Jennifer Fox of MY REINCARNATION - Interview
MY REINCARNATION is the kind of film that doesn’t try to change your faith or sway the way you think about God but it does reaffirm the notion that through deep internal examination there can be enlightenment and it can result in something as simple as a father and son connecting on an emotional level after so many years of trying to define their relationship.
The film’s focus on exiled Tibetan spiritual master Cheogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and his son, Yeshi, spans the unbelievable time period of almost twenty years. As Norbu’s personal secretary and, as a natural born filmmaker, Jennifer Fox decided to follow him around with a camera.
She was always interested in the, “teachings of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche.” Meeting him in 1985 Fox, “became his student and he eventually let me know he needed a secretary.” She was a part of the man’s family, she was with him constantly and, as filmmaker, she knew she, “had to start filming.”
Unaware of what she would have on her hands when she was done she, “shot a lot of film.” In the mid 90’s she put the camera down and thought about what she possessed. What she had was a lot of footage of nothing in particular. To hear her put it, Fox she knew there was something there but it wasn’t whole yet. As she filmed father and son she realized that it was going to take something special, conflict, in order to make this a cohesive film and it would all rest at the feet of Norbu’s son.
At a young age Yeshi was told that he was a reincarnated lama and that he needed to recognize himself as that lama and continue his father’s teachings as a master of the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism. In 1988 he was 18 and even then he had an “uneasy” relationship with his father. Yeshi didn’t embrace this revelation. He grew up, he went into the business world, and the movie deals with what could have been the very end of the movie. However, it wasn’t until years after Fox put down the camera did she become aware of Yeshi’s change of heart, of mind.
Fox admits that up until that point, “there is no conflict. How do you make a movie without conflict? I’m a narrative filmmaker yet there wasn’t a story to tell.” When she learned that Yeshi was giving up the life of urban professional, who already had a family and a very successful career, that he gave it up in order to become the very thing he had been raging against for most of his life, thirteen years later she filmed on and off until 2009.
She had her film. With her 1,000+ hours of footage she had to get editing. Says Fox, “I was conscious that I didn’t want to make this film for just a Buddhist audience. It would be a film that could speak to anybody of any denomination.
Without giving anything away about where the film goes, Fox is deftly able to take the footage she shot and create a third act that weaves together spirituality and humanity in a way that feels removed from Buddhism and feels more grounded in people being people. It’s hard to accept the things we struggle hard to rage against but sometimes, like in the case of Yeshi, you could turn around and see a situation in a different light.
Fox was close to her subjects and it’s that intimacy that helps elevate this documentary above most that simply explore a subject as if it were just that, a subject. Says Fox about the 1:1 filming she did, “It’s not like shooting with a crew. You are always with your subjects, but I think that shows.”
As Fox explains about the process of getting the movie to the public, even though the movie’s coming to theaters doesn’t mean she’s done stumping. “I feel a responsibility,” she said, “to make sure it gets out there properly.” To that end, she’s also had to contend with financing issues.
The movie was, for all intents and purposes, done and making the festival rounds but after a backer themselves backed out of helping to finance the movie’s journey to more markets Fox found herself $100,000 in debt. Almost on a whim, on a lark, she turned to Kickstarter to see if anyone would help the film make it to its final journey. She thought $50,000 would have been an outrageous success but, after a little while, that $50,000 goal was bypassed by over a $100,000.
“We’re the second highest raising documentary of all time,” she said.
In a previous interview, Fox has commented what crowd sourcing has meant to her:
“It’s been a really hard road and I have to say, I have never made a film this hard before. But it is all about really reinventing your strategies towards producing. Whenever you think you can’t, look again. I’m very, very excited about crowd funding. I think it gives enormous opportunity to literally let the audience vote for your film, as this crowd funding campaign did for our film. It’s an enormous message to put out to broadcasters and theatricals showing people want this film, they want to see it and they want it now. It works particularly well with films that have a niche audience and that aren’t on general topics.”
Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin of Martha Marcy May Marlene - Interview
Make no mistake about it, Elizabeth Olsen is unpredictable. She doesn’t telegraph her intentions or give you any idea where she’s going next. It’s exhilarating.
She is pure emotion in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that does not relent, does not give you an easy out, and certainly is not going to give you a happy ending. Dealing with a girl who comes out of a cult only to find solace in the company of her sister who, in turn, wonders what to do with a sister that can’t let go of her past and is mentally unstable due to the events that transpired under the tutelage of charismatic cult leader Patrick, played wickedly by John Hawkes, the movie is tragic. The story twists and turns and the less you know going into it the better you’ll be at seeing how wonderfully Olsen melted into her role as an impressionable young woman who would be forever destroyed by a madman.
