Alison Maclean: Re-calibrating Rhythm as a Director
Award-winning director, Alison Maclean, discusses her recent work, adapting The Rehearsal by Booker Prize-winning Author Eleanor Catton, for the silver screen, her illustrious film career and avoiding gender stereotypes.
Hailing from a youth spent in New Zealand, and after filming her latest feature in Auckland, Alison has decided to expand her New York presence to the other side of the world, signing to Australasian film production company, Robber’s Dog. Alison’s first short film, Kitchen Sink, debuted in Cannes in 1989 to critical acclaim and won eight international awards. Alison’s subsequent work has spanned across commercials, longform, and broadcast - most notably, the feature films, Jesus’ Son, (starring Holly Hunter, Jack Black, and Samantha Morton), and Crush (starring Marcia Gay Harden). She also directed the music video for Natalie Imbruglia’s 1998 hit single, Torn. Currently residing in New York, her international background provides a unique creative perspective which informs much of her work.
LBB > Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming feature – The Rehearsal?
AM > The Rehearsal is about a naïve drama student, Stanley, who seeks to impress his powerhouse of an acting teacher by appropriating his young girlfriend’s family sex scandal as material for the end of year show. It’s about first love, first sex, how art uses life and vice versa.
LBB > I see it is based on a novel by Eleanor Catton. Was the author involved much in the film process?
AM > Eleanor was the ideal author to work with because she was completely hands-off. She understands that film is a very different medium so I never felt burdened by any expectation from her that we would be faithful to the book. As it happened, my co-writer and I made radical changes to the story. Eleanor visited the set a couple of times and was very open and curious about the process. Thankfully, she too seems happy with the finished film.
LBB > How did you become involved with the project – did reading the book inspire a drive to get it made into film?
AM > A friend of mine, an American writer, urged me to read the book and I immediately saw the potential. I’d been looking for material that could bring me back to New Zealand to make a film and I found a lot to work with within the themes and preoccupations of Eleanor’s book.
LBB > Are you a fan of Catton’s writing and vice versa?
AM > I’m a big fan of Eleanor’s writing. I admire her boldness and ambition; her books are incredibly smart and original in their structure and point of view. She wrote The Rehearsal when she was only 21 years old. Her second novel, The Luminaries, is very different in comparison but I loved it.
LBB > You were born in Canada and raised in New Zealand but live in New York. That’s quite a journey, how do you feel it affects your view on the world and the way you tell stories?
AM > It’s hard to say but I seem to bring a kind of insider/outsider perspective to things wherever I am, which can be a creative advantage. Working in New Zealand this last year, it probably allowed me to notice things that wouldn’t have been on my radar if I was living there.
LBB > You’ve worked in commercials, long form and broadcast. Is it easy to step from one to the other?
AM > Yes and no. The transition from the 30 second world to the 95-minute world was definitely a challenge because it makes you re-calibrate your sense of duration and rhythm, for example the way that a pause can have different impacts.
I’d say that the common thread throughout my films is my process with actors. Whether it’s longform or shortform, every project feeds into the next and allows me to keep on learning as a director. I think that my work in commercials and shorts has made me a braver director.
LBB > Some women directors find it difficult to break out of typecast roles, often ending up shooting commercials specifically about femininity. Your work really avoids female stereotypes and has a style that is gender neutral. Is that a conscious decision?
AM > I’ve been lucky enough not to have been pigeon-holed into doing stereotypically ‘feminine’ jobs but it’s not something I think about much. I like to challenge myself and I like to be challenged. Making a horror fable short like my 1989 film, Kitchen Sink, probably helped in this respect by showcasing my hunger for exploring provocative themes.
LBB > Have you ever come up against challenges as a woman director?
AM > I come up against those challenges all the time. It’s a hidden bias: hard to pinpoint and often unconscious. There’s the constant feeling that you have to prove yourself a little more than a man would. It’s the same in the movie business and in episodic TV, though, perhaps, the climate is beginning to change…. slowly.
LBB > You had a serious cast in your film, Jesus’s Son,
what was it like working with those actors?
AM > I met actors like Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter for the first time on the day of their single shoot. We pretty much had to rehearse on set, so that was a little intimidating, but they really cared about the project so we were able to work very well together.
LBB > What’s been your favourite project in your career?
AM > Most of my peak experiences as a director have come from making shorts. I find that the format allows you to be far freer and more daring. If I had to pick, I’d say Kitchen Sink, because every aspect of that experience wildly exceeded my expectations. I’m also proud of a music video I made in 1997 for Natalie Imbruglia’s hit single, Torn. The conceit of the locked-off camera for that project ended up informing a lot of subsequent work.
LBB > Why did you choose Robbers Dog to represent you in Australasia?
AM > Robber’s Dog was highly recommended to me by friends and colleagues in the industry. The size of the company is perfect; like Park Pictures, they’re selective and everyone is very invested. The range of their work and interests, from advertising to branded content and TV drama, also really appeals to me.
LBB > What excites you about working in Australasia?
AM > Having lived in Sydney for four years and been raised in New Zealand, I have a strong connection to the area that I’d like to rekindle. I feel ‘at home’ in the latter or, more accurately, it’s deeply familiar and unfamiliar at the same time! I’ve had a great experience working in Auckland this past year whilst making The Rehearsal, so I’m fully looking forward to consolidating those relationships and creating new ones.
Maclean is represented by Park Pictures in the US & Europe. You can see more of Maclean's work, here.