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Crafting a Life as a Filmmaker: Ashley McKenzie on Queens of the Qing Dynasty

Ziyin Zheng and Sarah Walker in Queens of the Qing DynastyZiyin Zheng and Sarah Walker in Queens of the Qing Dynasty

Queens of the Qing Dynasty, the second feature from Nova Scotia’s Ashley McKenzie, is a unique work of independently produced Canadian cinema. Both a stark about-face from the hardscrabble realism of her 2016 debut Werewolf—about a pair of strung-out young lovers living hand-to-mouth on the margins of Cape Breton—and a decisive break from the docufiction trends of art cinema at large, Queens is rigorously composed and austerely dramatized, an artful fable pitched somewhere between comedy and tragedy.

Starring newcomer Sarah Walker as Star, a neurodivergent teen who develops a deep connection with her caregiver An (Ziyin Zheng, also making their screen debut), the film begins where others typically end: following a suicide attempt by Star that we quickly learn is anything but unusual. The film’s first half unfolds entirely within the confines of cramped hospital rooms as Star and An bond over their shared outsider status. An, a non-binary Chinese immigrant seeking Canadian citizenship, is uncommonly attuned to Star’s fragile sense of self. Star, meanwhile, is lost in a post-traumatic fog, her humorously deadpan observations, delivered in a haltingly clipped cadence, confirming a sharp mind otherwise ill-equipped to conform to prescribed social norms.

When Star is released, the film shifts to the even harsher light of the outside world, and for the remainder follows Star and An as their relationship is tested by external forces. Taking an especially sensitive approach to difficult subject matter, McKenzie burrows deep into each characters’ unique subjectivities, bringing their experiences to life in singularly tactile fashion. With intricate sound design, song cues sourced from experimental electronic artists Autechre and Suzanne Ciani and a woozy score by Chinese-Canadian artist Yu Su, the film veritably bristles with strange electroacoustic tonalities that speak to Star’s hyper-sensory worldview as vividly as any of her more unfiltered quips. A film as attuned to form as it is the finer points of care and community, Queens of the Qing Dynasty confirms a filmmaker unafraid to take risks and explore the thornier forms of intimacy.

At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Queens received its North American premiere, McKenzie and I sat down to discuss the evolution of her style, the real-life inspirations behind the film’s two characters and how the idea of self-care extends to all aspects of the filmmaking process. Queens screens at the New York Film Festival on October 1, 2 and 8. 

Filmmaker: The first thing that struck me about Queens is how stylistically different it is from Werewolf. What prompted this? Did you set out to drastically change your formal approach?

Ashley McKenzie: I think it’s the result of an accumulation of a lot of different feelings I had. It’s not that I thought the style of Werewolf wasn’t working and that I needed to throw it all away, but I did have a feeling that I was limiting myself with shorter scenes. I love ellipses as a filmmaker and, as a Bresson fan, an ellipsis is a beautiful thing. But I sort of felt like I was hiding behind that device. I wanted to go deeper and move through the uncomfortable moments an ellipsis might skip over. I wanted to incorporate longer scenes, and have scenes that transform midway through and go different places.

I was also inspired by the people the two main characters are based on, particularly how they speak and how they use words. Once I knew how the characters would speak, I knew that the film would be different than Werewolf, as well as my short films. I knew there would be a lot of dialogue on the page; in my past work, if there was a lot of dialogue on the page, by the end of the edit I would have probably pruned it all out, just to distill everything and make it lean. In this film the words were coming excessively, so I knew I would need to take a different direction.

One other thing was the experience of touring Werewolf and being able to see a lot of world cinema on the festal circuit, which is something I can’t really do in my day-to-day life [and don’t] really have access to. Watching these films from around the world made me excited about cinema, and I began to realize that I had built my film practice around my resources, which I think has been smart—to not try to make a film that is not at all based in a world that I actually exist in. I don’t exist in an industry world, so to try to make a film in that way is not going to produce good results. Watching these films excited and emboldened me: I still want to be intentional and wise, but I also want to push against my limitations. Because of this, I definitely felt the scale of the film shifting—it felt ambitious to me. I’m sure a lot of people will watch it and still think it’s a scrappy film, but in my world it definitely felt like I was pushing against limitations and rules that I had set for myself. I wanted to break my process down a bit. 

