“Pressure, you see, is the fuel of the voice.” – Mouthpiece, the play
The late writer Nora Ephron famously insisted that “everything is copy,” by which she meant writers should regard all of their life’s experiences as potential material.
And so, let us trace the real-life inspiration for a wince-inducing moment in a new film: On an airy spring day in May, 1987, then-28-year-old writer-director Patricia Rozema returned to Toronto from the Cannes Film Festival trailing triumph. Her feature debut, a whimsical comedy-drama, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, about a wannabe artist struggling to find her voice, had just bowled over critics from around the world, snagged the Prix de la jeunesse and been scooped up by the rising film distributor Miramax.
Rozema, reared by Dutch immigrants as a cautious Calvinist, kept her ego in check, but still she telephoned her mom, to revel a bit in the moment. “I said, ‘So, did you see any of the press? I was on CBC, did you see any of that?’” she recalled the other day. “‘Yeah, yeah. Yeah,’” her mother replied, then added: “‘Brown is not your colour.’”
She meant it with love.
Thirty-one years later, that quip reappears as a mother-to-daughter slight in Rozema’s searing new feature, Mouthpiece. Making its world premiere as the opening night of the Special Presentations program of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the movie has echoes of many of Rozema’s previous films and recurring themes: Mermaid’s surreal flights of fancy and absurdism, as well as an aggressive use of downtown Toronto as a backdrop; the struggle for self-expression; an abiding interest in duality. Her most directly political film, it also may be her most heartfelt and emotionally mature.
A formally daring drama laced with unexpected emotional left hooks, Mouthpiece is based on an award-winning indie theatre piece about a woman named Cassandra struggling to find her voice as she pens a eulogy for her mother’s funeral. Cassandra is performed – she was onstage and she is now on film – by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, who simultaneously play different aspects of the same woman. (Rozema likens it to Lena Dunham’s Girls crossed with the surrealism of Charlie Kaufman [Being John Malkovich].) Collaborating one moment, colliding the next, they carry on an inner dialogue that is frank, funny, and fiercely feminist.
Those who saw the play (it ran in festivals from Victoria to Ottawa, with four appearances in Toronto) might naturally wonder two things: 1) How on earth could an experimental, baldly theatrical work, in which the two performers were so in tune with each other, so physically virtuosic that it often felt as if they moved as one – be adapted for film? And 2) What could Rozema, who turned 60 last month , contribute to a piece that pulsates with the raw energy and raunchy humour – not to mention the 2018 feminism – of its twentysomething protagonist(s)?
Which brings us back to that moment after Cannes.
Sitting the other day at the Canteen restaurant in TIFF’s Lightbox headquarters, moving through a kale Caesar with chicken, Rozema notes that she is a mother herself, with two daughters, 22 and 14. “I’ve said things that [made me think], ‘Oh, God, that’s the first thing that came out of my mouth, I can’t believe that, she’ll always remember that.’ Those little tiny crimes that add up. And they’re just bad timing, often.”
Which is to say, Rozema brings the perspective of a mother – who is also, of course, a daughter – to the piece. And so, in working with Nostbakken and Sadava to open up the play, Rozema suggested they add the character of the mother. Played by the luminous stage actress Maev Beaty (Stratford’s Bunny, Soulpepper’s The Last Wife), the mother, Elaine, now appears in flashbacks, a talented former editor who stepped off the career path to take care of her children and then found she had lost her professional foothold for good. In the play, Cassandra dismisses Elaine as a “doormat"; the film is more understanding of her choices.
And she, too, is inspired by real life: Rozema’s mother, Jacoba, who had been denied higher education because of her gender (while her brothers went to school), built up a successful business with her husband. In her 50s, she earned a degree in social work; just as she was about to start work in that field, she died of cancer.
That was in the early 1990s, as Patricia’s career was starting to gain some traction again. After Mermaids, which made Rozema a key figure in the so-called Toronto New Wave (alongside Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald), she had begun to doubt her instincts. There was her 1990 effort, which she calls, tongue in cheek, “my ‘abject failure’ White Room"; a segment for the omnibus film, Montréal vu par (1991); and the 1995 lesbian romance, When Night is Falling. (Rozema is gay.) She directed Mansfield Park (1999), which was distributed by Miramax and signed a two-picture deal, but she and the company’s notoriously controlling president, Harvey Weinstein (who was later accused of far worse) could never agree on another project.
“I was famous inside Miramax, for how nice he was to me,” she says of that period. “I think I was somewhere in between: I wasn’t somebody he could sexually abuse and I wasn’t a guy that he needed to take down. So I was in sort of a no man’s land. And he was actually really, really quite gentle and generous with me. Such an odd place to be.”
Still, he didn’t like the films she would pitch and Miramax was trying to set her up on pre-existing intellectual property projects such as Betty & Veronica. “And I’d say, ‘I can do ya a nice Betty & Veronica, but I don’t think it’s the one you want!’” Peals of laughter.
Miramax let her out of the contract for a few months so she could do a film of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days for Irish television. Eventually, the company released her entirely. “And you know, your coin diminishes, in terms of the marketplace. So, you come out of that, and [you face questions like]: ‘Well, what have you done? How come no one’s wanted to work with you?’ And you’re starting over again.”
Rozema spent about four years trying to get an adaptation of Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries off the ground, without success. She did some TV, including a few episodes of the mournful end-of-the-romance HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me, as well as the American Girl movie Kit Kittredge. Then, another seven long years before her next feature, the 2015 survivalist drama Into the Forest, about two sisters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) marooned in a house in the Pacific Northwest after the power goes out across the continent.
In interviews at the time, she said she had decided to only make films with female leads from then on. (Nobody seemed to point out that this would not signify any change from her previous practice.) Lately, she says, the growing interest in diversity has led to invitations into more rooms.
“I’m very happy that the world is opening up to other voices,” she says. “I always knew it would, that’s why I’d never move to Hollywood, because I thought: ‘Woman, lesbian, with kind of artistic/commercial ambitions – I was never going to be the first person they’d go to, in Hollywood. But now, suddenly, I know what it feels like be one of the ‘in crowd.’ I go into a meeting, before I have said a word, people want to like me. Not” – she folds her arms across the chest, in a mock pose of resentment – “‘Okay, what womany thing is she gonna want to do?’ I feel this wish to embrace. Which is thrilling!”
She’d like to leverage that by going deeper into the sort of absurdism she explored in Mouthpiece. She mentions Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Eugène Ionesco, as well as Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze (Her) and Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You) as kindred aesthetic spirits.
“There’s a theatrical tradition that’s now taking root – it started with Charlie Kaufman, in film – and I always wanted to be part of that. I’ve been frustrated with how photographic and documentary film still is. I want to be able to play with metaphor more, and the absurd and the surreal. But still have it emotionally grounded. That’s always been my agenda, from the very beginning. I was excited to see that CGI was getting to a state where we could make anything happen. So this is a first step in that direction that I really, really feel is my most natural place to be.”
She sounds as if she’s finding her voice again.
“There was a point where, after I made Mermaids – which had people flying and walking on water and conducting symphonies and blowing up paintings, and all that – I just did people in rooms. And at a certain point it was like, ‘What happened to that? That’s what I love! What happened?’ And so I feel like I’m back on track.”
Mouthpiece screens at TIFF Sept. 6, 9:45 p.m., Winter Garden; Sept. 7, 12:45 p.m., Lightbox; and Sept. 15, 6 p.m., Jackman Hall