Film In Conversation
Ashley McKenzie with Joseph Pomp
Ashley McKenzie has a thematic interest in a romantic mode of neurochemistry in her latest film.
Queens of the Qing Dynasty
Ashley McKenzie is without a doubt one of the most original and vital North American filmmakers to emerge in the last ten years. Her debut feature, Werewolf, captured the hangdog peregrinations of a methadone-dependent couple in McKenzie’s native Unama’ki-Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2016, it went on a critically acclaimed world tour that included a weeklong residency at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. Her sophomore feature, Queens of the Qing Dynasty (2022), is also a two-hander but could not be more different otherwise, as a ludic reverie on sexual nonconformity, coping with mental illness and everyday imaginary powers. We met at TIFF, where Queens made its North American premiere, before coming to the New York Film Festival. It will return on US screens sometime this year.
Joseph Pomp (Rail): I know that you spend an incredible amount of time editing your films.
Ashley McKenzie: I brought my cinematographer Scott Moore on as a co-editor of Queens of the Qing Dynasty because of the massive amount of footage. The script for Werewolf was half as long. I think the editing process took about a year and a half. So much of what I’m trying to communicate has to do with all the detail work, all the sound design work. Sound design and mixing ended up being about a two-month process.
Rail: Were you listening to music by the composers you use in the film while you were writing, and did that at all inspire the rhythm of the dialogue and scenes?
McKenzie: Yes, that’s totally what happened. I was listening to Sophie Xeon’s music a lot. I was a bit mesmerized by the sounds in it, and read that Sophie used a Monomachine synthesizer, which basically allowed for the creation of sound design. My co-editor at one point brought a Suzanne Ciani song into the film, and then I thought about her using a Buchla, which was seen not as an instrument but a computer or something. The fact that these machines were so ahead of their time––or just communicated differently enough––that people didn’t know how to receive them reminded me so much of both these characters.
Rail: I love that you thematize something in this film that was already apparent in the style of Werewolf—your interest in neurochemistry. Could you talk a little bit about your interest in chemistry and how that affects the way you think about what is happening in the editing room, and of course on set too?
McKenzie: Yeah, I’m really glad that you noticed that. Just over breakfast today, I spent the whole time talking about early childhood development and neurochemistry. I think it comes from a place of trying to understand some of the challenges that I see people in my community face, like mental illness and addiction, and different ways that people have learned to cope with struggles and trauma and poverty. At a certain point, I started to look at that stuff through the lens of neurochemistry and brain development, and it made a lot of sense to me. It was there in Werewolf, but I did bring it in in a more explicit, conscious way in Queens. I like the way that Star really knows what she needs, how her brain operates, that she needs dopamine, and she’s able to talk about it. But she really can’t get it from an institutionalized form of care.
Rail: An amazing thing about the way the film is structured is that in the end you’re almost narrativizing how she arrives at the kind of care she needs. It starts in a very clinical setting and evolves toward something more interpersonal.
McKenzie: Yeah, and thinking about neurochemistry, taking it out of a health-specific mode and almost into a romantic mode. Just thinking of humans and how we connect on a chemical level––there are a lot of things that make us different. With characters coming from such different backgrounds, it felt fun to play with the idea that they’re all made of the same matter to some degree. They find a way to connect.
Rail: One of the great stigmas around mental health is the idea that people struggling with it don’t want help or are in denial. There’s something pretty iconoclastic in putting forward a character who is so acutely self-aware. What was it like to direct an actor in this role?
McKenzie: I really connected with both actors on a human level. And the people that inspired the characters are people that I respect a lot and think are brilliant. I see how society has read them completely wrong in a lot of ways. I think connecting them with the actors was probably the most useful thing in helping the actors develop performances that are, I guess, a bit more authentic. Sarah Walker, who plays Star, has a really good ear for languages and, in a very quick amount of time, absorbed the rhythm of my friend’s speech and way of being in the world. With Ziyin Zheng, who plays An, the preparation was more about getting them to feel comfortable on camera, and making sure that the way I saw them being in the real world could continue when a camera was placed in front of them.
Rail: Werewolf and Queens almost feel like gifts to the characters themselves. Werewolf is spare and direct, like those protagonists’ lives, oriented just toward the next methadone dose. And Queens thinks through its protagonists’ greatest desires, and basically fulfills them. And of course, in the process, we benefit too as viewers. It seems like this is the ethics of filmmaking for you.
McKenzie: Yeah, I want everyone to be happy [laughs]. I’m so curious about people, and I meet so many people in my community I’m just in awe of. When I bond with people, it’s often on the basis of me being truly intrigued and wanting the world to see them and care for them in a way that I think they truly deserve. My films grow out of that kind of relation, I think. The scripts start as a dialogue between myself and someone that inspires me. At a certain point, I remove my own place in that dialogue and let two different characters speak to one another.
