Ruth Paxton is a Scottish filmmaker whose film Nevada, loosely based on Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller’s relationship was featured at The London Short Film Festival this year. FMR’s Peter Eliot caught up with her to ask about her process.
Yes! And also because I like the way the word ‘Nevada’ sounds, and looks graphically. I drew a great deal of inspiration from things I read about the location and filming on Huston’s THE MISFITS (1961), which was notoriously challenging for all involved. The Magnum photographer, Inge Morath – who would become Miller’s next wife – captured an iconic behind the scenes photo of Monroe and Miller in their Reno hotel room, in Nevada.
It’s one of my favorite images and I can cite the photo as the focal point of reference for everyone attached to making NEVADA. David (Liddell, co-producer and cinematographer) and I referred back to it repeatedly throughout the process.
It is an incredibly quiet and still composition, yet tonally it’s tremendously loaded. The couple are divided in frame by this gigantic lamp, suggesting the vast gulf or blockade which had formed between them as she (with back turned) stares out from her prison as Miller watches on like the strained father-husband figure he’d become. I think even Miller’s box-fresh shirt tells us so much about the state of affairs.
How did you get involved with the band Lau?
I’ve known the members of Lau for many years and collaboration was on the agenda for a long time. Lau’s distinctive music is incredibly cinematic and stirring. Our first joint endeavor took place in 2011, on an experimental project called BLOOD IS THICKER, a sort of visual/sonic exchange where Lau responded with improvisations to unseen footage that Dave and I had shot and projected onto screens.
The clips we filmed and cut included imagery of the coast, woodlands and of an abandoned gamekeeper’s cottage on an Estate. The films also featured three performers, a horse and a dead rabbit. And a fair amount of blood! Thematically I was keen to illustrate the procedure of being hunted, and drew parallels with the gamekeeper’s practice of snaring rabbits, and the tragic ‘fairytale’ of a fated young couple running away from home.
Dave and I were interested in reversing the more typical process of me as writer / director responding to music. We’re still musing on where to take this project, however Martin Green of Lau has recently used the footage in conjunction with a new musical venture called, Crow’s Bones, an eerie, theatrical musical concert of songs about ghosts.
Then, last year Lau asked me to make a film for a specific live performance at Welcome To Lau Land, to accompany music from their new album, Race The Loser – a release, for which I’d also art directed the print materials.
Can you tell us about the funding process and about how healthy the Scottish funding situation is?
Lau’s commission generously provided a modest fund for the film’s production, but once Dave came on board as co-producer we both agreed that we wanted to aim for far greater production values than this budget would allow.
We’d made a ludicrously low-budget short called BAROQUE (2011) the year previously, having begged and borrowed, and while NEVADA was also always going to demand gigantic favors from collaborators, we were aware that we needed to secure more backing to make the film we really wanted to make. Time constraints, plus the nature of the project meant that we weren’t eligible to apply for Creative Scotland funding or able to submit the concept to a development scheme.
It was Dave’s idea to create and launch a fund-raising campaign via IndieGoGo, and while that in itself was a very taxing process, it was a very rewarding one. We continue to extend our HUGE THANKS to those who contributed and supported the film and enabled us to produce the work we did.
I’m not up to date about the funding situation in Scotland, as it’s been some time since I’ve sought support for a production from Creative Scotland. I know they’ve had their troubles recently and that some in the Scottish arts community lost faith in them for a while, but I’m really not that clued in on the situation right now. They continue to finance schemes such as DigiCult (with whom I made my short film, PARIS/SEXY (2010) for the development and commission of short work, but as far as I can tell, this is the only avenue for shorts production in Scotland. I’m really grateful for the support I’ve had from them.
NEVADA is an interesting approach to Monroe’s relationship with Miller. What was it about what Marilyn represents that made you take a look at the subject? And what themes do you think you incorporated within your work and with the music of the band Lau?
I listened to Lau’s music first. Lau had given me the track-list for Race The Loser and I was allowed to select whichever ones I liked, to write 20 minutes to. I wanted to attempt something in three acts, but present them out of order, bringing a different weight to each and challenging an audience’s perspective, so I selected the three tracks, which I felt built a narrative. TORSA was always going to be the conclusion. Dave’s interpretation of the piece described a dark cloud drifting to reveal blue skies. This idea stuck.
I wanted to write about a separation, and the journey between sensitivity and aggression to create a portrait of a couple once very much in love, now out of it and reaching a critical point where they need to sever ties. I had this in mind when I was reading an article by Jacqueline Rose on Monroe in the London Review of Books. Monroe is a subject I’ve long been passionate about, and find the period of her marriage to Miller particularly interesting. It hit me that the Monroe/Miller marriage and its demise, would be a perfect model for the couple I wanted to write with the concept, that after you get what you want, you don’t want it – at the core.
There’s a great deal of complexity to who Marilyn was and who she was with Arthur. They were a couple that used one another; who promised to save one another, who failed to do so and who wound up hating each other. I have a load of different feelings about Miller and his effect on Monroe. I’m very interested in the apparent ‘tug’ between them and how their tempestuous relationship played out.
