Behind the doors of Number 9 with producer Elizabeth Karlsen

Originally published on Film4 / Medium.

Elizabeth Karlsen is a British film producer who co-founded Number 9 Films in 2002 with production partner and husband Stephen Woolley. Speaking on the phone from her London office, she tells Film4 Online’s Nicole Davis about an accolade-heavy CV (Carol, Colette, Their Finest, Made in Dagenham, Hyena and Youth are just a handful of the films they have coached into cinemas in the past decade) — and why she’s at her happiest when making other people’s cinematic visions come true.

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Number 9 Films’ Elizabeth Karlsen.

It started with studying biology. It might be a stretch to posit that an interest in microorganisms and molecules would be a good foundation for a career in producing, but at its simplest, the role of a producer is to coalesce lots of different cells to create a living, breathing film.

Her cinematic appetite, however, was whetted much earlier. “Being brought up in the States where so much of the fabric of the culture is cinema, we went all the time as a family,” Karlsen says. Although it is her English “film buff” mother whom Karlsen cites as the real inspiration, “she was always watching films.”

It was while doing a postgraduate degree, after having studied English, with “a brilliant woman called Jacqueline Rose” (a renowned feminist scholar) that Karlsen found herself immersed in “feminism, representations in cinema and a lot of critical theory around film.”

It gave her enough of a sense of what she wanted to pursue that upon returning to New York she got a job as an intern on a film set. “I got on really well with the director and when he was editing the film he got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to help,” she says. He was fantastic and sort of propelled me onto that path.”

The film was Parting Glances, starring Steve Buscemi, and the director was Bill Sherwood, who clearly had a good eye for discovering talent. The other person credited as an Assistant Editor on the film alongside Karlsen is Christine Vachon who went on to found Killer Films and produce — among many others — Carol and Colette with Number 9 Films.

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(Left); Karlsen got her break working on Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, (Right); with regular collaborator, fellow producer and friend Christine Vachon.

Considering she spent much of her time in the editing room, I ask Karlsen why the role of producer, in particular, stood out to her.“I just walked onto that set and I didn’t really know what producing was, but I just got this sense that you could bring all these creative people together and make a film and I thought ‘that’s what I want to do’…I remember very strongly that someone had to orchestrate it and make it happen and that really appealed to me.”

The radicalism of Parting Glances — now considered something of a milestone in queer cinema — would set the tone for Karlsen’s own career, telling “stories from the sidelines.” Although she credits her political family and the coterie of liberals (“outsiders and misfits”) around whom she was brought up as the fuel to that fire.

It was another “six or seven years” before Karlsen co-produced The Crying Game alongside her now-husband and producing partner Stephen Woolley, during which time she had roles as Production Manager, Second Assistant Director and Production Supervisor. Karlsen readily admits that “it was a long and arduous path.”

But it was quite the film with which to establish herself. The 1992 thriller about an unlikely friendship between a British soldier and an IRA volunteer earned six Oscar® nominations, including a win for Best Screenplay, and seven BAFTA nominations, including a win for Best British Film.

It would be a taste of the success to come.

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Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game

Karlsen describes herself as a creative producer; an approach that is very much baked into how Number 9 operates. They are purposefully small, hands-on and often generate their own material. For them it’s about seeing the film through its entire biological life cycle, from development to distribution. “I see it as my role to support a director and [their] vision the best way I possibly can, so that they have the best chance of realising it.”

And where does the material that they generate come from? “We look in the margins…bestsellers don’t always make the best films and books that no one’s heard of can make phenomenal films”, says Karlsen.

It was writer Phyllis Nagy who came to Karlsen with the idea to make Carol in 2005after they’d worked together on a project called Mrs. Harris — an HBO TV movie starring Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley. But the rights were tied up with another producer and it would take a decade before they became free.

The publishers were reluctant to sell the rights to another independent producer, but Karlsen pleaded her case, with the involvement of Film4’s Tessa Ross. They closed the deal in 2011. But by that point Nagy had wearied and her enthusiasm for the project wavered. Karlsen held firm, and eventually Nagy was in. What sounds like a stressful experience would turn out to be a good omen.

“The things that have gone on to huge critical success or awards success are the ones that were hardest to get funded at the time…With something like Carol, once the right team were onboard it really propelled forward at a fast pace.”

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Todd Haynes’ Carol

Karlsen credits the partnership she has with Woolley as being integral to her ability to withstand the ups and downs of a producer’s life. “It’s a rollercoaster ride of a business that can turn on a dime…You can feel like you’re banging your head against a wall and if you have creative doubt or despondency, it’s important to have a partner…to help you pick up the pieces and validate your choices. And also to share your successes. It’s been wonderful to share the limelight together.”

“It’s rare we have strong diverse responses” says Karlsen, when I ask whether they have distinct tastes. “Typically we like the same kinds of films.” Certainly something appears to be working. Number 9 has produced almost a film a year for the past decade.

“When I saw that, I was like ‘wow, that’s pretty good’,” laughs Karlsen.

“We only really have six to eight project that we’re developing on the slate at any one time and they can take anywhere from two to ten years, which generally works quite well as a conversion rate.”

How does their creative input vary, I wonder, when it comes to working with an established director like Todd Haynes as opposed to filmmakers for whom it’s their first feature outing? “With someone like Todd, who is an extremely talented auteur, you’re just making sure he has the tools he needs to deliver on that. A first-time filmmaker will need different kinds of help. They might not fully know how to use the camera, or tell that story, and so you might think a bit more about who to team them with in terms of a cinematographer or editor, and you’d take a different approach. You just need to be fully supportive to allow them to believe that their inexperience might be their greatest asset and that they absolutely have the ability they need to carry it off.”

It’s a cheering thought, that perfection isn’t a requirement, particularly in the competitive environs of the film industry. “The worst combination is ignorance with arrogance”, Karlsen continues. Ultimately it’s about listening to, and leaning on other members of the team who do have the knowledge, be that the producers or anyone else on set. It comes back to that notion of collaboration that is the lifeblood of Number 9 Films.

