I hope women continue to speak and hear these words of encouragement until they finally sink in. We need it. Even today, women feel the need to qualify their own experiences or apologize for voicing their perspectives. We’ve come a long way, but there’s so much further to go.

“Women have profoundly contributed to filmmaking and have found new ways to tell stories because they had to. Cinema was not serving a multiplicity of voices.” Subrin says.

She points out that what we call “femininity” itself is not always beneficial in directing.  “Apologizing for things, questioning myself, worrying about how everybody on set is feeling—these things would only hold me back,” she explains. “I’m the director.”

Fortunately, this wasn’t an issue on the set of A Woman, A Part. “Everyone was respectful to me because I was respectful to them,” Subrin says. “It wasn’t because I was being a mother on set—it was because I cared deeply about the project and the people who were creating it.”

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Subrin tried to make the cast and crew of A Woman, A Part as gender and racially diverse as possible, and the effort shows. “I am very proud of that,” she says. “People kept tweeting they had never seen such a diverse crew.”

She sought out women for each role in production, extending her search all the way from editor to costume designer, key grip and production supervisor to the person who designed the poster. “It will never change on its own, which is why I had to go out of my way to find women,” Subrin says. “There were women as key department heads. The score was all composed by women.”

This level of commitment to representation is rare in Hollywood, and Subrin says even independent filmmakers tend to rely on who they know. Subrin hopes distributors can think outside the box when considering A Woman, A Part. “I would love a theatrical release because I strongly believe these performances are incredible.” From there, she thinks Netflix or Amazon would make for good outlets.
It’s an uphill battle for independent filmmakers. As a female director, Subrin knows she’ll be marginalized, and remains realistic about her goals. Would Elisabeth Subrin ever change her message to suit the audience? “No, I’m always explicit about being a feminist,” she says. “That’s my life.”

Check out Elisabeth Subrin’s blog, “Who Cares About Actresses”, a collection of facts and feelings on actresses and their representation of women.

by Juliette Faraone

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