Home truths with Alyx Duncan

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews,
The Auckland-based choreographer and filmmaker discusses the making of her debut feature, The Red House, currently touring the country as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Directed with patience, intelligence, and visual finesse, Alyx Duncan’s The Red House is one of the strongest local features to emerge in the digital era. Seldom do we get to witness a New Zealand filmmaker reconcile artistic practice and cinematic vision so seamlessly; rarer still, do we get to encounter a narrative work from this country as serious minded and artistic minded as Duncan’s independently funded film. Centred on the enduring cross-cultural bond between conservationist Lee and his Chinese wife Jia, the filming of the director’s real-life father and stepmother in their idiosyncratic ‘red house’ may have begun as a short experimental documentary, but through circumstances, evolved into something far more substantial and open-ended. Indeed, a quiet audacity is expressed through Duncan’s willingness to embrace the possibilities of imagination while not settling for the actuality of her parents’ situation, and as the story unfolds and departs from its idyllic island setting to the extraterrestrial expanse of contemporary urban China, there’s a mystery to every scene, gesture, and utterance that takes place within the film’s poetic liminal space.

Although very much an organic creation, there’s a thematic coherency to The Red House that belies its unexpected course of development, where actual plans for the family to move out of the titular house were altered mid-production, and where traditional scriptwriting was abandoned in favour of a process of collaboration and invention with her non-actor parents. Impressively, Duncan has melded this intuition for change and fortuity with a perfectly realised scenario that continues her multi-discipline exploration of “human perception in relation to place, culture, and political context.” Stretched between two disparate environments, the film not only considers displacement as a global condition—one conveyed symbolically through visual tableaux rather than social or political context; a non-regionalist, non-egocentric approach to culture that’s rare for a New Zealand perspective of the world—but also very private emotions and concerns around language, aging, and memory. In turn, these privileged moments are nourished by the material curiosity of Duncan’s camera; a loving interaction with the history of her family’s home as communicated though their accumulated belongings and personal spaces. Regardless of the fictitious upheaval experienced by the parents, who are forced to relocate to a foreign land and confront the meaning of ‘home’, a sense of the concrete and the authentic permeates throughout this formally beautiful film. More than anything, it is this physical evidence that helps evince a delicate tension in the subtle distinction between the real and the make believe, giving us an intriguing, naturalized work of fiction.

I sat down with Alyx Duncan over two nights to talk about the numerous approaches towards making her movie, the meaning of saudade, and the mortality of things—an omnipresent theme at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.

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TIM WONG: Some people have mistaken the film for a documentary. It’s not a documentary—

ALYX DUNCAN: Is it clearly not from your perspective?

TW: From my perspective, it’s not. The camera work, for instance, is very studied and elegant. It’s set down a lot of the time, you can tell that the shots have been set up. It immediately had a staged quality, but in the right way. For me, it was not a documentary.

AD: That’s interesting, because what is a documentary? What is actually real? You could equally stage something, but have it tell the truth of that situation.

TW: Documentary is a very fraught term. You can always question the veracity of a documentary because of the presence of the filmmaker, and the role they play in mediating and manipulating how things turn out.

AD: Exactly.

TW: I guess that leads us into the question of your relationship with your parents. How did that colour the film? You’re directing them, and they’re the people you’re closest to in this world, and yet you’re asking them to pretend, while at the same time, incorporate parts of themselves into the performance.

AD: To touch on the documentary point, they do play close to themselves. While I was not so much drawing on their actual lives—the stories are invented with the help of my parents, collaborators and lives around us—but their qualities, feelings, things they have (in the house), and their philosophies are true, and help build the structure of the story and the background to it.

Part way through the process, we were shooting in China, and my father said, “I just don’t really see the point of this.” And I said “Really? What do you mean?” And he replied, “Well, I thought this was going to be an environmental film that would help the environment. But it doesn’t, it’s about a relationship.” So I said, “Why are you still doing it?” And he responded, “Well, it seems like you see the point, and it’s good to help your children.”

