Roshell Bissett: Winter Lily
An interview with Montreal-based filmmaker/teacher Roshell Bissett
Montreal-based filmmaker/teacher Roshell Bissett was born in Ottawa in 1968, where she earned a BFA in painting at the University of Ottawa in 1991. She completed her second BFA in cinema at Concordia University in 1993. Her first films were the shorts Stella Signata (1993) and Eating Noodles by the Mekong (1994). Filmed in Japan, her featurette Cotton Candy won the best short film award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1997 and at the New York Underground Film Festival in 1998. Winter Lily is Bissett’s first feature film. For a review of Winter Lily.
I was surprised to find out that you did not know that your film was being released on video in the US by a company called Vanguard.
Yes I was really surprised as well, because I have not really had much contact with my producer or distributor for about two years. I tried calling them for a good six months and then I just gave up. So relations between us have not been very good. So when I found out about this from you I called them up and they denied it. So I do not know what is going on.
Well Fangoria magazine is pretty well connected, so I imagine it must be true.
I would not be surprised if they were not telling me the truth.
Should you be getting some kind of monetary compensation?
Yes I should be getting all kinds of monetary compensation. I also was hired to write another script for them and they have kind of stolen that from me.
So what is this production company called?
Aska. But they are no longer around anymore, it is frozen.
Maybe Vanguard purchased the rights from Aska?
I know they were trying to sell their whole catalog of films, including Wong Kar-Wai’s films, because they had the distribution rights for them. So I am not sure where the missing information is.
I noticed there were a few Japanese names in the credits, and you filmed to Cotton Candy in Japan?
Yes, it is connected to the reason why it I ended up with Aska films. Aska Films was basically run by Claude Gagnon, who is a Quebecois director/producer, and his wife Yuri Yoshimura Gagnon, who is a Japanese woman who is also a producer and they work together. When I was living in Japan I actually met them there because they were there to promote Because Why, the Arto Paramegian film at the Tokyo film festival. So through this connection I met them. That night at the dinner I met some people who helped me get to Cotton Candy going and when I finished Cotton Candy I showed it to them and they were very impressed so we started working together. We signed a contract to do my feature film, but they wanted to do this one first, which is a project conceived by Claude Gagnon. It was a commission project so it was something they had been working on for over a year before they brought me on board. It was a way to make low-budget films outside of the institutional ways. So they had connections with Japan and Asmik Entertainment. They were negotiating with Asmik entertainment to make a series of films called “Bed and Breakfast.” They wanted to set all of these films in bed and breakfasts. So this was a pilot project to see if it would work and it would be sold to Japan, with a theatrical release. When I started working on this other project with them they invited me in on a script reading and I had a lot of criticism so they decided to move the other writer out and move me in.
So you did contribute to the script?
Yes but under their very strict guidelines, we did re-write the script to a certain extent.
Were you involved in the casting?
Yes because it was a low-budget film and a pilot project without the support of Telefilm. We used some of Claude’s connections, he worked with Dorothée Berryman before and he had talked to Danny Gilmore about doing another project. Those were connections he had that I thought would be good, so I went with them. Kimberly Laferrière who played Lily came to us just through casting calls and she was amazing. I keep in contact with her and definitely would like to work with her again.
Dorothy is also an interesting character. Right from the moment we first see her you realize that, just like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, something is already wrong. How did you get her to perform in that style?
She was really good because she was interested in the psychology of the character and she got into the script. I don’t know but somehow the women in the project really related to the psychology of this family and the isolation and all the weird dynamics. Of course it is pushed to the extreme but it seemed to trigger something in myself, Dorothée, and Kimberly. I think it was a little bit more difficult for Danny to understand his role. He was a little confused as to what was going on. But Dorothée got right into it, she understood the isolation. I think growing up in Quebec might have helped her understand that sense of isolation.
