It was always part of the design of “Queens of the Qing Dynasty” to watch the sparks fly between Star (Sarah Walker), a neurodivergent young woman checked into a clinic and An (Ziyin Zheng), the foreign exchange student from China who takes up the responsibility of watching over her as she contemplates self-harm, but writer/director Ashley McKenzie couldn’t fully comprehend the lightning in a bottle she had until getting back to the editing room.
“There was such a rhythm to the dialogue as it was performed and also the body language and just the energy frequency between the two of the characters, the chemical reactions that are happening, it felt like the molecules bouncing around the space,” recalls McKenzie. “The whole time I was editing, I felt like I was laboring over little tiny beats, whether it was a comedic or an awkward beat and it felt like musicality. The rhythm was exciting me and also in some ways plaguing me in the sense that I was chasing after it the whole time.”
Finding harmony where others may have envisioned discord, McKenzie creates something indelible in her second feature where any bumps in the conversation become grace notes. After crafting the hyper-realistic portrait of addicts living on the edge in her native Cape Breton with her stark debut “Werewolf,” the filmmaker sees the warmth generated between two outsiders to the local culture when Star is made to feel abnormal due to her fragile mental state and An is not only subject to a slight language barrier in the quiet Canadian town but also a sense they don’t belong when they harbor thoughts of transitioning into a woman. Although a genuine sense of authenticity is baked into the proceedings when Zheng’s real life inspired the character of An and Star is based on someone McKenzie came across in casting her first film, the film feels true in an entirely different way when it acknowledges the magic that occurs in each other’s company, their rough edges smoothed out by a willingness to take the time to understand one another.
The pair’s synchronicity is highlighted by a pleasingly piquant electronic score and McKenzie confirms the promise of her first feature with a second that is a bit more surreal but never loses sight of the humanity that made “Werewolf” so searing. Following its premiere earlier this year at Berlinale, “Queens of the Qing Dynasty” recently made its Canadian bow at the Toronto Film Festival en route to screenings this weekend at the New York Film Festival and McKenzie, Walker and Zheng spoke about having a film about their hometown travel the world and how the actors drew inspiration for their characters.
Ashley, I understand the origins of this are tied a bit to the casting of your last film “Werewolf.” How did this come about?
Ashley McKenzie: Yeah, there were two people I auditioned for the role of Nessa in “Werewolf” and the connections that I forged with them ended up leading to the initial structure of the screenplay [for “Queens of the Qing Dynasty”] a two-character piece that follows Star, and in the first draft, it was just about this moment in her life and the challenges she’s facing in finding proper health care and housing [after] aging out of foster care. It wasn’t until about a year later that I met Ziyin, who also in their own way but completely differently was also looking for residence.
Ziyin, did you know you were wandering into a movie?
Ziyin Zheng: I did know. [laughs] It was very natural. Ashley was a very open-minded person when we talked and she was extra gentle with me and very open and receptive. She made me feel very, very safe to give all the personal information to her and she took a lot of inspiration from my life. She has a copy machine memory and she memorized everything I told her and when I see the script, it was exactly what I told her.
Sarah Walker: I went into the audition with not a lot of knowledge about what I was getting myself into. [laughs] I remember reading the sides before the audition and the writing is so well done, the way that everything lines itself up made it a little bit easier, so I could get a little bit of the character, [and then] I got to meet the person [that Star is based on] and right away, this person just sees the world completely different than anybody I’ve ever met, so honestly, it was just so interesting for me to learn. Spending time with her and getting her mannerisms was really what made it all come together before we started shooting. Ashley had some footage of her to help me navigate how she reacts to things because Sarah Walker does not react the same way that Star does in real life.
Ashley McKenzie: And we’re all friends with her because she kind of befriends everyone to some degree and would you all agree that she’s completely infectious as a person?
Sarah Walker: Yeah, super authentic.
Ashley McKenzie: Yeah, you hear her voice in your head. [laughs]
Ashley, when you get everybody into a room together, is there anything that changes in your mind once you see the dynamic between the actors?
Ashley McKenzie: I don’t know if too much actually changed, but the biggest change in the path that the story was on was when I met Ziyin because I had what I thought was a fully developed script before I met Ziyin. The sitter character was not as interestingly drawn a character as Star was, but was written as a born-and-bred Cape Breton middle class woman, which was more what I had seen in the hospital environments I’ve been in and meeting Ziyin, I decided to rewrite the script for them and overlay an entirely different perspective and experience into the dialogue between these two main characters. Sometimes when I cast, I adapt things afterwards, but it happened earlier in the process this time. When I cast people that haven’t acted in a film before, it is often trying to be looser with the character and let it fall more in line with the way they naturally are, but I don’t see either of these performers as non-actors. Despite it being their film debut, [both Ziyin and Sarah] gave really well-crafted performances, and [whereas] in my filmmaking practice to date, I was molding a film around a person as they naturally were, in this case, it was the opposite. Sarah was able to perform something I had written that was based in a reality.
I’ve heard Ashley talk before about “words failing to communicate what you want to communicate.” For the actors, was developing a non-verbal connection interesting?