“We’ve been really lucky with the relationships we’ve established over the years with financiers and distributors, one of them being Film4, who’ve been there right from the beginning. That’s been a very crucial and satisfying relationship for us, and I hope we can continue to make Film4 proud to be a part of our team.”

A relationship is the beating heart of Number 9 Films, and as Karlsen puts it, “relationships are absolutely crucial to us.” I sense their success has far more to do with this emphasis on collaboration, a lack of ego and lots of hard work, than luck.

Five women composers that should be on your radar

Originally published on Film4 / Medium.

Mica Levi, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Isobel Waller-Bridge have made (sound) waves in the film industry over the past few years, doing much to raise the profile of women in the film score space. In fact Spotify even have a playlist celebrating women composer’s work, filled with over two hours of music.

But who are their peers and who are next generation of melody-making maestros? Here are our two cents…

Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch

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Emilie is an award-winning French pianist and composer based in London. Most recently she has composed scores for the films Only You and Rocks (the release of which has sadly been delayed due to Covid-19), showing a sensitivity and elegance well-suited to their intense and at times, agonising stories.

Listen to her work on Spotify.

Anne Nikitin

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Anne is a Canadian composer based in London whose break into film scoring came with Bart Layton’s 2012 documentary The Imposter. She then went onto to receive a nomination for the Ivor Novello Award for her score on his next film American Animals, which is as audacious, unpredictable and eclectic as the film itself. Anne created a truly menacing score for Netflix’s 2018 thriller Calibre and continues to demonstrate her range and appetite for experimentation across narrative and documentary features.

Listen to her work on Spotify.

Nainita Desai

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Nainita’s score for the courageous and poignant documentary For Sama earned her a BIFA-nomination, and was all the more powerful for its empathic nuance. Having received degrees in maths and then sound design at NFTS she built her experience across a range of genres, including Annapurna’s interactive film/game Telling Lies, Nainita’s scores are as precise as they are hard to pin down. Her score for the 2019 UK/Indian film Darkness Visible is particularly unique and her next release is for Jerry Rothwell’s acclaimed Sundance-winning feature The Reason I Jump.

Listen to her work on Spotify.

Tujiko Noriko

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Tujiko is a Japanese musician based in Paris who has a decades-spanning discography that Huck magazine described as “phatasmagorical”. She got her start in film scores on a low-budget Japanese film called Kuro, producing something ambient, minimalist and futuristic. Her work will next be heard in Aneil Karia’s Sundance-premiering feature debut Surge, a kinetic and boundary-pushing piece of cinema to which she seems perfectly suited.

Listen to her work on Spotify.

Jo Paterson

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Jo is an emerging composer whose work spans across short films, animation, video games, commercials and virtual reality. She composed a gorgeous and heart-rending score for the VR documentary Notes to My Father, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and centres on the relationship between a human trafficking survivor and her father. With such mature and resonant work already under her belt, we have no doubt you’ll be hearing more from Jo in the future.

Listen to her work here.

Five women editors that should be on your radar

Originally published on Film4 / Medium.

Film editing has long been a domain where women have been able to make their mark, or take their cut shall we say, in a male-dominated industry. For instance, a number of women (Thelma Schoonmaker, Verna Fields, Dede Allen and Marcia Lucas among them) came up alongside their male director counterparts to enjoy significant success during 60s and 70s Hollywood.

But who are the next generation of expert editors? Here are our two cents…

Maya Maffioli

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Beast (2017, Michael Pearce)

Maya is fast becoming a stalwart in the British independent film scene. Having worked on Michael Pearce’s Film4-backed genre fairytale Beast after the pair met at film school and she edited two of his short films, she has since completed work on the London-set coming-of-ager Rocks andis currently in post-production on Clio Barnard’s next film Ali & Ava. With a brilliant feel for intimate, sensory storytelling we have no doubt it will be a must-see.

Rebecca Lloyd

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American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold)

Rebecca gained experience in assistant editing on projects such as American Honey, The Two Faces of January and Testament of Youth, and credits her dyslexia with inspiring a creative impulse and an affinity with pictures over words. She was the first ever editor to be selected for BAFTA’s Breakthrough Brits and has since gone on to edit projects such as Carmilla and Herself, the latter premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. She talks more about the editing process for that project here, but clearly Lloyd is attuned to respecting and elevating a powerful central performance, a skill that we look forward to seeing on display in her edit of Corinna Faith’s The Power.

Amanda James

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Work (2017, Aneil Karia)

Amanda cut her editorial teeth working across commercials and music videos for artists like The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Jay-Z, even winning an award for Best Editing at the UKMVAs in 2010 for the ‘On To The Next One’ video. She collaborates regularly with rising director Aneil Karia having edited his short films Beat and Work (pictured, a Film4-backed and BAFTA-nominated project you can watch right here) and most recently, his debut feature Surge starring Ben Whishaw, demonstrating an intuitive feel for rhythm, movement and timing.

Julie Buckland

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Pompeii (2019, Marco Alessi, Matthew James Morgan, Harry Lighton)

Julie has been steadily making a name for herself within the industry, most recently earning a place on Film London’s Lodestars of 2020 list. We’re particularly enamoured of her work on the Film4-backed short film Pompeii, which poignantly interweaves a series of vibrant Instagram stories with a young man’s journey home. Both a technical feat and an emotional rollercoaster, Julie’s editing helps to convey the fleeting excitement of a night out and the profound loneliness of the young man watching it on his phone. We’re sure she’ll be on many more ‘rising star’ lists to come.

You can watch Pompeii here.

Rachel Durance

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Assassin’s Creed (2016, Justin Kurzel)

Rachel is an assistant and freelance editor who has worked across feature films such as Sorry We Missed You, Assassin’s Creed, The Legend of Tarzan and Kingsman: The Secret Service, as well as editing an abundance of short films such as Signs, Doggerland and an upcoming Film4-backed project called Shagbands. Demonstrating a capacity to work across big budget action movies and deeply felt character studies, Rachel is a talent we are excited to see flourish in the coming years.

