During last week's BFI Flare festival for LGBTQ movies, I caught up with Stacie Passon, director of my new favourite movie, Concussion. If you saw it at Flare, you know how good it is. If you didn't, take my word for it or wait until Friday 16th May to see it in UK cinemas.
Concussion follows Abby as she finds herself in sexually frustrating marriage and becomes a prostitute through choice. Things get a little close to home when a woman from her local community becomes one of her clients. I chatted with Stacie about the movie, lez movies, a case of lesbian bed death and what it's like making movies about women.
Firstly congratulations on the movie; not only does it have a really great story but it’s also got a very clean aesthetic; it really does look good.
Thank you, that’s my wonderful Director of Photography, David Kruta, who’s going to be shooting my new movie. It’s just so great when you find somebody who’s that brilliant and can really make what you want to see come to life.
How did the movie come to life in the first place? Was it a real experience or just an idea for a story?
I thought the idea of the lesbian hooker was really interesting and fresh and it’s something that you see a lot in literature in terms of the Madonna/Whore complex, so that was mirrored by the housewife/prostitute thing. I looked at my own life and could see a mid-life crisis coming and it just kind of put itself together. I also started reading a lot of feminist lit 101 books and a lot about what feminists were saying about prostitution and I started expanding my mind and thinking about things in a different way. You know, when you turn 40, or around that time, you sort of have inherited the world and can bring your own thoughts into it and so the idea became this really classic idea. It was bringing a lot of the things I was reading into this kind of new philosophy. The idea of a lesbian hooker is so niche, very interesting and compelling but the thing that makes the film works so well, for me, is that it has some really classic feminist thought in it. That’s what makes it special to me.
Lesbian hookers are a bit unusual to see in LGBTQ movies, it’s a fresh take on women and Concussion doesn’t treat women like these delicate, flawless flowers. They have real relationships, problems - they’re not put on a pedestal.
In terms of GLBT, we’ve passed the point where we’re making movies about our relationships and the right to have them. That was the New Queer cinema and now we’re able to have problems like anyone else with our relationships that don’t necessarily have to do with people who like us or don’t like us. We are living the same human predicament as most people: like why and where are we on this earth? A lot of people call my film existential in a way, I don’t know if I agree with that, but I can see why they do because as it ends, we see life going on and on. The only reason to make film is when you have something to say that’s very important and I think that we’ve said a lot of things in the men’s terrain and we have tonnes of things to say still about women and the way they think, their philosophies, their bodies and their evolution. Hopefully movies like will start to flourish for women.
In terms of casting, how did the Robin Weigert who plays Abby come to the project and was their ever a conversation about the sexuality of the film?
I didn’t know her or her work but a casting agent brought her to my attention and then I knew she was right for it. She’s very committed to whatever role she takes on and I think that she’s really an actor’s actor and in everything she takes on, she’s going to give it 150%. It wasn’t so much the sexuality that was an issue for her but more the physical grind that it took to get into her character, Abby's, condition. She lost an enormous amount of weight and put on a lot of muscle for the role and at times when I looked at her in the film, I feel sad for her because the striations in her back - she’s really starved the hunger out of herself. To answer your question, I think Robin really felt that sex was a by-product of that and that the big challenge for her was to get her body to a point where she felt this way. I adore Robin; she’s really an amazing actor.
Where you could see was lacking the physical relationship with her wife that she so wanted, that she was putting so much effort into her body, and we see women in straight relationships doing that too; when a husband’s interests start to focus on other women, wives try to improve themselves. One of Abby’s clients actually speaks to that experience, that she had kept her body so fit for her husband, which is probably something you should probably do for yourself and not your partner.
I love that great line; she really brought meaning to it. In moving to the suburbs I saw a lot of women conditioning their bodies and exercising, that’s another piece of the puzzle, exercising to the point of a few hours a day some times and going form one cause to another and I don’t think it had too much to do with keeping yourself fit. It had more to do with running off frustration whether it was sexual or not. And when you’re that frustrated, it has to be because in some way you are not living the life that you want to live whether you’re screaming at your children or you’re exercising ten times a day. So I saw it all around me and I actually saw it in myself. What was true in the movie was me screaming pathetically at my children. And I know we all scream at our children but telling somebody to shut the fuck and that kind of stuff is a tough way to meet a character.
How has the lesbian community reacted to the idea that Kate experiences lesbian bed death?
