Christina Zeidler and John Mitchell’s Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is a bitingly self-aware post-modern romantic comedy that cleverly subverts audience expectations and the conventions of the genre. During the Mardi Gras Film Festival 2016, where the film played to a rapturous audience, Virat Nehru sat down with Christina Zeidler to discuss a myriad of important issues such as political framing of romantic comedies, representations of queer culture on film, the dilemma of securing funding for indie films, the emergence of the post-feminist rom-com heroine and Toronto finally getting the spotlight playing itself as a city instead of having to masquerade as every other American city.
Let’s begin with the actual logistics of how Portrait came about. There’s such a variety of work you’re involved with: there is the film & video work, there’s Gladstone Hotel, & then there is your band MINTZ. Where did you even find the time?
Christina (Laughs): Well, it started with just a conversation between myself and the other co-writer/co-director John Mitchell. We’ve known each other for years and years. We were out one night and we started talking. I had just re-watched High Fidelity and I love that movie. I was talking about it and I said all these movies centre around a male figure who is funny and charming but they’re a bit either emotionally immature or a bit of a screw up. Like they are not the greatest people. But you love them as an audience because they are smart and funny and charming. And I said how I had never seen a woman in that role.
You know, the woman is usually either the eye candy or the object of affection or they have to be sort of perfect in some way. Or really likeable…
The post-modern equivalent would be the ‘manic pixie dream-girl’ trope. The girl who comes into the man’s life one fine day and then leaves him a changed person. But the character doesn’t quite seem to exist as an independent entity in their own right. The kind of Zooey Deschanel phase…
Yes, exactly! Exactly right. That trope captures this feeling perfectly. And as a female lover of romantic comedies – not the sort of saccharine ones but the really good ones – I don’t relate with the female characters in the films.
John thought that was a great idea as well. We made a pinky swear that we would make this film someday. It was a long road making it. My experience with making things in general is sort of putting one foot in front of the other. You have to take the step of saying that I’m actually going to do it. But you don’t know what that means. So, as you go along, each step takes you a bit further. It’s been 5 years now since we made that pinky swear, and now here we are!
Was securing funding a problem?
It really is the biggest hurdle.
How did you pitch it? I mean, it shouldn’t be revolutionary to put a female character in that sort of position, but unfortunately…
In Canada, it probably works a lot like it does in Australia. There are government funders and we went to them. I have this history as a visual artist, as an entrepreneur and John [Mitchell] also has a history in theatre and sketch comedy. But when we came forward with this feature film, because [this kind of a project] was our first time, they said you’ll never get funded. Even though we like your script, you’ll never get funded. It’s just the two of you. So, go and find yourself an experienced producer.
Then we started down that road. And it was hilarious because we just phoned up people and said – ‘Hey, we like your work do you think you can see us?’ Eventually we ended up finding a great person – Mehernaz Lentin. She and I co-produced the film. She couldn’t trigger government funding so she suggested we do an Indiegogo campaign. And that’s really how it all started. We reached out across the world to get funders for it.
Do you think avenues like Indiegogo have made funding easier and more accessible when it comes to Indie projects?
It’s kind of a double-edged sword because yes it does. Absolutely! What we did was make a fake trailer for the movie and a lot of people were like – ‘Yay, can’t wait to see this movie!’ And we were like – ‘No, that’s not the real thing. That was just the trailer’. But we cast a bunch of actresses [for the fake trailer] and those are the ones that you end up seeing on the screen now.
Where it really helped us was in terms of pitching to our audience instead of the producers. In that way, it was a really effective tool.
But it is a double-edged sword as I said. This was an alternative to traditional funding and now traditional funders are saying – ‘We wanna see what your market thinks of you’. So now they expect you to do an Indiegogo before they’ll touch you.
Yeah. It’s very… it’s very rough out there
I never thought of it that way…
Even people like Hal Hartley. He’s a well-known independent film-maker. He’s been making films since the 80s. He’s had wide releases. His last film was funded entirely from Kickstarter because he could not get studios to fund him. 1
That is dire!
