Interview: Ashley McKenzie

    Queens of the Qing Dynasty, the innovative sophomore feature from Nova Scotian filmmaker Ashley McKenzie, explores an unlikely pairing in an unlikely place. Star and An meet in a Cape Breton hospital ward: a space full of beeping cries from medical apparatus. Star is a neurodiverse teenager recovering from a suicide attempt. An is a queer Chinese immigrant volunteering to help Star’s recovery. Despite distinct backgrounds, both Star and An’s worlds are precarious and lonesome. Across heartfelt, deadpan dialogues and text exchanges, an affectionate bond blossoms. They quickly reach an intimate understanding of one another, though the film never erodes the cavern of difference between their stories. Queens tracks the frictions of their closely-knit friendship, their unyielding love, and the life-changing difference one connection can make.

    The movie leaps beyond the minimalist realism of McKenzie’s debut feature Werewolf: an intimate portrait of two codependent methadone users, often framed in macro shots of body parts. With Queens, McKenzie’s style is both more maximalist and romantic. The film patches together an extensive exploration of her characters’ subjectivies, synthesizing a variety of visual media, from VR to cartoons to endoscopy footage, all soundtracked by glitched-out, electronic soundscapes. Despite the varied imagery, McKenzie’s camera remains close to Star and An. She explores her characters in Academy ratio portrait shots, also fixated on the body’s smallest gestures, like the dilation of pupils or the movement of hands. Though packed with dialogue and deeply attuned to the particularities of its characters’ speech, it’s also a movie that grasps conversation as something beyond the landscape of words. Communication becomes bodily.

    I spoke to Ashley McKenzie about Queens’ past lives, the minutiae of her production and post-production processes, the film’s unique compositional language, shooting hands, its unforgettable sonic textures, and plenty more.

    Some years ago you mentioned in a Film Comment interview that you were working on a movie about deviant young women in Cape Breton which you described as Certain Woman by way of Alan Clarke. Was that a different project altogether or something that developed into Queens?

    The roots of this movie did start in that other project. It was a portrait series, built around a handful of stories of women who society sees as having some kind of affliction. I wanted to tell a story about these character that showed how their so-called affliction could actually be advantageous. The character names for each story were based on each type of flower that Ophelia has in her hands in the famous John Everett Millais painting (like Rue or Rosemary). One of those characters was closely linked to the character of Star in Queens (though she wasn’t named Star yet). As I developed three of the different stories, the Star character emerged more and more, becoming more present and vocal. And eventually, that idea became its own thing outside of the tapestry-based structure. Then, it grew into a two-character piece, as it is now.

    And so, the Certain Women influence was in the original project’s tapestry structure. But would you say that the Alan Clarke influence made it into Queens?

    I don’t think so. I think those two reference points were something I used to try and explain that concept as a portrait series. The Certain Women reference was about showing how the stories don’t intercut. The Alan Clarke reference was more the style, the approach to characters, and the societal framework. But there were several stages of morphing before it became Queens. So at this point, I don’t really see the influence. But how did you feel?

    I can maybe see a bit of Alan Clarke in the movie but can’t really see Certain Women there.

    Yah, this film definitely became something else. Neither of those filmmakers—as much as I love their work—seem like touchstones for what Queens became.

    I’ve read that you shot 102 hours of footage for Werewolf, which was ultimately whittled down into an 80-minute movie. Was it similar for this one?

    It was similar, except the script was twice as long. At one point, I started to count up the hours of footage, just so I could know what the ratio was. But I never completed that process. Maybe someday, when all the work on the film is done, I’ll go back and count the hours because I’m curious. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was like 200 hours of footage.

    How extensively do you pre-plan your shots?

    Scott [Moore], my cinematographer, and I will start a shot list the first few days of the shoot. Normally, as soon as we’re in the thick of it, we lose that kind of planning. But I will say that we spend a lot of time location scouting. There, we shoot the environments from different angles and record camera tests with different gear, lenses, or movements. When we’re on set to shoot the scene, we take our time at the beginning of the day or the beginning of shooting in a new location. Before we even set-up the camera, we explore all the possible angles of the scene and try to find the one that feels best. Sometimes, both me and Scott will have a camera and we’ll be moving around the scene, looking for the shots. Other times, Scott will have the camera while I’m looking at a monitor. Oftentimes, I’m just taking a bunch of pictures on my phone to help find the angles. If I went through my camera roll now, I probably have dozens of photos from the Queens shoot.

    If I’m not mistaken, there were two years between when shooting wrapped and when Queens premiered in Berlin. That’s a pretty long post-production period. What does your editing process look like?

