Cloud city

Jane Spencer on London, aristocrats, starving artists and The Ninth Cloud.

by Jennie Kermode

Passing through London
Passing through London

She’s a poet, a theatre director and a self-proclaimed former starving artist. Now the prolific Jane Spencer has brought her third film, The Ninth Cloud, to Raindance, and she’s talking about it with an enthusiasm the feels like more than the usual promotional line. With just a hint of Texan still present in her accent, she speaks with the characteristic pace and excitability of her adopted New York City, but it’s London where her film is set, and she quickly recalls her own time living there when I ask her how the complex story in this film developed.

“I got the idea from, oh gosh, when I was in London I guess I had some personal tragedies and I guess at one time I developed this thing about wearing a coat,” she begins.

The heroine of her film, Zena, wears a big black coat that she thinks makes her look sophisticated. “So the coat was real?” I ask.

Megan Maczko in that coat
Megan Maczko in that coat

“Yes, the coat was real,” she admits, laughing. “It was sort of a buffer between me and the world, and it really gave me the idea to make the film. Then I quit wearing that coat! The film came from a combo of things really. There was a kid in Los Angeles who had lost his leg and was very poor and a group of us tried to raise money to get him a leg [a plot strand that appears in the film] so it’s slightly autobiographical but not very, because all writers take from everything in their lives really. I also wanted to look at England and that divide between the very rich and the poor.”

Exploring this divide, she tells me, meant finding two groups of people, whom she has termed ‘the aristocrats’ and ‘the starving artists’. “I had a whole group of kind of aristocrats hanging out in a hotel, kind of one unit. Leo Gregory was wonderful and really went against his type to play this vacuous guy lusting after some kind of celebrity for himself.”

A lot of the characters are highly pretentious. Did she find it difficult to get a balance between telling their stories and mocking their behaviour?

“It was tricky,” she acknowledges. “I mean some people may think I am in a way but I’m not. I do feel for these characters, even the aristocrats, because they’re still having their own kind of struggles. I don’t sympathise with Brett [Gregory’s character] but I think he’s funny. I used to know a few people like that. They’d chase after celebrity cars and do things like run into premières, grab a celebrity they didn’t know and pose with him, so I guess I was a bit but I didn’t want to make fun of anyone.”

When it came to her main characters she was aware of the same risks but put a lot of faith in her actors. “I decided on an unknown, Megan Maczko, for the lead because she’s wonderful and because I didn’t want it to be Oh, there’s a big name actor,” she explains. She sees Zena as a dreamer who somehow manages to achieve what she wants – “You could say she’s a successful dreamer” – and adds “I think she’s looking for some kind of hope and spirituality in the world. She gets it from a befuddled Michael Madsen character. He’s struggling with a lot of things and really he’s not in a position to have a relationship with anyone but I think he likes that flattery that she gives him and how she idealises how he is as an artist. Michael’s really like that - he gets really confused if someone likes him.”

Zena and Bob
Zena and Bob

Picking Michael for the role of Bob, the artist and small time scammer Zena adores, happened at the suggestion of a friend who thought he would be right for the part because he’s a poet himself. Jane hesitated at first. “I said no because I’d only seen him in Tarantino films running around with a gun, but actually he really is a poet - he has written quite a few acclaimed books of poetry - so it was interesting to me and casting completely against what you think. I wanted to cast someone who looked kind of weary and like he had been through a lot, not the usual romantic archetype. Michael was wonderful, he’s really nice and not at all somebody who runs around with a gun.”

The other really important character to get right was the amputee boy whom Bob and Zena set out to help. “I wanted to make him not some pathetic character but someone trying to be his own person and doing okay in his own way. He’s self sufficient. So I used an actor who has a lot of self esteem [Airan Abrahams, in his big screen début]. I wanted him to be his own person not some poor guy who looks like he’s sad and having terrible problems. I mean he’s not happy, in the role, but he’s onto it with Bob, he’s knows he’s not going to do anything for him, at least not at that time anyway. He’s getting by and he’s not part of a social group like the aristocrats or the artists, but Zena decides she’s going to make something happen for him.

Hanging out in coffee shops
Hanging out in coffee shops

“It was really difficult to pitch so I just decided do it as a low budget independent film and get finance for it... It helped that we had a lot of very wonderful actors who were very into it. We had Guillaume Depardieu, Gérard Depardieu’s son, at one time but he died, sadly, so Jean-Hugues Anglade took that role, and we had people like Asia Argento interested at one time so we did not have trouble finding actors.”

She’s also full of praise for her crew, including editor Herbert Hunger who helped her pull the disparate strands of the story together, and costume designers Elizabeth Emanuel (known for designing Princess Diana’s wedding dress in collaboration with her husband David) who dressed the aristocrats, and Junko Kanayama, who designed the starving artists’ clothes. “I was a starving artist myself for a bit,” she says. “I was in New York City on the Lower East Side so I did that whole thing, and I lived in London for about three years. Some of my friends are still starving artists.”

Considering the film as a whole, she says “I hope it hearkens back to somebody looking for something kind of innocent in the world, looking for spirituality in a materialistic and mechanised world. People might think I’m a bit pretentious myself actually, saying that!”

That’s an inevitable danger though, isn’t it, finding comedy in others’ artistic endeavours whilst creating a piece of art?

“It is kind of tough,” she says, “and I think some people may call me on that, but the only thing you can really do is to laugh about everything.”

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