What I found interesting about the film was the narration and the use of subjectivity. The way you are never quite sure even up until the end about what is exactly happening in terms of reality and fantasy. For example, the way we learn at the end that the mother actually wrote the diary, which opens up a whole other can of worms in terms of what her reasons were for her actions. In terms of subjectivity for example the first time we see Clive in the woods taken photographs there is an unclaimed subjective point of view shot looking through the trees and we hear what he hears which is Lily’s voice. So what is happening there? Is that him imagining it or is she really a ghost?
Well, both? That is open to interpretation. And I like that ambiguity.
Ambiguity is worked really well in the necrophilia scene. I like the shot where you have Clive in the right foreground and Lily lying in the left background and then we see her open her eyes, like in the pool table scene in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when the first Pod comes to life. We wonder, is it Clive’s will that is bringing her to life? And then you intercut between her alive and her lying still dead. Can it also be Clive’s fantasy that is bringing her to life?
Yes for sure. Or perhaps the mother’s fantasy being projected into that. That scene is all about that, desire and fantasy.
Who came up with the art design for the conjugal bed?
Well that was supposed to be like the honeymoon suite and that was the idea of the mother not letting go of her youth. The mother was in a state of denial about what was going on and I was just trying to push it to the extreme by setting up this morbid honeymoon suite. The scriptwriting was very collaborative, I worked a lot with Yuri especially at the end and I think she might have come up with some of those ideas. So we really worked well together in the script. I can’t take full credit for the script that’s for sure.
What is also interesting in terms of point of that view is that Clive starts reading the diary and it is a very progressive the way he understands the situation. First he just reads the diary then and he reads and we see his imagination. And then he takes it into his bedroom, and then he actually goes to the place that is written about in the diary. And then he meets her, so there is a progression there. It is almost as if he were reading a novel, a real page turner.
Yes it is the way he was drawn into her character. That was a very very deliberate for sure.
The Conjugal Bed: Dorothée Berryman (mother), Kimberly Laferrière (Lily), & Danny Gilmore (Clive) with Lily
How did you come up with the visual style for the imagination or fantasy scenes?
I was struggling with the aesthetic of the film. A lot of my films have been shot outside of Canada. I shot Cotton Candy in Japan; I shot a film in Cambodia and another one in Eastern Europe. I find that I hate the light and the flatness of Canada. Especially in the wintertime. So I was having a real hard time dealing with the aesthetics. I wanted some help to create this really rich interior world for him that was textured and richer to accentuate moving away from this bleak existence to this fantasy world, and to justify why he would be drawn in. I tried to come up with these rich images that were also distorted because it is in his mind and memory. You have her writing as imagined by her mother, and his interpretation of that. I wanted to create that layer. Which I accomplished with that stutter effect by making it feel not like reality but rich in texture. I think I saw that type of effect on a music video, I cannot remember. With the double takes we shot the film at 12 frames per second and step printed it to create the strobe effect, but with the double take effect were a character gets up and then gets up again, that was created in the editing room. I was having a really hard time with those scenes. I did not think they had the right visual interest. Or, more accurately, did not actually relate to the memory effect. It’s like when you read and then backtrack a little and read over the same passage again. I was trying to put into the editing that effect of reading and reading again.
I also noticed a lot of hand-held camera. Was that a conscious choice?
I don’t know. I know all the flashback scenes were hand-held, that was part of the whole jerky stuff. I’m just wondering whether it wasn’t just more out of convenience. The stuff inside the house was not hand-held. It was mainly the material outside.
Well I noticed that even in some of the shots that are inside there was a slight rocking effect with the camera. Why did you make it New England and not just Quebec?
That was the producers’ decision. They thought it would work better for the Japanese audience. For me it does not work. I think it should be Quebec.
Yes because they all have French accents. Was the character played by Clive a Francophone?
Yes although his name does not sound French, Danny Gilmore.
Have you seen Affliction?
Is that the film with Nick Nolte?
That is an interesting film.