    I review all the footage and make a lot of notes about the takes I like, often about particular details—a line or a moment—to have a catalogue of everything. On Werewolf, I did a timecoded document for my notes. With Queens, a friend of mine, the filmmaker Jacquelyn Mills, worked as an editing consultant. During production, she watched the footage and made notes because I didn’t want to be the only person to ever watch all the footage. What she did in [Adobe] Premiere, which was way more effective than what I did on Werewolf, was add markers as a database of notes. It took probably a few months to watch all the footage. Then, since this project was so much vaster than Werewolf, I knew I couldn’t edit it alone. Scott Moore, my cinematographer, came on as co-editor. To reach an assembly cut, I assembled the first half of the film, and he assembled the second half.

    I think the reason why it was a two-year process is a few things. One, it’s a small team and being the lead editor doesn’t give me time to take breaks. If I ever want to step away for a week or something, it means no one’s working on the film. Also, I don’t necessarily cut to script. I look at the footage and keep myself open to possibilities. I like to play with the footage and experiment, just see what comes out.

    The character of Star was based on a real-life friend of yours who you met while casting Werewolf. Was it difficult to adapt someone you’re close with into a fictional version?

    I don’t think it was difficult because I wasn’t thinking of it as a direct adaptation of my friend to the screen. The plot of the film was linked to events outside of her life. It was her way of speaking and seeing the world that fuelled Star’s characterization. I was also bringing other elements into it, including things from my own life. So there was enough variation of influences that it didn’t feel too complicated. If I felt like I was bringing a real-life person into the film, then that would’ve definitely felt more complicated. But I did involve her in different stages of the process. I always tried to touch base with her and involve her. She’s a very easygoing and encouraging person, so it never felt complicated.

    Has she seen the movie yet?

    I showed her a version of the edit back when I could still make changes and wanted some key feedback from people I trusted. She hasn’t seen the final film with everything done, but I’m hoping to have a screening on the island [of Cape Breton] in the next several months. There’s no film festival here or anything like that. I’ll have to organize it myself. I’m excited to see what she thinks of it this time. She gave me good feedback in that one editing session.

    Every movie I’ve seen from you, both features and shorts (except Stray), is focused on the dynamic between two characters. What drives you towards stories about the relationship between specifically two people?

    That’s a good question. I’ve been trying to figure it out myself. It’s only in reflecting that I notice the sorts of patterns you’re describing. I think it might stem from the fact that my creative process is fuelled from the connections that I make with people in the real world. My scripts tend to take shape as a dialogue that I’m having with someone that’s inspired me. Then, I often have other influences in my life: a particular person inspiring the film or maybe someone I want to work with as an actor. So, I take that surrogate character for myself and develop that around the second person. Then, it ends up as these two character talking to one another and I’ve, to some degree, removed myself. Though there’s always still aspects of me in those characters. And so, because of this way that I work, where I like to get to know other people and begin a conversation with them, the movies take shape as a dynamic between two people. It could also reflect the way I form attachments. Or it could reflect growing up in this kind of environment. Werewolf was an exploration of dependency and codependency, which has been a part of the culture here [in Cape Breton] on so many levels: personal, political, etc. So maybe there’s a link there too.

    The Certain Women/Alan Clarke project seemed like a full ensemble movie though. Is a larger ensemble structure something you could ever see yourself trying out?

    With that earlier conception of the Ophelia project, pretty much all the stories were two-handers. I think the reason why I didn’t conceptualize the stories as separate films was because I was feeling this need to have a multitude of perspectives within a story and a single universe. But I think that the possible films at the forefront of my mind these days definitely have more than two characters. So perhaps this is part of my progression. Coming from Werewolf to Queens, I was making the sophomore film with the feeling that I wanted to push into area that I didn’t get to explore yet. So perhaps in a future film, I move away from the two-hander. Once you do something so many times, it can feel like you learn a lot about that form. But it can also feel limiting.

    It’s interesting because characters in Queens often appear alone in the frame. Though it’s a movie about the relationship between two people, there’s very few two shots (though the restaurant shot used in the promo stills is definitely an exception). I’m wondering if you could talk about the motivation towards isolating figures in the frame?

    It’s true. When I needed to provide a single image for film festival or other publicity purposes, I’d go through the footage and all the shots were just one subject. The film’s about two people, but I could only find one image that has the characters in a two shot! I think it’s something that was also true in some of my other films. With Queens, me and Scott went in with some rules about what we thought the language would be, but I never said that we wouldn’t have any two shots. In fact, we did look at that possibility. But I think the reason why the language distilled down to single shots was because the backbone of the film is about estrangement, loneliness, isolation: geographical isolation and queer isolation. It’s about all types of things that separate people. I think that’s the foundation of the film. The whole film is about two people who are able to connect and how powerful that connection is because of the circumstances around them.

    What were some of the actual rules for the visual language that you and Scott went into the movie with?