“When you start a film, you don’t know if it’s a good choice or not.” An interview with cinematographer Hélène Louvart

Originally published on Film4 / Medium.

Cinematographer Hélène Louvart AFC on the set of Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Photo credit: Angal Field/Focus Features.

Throughout her decades-spanning career (and counting), French cinematographer Hélène Louvart has worked on more than 50 features, including critical gems such as Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (2018) and María Alche’s A Family Submerged (2018).

With the imminent release of her latest film Rocks, which was made with the support of Film4, we invited the cinematographer for a conversation on Zoom to discuss shooting one of this year’s most vital films…


Could you describe your path to becoming a cinematographer?

After I finished school I went straight to film school (National School Superieure Louis Lumière) because I was interested in working in film, even though my family background was totally different. I didn’t know in what capacity, but gradually I felt like the best choice for me was to be around the camera and the light. It’s a way to be close to the director and also involved in the storytelling. I started to work as a DoP on short films and documentaries all around the world and then step-by-step I made my way into feature films. Since the beginning I’ve always worked as a DoP, I was never an assistant. I just did it without thinking too much.

Given that Rocks was heavily improvised and devised with the collaboration of the actors, what did you know about the story when you came on board and what interested you in telling it?

It was a big challenge! The first time I met Sarah (Gavron, the director) she spoke about the story in terms of atmosphere, feeling, sensation, but she didn’t know exactly how she would shoot it. It was still up in the air.

She said that we had to be very, very flexible and to be able to change in an invisible way to give the girls freedom. We approached it scene by scene, and so I knew what Sarah was aiming for, but we were open to change or surprise or something happening in front of the camera that we had to adapt to. It was a challenge, but everyone was working towards the same goal.

And how did you prepare specifically for that challenge?

We wanted a precise and calm set and for the girls to feel natural, which meant everything was very prepared, all the equipment lists and where the lights had to be.

It’s interesting that you use the word calm, because the main characters are teenage girls, who can bring quite a chaotic energy to set, as well as perhaps being self-conscious, did that alter your approach at all?

Yes, in the classroom with all the girls there was a lot of energy and chatter but it was very important to Sarah not to disturb them or burden them with technical stuff. We tried to remain invisible. Of course they could see us and we weren’t trying to hide ourselves, but it was about letting them take up the space.

In more intimate moments Sarah decided to only have one camera, and make sure there weren’t too many people around, so the girls could be more focused. We had the camera directed straight at their eye-line which I think helped get their attention. We weren’t afraid to be totally in front of them. It was about striking a balance between letting them have fun, but when we had to be up close and frontal, we did it.

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The young cast of Rocks, many of whom were non-actors.

And what was shooting in London like? Were there any particular challenges? And how as a non-Londoner did you familiarise yourself with the space?

Many years ago I shot a documentary in London (Little India directed by Renuka George), so I knew the city, not very well, but almost. And working with an English crew wasn’t all that different. Everyone was very polite and serious. It wasn’t a big or messy set.

I’m interested in whether there were any similarities between your experience on Rocks and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, given they both deal with the struggles of a young woman and are told in very authentic ways?

For me they were total opposites. For Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the crew was smaller and we were very focused on the two (or three) characters and we followed the script in a very precise way, with Eliza Hittman (the director) with only one camera, in Super 16mm. For Rocks, there were many girls, there was a lot of energy, we let them do what they wanted and we were around with two or three cameras, two boom operators, to try and catch these moments.

Would you say you have an aesthetic that’s individual to you? and if so, how would your characterise it?

I try not to have a style. It’s very important to try and do something different with each project. Ultimately it’s the director’s film and each director is different and my job is to try and understand what the director wants. Everyone has their own conception of how to tell a story, how to try and see it, why we are moving or still or doing a tracking shot. Of course I give my opinion, but my job is to try and lead them where they want to go and not to have my own style, because then you can only have one point of view.

Given you’ve had an extensive career, what keeps you motivated and interested in cinematography?

First, the story and the meaning behind the story. And second, the director. All the projects I’ve worked on have been about those two things. When you start a film, you don’t know if it’s a good choice or not, or if it will be a good film or not. Nobody knows! Otherwise it would be too easy doing… Also, it matters to me that the director is sincere with WHY he (or she) wants to do this film.

And does that come down to trusting your instinct?

Yeah. I try to feel it. Some people might fake it, but I think you can feel, when reading the script, if there is something deep in there. It cannot just be another movie, it has to be something else.

I think Rocks falls into that category. Is there anything you’re particularly proud of having achieved with this film?

Definitely I think it’s the moment that Bukky Bakray’s character has a fight with her best friend (Kosar Ali). Bukky was initially quite shy to raise her voice. It’s not easy to start fighting! And with Sarah, we were very close to Bukky with the camera, so it was very intense. And Kosar went out of herself for the scene, and then we panned back to Bukky and then we followed Kosar in the corridor and then we had to be steady and invisible, for her not to see us and not to lose the moment… it was really emotional.

Hélène, thank you so much!


Rocks will be in UK cinemas from 18 September. Watch a brand new clip from the film here

Uniquely crafted by a majority all-female creative team in collaboration with mostly first-time actors, Rocks was written by Theresa Ikoko (winner of the Alfred Fagon award in 2015 for her play Girls) and Claire Wilson (Little Drummer Girl, Gangs of London, The Power), and directed by Sarah Gavron (Suffragette, Brick Lane) and associate director Anu Henriques. Produced by Faye Ward (Wild Rose, Stan & Ollie) and Ameenah Ayub Allen (Ali & Ava, The Selfish Giant), with casting by Lucy Pardee and associate Jessica Straker. The lead cast features Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Ruby Stokes, Tawheda Begum, Anastasia Dymitrow, Afi Okaidja and D’angelou Osei Kissiedu.

Some feelings on heartbreak (a year on).

A year ago I wrote a post about my experience of heartbreak. It’s been a helluva journey since then and I felt like revisiting the topic because I am very much one of those people who will continue to pick at a scab until it heals completely.

