Life/Dreamlife/Afterlife: Jacquelyn Mills on In the Waves
Filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz interviews the director about being a one-person production crew, living in the present, and making your grandmother your star
Jacquelyn Mills' IN THE WAVES
Sofia Bohdanowicz introduces Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur on Saturday, March 24 as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Radical Empathy: The Films of Agnès Varda.
I first met Jacquelyn Mills in the fall of 2017 when I was doing a roundtable at the Vancouver International Film Festival on how the industry can better support independent productions. While I am often invited to speak about microbudget filmmaking, my work is made under even more minimalist conditions than what my fellow panelists usually describe; it’s not unusual for me to get surprised reactions, or even a few laughs, when I reveal that I usually work either by myself or with only my producer, Calvin Thomas. This particular panel went differently though: after I described the methods by which I made my first feature Never Eat Alone, I heard a warm voice say, “I shot my first film by myself and I didn’t have a budget either.”
I hadn’t yet seen Mills’ In the Waves — a gorgeous portrait of Mills’ grandmother Joan Alma Mills shot over the course of a year in the small fishing village where she has lived her whole life — and but I remember the feeling of relief that surged through me when I realized that I had this common ground with another filmmaker who had experienced the same struggles and possessed similar creative aspirations. When I later saw the film at RIDM, I was immediately enveloped by Mills’ technique and cinematic language. Her camera sat closely to her subjects and danced around them; it turns even Joan’s most seemingly mundane actions — washing dishes, gutting fish, showing photographs — as resonant and affecting as the wisdom she imparts to her granddaughter. Mills’ images and sounds had such an even flow that I forgot about the technicalities of filmmaking and found myself simply appreciating the moment that each scene had to offer.
Mise en scène aside, I was also grateful to have found another filmmaker who had a love of capturing elderly people in such an empathetic and captivating way, and whose curiosity about exploring intergenerational bonds was akin to my own. The parallels between our films are uncanny. In the Waves follows Mills’ grandmother Joan as she explores her own regret in marrying the man her late sister Isabelle was once in love with; my film Never Eat Alone follows my grandmother (also named Joan) as she ruminates on her grief over not marrying a man who tried to stop her wedding to my grandfather. Mills’ film begins with her grandmother washing her face; mine ends with my grandmother doing the same. Even the differences — my grandmother is widowed, Mills’ is not; her camera sits close while mine has a palpable distance — made me feel like I was getting a glimpse into an alternate universe, watching a version of what my grandmother’s life could have been. I was transfixed.
After seeing Mills’ earlier shorts Leaves (2013) and For Wendy (2008), I came to the conclusion that her works’ greatest offering is that they situate us so strongly in the present that it becomes something akin to a dream state: she suspends us between both worlds, and leaves us with the feeling that our dreams can seep into our reality, if we let them. Her work is a constant reminder that this state is available for all of us, if we commit to surrendering ourselves to the present moment.
Prior to her in-person presentation of In the Waves at TIFF, I had the opportunity to talk to Mills on Skype about the vision behind the film and how she navigated the creative, technical, and emotional elements of its production.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ: When I saw In the Waves, I was really blown away by its naturalism, how gentle your approach was, but also the force of the film. I was also drawn to the striking similarities in our works: we both painted portraits of our grandmothers, who are both named Joan; we both decided to make films that explore past regrets and intergenerational bonds, and how important they are in our lives; and similar to my journey in making Never Eat Alone, I know that before you were working on In the Waves you were working on a fiction film for your first feature.
JACQUELYN MILLS: Yes, that’s true: I was writing a fiction film about my grandmother and her fishing village, [where] I spent a lot of time growing up. I spent a lot of time with her over a couple of years, doing interviews, having long conversations, and I got to know a lot of the people in her village. The fiction film ended up becoming about my grandmother and her relationship with her sister Isabelle, and [then] her sister unexpectedly died[:] she was younger, it was totally out of nowhere, and it was the first time my grandmother understood that she was going to die. It was this pivotal moment for her where she started this real soul-searching process of reflecting about her past and preparing herself for the end of life.
