It’s been a year and many days since Morrissey released ‘California Son’, his tremendous ‘covers’ album where he set about repurposing some of his own personal favourite tracks. By doing so he gave older admirers as well as younger fans the chance to discover or rediscover artists and older songs we may have missed or forgotten about.
At the time the record seemed a kind of stop-gap, a filler perhaps, which tickled a thirst I thought would only later be satisfied by a new and original record; the subsequent ‘I Am Not A Dog On A Chain’ release. Coming from an artist so virile in originality, Morrisey’s ‘California Son’ wasn’t enough for me, I thought at the time. I wanted new Moz, new lyrics, new controversy to defend, new meaning to obsess and to ponder over, new – and at the same time, older – philosophy to lust after.
These days, the more I listen to Morrissey’s ‘Son’ (perhaps a take on Ramones’ own ‘Son’ record), and the more I listen to the originals from which the songs came, I struggle to believe what Moz has done with them. Tracks like Bob Dylan’s ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ stand-alone as a beautifully written tune that Morrissey manages to amplify and take to new and profound places, with the benefit of his own thundering backing band. Then there’s ‘It’s Over’, the Roy Orbison song that Morrissey again amplifies and gives fresh meaning to. ‘Wedding Bell Blues’, even with Green Days’ Billy Joe Armstrong on backing vocals, is truly momentous, joyous, and arguably the most uplifting song our dear allegedly ‘morose’ Morrissey has ever produced.
‘Lady Willpower’, ‘Lenny’s Tune’ and ‘Suffer the Little Children’ again sound unrecognizable from their origins – and again, again, again – it’s those origins and the unrecognizable brilliance on show in ‘California Son’ that younger listeners like myself have been able to discover and compare. But then with ‘California Son’ at times, there seems little to compare to, given the depth, reinvention and general majesty of the versions here.
The album’s final track – the cover of Melanie’s ‘Some Say I Got Devil’ – tops the lot. Needless to say, I was unaware of the original but have since listened. All I shall say is that Morrissey’s version is damning, apocalyptic, and utterly profound.
Upon release ‘California Son’ was given the usual treatment by reviewers directed to focus, by editorial agreement, on miscontrued issues found in Morrissey’s own personal opinions, rather than musical or artistic endeavour. But the truth is, from sheer artistry, the record is up there with the man’s greatest work. A belated ‘bravo’ is in order.
Lovers of rock music will very likely have heard of the Grateful Dead, but their reaction often veers from musical obsession to scorn. Some consider them the greatest band to have walked the earth. Others dismiss it as long, noodle-y and aimless in its form; just Jerry Garcia running scales up and down the guitar. However, there was undoubtedly something special about this band.They consistently created a beautiful, transcendent quality in their music I rarely seem to find anywhere except jazz. The band were highly indebted to that genre as well as countless other forms of American music.
I discovered the Grateful Dead, funnily enough, through an episode of the cult sitcom Freaks and Geeks. When the protagonist Lindsay is feeling down, her guidance counsellor gives her an LP of their classic album American Beauty. Listening to it alone in her room, her spirits are almost immediately lifted. Despite being fictional, this scene really resonated with my experience and probably countless others. If I’m feeling sad, the music of the Grateful Dead is almost always the perfect antidote. It’s partly this emotional reaction within people, including myself, that has consistently created fanatics of their music for almost fifty years.
The band had their roots in the San Francisco sound and counterculture of the late 1960s, but unlike many of their contemporaries they transformed their sound rapidly, going into the ‘70s. Trying to categorise their innumerable influences is tough, but in their first ten years they deftly incorporated psychedelic rock, blues, country, folk and jazz into one cohesive sound. Succinct and sweet melodies of Americana are clear on the studio album American Beauty, but it was their live shows where they really shined. In their early years they could easily exceed three hours, leading to a common saying amongst fans that ‘there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert’.
It’s a listening experience that is often genuinely exciting, surprising and emotionally powerful. Their shorter songs display some incredible songwriting, in terms of both music and lyrics. Robert Hunter, a non-performing member of the band, wrote the lyrics to most of the band’s original songs. I would rank him up there with Bob Dylan in the evocative power of his writing. He had a great ability to tell stories that reach into the distant past but still touch on an ever-present human condition. He also conjured up many mystical lyrical abstractions that perfectly complemented the band’s early psychedelic forays.
The longer, improvised pieces the Grateful Dead are well known for also evoke a kind of fleeting beauty for me. Like many jazz groups they would extend solos over chord progressions to slowly tease out new musical ideas in the moment. In their early years they also became incredibly adept at improvising together without a specific form or structure. Each band member effectively playing a ‘lead’ instrument and responding to each other’s changes almost instantaneously to create magnificent, intense peaks and introspective, exploratory troughs. To paraphrase bassist Phil Lesh, they became fingers on a hand; moving separately, but always in relation to the others.
Their concerts became places where the barrier between audience and band was broken down, with every person in the room collectively experiencing the same transcendent and entirely unplanned moment. Intertwined with this experience, and the very existence of the band itself, was LSD. The band solidified their direction through performing at Ken Kesey’s famous Acid Tests in 1966. It was a drug that epitomised feelings of transcendence, breaking down barriers between the self and the external world, and being completely in the present moment.