TW: That’s very selfless of him. Do you think he didn’t enjoy making the film though, in part at least?

AD: I think there were some aspects he really liked. I think they both literally enjoyed going to new places, and seeing parts of China they hadn’t spent much time in before. They’re both hermits, really, so to have to actually go and do stuff, I think they enjoyed that. And I think my father liked being questioned or interrogated about his philosophies, to an extent.

TW: Your stepmother, how often has she been back to China outside of the film? Had she been away for a long time?

AD: Originally, she had been away for a while. But they do spend time over there, and they do spend time over here. But in terms of the film’s structure, that’s something we created.

TW: Do you think pretending was easier for your parents, or being themselves on camera?

AD: I think there are two sides of that. Having all the stories within the film—the basis for how they met etc. were invented stories—made them feel a lot more comfortable, because then they could say to themselves, “it doesn’t matter, it’s not me, I’m not revealing myself.” But I liked the playfulness of that as well. I like that sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction, than if you just tell the truth. That was good for them; it made them feel safe, and it was good for me because it meant I could be more playful, and make up silly stories about drowning.

Within scenes, originally I had created a slightly larger arc that was more dramatic. But each time we tried to play the scenes that were turning points, it just didn’t work. It would just fall apart. When I asked them to play more closely to themselves, or if I would remember things that they might’ve said, and repositioned them in a different context, then it worked better, because it was familiar.

TW: But there’s still an honesty and sincerity there, even though they’re not actually talking about things that are real to them.

AD: Definitely. There’s a sentiment that lies behind all those stories which is true, but the stories themselves are not.

TW: On that note, I listened to your RNZ interview with Kim Hill, and I found it interesting how preoccupied she was with the detail of the son. I like mystery in film. I like a sense of discovery as well, but more so, I like a film to not give everything away or feel the need to humour the audience, to not walk them through the moment. For me, the revelation of the son was irrelevant whether it was true or not.

AD: Do you have kids?

TW: No.

AD: I think that’s the difference. It’s never really mattered to me what happened to the son, or indeed, what happened to the daughter. But possibly, that’s because I already know, and the centre of the story has always been around the love story. We never really went into her [Jia’s] parents, either. But then, more recently, the question of the son has come up, and it made me think, “Is it something that’s fine to leave open?” I think are two perspectives. When I was showing the film through stages of development for critique and analysis, I realised that all the people I showed it to don’t have kids, while all the people who have an issue with it or question it have children. I’ve realised that when you become a parent, you really care what’s happening to a child. When those stories come up, it’s something people attach themselves too. But for me, I still don’t think it’s an issue. In Chinese stories, details come in and then they disappear, and you never know what happens. For me, it just adds to the texture of the film, as long as it’s not something people get too concerned about.

TW: The manner in which the film was edited and the way its details are revealed, or at least allowed to float around and come into view—have you drawn that sensibility from other films or filmmakers? Or is it something you’ve naturally arrived at?

AD: When I was filming, I was thinking about what are the things that we want to know. I decided there should be a son there, because for women of that generation, usually there would be at least one child by that age, and it also added to the texture of generations, mortality, children and old people. But the stories in themselves have been like a collecting process—like collecting short stories, placing them over, and working out how they weave together. Sometimes, they don’t even quite match up, but they add to it. I like The Taste of Cherry, how there are a lot of smaller stories within a larger framework, and I really love that what you’re seeing in the film is pretty mundane. It’s mostly a guy driving around in a car, but your imagination is forced to move beyond that physical environment. That was something I wanted to do with this film. I like when we’re not being didactically shown something; our imagination has to do one thing while we’re watching a different set of images.

TW: I think it’s fair to say that the red house is a metaphor for what you’ve just described. Especially the opening of the film, where you establish the house through a series of beautifully composed images, the tableaux gradually moving from the outside of the house to the inside. There are a lot of possessions in the house, and there’s a real material weight behind that. All those things represent memories and stories and fragments of your life and your parents’ lives.

