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“We Basically Had Pianos Falling the Whole Time”: The Creative Team of MA at the Venice International Film Festival

Lauren Smitelli, Riel Roch-Decter, Brian McOmber, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Andrew Pastides, Allison Pearce and Aaron Schnobrich

With Celia Rowlson-Hall’s bold and original MA opening today in New York at the IFC Center, with wider digital distribution next month, we’re reposting Taylor Hess’s interview with the writer/director/star and her collaborators out of Venice. Check the IFC site for screenings and Q&A moderators, who include, tonight at 8:30 PM, Lena Dunham.

Barefoot on a sandy shore of the Mediterranean coast, I’m only mildly bothered by the luxury cruise ships obstructing the horizon. It’s an otherwise picturesque pre-dusk afternoon in Venice, and I’m focused mostly on keeping up with Celia Rowlson-Hall, who sets an intimidating pace as we walk along the beach. She’s a speed walker and talker, totally unfazed by the sharp rocks that I continue to stumble over. It’s silly when I say I’m uncomfortable being barefoot to a person who has “no problem being naked on camera. If there’s any feeling of being exposed,” she says, “it’s only in the directing.”

Rowlson-Hall’s first feature film, MA, had its world premiere at the 72nd Venice Film Festival just the previous night. It wasn’t necessary to arrive early for a good seat; everyone was too busy gawking at Kristen Stewart on the red carpet to bother waiting in line for one of my favorite films in the Venice slate. “You can’t compete,” Rowlson-Hall says of her no-name and impossibly low-budget indie film. (The trailer is here.)

Despite the overshadowing, MA is everything the bigger Venice debuts are not. Take Black Mass, the Scott Cooper biopic starring Johnny Depp. The women in Cooper’s mundane gangster story are given about just as much dialogue as the characters in Rowlson-Hall’s wordless dance film. But unlike what we see in Black Mass, Rowlson-Hall doesn’t rely on dialogue as a tool to reward or strip a character of a voice. What the former ballet dancer and acclaimed choreographer expresses most powerfully in MA isn’t watered down with words.

“I’m a bit like a fountain: if I’m not expressing myself, I feel very clogged up. When I’m creating, I feel like I’m flowing, like I can move,” she tells me as we make our way further down the beach, where there are less rocks and the water meets the sand. Rowlson-Hall grew up in the woods of Virginia, near the water, but decided to set her film in the cruel desert heat of the American Southwest. She tells me about the shoot, about one of the most memorable nights of her life in the dunes under the stars, about how characters and textures pop in the harsh and unforgiving landscape. As the writer, director, and star of the movie, Rowlson-Hall wanted her character in an environment where she couldn’t survive. But she was unprepared for the related real-life challenges on set — bee stings, snake bites, heat strokes. The conditions were brutal, but the team forged on.

The initial idea for the film dates back to when Rowlson-Hall was nine or ten years old, before she was an aspiring ballet dancer or a filmmaker. She wanted to grow up to be Jesus, but — since she wasn’t a boy — settled on Mary instead. Since she couldn’t save humanity herself, young Rowlson-Hall was convinced that having a baby was her calling. It’s an idea that ultimately wrote itself as a script years later, over the course of two mornings, from her hand with a pen that seemed to have a mind of its own.

She’s made about fifty short films and videos but Rowlson-Hall tells me that MA is the first fully translated image from her mind to the screen. She attributes this to her cast and crew and to her clarity of vision. “I wrote this movie, I raised all the money myself,” she says. “It’s my baby. I kept a lot of the control because I wanted it to be the most specifically me it could be. I wanted it to really be distinctly my voice.”

Rowlson-Hall couldn’t be Jesus because she wasn’t a boy. She couldn’t be a ballerina because “the aesthetic lines, the math of my body wasn’t right.” But Celia Rowlson-Hall has earned herself a seat in the director’s chair. And with an immaculate conception and a first feature behind her, she’s commanding a voice that’s bound to be distinct in whatever baby she makes next.

After the speed walk, I was relieved to sit down in the sand with more members from the MA team who’d traveled to Venice. Below is my conversation with Rowlson-Hall; producers Aaron Schnobrich, Lauren Smitelli, and Riel Roch-Decter; actor Andrew Pastides; composer Brian McOmber; and costume designer Allison Pearce.

Filmmaker: Brian, how did you begin the process of composing?

Brian McOmber: Celia sent me the script about a year before shooting and we started making some sounds.

