As with most everything Celia Rowlson-Hall does, the impetus for her debut feature “Ma” didn’t come to her as an idea so much as it flowed through her body.
“It wasn’t like I ever thought about it,” recalls the University of North Carolina School of the Arts-trained choreographer/director. “I wrote this script over the course of two mornings and it was like my hand was just writing. When I read it, I realized I had written from a subconscious place that I didn’t want to affect. I was like, ‘Let me just go shoot it and let it be what it is.'”
It’s fitting that words ultimately won’t do justice to what Rowlson-Hall accomplishes in “Ma,” since she has no use for them as a means of communication in the film, but we’ll try our best. After making a series of playful yet persistent shorts that have fused feminist themes with physical expression, quite literally showing the contortions that women go through to find acceptance in a patriarchal society, Rowlson-Hall reworks the Virgin Mary’s treacherous trek to Bethlehem into a road movie set in the present day that finds a young woman (played by Rowlson-Hall) making her way across the Southwest to Las Vegas, finding herself unexpectedly with child. She collects a partner in an aspiring actor named Daniel (Andrew Pastides) whose Oldsmobile can help with the trek from one motel room to another, stopping at roadside diners in between, but her journey is a lonely one, coming to terms with how she ended up in such dire straits before ultimately performing the selfless act of giving birth.
From the moment Rowlson-Hall begins to crawl across the desert in order to walk at the start of “Ma,” you can feel everything that she is given her full command of all the tools she has to make the film, not least of which is her body. Using the camera’s gaze to track her characters even when they may not be directly visible, there’s a deep connection between movement and sensation in the film, resulting in truly arresting moments when Rowlson-Hall the filmmaker reduces cinematic elements to their barest essence in order for Rowlson-Hall the actress to seize the frame and tell the story almost exclusively through her gestures. Whether it’s wearing a thin cotton blouse to accentuate her shoulder blades as they crunch up as if she were a butterfly extending its wings to burst from its cocoon or rotating the camera ever so slightly as Daniel breathes air into her to make it seem that the life passed between them in that moment is tangible, Rowlson-Hall, along with a talented group of collaborators, draw on little details to make an experiential film that’s not quite like any other.
While Rowlson was in Los Angeles, I was able to talk to her about the challenges of bringing her unique vision to the screen, the way in which she’s able to react to pop culture through her films, and choreographing for the camera.
You’ve said you found filmmaking while working on an MGMT video, but while you were at North Carolina School for the Arts, did you do much cross-pollination with the filmmakers there?
It’s so funny, I didn’t because I was there to dance and that’s all I was thinking about. But when I was studying choreography and dance, I’d love to choreograph actors. I wasn’t really interested in choreographing dancers, so I was starting to already cross-pollinate and I was creating my own shows. I had a very DIY spirit. Then when I moved to New York, I brought that same spirit and this idea of mixing dancers and actors. It wasn’t until I was choreographing for a music video and I was onset and just saw the energy and I loved it, that I realized, “I want to try film. This is incredible.” Then I was starting to shoot stuff and somebody said, “Why don’t you talk to this North Carolina School of the Arts guy – Ian [Bloom]? He’s a DP.” Ian’s the one who shot my film and has been with me since the beginning. I ended up finding film people from the school later, but not while at school.
How did “Ma” come about?
It’s not one place, but I actually am coming to this understanding that we all are born with one story in particular we need to tell. It’s not the only one but this story has always been this thing I’ve needed to tell since I can remember. A lot of it is personal in grappling with what it is to be a woman in this world. But when I was young, I wanted to be Jesus because I wanted to be able to heal people. I would get so upset and distraught when I saw people sick. I prayed as a child and I was weirdly obsessed with that, so it was just a lot of past childhood experiences mixed with becoming and a woman in this world.
Throughout your short films and now this, it’s felt like your work is a reaction to the culture around it. Do you approach things that way?
Absolutely. I never realized it until after but it’s always a reaction. My film work is me asking questions and trying to find answers by making the work – and it doesn’t always mean I find the answers – but at least I’ve explored the question and every possible answer. For example, in “Prom Night,” I’m putting on all of these women – “Am I this? Am I this? Who do I become?” Then in “Audition,” once again it’s “You want me to do this, this, or this?” There’s always this willingness to please and I feel like I explore that in different ways.
[In this film], Ma is a blank slate literally and figuratively – she’s the Virgin Mary – so she’s malleable. I felt her character was the sponge. She comes into the world and [in the scene which I call] the TV dance, it’s like she’s taking in every kind of genre of entertainment and being affected by it. When she drops into the pool, she sucks up all the water – she’s a sponge to God. Is it immaculate conception versus gang rape? It’s reality. So I really like to explore these women just to see how far I can push them.
