Patricia Rozema talks “Kit Kittredge” with Jennifer Merin

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Patricia Rozema says she wanted to make a film for her daughters, and “Kit Kittredge“ is it.

The American Girl doll-based film is, she says, her first kid’s–or, family–film, and most likely her last. Not that making the fem-centric film hasn’t been an enormously gratifying experience. She’s just ready to return to more adult fare.

“Kit Kittredge,” her most commercial film to date (one with a built-in success factor–the proactive marketing machine of the American Girl company), puts her career at an interesting and challenging crossroads: she’s not yet sure whether she’ll sign on to direct another bigger-than-her-usual-budget Hollywood film or return to her independent filmmaking roots in Canada–where, Rozema posits, “women directors have greater opportunities because Canadians consider filmmaking an art, as opposed to the American take on the art of filmmaking as a business.”

Actually, Rozema began her career as a documentarian, which in some ways influenced her approach to “Kit.”

“I always loved telling stories and wondered how I could make a living doing that,” she says. “I’d studied philosophy and English at a Dutch Calvinist college in Michigan–Calvin College and Seminary. When I thought about becoming a journalist, I took an internship at a TV station in Chicago, and I liked it. Then I got a job in NY at WNBC, but I couldn’t take it because I’m Canadian, and I couldn’t get papers. So I worked at CBC in Toronto for a while at “The Journal,” a “Nightline“-like program for which I made little documentaries. I found it kind of frustrating because I couldn’t make people say what I wanted them to say…

MERIN: Ahaaaa….that can be a problem. (We laugh.)

ROZEMA: And, I was disappointed by what poor structure reality has. It’s really lousy, when you come to think of it. There’s never a clear protagonist, the plot gets crazy, it’s just a mess. (We laugh.)

MERIN: And, audiences have to make up their own minds about what they think…

ROZEMA: And, people who are your subjects change their minds all the time. And, a protagonist has to want something, but half the time people don’t know what they want. So, it’s a mess. But it was a very good education for me to see how real people deal with real crises, real change. That‘s journalism. And there’s still a place in my heart for documentary film. In a way that sometimes I get frustrated with everyone’s idle fictional fantasies, too, and yearn to see reality.

MERIN: That’s very interesting. I’ve recently interviewed a number of former doc filmmakers who’ve turned to narrative features–and others who are making films based on true stories–and they‘ve said they prefer to work the narrative genre because as filmmakers, they have more control over what happens…

ROZEMA: Absolutely true. When you’re doing a documentary, you’re a slave to two masters that don’t always get along–reality, history and the facts versus the requirements of good storytelling. I think that a lot of the injustices in journalism–the painful and damaging inaccuracies in journalism in general and in documentaries in particular–result from people making good storytelling their priority.

Neal Jordan won’t do anything based on reality because he says you can’t do justice to both masters. I just wrote the screenplay for “Gray Gardens,” and my dream, my goal was to be truthful, accurate, have everything justified and verified down to the last detail, and have a good story structure. It’s veeeeery hard….

MERIN: Yes it is, and it’s something that concerns me because often times the lines defining the narrative and documentary genres become blurred, raising questions about what is truth in filmmaking. As when narrative films use actual language from real situations–as in Kimberly Pierce’s “Stop Loss,“ for example–or when narrative features cover an historical event about which actual records are presently sealed–as with Roger Donaldson’s “Bank Job”– where the conjectural narrative becomes in the public’s mind the document of record about that event, or with films that are categorized as nonfiction, but manipulate audience responses by using special effects–such as Adam Yauch’s “Gunnin For That Number One Spot,” which uses slow motion and rewind, self-consciously clever graphics and augmented sound– and storytelling conceits traditionally associated with narrative features. Also, within the indy film movement especially, some films that are pure expressions of an artists point of view–such as Guy Madden’s “My Winnipeg“–really stand as documents of our time. Does that make them documentaries? And, getting back to “Kit Kittredge,“ it too is a document of our time–in that it‘s about an iconic girl character based on a doll that is a mainstay of modern American culture and commerce. Did you consider and focus on Kit’s iconic status when you made this film?

ROZEMA: I felt it had relevance for our own times. We were going into a period of economic malaise and that this might be a film that might help children through that. When I began the project, there were no discussions of foreclosures yet, so that turn of events was unforeseen, coincidental. But I try to work from the personal, from what I need, and I pray that I’m normal enough so that other people need it, too.

I’m a mother and I felt the need to impart to my children the idea that no matter what happens–if you lose everything–of course this character doesn’t lose everything, but if you lose everything, a car, your house, your stuff, it’s okay, you can live through it. Something better will come from it. That’s very difficult for us as a culture to embrace…because we’ve only been in a state of economic growth for as long as anyone can remember.

MERIN: And we’re all trained so well as consumers…

ROZEMA: That’s all we’re trained to do…children, too. So to show that you can lose it all in a flash–and then what? They survive. I liked the idea of showing that. I also like affirming the desire to write–that’s Kit’s ambition–and the desire to use writing for social justice. And I wanted to do one film for my kids…and this is it.

