An extreme life

Lucy Lawless on telling the story of Margaret Moth in Never Look Away

by Paul Risker

Margaret Moth in Never Look Away
Margaret Moth in Never Look Away

Lucy Lawless steps behind the camera for the first time as a director to tell the story of fellow New Zealander, Margaret Moth, who passed away in March 2010. A trailblazing combat camerawoman who worked for CNN, Moth’s images from the frontlines of conflicts including Desert Storm and the Bosnian War, confronted people in their homes with the abject reality of war. Her footage not only caught historic moments but framed the violent and merciless propensity of human beings to dehumanise others.

Moth herself was a contradictory figure, living a carefree and hedonistic lifestyle of sex, drugs and thrill-seeking, whose life was transformed after she was shot by a sniper’s bullet in Sarajevo. Never Look Away charts her endurance against adversity, peeling away the layers of her life to offer an understanding of its enigmatic subject.

In conversation with Eye For Film, Lawless discussed discovering the pleasure of directing and the privilege of telling Moth’s story.

Paul Risker: From first deciding to make this film to now, what has the experience revealed to you about Margaret?

Lucy Lawless: Understanding came very late in the process. I was intrigued right away because she was so many extreme things. She was a polarising character with nothing in-between. She eschews everything normal - she doesn't want to be a mother, doesn't want to get married, doesn't really come to adult relationships much, but she has a problem with males and authority. Yet people described her as being very softly spoken.

It shocked me when I heard her - she's got this tiny voice, a little Kiwi accent and she carried herself like a ballerina, but you thought she’d be a ball buster with a deep voice. She wasn't like that at all, but when she came up against aggression in the Middle East, in Saddam's Iraq, she was going to punch a policeman's lights out because he offended her. She was so many contradictory things that I couldn’t figure out what made her who she was.

It was only when I met her family who are all a little bit like her, that I understood the pitilessness of her childhood was what enabled her to endure a terrible assault to her being when she was shot during the [Bosnian] war. It was an injury that would have killed a young man and yet Margaret was able to survive because she had zero pity for herself. So that was Margaret’s magic ingredient.

My love for her waxed and waned. I was immediately intrigued, and I immediately loved her, then as I got to know her, I became a bit judgemental. I hope that doesn't come across in the film. Ultimately when I understood her, I felt this colossal love because of her humanity. What I love is the messiness of being a human - how our flaws are important, and our deficits can sometimes be our grace. That's what made her, and she did eventually achieve a state of grace.

From being a thrill-seeking hedonist to somebody who lived for others was a remarkable transformation. But the lessons were learnt at a horrible cost. She lived an extreme life, and she lived it on her own terms. She was never sorry, she never looked away and she never looked back. It was a life without regrets.

We're all intrigued by that because we all suffer regret. We all have that neuroticism where we worry at 4am about something we’ve said – we’re not like Margaret and that’s why she's so interesting. I'd like to be a little more like her and a little less like myself. She’s also inspiring because she thrived when so much had been ripped away from her. She makes you realise that you too can reach a little higher to get that thing you thought was out of your grasp. I hope that is the takeaway.

PR: You don’t tell Margaret’s story from the beginning, instead you create interlocking chapters, peeling back the layers of her personality, relationships and experiences to understand her captivating persona.

LL: Well, part of the decision for doing that is how to hook the audience and make them lean in. She [Margaret] arrived in America and she was an international mystery woman. She had no memory seemingly of her past and they all just accepted that as being this outlandish character. To my mind, the sex, the drugs and the music, lying around the pool and skydiving, she was living quite a sybaritic existence.

She was a thrill seeker and then she went to war, and at the burning coalface of human conflict is where she found her zen. She's an interesting human being and there's a lot about her I couldn't fit into this film. I could make another film about the other side of things, but sometimes less is more. The rollercoaster ride you want audiences to go on, you've got to keep it tight. Her story would make a great miniseries.

PR: It comes back to this question whether any of us want to be fully understood, or do we want to hold something back for ourselves?

LL: You're right, and if Margaret were available to us, it would not be as good a film. She would give us a definitive account, and everyone would say, "Well, she's the authority.” But actually, truth is an aggregate of other people's memories and you as an audience get to decide who you think this person was – assuming I've made you care enough about her.

The other reason it unfolded in that way was that’s the order I learned about her. The understanding of her came deep into the editing process. I just couldn't figure out what made her the way she was, until I had the family in place.

PR: What’s striking is how the visual aesthetic lends the film a creative dimension, that compliments Margaret’s provocative and contradictory personality.