So we were having all of these bigger conversations by phone, and I asked myself, “Why am I writing this fiction film that’s so removed from her real-life experience?” And I realized how much personal value I would get from spending time with her and making an art-therapy project together. I said to her, this is playing with life, this is an experiment, maybe this is not going to work out. But I was curious… I wondered, what is it like if your granddaughter is with you all day long every day for a year with a camera?
BOHDANOWICZ: How did she react? Was she surprised? Was she excited? Was she into it?
MILLS: (Laughs) Well it’s funny, because she was always very supportive of the fiction film. When I proposed the documentary to her, she said “No way, there is no way that I would let you do that.” And then it was just a matter of explaining to her that I wanted the film to be an exploration of life and the end of life; so whatever that means, and whatever that turns into, it’s definitely not going to be a traditional film. [I] told her that we would create it together, that we could stop at any time we wanted, and that we could steer it [anywhere] we wanted. And then she got excited about it, and said “OK, let’s try.”
BOHDANOWICZ: I think that a lot of people don’t really think about [how] important it is to think about your subjects as collaborators and co-creators. The way you said to your grandmother “We can stop at any time” is quite a rare thing for a filmmaker to say. What you’re talking about is basic rules around consent, and I think that when people that you’re making films with feel safe and cared for, they’re able to let their guard down. The way that you portray your grandmother on screen, you wanted that portrait to be accurate in the way that she sees herself, or at least you wanted her to feel comfortable with the way she was being portrayed. I think that it’s a mistake if you know that [your subject] doesn’t realize how audience members will perceive them and you’re taking advantage of that.
MILLS: Yes, definitely. In my case, the fishermen [I was filming] didn’t know where this film could go, they didn’t know that strangers might see it. So I could’ve done anything I wanted, because they very kindly offered me their thoughts, feelings and reflections. So it’s a big question what you do with what people offer you, because you can kind of do anything you want if they consent to it.
BOHDANOWICZ: So you had 150 hours of footage [originally]. [How did you] get the narrative line of the film together?
MILLS: So my first short film For Wendy I edited with Darby Guise, and when I finished shooting In the Waves he offered me four hours a day to watch all of my raw material, all 150 hours. So we would sit for four hours a day and watch every frame of the footage, and I took detailed notes of our conversations, [which] I referenced until the very end of picture lock. Then it was about the arduous work of doing the selects and doing an assembly, [which wound up being] 30 hours. And from there it just kept getting smaller and smaller, and eventually the runtime was an hour and a half to two hours. Once I got it down to that point I didn’t know that the next step was going to be, [so] I reached [out to] Steve Wadden, who is a photographer and an incredible artist in Cape Breton, and he offered to help me finish editing the film. He sent me all of these great notes, and [then] said “Why don’t you fly home in a couple of weeks and we’ll finish editing it together?” And so I flew home — it seemed a bit impulsive but I felt we were really connecting, like he really understood the film.
I actually want to tell you something about that, though maybe you won’t want to put in the interview… So it turned out that Steve, by coincidence, lived in my grandmother’s childhood home. And the room where Steve was working on the film [was] where my grandmother and Isabelle slept when they were little girls.
MILLS: It was pretty emotional. My grandmother was really affected by it. A lot of people around me [said] “You have to put that in the film!” And I was like, that’s not the film, that’s what happened in our lives — I can’t try to find a way to put that in the film. It’s a meaning of the film, it’s not the film itself, if that makes sense.
BOHDANOWICZ: In watching your short films and In the Waves again, I realized that an important theme in your work is the afterlife. For Wendy opens with a line from a little boy who has just lost his mother, who says “I hate Heaven because you have to be dead to go there.” In In the Waves, Joan is speaking about the afterlife and how she’s waiting for Isabelle to give her a sign that Heaven exists, and then [later] she says that she hasn’t heard from Isabelle; and when she said that, my heart broke. But a few scenes later she’s reading that passage from a book: “Something has spoken in the night. To leave the friends you loved for greater loving. To find land more kind than home and larger than earth.” And as she reads it, Joan has this smile on her face, and you get the sense that maybe she did get that sign from Isabelle, and there’s some reassurance there. Because your films so strongly contemplate mortality, I was wondering what your interest was in this theme?
