Elisabeth Subrin on A WOMAN, A PART, And Feminist Art in The Trump Era
words by me; image courtesy of Sahid Limon
There is no shortage of questions in the age of Trump: How can we care for Trans kids? Help protect women’s rights? Stand alongside immigrants and refugees? Filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin is delving deep into one particular feminist niche that stands apart: actresses. Her feature-length film debut, simply (and aptly) titled, A WOMAN, A PART, follows Anna Baskin (played by Maggie Siff of “Mad Men” and “Billions” fame) as she ditches her life in Hollywood as a successful actress to return to New York and rediscover herself. In the words of Subrin herself, it’s a reckoning, and one that will touch not only the women who watch it but the men, as well. And Subrin is no stranger to the space of feminist media: she’s already established herself as an art world mainstay, producing such shorts as Shulie and The Caretakers, as well as Le Tigre’s “Well Well Well” music video. A WOMAN, A PART, it seems, is just her latest in a series of eloquent accomplishments.
Milk.xyz sat down with Subrin on the eve of the film’s premiere (it’s out today at the IFC Center in New York), to talk how the film came to fruition, what it means to create feminist art in the Trump era, and who Subrin’s set her eyes on next for an upcoming experimental biopic. Peep the trailer for A WOMAN, A PART below, then keep scrolling for our full interview.
I’d love to start with your initial inspiration for A WOMAN, A PART. How did you get from there to a fully formed feature film?
Yeah, it’s strange. The way the film began was out of another film which wasn’t about an actress at all. But through a really labyrinthian process, the first film that I was working on was a much more expensive film and I got so obsessed with the actress to the point where the other script disappeared. So I had to figure out why I’d make a film about an actress, because there have been plenty made already. I had been asked about this a lot and Maggie [Siff] even asked, “Who cares about actresses?”. So the blog [Who Cares About Actresses?] that I started was kind of the way that I worked it out for myself. And I’ve always made films about female representation, and women characters that have been marginalized or pushed to the side of history and culture, mostly kind of experimental biopics. I realized that in a meta way, a woman playing a woman is the most direct representation of a woman ever, if that makes sense. They’re pretty much emissaries to culture of what a woman should be. And so, if those roles are written, directed, financed, shot, exhibited, reviewed by, and consumed primarily by white men of a certain age and orientation, then it’s a super limited vision of what a woman is in culture that’s transmitted globally. So for me to tell the story of an actress, where she’s really struggling with the consequences of playing this reductive role in television and what it’s done to her psyche, her body, her mind and that she’s kind of becoming this character, it’s rare. Her life kind of seems empty in the same way [as her character], so she goes back to New York and the rest of the film is really opening up Pandora’s Box about her past relationships that she kind of has to work through to carve a new path for herself. Indiewire said, “This is how you make a feminist film about actresses,” and Strand has been using that as a tagline. And initially I was like, “Do we really want to use that?” But then I realized that really, the biggest feminist story about Hollywood is to take the actress out of Hollywood, and having her leave, taking off, is the most feminist film about Hollywood: just the fact that she leaves.
That was my biggest takeaway—just how much of being a female is performing for others, and how this woman Anna is literally an actress.
Right, right. Susan Sontag said this amazing thing which I found when I was starting to work on the blog: “To be a woman is to be an actress.” So you totally nailed it in this question of performance. The amount of performance of what your standard fare woman in culture has to do to be acceptable.
What experiences that Anna has in the film have you also experienced or witnessed in the lives of other women you know? Did you pull anything from your own life to build her character and her storyline?
