Ruth Paxton: “I have a hunger for beauty, and want to be responsible for it”
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.
Ruth, thank you.