While Elisabeth Subrin’s debut feature, A Woman, A Part, charts familiar territory, she does so with an emotional depth not frequently found in the aging-female-artist genre. Known for her installations and radical short films (such as Shulie, a shot-by-shot reconstruction of an unreleased documentary about Shulamith Firestone), Subrin packs nuanced notions about what constitutes female identity into what could otherwise be called a straight-forward narrative about a lost 40-something actress.
The film tells the story of Anna (Maggie Siff), an actress fatigued by the vapid TV role she plays in Los Angeles, and her attempt to rediscover herself by returning to her old New York City theater scene. But as Anna drops back into the lives of the theater friends she left behind—Kate (Cara Seymour, who also appeared in Subrin’s The Caretaker) and Isaac (John Ortiz)—old wounds reopen and new wrongs surface. What results is a film for those who have left and those who have stayed: a tender meditation on unresolved pasts and half-constructed presents that comes alive thanks to Subrin’s generous eye and the stand-out performances by Siff and Seymour.
We spoke with director Elisabeth Subrin about A Woman, A Part, filmmaking, and constructing identity. The film will screen as part of BAMcinemaFest 2016 this Sunday, June 26, at 6 PM. A Q&A with Elisabeth Subrin and Cara Seymour will follow the screening.
REEL 13: You’re celebrated and known as an experimental filmmaker and visual artist. How did the switch to linear feature-length drama come about?
Elisabeth Subrin: Well, it was a long process. It came about because, as an artist, pretty much everything I’ve made is dictated by the ideas or what I want to communicate as much as the form I want to use. And for me, the relationship between formal decisions—like is it going to be experimental, is it non-fiction, is it a locked-down camera, what’s the performance like—is really dictated by what I’m trying to communicate in the content. And at a certain point in exploring representation of women and the evolution of my own interest in cinema, narrative just became the necessary form for my ideas.
R13: What advantages or disadvantages have you found working with longer narrative form?
ES: I think the advantage is that you just get to go deeper into something and develop ideas, emotions, and characters across more time. It pushes you as an artist to really get to know a character and immerse yourself. And it allows you to address a lot more ideas. What’s satisfying about short films is that you can do them faster, and you have the satisfaction of having a new film that you’ve completed.
R13: Your film is emotional, raw, and intense, but still very warm. How did you go about creating that intimate atmosphere with the actors?
ES: One of the things that I’ve told my students is that in my observations of directors on set, there are two main ways that people work. One is a kind of demagoguery way, where you are the master genius, and everybody is running around serving you. And there’s a very clear pecking order, as opposed to the way a lot of the directors I really admire work. I’ve spent time on set watching them, and the idea there is that we’re in a love situation with a bunch of people who have come together to create something which we normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do, and we’re all being paid very little, and we’re there because we believe that films like this should exist in the world, and we believe in the ideas and emotions in the world.
You utterly have to have this safe, supportive space. And that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful space. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not in charge as the director, but that we all are important, and we all have our roles that are critical to the film. So, making everybody feel that way really helps the actors feel safe in the environment and supported.
R13: Much has been said about the cast being largely female and the crew being 50/50 female and male. Do you think this played a part in creating that safe environment that you speak of?
ES: Oh, absolutely. At the premiere Maggie talked about that a lot, which was very lovely. She said this beautiful thing about how it dramatically affected the environment—Cara talked about this too—and that you don’t really notice how different it is until you’re in it. I think it had an absolute enormous impact on the crew. It was also very diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, orientation. There was no kind of pecking order or traditional white-bro culture, bro-bonding going on. And I think it created a really exciting and interesting dynamic that everyone talked about on set.
R13: Were there any challenges in filling the female crew? I know that you mentioned in one interview that post-production was particularly tricky.