Despite never having seen them or their music performed live, I’ve found myself increasingly obsessed with no end in sight. Almost all of their live performances are available to listen in high quality, for free, on archive.org. There’s virtually an endless amount of music to listen to, and since the band evolved their sound so frequently, it’s easy to understand how one gets hooked. They were well known for never performing a song exactly the same way twice.
The fans of this band are overwhelmingly white, American, and somewhere between the age of 40 and 70. I’ve noticed I fail to fall into any of these categories, yet I think the fact that I have become such a fervent listener speaks volumes about the music itself. I often find the massive subculture surrounding the band quite cheesy and typically American, but still, I can’t deny the brilliance I so often find in the music itself. My passion for this band far eclipses any of the musical phases I had in the past, and I can definitely see it continuing many years to come. I hope my rantings and ravings have inspired some to give them a closer listen, because getting sucked down the rabbit hole is well worth it.
Seattle’s Celene ‘Leeni’ Ramadan is a vivacious talent who has her fingers in many cherry pies. As the lead singer of Prom Queen, Leeni delves deep into the ‘Americana’ dream, combing light and darkness with cinematic retro pop, a genre we can safely now label as ‘Doom-wop’. Prom Queen’s last album tells us as much. It’s an ever-evolving style but put simply, it can perhaps be best described as rockabilly combined with Albert Camus’ ready-made blend of existential despair.That’s my take, at least, and Leeni agrees, so there you go.
In a (another lengthy Felten Ink) interview, we discuss Leeni’s music in Prom Queen, overcoming the nerves to get onstage, what ‘Doom-wop’ actually means, as well as her comedy career – where she dresses up in a bunny costume. I wanted to ask if she was drawn to the ‘Furries’ lifestyle but my manners (and cowardice) kicked in.
To begin, we obviously address the fucking Covid-19 fiasco.
Leeni – have you ever had a near-death experience? (Interviews sometimes need an ice breaker)
Wow, that’s certainly an ice breaker! I can’t recall any scary brushes with death but one could argue that life itself is a near-death experience.
Do you believe in God, religion or the supernatural?
I believe in universal energy waves and connectivity between all things. I don’t subscribe to any religion. It’s a loose belief system, but I acknowledge that I believe in something connecting us all.
Given our current circumstances, how are you coping with the lockdown situation?
My experience has been very eventful: lots of family, personal, and logistical shifts have occurred during this time as well as work and some creative stuff. It has not been dull, in fact, I hope it gets a little duller for me. Everything hard is just *that* much harder to right now.
What are you missing the most and what is your current routine like?
I do miss live music, both the performing of it and the experience of it. But I mostly miss people and travel. I am pretty well cut off here and this is a city full of people I love so dearly. I just want to see them again and share space with them and to hear about their lives outside the confines of their homes. My lockdown life is not incredibly dissimilar from my regular life. As a freelancer and artist, I often find myself with big swaths of unstructured time, and my habits were formed many years ago as to how I prefer to deal with it. I love to spend a lot of time outdoors listening to podcasts during the day. I love to run and go for long walks. And then, if I am feeling inspired to create I go to my studio, and there I can either make music, or do something with video or comedy, or dance. I used to paint velvet paintings and I have been toying with getting back into that during lockdown.
How has your ability to make a livelihood been affected?
Like I say I am a freelance video editor and a composer. For both, I’ve been able to work during lockdown and that is a great thing. I’ve never been a musician who relies on live shows or any aspect of my music career to pay my bills. Just out of necessity, I’ve always worked. I feel lucky to have a career outside of music that helps support me at this time. Every once in a while, my music career takes over and I get a great gig or something and it feels amazing to make money from my art, but it’s just not a constant.
What’s life like having Trump as commander-in-chief?
It’s just a daily reminder of how we can’t completely disengage from our civic duties and from our responsibilities to each other in our communities. It’s a motivating factor for me to stay more informed on what is going on and to be more diligent about language, about where I’m getting my news, about how I’m choosing to interact with the people in the world with whom I do not share the same ideologies. But for me, he’s just a big, orange, nasty alarm clock sound that cannot be snoozed. So I’m like, “Ok ok ok, I’m awake.”
I stumbled upon Prom Queen and was immediately drawn when I listened to your record ‘Doom-Wop’… it’s an interesting genre…
Doom Wop was an exploration of a darker side to American nostalgia for me. I’m a big fan of [David] Lynch and I feel he explores similar themes in his work. Doom-Wop also, quite literally, describes the sound. I said the record was “Leslie Gore after she binged-listened to The Smiths”. Many of the lyrics of those old songs from the 50s and 60s are pretty “on the nose”, as they say – about a boy who didn’t call you back or about wanting to run away and get married but – oh no! you’re too young! With ‘Doom-Wop’ I aimed to take the nostalgic sound but add in darker themes, anxieties, and love stories that don’t often have a happy ending.