MERIN: There’s a bit of a twist, though, because the American Girl company is a huge corporate commercial enterprise. So is there a bit of irony that…

ROZEMA:. Yes it is ironic. It’s a little bit like I’ve slipped a socialist manifesto past a major corporate entity and reached out to kids and their parents…(she laughs). But, it‘s a corporate entity that’s going to get the film seen and that’s important, too.

I was aware of the irony from the beginning, but I thought: I’m a filmmaker, my job is the film. I make a film and it stands on its own two feet. I was looking at some of the reviews that criticize American Girl–the company–and I thought, that’s not quite fair to me as a filmmaker. But it’s a broader vision, I suppose. They‘re critical that the dolls cost a lot and that people during the Depression wouldn’t have been able to afford them. But it’s not really my job to confront that. My job is to make a film that has values that I embrace. I’m not held responsible for Warner Bros., either.

MERIN:. No you’re not. But my comment was meant in a different way than you’ve taken it. I hear you, even if marginally so, defending….

ROZEMA: Umhum….

MERIN: But there’s no need. I think you’re to be congratulated. Using something to raise consciousness about itself–or about what it’s shortcomings might be–is a very masterful, interesting approach, and a very valid one. You had a marvelous opportunity and you took it, managing to deliver your message without censorship, and without pandering to the corporate powers that be. That‘s a big achievement. The film does indeed say what it says.

ROZEMA:. Yes, it does. I did a final polish on the script, and I added lines like ’we’re all just a few stokes of luck away from homelessness ourselves’–that’s an emphasis I really wanted to bring forward in the film. Because I thought about these little rich kids–I mean I’ve got my daughters in private schools and they’re hanging our with kids who have drivers and–aaaaahh–I don’t want to take that away from them because it’s a wonderful opportunity and I love that it can refine them as humans, but I need them to have a feeling of gratitude and I think that a state of gratitude is a state of Grace, really. It’s the best place we can be. So, yes, I’m using millions of other peoples’ dollars to teach my kids–and a few other people who are paying attention–some good lessons about good human values.

MERIN: You’ve spoken about one of the film’s big messages, but there are others as well. Some of them are expressed through important and interesting relationships. The hobo kids, for example, represent a relationship that transcends race, gender and age. Did you insert those messages, as well?

ROZEMA: No, they were there when I signed on. So I can’t claim any credit for them. But that was certainly an attraction for me when I was considering doing this project. I like gender fluidity, in general. We fixate far too much on male vs. female. And therein lies a lot of our problems as a culture–that we feel we must make proclamations about one or the other.

Steering clear of a spoiler, I’d say that the relationship between the hobo kids proves to be a mind-expanding surprise for viewers, and I like that very much. I’ve been slightly uncomfortable with the idea that gender is a source or reason for danger–that little girls are more vulnerable than little boys, and I think that idea might be lurking in the film somewhere. But it’s balanced out by the ease with which boys can pass for girls and vice versa, when necessary.

I think films should be reevaluated over time and should be open to reinterpretation from other perspectives, and so I don’t like to tie everything up in the end with a huge bow. If I understand everything in the film and I can come up with a slogan for every scene, then it’s all been too squared away and categorized and controlled. So, there has to be a little bit of chaos and the unknown inside the film–and I think that’s true of “Kit Kittredge.“ I mean, even the relationship of the American Girl company to this film about the Depression has a bit of chaos in it.

MERIN: Yes, it does.

ROZEMA: The film happened very quickly, you know. The project came up very quickly. Abigail Breslin, American Girl dolls, Depression era story, and I thought depression era kids’ movie? So I could either make a happy depression movie or a depressing kids’ movie. You can’t make a glamorous Depression movie. Actually, the fact of the Depression really guided my hand as to what the film would look like and what the style of the camerawork would be.

MERIN: Along with Kit, the film has very strong women role models. It’s the girl’s story, of course, but all the other women are strong, while the dad is absentee much of the film and the nasty rich kids who taunt the other children are all boys. Did the focus on strong women and girls come with the project or is that your doing?

ROZEMA:. The roles were there, but I think casting of the women and girls had huge impact on how those characters are perceived, on whether or not you feel they’re people of substance. Julia Ormond, I think, does a lovely job. I’d say that in the script that came to me she was more of a listener, and was just watching as things developed. I decided to give her a more proactive role, but everyone went along with that–the producers and Colin Callender from HBO, who has two daughters. It’s a generally feminist enterprise, this. There’s a desire to have women of substance in central positions, but that’s true of all American Girl projects. That was really attractive to me–that I didn’t have to fight anybody to have women characters who’re central and strong and varied and complex–well, as complex as possible when you’ve got that many characters to handle and you’re doing a kids’ movie. Yes, this was definitely a feminist enterprise from the get go.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).