That is crazy
Moving to the film itself, what I found really interesting is that it operates within the conventions of a rom-com, but when the payoff comes, it cleverly subverts every convention. So, as part of the audience, you’re constantly second-guessing yourself and it keeps you on your toes. How conscious were you of this subversion during the writing process?
That was definitely the intention from the beginning. We wanted to use the form of the rom-com. But I think just having it be about lesbians in the first place was sort of subverting the genre. Centring it around a woman instead of a man was again a subversion. Basically creating a world. And this is what has been the most fun about touring queer festivals around the world. It’s not a world where the main character has to come out. Or somebody has to die.
You know, not any of that. We present this world where being an out queer person is a given. And that I think is such a subtle subversion. Because that’s not true in every place. It’s a wonderful fantasy for some audiences – you know, I’d like to go there, please!
And for us, it’s a bit of a simplification of queer life. However, it’s not. I’ve been out for 25 years. My life isn’t about coming out. At a certain point you’re just living your life. So I think there was always that subversion there. Even though we are playing so much within the playpen of the genre, I think we had the chance to make something a little more truthful or heartfelt. As well as funny.
Definitely very funny! From what you mentioned, and it’s interesting to discuss this, is that the film normalises queer culture. Because a lot of mainstream representation of queer culture on screen is at best hit and miss. Sometimes going as far as fetishising: for example, the coming out moment becomes the big turning point in the film or perhaps the climactic moment. With this film, one can definitely say that this is not a ‘lesbian rom-com’. Rather it’s a rom-com with lesbians in it. What do you have to say about this shift in perspective and semantics?
There are so many ways to answer that. I think on one level, we tried to make a world in the film that talk about a big queer umbrella. And that umbrella is looking at the world from a queer perspective. Hence, it doesn’t matter as much how people within the film identify. So it doesn’t matter as much if they are straight, bisexual, queer, lesbian, trans. It doesn’t matter within the world of our film. We are kind of looking at the world through a big queer lens. It’s sort of more inclusive.
It’s also interesting because it’s a peek behind the curtain in a subtle way. Any straight audience that comes to the movie immediately enters the world of the film. They don’t question it as a ‘queer world’. It’s so normalised in the film. We’ve had a theatrical release in the US and Canada now, and it has to compete on the level of these other straight films. So, sometimes we get dumped in with the rom-com category. So we get asked – ‘Are you just making a rom-com then?’ Yes, but that’s what is so subversive because it’s also normalised. In fact, it’s so normalised that they are not seeing the critique. It feels edifying in a way that we are competing at that level. At the level where people just see us as a rom-com.
But it’s also funny when we write about it as a ‘lesbian rom-com’ it immediately calls to its audience. This is the challenge in all queer film festivals. And also in the big, wide world of all films. To get people to something with which they don’t identify with directly. And I imagine it’s what some black filmmakers come across when they make a film. I mean I’m not comparing myself with Chris Rock. But he just made a huge film which is really enjoyable. And it’s just a rom-com. But it’s him and Rosario Dawson. You know, it’s a very alternative look at American life. But it’s just a rom-com. I Imagine he’s got to deal with some of the similar things. I mean, he’s got a way bigger name!
You know, as I said. It’s that same thing. How do you draw crossover audience when you are talking about difference? It’s a big question.
One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Elise goes to meet the HR executives from the supposed big Evil Corp. And Elsie is alone with the HR executive who then tries to make conversation along the lines of ‘I heard you are a lesbian. You know, I experimented in my earlier days as well’. It’s such a funny scene but the implicit social commentary in there is so powerful. As much as queer culture has become part of the mainstream, authentic representations of it on screen and in other media are still hard to find. Aspects of queer culture are either misrepresented or unnecessarily fetishised, which is part of the problem. Well, in that sense, I guess anything that becomes part of the mainstream automatically becomes part of the problem.