So much, and it’s embarrassing, but I feel it’s important to be honest about it. I mean it’s ironic because I’m not an actress at all, I’m a horrible actor and I didn’t go to film school; I studied in art school and my background is in much more experimental work, so it took me a while to figure out what I was so obsessed with. I started realizing that I was putting a lot of my personal issues into her life, but hers on a much bigger landscape, and hers were much more dramatic. So I had some really serious autoimmune diseases, which I think emerged because I was pushing myself too hard, and I got into a place in my early 40’s where I was like, “Ok, so I have a real job, I can make a living, I have had some recognition in the teeny spaces of the film world that I occupy. I’m doing okay, and yet I’m struggling with autoimmune diseases, I don’t have a child,” you know? It sounds like a cliché, but that typical New York “What the fuck have I done with myself?” question. And the fantasy of rewriting your life, of thinking what if I walked away from everything. Is that an escape route? Kind of like hoping we can impeach Trump, like a lazy escape route where I don’t want to do the work. I mean how amazing would that be if I just walked off my own set. So, I played that out with her and in particular, figuring out the ending for her was really hard. So how do I answer this question, “Can you change?” Because that’s really what the question is. You know, this is your typical indie fare Sundance film, and your character would realize something at the end and change. So I had a lot of questions about, can you change, how fast do you change, can someone at 40 change? So, there you go.
Do you feel like if you seal her fate too much, your fate is also sealed? Do you feel that closely tied to the character?
Well, it’s interesting, I talk to my students about this in screenwriting classes a lot, that when you first start writing about your characters, they’re all going to have your voice—the cadence, the rhythm, the point of view, the psychology, it takes work. And at a certain point, I really wanted to separate myself from Anna, which meant researching actresses and really learning from them. Why do you act? You know, it’s such a vulnerable, intense thing, to put your body and soul in front of other people all the time, on screen, and to trust other people that it’ll be okay, that the truth you’re looking for in your role will work. So, I had to find a way as a writer and director, to be honest to the ideas I was thinking about, but infusing them with the truth of the character, too. So, I’d say it’s somewhere in between. I’ll say the ending is honest, but that’s the most I’ll say.
How cathartic is the whole process, once you’re done? Does it help you answer those questions of change in your own life?
Yeah, I think it does. It’s hard to answer that because I don’t want to spoil the film, but the film is a reckoning. And in terms of the questions about workaholism and themes about how can you be present, how can you be real, will play out in Kate’s world as well, as an antidote to Anna’s world. Kate stopped being an actress, and is on kind of a spiritual journey, and in many ways represents somebody who has already made that choice of authenticity. I kind of offer three different directions based on Kate, Isaac, and Anna, and so I think I’m exploring those truths through all three of them. It felt cathartic to finish it, it felt profoundly cathartic, but you go in cycles. You finish it and it’s cathartic, then you put it out in the world and it’s chaos, then you do all this work to have it be seen, which in many ways is more self-marketing, outreach, PR; it’s work. So I think when I really feel the catharsis is when I’m like, “OK, the show is on Netflix, it’s being seen, we’re done, I don’t have to keep working to have it be seen.” Because, you know, making an indie art film about characters over 40, by a first time female director, with a feminist view, is not an easy path. But I definitely think—to be specific about the catharsis and the choices I’ll be making in the next project I do, especially in relation to the situation we found in the country right now—the next project will be related in response to what I’ve gone through in my life and the ideas I’ve explored in the film.
So on that note of politics—do you feel that artists such as yourself have an obligation to comment, or use their platform to speak out?
I remember it being talked about a lot by artists during the Bush era, and historically, we can think about all of the amazing movements, like Act Up, where they found ways to integrate art and creative practices with political practices. I actually feel different than some people who say that you have an absolute obligation to make your work explicitly about politics. I feel like my labor around the political situation is diffused directly by political activism, and that my art is my art. I think that my work is political in terms of the gender and representation issues that all of my work has explored, and that’s where my battle is.
The next project I’m working on is a biopic—probably a somewhat experimental biopic—about the late actress, Maria Schneider, who was in Last Tango in Paris when she was 19, and how the consequences of being in that film really played out through most of her life. She talked about feeling raped by the choices that Bertolucci and Brando made in this intimate scene and Bertolucci talking about it has recently resurfaced and everyone has been freaking out. So on the one hand, I’m choosing a period piece around a time period that I’ve always been obsessed with—the 70s—both for its politics and culture and frankly, its aesthetics, and on the other hand, it’s going to be about rape and sexual abuse, and the consequences of being in front of the camera as a woman. So I feel like I’m allowing myself in this project to both be an artist who wants to dig into things that give me pleasure, while at the same time, digging into things that are dark and uncomfortable and tragically still relevant to right now, particularly, with the Trump era that I see as a rape culture—both literally and metaphorically.