AD: When I started filming—and it’s precisely what you just said—all of those objects in the house are connected to particular memories, not just of my history, but my whole family’s history, and because my parents are such hoarders, they just stay there and gather dust. The memory of my childhood is quite strong, and I think it’s because all the remnants of those times remain there. When I went to make a film about the house, I had the question of, how much of the memory is attached to the object? If you take the objects away, does the memory remain? The thing I never resolved was, you can see the objects, I have the memory of them, but how do you actually tell the memory? And some of those memories are only interesting because I’ve experienced them. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to see the excavation process of the packing, but I wanted to somehow use the objects as a way to go into those layers of time. Of course, I never figured out how to do that, so I made this movie!

TW: In the film, there’s a mortality attached to the house as well, because everyone has to leave the house at some point. That came up in real life, although you never actually ended up moving out. Was the thought of abandoning the place traumatic? After all, it’s the place you’ve grown up in. I’ve never had to experience that with my family home, but I imagine it would be hard.

AD: Are your parents based here?

TW: Yes, in Wellington.

AD: In the same house you grew up in?

TW: When I was born, they lived in a different house for five years, and then moved to another house, and they’ve been in that house ever since. And it was in a suburb that had barely started. Our house was at the end of the street, and there was nothing on the other side. It was just bulldozed dirt and farmland. Progressively, over 25 years, it has all become occupied. Houses have snaked their way up the hillside and completely taken over.

AD: Does the house still remain and keep its integrity as you remember it from your childhood? Or has it been refurbished?

TW: Nothing much has changed. It’s still the same house. Of course, there are houses that surround it now that weren’t there at the very beginning, and there’s a whole neighbourhood and community that exists around it as well.

AD: And if that house either got demolished, or your parents just moved, would that affect you in any particular way?

TW: It would. I also associate with the house all my belongings, because they’re in the house. Whenever I search in my wardrobe, and pull out old boxes and look through things, it’s very moving. It’s a particular kind of feeling when you go through things from your childhood, because you can relate them to specific moments. It’s a kind of sadness, but also nostalgia. A melancholy.

AD: In Portugese, it’s called saudade (a nostalgic yearning for something that may never return).

The red house is on the headland, and there are all these families who all had kids, and they were all friends. And the older generation is still there. That’s quite wonderful for my generation, because we go off into the world and do whatever we do, but it’s a place we can come back to. I haven’t lived on the island since I was 10, actually, but my father kept all my paintings, from all through my teenage years. In a way, something I’ve been kind of annoyed about in terms of my own work is that it all harks back to a sort of nostalgia. If I think about Pandora (Duncan’s 2005 short film) and my music videos, they all have this looking back quality. I think that comes directly from the house. When I heard that they were going to pack up and leave, and immediately asked myself, “What does this mean?” But it was also a perfect opportunity to purge myself of that nostalgia, and be able to come into a more vital, present moment with my work.

TW: I’ve yet to visit China, but the from movies and documentaries I’ve seen, and my general understanding of that part of the world, it seems like the idea of nostalgia in that country is something that struggles to exist, because everything is constantly moving forward. And of course, your decision to film in China was the perfect juxtaposition against life on the island and in the house.

AD: To me, that’s the case as well, although I’m looking at it as an outsider, of course. It seems, from what I’ve read, that with each generation, they wipe away the presence of the previous generation in order to start afresh. I suppose, in that way, some very innovative things can happen. However, it means that they also lose the richness of their history, the remains of their history. And it seems like people have a sadness towards that. Whole suburbs and cities will quite often get demolished, and everyone will have to move to some other place. But it also seems like people are quite pragmatic about it. From the people I spoke to, they are sad about it, but that’s just what they have to do, because it’s their country.

TW: Jia Zhange-ke’s films actively explore the recent history of China—a history often without physical remains. He has to treat history, especially in his documentaries, through a blend of facts and imagination, and through testimony and oral history. The veracity of someone recalling what they remember, it can never be verified, can never be entirely accurate. So he embraces imagination. His film Still Life captures all these villages before they are submerged by the river at the mercy of the Three Gorges Dam. The villages are made of individual houses with individual memories and individual histories, and they cease to exist, in the same way the red house vanishes—in the context of the film, anyway.