To me, the genre of ‘Doom-Wop’ kind of comes from a combination of rockabilly mixed with existentialist Albert Camus-inspired despair… maybe I’m talking nonsense…
No, you’ve got it! When I was writing the record, I came across this rare old doo-wop song called “Vengeance” by The Matadors. The lyrics start out so typical of that time period with “you broke my heart…right from the start…you made a fool of me in front of the crowd” but then, turns so sinister with the chorus “…and Vengeance will be mine”. It blew my mind! We covered it on the record, but this, to me, is the quintessential Doom-Wop song! It’s the rotting wall behind the Normal Rockwell painting.
What interests you most as an artist?
What’s most important to me is being open and inspired, following that inspiration, remaining honest and vulnerable, and always evolving and pushing myself to do things a little differently every time.
How has your relationship with music changed over time?
My relationship with music one of the only constants in my life. And yet, I have a very detached relationship with my music. I go for very long periods without writing or performing. It’s like the old saying “if you love something, set it free…”. I fully become a non-musician for long periods of my life. I have many other passions. But it doesn’t worry me or make me feel anxious. It’s part of the process for me. I know I’ll always come back once inspiration truly strikes and I’m fine waiting it out until it does. It’s better to engage with it when I’m a little starved for it.
Your music reminds me most of Holly Golightly. Who else are you channeling?
I don’t really think about music that way. I’m channeling myself.
Why, when, did you first feel the need to be creative?
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 14, and I sang in different choirs growing up and always loved karaoke. I knew I wanted to make my own music but I felt largely blocked about how to go about songwriting and even performing music in earnest. Karaoke was easy cause it was goofy and fun, but to try to sing a song sincerely in a room full of people was terrifying to me. Interestingly, it did come to me in a moment in a college class.
I took a class at UNH from a professor named Lawrence Rosenfield who had an unconventional approach to teaching Interpersonal Communication. The class often felt more like group therapy, so much so that it enabled me to quit my sessions with the campus therapist that I had booked following a bout of insomnia. His class ended up helping me sleep but also helping me in other ways that were so transformative and that had lasting effects for the rest of my life.
In one class, we did an exercise where we all closed our eyes and imagined, down to the smallest micro-level, how it would feel to be in a doctor’s office and receiving the news that we only had six more months to live. We were prompted to try and feel how our hands would feel, how our labored our breath might be, what our first words of response could be after hearing our fate. Then, piece by piece, walking through the moments to follow until we were finally alone for the first time with this shattering piece of knowledge. And the question that loomed in that moment was “what would you do with your final six months of life?” With speed and clarity, my brain immediately snapped with an immediate answer: I want to sing. Prior to that moment, I hadn’t written or performed any of my own music ever in my life. And after that moment, I did everything I could in pursuit of making that my life’s work, and that’s what I’m continuing to seek out today.
In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about nerves you felt to actually get on stage. How did you overcome that barrier?
The shyness and fear from those first few attempts of singing in front of people was significant. My process as an early songwriter was to use my comfort zone of comedy to write funny songs. I learned the mechanics of songwriting through doing that and then, one day, I wrote something that wasn’t funny. And I really liked it. And then I kept doing it. I liked the songs a lot and when I could share them with other people, they liked them a lot, too. I grew more confident as people responded to my songs. It was a long and gradual process. But now, I am more comfortable singing in front of a room full of people than I am doing most other things. 12 years delivering singing telegrams will also do that for you (that was a side job of mine for a long time).
When did you first realize the creative possibilities that music could offer you?
I always knew I wanted to do music, but I found it very difficult to sit and write my own songs. I could only play other people’s stuff and I was far too nervous to perform. My father very suddenly passed away two months after I moved in with him in Seattle. After the grief and difficulty of that first year, I finally was able to write my first songs in 2005 and I just never stopped since then. It’s been a wild ride ever since those first recordings, but I’ve never wanted to stop no matter how hard it is to be a musician. There’s never been a question that it’s a part of my life forever.
What was your upbringing like – I understand your father is from the middle east?
Yes, my father was born in Egypt. He was a drummer and a singer, playing Beatles covers in his band as a teenager. He left Egypt and emigrated to San Francisco in the early 70s because he saw it on a TV show, “Streets Of San Francisco”.My mother had just fled her childhood home in Connecticut to experience more of the world, and landed in San Francisco at that same time. They met at the Starlight room in the Sir Frances Drake Hotel, a place I was able to visit for the first time a couple of years ago. They moved back east together, got married, and started a family. My parents divorced when I was just 2 years old and my father moved back to the west coast soon after. My 2 older sisters and I were raised in the Northeast with our mother and soon after, with our stepfather Chuck. Growing up, we were encouraged to play music so we were a very musical family. I also loved acting and comedy, which is something I also do to this day. My father ended up living in Seattle a little later in my life and that’s how I ended up here once I was ready to leave the northeast after college. I’ve been here since 2004 and it is truly my home.
What are the plans for Prom Queen?
I have some grand plans for future projects that I am slowly working on. It’s really hard to plan for much of anything anymore, but I know I’ll be making more music. I can’t wait to be in the same room as my bandmates again and to play together. What a wonderful feeling that will be!