Rail: Do you mean this literally, or more that your relationship with these people inspires your thinking about scripts you’ll later write?
McKenzie: It gets very blurry actually. I can be going through a life experience with a person and then at a certain point I start to write it, or the opposite: I write something and then that thing will happen six months later. Or something happens in that relationship or something I’m witness to, and I’ll integrate that into the script. But in both films there have been very definitive moments where something I’ve written will manifest after the fact.
Rail: Is there an example from this film you can share?
McKenzie: A few minutes after we were finished shooting, my friend who inspired Star reached out to me and said that an international student had proposed that they marry in order to get citizenship. Also, when we used to hang out, she would call attention to the fact I was their gay friend, that I had a girlfriend. By the time we were done with the film, she had a girlfriend, and now has a baby with her girlfriend. All that happened, and then after the fact, I remember her asking me what LBGTQ means! We’re in this bubble, where we would never think that there are people just living their most authentic lives without a hyper-awareness of identity issues and having language for it. I see Star in the film as going through a conversion away from heteronormativity, and I witnessed that happen. We all have such nuanced feelings and experiences inside, but we’re all hiding, or suppressing so much of ourselves. That’s what I love about how Star and An interact in the film, just pure attunement, asking a question and listening, and how much that can allow someone to open up for the first time. So many people don’t ever have the opportunity to have that dialogue. That can totally transform your life, just to have an honest conversation where someone’s giving you the space to express yourself. That attunement, I think, is what fuels my filmmaking practice.
Rail: A lot of Star and An’s playfulness comes from language, and their main platform for that kind of play is social media, or just their phones in general. I really like the way you’d let text messages take over the whole frame. In a way, having technology front and center here is the most obvious difference from Werewolf, where we’d just occasionally see a TV in the margins. Was deciding this hard for you at all?
McKenzie: A little bit. I knew I wanted to include technology but I wanted to open it up, abstract it a little bit. I definitely saw with the people who inspired the film how having a phone is a lifeline. There have been times where the ones who inspired Star didn’t have a phone, and just having that one way to communicate with someone was so critical. I’m always struck by people’s creativity, and I see that in text messages I receive from people, or in everyday conversation, and I can just see how if you were in a different life situation, you could be expressing yourself in a book of poetry, or be an actor. I notice this generative ability in people that I wanted to really highlight, and see An and Star develop a language together. They establish patterns and build a story together. In a lot of ways, the film was kind of me trying to get out of their way and let them tell their own story.
Rail: There’s a way in which their relationship is itself a great performance. They’re trying out roles in each other’s lives, especially An, who doesn’t naturally fit into Star’s life at all, not because they’re an immigrant, but because Star is romanticizing their relationship, and it’s obvious that An doesn’t see any romantic potential between them but nevertheless is very down to think about the chemistry they have together. I remember writing down “queer intimacy.”
McKenzie: Yeah. Each character is coming from a place of loneliness and deprivation, and they’re so desperately looking to connect, they’re willing to receive a connection that doesn’t take a normative path. I feel like there is romance between them––Star says she’s asexual, An clearly articulates what their sexual attractions are, and it’s not toward Star, but I still feel like there’s romance in their relationship, in the way that I think of romance, which is just mixing chemicals, or having a chemical connection, as Star describes it. It did make me think about queer platonic relationships. There’s a book by Angela Chen, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, that really breaks down compulsory sexuality. And I just think anything now that can remind us of the vast degree of human variation that exists is to me so wanted.
Rail: What’s so amazing about the film is you don’t give a reason for why these two people come together; they just collide into one another’s lives. But I’m curious about whether you thought maybe in a past life there was something that binds them together? Of course, you made this very bold title choice that could imply they share a link to Chinese antiquity.
McKenzie: Ziyin has very specific experiences of their past lives and the way they were embodied. I came to understand that their experience of this lifetime is just one sliver of a lot that they can remember, and the way they understand their embodiment right now is informed by the fact that they can remember their past ones and assume they’ll have future ones. When you feel like this isn’t everything, then maybe it affects how you choose to move through this lifetime. That is something they have communicated to me, and I did try to play with that in tiny ways throughout the film. I noticed that they enjoy conceptualizing themselves in different forms––lizard forms, feline forms, vampire forms––so there are tiny touches, like in the restaurant scene, the green shirt An has on is kind of reptilian, or at the beginning of the film, when they’re in a black turtleneck, with concubine nails, it almost had a Nosferatu-ish thing. In Star and An’s relationship, it felt exciting to remember that, again, on a chemical level all that matter can transcend space, time, history, or be connected in a little bit more of a… celestial way.