So my question was, because I suddenly remember I had a question there, how did you balance that aspect of social commentary with just making a funny film?
Well, I’m a visual artist. I make very feminist work. So I’m always looking at social commentary. So this is probably like the least political thing I made!
This is like way dialled back. That scene in particular is poking gentle fun. When you as an outsider look at the mainstream – the mainstream is set up in a manner to make you feel bad as an outsider, right? So you always come at the mainstream culture from this position of you know, as if I should try and hide myself. You are trying to normalise or to assimilate. They [the big corporate executives] are in the position of power being Elsie’s bosses. So Elsie’s trying to normalise the situation. But then they being the bosses and by extension part of the mainstream are such freaks that Elsie starts to question them. It’s flipping the dynamic. We are all mess-ups and screw-ups. We are all at the whims of our emotional lives. It’s a fun way to gently poke at our own perceptions I guess.
Talking of mess-ups and screw-ups – not that the film was anything like that – what I also thoroughly enjoyed was this post-modern, dystopian look at relationships and trying to date in a culture of instant gratification. For example, the dog park scene, where there are so many options available and yet, they might not be what you are looking for. It’s refreshing that the film is not relying on the assumption that Elsie needs a partner. It breaks the convention that there are certain ‘rules’ that the protagonist needs to follow. If we look at conventional mainstream rom-coms historically, there was always this ever-present trope – either the best friend or some character that used to tell the protagonist that they’ve had their fun, now it’s time to settle down. But this film really leaves that decision up to Elsie. It’s her choice in the end. It’s empowering and scary at the same time I suppose?
Do you think that form of individualism should be embraced by modern films and rom-coms as a genre in particular?
That is such an interesting question. I do think that queerness comes into that conversation. In some ways – as you’re talking about the traditional trope – where there is a best friend on either side of this potential romance and there is advice being given. And usually from the male side it’s to get out of the relationship and from the female side it’s the opposite, get in to this relationship! Or to forget him. When Harry Met Sally is the perfect film with the best friend trope. Usually, the best friends are inordinately and strangely interested – you could say invested – in this coupling. This is not real life.
Nobody cares about your relationship as much as you do. I think in queerdom, certainly my experience has been that it’s a community. So, your community has something to say about you coupling. And especially with lesbians, but also very much in queer life, people know who you’ve dated before. They know your history. So they have an opinion on it. But their opinion usually comes from their own experience. We wanted to show this one thing on screen which is that often when I see queer films and they follow that romantic genre trope too much, it doesn’t feel real to me. Because my experiences were of a much bigger community. So, we wanted to show that on film. That you’re dating your whole small town. You’re not just dating the one person, right? Everybody knows your business.
But you also have fun with it because everybody gives advice based on their own personal experience. And we have this great line from Sarah – ‘When it comes to relationships everyone’s an expert and everyone’s full of shit’. Because what do you know? And this is such a human thing. When somebody asks you about your relationship, don’t you just pop in all of your opinions and ‘you know best’? But what do you know? Nothing!
And you’re not often listening to the other person as you’re saying these things. We have so much fun playing with this dynamic in the film. The single friend who’s like ‘I want you to be in love’. The couple who are like ‘It’s not too late, get back together’. The single friend who’s like ‘Play the field’. The mother who’s like ‘I don’t want you to be alone for the rest of your life’. We just went to town. We called it ‘dishy’. We wanted it to be dishy about relationship. Just have fun.
This is a good lead-in to my understanding of the new age rom-com dynamic, where there is a lot of sex positivism when it comes to female characters. They are afforded a lot more sexual agency. But at the same time, we’ve come to a post-feminist cycle where feminist ideals are considered only to be later discarded in one form or another. It seems as if rom-coms are struggling with this post-modern sensibility. 2 They want to really embrace feminism and what that implies in terms of sexual agency but are not quite able to do so. I’m thinking of for example, Trainwreck and the Apatow sensibility…
Ah yes! You go crazy, but you also settle down by the end of the film.