AD: Yes. I love that film.

TW: You also visited World Park, which is of course the subject of Jia’s The World.

AD: At the time, I thought, “Damn, it’s already been in this other movie!” They’ve already dedicated a whole movie to the World Park, so how can I possibly pay homage? But it was important to have those scenes. There is the island, and this couple who have lived in the house on the island, and as soon as they leave, they’re in ‘the world’. Yes, they’re in China, but they’re out there in the world. They could be in Paris. They’ve embraced the global nature of things rather than the small community and small town.

TW: Does the park still resonate as an ironic creation, as well as a symbol of China’s global aspirations?

AD: It’s pretty dilapidated now. It’s really sad, actually. Not many people go. There’s paint peeling off things, the horses look pretty forlorn. It’s quite a tumbled down place. There’s much more exciting new places to go now in Beijing.

TW: Of course, that’s what happens.

AD: Exactly. But it is a really ironic place. This is such a generalization, but China does create ‘the world’ now, and they’re very good at recreating it with absolute perfection. I guess I see it as part of that, part of their ability to manufacture and re-do anything that’s come before.

TW: You shot The Red House with a consumer DSLR. What’s your experience with that technology? What are the challenges and advantages of the camera?

AD: The advantage is that I can shoot with it myself, or my DP can shoot with it easily. The disadvantage in New Zealand is that our light is very harsh, so it’s really easy to blow the image out. And of course you have to remain quite still, but for me, being still was not a disadvantage, because I didn’t want to have big exciting camera moves. Personally, it’s really enabled me as a filmmaker to take things into my own hands. I can’t afford some of the better digital technology, but I can actually still make something.

TW: Were you precious about the look of the film, in terms of the quality and character of the image that the DSLR delivers?

AD: I was quite particular that it should be of reasonable quality. But I was also realistic that it’s never going to look incredible. I mean, it’s always going to be a DSLR film, because that’s the technology I could afford.

TW: I certainly think it’s one of the better-looking DSLR-shot films I’ve encountered.

AD: It’s because we haven’t gone for that shallow depth of field and the handheld stuff.

TW: Precisely. I dislike the overuse of shallow depth of field—it looks indistinct, and when DSLR filmmakers shoot that way, it’s becomes difficult to distinguish between their films. I liked that you locked off the camera where possible. There are some graceful, meticulous tracking shots as well that you obviously spent time on. It never seemed rushed to the point where you were just going to pick up the camera and shoot whatever was going on. You also seemed to keep the depth of field quite deep.

AD: As much as possible. It’s really hard to pull focus on those cameras. If you have the shallow depth of field, the whole time you’re concentrating on getting the focus pull right, which, when you’re also trying to direct the thing, and make sure the sound is okay, to have to concentrate on all of that is a nightmare. I think it’s also important to be able to see the environment. The textures of that situation are just as important as some of the other things.

TW: One of the drawbacks of using a DSLR is the rolling shutter (an unwanted visual effect generated by the camera sensor’s inability to process fast horizontal movement quickly enough). What’s refreshing is that you seemed not to care about it. You clearly wanted to shoot scenes on the train, to capture motion, and use tracking shots. Of course, when you look at the film with a trained eye, you notice the rolling shutter. But I liked that you went ahead with it anyway.

AD: At the time, I was thinking it’s not perfect in any way, but then you weigh up in the edit: does it say what you want it to say, does it do what you need it to do? And it’s just a little movie, so I have to forgive those flaws.

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AD: I keep thinking with each interview I do, and even with the way that Bill [Gosden] has written about it in the programme, that the film shouldn’t be discussed in terms of Beijing and Waiheke Island. Those happen to be the two places we shot, but the relationship is more between a small island and a big city, and the contrast of those worlds, rather than it harnessing those specific locations. But you probably get that anyway.

