An American story

Discovering MA with Celia Rowlson-Hall, Ian Bloom and Iva Radivojevic.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

MA director Celia Rowlson-Hall with Anne-Katrin Titze, editor Iva Radivojevic and DP Ian Bloom at IFC Center
MA director Celia Rowlson-Hall with Anne-Katrin Titze, editor Iva Radivojevic and DP Ian Bloom at IFC Center Photo: Ed Bahlman

A quintet comprised of Lena Dunham, Hailey Benton Gates, Durga Chew-Bose, Siobhan Burke, and myself moderated the post-screening discussions for Celia Rowlson-Hall's American fairy tale MA on its opening weekend in New York.

MA stars Rowlson-Hall with a terrific speechless supporting cast including Andrew Pastides, Amy Seimetz, Jason Kittelberger, Neal Bledsoe, Matt Lauria, Kentucker Audley, Peter Vack, William Connell, George McArthur, and Bobbi Jene Smith. In the tradition of Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night or Uma Thurman thumbing a ride in Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, a modern-day Virgin Mary hitchhikes across the Southwest, ultimately arriving in Las Vegas where she meets Nevada showgirls and a tiny singing Queen Victoria lookalike.

Celia Rowlson-Hall: "I really wanted to tell an American story."
Celia Rowlson-Hall: "I really wanted to tell an American story."

With a palpitating score by Brian McOmber, fitting costumes by Allison Pearce, rhythmic editing by Iva Radivojevic and the scorching cinematography of Ian Bloom, MA is worth far more than rubies. First shown at MoMA PS1 in the VW Dome as a Special Event during the 14th Tribeca Film Festival, MA had its world premiere in Venice. On Friday the 13th at the IFC Center, after the 6:30pm screening, I started out with MA's equipment from head to toe.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Celia, you are very precise and at the same time very open in the way you introduce us to MA. She is wearing a pink T-shirt, a white hotel towel over her head and red cowboy boots. The cowboy boots are red because of The Wizard Of Oz? Because of The Red Shoes [Hans Christian Andersen's tale and Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger's film]? Because she is a cowboy? Can you talk a little bit about these details?

Celia Rowlson-Hall: Absolutely. The white hotel towel because I wanted to make her a modern-day Virgin and I imagined her on this sort of endless journey of hotel room to desert and hotel room. And the only way to actually protect herself from the sun and the heat is by stealing an old hotel towel. The T-shirt - I wanted to make sure that MA looked very androgynous and didn't have a truly feminine or masculine form. So I wanted her to sort of just look a bit like the desert.

MA poster - IFC Center
MA poster - IFC Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

So that's why we took a very oversize shirt and I worked with this specific shirt a lot to make sure that I could move in and out. Because at night, her arms are outside of her body and during the day, they are inside the shirt. Allie Pearce, the costume designer, she took the bugs and the flowers from the desert and used that to dye the shirts so that they actually felt like they were from that space there. And then, you know, I really wanted to tell an American story. Sort of take a page from a Western book and so that's why we put MA in cowboy boots.

And then red boots, for two reasons: One - I found them on sale. And Two - there's a couple of nods to The Wizard Of Oz in this film because it's what I believe one of our only American fairy tales. And there's ways in which I'm trying to create my own fairy tale a bit inside of this.

AKT: Have you always filmed in the desert? You are a great cinematographer for the desert …

Ian Bloom (in jest): I only do the desert!

AKT: Talk a bit about that.

IB: I don't know that there's anything specific about it, shooting in the desert. There's lots of logistical issues, shooting in the desert.

AKT: Some of the edits are really surprising. I'm thinking, for example, of the somersault turning into a dip in the pool. How did the two of you work on these edits that make us enter different worlds?

Iva Radivojevic: Let's see … I think every director has a certain sort of vision or emotional place where they are coming from. Sometimes it's easy to get that out, sometimes it's more difficult. But the good thing with Celia is that she really knows what she wants and even if there is confusion, she gets back to it the next day and knows what she wants. I think we were trying to find what was emotionally happening in the film.

"I imagined her on this sort of endless journey of hotel room to desert and hotel room."
"I imagined her on this sort of endless journey of hotel room to desert and hotel room."

And, I said this before, she is a dancer and I like to dance, so we tried to make the edit sort of dance and everything can have a certain flow. But that's my favourite cut! I think we came up with it together, it wasn't just me.

CRH: There's a couple I know, and Ian you can probably help with this, where we wrote the cuts into the shooting. And then finding like cutting on walking of feet to introduce new characters and what not.

IB: That particular cut was in the storyboards.

AKT: Tell us about these seven men! Seven menacing men who are credited with professions that are usually not seen as that menacing. There are seven of them, and - speaking of fairy tales - they have nothing in common with the Seven Dwarfs. How did they come to be?

CRH: The seven men, they are all characters who are intended to save, whether it's a lifeguard or a policeman or a giant in more like fairy-tale-esque stories. I wanted this moment … I guess, in most sort of storytelling in cinema, when we depict rapists , we depict them as these, like, terrible disgusting men. And I guess the reality though is that they are also powerful. I mean, the person who is about to run our country sexually assaults women.

Opening night for MA at IFC Center
Opening night for MA at IFC Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The thing is, there's actually for me, having to put these men of power as the ones who are doing this to her, feels like it raises more questions that I have around rape culture in general. I also gave them crazy costumes because there's also something about wanting them to feel a bit stereotypical and otherworldly, like the priest, etc.

Coming up - Cinematographer Ian Bloom on preparation and Celia Rowlson-Hall on exercising, American boredom and cigarettes, locations, the Virgin Mary as inspiration, and Ian as her dance partner.

MA at the IFC Center in New York runs through January 19.

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