What’s been the biggest obstacle for you, in your band?
The biggest obstacle is lack of support and money. There’s so much we could do if it weren’t for that. I am proud of what I’ve been able to do and proud of us as a band, but we have been limited. We would have done lots more touring if we had management or bookers or anything. But it all bottlenecks to me. I am the writer and producer, the band manager, the booker, the PR/social media person, the bank account, video creator, etc and so forth. We’ve had interest from labels here and there but nothing ever cemented, and it was fleeting. So I assume all the roles. But after years and years of doing everything, it just gets exhausting. So, I take breaks when I need to and only work on stuff when I want to. It’s the only way to sustain it for me and still have it be something that I love to do.
I was interested to learn that as well as being a musician, you’re also involved in comedy, with ‘Snax’ the bunny?
I’ve always been into comedy since I was very young. Being funny was how I could make friends with people who were older and cooler than me. I started doing improv and sketch when I was still in high school and continued that through college. I also entered and won some standup competitions during that time. I won the title of “Portland’s Funniest Comedian” in Portland, Maine while still in college and won a “College Comedy Bake Off” and got a free spring break trip to Florida for me and a friend. At 19, I dipped my toe in the Seattle scene when visiting my father for one summer. I was indoctrinated into Jet City Improv immediately and they became my awesome Seattle family, which cemented my desire to move there as soon as I could. The day I moved to Seattle in 2004, I flew in and went straight from the airport to my audition and we made the relationship official when I became a cast member. From there, I performed and directed shows, and even became director of my own improv-turned-film group, The Beta Society. We started as an improv comedy group, then integrated video into our live shows, then just became a group of people that made whatever videos we wanted. It was loose and fun. We ended up renting an actual mansion together and it was one of the best times of my life. But it started becoming harder and harder to get people together to make videos where no one was making money. We decided to fold the company and I refocused on music and took a BIG hiatus from anything comedy related. But I always missed it.
Many years later, I was browsing eBay for mascot costumes. I just…wanted one. I think they are so funny and I always had a dream of performing standup as a mascot. I bought the bunny costume on eBay and it sat in my closet for 2 years and I never did anything with it. Then, my good friend Rachel Belle and I were having coffee one day and we both wanted to get into standup so we challenged ourselves to do it within the next month. We both did. And Snax was born. I continued to perform as Snax The Bunny around town, and then I applied to ABC’s The Gong Show and made it onto the air and it was one of the most terrifying yet greatest experiences of my life! It was pure joy and fun to do something so absurd, and something creative that had nothing to do with music, but still satisfied me at s soul-level. Snax has a podcast and hosted a monthly variety show here (before lockdown) and got to perform at some great shows in Seattle and LA. It’s a blast! It’s so much fun and my own way of celebrating the absurdity of life, to remembering levity, to showing a side of myself that people don’t often get to see through my music. It’s really made me feel whole again.
A bunny costume be tough for a start, what with the heat factor?
I run pretty cold so the heat hasn’t been too big of a problem. I love being in the suit – if you’ve never worn a mascot costume, I recommend it. It’s very fun! What I love about it is that it erases me. The bunny is my comedy vessel, but it’s not colored by my physicality at all. Sure it can be tricky to have impaired vision, but I’ve been able to make it work for the most part. And all the little mistakes I make are totally hilarious because I’m a giant bunny. So, when I can’t read something, or I trip or walk into something – it’s all part of the act.
These days, certain types of comedy is deemed unacceptable. There’s a cancel culture going on (certainly in the UK) where if you say or joke about the wrong thing, the ‘mob’ mentality can kick in and go on the attack. What do you think about that?
Snax is a benevolent and naive being. The character I created puts out a pretty positive, inclusive, cute, and loving energy. People are hurting and I don’t want to add to that hurt. I want to add levity, absurdity, joy, and silliness to the world. But I don’t think I am sacrificing humor to make that happen. My goal is to make everyone feel welcome, loved, and accepted so we can all laugh together. It’s nicer and a lot more fun that way. If I ever make someone feel bad by something I say on stage, I would probably re-write or retire the joke entirely.
On the back of that– what in your own life or experiences impacts your comedy?
Comedy comes from observing things in life and focusing on those shared experiences through a funny lens. Particularly, observing small details in people’s interactions, in our pop culture, our marketing, on the language around self-care, and the ideas that we share with each other through social media. There’s also a lot of word-play. I love language, and with both of my pursuits: music and comedy, they are an exercise of my love for precise language.
Parker Love Bowling is a creative who holds the type of innocence and danger one would need to convincingly play confidante of the Manson Family, nevermind an actual member. As it turns out, she’s played a Manson-girl twice, once for Canadian TV, and most recently in the latest Quentin Tarantino film, ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’. An actress interested in originality, she also happens to be a ferocious poet and documentary filmmaker in her own right. We chat to discuss her work as a writer and director, her family upbringing, the ‘Me Too’ movement, as well as what it’s like to work with Quentin Tarantino.
Firstly, the current topic of the times – Corona lockdown; what’s life like for you during all this?