TW: I did contemplate asking you questions yesterday about Waiheke Island, but decided it wasn’t relevant.

AD: What questions would you have asked?

TW: Your feelings about the island. You father obviously has strong feelings in the film about how the island has changed and been overtaken.

AD: Kim Hill asked me that, didn’t she? And I kind of went around it slightly.

When I was a little kid, I used to have this thing where we’d catch the Iris Moana, the old boat, up to Auckland sometimes, and I’d think to myself, “we’re going to New Zealand now,” because I had this sense that the island was a country in and of itself.

TW: The movie we just saw, Holy Motors, was a spectacular vehicle for Denis Lavant. It was also about performance and exhibitionism, but to whom, exactly? And where to for cinema from here?

AD: There was an interesting moment in the film where Lavant says, “the cameras are smaller now, they’re smaller than your head, and now I can’t even see them… is anybody watching?” Is there still an audience? It started with a dream sequence of the audience. So our question is, does life continue if nobody’s watching? It’s like that terrible proverb: if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?

TW: I’m not especially familiar with your choreography and dance work, but what were your thoughts on Holy Motors in relation to your choreographic work? Do you draw much inspiration from cinema for your choreography, or is that something completely independent of that?

AD: It depends on what sort of choreography it is. A lot of the choreography I do these days is not for myself, but to fulfill a function within a television commercial, or something like that. There, I’m calling upon other references that are vital to what the needs are on set. The last commercial I did, I called on Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. But for my own choreographic work, the ideas come more from life than from other works of art.

TW: Do you intend on marrying filmmaking with dance in the future?

If there’s a marriage, it’s more through the philosophy rather than the outcome. With dance, you’ll often go into the studio with some dancers, and the work is created, as well as all the research around that, around the lives and the bodies in that room, and it creates a seed and gets developed from there, rather than spending time writing the written word. That was the same approach I took with The Red House. There was the research and the background stuff, but predominantly, it got made in the room, so to speak. I don’t know if I will always have the external outcome of dance in my work, but as John Downie (Duncan’s friend and advisor on the film) says, all good cinema is actions to time, and that’s also true of all good dance.

I’ve been teaching Dance Film on and off for a bit, but there’s actually hardly any good dance cinema. Because when you work in dance, and dance is the medium, and then you put that on screen, you’re mixing a symbolic language with a concrete environment. So then the main language is cinema, and dance becomes so often a decoration within that, rather than being a true communication. I think it’s really hard to get dance to communicate properly within a cinematic realm. You don’t have that same suspension of disbelief as you do when watching dance within a live (stage) environment.

TW: The film I immediately think of in terms of dance and cinema is Claire Denis’s Beau Travail.

AD: That’s true. It works because the dance of it is connected very solidly to an ergonomic action, a task that is necessary to perform for the film and narrative to move forward. There’s nothing superfluous about it.

TW: She’s taken all the training of the French Legionnaires, and interpreted that through dance. Speaking of Denis Lavant, there’s also that great final scene in Beau Travail, where his dance becomes a cathartic release. I loved the fact that Holy Motors was a ‘stage’ for Lavant, because frankly, any film with him at the centre of it is worth championing.

AD: What have you seen so far at the film festival that’s been different from everything else you’ve seen, that has woken you up?

TW: The film that stands out is Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea. This festival has been unavoidably concerned with the digital image; we’ve experienced many stunning digital projections, and also wondrous new digital works such as yours. But Two Years at Sea was shot on discontinued 16mm film. It’s all about the tactile nature of film, and about its slow death. It has a lot of deep, opaque imagery; kind of like a lo-fi Bela Tarr film, only beautifully scarred with the evidence of Rivers’s hand processing of the stock. The very last image is Bela Tarr-esque: a long take of the protagonist sitting by the fire, the image agonizingly fading to black.

AD: So it really is about the death of film. Which is pretty damn sad, isn’t it?

TW: Have you shot anything on film before?

