On cloud nine

Jane Spencer on The Ninth Cloud, South Of Hope Street and women in Hollywood

by Jennie Kermode

Jane Spencer
Jane Spencer

Just over three years ago, I interviewed Jane Spencer about her film The Ninth Cloud. That film will enjoy a special screening in London, where it's set, on the12th of February, and Jane is working on a new film, South Of Hope Street. She took time out from her busy schedule to catch up and discuss her current projects.

"It's a science fiction piece. It also has a female lead. I'd compare it to a film like Alphaville," she says of South Of Hope Street. "Michael [Madsen] has a cameo role in it as a kind of hippy character, and that's funny for him. Also we have Hilmir Snær Guðnason, who was in a film called 101 Rejkjavik a while back, and he's brilliant. And an Arab actor named Zafer El-Abedin who plays an immigrant in the film, he's wonderful also. Tanna Frederick is my lead actress. She's done a lot of independent work in America. It's an unusual piece. I'm really excited to be filming that.

"It looks like we'll finish in April. We shot for a month and then I got a Christmas and New Year's holiday before I went back to work. So I'm excited about that, and then we're working on releasing The Ninth Cloud in England and then in Europe. We just released it on iTunes in Canada and America, and I wanted to do a theatrical thing to bring some of the cast back and get it going in Europe.

"Since I last spoke with you we've done a lot of festivals and we were nominated for a prize at the Chicago Art Film Festival."

I ask how it's been received on the festival circuit.

"It's crazy!" she responds. "Well, not crazy, because obviously I'm really happy about it, but honestly, we haven't received any negative reviews, so far. It's been well received and I always feel like England is more friendly to the film. Maybe it's because it has that type of humour in it, it's a little darker. So I hope it will be received well.

"I think people who know London might recognise it a little better in the film. It's set in the Nineties, in the art scene. I think people who live in New York might also relate to it, because these art types are in New York. It's moved from downtown New York to Williamsburg and differet places, the art scene, and then there's always people struggling. When I was in New York it was the Lower East Side, but now it's more Brooklyn."

I note that one of the things that struck me about The Ninth Cloud was how it addresses the vast wealth gap between different London residents, and I suggest that probably applies to New York as well. She concurs.

Party time in The Ninth Cloud
Party time in The Ninth Cloud

"I was in London for a while in the late Nineties and early 2000s, hanging out and kind of seeing what was going on, but I lived in New York before that for a very long time. It's kind of the same everywhere really, like Berlin or wherever you go where there's stuff going on like that. You have your people who live in warehouses and barely have any money. I don't know where that's moved to in New York now because I think Williamsburg has been taken over by trust fund kids."

We return to South Of Hope Street, and Jane tells me how she gave the script to a famous director, "And then I saw my movie on the big screen! With a much bigger budget than I could ever have imagined. I was very, very upset, because I gave him the script five years before and they said they weren't going to do science fiction. And it's not the same as what I'm shooting, but the core is the same. I don't know specifically what happened. I gave the script to the producer there and kind of didn't think about it, and then everybody said 'You'd better go and see that movie.' I just thought, 'You know what, I'm just gonna make my own film. And if anybody asks me about it I'll say 'Yes, similar, isn't it?'" She laughs.

"I guess that kind of thing happens all the time," she continues. "It could just be a psychological thing where the producer read it and said something to him about it, but it was similar enough that I did see a lawyer. But I decided to just make my own movie and not spend my time suing someone. They said it would take, like, ten years to come to a conclusion, and thousands and thousands of dollars... Thousands of dollars I could put into my film, energy I could put into my film."

The famous director's version takes a fairly simplistic approach, she says, whereas hers is more of a mystery, more metaphysical. Although she decided not to sue, she wonders if women and less famous people more generally are vulnerable to people thinking they can use their work in that kind of way.

Bored aristocrats
Bored aristocrats

We discuss the recent protests about how women are treated in the industry, at the Golden Globes.

"I love what Natalie Portman did," says Jane, referring to the actress' decision to announce that the award she was presenting was more the best male director, thereby highlighting the absence of female names on the list. "Obviously I don't believe in trashing directors because of their gender, because it's not their fault, it's really the fault of this institution. But it was brilliant because she called attention to it and I'm sure some of the male directors didn't appreciate it but it's not about them. Obviously they're accomplished with what they did and someof them are really great directors, but it's really, why wasn't Greta Gerwig nominated as Best Director? It's a little bit weird that it's still going on that there are seven women directing films in Hollywood and three thousand men, like when I directed my first film. What is that?

"I'm glad there's attention being called to it and honestly, I think it's a reaction against bigotry. That's what the black dresses are, they're against bigots... There's such bigotry in the film industry against women. We're 50% of the planet and our viewpoints are really muffled. So I find that really strange. I'm also friends with Rose McGowan, who kind of opened things up. She started everything really."

I ask if she thinks this extends to female characters in films, and she agrees, but not without some optimism.

"I'm also going to be doing a film on Erik Satie, and Jean-Hugues Anglade is going to play Erik Satie, but we have women in the film too, like Suzanne Valadon [to be played by Rosanna Arquette], who was a powerful artist. I always like to give parts for women in my films where either they're accomplished, like even in my first film, Little Noises, or they're the lead character. It makes it harder with distribution, to be honest, because there's still this idea that if it's not a man who's well known, it'll have a harder time. But I think it's getting better for women. It's very slow, but I think progress is being made.

Looking at the stars
Looking at the stars

"The film I'm shooting now, obviously, has a female lead, and the film I'm making about Erik Satie, which will be next year, has some very strong female characters, including Megan Maczko, who's in The Ninth Cloud. She will play a female Dadaist."

She's hoping that the special screening of The Ninth Cloud in London, which she'll be attending in person, will raise its profile.

"I'm proud of the film. It's produced my a lot of women. I wrote and directed it and there's a female lead character and, I guess, very much a female viewpoint. She's her own woman, even though she's putting her energy into the Michael Madsen character to avoid what's happened in her life. She's hiding away from the world and trying to create her own world but I also wanted to make sure that she wasn't a weak character.

"If [your readers] enjoy the idea of a strong person trying to make their way in a difficult world, they'll like this film. It's somebody who has their own vision of the world... I hope people will give the film a chance."

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