Olsen and director/writer Sean Durkin stopped by Phoenix in support of the film and to talk about their experiences making it. Martha Marcy May Marlene is playing right now.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Hello. How are you two doing?
ELIZABETH OLSEN & SEAN DURKIN: We’re doing alright.
CS: I’m going to try and make the best use of my 10 minutes here. After seeing the movie last night I think it was one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
Thank you so much.
CS: Without question – Not only is it a testament to your filmmaking Sean but, Elizabeth, the performance was fantastic.
OLSEN: Thank you.
CS: I think I’d like to start by asking you Sean how you started researching and thinking that this would be a viable idea for a film and how Elizabeth got wrapped up in it?
DURKIN: I just had the idea I wanted to make a film about a cult. And I wanted it to be contemporary and I felt I hadn’t seen that and something local, something I could imagine happening in the Catskills in New York. So I started with the big groups of the 60’s and 70’s and worked my way down to finding more modern groups that are around today and just trying to get a sense of how they worked – how they got these people in.
I remember being struck early on by the pictures of people who have come out – what they looked like when they came out versus when they went in like their souls were sucked out of them and they physically changed and I was just so fascinated by how that could happen to somebody. Then after that I decided to just focus on – the most interesting part was the first couple weeks after someone leaves – the complexity and paranoia. I thought that was the best thing – the most cinematic element of the process that I wanted to get. And, I wanted an unknown actress to play the role. I thought it was really important to have someone that people hadn’t seen before and we just started auditioning everybody that fit that age range and who fit that description and Lizzie was clearly outstanding for the role. So I went with her.
CS: Elizabeth, what brought you – certainly the role the way it was written was thick with character development – I know talking with actors and actresses they say they are always looking for something substantial and there’s nothing out there that’s really substantial – I would imagine that when you read the script that there was plenty substantial about it.
OLSEN: Yes, that I had only been auditioning and reading scripts for about 6 or 7 months. So the parts that we substantial they had no interest in having someone who was unknown. Laughs.l For me it was an interesting pointing time but when I got to read the script and also having a lot of love and compassion for Martha. I totally wanted to play her because I totally understood her.
I didn’t want to diagnose her and I don’t want anyone to write her off. Initially I had this drive to do her justice in a weird way. But also when I read the script I loved reading being an audience member while I was reading it and I loved the way Sean played with narrative and it was something I only have seen in theatre and I haven’t ever seen in film. It really excited me and I thought it was a great way to tell a story. I thought it was an effective way of how to get in someone’s head. So both of those together really excited me.
CS: Did Sean give you any sort of instruction coming to the performance, like read up on this or look at real life examples. Some people would go so far and get method with it all. How far deep did you go to get to understand Martha as a character?
OLSEN: I understood her as a person and what she needed and what these people could provide for her. But, I never went deep into thinking I needed to be around people who are in cults. I never felt that. I felt like I connected with the character on a couple different levels. But then Sean the way he directs he said I have my ideas about your life story – I have my ideas about A, B, and C.
If you want to ask me I’m an open book so he used himself as a source but he doesn’t make you do anything. So I would use Sean as a research source because of all the people he’s been able to talk to. If I was stuck on something I would just ask him – now did this actually happen to someone? What did they say about it? What was their reason? So there was research from that end but mainly to get behind her. I tried to ground her more so like in reality and not so much like a cult victim. More so, it was someone I could connect with.
DURKIN: And that was our approach too – never calling it a cult. No one knows they are in a cult when they’re in a cult. And that line of what a cult is is also a fine line. We kept all that stuff out of it and made all the relationships just about friendship and family and how those get manipulated.
CS: It’s interesting you bring that up. I wanted to ask too, that is a fine line with a cult, I think one of the reasons why the film works so well is that – cinematically, it’s not villainized, not in you face, look at what these people are doing, isn’t it wrong, it’s wrong, this is wrong, it’s very subtle, a slow burn throughout the whole film. What was your method for approaching this with I don’t want to make it ostentatious that these people are wayward and wrong but I also want to get across how subtle and scary this all can be.