Filmmaker: What kind of festival films were you watching?

McKenzie: It wasn’t necessarily specific films, but instead getting to hear filmmakers talk about their process. Like how Xavier Dolan is shooting six months at a certain time of year, pausing for a while and then shooting for another six months to get specific seasons; or Ruben Östlund telling his producer, “I shoot a minimum of 60 days and I do 40-50 takes a day.” That kind of thing. Just seeing a degree of precision and mastery of form, and wondering how these directors get there, encouraged me to dig deeper into my own process, while trying to bring these ideas into my world, even if I can’t translate them directly. 

Filmmaker: I always find it strange when filmmakers don’t watch new movies, or at least try to keep up with what’s going on around them.

McKenzie: I think a lot about process because I live in a remote place, far outside the industry. I have to think about how I can do things, because the typical paths aren’t going to be there. I can’t go to the actor’s union; I can’t go find crew in these places. I have to think about what is going to be my way to make a film. A lot of other filmmakers don’t think about that, because they have a more automatic way to do it that other people can’t access.  

Filmmaker: Werewolf won a $100,000 prize for Best Canadian Feature from the Toronto Film Critics Association. Is that where some of the money came from for Queens?

McKenzie: No, actually. Something briefly happened at Telefilm Canada where they started something called the Fast Track Program, which dictated that if you premiered your first feature in one of the four major film festivals, then they would give you automatic funding for your second feature. Because Werewolf premiered in Berlin, I was able to access that funding, though only a handful of us were able to tap into that before it disappeared. From there, it was just a matter of completing the financing gaps. The TFCA prize helped my producer pay off student loans and helped me put a down payment on a house, which has allowed me to continue to make films. Again, there aren’t many options back home. I can’t teach film at a university. I can’t work in the commercial film industry. It’s how I have to craft my life as a filmmaker, and that’s often determined by where you are. But that prize was integral in helping me commit and write my next film and have some sort of foundation. 

Filmmaker: Have funding organizations ever suggested or encouraged you to make a film in, say, Toronto, rather than Nova Scotia?

McKenzie: I never get that from public funders. In fact, it may be more advantageous at times [to be in Nova Scotia], because most funders are trying to reach all the regions, so I’m in a smaller pool. But I do get that from the industry, from agents or filmmakers or unions asking me to join their organization. But if I join something like that, it just wouldn’t make sense unless I moved to New York, Toronto or LA. I can’t live that life and be where I’m at. The challenge of being in a remote place is that you don’t get to meet the funders or distributors or the sales agents unless you’re at a festival. I’m fortunate that I’m a filmmaker that certain institutions have decided to support, so I can go to festivals and meet these people. But I know a lot of amazing filmmakers that haven’t had that chance. There’s a disconnect between filmmakers and funders and distributors. It always benefits both sides to have that connection. 

Filmmaker: You mentioned specific inspirations for Star and An. From what I understand, An’s character is based largely on themself, while Star is modeled after someone you auditioned for Werewolf?

McKenzie: Yeah, there were two people I auditioned for Werewolf that I didn’t end up casting, but they came into my life and I developed relationships with them similar to what you see in Queens, relationships of care and guidance while in hospital. At different times they were each in hospital, and I became their contact with the world—and their friend. Whether dealing with doctor’s appointments or trying to find housing, all of a sudden I was their person for that. That gave me a bit of a plot sketch when I began writing the film. One of those teenagers, who is now a really good friend of mine, is infused in the character of Star in a pretty detailed way, because she speaks in this particular cadence and has a creative way of expressing herself that, once I experienced it, I couldn’t forget. It infiltrated my brain. Everything she said was interesting. I couldn’t even write it all down, it was too much. But eventually I could hear her in my head, and as I started to write, a lot came out. So, Star was on the page pretty clearly for a while, then I met and became friends with Ziyin, who’s a completely different person, but I saw an opportunity to connect them with the Star character. So, I wrote the script with Ziyin as a script consultant, because they were telling me a lot about their experiences and aspirations. We did that first, infusing them into the script as a character, but I was also hoping they could play the part. So, we did a camera test and workshopped with them, and I felt like it worked.