AD: I’ve only used film three times, two for music videos, and one for a TV commercial. I shot on 35mm for the commercial, a second time for a music video, and 16mm for another music video. It’s fantastic, because it means you have to be incredibly precise. Especially when you’re shooting on tight budgets—everything is completely planned out and composed way before you ever get on set. Rules and restrictions can be really freeing.

TW: There’s the element of surprise as well, the suspense of filming something then seeing it materialize later.

AD: Of course, part of the beauty of cinema is that you’re capturing life, and so you need to be able to realise that something amazing is happening, and that you should capture it, but when you’re working with film these days, you’ve got to plan it all out entirely, because you’ve only got three takes or something like that. So within that condensed moment, how do you get those unexpected things to happen? What actually happens within your frame when you happen to be rolling?

TW: So digital cinema is more conducive to spontaneity and the unexpected moment, and that’s a good thing.

AD: Yes. But it can also be really wasteful. You can easily waste a lot of time. You can end up with a lot of stuff, which is not that great, but you end up having to sift through it all to find that little bit of greatness.

TW: How did the process of shooting The Red House transpire? Did you shoot a lot of takes, did you labour over things just because you could, or did you move quickly between scenes?

AD: We definitely had a lot of footage. We had 75 hours of footage, and a lot of it was test footage that I never imagined would end up in the film, because I was just trying things out. Some scenes, I definitely had a lot of takes, especially the scenes when they’re talking to each other. There has to be a particular interaction to get the scene to work, and because they’re not actors, I would have to shoot it quite a few times. And then other scenes, I would shoot pretty quickly, because I didn’t want to waste their time.

TW: Now that you’ve completed the film, where do you hope to take it from here?

AD: I’ve just been to the 37 Degrees South Market in Melbourne, and that was amazing because I’m not a ‘producer’; I’ve produced this because I had to. But having the opportunity to go to a market like that was great, because it meant that I could sit with people who were sales agents, distributors, and producers, and get to know the hard facts around how the industry works, and how things get solved. Things I’ve never considered before; I’ve usually just made things because I have a need to make. In an ideal world, The Red House would go to an A-list festival in Europe, and then it would get picked up by other very good festivals, and then it would do a circuit for about two years, and I would be able to go and get to know the industry over there, and find ways of making work and being able to continue to make work, and find a producer somewhere else. Also, I have very good friends and collaborators who are either making their own work or working with me, and it would be great to see us all be able to continue. I would love to get a theatrical release here—a small, humble theatrical release—but I’m just trying to figure out how to navigate all of that at the moment. And at the moment, we’re just getting rejected from festivals.

TW: Have you considered entering it into the Rotterdam Film Festival?

AD: Not yet, but I will, because I think that’s probably a good place for it.

TW: I think it presents the best opportunity for you to get it out there.

AD: Why do you think so? Because that’s what everybody says, but what’s your feeling about it?

TW: I’ve never been; I may go next year. I would say that it is the most credible avant-garde and experimental film festival out there. It programmes major art films, Hubert Bals funded features, but also many smaller, undiscovered films made on independent budgets, like your film—which I was quite shocked to learn cost over $100,000. That’s why, as you say, the commerce of filmmaking requires equal consideration.

AD: You were shocked when you found out the film cost more than $100,000 to make?

TW: Yeah. I guess I imagined it could be made for less, although I do understand that you had a lot of travel expenses. At the same time, I have very little understanding of what goes into post-production, and what things actually cost.

AD: I received amazing, unheard of deals from post houses who were very generous to me. But just the hard costs of grading and the sound mix was a significant investment. On a short film, people can work for short stints of time as a favour, but I’ve pulled all the favours I can in my life on my other work. As this continued, I realised in order to maintain my relationships, I needed to be able to pay everybody, in a small but reasonable way. And that all adds up after a while.

UPDATE: ‘The Red House’ opens in New Zealand cinemas from March 14, 2013. Full details at theredhousefilm.com. A selection of stills from the film can be viewed here.
‘The Red House’ next screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2012 in Dunedin on August 17, Christchurch on August 19, and selected centres around the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.