Yes exactly. I guess one could say the character “grows up” by the end of the film. This is also, of course, very conservative in a socio-political sense. You finally settle down with a man because either he’s ‘the one’ or he’s the ‘safe option’. You are allowed to have all the fun but you end up going back into the arms of a man. Do you think we are at a crossroads today in the sense that rom-coms have to implicitly make that choice when it comes to political framing?
The comparison to Trainwreck or to Girls for example, where sexuality becomes a language around self-discovery. We don’t have that in our film. There is no explicit sexual content in our film which is kind of the funny part about it. It’s more, like you said, feminist or radical in its whole worldview. This [protagonist] is somebody who is trying to learn about themselves and how to love. It’s more heartfelt but also kind of radical.
I can see may be what you’re saying – and I’m just going to generalise because I love all those comedians, I’m going to leave them out because I love them. But yes, it’s interesting to see if we’re still in the mainstream trying to deal with this very traditional thing. Which is yeah go crazy but at the end of the film you better settle down with a guy or else you’re not redeemed as a character, And we certainly don’t put our character through that. She’s really trying to figure out who she is and learn how to love which may end up in a relationship or may not.
As a feminist and as a female watching a lot of rom-coms, it still depresses me that it all has to come down to whether you get the man or not. And also, that I respond to it emotionally. Sometimes, when I watch one of those films I’m like ‘Awww, they got together!’
And I guess yeah that makes me feel good about what we’ve made. It still has all that fun and romance of a rom-com but it’s not saccharine and it’s not prescriptive. It’s about something very real which is love. Community and love. To me, these are more real things.
Moving away from political framing –
Oh damn! (Laughs)
I wanted to touch upon Toronto actually.
The idea that Toronto never plays Toronto, but in this film it does. And finally, it has its moment of glory. It’s almost a love letter to the city. The film works in that kind of frame as well and that’s what is so interesting about it. Even though cities have always been part of the fabric of rom-coms – whether it is the ‘big city’ vibe of New York or Manhattan – but in this particular film, the way we see Toronto, it’s almost as if the city is a character in the film. The subcultures we are introduced to would not exist anywhere else but Toronto. These subcultures exist in those by-lanes, those cafes, those particular places. Could you expand on this notion of this perhaps being a love letter to Toronto, which I found very interesting.
That was definitely our intention. Absolutely. It’s so funny as well when we talk to Toronto audiences and we say that people around the world are interested in Toronto, they’re shocked! They’re like ‘What?’ Because in Toronto we have this proximity to America and because we’re on film so much but never as ourselves [Toronto as a city]. As film-makers we’re told to disguise Toronto. We are not allowed to show it! You won’t get funding. Like funders –
Oh yeah, no no! You can’t have references or – like it’s just… So, when we were like we want to make this about Toronto, it was shocking to everybody.
I didn’t realise there was such an economic angle to it.
Oh hugely. Because we do so much work – like every American film you ever saw in the 90s was shot in Toronto. Absolutely every single one! Scent of a Woman – Toronto. So, we would watch films and try and figure out places. We would be like ‘Oh that’s the corner of such and such’. That’s what we spent our time doing.
So, when we decided we were going to do the film in Toronto, it really did come from the love of the city. I come from a very urbanist background. My father is an architect and an urbanist. And we talked about the city all the time. So there is this general interest there. John [Mitchell] also grew up in the city. We love our town. But it was our producer who challenged us. Like in Manhattan, Woody Allen has that great opening – ‘He was like the city’ and blah blah blah…
‘He was like the city. He was timid and shy. He was like the city. He never knew…’ You know, it’s this great opening. So we were like we are not Manhattan [in terms of the vibe of the movie or the city] who are we? We started to think about that. Our producer really challenged us. How does the city support the underpinnings of your main character’s emotional journey? So we really looked at that. If Elsie is a character who is moving forward without knowing where she is going then Toronto is also a city that is moving forward without knowing where it’s going. So we constantly contrast these intimate moments with her riding a bike through the city and how special that is against her journey in the film where she is moving away from herself. And suddenly aspects of the city start to encroach on her. We have a huge condo boom in our city and the condo boom really threatens what is so special about the city.