***

Rilke might have said it best. If two people managed not to get stuck in hatred during their honest struggles with each other, that is, in the edges of their passion that became ragged and sharp when it cooled and set, if they could stay fluid, active, flexible, and changeable in all of their interactions and relations, and, in a word, if a mutually human and friendly consideration remained available to them, then their decision to separate cannot easily conjure disaster and terror.

It was as disastrous as it could’ve been. But even unmitigated disasters recede eventually.

You can’t cure a person of their idea of you. 

We are too unyielding in our definitions of ex-girlfriend and ex-boyfriend. It conjures images of violence that we think we have to live up too. Extinguish. Extinct. Exclude. Excommunicate. Exile. Expunge. None of it sounds good, or caring. 

Erasure and silence become default. We equate forgetting with healing. We forget we knew how to tell this person everything. They forget they knew how to listen to you. Somewhere along the line everything about you that used to make them laugh makes them inexplicably angry. 

It’s just me. I tried to say. Same as I ever was. But of course, that was exactly the problem.

But of course, I wasn’t. I was bitter and hateful and tart. I was rhubarb and lemon and pomelo. You’re never quite the same after a break-up. I wondered which version was the real me. 

Hate is a strong word. But then again, I’ve only ever had strong feelings for him.

I don’t feel stuck. I feel vindicated. If he doesn’t want to change my mind, I’ve made peace with that. Then again, you can’t cure a person of their idea of you. His villainy has helped my sanity.

It’s easier to say bad things to a person after a break-up. If you keep saying I love you, things start to get weird. You invite pity.

I think it’s ok to live with both inside of you.

Silence, then, became the only way to communicate. It’s a strange feeling when you realise you might never speak to a person again. Especially when other people still speak to them all the time.

I got rid of everything that he touched thinking I could start over. But of course, I was what he touched most of all. And I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of me.

Sarah Manguso writes the first time you love someone who doesn’t love you back it seems wrong, not morally but logically, a river flowing up a mountain. How can such a feeling be wrong? You’ll return to that very river, as many times as it takes.

I’ve been too scared to return to the river. My body remembers drowning in it too well. 

There will never be a good time to hear that they are seeing somebody else. I suspect there is a better time than midnight on a Sunday though. 

I told a friend the other day that I am excited for what or who I encounter next. It was the truth. I’m excited to wade in and know that I might fall. Or better yet, sense when the current is going against me and decide that I should return to the river another time. 

I’ve come to realise all the boundaries I forgot to set,  the demands I was too shy to make. Too caught up with seeming charming and carefree. I never realised I was flattening myself into a mat and then blamed him for walking over it.

I have realised, many times over, that I tried to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted to publicise my pain. I wanted apologies and remorse and acknowledgment of  HOW MUCH I HATED IT ALL. HOW MUCH IT FUCKING HURT. I capitalised my anger. I yelled it into a vacuum. And then I tried to play it cool, because I wanted him to see that I was ok. That life without him was really quite rosy actually. I wanted to say, look at me go.

The going happened without trying. This year has held lots of triumphs within it. And yet I can’t help but wonder if he knows how far I’ve come.

Something I’ve only just learnt: you’ll encounter lots of people that try to take credit for your victories. You’ll even parcel some of it over willingly. Hold some back for yourself. You are due. 

Nothing can prepare you for watching other people fall in love. It will detonate every kindness inside of you. But it is possible to be happy for someone else and sad for yourself. It’s like ice-cream soup. Cold but comforting.

What does love become when it fades? Slush. Scar tissue. Songs you still can’t bear to listen to. A story wheeled out at bedtime. 

I searched for meaning in all of it. In the American wilderness, in poetry, in cinema, in the yawning, elephantine loneliness. Every day I wondered if this would be the day I was fixed. If tomorrow I would wake up lighter. I never did. But I did keep waking up and that became enough.

Some days I laugh harder than I might ever have done. I choke on happiness. I feel gorged on and bathed in and wrapped up in it. And I know this is better than before. Before there were inklings and whispers and tiny sesames of doubt. I wanted to stop time. I’ve realised I am happy living through it again.

Cress and scarlet gilia grow back faster and stronger after being eaten. I think the same can be said of love. After it gobbles you up once, you’ll know how to better endure it.

Sadness isn’t a disease. We shouldn’t want to be immune from it. 

It no longer feels like a case of needing to be over it. Just ok that it happened. And I am.

Sarah Manguso also writes that perfect happiness is the privilege of deciding when things end. But then you have to find a new happiness.

I was denied that privilege and that decision. I was taught that love is something you cultivate and persevere through. But there is something to be said about being freed from another person’s unhappiness. I am learning to see the search as a gift. 

The Quarantine Diaries, Week Seven

Saturday 25 April – Friday 1 May

Watching:

Normal People; Not much to say that hasn’t already been said. Lots of big emotions to grapple with. Beautiful, painful and horny was how I described it to a friend, and I stick by that. I wasn’t that enamoured of the book, a good read, but I can’t say I could recall much of it when it came to binge the series and actually I enjoyed the adaptation much more for that. I wasn’t beholden to any notions of what I thought it should be. I was just rooting for these two people to figure themselves out and figure out how they could be together.

Devs; I started off liking it so much and then it did what Alex Garland’s Annihilation did too, which is let itself be swallowed or drowned out by the science of it all. The ambition began to outweigh my actual enjoyment of the thing itself and whilst I remained awed by it – the production and sound design and the cinematography especially – I stopped being emotionally invested.

The Assistant; Kitty Green’s film, starring the increasingly ubiquitous Julia Garner (no bad thing), about the day in the life of a big, important film producer’s assistant and the menacing minutiae that permeates it. Ostensibly it’s about HW, but it’s about the complicity in anyone corporate environment that allows the abuse of power to go unchecked. The fascinating thing to me was how Green portrays the well-oiled machine of collusion. It’s not that it goes unremarked upon, in fact many of her colleagues do remark on it. “Don’t worry, you’re not his type” says Matthew McFayden’s HR Manager in a moment at once disturbing and incredibly offhand. About halfway through, my Dad’s eyes started glazing over. “It’s like having a boring day at the office” he complained. “Exactly!” I proclaimed. The whole point is how normal it’s allowed to become. Reactions that might have emerged as outrage – Garner does low-key balking very well – have crystallised into light office banter. No wonder the women who spoke out about HW were so disillusioned or reluctant to; Green’s film (beautiful seems like the wrong adjective, perhaps cunningly?) cunningly illustrates how a day of quiet indignation from a lowly assistant can be shrewdly shrugged off; how a woman’s silence – next to her appearance – is thought to be her most valuable asset.