It does seem to me as though they liked the ‘idea’ of one another more than the reality of being together. I’m also interested in how post-marriage (and post-Marilyn’s death) Miller continually re-imagined her – his way – as a figure in his work. It was as though he was repeatedly attempting to process what went wrong, who she was and ultimately, in my opinion, as a means of defending himself.
I’d like to share one quote with you. These are words by Miller, analyzing the end of his marriage to Monroe, from the mouth of a character, in his last play ‘FINISHING THE PICTURE’:
“She doesn’t like me, Edna. And how could she – I didn’t save her, I didn’t do the miracle I kind of promised. And she didn’t save me, as she promised. So nothing moved, you know? It was like we kept endlessly introducing ourselves to one another. I’m afraid of her now – I have no idea what she’s going to do next. I wonder if maybe there was just too much hope, we drank it, swam in it. And for fear of losing it didn’t dare look inside. A sad story.”
Marilyn didn’t make life easy for Miller and her intolerance of him peaked during filming of her last completed movie, THE MISFITS in the Nevada desert. Miller wrote the film for her, as a Valentine’s gift apparently, and so that she could have the opportunity to play a ‘serious’ role. But while in Nevada, Marilyn reportedly treated Miller like shit, and regularly humiliated him in front of the crew. By this point she was pretty much lost to the grip of drugs and alcohol and felt deeply betrayed by her husband, in a whole variety of ways. They ended up unable to speak to one another, let alone be in the same space together, and divorced following the film’s completion. The happiest days of their marriage were the first and the last.
Cast and crew went into the shoot with four major themes of hate, rescue, performance and loss at the forefront of our minds.
I wished to examine the ON/OFF nature of Marilyn’s persona; the luminescent façade and the darkness of despair and turmoil within her; the constant yanking between her image and her identity. If I am brutally honest with myself, I would admit that a weakness of the film is that it fails to deliver on this aspect fully enough. I feel NEVADA became the man’s film, rather than being even-handed, as I think we are always with the man and what he’s feeling, whereas we are more-often watching the woman and are denied a level of access to her interior, which I had been seeking to express.
You cast Missy Malone the burlesque artist to play the character representing Marilyn. Why did you cast her and how did you approach her with the idea?
Kim (Missy) was muse-worthy from the instant we met, over a decade ago now. I’ve worked with her on several projects previous to NEVADA, collaborating mainly on short films, but also on a variety of other artistic endeavors.
There was never going to be a standard script for NEVADA, nor a generous amount of time for rehearsals, so I needed performers for the roles whom I already trusted, who trusted me, and who trusted one another. Kim was the immediate choice for the female character and Louis became the obvious choice for the male. Both actors are very comfortable improvising and taking live direction from me, as we weren’t recording sound. I didn’t require Kim to ‘look’ like Marilyn (though she is startlingly chameleon-like) , but what I did call for in this role was that Kim give herself over to me completely and be willing – as she consistently does – to draw generously from her own reserves of emotion, of experience and to expose those aspects of herself.
Possibly the most important facet of Kim and Louis’ pairing was that they were totally at ease ‘handling’ one another in the intensely physical fight stuff. Kim could trust that Louis wouldn’t drop her, and Louis permitted Kim to throw absolutely everything she had at him. Plus, they riled the fuck out of each other in character. They were terrifying actually.
In inviting Kim to play the role, I don’t think I told her much other than, “I need you, on these dates.”
Can you tell us a bit about the cinematography and the reasons behind your color palette?
In setting out to shoot, there were 6 different ‘set ups’ for NEVADA, two per song. The palettes for each were dictated chiefly by the location’s spaces, and by the costuming. All props were sourced or painted white, or left naturally wooden, metallic etc. In early talks about visual style, both Dave and I were more turned on by texture than color. Dave was particularly motivated by the contemporary artist, Anish Kapoor’s sculpture. These ideas extended to discussions with Emma MacFarlane who styled the wardrobes, and we chose to keep the costuming mainly monochrome and neutral or nude tones otherwise.
During the opening FAR FROM PORTLAND, where Kim/Missy and Louis dance and fight, we go between what I termed a ‘showdown’ and a ‘rodeo’, respectively. The tone and visual approach for these set-ups was rooted in themes and ideas I took from both Miller’s script and filming of THE MISFITS, and by extension from cowboy culture and the geographical location. The characters’ denims are in direct reference to 60’s styled Americana Western-wear.
I had read that the extreme desert heat had severely dehydrated the cast and crew on set, making sure everyone was well ratty and exhausted. For the line-dancing showdown I wanted a parched, dusty heat-cracked sensibility, plus the concept of wearing rotation. I asked Kim and Louis to imagine they’d been festering in the same airless room for days, unable look at one another, let alone bear talking. The door’s closed, but it’s not locked. Both going through the motions at a critical breaking point, neither able to find the impetus to just f**king get up and leave the other. Total stalemate.
As FAR FROM PORTLAND progressed we wanted the tone/visuals to become more physical, sweaty, raw, pink and fleshy. For the rodeo battle set-up, we aimed to create the rough feel of the Nevada desert in a combative arena, with sand. This was to be the antithesis of the showdown, the explosive expression of the hatred and frustration kept dangerously at bay. I saw the nature of the whole song as being a vivid and rustic tug-o-war: a frayed rope with a last remaining fiber, which ultimately snaps.