I’m currently staying in Topanga Canyon so I’m fairly isolated where I am. I’m spending my time baking, watching Ken Russell movies, reading, writing, and editing. I’ve been in quarantine with my dog, Townes, and she definitely relieves a lot of my stress. My boyfriend is with us also, so I have plenty of company.
As your an actress, I suppose now is a good time to indulge in film?
I’ve been watching a lot of Ken Russell and Nicholas Roeg movies, as well as revisiting some classic Audrey Hepburn films. I’ve also gotten really into Shirley Clarke’s short films and documentaries.
How does this situation impact you as a creative?
Thankfully, I have a lot of writing and editing to catch up on. I’m a homebody anyway, so I don’t mind staying in. I have some film I have yet to develop that I’m dying to see so it’s only frustrating in that regard, but obviously the most important thing is staying safe.
When did you first start to create?
I’ve been writing poetry ever since I was gifted a book of D.H. Lawrence poems when I was in the fifth grade. My sister and I grew up making short films. We would each write and direct a short and have my parents judge them without telling them who did which one.
I would guess you were raised in a creative family?
My dad is a musician and an artist. He made really cool Baquiat-style paintings when he was younger. My dad plays bass and is currently in a surf rock band called ‘Chum’. He was in a New Wave group in the 80s when he was in high school called ‘Basic Elements’, then a grunge band in the 90s called ‘Bottom 12’ (there were twelve people in the group). My dad influenced me most as an artist by introducing me to good movies when I was younger. It’s not every parent that shows their seven year old ‘Boogie Nights’ or Robert Altman movies, but seeing these types of movies when I was so young really shaped my taste and I’m forever grateful to him for that.
You also began collaborating with your sister, Kansas, early on?
My sister and I have been working on films together practically our whole lives. We were making all kind of things. Shorts, music videos, mockumentaries, etc. We unfortunately lost them all when our computer crashed. I still struggle with other people seeing my work, especially when it comes it my writing, but I’m excited to release all my work that is currently in post.
I understand said you write everyday, have you ever thought of publishing your work?
I often write just to clear my head, but will also work on poems or scripts for future projects. I’m currently working on compiling all my poetry together to release my first book. I’m not currently working on a novel, though I do have a few short stories and poems I feel I could expand into one.
What writers do you love?
I love the Beatniks, especially their poetry, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in particular. I also really love Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Frederick Seidel, Leonard Cohen, Fitzgerald, Richard Brautigan, Stefan Zweig and Dorothy Parker.
I’ll get on to your work as an actress, but you’re also a documentary filmmaker? Go on.
My background is in journalism so I’ve always been conducting interviews. Documentary work seemed like a perfect way to combine journalism and film. I like to profile people who don’t have that much information out about them. I met Ivy Nicholson, former countess and Warhol Superstar, on the subway in Los Angeles and found her fascinating. I went to her house in Long Beach to interview her for Mondo. I prefer to film documentaries about specific people rather than events. I was the features editor of my high school paper, then once I left school at sixteen, I interned at a magazine and got a job at the local newspaper. I always preferred doing feature pieces, which I get to continue doing with my work as a documentarian, except now I get to pick my subjects opposed to being assigned them, so it’s even better.
What documentaries inspire you most to follow suite?
I’m obsessed with Les Blank. His films inspired me to do documentary shorts in addition to my features. I love how he films his subjects. He shows exactly what is going on without feeling the need to explain it.
What documentary projects are you currently working on? (or were before the days of COVID-19)
In March I was in New York and got to interview Robert Lund, Zoe Lund’s ex-husband. I’m also currently directing a 50-years-later follow up to the 1967 doc ‘Mondo Hollywood’ and the official doc for The Partridge Family Temple, a cult that worships The Partridge Family. They’re a cult that worships the Partridge Family, that I am actually a member of. It was founded in Colorado in the late 80s.
What is your main focus – does acting, filmmaking or writing hold a sway over the other?
I enjoy all three outlets immensely. I love how I am able to make films in between acting jobs, but, again, writing is something I do every single day.
You starred in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, as one of the Manson family no less – can you tell me how that came about?
Being in a Tarantino film has been a dream of mine since I was six. My sister and I would act out the sword fight between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu for our parents and their friends. Quentin is such a nice guy. We approached him at a screening shortly after it was announced he was doing a Manson movie. We just asked him if he thought we looked like Manson girls and he said he’s make sure we were in that audition room. We totally assumed he’d forget, but nine or so months later the casting director called us.
You started early…
‘Kill Bill’ was the only one of his movies I saw at that age, but I saw ‘Death Proof’ when it was released on DVD. I had to be eight or so. Once I saw that one, I went through them all. ‘Inglourious Basterds’ was his first film I saw in the theatre.
Which of Tarantino’s films are you most fond of?
‘Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’ is my favourite I think, and not just because of the experience on set. I think the story is really original and heart-warming. The amount of detail that went into the sets is amazing. ‘Death Proof’ is probably my second favourite. I would definitely love to be in a movie like that. Even though he didn’t direct it, ‘True Romance’ is my absolute favourite Tarantino adjacent film, and is probably in my top ten favourite movies of all time.