LL: We didn't want to use any CGI or any of that shit – it doesn't move me. I like it in other people's work, but not mine. So, we were using old technology – diorama. If you're a kid from the Seventies you’ll remember diorama - it's so old that it's fresh again. Also, the aesthetic is born out of what you don't have. We didn't have money for green screen backgrounds, so we had black curtains, which was perfect because it’s creepy and it's very underground. It's lit for day, but the sky is black, and the sound is compressed, so we're going to put the audience in uncanny valley, because it's a dream sequence, it's memory when we go into the diorama. Also, we needed to use the expressionistic dancer, call it a Butoh dance. It’s a recent Japanese tradition that’s fricking amazing.

This was because we didn't have any visual evidence of the depths of Margaret's despair. She's smiling in every shot, she's brazening her way through, and I don't have on camera the day she was shot. We had to create it and a lot of the budget went into filling those moments. That's why we used those expressionistic things because of what we didn't have. We had these wonderful artists, like Robin Charles who did those title cards, by taking the photo and posterising the photocards. He's a real savant and he only works on projects that he likes. We were lucky to have Robin buy into our project.

I was a first-time director and my team were so good to me. They could have tried to bully me, but they all wanted me to have my vision. They took my vision and realised it in such an elegant way. I'm so grateful to all of them.

PR: Some of the things that come into our lives and define us, were impossible to have imagined. Is directing something you’ve imagined doing?

LL: This I didn't see coming; I've never wanted to direct. I imagined everything in my life except this. I imagined having kids and getting married to somebody who I knew probably wouldn't be a New Zealander because the pool is too small [laughs]. They'd all look like my brothers; not attractive.

Anyway, I imagined being a world-famous actress and I remember as a kid imagining my Michael Aspel or Parkinson interview [laughs]. I've had multiple offers to direct, but I always found it to be the worst, most boring job ever. When you're doing a project that's initiated by you and it’s your vision that everyone is working towards, it's a wholly different experience, and it has hooked me.

I feel like the spirit of Margaret compelled me to make this. It wanted to be told so bad that it used me to do it and I feel so lucky. But I never envisaged it, I never wanted to direct, and now, it’s all I want to do. Hooked!

PR: Filmmakers have described directing as being like a drug, having a child or going to war. These seem dramatic flourishes, but why are directors often dramatic when talking about filmmaking?

LL: The reason that they're dramatic is that you have to dive into the decision to do it, otherwise you're going to throw in the towel. It’s an intense and frustrating process, in which a lot of things are not in your control. It captures your heart and soul and so you dive into it, and that's why they're dramatic.

I realised how fricking hard it is to get a film made, but that said, from start to finish this was two years – that’s unbelievable. My husband is a producer, and he says it's a five-year process to get a film made.

Although this is a documentary style film, I don't call it a documentary because it's allowed to be subjective, and I let the audience make up their mind about all the elements in it. I'm not there to educate you - you're there to enjoy yourself.

I want it to be an emotional experience, and the same way I experience a character, I want you to experience my film. When I'm acting, I'm feeling that character somatically and I want you to enter into discovering Margaret and her crazy friends. I want you to have your own feelings about it. So, I'm trying to engineer a somatic experience in you, the audience.

PR: While the film centres on Margaret, we’re introduced to familiar news anchors currently on US television. Through this one person, the stories or experiences of others are told, as well as reminding us of the history of modern war. Beneath this it’s a story about the cyclical and devastating violence that has uprooted and torn lives apart.

LL: It's not a film about conflict or politics, it's about one woman's interaction with the people on the ground at the burning coalface. And it's also about the dangers for news gatherers and how much respect and protection they deserve from all of us. I'm sick of hearing people disrespecting those people at war. No matter what their network's agenda might be, these people are utterly heroic, and in my experience they’re there to bring the images of the innocent, non-combatants of war. The real cost of war is happening to innocent people who did not choose to participate in this conflict. These journalists are non-combatants and they all deserve our protection.

PR: Your point speaks about how adversarial we’ve become and how we’re dehumanising ourselves and others.

LL: … Put aside emotional thinking and go ask, “How can I contribute to the net good and realise what's in the scope of my influence? Go and help a refugee in your community, help them practically engage in society so that they're not also living in this nightmarish news cycle just like you. Let's come together and be of practical support to one another instead of living in the news. It's good to dip in and know what's going on, but you cannot live there and you're not helping them by tweeting out your rage.

Never Look Away screened as part of Sundance 2024’s ‘World Cinema Documentary Competition.’

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