The RSA’s ‘Bridges to the Future’ event series. Lots of big ideas to grapple with.

This live-cam of above-water manatees in Florida. Really, really calming.

Reading:

Plodded slowly through The Shipping News. Proulx’s behemoth of a novel Barkskins was infinitely more propulsive than this much slimmer volume. Great characterisations, great descriptions, just wasn’t that bowled over by it.

Very excited to start The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai tomorrow.

A brilliant essay in The New Yorker on how coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations

“We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era. We seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling…As a society, we’re watching the statistics, following the recommendations, listening to the scientists…We’re learning to trust our science as a society. That’s another part of the new structure of feeling.”

This long-form piece on a woman’s memory loss in Man Repeller.

“Her life these days is one of calm precision. It’s also one of constant adjustment and renegotiation, not just of her time and energy, but of her life story. It can be hard to fathom the loss of one’s narrative arc, or the kind of self-mythologizing implicit to looking back. Early on though, she learned the challenges were not her enemy; her own resistance to them was. “Change is difficult for people, period,” she says. “But resistance is what stops people from embracing the strategies they need to make or build change.” Bruley no longer resists. Instead, she’s soft with herself, and she believes this is the difference between knowing one needs to grow and actually doing it… We could spend our time sifting through the particulars, assigning blame or regretting things didn’t turn out differently, but Bruley thinks we’d do better to look ahead. Be soft. Write new stories.”

Also Haley Nahman, who wrote the article, has lovely newsletters which I’d recommend you sign up for. Her latest one particularly struck a chord and resonated with some of what I was feeling last week…

“I’d ask how you’re doing but I’m finding that question increasingly difficult to answer, so I won’t burden you. It’s so strange that my life has never been simpler (in a practical sense) and yet harder to parse (in every other).

Haley also quotes from Jenny Odell’s book How To Do Nothing which I read back in January (that feels like a bygone era) and has been doing the rounds again recently, what with her focus on care and sustenance over productivity, or perhaps redefining the former in the context of the latter.

“In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative…. We do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way [as expansion]. But we should.” 

Haley also linked to this piece in The New Republic, about resisting productivity during a pandemic. Something I’ve been doing with great alacrity.

The work of care, of real meaning, is what we should be concerning ourselves with now. It is not optimized, or “disrupting,” or any of that. It is just essential…You don’t have to write your novel. You don’t have to reorganize your closet. Burying yourself in mindless busywork is not the solution. So, go ahead, turn the video function off when your boss calls.” [OH MY GOD THIS. HAVE BEEN DOING THIS QUITE A BIT. SORRY, BUT NO-ONE NEEDS TO SEE MY PANDEMIC FACE/UNBRUSHED HAIR/PYJAMA T-SHIRT].

Cooking:

Not really cooking, but I’ve been perfecting the art of the sandwich over the past few weeks and today I produced not just a sandwich, but art: two slices of toasted brown sourdough with basil pesto, melted vegan cheese, avocado and sun dried tomatoes. Garnished with a side order of Kettle chips.

Doing:

I made my best friend Becky a zine and sent it to her in the post. Possibly the most romantic thing I’ve ever done.

Marbling. Here’s a series I did with black ink (trying to make it sound more artistic and deliberate than wafting paper through a bowl of black-blobbed water). I like the bottom left one of the bottom row because it looks like a mountain. I hadn’t noticed that before.

The Quarantine Diaries, Week Five & Six

Saturday 11 – Friday 24 April

Have we really been doing this for six weeks?!

Had an off week, hence the doubling up. I returned to my parents house in Surrey on Easter Monday and despite the pastoral haven (read: hayfever trigger), abundantly stocked store cupboard (miso paste! blueberry jam! self-raising flour! vegan mayo!) and cat cuddles (consensual or no), it threw me off my routine a bit.

I’ve been feeling lethargic and leaden, both in body and brain. Like I’m trapped in a sourdough starter of my own making. All my pet projects and lists have been tragically unattended to and instead I’m devoting the surplus time to scrutinising the breakouts on my cheeks and making collages from old magazines. I think I have a case of stasis.

I had a conversation with Michael from work and finally articulated this ‘bleurgh’ feeling that has been lingering like a bad smell for the past couple of days, and I think it is this…

‘How are you?’ has become a difficult question to answer, particularly during an empathy-conscious time when people are asking (interrogating?) it more than usual. Because normally you can deflect. You’re like Jan Vertonghen.

‘How are you?’

‘Good! I saw this amazing play the other day / smashed a spin class / had a really nice dinner with uni friends / took myself to a classical music concert / got to do this cool interview for work.’

All of these are answers I could’ve given to that question the month before the outbreak of coronavirus. None of which really answer the question levelled at me. But as conversational segues, they hold up pretty well.

Now, with these indicators of productivity and wellness having been subtracted from our existence, the conversational buffers have gone. We’re all sitting ducks and the question ‘how are you?’ penetrates to our very core.

And the answer means admitting ‘not great’ more often than I’d like to admit. Or just fine. Like my synapses have glazed over. I feel like a fire in my belly has been extinguished. It’s just fine in my belly now. How long can you make a conversation about flower-pressing or marbling last? When I’m in London I yearn for sylvan space and quieted thoughts and now that I’m here, it’s too quiet. I want my big city back (running down a tube escalator with disco tunes blaring from my headphones, squeezing past patrons in a packed pub with a dribbling pint in hand, queuing outside of the Prince Charles Cinema amid the lantern-lacquered streets of Chinatown) and with it my deferred dreams.