ES: Yes, it was challenging because basically when people reach out for recommendations, usually you’re asking the people you know. My producers would ask the people they know who make film—who are mostly men—for recommendations. And they would say we want women, we want diversity, but they got all these male recommendations. But what we did—and this is much to the credit of my producer Scott Macaulay—is we hired a young woman line producer named Taylor Shung, and we told her what we wanted, and she just went for it. She hired an African American woman UPM [unit production manager], and the two of them set up all of the interviews for me, and it just blew my mind how able they were to find these people. So, initially it was hard, but once we found people really committed to it, they just worked miracles.
R13: There’s an amazing line where Anna retorts that her character “isn’t a real person, she’s a profession.” To this point, female identity and the portrayal thereof is a popular theme of your previous work and your blog, Who Cares About Actresses. How did your work with female identity feed into the decision to center your film on an actress who is going through an identity crisis?
ES: I love that you pull out that quote. That quote is in the trailer too because I feel, like most people, I am a little obsessed with episodic TV, and the series that I am addicted to, for better or worse, involve women in power. And it kind of plays into the whole glass ceiling thing and the leaning in thing and even Hillary Clinton: the way when women are in power, their identities are so reduced.
The way I ended up with an actress is kind of a long, organic story. I had never thought that I would tell a story about an actress. As I tried to understand why this story ended up being about an actress, I thought about exactly what you just read, that I made films about female representation forever, and I also, in a more kind of political way, waged against the limitations of what we see actresses getting to do and show the world in terms of what a woman is. And I realized that actresses really are the vehicle by which we understand what a woman is in this culture.
Ranging from television commercials to billboards, to TV shows to movies, which we know from all these endless studies, the roles are extremely limited, extremely few. It’s pretty much the most sexist industry that I can think of. And it seemed like focusing on an actress and the consequences of her being reduced by this role and by her work would be an interesting way to broach her crisis. Crisis of faith, crisis of sense of self, and how one loses one’s self when you reduce yourself to the expectations of our culture.
R13: Anna’s return to New York and her past is painful for almost everyone involved. Why did you feel it was necessary for her to go back?
ES: With screenplay, so much of it is technical and trying to create the illusion of narrative time and space and engaging an audience to move through a story with you—and also a lot of plotting and a lot of character background. I would have huge diagrams and charts integrating the three characters’ past and present. But then there is also instinct. I feel like in your 40s you almost biologically find yourself reflecting on your life, and I think it’s really hard to ask yourself where you’re going without looking back at where you’ve gone. And it seemed to me that unresolved relationships and unresolved actions in your past really hang on you and linger inside you.
And [New York] is also where [Anna] found herself as an artist. She talks about being a neurotic Jewish girl from Connecticut. That’s probably not where she found herself. And she came to New York and became, as her friend said, a poet up on stage. And she looks so alive in that archival footage [of her 90s theater days]. And I think she was coming back for two reasons. One to find that spirit again and understand it, which, really, it seems like the Kate character had given her. And also to figure out some stuff about love and intimacy, which seems to be played out with both of them [Kate and Isaac], in ways: What happened with us? and Isaac calling her out and saying, “if I got close to you, you would have been out the door,” and you see, literally, Anna walking out of doors all of the time. And it seems like she has walked away from things and ran away from things, including herself.
R13: While we’re on the topic of New York, the film is set against the backdrop of gentrifying Brooklyn. What drove you to include this changing landscape?
ES: Even saying those words “changing landscape”—that’s really what all three of them are going through, these transformations of their lives from their past to their present and the struggles they’re going through. But literally it’s because I’m living in it myself. And I feel like it’s a really salient metaphor, not just in terms of economic and cultural consequences of gentrification on real people’s lives, but also the idea of taking down buildings, smashing down the histories of lives and building new ones for very different economic purposes that are manufacturing different fantasies of what home is. Walking around Brooklyn and living within construction sites with wheat-pasted images of this other fantasy, of this much more glamourous and very expensive and prohibitive life, kind of plays out with Anna, Isaac, and Kate too. And Anna is kind of plastered on top of her more gentrified lifestyle. And I feel like she’s trying to break through when she returns home, which is almost impossible.