So in that conversation about feminism and rape culture, what do you hope to contribute to the conversation that’s already happening?
That’s a really big question. I guess to me, it’s horrifying that we’re looking back forty years later—even sixty years later, if we talk about the infancy of the feminine movement, or we can go even further with the suffragettes—and we’re still talking about the same thing. What’s going on politically in our culture right now is so terrifying, and the exclusionary practices, not just in terms of gender but in race, ability, class, orientation; it’s so hard to answer what I want to say because we’re in the middle of what seems to be a political, social, cultural coup, and that’s why I don’t feel ready to directly address this era. But the exploitation of women’s bodies metaphorically and literally and the anger I feel around that, and the outrage and disbelief that this is still going on will be an energy that’s infused. But I want to make art; my politics can be expressed through direct political action.
When I started A WOMAN, A PART, I could not believe that I was making a film about an actress, and I talked to a lot my friends about, “How can I make a film about Maria Schneider?” when I had already made a film about an actress. One thing that I believe as an artist is that you really have to believe in your instinct and if it keeps coming up, if you keep having an impulse to walk down a certain road, you have to do it even if you get down that road and you realize, “Okay, that was wrong.” I wrote a whole script, this other script, and I worked on it for years and after Trump was elected, I just threw it out, it just wasn’t relevant anymore.
Did you feel a sense of loss?
Totally. When I think about all the things I didn’t do because I was trying to learn how to write a screenplay, and all of the drafts and all of the efforts that my producer and I went through to get it financed…you know, what a supportive friend would say is that so much of that probably affected your ability to write A WOMAN, A PART, and make it, but I believe what every screenwriter says about every script: that you’re relearning the process. But you know, life is hard, and there’s always time wasted and it wasn’t like I didn’t make other films during the time period.
So since the film is premiering today, what do you hope to evoke or spark in your audience? What conversation do you want them to have when they’re leaving the theatre?
That’s a question that filmmakers get a lot, and it’s really a spot-on question. It’s like, if you don’t know the answer to that, then what are you doing? But I find it so hard to answer. I want to share a response to the film that I found incredibly moving, which I guess is what I want. I was showing the film at the American Film Festival in Poland, it was a full house and an amazing audience, and I was really distracted because there was this row of Polish teenagers in the front row. They just looked like these cool 15 or 16-year-olds, and I could just not understand why they were there. They had these beaming looks on their faces when they sat down and then these really intense riveted looks during the film. And finally in the middle of the Q&A I said, “I have to turn this around and ask you guys why you’re here.” And one of them said, “The film really moved me because I’m a senior in high school and I feel so much pressure all the time to do all these things and I realized watching your films that I don’t know what I’m doing, or why I’m doing it, or who I am. It makes me feel really angry and I really have to spend time figuring that out and listening to myself more.” The intensity in which she said it was just so beautiful, and when I was thinking about her parents, being in a communist regime, and their kids having a lot more opportunities, and Western kids, the pressure she was feeling was exactly the pressure I felt in high school, and yet I didn’t have the awareness at that age to ask myself, “What am I doing? Am I doing what my parents are telling me to do or can I actually hear myself?” And a lot of the kids came up to me and talked to me, including boys who told me they cried during the movie. Never make assumptions about your audience. It was so moving, so I guess, thanks to this girl, I would say that I want people to come out of the theatre allowing themselves to ask, “What am I doing? Do I really feel okay about it? Is there the possibility of digging deeper?” I want them to think about the ideas of gender and representation and I want them to be comforted about the challenges of changing and how difficult it is so that they’re easier on themselves, and I just want them to say, “That’s beautiful and deep and I want to see it again.” To me, that’s a sign of a good work of art, if you want to see it again and keep thinking about it.