That being said, today was better, and I felt more renewed and also thoroughly seen by this tweet.

Watching:

Films

Had a run of mediocrity and have been prioritising TV. On my must-watch soon list: Wanda, The Assistant, Mickey and the Bear.

TV

  • Quiz; obviously. Matthew MacFayden’s delivery of the line “I believe he was making love by Wednesday” is a perfect film.
  • Little Fires Everywhere; Reese Witherspoon is essentially playing the same rich bitch character she nailed in Big Little Lies, but as with the novel there is a lot of depth to all the women characters; their foibles, their motivations, their manipulations and it makes for riveting viewing. Except the finale, which felt like a victim of contrivance. Arson is a really hard crime to justify the motive for, and ultimately I’m not sure the series sold it.
  • Middleditch & Schwartz; fuck me did I cackle when a There Will Be Blood reference / impression came up in episode two after all that Twitter chat; also I love how self-referential they are even mid-sketch (breaking character to remember characters, calling each other out on their choices of names and inability to do accents), it’s improbably good improv.
  • Devs; early days, but intrigued so far – kudos to the production designer Mark Digby and composer Geoff Barrow who struck me as the MVPs in episode one. Episode two confirmed that I am fully into it.
  • Insecure; every time this comes back I wonder how I’ve survived without it.
  • Run; Merritt Weaver and Domnhall Gleeson are fun to watch, but I wonder how far this premise will stretch. I imagine thinly, but we’ll see.

YouTube

Something else I comfort-watch all the time are Vogue’s beauty routine videos. There’s something both hilarious and soothing about watching women wash their faces and apply serums.

I’d never seen Greta Lee’s before and now I idolise her and want her haircut. To be honest I’m envious of everyone’s haircuts ever since I went at mine with a pair of scissors like Norman Mailer rebutting feminists (with explosive relish). Also it made me want to invest in a silk turban.

I’ve also been thinking lots about space and vacillating between gratefulness for a relative capaciousness, and yearning for something even more upscale. The two poles of which can be illustrated by these apartment tour videos. Seriously, that book case in David Harbour’s home is my sexual orientation at this point.

Reading:

Speaking of books, I read The History of Love by Nicole Krauss which I wasn’t that enamoured by. If anyone’s read any more of hers I’d been keen for recommendations.

Currently working my way through The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, whose prose is always flint-sharp and faultless.

Yuval Noah Hariri on our attitudes to death in The Guardian.

That big Covid insight report in The Sunday Times.

I’ve been doing a bit of collaging and this column in the NY Review of Books perfectly encapsulates why it’s such a calming quarantine activity.

Listening to:

Podcasts:

Zoe Kazan on Fresh Air. This was a weird one. I absolutely adore Zoe Kazan; I think she’s eloquent, thoughtful, a great writer and brilliant on Twitter. I applaud her choice in life partner. But Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, seemed really intent on focusing on negative conversation starters. I’m sure Kazan greenlit their being spoken about, but it almost seemed as if Gross was pummelling Kazan with questions. How did she feel about her grandfather giving up names in the HUAC trial? What are her experiences of sexism? Of anorexia? Of depression? Important topics yes, but where were the questions about Kazan’s writing process, or how she decides between writing a play or a screenplay? Or how she gets ideas. They touch on her acting work in HBO’s Plot Against America and the Coens film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but I couldn’t help but think there were other avenues to be explored. Still, I’m always ready to listen to Kazan, no matter the topic. She has a fierce intelligence which shines through.

Lucy Prebble on When Harry Met Sally for ‘Rule of Three’. a.k.a. one of my favourite writers on one of my favourite films. Contains lots of good preamble about writing Succession and how she has become less precious about her work, valuing alternate lines and trying to disentangle criticism from change. She also had this great phrase that stuck with me about writing dialogue which is that you’re looking for your characters to respond to things in a way that rings “surprisingly but truthfully.” Then when she starts discussing what makes WHMS tick, click, sing, e.t.c , well, you can see why she’s so good at what she does.

Still Processing ‘How to Learn From a Plague’; in which they talk about the documentary How To Survive a Plague. I got quite into learning about Act-Up around the release of 120 BPM and read the book / watched the film by David France, so it was interesting to hear it refracted through the lens of our current pandemic.

Lots of The Daily and The Guardian Long Reads which are my preferred access points to the current affairs.

Music;

SAWAYAMA which is a thrilling blend of Britney Spears meets Limp Bizkit. In fact it’s what I imagine Cameron Diaz and Benji Madden’s relationship sounds like, with added edge or griminess. Or even Grimes-y-ness.

Can you tell I don’t know how to write about music?

Cooking:

This vegan paella from Matt Pritchard’s book Dirty Vegan. Thank you Jake for the gift.

Doing:

Flower-pressing. Zine-making. Eating lunch in the sun and relishing my school packed-lunch vibe – cheese sandwiches, crisps, pots of grapes. NOTHING VERY MUCH.

The Quarantine Diaries, Week Four

Saturday 4 – Friday 10 April

Watching:

High Fidelity on Hulu; a sparklingly-soundtracked revamp of the 2000 John Cusack movie with Zoe Kravitz in the lead role as the charming yet curmudgeonly record store owner.

Pros: Kravitz is a delight to watch, particularly when sparring with Jake Lacy’s character Clyde; the music, the sexual politics (women can be dicks too!), the acknowledgement that mourning the end of a relationship can take a really long time, the sartorial inspiration.

Cons: the aspirational aesthetic / bullshit fiction of living in New York City – Kravitz’s character drinks whiskey neat, smokes like a chimney, eats fruity pebbles for breakfast – and yet her skin is perfection, she has that boho chic loft apartment that she manages to afford living in alone despite working at a record store where custom is sporadic at best (except on Saturdays when it thrives), but yes I do also want to escape to that fantasy land and watch a beautiful woman who is her own boss gallivant her way through hangovers and heartbreaks and vinyl-based woes.

My Life as a Courgette; perfection.