But we also got to have a lot of fun. There is a beautiful date day in the film where the two characters just get lost in the city together. We used the city as a metaphor for where they both were emotionally. For example, Elsie wants to bury the past while the other character questions, why bury the past? Why can’t we just re-frame it? Often in a lesbian film, the bisexual character is treated really poorly in the sense that they can’t make up their mind. But we try to correct that character representation a bit and the city acts as a helpful catalyst for us to be able to do that. It became a way for us to talk about the characters than just being a travelogue.
The film is also very self-aware in terms of breaking the fourth wall. It sort of catches you out before you can catch the film out. Yet, the device isn’t used in a way that the audience can feel cheated.
Thank you. That was tough.
How did you make those choices? You want to make a film that is witty, post-modern meta rom-com but also make sure that breaking the fourth wall doesn’t become a gimmick.
That was really difficult. We looked at a lot of examples. One of the films we looked at was Alfie, the 1960s Michael Caine film. And Alfie is a much darker character than our character is. But Alfie talks to the camera because he is so unlikeable. Unless he talks to you, you’re not gonna follow him as a character. Him breaking the fourth wall almost makes you go on the journey with him. Elsie [from Portrait] at the beginning of the film is not a self-aware character. Breaking the fourth wall helps you understand her as a character and may be follow her journey a little more.
We actually quite over-wrote those breaking the fourth wall segments, to be honest! We kept seeing places for it throughout the film but as we shot those pieces and tried to put them into the film, we just didn’t like them. They didn’t work. They were boring. Or they were too much explanation. Even ones we really liked, we pulled way back. So we were very careful with when she broke the fourth wall. It was only for places where you couldn’t follow or or find out what she thought. There were these perfect moments. There was one that is just a joke. She breaks the fourth wall just to deliver a good joke. But it also is telling of her emotional state.
There is an interesting structure to the device. As the character becomes more self-aware in the film, the breaking the fourth wall moments reduce. The moments work in challenging the perception of surety for the protagonist. Elsie, who thinks she knows everything in the beginning and hence is more certain of telling it how she thinks it is to the audience by speaking directly to them. As the movie goes along, she becomes less and less sure of herself. And conversely, the audience becomes more certain of Elsie’s sensibility as a character as the movie progresses.
Oh, that’s nice! I hadn’t thought that.
Just finally, I wanted to touch upon the use of humour in the film. Specifically, the use of humour and self-deprecation as a mechanism of self-defence. Everybody seems to have a witty retort ready at their disposal. That has become very much a feature of contemporary communication. How did you go about crafting the linguistic sensibility of the film? Because I quite enjoyed it as a reflection of contemporary life, especially when it comes to a younger demographic.
John and I as comedy writers, we had been friends forever and tried to make each other laugh all the time. That’s part of the pleasure of being friends. You know, you crack a joke and see if the other person falls off the chair or not. We had always been funny together but we hadn’t written together. we also have quite different sensibilities. Part of the process was the coming together of our sensibilities. And then going on to write together from those different sensibilities.
There are certain places where that really sings in the movie. Where we could come from different sensibilities and write something together that’s really funny. We gave ourselves permission to write comedy set-ups. You know, there is a set-up and then a pay-off. That’s a very traditional, formal way of comedy writing. There’s also a lot of observational and situational humour that’s more post-modern. We blended all these things really freely.
We got in trouble sometimes when we showed the script to people. They would go ‘Um, this is too much of a set-up’. But we said screw you, we’ll write the way we want to and that was more of a freeing place.
Thank you so much Christina for your time. I really enjoyed this. The breadth of issues we were able to cover is truly fantastic. Hope you enjoy your remaining time in Sydney.
My pleasure. It was great indeed. Thank you so much for the interesting questions!