MILLS: Something that I realized through all of this questioning and reflection with my grandmother about what it means to be 80 and look back on your life was that, at that point, there’s more to look back on than there is to look forward to. And that’s a bizarre sensation: she would say you almost wake up one morning and look at your hands and wonder whose hands they are. That’s how fast that happens. In making this film I realized that the more aligned I was with the reality of impermanence and the idea that death is inevitable, the more precious every moment was to me. And that made me more present and more aware than I had ever been. My grandmother and I realized together that a lot of the regrets that she had about her life wouldn’t have happened if she had this thorough comprehension that it would all end one day; knowing this would’ve really affected the path she had taken. And that [was] such a huge gift to give me: it’s almost like she passed down that wisdom to me. There’s something truly valuable about that comprehension, how it affects the way you live, and every moment of your daily life.
BOHDANOWICZ: Joan says at one point “Sometimes time goes slow and sometimes it goes fast”; it made me think of something my great-grandmother once said to me, which was that “The older you get the faster time moves.” What I realized in watching your work is that it’s all about the suspension of time, but also about lingering and floating in it.
MILLS: Time is definitely a subject that I was exploring, especially because it was so relevant to my grandmother too. I wanted to capture every detail and every moment I could of that really precious year, and it was like all of these thousands of fleeting moments were happening and passing and then there was this greater time that was flowing by, and, you know… and then it ends. I [was] not totally sure how to represent that, [which] is why I was compelled to do time lapses in the film and to do things that I had never done before — to capture the passage of light on a wall, for example.
BOHDANOWICZ: [I think it really] comes across, because you get so deep into the film, and then suddenly it’s over — you hear your grandmother's voice say “I need to get up now.” And this alludes to [another] theme that runs through your work: that your film is a dream. In your short film Leaves there’s a scene where a woman is in bed with her partner and she’s describing her dream to him: she’s talking about how there’s sunlight coming through the window onto the bed, and then says very poignantly “It’s all around us.” And suddenly you realize that what she’s describing is the present moment that they’re both experiencing. I think your work’s greatest gift is that it situates us [so] strongly in the here and now that we suddenly feel like we’re dreaming. The message that I get from you is that our dreams can become our reality if we let them, if we’re present enough.
MILLS: My experience is that the more absolutely present I become, [the more] surreal I feel. When you’re so present that you feel every sensation that you possibly can in this moment right now, it’s completely like a dream — it’s so other than the ordinary daily experience of being in my head and doing tasks and needing to go somewhere or do something. I often [wonder] about [how], if everyone was completely in the present moment, we would [be able to] function as a society.
BOHDANOWICZ: I feel like it’s one thing to live that way and to have that belief system, but it’s a completely different thing to translate that into film, to realize that on screen. And you do it so well.
MILLS: It’s funny, because I didn’t really think about articulating [that] until you pointed that out right now. It’s just a process of using film to express your experience as a person, so thank you for finding that thread in my work.
BOHDANOWICZ: I [wanted to ask about your] sound design. I know that you use the live audio that you record as you shoot the film, but you also augment the sound design in your edit to bring the audience into this dreamlike state. Could you talk about your approach to recording sound, and also your collaboration with [sound designer] Andreas Mendritzki?
MILLS: There’s so much to be discovered in working with sound: it’s a whole universe unto itself. [For] In the Waves, I went to my grandmother’s village for a period of time to specifically record a sound bank in every environment in the film; the village people would come and find me and say “Oh! This boat is making a strange sound, do you want to go record it?”
I asked myself “How delicate can I get with sound? How can every moment be a universe or world unto itself? How can I get use seaweed and get it to make this sound that is no longer the sound of seaweed? How can I make sounds that you can’t really distinguish?” The sound design was a playground for me. And Andreas, [who] was one of the producers on the film and [an] incredible sound designer, I would often bring ideas to him and we would brainstorm. He was very supportive of my explorations through the whole process.