Season 5 and 6 of The Americans; I still have the final handful of episodes to go, but my god has this gotten really sombre and tragic. It is a joyless show. It’s multi-layered and like many of their espionage missions, masterfully executed – it’s closest televisual compadre is probably Mad Men in terms of its laser-like focus on a lesser-known part of American history, but whereas that show retained a shimmer of glamour and wit amid the all the soul-destroying, this is storytelling at its most austere. The New Yorker called it the whiskey sour of television, because watching it is indeed bittersweet. Perhaps the grand finale will restore my early ardour for it, but right now I’m wondering if I should have sipped it rather than downing it all in one go.

A conversation between writers Alice Vincent and Lucy Jones about their books (Rootbound and Losing Eden respectively) on our reclamation of, or rather, re-immersion into nature.

Reading:

The Years by Annie Ernaux; an exquisite, assemblage-style memoir that traces her experience, though told through a sort-of collective third person, of the period from 1941 to 2006. Melancholic and impressionistic, she weaves in a vast array of subjects including WWII, the Tour de France, feminism, consumerism, the digital revolution, popular culture, 9/11, marriage, divorce, motherhood, creativity and selfhood. It’s both wide-ranging and incredibly specific, personal yet universal. It was gorgeous.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean; a birthday gift and a gift of a book. A non-fiction account of the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library that burned over 400,000 books, that despite dealing with destruction and arson, is alight with characters, poetry and wit.

This feature in the New York Review of Books by my new favourite essayist Leslie Jamison on life as a single parent, and a symptomatic one at that, during coronavirus.

An interview with Fran Lebowitz in The New Yorker. This answer particularly tickled me, when asked what she considers an essential service…

Bookstores. I think they’re essential. It’s not as though, unfortunately, bookstores were mobbed with people. They could have them open and just let in two people at a time. On the other hand, I touch every book at a bookstore, so that may not be the best thing.

Listening to:

The High Fidelity playlist on Spotify.

This interview with director Eliza Hittman and her editor / partner Scott Cummings on their film Never Rarely Sometimes Always for IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit.

Cooking:

Mushroom, lentil and red pepper linguine. Kinda bolognese-y, but more vegetable-y.

Homemade pesto pizza topped with mushrooms and asparagus.

Doing:

Watching blooper reels on YouTube. (My go-to procrastination (de)vice). Eating Marmite on everything: toast, crumpets, jacket potatoes. Luxuriating in the sheer pleasantness of being able to read for an hour or so every morning. Browsing the open access archive on Project Muse. Thinking about public spaces, especially libraries, and how nice it will be to linger in them again.

Oh and I also made a little video…

The Quarantine Diaries, Week Three

Saturday 28 March – Friday 3 April

Watching:

Made it through Season 4 of The Americans which had a curiously fitting storyline about pathogens and pandemics.

Also had a very good week for film-watching, here are some highlights:

  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always; the new Eliza Hittman, which sustains her reputation as a filmmaker of solemn, stirring insight. As with It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats it concerns teenagers, but with more narrative drive or urgency in that one its young female characters must journey to New York to procure an abortion. Hard-hitting but with a feather-light touch.
  • The Last Days of Disco; Whit Stillman movies are always a riot of witty repartee and sly social commentary, and this being soundtracked to a raft of disco tunes makes it all the more delightful.
  • Thief; Michael Mann’s gorgeously shot neo-noir about a thief trying to get out after one last job. Hypnotic, moody and tense. And goddamn, that diner scene is one for the books.
  • Breathless; a Godardian classic. I enjoyed the pace and the wry humour, the misogyny less so.

Reading:

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, a slick piece of meta-fiction set in an American drama school in the 80s, ostensibly about two of its students who fall in love, but equally about power, performance and privilege. She creates a narrative which she then assiduously pokes holes in from the perspective of another character, decades later. It’s remarkably clever and occasionally confounding. I’m not sure I cared about any of the characters, but I was invested on a formal level, always wondering what path I was going to be lead down and if Choi would ever pull back the curtain to reveal the true story.

Another Gaze 04. I have an essay in the latest issue on the cinematography of Ashley Connor and creating an aesthetic that is particular to teenage female identity, but the issue is full of conversations, interviews and meditations on creative practice, the environment and womanhood and I’m thoroughly enjoying meandering through it.

I’ve also been really enjoying Simran Hans’ newsletter Treats.

And this feature in The Atlantic on why the pandemic is a disaster for feminism.

Listening to:

Dua Lipa over and over and over again. Her new album Future Nostalgia is a perfect pop album, an anthemic feminist statement and the best excuse I’ve heard to dance this year. It’s a disco-driven, ballad-free, bravado-heavy feat of music. My fave tracks are Cool and Pretty Please.

This brilliant episode of Recode Decode with Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List.

This episode of Call Your Girlfriend, about curating and customising an environment you want to live in.

Doing:

Work. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. I’m very much in that part of the routine where everything’s fine, and I’m enjoying being able to read and mooch and ponder and wander more, but where it’s becoming increasingly hard to talk about what you’re up to. Easy answer: nothing. But that doesn’t warm you to people. It’s good to talk about books and films and ideas and I’m grateful to have a short film side project where I can feel like I’m achieving something practical, but sometimes it feels like what I’m really doing is trying to impose structure – with varying degrees of success – on an amorphous puddle of time. Turning the gloopy batter of our existence into a small, digestible pancake so that it might make the whole thing go down easier.

I have also been dancing to lots of Dua Lipa.

Cooking

Vegan mushroom stroganoff. I used the linked recipe as a basis but swapped out the oat cream for coconut milk, which made it slightly more saucy, but no less delicious.

The Quarantine Diaries, Week Two

Saturday 21 – Friday 27 March

Watching:

Had a Mike Nichols double-bill at the weekend in the form of The Birdcage (hilarious) and Primary Colours (gripping, poignant), and plan to follow-up with an Elaine May double-bill in the form of The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf soon.

Blasted through Season Three of The Americans. Some really dark and grisly moments in this one, and it was particularly good at exploring the trauma that comes with being a spy. It’s not all sex and gadgets.

