"Being a conscious consumer is necessary. Look at the crew when you watch something. Examine who is telling the stories you are hearing" - Interview to the talented filmmaker Elizabeth Schiffler
Interview by Rossella Forle
Elizabeth Schiffler is an enthusiastic, talented young filmmaker from Seattle.
In this interview we have been talking about woman-directing-woman in a film, how changing the portrayal of women in film means getting more women behind the lens and her latest film in progress Champagne.
1. What made you pursue filmmaking?
Stories came first in my family - whether that was around the dinner table, on screen, in a book - that was how we learned and shared our values, experiences, and hopes. I got addicted to stories. From there, I studied theatre in college, which I adored because of the very visceral experience of presenting something for an audience to immediately connect to.
However I grew tired of the theatrical canon, and the pacing and feelings I was interested in weren’t translating well to theatre - I saw more opportunities for achieving the feelings that I wanted in film.
Film allows the smallest moments, reactions, and feelings to drive a story.
I have a harder time achieving that in theatre so that’s how I made the shift. I still love live performed experiences and am inspired by them, so theatricality and that type of embodied performance still comes in to the type of work I direct.
2. Who inspired you the most and why?
I’ve been inspired by the auteur Jane Campion for the last couple years.
She combines complex and dynamic female characters with equally rich worlds and plots - all while maintaining a level of universality and clarity to her stories. With how few female directors there are, there are even fewer auteur directors - but I think there is a unity and clarity in auteur work, and love to see a female perspective on that type of directing. Her television series Top of the Lake is one of the best visual stories I think I’ve ever seen.
Chantal Akerman was my foray into feminist film, however. Challenging myself to really really sit with her film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels offered me this whole type of directing - a woman directing a woman performer - I felt like I was witnessing part of their artistic process, that there was a relationship between the director-camera-actor that was particularly intimate, painful, slow, and visceral.
3. What’s Champagne?
Champagne is a 15 minute short film about a peculiar restaurant and the two women who work there. The head chef, Champagne, runs the restaurant and starts the story by hiring an assistant to help her cook for her divine clientele. I came up with the title character’s name from a quote from Michael Pollen’s Cooked.
We’re funding this film through a Kickstarter campaign running from April 15-May 15. It’s a story rooted in community, family, food, and memories, so why not turn to those people to help get the film made? Ultimately this short film will serve as proof of concept for a feature-length narrative film. I want to make stories that grow and live - so that’s the next step for me.
4. How did you come up with the idea for your film Champagne?
The ideas came from many places. Some are my own experience as a female artist. Some are the stories of women chefs that have recently been highlighted in popular culture.
Another is from my more theoretical background as a scholar exploring the myth of the witch. An early prompt I gave myself inspired from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. The scene where the spirit world comes to life really gave a visual space for Champagne, the parents of the main character, Chihiro, get distracted and consumed with the food that magically appears. Ultimately that turns them into pigs. I asked myself the question: who cooks that food? Who cooks for the spirit world? That led to a lot of the script for Champagne.
5. Why did you decide to write this film?
I wanted to write this film because I wanted to create a female character who was both a creator and a nurturer. Of the many tropes and archetypes there are, the “myth of the witch” is one that I am exhausted of and wanted to counteract.
To me, early stories of witches show a woman as a creator- an artist - but always at the cost of her ability to be a loving person - whether a mother, partner, or community member. Somehow a woman’s creativity was at the cost of her ability to emotionally connect with others - which is not at all what I see in the women in my own life. So I wrote a truthful, complex, messy story of a woman, and the woman she hires.
And as I started to write around the imagery of a witch, the cauldron, the feminine making of something, the image of a chef or someone who cooks floated right next to it. It seemed like the natural setting for the world which I was trying to create.
6. Did they ever treat you differently because you are a female filmmaker?
I feel like most women are treated differently when they enter leadership roles. For me, I end up taking on much more emotional labor in a project than male counterparts have to - which has its benefits, but also makes the work harder. Caring for your cast, crew, or collaborators is a beautiful thing - until it becomes a imbalance of care. The worst experiences I’ve had is when people objectify, sexualise and idolise me as a woman director.
7. Women represent just the 20% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. What do you think it should be done to increase the number of women in the industry?
Fund them. Take a risk with your money.
I also think being a conscious consumer is so so necessary. Look at the crew when you watch something. Examine who is telling the stories you are hearing. Are they all men? All white? All cis? All straight? Find new stories. They are probably better than the 4th sequel of the film you’ve seen a hundred times before.
I think we can also change how the industry shapes itself. Shop local! Find your local film center and go see the independently programmed films they are bringing in.
8. Do you have any advice for young filmmakers like yourself?
Ask for help from the people you want help from. See how other filmmakers have done it, and find a path that works for you. For me, I focus on sticking to the story in the way that is true to me, paired with lots of feedback from people who’s ideas, work, and feelings I value. Also, don’t be afraid when someone says no. You can always say yes to you.
Elizabeth Schiffler is an emerging performance studies scholar and film & performance artist. She has been producing a great number of short films like the Famous Whale, Garden Variety, Becoming Mermaid and Faroe Island. And a theatre shows like the Famous Whale, a video poetry collaboration with Erin Lynch, and Lesser Known Oceanographies: A Lecture on Going Hungry, .
Find out more about Elizabeth at http://www.elizabethschiffler.com/