I understand you have experience in playing one of the Manson family? You do have the innocent yet dangerous look of one one of the Manson ladies… is that fair?
Yeah, that’s fair. Funny enough, I actually played a Manson girl in a reenactment on the Canadian history channel. I usually get type-cast as that kind of role and I love it. My sister and I are also often cast together as Grady Twin type characters, or were before she dyed her hair blonde.
Random question, but as I’m currently loving his memoir – would you ever work with Woody Allen?
I would definitely work with Woody Allen. I think he’s a genius. ‘Play It Again Sam’ and ‘The Purple Rose Of Cairo’ and two of my favourite movies.
Would his ongoing allegations put you off?
No, not if I thought them to be innocent, which in this case I do. I feel a great deal of empathy for people who are always made out to be evil in the eyes of the media, and would never let it change the way I treat a person unless I’ve had a negative experience with them myself.
In my opinion, people like Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey have been caught in the crossfire of the ‘MeToo’ movement. How do you feel about it?
I would have to disagree with you about Kevin Spacey, but that wouldn’t keep me from watching a movie he’s been in. And of course the movement is a positive thing. My only issue with it is when people don’t separate art from the artist and refuse to screen a Polanski film, for example. Not that I condone what he has done, but his work should speak for itself. That being said, I think it’s great that people like Harvey Weinstein are being sent to prison and others [like him] are unable to find work in this industry. The ‘MeToo Movement’ has been vital in making the entertainment industry a safer place and I’m very happy to be starting out in a time where people are being held accountable for their actions.
Another topic – you have a great admiration for Abel Ferrara?
‘Ms. 45’ was the first movie I saw directed by him. It blew my mind and sparked my fascination with Zoe Lund, who actually wrote ‘Bad Lieutenant’ along with Ferrera. After that, I would say ‘Driller Killer’ is my second favourite movie of his. I definitely like his earlier work better but am still a fan of later ones like ‘King of New York’ as well as his documentary work.
Do your on-screen experiences ever get under your skin?
I haven’t had the opportunity to play that emotionally demanding of a role yet, but imagine when I do it might be hard to shake the distress after the cameras stop rolling.
What is the film industry like?
Actors have a lot of down time so it’s important to have other hobbies or projects you can work on in between jobs. Obviously, it’s a very competitive industry with a lot of rejection involved, and it’s important to understand you might not be the best fit for every role.
How does an actress deal with rejection, which, there must be a lot of in the film business?
I comfort myself in knowing I tried my best and probably just wasn’t the best fit for the role. The rejection doesn’t bother me, especially because I have so many other projects I’m working on myself.
Do you have any other ongoing acting projects you can talk about?
I’m currently not working right now and auditions have been slow the past two months for obvious reasons, but I’m very eager to work on another film soon. A few projects I’m in are in post, so there’s something to look forward to.
What does a character need to make a part interesting for you these days?
What are your main obstacles as an artist?
Film funding. I shoot mainly on 16mm and the costs add up.
Have you ever had the need for a day job, or has working as an artist always been self-sufficient?
I’ve had jobs before but the last few years acting has paid the bills, but I love to work constantly so if something came along that sparked my interest and had flexible hours I wouldn’t refuse.
And finally, what do you miss most in the days of COVID-19?
I miss taking Townes on playdates with other dogs.
Parker Love Bowling’s quarantine movie recommendations:
“Some movies I’ve seen for the very first time in quarantine that I recommend would be:
Ruth Paxton is one of the most talented and interesting, not to mention award-winning, Scottish filmmakers and screenwriters of her generation. In 2013 she was named in Canongate’s FUTURE 40, a list of Scottish storytellers predicted to dominate the next 40 years of creative life in Scotland. In a lengthy chat, originally prior to widespread UK lockdown, we discuss Ruth’s (very) early days as a child director, how being ‘death aware’ and her own mental health has shaped her work, and the projects she’s determined to pick up once COVID-19 has subsided. Even Lars Von Trier gets a mention.
As it’s everywhere, can I ask how you are currently in this widespread lockdown – how does it affect your own creativity and working practice?
I’m quite used to working from home, as typically, the majority of the time I’m writing.I’m a very introverted person, I’m not mega social and I don’t have children so the shape of my day-to-day doesn’t feel dramatically different; but I miss my friends, family and my boyfriend, and I hate not being able to go to the cinema or to restaurants and cafes.I’m taking long walks around Edinburgh, exploring inner-city graveyards.I was due to go into pre-production last week for a feature shooting in May which has obviously been postponed so I’m using the extra time for prep, while moving forward with the development of other projects and the writing of a feature with the BBC.My cinematographer (and creative soul mate) David Liddell and I have been hanging out on Zoom on Friday’s talking through our plans for various projects and sharing imagery and existential thoughts about death.I’m thoroughly enjoying these digital salons.
You’re originally from Edinburgh but I understand you’ve lived and worked in Glasgow.