Filmmaker: Practically speaking, how did the script consulting work with Ziyin? Did they suggest dialogue or help conceptualize certain scenes, or was it solely character detail?

McKenzie: It wasn’t any structure work or anything like that, more of a deep consultation into their person. Actually, what I did was give them the Proust questionnaire, and I filled out one as well, so we could learn about each other. When I read their answers I was like, “Let’s talk on the phone!” They just had so many interesting ideas and thoughts about life. I was like, “Tell me more about this!” The questionnaire and phone call gave me so much insight into what their experiences and dreams were, so I went back and re-wrote the script. We didn’t write together, and they weren’t reading anything or making major suggestions, but I definitely turned to them lots of time for different details. But that was the heart of the consultation, just pouring our guts out to one another.

Filmmaker: Where does your interest in outsider characters come from?

Mckenzie: This is the question I get stumped by the most. People often asked me how I’ve made such empathetic portraits of non-normative or socially marginalized characters. It must have something to do with my upbringing, the socioeconomics of the place I where grew up. I’ve always been very curious about other people and have wanted to connect with them and not judge them. It’s just how I approach relationships, with curiosity and wanting to understand everyone and see everyone’s humanity. For most of my lifetime, Cape Breton has been in a period of poverty and high unemployment, with lots of socioeconomic challenges. Maybe everyone from there is a bit of an outsider or underdog. I guess that may be the biggest factor for me in drawing these kinds of portraits. 

Filmmaker: Would you say that Star and An would be unique people in a place like Cape Breton, and that it was important for you to place these characters in this specific milieu?

McKenzie: Both characters are unique humans in the world. There are probably a lot of people in my community facing similar challenges as Star. And, in the last five years, after a legacy of youth migration, there’s a been an influx of international students into the community, which hasn’t happened [before] in my lifetime. There’s been a lack of diversity until recently, and not a lot of young people. That was something I was trying to capture.

But yes, it did feel important. It didn’t feel like an exaggeration, but it felt different to me in the sense that it felt hyperreal and not so much like social realism. It didn’t feel like I was putting that on. It felt like I truly met two people who had that energy to them, and had a certain vibrancy that was fascinating to me. That felt unique. Then it was just about committing to their characterizations and dimensionality in every decision I made and honoring that. Certainly with Ziyin it was about bringing some their aspirations for themselves into the film, things they would express about their dreams and desires that they couldn’t quite live in their daily life. The film could be a space where they could live the life they talked. In that sense, it felt like a different process. 

Filmmaker: On a second viewing I noticed a lot of religious imagery in the film, mostly in the first half but also a little in the second, specifically a cross above Star’s bed in the final hospital scene. Is there a big religious presence in Nova Scotia?

McKenzie: The small town I grew up in, New Waterford, and most of the adjacent communities were predominantly Roman Catholic. With a decline in industry and community over the past twenty years, there has also been a loss of religious practice and many churches have been shut down. But for my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, in particular, the presence of Catholicism loomed large in schools, healthcare and family life. The remnants of that are seen in the decor of the hospitals that we shot in, where crucifixes remain affixed to the walls in most rooms.

It’s common that foster care families here are steeped in religion, so I imagined Star was surrounded by that at times in her life and indoctrinated with that worldview. You see her process a lot of the world through that lens and be quite guilt-ridden because of it, but An certainly presents alternatives to that belief system with their worship of divas, ancient Chinese empresses and trophy wives. This proves really stimulating to Star and helps her connect with something more authentic within herself through the course of the film.