BOHDANOWICZ: I feel like your sound design encompasses the viewer, it really surrounds us. It pairs perfectly with your camerawork, which is also quite intuitive. I noticed that your camera sits really close to your subjects[:] it forces you to forget about the technical aspects and thrusts you into the perspective of the person that we’re focusing on. Since there’s so much levity and lightness in the way you shoot — and since your work focuses so strongly on the afterlife — I realized that your camerawork made me feel like I was at the vantage point of a lingering ghost: you really feel like you’re a spirit or a molecule that’s witnessing a series of moments.
MILLS: [As you said,] camerawork is a very intuitive process for me[:] it’s about seeing how I flow with the moment that’s happening right now, and oftentimes if I feel frantic energy coming up, I actually put the camera down. I want to make sure I am really there for that moment, even if it leaves, even if I miss it on camera. And that helps me a lot, because I find that my mind gets cleared and it seems very obvious where to go with the camera and how to flow with the moment.
One of my biggest influences is Tarkovsky. The first time I saw The Mirror,this whole world opened up to me. I didn’t even know you could do that kind of thing with filmmaking, and it just felt like this puzzle piece that was missing in my soul. When I watched The Mirror it pulled me into this otherworldly experience that was steeped in reality, but was also so dreamlike and came from the depths of [Tarkovsky’s] being, that I was able to completely surrender to his language. That was the moment that I felt like this is what I was meant to do, this was my form of expression. Whenever I’m about to set out on a shoot I rewatch all of Tarkovsky’s work, and I bring [his] book Sculpting in Time everywhere I go. I’m still studying him, and I hope I’m always studying him.
BOHDANOWICZ: I really identify with your process because you’re wearing all of these hats: you’re shooting, editing, sound designing… I take on [all] these roles [as well], for a few reasons. When I work by myself, I can achieve a sense of intimacy: because I know how to shoot, edit and record sound, I feel like I have a better sense and control over what I’m making. [Also], I can be more efficient with money, and am more self-reliant.
Something really wonderful in Agnès Varda’s work is that she’s never had her work funded by a production company and she has very limited means, but what ends up happening is that the restriction of the means lends to this extremely creative sense of self. She works with what she has, and it becomes a part of the style; if she had [more] funding, I don’t know that the work would be the same. I get a lot of questions about whether I want to work with a crew or make my productions bigger, but for me, knowing how to use these tools, knowing how to select collaborators and keep it small is how I like to formulate my own style. I see that in your work too, and I was wondering what your perspective was on having control over [all] these areas of production.
MILLS: With In the Waves, I didn’t intend on being a one-person team. I knew that I needed to shoot and sound-record by myself because I didn’t have any money, and I knew I wanted to go really in depth with it and have it span all of the seasons, so only I would [be able to] go that far for no money and make that sacrifice. I wasn’t sure that I was going to edit it on my own, and I never thought that [the sound design] would be my undertaking, but it just kept coming back to me to fill all of these roles. There’s a part of that which I really value, because it allows me a different level of intimacy and attention to detail, but it’s important to have a support system around you for keeping perspective and keeping yourself on track, because it can get very confusing.
BOHDANOWICZ: So, I am privileged to know that you are working on a new film. When I was thinking about all of the things we have in common, I realized that [our first features were made] with our grandmothers on a digital format in spaces that were familiar to us, but our second features are shot with complete strangers on celluloid in their home, [in their] territory.
MILLS: First off, let me start with the choice to shoot on film. I actually wanted to shoot In the Waves on film, but I couldn’t afford it; I’m so grateful now that I didn’t, because I would not have been able to do what I did on film, and that’s a fact. But film is definitely my preferred aesthetic and medium, and it really affects my process. More than ever, it brings out that approach that I was describing earlier of putting the camera down and really seeing with your eyes before you film it, [because] with film you have such limited time and resources. I find that it focuses me in a way that nothing else does.
So what I’m working on next is another documentary. It’s feature-length, shot on 16mm, it takes place on a remote island and follows an environmental scientist who’s lived there alone for 50 years. I don’t know how you felt when you went from Never Eat Alone to your second feature Maison du Bonheur, but to me it felt like Maison du Bonheur was the perfect next step for you. And I think I’m having a similar experience: it feels like everything I’ve done until now has led to this.