Director Paul Schrader even used the Michael Brook’s ambient guitar in a similar way that your film does (original music by Mann/Frau). And of course the sense of isolation and the snowy setting. And the cabin that Nick Nolte burns in the end is like the cabin in your film. I guess there is just something about the snow which makes it so photogenic. In terms of the narrative how much time was there between the daughter’s death and when Clive arrives?
She dies right before he arrives. The father leaves right after she has died in the beginning. That is the first scene we see in the film.
And how about the video that we see on the television at the end?
All of that happened a little while before that.
Was that shot by the mother or father?
Good point! Who shot the video? Well, wasn’t it Thomas, the boyfriend?. Yes of course it was Thomas.
It might be a coincidence but both characters are dealing with absent fathers. Clive tells us that his father died and Lily says that she hates her father. So they are both dealing with father issues. Maybe that is why they bond! Were there any influences on this particular film or any films in general that influenced you?
I love Roman Polanski. Not that I achieved a Polanski film. Before shooting we watched Misery and The Shining, for the use of the interior house and the sense of isolation. Those were two films I looked at plus I watched all of Polanski’s films again, for the suspense and the way he uses interior spaces of the house. I think houses become so important in horror films, the architecture of horror if you will. So I was trying to figure out ways in which to shoot in this house and in the forest to create this isolation.
How about Psycho?
I love Hitchcock but not really Psycho.
Well I think the mother is a little bit like Norman in Psycho.
Yes that is true. The way she tries to keep this past alive, yes that is very true.
What struck me is when Clive gets there for the first time and there is this shot of his point of view looking up at the window and he sees the mother talking to someone offscreen. This creates the illusion that the daughter is still alive. There is a shot identical to that in Psycho.
I guess that is true and I had not thought of that.
Yes and also in the bedroom when she is talking to her and closes the curtains.
Purely an unconscious connection. And there is also the connection with taxidermy and embalming. Yes. I think I liked the ideas in Psycho more than I like the film as a whole. My favorite part is the last scene when he is in the institution. That is beautiful.
Another connection that I saw and maybe this is because it is one of my favorite films, is with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugestu. Have you seen that film?
Yes of course I love this one. The potter who goes into that house and the bell goes off every time the Princess enters because in Kabuki theater that is the sign of a ghost coming onstage.
Do you see the connection I am getting at?
Well it is a flattering connection because I just love that film. It has been a while since I’ve seen it though.
The specific connection I am referring to is with of the nursemaid character, Ukon, who wants to create a world for the Dead Ghost Princess, and finds a suitor for her to marry and have her experience true love.
She is like the mother character in Winter Lily, wow, nice. There is also the very subtle depiction of the supernatural. Yes I just love that film.
In terms of framing, did you frame with television in mind?
A little bit, sometimes they would ask me to go with the cinema frame, so sometimes I did but sometimes I did not.
I mention this because sometimes you have the framing so tight that if it were 1:85 projected on to television you would miss a whole lot. What is the director of photography’s background, Stephane Ricard?
This was his first feature. As it was for most of the crew. Very few of us had experience with feature film before. Which made it very special. He had done mainly video clips before that.
Roshell Bissett on the set of Winter Lily
How much time did you have to prepare and discuss things with him?
I think I got introduced to this project in November and we ended up shooting in January so it was pretty “bang bang bang.” Because they had been working on the script for a year they were getting impatient so I did not have a lot of time to work with him.
Has the Bed and Breakfast project panned out?
Has the Winter Lily been released in Japan?
Good question. I heard a rumor that it was going to be released because it is in Asmik’s catalog. I know it has been released on video in Japan for sure because my cousin saw it. I did not know it was released already in Japan so I guess it could be true, since they did not tell me about that release. If you can get a copy of the video from Fangoria, I would love to see what the art design looks like.
I cannot believe that you did not know about this.
It is pretty brutal. It is a very hard for me.
Yes you are the director and the last to know!