Filmmaker: How did you conceptualize the film’s two-part structure, and how do think the indoor-outdoor environments relate to the characters?

McKenzie: Like I mentioned, I spent some time in hospital, in the pediatric wing, with the two people who inspired the project, and the hospital had an atmosphere that I wanted to capture. When Star and An first meet, they enter a bubble together. The hospital, at night especially, felt like an opportunity for them to connect in a special way. You know when you first meet someone and there’s chemistry? When you’re first communicating, in that rush of getting to know one another, you can create a kind of language together, a bit of a romantic alternate universe. I wanted the hospital to create that space for them to play in. But then it felt like they needed to go back into the real world in the second half of the film. Can this connection and bond that they’re developing exist when you put it back in the real world? Once I brought that idea in, it became a process of thinking about how to reconcile the two worlds: the romantic portals they create and the objective world.  The VR sequence is an intersection and culmination of these two threads, an alternate realm that offers them space for self power, free expression and connection, but it remains tethered or adjacent to the environment of the real world. I was interested in how some things can become a vortex that you can spiral in or, like Star and An, how you can erect portals to slip into, different dimensions. They’re able to slant the real world in a way that they feel like they can fit and feel like they can exist as themselves.

Filmmaker: How did you find the proper rhythm within and between the two sections? Following the mostly static dramaturgy of the first half, the second half opens up and moves pretty fluidly, often by way of cars.   

McKenzie: I knew the midpoint of the film would be the scene in the car where the social worker drives Star to the motel, so I was thinking a lot about using vehicles as little vessels for the characters to be inside after they leave the hospital. It’s almost like they’re not really in the outside world—the whole film in some ways could be set on a spaceship or something. Even when it moves outside in the winter season, everything is pretty decontextualized—I was keeping a lot of environmental context out of the picture. Hopefully, that helps make it not too much of dramatic shift. 

For me everything revolved around the characters’ experience of these places. I was committed to burrowing into their subjectivities and the places they would go. It felt to me like Star would probably leave the hospital and just be shuttled to a motel, and that would be it. But at one point it was about a two-hour-and-forty-five-minute film. There was more context with An’s roommates and more elliptical scenes, scenes that felt more like Werewolf. I really liked settling into the hospital—for example, the confession scene between Star and An when they’re both on the hospital beds. The way the pace landed there felt good to me, and it was hard then to try to move into this other, more realist mode in the second half, so a lot of those scenes got cut. I wanted it to be a gradual move of the characters into the real world without totally disrupting what the proper pace for the film. 

Filmmaker: I imagine you shot at night or during off-hours at the hospital?

McKenzie: We shot at four hospitals, one in my hometown and three others in adjacent towns about thirty minutes from each other. Each one had a room that we loved, so we shot at them all in order to get the mise-en-scène that we wanted. But the main shoot was at a hospital in Glace Bay—I think we shot ten days there, in a pediatric wing that was actually shut down at that moment, because some of the nurses had gone on strike. But otherwise the hospitals were active and open, and they were happy to have us and helped us with any equipment we needed. They were really supportive and gave us a ton of space to be free. 

Filmmaker: What was it like working on set with Sarah and Ziyan? They’re both first-time actors?

McKenzie: Sarah Walker has some theater, dance, and singing experience—so, experience, but very different from what you see her do with Star. Ziyan had done a bit of theater acting, and has recently been in a rendition of Rocky Horror Picture Show. They just love to sing, they had a lot of built-in abilities that could translate. But it was hard to know whether they would be able to step into a film with a fifteen page dialogue and pull it off, because it was a leap. Sarah was able to spend time with my friend who inspired the role. Over the years I had done workshopping, table reads, and camera tests with that friend—and she also did auditions with me and Ziyan—so I had a lot of research material on her, which she was fine with me sharing with Sarah. That did a lot to help her craft the performance.

