Old-growth trees attracted filmmaker Patricia Rozema to Island

Patricia Rozema’s considerable accomplishments as a journalist, feminist, director and screenwriter have been well-documented, but we never pegged her as a tree-hugger.

The Kingston, Ont.,-born filmmaker, whose 1987 debut feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing is a Canadian classic, revealed this side of herself while scouting locations on central Vancouver Island two years ago.

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Rozema laughed when reminded of her enthusiasm for the old-growth trees in Elk Falls Provincial Park. As Vancouver Island North Film Commission staffers tell it, she all but embraced them.

“It really was the trees,” she said, explaining what motivated her to film scenes for Into the Forest in the lush wilderness near Campbell River.

Set in the near future, her apocalyptic survival drama stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as two sisters who bond and contemplate their existence in their family’s wilderness home in the Pacific Northwest following a mysterious, North America-wide power outage.

Rozema will attend tonight’s Victoria Film Festival screening (Cineplex Odeon, 6:30 p.m.) of her adaptation of Jean Hegland’s novel. “It was the most obvious place in the country to shoot because of the size of those trees,” said Rozema. “We needed them to literally inhabit people.”

She said the setting was a perfect fit, since her cautionary tale focuses on individuals trying to chart a new relationship with the natural world.

“The desire to do that is so strong in your neck of the woods,” she said. “Everyone seems to be so much closer to the land. There’s a love and attention to the natural world there I completely responded to.”

While the film’s heroines must learn to live without electricity and the technology they depend upon, Rozema wasn’t setting out to make an anti-technology picture. “I love technology. I’ve been an early adopter of all kinds of technology and I don’t have a fear of it, or anger toward it,” she said.

“It could all go away very quickly. I know if I were trying to undermine this culture, I’d go for access to electricity first.”

A film with “apocalypse” attached seems like the last kind of project Rozema might do. It’s worlds away from such past projects as When Night Is Falling, her 1995 romance starring Pascale Bussières; her revisionist adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park; or Grey Gardens, the 2009 HBO movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore she co-wrote with Michael Sucsy.

While Into the Forest might have had “more thrills and spills if it had zombies and meteorities,” she said fans of such Hollywood apocalypse pictures will be unfulfilled.

“I wanted to do a more realistic one,” she said. “Just the power going out and not coming back and — whoops! — no radio ... what happened? Nobody knows. That’s easier to imagine and to me more frightening.”

It was the legitimate “universal worry” about our reliance on energy and technology that intrigued Rozema when Page, who optioned the novel, asked her to direct.

They both approached Wood (Thirteen) and Callum Keith Rennie — “one of my favourite actors of all time” — to play the girls’ loving father.

“I have a great dad myself, and I wanted to do an homage to great dads,” said Rozema, who credits her “brilliant cast” with making her job easier.

Before shooting began, Page and Wood spent time hanging out in Los Angeles, talking and behaving like real sisters.

“They had a whole set of jokes and camaraderie that sisters can have, so that was nice,” she said, adding Into the Forest was never meant to be a “girl power” film.

“It could easily have been a story about two brothers. Gender isn’t a giant issue here,” said Rozema, who longs for the day when being known as a female director who often makes female-driven movies is no big deal.

“That sometimes becomes a conversation more than what the film is about. But we’re getting there,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to assign gender.”

Laughingly emphasizing that “I really hate complaining,” Rozema said it was the lack of scripts featuring strong female characters that inspired her to write her own.

She remembers the Hollywood directing offers she received after I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, particularly documents that listed potential studio films needing directors.

“Every sentence would begin with ‘a guy,’ ” she said. “ ‘A guy loses his job and ...’ or ‘A guy loses his wife and ....’ So I wasn’t really attracted to playing in the Hollywood big leagues at the time.”

She remembers telling a Warner Bros. executive: “Why would I want to go and work for a corporation when I’m running my own small company, and it’s working for me?”

Rozema, whose credits include directing episodes of the CBC sitcom Michael, Tuesdays and Thursdays and HBO’s groundbreaking series Tell Me You Love Me and In Treatment, has since embraced TV, as well.

“There’s some beautiful stuff being made there,” she said. “I just don’t like being interrupted by commercials, so premium cable is nice.”

She’s gearing up for a film about the origins of Shakespeare and Company, the Paris bookstore founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, the original publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

“It was a sexy, heady and dramatic time, so it’s fun.”

 

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