Interview with ASFF Best Dance Film Winner

Individual voices weave into one song whilst steps taken in rhythm create one procession. Marlene Millar’s dance film Lay Me Low is a powerful piece featuring 10 performers who are communicating the feeling of mourning through individual emotions though, paradoxically, evoking a sense of intimacy as they move in unison. Lay Me Low was awarded Best Dance Film at ASFF 2016. We catch up with Millar to explore this work in detail.

ASFF: Lay Me Low communicates the feeling of loss and mourning through song and dance. What prompted you to make this film?
MM: I was invited by choreographer Sandy Silva to see the new work she was developing with a group of performers. We had just met at an event where we had each been invited to show some solo work; I showed a series of projections called Botany and Anatomy, melding bodies with nature and Sandy sang a beautiful song, accompanying herself with body percussion.

When I went to see her work it was without any pretense of making a film, it was just an open invitation to see this new work she was creating with an eclectic group comprised of dancers, singers, and musicians; all dancing, singing and accompanying themselves with Sandy’s very personal approach to body percussion. The first piece she showed me was a work-in-progress of Lay Me Low. I was immediately struck, and deeply moved, by the emotional register of the work and I couldn’t help but to start scripting the work in my mind as it was being performed before me. The desire to share that initial profound emotional response I had felt was all the prompting I needed.

ASFF: What were the challenges that you faced in capturing this emotion in film, and how were they overcome?
MM: The narrative arc is built into the choreography so intrinsically that I felt compelled to follow it and use it as a foundation for the structure and treatment of the film. Nonetheless, filmmaking can be a very disruptive process for performers and I knew that one of the big challenges would be performing the work out-of-doors and I would need to dig deep into my filmmaking toolkit to be sure that the performers could enter the focused space they needed to be in to sing and move in such synchronicity and harmony.

We were extremely well organised with a shot list, storyboard and experienced production crew, but nonetheless many choices had to made on the spot due to the shifting weather conditions and all ten performers were amazing in their willingness to change things up at the last minute. We had to constantly wait for the right light, the clouds were moving quickly, blocking the sunlight and there was rain both days of shooting. It was also very cold and between takes the performers had to put coats and hats on to stay warm. The steadicam shots on the last sequence by the water were redone as one long take 23 times. Directing the team of performers as well as the camera operators and camera assistants was a big challenge, but we were all dancing together, and everyone was committed to getting the shots right.

ASFF: With a background in contemporary dance, choreography and movement have played a huge part in your career. What is it about dance that you find so inspiring?
MM: Dance is a form of expression that I have always been drawn to. I see the emotions, shapes and stories in dance works much as one might read a poem or any literary work and be inspired to adapt it to the screen. Visual art, dance, and film have been my fields of study and the principles of each discipline have influenced the others along the way in my development as a filmmaker.

When I was dancing I was always drawn to the geography and design of real spaces – be they natural or architectural – as places to perform and to create work in. I was always able to find inspiration in existing spaces, so I’d bring along a video camera to record what I was doing, and I quickly become entranced by the frame and how it could define both space and movement. As the filmic process started influencing the choreographic and performative process my practice shifted from dance to cinema and I began to see dance as a language that I could rewrite cinematically.

ASFF: What is your favourite thing about being a filmmaker?
MM: Collaborating with so many fascinating people, from the artists whose work I have adapted to the screen to all of the film artists I’ve had the honour of working with; directors, cinematographers, sound designers, composers, editors, technicians. I love the exchange and discussion, that for me, is fundamental in creation. I also love the craft of filmmaking, whether working on celluloid or digitally, I am forever in awe of the endless possibilities and results that can be created in this medium.

ASFF: What film projects do you have in the pipeline for 2017?
MM: I have some really wonderful projects underway. Currently in production is an experimental essay documentary involving a process-oriented approach to filmmaking, working in both analog and digital media, leading to a single or multichannel projection. The working title is Witness and the project examines shifting family dynamics, with a particular focus on how dementia affects these relationships.  This project is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, and it is my first grant as an established filmmaker in the documentary category.

Two short films, Move and Pilgrimage, that I directed in September for the Migration Dance Film Project series are in post-production (Lay Me Low is the fist film in this series). In June Sandy Silva and I had the fabulous occasion to focus on writing and developing the treatment for these films at a residency in Saint-Etienne, France, hosted and supported by Stéla DesArts, DesCinés and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.

I am also directing a short experimental film with Charmaine LeBlanc, a frequent and longtime collaborator. We are working with two amazing award winning artists, dancer Carol Prieur and illustrator Pol Turgeon. 1001 Lights, an impressionistic installation co-created with Philip Szporer and our company Mouvement Perpétuel was completed earlier this year. Through a three screen mosaic of images it reveals the intimate and life-affirming quality of the Sabbath candle-lighting ceremony.

To watch the Trailer of Lay Me Low, visit: https://vimeo.com/125331919

ASFF 2017 is now open for entries. For submission guidelines and to enter, visit www.asff.co.uk/submit

Credits
1. Marlene Millar, Lay Me Low.