People: Interview – Nadia Litz and Jai West on The People Garden
The former actor and first-time feature director says she wanted to create a female character in her 20s who could ride a wave of emotional ambiguity to escape the warm, fuzzy, vulnerable and typically banal female box
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER, BC – Ambiguity isn’t a topic that generally lends itself to passion, yet a recent sit-down with director-writer Nadia Litz and actor Jai West reveals a mental desire to resist closure that’s near obsessive.
“Oh man. Ambiguity is the whole thing…” says Litz. “It’s everything. It’s the theme of the film: that there is no black and white conclusion to anything. It’s what relationships are. It’s what life is. It’s what death is.”
When Litz talks about “the whole thing,” she’s talking about The People Garden, her debut feature starring West, Pamela Anderson and Dree Hemingway (daughter of Mariel Hemingway, niece of the late Margaux). A five-year pursuit that started as a feature pitch for the Canadian Film Centre, The People Garden took several different forms before it made its worldwide bow in Buenos Aires earlier this month. Originally a story about a Japanese man working in the so-called “suicide forest,” The People Garden turned into the story of Sweetpea (Hemingway), a young American who travels to Japan with one aim: To break up with her rock star boyfriend.
“I think I set out to make a film that would appeal to women specifically in their 20s,” says Litz, who turned to directing after a successful career as an actor, starring in such films as The Five Senses, Love that Boy, Monkey Warfare and Blindness.
Litz says when she was in front of the camera, she realized how limited the representations of young women really were. The vast majority of filmmakers made movies about male experience, from a male point of view, targeted at a male audience.
“The 20-year-olds I meet are smart and intelligent and would like something smart for them. There’s a great tradition of young independent films directed by males, and they’ve been greeted with great acclaim, and I don’t relate to any of them. So I wanted to make a movie that would appeal to me.”
Litz says in order to do that, she had to question convention: “What I want out of a female protagonist is to not have descriptive qualities assigned to her. I know how limited the kinds of characters women are allowed to play. I was really frustrated as an actor. And I know my friends face the same challenges, and I want them to have better parts to play, as well. So that was the foundation for this movie: A strong female role, that was the catchphrase.”
Yet, when it came down to nailing the personality of young Sweetpea, Litz had to go with her gut, and risk alienating her audience.
“When you say strong female character, people start thinking of sassy and tough… typical male traits. I wanted her to be different. You know she’s complicated,” says Litz. “She’s not lovable. I think there is mystery to her. She is unknowable. And I think that is part of the process of having a diversity of roles for women. Ultimately, she reaches the point in the movie where she has this deep vulnerability, and that is a female experience, but it’s not THE female experience. To me, it’s all about representing the multitude of experiences. So in a way, Sweetpea is as much an indictment of that character as she is a revelation.”
In brief, Sweetpea strikes an ambiguous note – emotionally remote, yet still laden with feelings. It’s a risky venture, but one that finds counterpoint in West’s character, Mak – the de facto guide and bridge character who joins East and West.
“This was the part I had been searching for,” says West. “Because I am half-Japanese, half-French-Canadian, it’s been challenging. When I was in Canada, I wasn’t Caucasian enough to play the white dude, and in Japan, I often wasn’t Japanese enough to play the Japanese dude. So once in a blue moon, you get parts like this, and I am so grateful to Nadia for giving me a chance.”
West says the central attraction to Mak’s character was his ability to remain ambiguous throughout the story.
“As soon as I read the script I knew I wanted to play the part because what I was interested in, as an actor, was to play with the ambiguity of the role. You don’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy or if he’s hiding something.”
Finding the subtleties of truth, then subverting them just enough to make people question, was West’s big test, but he says he was well prepared after studying the body language of two different cultures.
“While I was in Japan, I really worked hard for them to see me as a Japanese actor… But when I got there, I was basically playing the rabbit in a fairy tale, or the crazy gangster. They were Japanese-speaking parts, but they let me play with my inner-Canadian.”
West says it was all about the physicality. “Japanese people don’t gesture with their hands. I would do that on purpose and people loved it and responded to it, and I was getting a lot of parts,” he says.
“But I was always looking for a part where I could speak English, but bring out the Japanese soul, so this was perfect. I could bring out the ‘Wabi Sabi’, which is like Japanese beauty, almost. Simplicity. Balance.”
West says the next challenge is to use his fluent French, which he’s cautiously optimistic about, but can’t say more. Meanwhile, Litz is looking to plant the seed of The People Garden in the minds of the masses – as a new kind of foliage on the film landscape.
“Is there no room for something that isn’t a total cliché?… The women that came up to us after our screening in Argentina were salivating over the Dree character. They were hungry for a character that was relatable and felt real. They got it.”
The affirmation was important, says Litz, who adds even U.S. director Peter Bogdanovich was on side. “We met him at a reception for U.S. filmmakers in Buenos Aires. They thought our film was American –which was kind of flattering, and kind of sad to admit – but he said there should be more opportunities for women directors. And I think everybody is starting to feel that way – and the only way the industry is going to catch up is if more women make movies,” she says.
“And we stop operating in a box.”
The People Garden screens April 24 (tonight) at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver as part of Canadian Film Week before opening in select cities.
Above photo: Dree Hemingway as Sweetpea in The People Garden. Inset: Nadia Litz and Jai West in Vancouver.
THE EX-PRESS, April 24, 2016