DURKIN: Well, for me it’s all about how did Martha get in there and get that deep. I wanted to go with her slowly and that came from listening to people about how they get sucked in I don’t know, it just has to be subtle. For the audience to go with her If you were to show up on the first day and everyone was wearing robes and they are chanting religious sermons then that’s immediately a red flag but we needed to not pass judgment and keep it subtle so that you understand why Martha could fall into this.
And also, there are positive things that this is built on and I think a lot of cults do start with positive things and then they get manipulated. So it was just about finding that balance of how someone gets sucked in and I didn’t want to judge anybody because I didn’t want to dismiss anyone – like oh, this person is in a cult because they are this type of person or this person is bad for doing this. Obviously it gets to a point where it’s obviously bad but in the beginning you can’t disregard anyone.
And one of the things I found interesting is that there is no one type of person who gets into a cult either. So you can’t see a character and say oh, they are in a cult because they are like this and that fits the description. It’s much more complicated than that so I wanted everyone, even the small parts to be individual and strong and not someone you can dismiss.
CS: And I think that’s the case. John Hawks is one of those actors that just ensconces and looses himself in a role and I think one of the master strokes here was making him, again, not so much the villain, but showing how subtle and sly the whole process can be. I think ultimately, and one of the questions I want to be sure to squeeze in for both of you – looking at the film now, what do you think the film has to say about identity in general – how it defines us and how it can be manipulated by others?
OLSEN: The biggest thing for me with identity in relation to this film and to cults in general, is I just feel people have to( and I may be stealing Sean’s words right now) have this desire to belong to something bigger than themselves. And if they don’t find this place where they fit in and they can contribute to a whole, then they feel like there is something missing. So that’s what I relate to – this drive to want to belong to something outside yourself that is bigger.
DURKIN: Yes. I always find this hard to say – like what this film is saying or trying to say. For me it was creating this character that was true to the experiences that I looked into and spent time with people about what they went through and creating the psychological state and I think that in these scenarios, what these groups do is slowly – I guess they rename you and strip away your identity and take down to a childlike state and then reprogram you. I was always interested in identity and people trying to fit in and looking for groups to belong to and this was an extreme case to do that. I don’t really know what it’s saying. I just tried to focus on the character and following that, exploring that, and trying to be true to depicting how someone can get lost and lose their voice and therefore their identify when they go through something this traumatic.
CS: I would like to talk about the films relationships. The conscious choice not to show the relationship between Martha and her sister as it relates to anything further past her coming out of the cult and she gets into the cult. How was that established? The kind of relationship that these two sisters had and why there was no real other context than what we were shown on the screen?
DURKIN: Well, the writing process was a long, delicate process of trying to find exactly what I wanted to portray. Most importantly, for me, is that each moment I try to make them true and I can’t speak for everybody but in my experience when people go home and spend time with their families they tend not to talk or confront issues. There is always stuff underneath the surface. It goes back years and is never brought up. And it’s rare that the past is discussed in detail. At least this family tried to move forward and I think that’s common. So it all came from that and just trying to be true to that and true to Lucy’s character. I just wanted to focus on the present. Just tried to be accurate with that.
OLSEN: I think also, I find it really interesting to watch how people react with each other that clearly have a history and not know what that history is. I just find that interesting. I guess that’s why I enjoy watching people eating at a restaurant. Trying to figure out what their relationship is to each other. I also, for me as an audience member, I enjoy watching these two sisters and try to figure out what happened and you can get a sense of what did happen, you just don’t have the facts. But it’s still this way of analyzing behavior which I find really fascinating.
CS: Last question and I’ll make it really brief, the take-away’s… after seeing the finished product , how do you feel about your performance, Elizabeth and certainly Sean, how do you feel about the way the film’s been received?
OLSEN: Well, I don’t know how to watch the film without thinking about what happened everyday on set. The scene where I’m throwing a rock at the car, the only thing I could think of was how fast we had to get that shot. Laughs. I’m really excited to see it again for the final time in Toronto, my dad is going to be next to me and that will be my second time seeing it again from beginning to end with an audience.
I’m really excited to see it again with some distance because I want to be able to learn from my work. I don’t know if that’s even possible but if it is then having something taped and learning what you can improve on could be a helpful tool. I’m trying to learn how to watch myself. I haven’t quite figured it out. I’m happy with the movie. The sound was really exciting to hear. I thought it was really effective. So when we were filming I had no idea that was going to happen so that was cool when I saw the movie.
DURKIN: I am really happy with the film and feel that we had a wonderful team of people and everyone did incredible work and we were able to make the best film that we set out to make. That’s all you can do!
Leave a Reply