I do not know what the connection is between Aska and Asmik. I know that Asmik owns the rights to Japan, so maybe they are the ones who are organizing this release.
Have you seen Kissed? I do not like that film too much and I prefer the way you treat necrophilia. I find that Kissed romanticized it too much. Whereas you have some romanticism but you cut back to reality.
I did not want to intellectualize it too much. The way that I find she intellectualized it. I find that with Kissed you are so far away from it. But in reality it is a rotting, dead body, pretty brutal, so I wanted to put that back in. I really like the idea of creating two emotions at the same time, like attraction and repulsion, that is really what that whole scene was about. Clive is creating this fantasy, but whenever someone is in a state of denial, or fantasy, there is still some part of them grounded in reality. And they know that what they are doing is wrong, so I really wanted to show that as he is drawn to this fantasy there is this alarm going off inside of him: what are you doing, this is not real! I am really interested in psychology, so that is something that interests me about all of us, and how we are sometimes drawn into these states of danger or repulsion. We are so attracted and get that totally ambiguous feeling at the same time. That is the state I was trying to create. I do not know why, but when I watch Winter Lily I find it very disturbing. The atmosphere really plays on that. Like why doesn’t he leave or just get out? It just builds and builds until that necrophilia scene, and then in the end he does realize what he has done.
There is that moment when he tries to figure out how long he has been there, and he is totally confused. The moment that shows how the Clive character is complicit in all this is when he goes into the woods and then meets the mother there. You cut to the next scene and he is already tied up. As a viewer I wondered how did this strong young man allow himself to be tied up by a middle aged woman?
Well we did talk about that in the script. I don’t know but when I am dealing with those sorts of things, and I do not know if this is going to be a good answer, but in a way yes he is complicit. Maybe it is more my personality, but sometimes you are in these situations and you ask yourself why do I not leave. Why don’t I get out of here, and I do not. It is that compulsion to stay, to make excuses perhaps. It may be frustrating for the audience sometimes but I think we all do it when we are in certain situations. It is also a feeling of helplessness.
Well even the second time when the mother forces him to go back to Lily’s room again, it is done in the cutting so that we don’t know how she managed to get him to go.
Yes it is like he is just in this the zombie state and going with it.
The first time I saw the film was in the theater and was wondering, why does he actually perform the sexual act with Lily? My first reaction was that he was drugged or at least partly deluded. But then when you are in a drugged state, you probably cannot maintain an erection, so that complicated it. That was another question I had since I do not know anything about the embalming process, but can you actually have a sexual relationship with a corpse in that state?
Well Lily cannot possibly be embalmed because you have to take out all the organs but I don’t know about that, I think you can penetrate. In reality her mother did not have the tools necessary to do the embalming. I did go to the morgue to do research and I did see dead bodies, and I do not remember the exact procedure, but there are these tools that are used to enter into the body and remove the internal organs and blood. You have to do all of this before you inject the formaldehyde into the body.
So what was the mother doing with the injection?
Well she was pretty crazy, doing what she thought she had to do to preserve the body.
I also like the way you alternate between male and female subjectivity, like in the fantasy scene where Lily comes down wearing skimpy see-through pajamas and her father stares at her and then scolds her for wearing that, and then you have moments where the mother comments on Clive’s physique. Why did you make the Thomas’ character so much older than Lily?
I think just because she was so isolated and did not have much choice and did not have any other real contact. Her relationship with her parents was distant, she was so alone and so whoever was there to give her something she was going to grab onto.
Well he did seem like a sympathetic character, at least he resisted as much as he possibly could! How old was the actress Kimberly Laferrière?
She was the same age as her character about 14 or 15.
How did she deal with the scenes where she was just lying down dead? Psychologically how did she get into that?
She was amazing and really got into that. I think I was more nervous than she was and the crew too. In the barn scene where she is making love with Thomas in the hay, it looked like she really was not having a good time and we could not tell whether she was really feeling that way or just acting. She had us all believing that she was really uncomfortable but she wasn’t. She was very mature for her age.