It was a little of both. I knew with my first film that it’s my calling card, so I felt like for me to achieve what I wanted to achieve with the kind of story and language I was using, I needed to do it first. That’s been a lot of my filmmaking too, me being in it and figuring it out. I wrote it for myself. There were a few times when I was feeling nervous about how to do everything and I was looking at other actors. But I knew this was going to be so physically demanding and I don’t always necessarily feel comfortable pushing other people, but I know I can push myself, so I was up for the challenge.
Because you come from a choreography background, does the movement come first when you’re conceptualizing a film?
I create first by images, then I link them into a story, but I go into the studio and I’m just dancing and moving and trying to figure out, what’s the movement of the scene? Even if it doesn’t have dance per se, where is the dance? I really work entirely from a movement body place.
Is it different to choreograph for the camera?
Worlds different. When I went from choreography of theatre onto film, it was overwhelming with the amount of options because in theatre you’ve got a fixed point. Your audience is there and the stage is there. In film, I [realized], “You can cut and then you can do this and this.” I really limited myself with my first work and just played mostly in wide [shots], then [added] a medium and just kept growing from there. Now I only think in terms of choreographing for film and the idea of going back to theatre would be very hard because I choreograph for closeups and dolly shots. I really choreographed and almost shot this at the same time.
Was making a feature any different?
Yeah. It was exhausting. Some of my favorite days were when I wasn’t in the scenes so I could just truly direct and enjoy. Probably my favorite day was getting to do what I call the dying swan dance that Ma does before she becomes Daniel. We were just all on a set together and we weren’t fighting the elements, so we could go really play like you would in a painter’s studio. The reason I really wanted to do a feature is because I’d been making so many shorts and I wondered, am I filmmaker? Is this my career path? Do I want this?” As challenging as it was every day on set, I was like, “This is exactly what I want to be doing. That is what I want my life to look like.”
There are obvious reasons to set this in the desert, but did that particular southwest trail to Las Vegas hold significance for you?
The American southwest, especially on film, is so iconic. We think of all of our cowboy movies and westerns and whatnot, so I approached it as a touch of a western feel. Logistically, I knew I ended in Vegas so we needed to be close to there, but story-wise, what I love about the desert is that it looks so desolate and barren, but when you actually focus in, it has incredible texture and animals and sounds. It’s harsh and I wanted this character existing coming from a place that seems like it’s unlivable. How did she survive that? And better yet, how does she survive the world of man? The stakes wouldn’t be so high if she came out of the woods. It was very important that she came from a harsh environment that seemed very unforgiving, but I love when we were there in August, it’s actually when they have their monsoons, so we went out and there were flowers covering the desert. It was just this beautiful moment of when love is in her life, the desert blooms as well. That was a lucky thing I did not write in.
Was the fact that this was a silent film actually liberating in any way?
Not really, because of course we still had a sound guy on set and it’s all about breath and the sounds of the room or the desert and whatnot. I don’t get excited over dialogue, but I get excited over really good breath sounds or the pouring of sand. In terms of shooting, because we were so quiet it was actually hard if there was a car driving by to use that footage.
Then was sound design an interesting process?
I’ve actually never even had the luxury of having a sound designer and mixer, so I didn’t realize how much your movie can change with a very strong sound design. The film is what I always imagined it to be, but there’s moments where what we shot wasn’t [quite there] and then it was fulfilled in the sound design. I always expect everything to be filled in the image and I found so many scenes filled with the sound. It’s making me think entirely different for the next go around.
Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting?
The dunes – we were out there before sunrise because I wanted a sunrise shot, so here I am with my crew and my actors at four in the morning in these dunes. It was one of the most beautiful memories of my life – you feel like you could touch the stars – and we were all just overwhelmed by the glory of nature. Then the sun came up and as the day progressed, the heat and the sun was oppressive. The dunes started shifting and all of our vehicles got stuck in the sand. My producer was trying to dig them out and all of a sudden we look and he’s going into some heatstroke thing and was sent off to the hospital. Then I get into a little bit of a dune buggy accident and get a concussion, and I ended up going to the hospital as well. This day just spiraled into chaos.
Those final shots, literally you had no production on set because everybody’s at the hospital. Andrew [Pastides], my co-star and dearest collaborator, ended up directing the last shots of that day and then all the actors and the crew broke down the jib and everything. Even though I went down, [the show] still went on and it’s such a testament to the people that I brought onboard for this. I felt so grateful and supported as a director that day. Although it was so disastrous, the love and the dedication I felt is still humbling to me to this day.
What was it like to premiere in Venice?
It was really wild to be there because we were such a little film in such a big festival. Walking to our premiere, there’s Kristen Stewart on the red carpet and people are screaming at her and we get to my premiere and I’ve got 80 people in the theater, but the programmers who run the section I was in really championed the film and I couldn’t think of a better place to premiere it. What a beautiful city. I just love that film surrounded by sand and then shown in a city surrounded by water. I had a good amount of my crew and cast there and we just had a lovely time celebrating because the film was really hard to make. It was nice to feel fancy for a little bit.