SXSW have made all their short films available to watch and I’ve taken the opportunity to go to town. Some highlights below…

No Crying at the Dinner Table, directed by Carol Nguyen (doc); a painful, poignant, almost uncomfortably intimate exploration of family and memory, as Carol asks her parents to recall their experiences of growing up in Vietnam and her sister’s experience of being raised by them. They cover guilt, regret, sadness and of course, there is crying at the dinner table, but all the emotional tumult there is a stillness and composure that is really beautiful to watch.

Blocks, directed by Bridget Moloney (narrative); a surreal, existential comedy/polemic about a young mother who starts vomiting lego blocks.

Still Wylde, directed by Ingrid Haas (narrative); a charming, funny, sunny (until it suddenly gets very real and very sad) short about an on-off again couple reluctantly deciding to have a baby (until it doesn’t go to plan). Some great visual flourishes and a really candid script elevate this into quite the gut-punch of a film.

Reading:

I’ve started reading The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells which is as bleak as every review forewarned. I always task myself with reading these types of books, because it is urgent and vital that we stay informed, but trying to process all the figures and analogies and general notion of the Earth’s combustion isn’t easy. So I’m doing this in lots of little sips. But this passage has already left an imprint:

The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilisation, is now, like a parent, dead. And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, is not our bleak future in preview. It would be more precise to say that is is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us in a dustbin of environmental nostalgia. There is no longer any such thing as a natural disaster.

I’ve also been doing lots of thinking about how we should be reporting about the climate crisis in the same way as coronavirus. In my opinion, the pressure to wash your hands and stay home for the greater good of everyone should be the pressure you feel to live a plant-based lifestyle, or at least be making some kind of substantial change to your diet / routine / consumption that has the power to reduce carbon emissions. Emily Atkin’s HEATED newsletter sent out a particularly good edition that touches on how powerful a collective mindset that influences individual action can be, and how that might apply to our response to the climate crisis moving forward.

Ruby Tandoh’s zine on mental wellbeing, which she uploaded for people to read for free. I particularly enjoyed Anna Lenkiewicz’s essay on how culture has stigmatised the word ‘crazy’ and tended to direct that word towards women.

Plus Jia Tolentino interviews Barbara Ehrenreich on her raging feminism, her distrust of solidarity, craving connectedness, narcissism and coronavirus. Also Jia Tolentino on how writing compares to cooking pasta for Bon Appetit. I liked this:

It is the self-perpetuating solace of discovering, over and over, that you don’t need much—you hardly need any equipment, you can get it done in strange places—to be satisfied, or even, occasionally, thrilled.

Of course, the same goes for making and eating pasta.

Listening to:

In a bid to really immerse myself in the above reading material, I also listened to the Longform podcast episode with David Wallace Wells, who talks less about the content and the stats (thank god) and more about how he came to write the book and what the reception has been like.

This beautiful, meandering conversation between poet Mary Oliver and Krista Tippett about listening to the world, for On Being. It’s a spiritually, philosophically-inclined podcast and they seem to be resurfacing some of their archival episodes, including interviews with Rebecca Solnit and Ezra Klein that I plan to check out.

Grace by Jeff Buckley. God I love this album. Its shiver-inducing but feels like a blanket all at the same time. Lilac Wine is probably one of my favourite songs in the world. There’s also something really validating and certifying about returning to an album you’ve consecrated and finding that it still does something to you. I go to a different place when I listen to this music. So its ideal when you’re on day fourteen of being in your bedroom.

The episode of Table Manners with Riz Ahmed, who seems intense! Like one of those worldly, sage people who have crammed so many experiences into their life that when you sit them down to talk about it, it can be a bit overwhelming. But I liked his explanations of the Pakistani food he loves to eat, and how he grew up thinking pitta bread was Pakistani and not Greek because it was deemed a better alternative than supermarket-bought naan.

Doing:

Trying not to fall into a pit of despair. Making a list of all the films I want to to watch during quarantine. Worrying that I won’t get through them all and will have scuppered my chances of supreme cinematic literacy. Walking around the Woodberry and Watlhamstow Wetlands and listening to the ample birdsong and the breeze. Making lots of tasty food (see below). Definitely eating more calories than I’m burning and trying not to think too much about that. You need layers for quarantine like hibernation right?

Cooking:

Potato curry

Potato curry! I diced up three jacket potatoes I had in the cupboard and popped them in the slow cooker with a tin of tomatoes, a tin of coconut milk. Plus some frozen peas, some leftover green pepper and chopped coriander. I added in chilli, turmeric, fresh ginger, paprika, cumin and salt. Easy peasy and delicious.

This week I also made vegan banana bread with a made-up recipe from my head and it turned out rather brilliantly, but because I didn’t write any of the measurements down it’s a gamble as to whether that will ever happen again. If you have a sweet-tooth I would recommend adding in some dates or brown sugar, because this was fairly unsweet.

  • four browned bananas, blended with a dash of oat milk
  • about 75g of coconut flour
  • a cup of maple syrup
  • a generous dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg
  • fresh ginger
  • a tablespoon of cocoa powder
  • a teaspoon of baking powder

And on Sunday I did a roast dinner for one, which was equal parts elegant and a little bit sad. Food that good deserves to be seen and shared. I roasted my potatoes with some colourful chantenay carrots and had lots of purple sprouting broccoli. But the pièce de résistance was this marvellous nut roast, again a cupboard-fuelled concoction. I literally whacked all the ingredients in a big pot and 100ml of vegetable stock and hot water and let it simmer for about an hour, until it was soft. Then blitzed it up with a little bit of flour and popped it into a loaf tin and cooked for another 30-45 mins.

In future I would probably add a more diverse array of nuts, and I’ve seen recipes that add nut butters which I definitely wouldn’t be averse to but the apricots added a really nice bit of sweetness, so can recommend!

  • 3 chopped celery sticks
  • 2 chopped carrots
  • 250g cashew nuts
  • chopped coriander & parsley
  • 1 chopped beetroot
  • a handful of dried apricots
  • salt and pepper
  • a sprinkle of chilli flakes