I am a daughter of Edinburgh, and I’m back home now.In 2015 I moved to Glasgow and lived in Govanhill for two years, and I’ve spent chunks of time based in Glasgow for work.People I love live in both cities, so each is dear to me.I miss Rogano’s (up-market oyster bar).And cocktails at The Anchor Line, and on a purely shallow level, Glasgow has a ‘Cos’ store.But Edinburgh is home.
Do these settings influence your work differently?
I can’t say they do especially.Although my 2014 short film ‘PULSE’ was written specifically about my experience of Glasgow during an especially destabilising bout of depression.
What kind of role did cinema play in your upbringing? You’ve said you’re drawn to fairytales?
Storytelling was a huge part of how I built relationships with family and friends, how I played.I made up games in the playground (that only I knew the rules to).I directed (poorly developed) plays in my back garden, which I put heavy pressure on the neighbours to pay a pound to watch.I regularly asked my Grannies to go through old family photos and tell me everything about all the faces.And my earliest memories are my Dad’s made up bedtime stories for my brother and me, ‘Ruthie and the Dolphins’, ‘Ruth and Louis visit the Observatory’ etc.I also remember knowing when he’d skip pages in well-loved storybooks because the narrative didn’t make sense.
When did film come into play?
Both my parents, and their parents were really into cinema.Film was a constant in my upbringing and I’m often struck by how deeply rooted film viewing was in the context of my relationship to family and friends:it was a Saturday night in, a Sunday afternoon ritual, a celebration, a present.It was also (and still is) a way for us all to be together.I love how encounters with film can be both very communal, and intensely personal experiences. I love fairy tales, but what writer doesn’t?I think I’m especially attracted to stories that take characters into the woods, to work shit out.You could find that theme in all films, really.
So it’s obvious you identified with storytelling at a young age – can you remember the kinds of things you were watching that sparked that in you?
My dad says I was born exaggerating.Ha.I’m told I swerved baby talk and just went for sentences.Which was freaky, as I didn’t grow hair until afterwards.By 2 years old my Granny Paxton had me reciting [Robert] Burns atop the kitchen table for a captive audience, who just wanted their dinner.In terms of storytelling, I understood quickly, never to let the truth get in the way – which meant I tested boundaries early on and fabricated a lot.I’ve always been strongly attracted to drama, to needing to understand why people do the things they do.And I hunted.I rifled.I negotiated pocket-money raises.I asked questions.I put myself at the centre of things.I learned that if I was very quiet, and stealthily passed round the crisp bowl, I could interlope at parent’s parties – way past bedtime.I do have a stark memory of watching ‘EDWARD SCISSORHANDS’ and recognising it as the voice of Tim Burton – I think that’s the first time I understood how a director could really ‘author’ a film.I remember first relishing the unquantifiable warmth of accomplishment, having put something out there that wasn’t there before, that rich satisfaction of self-expression.
Coming to you and your career as a filmmaker, how you do overcome the restrictions which you face?
Filmmaking is a complex landscape depending on who you are, where you come from, what opportunities you have, what your goals are and what compromises you’re willing to make.I’ve made sacrifices, but I’m grateful for my drive to create, my voice and for all the support I do receive.I am who I am due to the unwavering belief in my ability of family, friends and collaborators and I feel very lucky to be able to pursue a career in film, because, while it’s extremely challenging, it’s a dream too.And great parts of my happiness and identity are about telling stories and making things.
Is writing a work more difficult than directing or is it all a process you find a breeze?
Writing tends to be more agonising.I doubt myself more often when I’m writing than I do when I’m directing, probably because it’s a slower process and less collaborative.Both writing and directing are really hard when it’s not ‘working’ or flowing, and really rewarding when it is!To quote Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing, I love having written.
Its a cliche in almost all interviews with creatives – but do tell me about your biggest influences to make you spark into life and maybe try to emulate…
Irvin D. Yalom.Frances Farmer.Caravaggio.Artemisia Gentileschi.Mental Health.Scandals.Survivors.Abandoned spaces, derelict homes and sunken ships. Victorian mourning rituals.Death scene photography.Alexander McQueen.Mid Century design.Steven Klein.Elizabeth Taylor.Voodoo dolls and Mother Russia.The Baroque Age.Roman, Greek and Egyptian Mythology.Golden Era Hollywood.Jane Campion.Early Tim Burton.Bodies.Gustave Dore.Motherhood.Frank Sinatra.Frida Kahlo.Jacques Audiard.Aubrey Beardsley. Opera. Shakespeare.Tallulah Bankhead. Paolo Sorrentino.Nina Simone.Mid-century design.Boxing.
I was delighted to read you like like the work of Lars Von Trier (a favourite of mine) What is it about his works that you admire?
Von Treir’s cinematic imagery is almost always somewhere among my visual references for all of my projects.I admire his eye and visual style, very much.There’s a very specific, recognisable rawness about the emotion in his films, which I’m a sucker for. I can’t speak for his methods, but I’ve heard the stories.I admire that he shares of his own experience of addiction and mental ill health.
I’ve heard you say it’s important to be nice to your cast – can you ever see yourself in taking a different approach if you may not be getting from them what you want?