The barn scene is also playing with the narration in an interesting way because we see from the point of view of the killer and see Lily reacting to the killer but then you cut away at that moment back to Clive reading, and of course he knows what happened, but the knowledge is held back for us. And at that point you realize that she could not have been killed and continued to write a diary, so begin to speculate that someone else must have written the diary. There is always that duality where you are not quite sure. The Clive character is sort of a hero but he is so ineffectual, so weak and passive, and then at the end his decision is to commit suicide by jumping out of the window, which is not a very heroic thing to do. Is this a Canadian thing to have these weak anti-heroes? Because you would never see that kind of a character in a film made in the United States.
That is a good point. I did not really analyze that part of his character. Have you seen Cotton Candy?
The lead character in that film, she is also like that in some way. She goes through this event and nothing happens to her at the end and she just walks away. Maybe it is an unconscious decision on my part. Again I am trying to get back to the state of mind I was in when I wrote the script. One thing that I am very conscious of is to try and keep things more ambiguous and have the audience try to imagine what it might be like to be this character. So as the audience is passive, so are these two main characters of my films. They go through these experiences the way you would go through them as an audience and this allows you to bring in something through your own interpretation. I do not like films that overstate how you are supposed to feel. He is this outsider who just comes into this world and he does not know what to make of it, just as the audience does not. Just as the characters around him manipulate him, the audience is also being manipulated.
Was there ever a decision not to have him open his eyes after sustaining the fall? To really keep it completely ambiguous? Or are you not that negative?
Well I like the idea that his eyes open, but he could be paralyzed! Of course we talked about that at the end too. The ending of films are so difficult. You go back and forth, but the fact that he opens his eyes and that he is there, and then the neighbor drives right by him.
I also like the idea of how you end the film with all of these overhead shots of the dead bodies, the father, the mother next to the bed and Lily, and then Clive outside. Seeing him from that angle is quite normal from the point of view of the window, but to see the other characters from that angle is not realistically motivated. So in a sense it makes a visual connection between their death and his state. But in a sense it also makes it his point of view.
I am thinking now more and more about the question of him being alive and I realize why it was important that he be alive at the end. I wanted him to have gone through this terrible experience and even be complicit in it, but in the end he had to be the conscious one in this. All of the other characters were working on an unconscious level, projecting their desires, and Lily was never allowed to become conscious, to grow up and live her life. He was the one forced into this cruel world and even though he tried to escape it he was not allowed to. When he opens his eyes it becomes very symbolic of the fact that he has to remember, he has to realize and he has to be the conscious one. That way he becomes a hero because he is the one that has to go beyond this psychological world of projections and denial. Those overhead shots which are visually interesting are also sarcastic, like a body count at the end of a horror film. But again it relates to this idea, is he dead? Is he going to become just another of these dead bodies? Or is he symbolically dead? I personally have an opinion about people who walk around life in a state of denial, and not dealing with their unconscious or projecting it. For me that is really what this film is about. Clive having to wake up and face what life is all about.
Yes and you could have had a Halloween homage by cutting back to the shot of him and he is not there. He has become the boogeyman.
Yes and he becomes the killer in the next one. No, no he is going to be the enlightened one in the end.
And having mentioned Polanski, with Clive jumping out of the window I could not help but think of The Tenant.
Oh yes that was beautiful. We did make jokes about that. Having him go back up and jump out again! And the guy that drives by with the snowmobile with Clive lying there. He was totally a red herring, but I always wondered about those stories where you hear a family getting axed to death in an apartment building. What the hell were the people next door doing? These kind of crazy things do happen, and that is what is so beautiful about The Shining, this domestic violence. The father goes nuts and kills his family, how many times do we hear about that happening. So there is this guy living next door to them who has no idea about what is going on. He just keeps going on with his life just the way we do.