July 11, 2008

Interview with Kari Skogland, Director of The Stone Angel

Women & Hollywood: The Stone Angel is a beloved book in Canada. Were you nervous about taking this well known book to the screen?

Kari Skogland: Absolutely. It is studied in high school and University and everyone in Canada has a love/hate relationship with it, as well as preconceived notions of who Hagar, the lead character, is or isn't. It's a tough read as well and when it came out in the 1960s, it was considered to be quite a feminist book with spiritual questions and was banned in many areas. My daunting task was to turn this epic story told as one woman's stream of consciousness, into a cinematic one, as well as to update her to modern times.
W&H: You tell a very moving story about a woman taking stock of her life and realizing that some of the choices she made, especially relating to her son Marvin, were quite hurtful. What can Hagar's search for peace teach the rest of us?
KS: Such a great question! This story is very much a dialogue with god and spirituality. Hagar questions and rebels against the god she is taught is vengeful, a god where a woman's sexuality and independence is somehow a bad thing - she rebels against false pride but because of the legacy of family and community, she falls victim to it and makes well intentioned but, ultimately, destructive choices. On set we all were continually applying "the Hagar effect" to our own lives as a sort of check list and I certainly have made adjustments and am conscious of when I fall off the rails. Her truth and discovery is that God is love and love is unconditional. Bram and she were in love - outside forces that she bought in caused her to withdraw her approval of him- and therefore put conditions on his love for her. It destroyed him, them, and her life as she applied her 'conditions' to her sons.
W&H: Hagar was clearly a woman ahead of her time. She spoke out, had a mind of her own, followed her heart and clearly did not want to live the life her mother did. Yet it turns out that her pride and love led to a very unexpectedly difficult life for her and her family. Talk a little bit about the character of Hagar and how she is unique from the type of woman we usually see on screen today.
KS: What Ellen Burstyn and I both loved about this woman is that she is strong, archetypal, vulnerable and yet made of steel. She is wonderfully flawed. She survives the best way she knows and fails. Her redemption comes when she accepts the love she feels. That's such a terrific inner journey, filled with depth and humanity.

It's not often you see a woman who isn't a traditional victim; or the flip, smart side kick. I think most women portrayed in films are truthfully various versions of the silent films of the 1920's; i.e. - a woman tied up on the rail tracks with the train coming, or tied up on the logging company conveyor belt headed for the buzz saw!

Generally women characters are imagined by men, and that is not to say men can't imagine a female character, but they have to do their research to get it right, just as a female writer has to avoid stereotypes when writing the male characters. We as women have to be more vocal about it as well - we need to support female driven stories and films because if there is no financial upside, there is no way to get our stories out there. That's my call to action ladies!!!
W&H: The numbers for women directing films here in the US are brutally low. Why do you think women continue to struggle in this area and what has your experience been?
KS: I am so fortunate to be able to make my living as a director given my gender - kind of against the odds. I have to say I've never paid attention to limitations set by others, and perhaps that’s why I've been lucky enough to continue to work. Truthfully, it's about trust whether you are a man or a woman. A financier or a producer needs to know that I will get them there on time, on budget and with a great film. My creative vision is obviously paramount, but it's a blend of sensibilities and stamina, so, one has to always be working on skills.

I've always taken risks. Some work out better than others but, I always learn something I can bring to the next project and I try never to get discouraged. Women will continue to struggle until gender is secondary to skill. I don't think it is a conspiracy by the way, I think it is just a pervasive norm that keeps dropping the women off the list. Work begets more work so, if women aren't working their way up the ladder particularly in the more visible genres like "action", then developing the skills that will allow a studio, actor, producer or financier to trust them becomes difficult to achieve. Sort of a chicken and egg issue scenario. There's no specific solution other than to continue to prove oneself and be a bit "bloody minded" about accepting the word "no".
W&H: I've heard from a variety of people that there are financial resources available through co-production deals and government funds for film made by Canadians based on Canadian material. Is that true? And if it is do you think that having these funds available makes it easier for Canadian women directors?
KS: Yes, there are financial resources around the world so having other passports is a good thing, but I don't think the numbers reflect any difference. I do have to say I've been given many opportunities to work on projects that are not traditionally directed by a woman which leads me to other projects because my Canadian passport gives producers access to some government money at which point the gender issue tends to dissolve...
W&H: What's next for you?
KS: Fifty Dead Men Walking, a political thriller set in the late 1980s in Northern Ireland. I wrote, directed and produced and I am blessed with another great cast: Sir Ben Kingsley, Jim Sturgess, Kevin Zegers, Nathalie Press and Rose McGowan. It's very different from The Stone Angel. The story is tough and edgy, loads of action which I love to do. It's ultimately about doing the right moral thing when everyone around you -- even the good guys are not -- even if it costs you everything, including your life. War is a place of many shades, none of which are easy to decode. I guess I am drawn to exploring the truth as we discover it in ourselves under extreme conditions.
The Stone Angel opens today in NY, LA, Washington DC and Minneapolis.