    We did a location scout early in pre-production where we went to one of the hospitals, and we put on a 50mm lens, which is what Werewolf was almost entirely shot with. We had our producer sitting on the bed in the hospital and Scott pointed the camera at them. Instantly, it felt wrong. It was just too flat. In the script-writing process, Star and An became such complex and vibrant characters that it didn’t feel like it captured their vibe. So we left that scout thinking we’d do several things to capture dimensionality: we would shoot on 24mm (sometimes 36mm) lenses for portraits. We decided to never shoot a character straight-on; we’d do 3/4 profiles to have more shape to their figure and face. But also, we did it to have more shape in the environment behind them. We avoided shooting straight-on and gave more headroom, because it gives more dimensionality to the spaces. You can see the lights in the hospital. You see the lines of the ceilings and the walls. It creates a box, a more geometric environment. It brought a slight sci-fi slant, like they’re on a spaceship.

    There’s so many hand shots in the movie. So much of how these characters express themselves is through their hands. What do you like about shooting hands?

    In talking about my other films, hands often came up in a Bressonian sense. I am a big Bresson fan, and anyone else who is knows there’s so much focus on hands in his work. In my first short film Rhonda’s Party, I remember arguing with the editor about why we had to see one character pass something to another character and why such a seemingly mundane throwaway detail felt important. At that time, my understanding of film language was built around Bresson, where an exchange between people was so significant. It could be the major emotional shift: something moving from one person’s hand to another. But I haven’t thought about a hand motif too explicitly in Queens, in the Bresson tradition at least. Obviously, there’s a hand gesture that each character does that’s part of the arc.

    The poster is also an image of both their hands…

    The poster is their hands! [laughs] The hand gesture that An does is actually something the actor [Ziyin Zheng] brought to the character on-set in the chapel scene. They did this gesture, just briefly, and I asked what it was. They explained there’s a Chinese dancer Yang Liping who choreographed and performed a ballet where she turns her body into a peacock. The way she completes the whole-body transformation is by her hands turning into the head of the peacock. We’d pretty much wrapped shooting for the day, but I needed to get a zoom shot into the hand gesture. I shared the shot with Sarah Walker, who plays Star, and asked her to study it and re-create it at certain moments in the shoot. I think that gesture encapsulates so much more than I have in the past focusing on hands. But it wasn’t scripted, it was just a nice thing that revealed itself.

    While the hands inevitably bring to mind Bresson, the movie’s otherwise very distinct from the aesthetic minimalism he’s so linked to. It’s full of sound and different visual mediums (from cartoons to video games to surgical cameras). Was that variety of stimulus going to be your approach to these characters when you first started planning the movie? Or did it arrive more gradually?

    A lot of the more intertextual stuff developed in the edit. I knew the film was going to have a lot of dialogue, unlike my past films. I allowed myself to write as much as possible. It felt excessive because I’d come from a minimalist background. I wanted to have more material and then focus on sculpting it in the edit. There were videos referenced in the script, like in the cafeteria scene. It was supposed to be a swaddle video based on this VHS I’d seen in a psychology class in the early 2000s. But I searched for that video everywhere and couldn’t find it. So we shot the scene without it and then went in a different direction, following some of the other visual motifs. In the later stages of editing, we brought in a couple animators to craft something more specific to the film, building on the media we’d integrated into the mise-en-scène. So it was sort of a post-production building process.

    The movie’s soundtracked by all sorts of buzzy, glitchy music. How did you choose the kinds of sonic palettes you wanted?

    It began by me being interested in a few particular artists at the time I was writing Queens. I didn’t see it as something linked to the film, but I was listening to SOPHIE and Cecile Believe. I read an interview where SOPHIE was talking about Autechre, and I started digging into their discography. I didn’t want to listen to anything else at the time because those three artists’ sounds were unlike anything else. It felt like a new sonic palette. And so, when Scott and I were assembling the film and working on separate halves, I had a huge folder of SOPHIE, Cecile Believe, and Autechre music. I thought it might be fun to try it out. I haven’t used music extensively in the past and don’t have significant licensing experience (my past movies were more focused on sound design and diegetic sound), so I didn’t anticipate so much of it would actually end up in the film. I thought they were just interesting textures to use in a temp fashion. It felt like a whole new stylistic choice to start integrating music. And once you build certain things into an edit, it can be hard to let go. And rather than let go, we decided to think about what the music was doing and how we could build on those ideas.

    Were the Autechre tracks expensive to license?

    In my world, not knowing much about licensing, I think the record label Warp were amazing to work with and made it accessible for our budget. I’m so thankful to them and humbled to have all the artists’ music integrated into the film because it brings so much to it. It was really thrilling.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Ashley McKenzie’s Queens of the Qing Dynasty premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, and has screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival, and the Festival du nouveau cinema (among others). It will release theatrically in 2023 through the Toronto-based distributor MDFF.

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