Following the brawl, SAINT MONDAY was intended to feel like an aftermath, rooted in the man’s reflective head space. Thematic motivations for this set-up had to do with cleansing, regret and release. Essentially, the man is handling deep-set guilt about his sense of freedom, following his break from the woman, plus added guilt concerning his inability to ‘save’ her from ultimate demise.
We were interested in the structural examination of a space, showing it to be empty / vacant to create the feel of ‘absence’ and abandonment. Kris’ lyrics describe a forlorn warehouse where “all the machinery is all broken down,” which I think works really nicely here.
During the opening of TORSA the images we see of Kim smoking luxuriantly in a widow-black gown are completely inspired by Bert Stern’s famous Last Sitting photo session with Marilyn; which was float-y, fragile and played with transparency and layers. However, Dave and I kind of inverted the white, lightness with a melancholic, mournful dark. This set-up wanted to present an intoxicated figure switching on/off for the camera’s lens, while suggesting her descent onto a deathbed.
The ‘performance’ element of TORSA, where the woman dances theatrically for the man, was intended to have the dewy Hollywood glow of Marilyn’s 50s movies; a dream-like warmth in which we see the characters basking before all the forecast badness. Tonally, we wanted the ‘stage’ section of TORSA to feel full of hope, promise and innocence…
…Compared with what we thought of, as the ‘backstage’ set-up, where the woman is shown in cold, lonely shadows.
Great location – what was the process of finding that ideal loc for your film and what aspects in particular were you searching for?
We filmed NEVADA on different levels across two separate empty industrial Victorian warehouse spaces in Glasgow’s South Side. I was SO chuffed to have discovered the location/s because the minute we entered the spaces on our recce, David and I knew they were just perfect. The character, light, textures and expanses on offer throughout the atmospheric buildings, truly spoiled us for choice.
I was interested in the concept of ‘performance’ and the intensely public image of Monroe and Miller’s relationship, so initially I was looking at theater spaces for the cast to appear on stage. I approached loads of theaters in Glasgow and Edinburgh (both black box and proscenium arches), but while many were willing to accommodate in theory, they all had show-runs on during our imminent shoot dates.
I really wanted a raw, modern blank setting like the theaters in Glasgow’s Tramway, so I widened the search to abandoned spaces, which we could utilize as a ‘stage’. We looked at various warehouses, galleries and church halls, even the Victorian Govan swimming baths. I received a lot of support from the Edinburgh and Glasgow Film Offices during the hunt, and also from the locations department of Creative Scotland, who highlighted options including the location we selected which was privately owned by a property development company.
They were incredibly generous and accommodating and I ended up shooting a second project there too.
Do you think being Scottish and from Edinburgh has enriched your experiences of filmmaking, coming from such a cultured city?
Enormously. For the past couple of years I’ve been completely obsessed with the Highlands, and what I passionately believe is an incredibly fertile and overlooked territory for contemporary cinematic stories.
A producer once told me, that it is a part of the world where one would believe anything could happen. I fell in love with this perception and I’ve been trading on it (in story-terms) ever since! One time when I was on a writing retreat in Aviemore with my Dad, he told me there’s bits of the Highlands that no boot’s ever set foot on. This sent a wave of wonderment through me. It triggered an entire project.
As regards Edinburgh, without a doubt, my hometown is fabulously cultured. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow offer such a wealth of diverse arts, artists and artistic environments. I spend a lot of time away from home with work, and it forces me to acknowledge how much I take for granted living in Edinburgh.
From the age of 18 I worked in Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, a dearly loved cinematic institution, which thrives on the cinema-goers’ passion for the screen. Working there meant I was fortunate enough to be immersed in a decade’s worth of Edinburgh International Film Festivals as well.
What are you working on now? What’s the next project going to be and are there any themes in particular that you are interested in exploring?
Right now I’m about to delve into development on a play I’ve written for a programme with the National Theatre of Scotland called MOUNTAIN, which explores themes to do with isolation, homesickness and self-destructive tendencies; two numbed strangers come together to break and melt in the wintry Scottish Highlands. I completed an exploratory first draft just before Christmas and now it’s about mining the characters and finessing the story structure.
Thematically, I’m big on guilt, sacrifice, and emotional extremities, and will be developing a feature length version of a short horror encompassing these ideas, which I wrote last year, called BRAN MALCOLM SLAUGHTER (with Wellington Films). It’s a bloody coming-of-age story about the unbreakable cord lashing parent to child, inspired in part by the Sluagh of Scottish folk-lore.
I’m also working on the germ of a brash, kinetic road-movie thriller in the vein of BONNIE & CLYDE or THELMA & LOUISE where a young brother and sister run away, believing they’ve killed someone. And I’m musing on a realist romcom about modern women, sex and shit relationships and I’m hoping it will be recognizable and riotous.
I’ll continually return to drama that deals with epic, passionate and obsessive relationships, power structures, scandal and secrets and I’m committed to continue learning about and writing characters with mental health issues.