Sarah Walker: I think the character of Star almost always communicates in a way, even if it’s like the way she looks at someone, and this is true to this person as well, she will look at you and it makes you second-guess, but she’s just like alive and present. I want to be a little bit more like that in my own life. It’s all such a release to just be and react in real time…
Ashley McKenzie: Remember that line in the neonatal scene that was cut, but Star is asked, “What is your mental illness?” That line is still there [in the film where] Star says, “All activity and no output.” And I was reminded of that when you just described that. Star learns from An, but An learns from Star that the conversation that they have is super-transformative but there’s limits to language. The power of language is so much what the film explores, but also the things that we experience that can’t be contained in words like the hand gesture that An does, I’ve always felt that is a gift that An gives to Star.
Ziyin, when your character is based on yourself, was there anything important to you to come across?
Ziyin Zheng: I wanted to show the world how international students from China live — their struggles to get past a test, to become an immigrant and also the difficulty of a queer Chinese person who finds no home in no place on earth. Back in China, the culture is not very embracing of it and when they fly to Canada, they’re not Canadian and they don’t speak English, so they also feel left out and live in a state of isolation, but they are an amazing person and have so many interesting thoughts, so that was the most important part.
Ashley, it’s not more stylized than “Werewolf” was, but it’s a different, more theatrical style and because the camera relates to the characters so well, how did you develop the visual language for this?
Ashley McKenzie: I took so many of my cues just from the characters. They just became larger and more colorful than I was able to contain and then in the making of the film, they were asking me to give them more space and expand the form. The tools and techniques that I became used to using on my past films just didn’t feel apt anymore and felt a little false, so I just decided to let it go and see what journey they took me on. It ended up going in vastly different directions.
Ziyin Zheng: I feel it’s more on the end of organic too because I’ve been studying in Cape Breton for a while so every part of the location is very familiar. It was a very small crew and there was [little] lighting and one camera. I didn’t feel we’re in a production. Ashley taught me how to perform in this film because I’m a very outward performer — I’m used to doing outrageous performances, but this one I need to tone myself down actually into a state of preserved energy.
Sarah Walker: I think a lot of that [feeling] was I’m from Cape Breton [and Ziyin,] how long did you live there?
Ziyin Zheng: Five years.
Sarah Walker: Five years, and there’s something so special making art where you’re from and telling stories about people who are from there as well. Often times, we’d be shooting somewhere and you’d see people you know. Star’s story for me, it’s something that’s not as uncommon as people may think and it just so happens that Ashley’s given this platform to people like Star and An to just almost bring more awareness because it’s so real.
Ashley McKenzie: Yeah, I always try and start scouting locations and talent really early because part of my toolkit as a filmmaker is working with real elements because I’m usually not building sets and going through vast actor databases and that process of selection is so much of my creative process. I scouted a lot of hospitals in the community and there was always one room in each hospital that had, to me, the perfect look, so we ended up bopping around to different locations because there was something I liked in each space in the architecture and the layout. Then I hoped that it would all blend together in a unified way.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Ziyin Zheng: There were a few. One is in the cafeteria shot. That took a lot of takes, over and over.
Sarah Walker: I ate a lot of hospital food. [laughs]
Ashley McKenzie: But it was interesting because the first part of the cafeteria scene we spent a lot of time on and we barely had any time to do the second part of the scene where they are in extreme closeup and really start revealing themselves to one another.
Sarah Walker: And I think a funny thing too about shooting in a small town where I’m from is we’d often be in hospitals and I came out of the mom and baby unit and I saw a friend I grew up with and I was wearing the johnny shirt and she’s like, “Oh congratulations!” [laughs] And I was like, “Oh no, I didn’t have a baby.” There were lots of little funny things like that that were special because you’re making a film in a hospital where she works.
Ashley McKenzie: The chapel scene was a pretty charged day.
Ziyin Zheng: Yeah, a lot of emotion to go through, and you captured it on camera. There was another day where we had to wear very little clothes in a big snowstorm. That was really cold for me because I’m from a warmer place in China and Canada’s winter is torture, but for the love of film. [laughs]
What’s it like to start bringing this out into the world?
Ashley McKenzie: It’s exciting. The film is just about connection and being very honest, so I hope the film just generates that kind of connection and dialogue with people.
Sarah Walker: I think even watching it, a lot of times we’re thinking exactly what Star is but we don’t say it and Star just says it and it’s like maybe we should all just say it, within reason. [laughs] But it’s interesting to see it now with an audience and it’s just a whole different vibe. and it’s exciting.
Ashley McKenzie: [Ziyin,] what does it mean to you to have it released?
Ziyin Zheng: It means I’m officially entering the industry. [laughs] I [do] wish this film can open up more opportunity to me and for other directors to see me. The character of An is loosely based on me and it’s a layer of my personality, but I am a person with so many layers, so I feel like I have a lot of potential in the films and people can know me from this film and they can give me a hand and trust me in other works. But I just really enjoyed working with Ashley and Sarah, it was a very rewarding experience for me and if I could do it ten times over, I would do it ten times over.
“Queens of the Qing Dynasty” will screen at the New York Film Festival on October 1st at 12:30 pm at the Francesca Beale Theater, October 2nd at 6:15 pm at the Howard Gilman Theater and October 8th at 8 pm at the BAMCinematek.