Celia Rowlson-Hall: Brian sent over around 16 gong experiments while I was rehearsing. I’d respond to different tracks. There was a lot of back and forth.

McOmber: Yeah, I’d throw stuff at Celia to see what stuck. A couple times we sat down together to scroll through long pieces of music together, and when something would catch her ear, I’d take note of that and then expand on it later.

Rowlson-Hall: I told Brian I wanted to be limited to the gong sound because it doesn’t have a natural decay like other musical instruments such as the piano or guitar. It recycles and therefore tricks your brain, which is why people do gong baths. Your brain can’t follow a gong logically so it takes you to a different place. With this film, I wanted to take people out of this logical place, almost to get past something.

McOmber: Some of the early renderings that Celia liked were just one hit of a gong that lasted twenty seconds, but I’d slow it down to last about twenty minutes. And as you slow it down, because the decay is so subtle, in minute ten the overtones would come out. I wanted to take this idea Celia liked — of never starting and never ending — and expand it even further to find little moments within one long decay. This was all during an experimental phase, but when we were editing, we moved beyond the gongs and would try other things. Once I saw picture, I’d have new ideas.

Filmmaker: Did you discuss your interpretation of the script?

McOmber: I had the script, read it, and then had a dream about it, and then read other versions. I don’t remember asking any questions about what the film was about or what it meant. It never occurred to me.

Lauren Smitelli: That’s the beauty of it too though — Celia left so much up for interpretation. So everyone on set had their own interpretation of what they were seeing. I’m sure we all had our own private discussions at the end of the day with different people about what was happening.

Allie Pearce: I had read the script a year and a half before we started shooting, and what struck me was visualizing the locations and imagery of the desert and what that meant for costumes and color for each character. The desert colors and landscape were very vital to the creation of so many of the costumes.

Rowlson-Hall: Red cowboy boots because of Dorothy. I think of Wizard of Oz as our one true American fairy tale, and why my shoes are red in the film — she’s searching for home. And red looks great in the dessert! Allie gave my shirt to a particular dyer because we wanted the colors to feel “desert-y.”

Pearce: We used natural dyes for the “MA” t-shirt. Our dyer used items from the desert, such as cochineal beetles and cacti ingredients indigenous to the Mojave Desert. Celia rehearsed in one shirt and we shot in another. We had six shirts overall to tell the story of Ma’s journey. I just had one person helping me on set, so towards the end of the day, I’d leave set to go sew costumes myself.

Filmmaker: Is the final picture and image of the film different than what you imagined?

Aaron Schnobrich: Every moment in the film isn’t exactly how I envisioned it, but I feel exactly the way I felt after I read it. It’s the feeling that translated to me in the script, and the same one that translates to me while watching the movie now. The process along the way changed little bits here and there, but the film isn’t about any one specific image. It’s more than that. Ultimately, the experience I have watching it is exactly the same one I imagined I’d have when I read it.

Smitelli: Every time I watch the film, it hits me in a completely new way. I have different interpretations of particular moments, and certain things represent something to me now that they wouldn’t have before. It’s fun to grow with it and discover that.

Andrew Pastides: I don’t know about you guys, but when I watch it now, I just think about the process, about how many different things happened to create one very specific moment. It was like war. Every scene was brutal, all of us together coordinating the choreography to make each moment happen, running from here to there, everyone always doing something.

Schnobrich: The process of making it wasn’t something I understood right away. Even when I first read the script, I didn’t understand it fully. I wasn’t sure if it was something I was right for or something I’d want to make, because I didn’t fully understand what I was experiencing while I was reading. The third time I read it — over the course of three days when I saw the whole thing, start to finish — it was then that I really appreciated what it was. I didn’t totally understand how we were going to make it, but I knew I wanted to make it. We had a lot of discussions about how far we’d be able to take it when we started shooting. And there were a series of events that happened that allowed us to see how much farther we could actually go.

Filmmaker: How did the challenges affect the team?

Smitelli: Every time things got really challenging, I just kept reminding myself that we’re making something that truly never gets to be made. This was such a special project and in some ways it felt like it had to be difficult. It sounds cheesy, but It felt bigger than us.

Pastides: We worked so hard on this thing. It’s a project we’d been crossing our fingers for – and it happened. It was so grueling, and so hard to do in 24 days. We all really bonded. But it was contentious too. It wasn’t just fun. We weren’t necessarily fighting each other, but there were tense moments.

Rowlson-Hall: Well, we were up against the war of a budget and a small crew and 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pastides: And we were all doing five jobs. It was hard.

