Gossip Girl Director Speaks at COM Tonight
Cinematheque series brings filmmakers to campus
Alison Maclean is one of those rare directors who has made a name for herself creating original, offbeat indie films while also directing episodes of some of network and cable television’s most successful shows. She will share her unique experience and perspective tonight at the BU Cinematheque series, a College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.
“Alison Maclean is an extraordinary feature filmmaker whose vision might just be too intelligent and artistic for today’s mercenary Hollywood,” says Gerald Peary, a COM lecturer in the film and television department and longtime film critic for The Phoenix. “I’m curious to see how such a visionary talent negotiates the world of television. TV has been much kinder to bright, talented women filmmakers than the studios have. BU film students seem as attracted to making television as they are to directing films.”
Maclean, who was raised in Canada and New Zealand, first garnered attention with her 1989 short Kitchen Sink. The imaginative 14-minute horror film opens with a young woman pulling a piece of hair out of her kitchen sink. She keeps tugging, and in the process pulls out something terrifying (and hairy). The critically acclaimed short was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Her 1992 feature-length film Crush, starring Marcia Gay Harden, was also nominated for the Palme d’Or. She followed that project with her 1999 film Jesus’ Son, starring Billy Crudup and Jack Black, a story about young man’s redemption following a life of crime and drug addiction. That film was nominated for the Grand Prix at the Paris Film Festival, and won the Little Golden Lion and OCIC Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Those two films established Maclean as a director with an unusual eye. It wasn’t long before television came calling, and in the last decade, she has been busy directing episodes of Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, The Tudors, and The L Word.
BU Today spoke to Maclean about her career, the directors who inspire her, and her advice for students hoping to break into film directing.
BU Today: Crush and Jesus’ Son were critically praised and appeared at film festivals like Cannes and Sundance. What impact did they have on your career?
Maclean: They opened some doors, definitely, but I would say that a short I did before either of those opened more. I did a short called Kitchen Sink and that sort of indirectly led to me coming to New York. I got an agent, and I had a development deal with Touchstone Pictures and they paid my overheads for a year. That changed everything for me.
It’s about seizing those moments. I didn’t have another project ready to go, and neither of those films earned much at the box office. It was more about gaining a certain respect in critical circles, but it didn’t translate into people lining up to make your next project.
As a freelance director, how do you approach directing episodes of shows that are already well established, like Sex and the City or Gossip Girl?
I always watch every single episode leading up to the one I am going to do to immerse myself. Then I try and get a sense of the style, the vocabulary, and look at what episodes stand out at as being very strong, whether that is visually or dramatically. I ask myself why I consider them to be good, why I think they are better than other episodes. You have to analyze them, and some definitely stand out, and you have to learn from the good ones in a way. My own preparation is scene by scene, and I try to have an idea of something that will make the scene interesting. That might be an idea in the blocking, or a key image, or finding the main event or turning point, and try and prepare myself for what I might say to the actors.
The interesting thing, when you direct a show that’s been going on for awhile, is that the actors are so much more deeply involved with the characters and their history, so they are way ahead of you, the director, who is just coming in. You have to rely on their instincts and their memory and what they have done before. You are guided by them.
It’s quite intimidating in a way, and you have to do your own prep without necessarily knowing some of the tricks of how to streamline things.
Can you give an example?
I directed an episode of the HBO show Carnivàle, and I really liked one of the episodes directed by Rodrigo García, the same man who did In Treatment and Six Feet Under. He is a wonderful director, and was the main director of Carnivàle. His episodes always stood out. They were elegant and simple, but the storytelling was very clear, and the episodes were beautifully blocked and just seemed effortless. I tried to mimic that.
Does your approach to directing change based on the project?
I guess. With Gossip Girl, for instance, you are filming eight pages a day, and so fast. A lot of that is about how to block. It’s technically very challenging to do that, so you go through the set over and over and with the director of photography. You try to figure out where people are and if they are moving, and how to cover that in a very efficient way that is still interesting. Last summer I did a Canadian television show called Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, a very original comedy and drama. With that show, I had much more freedom to put my own stamp on it. I could prepare for it a little bit more, like I was doing a film. It could be a little odder, which is my own particular taste.
Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
In the States, Gus Van Sant and the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson. There are a lot of Europeans, like Claire Denis, the German director Christian Petzold, a Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Julia Loktev, director of a great film called The Loneliest Planet. She makes films that are very low budget, but she is an artist.
You directed the music video “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia. I heard that you didn’t let her know when you were filming. Is this true?
I got the idea for that while visiting an actor friend on the set of a big studio movie. I was just waiting for her and sitting by the monitor, which is what I’m used to doing. Somehow I just became fascinated with that monitor, which is on all the time, so it’s capturing wherever the camera is pointing. Sometimes it’s very planned, like when you are shooting a frame, but otherwise it’s everything in between.
So I had the idea to use a camera and build a set around it. It was really fun. There were certain things we knew we were going to do, like sing the song, and we prearranged story fragments. After awhile, we would turn the camera on or off. Natalie wouldn’t know if we were filming, and I’d make her do normal things, like do her hair. It was a really fun process.
What are you working on now?
I did a short for the first time in years, and it was completely liberating. It is so exciting to do something that is my own project. It’s adapted from an Olivia Davis short story about a college professor who dreams of marrying a cowboy. I shot that earlier this year, and I’m editing it right now. I’m prepping a low-budget feature I hope will shoot in January, and I’m also in the early stages of planning another feature that I will shoot in New Zealand, and also doing commercials.
What advice do you have for students?
Everyone has to find their own path; there is no set way. The main thing I would say is keep making things, keep shooting, and follow the thing that you really care about and try to make something particular. Always have that pragmatic side, an inkling of what can be done simply and cheaply. I know so many people, including myself, who get so bogged down in ambitious projects that finally don’t happen. Five or ten years can go by and you’re still trying to work on something. I’ve done that, and that is one of my regrets. But I’ve had the experience of making a short film that has been life-changing. Even directing webisodes, which is what [HBO’s Girls creator and star] Lena Dunham did early in her career, can be useful. If you have a voice and something unique or particular to offer as a filmmaker and artist, that can get seen and capture attention and lead to something else.
Shows including Gossip Girl and Sex and the City will be screened tonight, Friday, September 28, at 7 p.m., followed by a talk by Alison Maclean, at COM, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinematheque series, is free and open to the public.3 Comments