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Filmmaker Alison Maclean Invites Students to The Rehearsal

Indie director to screen latest movie and speak at tonight’s Cinemathèque

When Alison Maclean speaks to students at the College of Communication tonight, the most important lesson she’s likely to impart to aspiring filmmakers is the necessity of persistence. Her latest feature, The Rehearsal, comes more than 15 years after her last, but she made the picture she wanted to make.

Maclean, the guest speaker at the latest in the BU Cinemathèque series, a COM program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to show and discuss their work, first made a splash at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival with her award-winning short, Kitchen Sink. She followed with the feature Crush in 1992. Her Jesus’ Son, starring Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton and based on the gritty short stories of writer Denis Johnson, bowed to acclaim in 1999. Tonight she’ll show her 2016 film The Rehearsal, a disquieting tale of acting students and a domineering teacher, starring two well-known New Zealand actors, James Rolleston and Kerry Fox. Rolleston, the young star of Boy and The Dark Horse, plays a student actor who makes a couple of bad choices, and Fox, who made her name as author Janet Frame in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table and in Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave opposite Ewan McGregor, plays the acting teacher.

The Rehearsal is “about young people in a state of becoming,” Maclean says. “It’s a lot of ambiguity—what’s real, what’s acting. What’s acting in real life and what’s acting for the stage, for film. It also deals with a sex scandal, and it’s topical in the sense that it’s about men taking advantage of women, but there’s also a woman who’s this very tyrannical acting teacher who engages in that. It’s a lot about power, really.”

Kieran Charnock (from left), James Rolleston, Michelle Ny, Alice Englert, and Scotty Cotter in The Rehearsal.

Kieran Charnock (from left), James Rolleston, Ny, Alice Englert, and Scotty Cotter in The Rehearsal. Photo by Mathew Klitscher

Maclean was born in Canada, moved to New Zealand as a teenager, and came to the United States once she started making films. She says The Rehearsal was her passion project, one that led her back to New Zealand, where it is easier to get a movie made, thanks to government film funding and what’s perhaps a more enlightened industry.

“The film industry there is little less out of whack than it is here,” she says. “They are making some very progressive steps to build into their funding structures that there has to be a certain percentage of women that are funded. And they were happy to see me come back and make something there.”

With Jesus’ Son well more than a decade behind her, Maclean felt that it was time to make a movie she really wanted to make. The film is adapted from a novel by New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton. A friend recommended it, pointing out that Catton had a similar bio—born in Canada, moved to Christchurch, then to America.

Maclean acknowledges that in Hollywood, she has stuck to scripts she wanted to make, rather that chasing box office popularity. She also thinks a male director would have found his star rising in Hollywood after the positive critical reception of Jesus’ Son, while she continued to struggle to get projects green-lighted.

Filmmaker Alison Maclean

Filmmaker Alison Maclean made her film The Rehearsal in New Zealand, where women are better situated in the film industry and some productions are government-funded. Photo courtesy of Alison Maclean

“It’s just been massively frustrating to me for so long,” she says. “But I’ve had a project, which I still intend to make, that has two female leads and one is a woman of color, and it is a domestic story. And the general feedback when taking that script out was, while not outright a mark against it, none of those things are considered assets.”

With the controversies over sexual harassment and immigration in the news, Maclean is hoping to see more interest in her most recent project, a story about women and immigration. It’s about class and race, specifically the relationship between a couple and an undocumented Jamaican nanny. “The working title is Yes and No,” she says. “It’s about mixed feelings.”

Maclean says she’s pleased that discussions about gender have come to dominate Hollywood. “I hope that there’s some kind of systemic change,” she says. “It’s very difficult for not just directors, but female directors of photography and other skilled women in the film industry. They just have a hard time getting the same traction that men have had forever. And it’s hard to change those things, because it requires certain people to relinquish a little power, and nobody really wants to.”

So, what exactly does a talented woman director do while she’s waiting to get a film up and running? Maclean has been making a living as a TV director, helming episodes of shows from The Adventures of Pete and Pete to Sex and the City and from The Tudors to Gossip Girl.

In Hollywood, she says, you don’t get to pick which projects you work on. “You’re lucky if you can pick much at all,” she says. “You have to follow your strengths, but also follow what you love. You’ve got to try and make the things you really love and care about. But sometimes you have to also make something that is the opposite of a passion project, because who knows what it could lead to?”

Alison Maclean will show The Rehearsal and talk about life in the film industry tonight, February 16, at 7 pm at the College of Communication, Room 101, as part of COM’s Cinemathèque series. The event is free and open to the public.

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Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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