Filmmaker: Did she bring anything of herself to the role?

McKenzie: Because of her background, I was expecting more embellishment in the performance, more telegraphing of emotion. That was my fear. I was shocked during the audition by the register she operated in. It was in the place that I needed it to be already. That was quite a surprise, because it’s normally more of a sculpting process to try to get people to let go of the instinct to telegraph and emote a lot. The cadence of her dialogue was on the page, but she has an amazing ear for languages and music. Because of this, she was able to deliver the lines in a musical, almost poetic way. 

Filmmaker: Were her gestures, movements and sometimes lack of movement something you two worked out on set?

McKenzie: She just did that. In the audition she had this deadpan quality that was what I wanted. It was just there, which was so nice. What Ziyin brought was maybe a little different to what was on the page, but because the character is so linked to their experiences it made it really easy for them to improvise. If we’re doing a scene and getting stuck on a line, it was just like, “You don’t have to remember the line. You know this. It’s in your heart. Let’s try a take where you do it your way.” And, when they would do it their way, it would just be so natural. They’re just a brilliant person with a lot of interesting ideas, so to ask them to improvise at times, or to say the script in their own words, is really a skill they brought to it.  

Filmmaker: Tell me a little about the film’s sound design and music. There’s an original score by Yu Su, but also songs from various experimental electronic artists. Occasionally it’s difficult to discern the difference between the score, songs and various sound effects, which really adds to the film’s sense of disorientation.

McKenzie: The sound design and music palette developed over time in the edit and is a collage of different electronic artists. The film opens with original score cues by Cecile Believe, followed by a collection of licensed Autechre songs, along with a long piece by Suzanne Ciani, that together form a glitchy and anxious undercurrent to the soundscape.

It’s styled to capture Star’s subjectivity and score events as she perceives them to be in a given moment: sinister, alien, playful, melodramatic. The foley and sound effects in her environment become musical too. They interweave with the score in ways that heighten our awareness of the surroundings, perceiving things more as Star does, where everything noticed can become part of the palette. At times, it can be read as her inner emotional or synaptic soundtrack.

An brings their own musicality to the film, one that is more melodic and rooted in both popular Western pop music and traditional Chinese folk songs. They introduce this more harmonious language to the soundscape, and it was at this point that I turned to Yu Su to chart something that could touch both worlds: the electronic and traditional. She was able to score a few original cues in key moments of the film that capture the intimacy developing between Star and An and offers an elixir of sorts to the more dissonant sounds that come before.

Filmmaker: To circle back to one of the first things you mentioned about touring Werewolf, was there anything you learned during the release and promotion of that film that you’re applying to the rollout of Queens?

McKenzie: I definitely learned with Werewolf that when you’re emerging on the scene with a feature debut, a lot comes at you. Everyone in the industry is out there wanting to discover the next talent, and a ton of people are reaching out. I can connect with people very openly and curiously—I can take all that on, but I felt like I got a little bit lost. I lost a lot of energy and focus at times when trying to consider everything, when really if I had taken a pause to think about what I wanted my life and filmmaking practice to look like, I could have easily been like, “No, don’t spend time thinking about this. You don’t have to do this meeting.” Trying to fit all of that into my brain was just…tiring. You know, I work with a very small team. Everyone is wearing multiple hats. With that in mind, I do have to conserve my energy and be very intentional. So, coming into the release of this film I’m trying to think of ways to have more balance. 

Filmmaker: That, of course, dovetails with film’s theme of self-care.

McKenzie: It’s true. I want to care for the film, too, and give it everything. And I want to care for all the people in my life and my community, but if I don’t care for myself then I’ll end up failing all those things. I have a strong pull right now to do other things in life, like spending time in nature. I live in a beautiful spot, and it’s nice to do things outside of film. I know that if I don’t do that, then I’ll get to a point where I won’t have anything to draw on as a creative person, and I don’t want to get to that place.

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