Smitelli: That’s why we’re all here, in Venice. To finally have a moment to celebrate, to be in a normal headspace, to enjoy what we’ve done together.

Pearce: For me, to come to Venice was really important because this was the first project I’d done that I really collaborated on, where I was more than just the hired costume designer. So I feel a different sense of pride for this project, definitely.

Filmmaker: Riel, you came on board after the film was shot?

Riel Roch-Decter: I was working on a music video with Celia, and she started telling me about this movie she shot in the desert. I think she described it as a “dance film” and I asked her to send me a link. I remember being ten minutes into it and thinking there wasn’t any dancing but that it was just so beautifully shot. I watched it with my producing partner Sebastian Pardo and we were both totally blown away. I think I called Celia the next morning and asked her how we could help, or maybe it was immediately after watching the link that I called her. When she told me how much money she spent to make this film, I had no idea how she did it. Even now, watching it, I think it’s impossible they [producers Schnobrich and Smitelli] made it for as little as they did.

Filmmaker: How do you describe the movie now?

McOmber: I describe it as a silent film. We didn’t want the music to be invisible, but we didn’t want to the music to feel like a score —

Rowlson-Hall: We didn’t want the music to push or dictate emotion. We wanted to highlight the nature instead of the emotional tones in the scenes.

Decter: I don’t describe it as a silent film usually. I emphasize that there’s no dialogue at the end of my description because it’s not silent to me. The challenge in filmmaking is to tell a story without relying on just words. Film is a visual medium, so for me, the less words you use the better the film. To take out all the words, but still convey the meaning is an incredible challenge. This is what Celia has done with MA. In that way, MA isn’t a silent film. It’s simply dialogue free.

Smitelli: I keep it real simple. I say that it’s an arthouse interpretation of a woman’s journey to find her own salvation.

Pearce: Yeah, I usually say that we made an art film in the desert and kind of leave it at that.

Decter: I’ve had to explain the film many times to get people behind it and to get programmers to program it, and I’m still at a loss for words when trying to describe it. My entry point is always Celia and her background in choreography and how she approached getting the film was made. What I like to convey the most is that it has a narrative drive. “Art film” often implies that there’s no narrative or that there’s just beautiful tableaus that don’t connect in any obvious way. What’s so impressive about MA is that it has a narrative drive throughout, and that, to me, makes it so unique and different from just an art film.

Schnobrich: I usually describe it as a journey film. It’s one woman’s journey, but also the journey of telling every woman’s story. It’s a film that explicitly asks people to learn about this one woman and also asks people to question themselves. It asks questions through stories with themes as old as time.

Pastides: I would probably say it’s an avant-garde film without dialogue, about a woman trying to find herself who meets a young actor along the way. He tries to save her. He betrays her. She banishes him to the desert, and then she becomes him.

Filmmaker: How was shooting in the desert?

Rowlson-Hall: Well, when we shot inside, when we were contained, it felt like being in an artist’s studio all playing together, each one of us adding paint to the canvas. When we were in the desert, with the natural elements, it was hard because we were scattered and the walkie-talkies never worked, one of our actors got a recluse spider bite —

Pastides: It was so rough we sort of had to laugh at it all.

Smitelli: We had to laugh at the absurdity. Any lightness on set came from how dark it got.

Pastides: The pace we set was so fast that we weren’t allowed to sink into the melancholia or drama of it all.

Rowlson-Hall: I had such a fear that a piano would fall out of the sky and crush everything before we had a chance to finish the movie. For the 24 days of shooting, I lived in such anxiety and fear of someone saying we couldn’t go on. I was really fucking worried the whole time because I was so desperate to make this movie. In my next film, I want to focus on infusing the room with more calm and trust. Even if the piano does fall — and now that I think about it, we basically had pianos falling the whole time — you figure out a way. But it was scary.

Schnobrich: Every moment was razor thin. We had to ask people to do things they wouldn’t normally do as a necessity to get things done. Every department had to stretch themselves super thin, which is a difficult way to operate and difficult to sustain. There was an element of fear because you never knew what someone would ask you to do in any given moment.

Filmmaker: This must have been intimidating for day players or anyone outside the nuclear team.

Pearce: When the day player characters and actors who were only on set for a short time came in and saw how hard we were working together towards one goal, they would get it.

Celia: Not one person walked onto set and didn’t get on board. We created such a strong magnet that people got sucked into. The set didn’t shift; it just grew.

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