If I’m not getting what I want from an actor, then it’s my job as a director to find more effective ways to elicit the performance I believe they have it in them to give.And I have no problem pushing people.Niceness is compulsory, as is honesty.Creative people can’t make good work when they’re afraid, hurt or disrespected. As someone with a Mood Disorder characterised by anxiety, I take all possible measures to cultivate a harmonious set where people feel safe and valued.
You directed the actor Maxine Peake with your work ‘Be Still My Beating Heart’ – how did you find working with her and what did she bring to the film?
It was an absolute pleasure.She taught me a great deal, and gave me a number of gifts with her characterisation of Diana.She’s an obvious talent, she’s a heavyweight artist and of course I felt super privileged to work with her, to bond and make friends. I think Maxine and I learned that we could trust each other very quickly and were able to communicate on an unusually deep level, by being totally honest and pure with one another.I sensed a kinship with her before I met her and I want to work with her for years to come. I wrote BSMBH with Maxine firmly in mind for the role of Diana.I wrote Maxine a letter, and was extremely glad and blessed that she responded to the material and me, and accepted the offer.
How do you go about getting the actors you want?
One of my favourite parts of filmmaking is the collaborative process with Casting Directors.I’ve worked with Carla Stronge on two projects now, including BSMBH – and delighted in both experiences.Casting is a hugely psychological process and Carla understands my needs as a person and my taste as a director.We share a language, as I do with the majority of my Heads of Department I work with regularly.Good casting directors will put unexpected choices in front of you; they will push you to reconsider people who you might have dismissed too quickly.
Who would be in your idea cast – I read you have a great admiration for Marilyn Monroe…
Yes, I adore Marilyn.She makes me very happy.But I’ve never fantasised about resurrecting her for a role, though her emotional intellect and creative depths were woefully underappreciated and unexplored.I do have a film I want to write and direct about a period in her life, and it’s almost impossible to think of who could play her. I think it would need to be a bold choice. I’d have liked to work with Elizabeth Taylor and James Gandolfini, with Jack Nicholson in his wilder youth.I’d love to work with Sarah Paulson and Tahar Rahim, and I think Emily Blunt is exceptional.
From what I’ve seen of your work, I get the impression your drawn to darker elements – earlier you mentioned depression, your mood disorder…
I’m into exploring emotional and psychological terrain, particularly with the aim of letting light into darker places.I’ve been ‘death aware’ since I was young.I’m very into death acceptance and the vanitas theme in art.I have a mood disorder, which for many years was undiagnosed and not medicated.I’ve had a nervous breakdown and subsequent periods of depression, of varying levels of intensity.I’ve thought about suicide.I’m sad more often than I’m not.But once I learned about the power of radical acceptance, I learned how to live well, and I do for the most part!
You’ve said that films have a ‘purpose in life to improve emotional health’ – why – rather than films being a source of escapism?
I feel like I might have said that I feel my own purpose in life, is to improve my own emotional health and in general I believe that to be true for others but it’s not for me to say.I think films are most powerful when they inspire love and ask you to think, feel, reflect, to change.They can be escapist at the same time.I’ve come to think of myself as a dramatist, or a storyteller.I used to think it was assertive and meaningful to define myself rigidly as: filmmaker – which I am, I write and direct films.But I’ve learned that I’m really just a creative person driven by a desire to absorb, understand, process, and tell stories with faith that I write drama and make work which affects people.I’ve a hunger for beauty, and want to be responsible for it.
Could you ever imagine writing or directing a ‘Scottish’ comedy? I suppose my favourite, Scottish example, would be Peter Mullan’s Orphans – extremely dark subject matter but there are comedic or absurdist elements and laugh out loud set pieces in it.
I love ‘ORPHANS’.Most of the scripts I’ve written have similarly black, absurdist comedy moments peppered though, and I can absolutely imagine writing and directing out-and-out comedy.I think I’m dead funny.
I understand you’ve delved into more experimental projects as a visual artist – What about new art forms like virtual reality? Could you envision embracing that at some point?
In 2018 I directed the performance in a VR project for BBC Scotland, produced by Ashley McPherson – about the experience of anxiety.I still haven’t got my head around how it works, but the format is an excellent medium for demonstrating how VR can bring us closer to a character’s psychology – which I’m all for!
How important is your own personal life to you in your creativity?
What makes you laugh?
Bob Mortimer’s ‘train guy’, my brother, and my boyfriend.
Tell me about your projects, plans, for 2020… what are you working on and what can your audience expect next? (COVID-19 submission willing)
Before lockdown, I was due to go into production of a feature film, called ‘A BANQUET’ – a psychological horror film written by the exceptionally talented Justin Bull.This project is produced by Tea Shop Films and Riverstone Films and we’re currently finalizing lead cast, via zoom auditioning. I’m in development with BBC Films on a Scottish feature I am writing and will direct called ‘THE FLAMING HEART’ – produced by Barry Crerar.We’re at First Draft stage there. And I’m also in development with Film Four on an American-set feature film written by Deborah Haywood and produced by Linda Reissman, called ‘HERE, NOT HERE’ – which I will direct.