I’m aware of Pepper Schwartz and that lesbians in long-term relationships might not have sex as frequently and that makes sense but it makes sense only because there are certain biological things that happen to women. And they’re happening later now because we’re having children later but there are also certain biological things that happen to me - men have Viagra and women don’t. The fact that many women slow down is true but it’s not the only reason.
It’s just mis-labelled as ‘lesbian’, surely it’s just something that happens to people.
Exactly! It is just people. I was talking to a friend and I was like, “Well do you guys still…” and she said “Oh all the time, I can’t get him off of me.” And I thought of the scene in Bridesmaids where one of the friends said ‘I just wanna watch Jon Stewart without him entering me.’ It’s interesting because a lot of women feel that way, so it’s not lesbian bed death; it’s really just women and bodily changes and menopause. But at the same time, a lot of women reach their sexual peak at a later time in life so in terms of Abby and Kate, they’re just missing each other. I hate that term lesbian bed death.
To talk briefly about the male characters in the film; there aren’t very many of them, was that a conscious decision to limit the number of men or is it just what happens when you’re telling a story about lesbians?
For me, it’s really more about a kind of generation. I once knew someone who I based the character of Justin on and he would do these crazy things with his girlfriend and he would tell me all about them. And it was the way his generation was thinking about sex, sleeping with friends and I was just astounded by that. Justin is a really important character in the film because to me, he represents a generational shift in attitudes - he’s immature but also filled with a lot of knowledge. Some of the other men in the film to me were having the most fun and in my life that’s true as well, my heterosexual friends take life way less seriously than Allison and I do. The reason why is because we were so hell-bent on legitimacy for so long and they didn’t necessarily care about that - they wanted to stay young and fun and we wanted to make money and have children and have the right to marry and the legitimacy aspect made us quite serious and not fun anymore. And that’s really what has happened to Kate and Abby too.
To talk about your experience as a filmmaker, you won the Adrienne Shelly grant in 2012 and you had success at Sundance in 2013. How has it been for you as a director with your debut project?
It’s been thrilling. I never expected it and it’s been a labour of love and I have a great producer who believe in me; the great Rose Troche. She really helped get it into Sundance and when we went there, I just expected it to be the sort of lesbian film that they’d put at the back of the show but they really pushed it forward and it was bought by Radius, the Weinstein company. The Adrienne Shelly grant was amazing. Andy Ostroy, who was Adrienne’s husband, has really dedicated his life to women in film in Adrienne’s memory. She was a very brave person and it was terrible what happened to her but he’s keeping her memory alive with these grants.
Is there a small part of you that thinks, ‘If this wasn’t a lesbian movie, this would have been a lot easier’? Because our stories don’t get told very often, it’s so infrequent that we get to see a high quality lesbian movie that I have to wonder if it’s that no one wants to tell them or that it’s still really hard to get them out there.
I think it’s important not to listen to the noise. I think it’s one of those things that if you want to make a film, you should just go and make it. There are lots of different types of technologies and really anxious people to make the films so just don’t take no for an answer. For instance, you would think that people would might be throwing money at me now but they’re not and the reason why is because the way films work is that nobody’s throwing money at anyone. If someone threw millions of dollars at me to make Concussion, it wouldn’t have been responsible because it would have not made the money back and it would have been a disaster.
One of the things that I love about the process of making Concussion, and the next project I’m working on, is that it is absolutely done for art, not for commerce. I don’t have a right to make money doing films, I don’t think anybody does. I think that you make money to make films. The real heroes are the camera makers, people like Canon, Adobe and Mac have revolutionized filmmaking, especially for women by making cameras so much lighter. That gives worn the chance to be more in control. You brought up lesbian films before but older films we have to give A's across the board to because one of the issues with making a lesbian film 20 years ago was that you’d have to shoot in film, you’d have to edit with early Avid tools, you didn’t have any choices whatsoever so of course lots of films were bad. And you had to work with all men in order to do it and they’d be telling you that you’re wrong. When you look at Rose Troche’s film Go Fish, they are primitive but within them you have to be able to see their genius.
And one last question, do you remember the first lesbian movie you ever saw?
Yeah it was Desert Hearts, and I snuck into the art house when I was 16, four or five times and spent every dollar I had to see that beautiful story. And I was able to be at a independent film luncheon for a penal and I was able to meet Donna Deitch and take a picture with her. It helped me understand why my heart was fluttering all the time for girls and she was a pioneer. And of course, Rose’s films. She’s been friend for 20 years and I also count Go Fish as important film, probably the most important one to me because I’m a beneficiary of her work.
Concussion is released on the 16th May, check it out.
Interview With Stacie Passon, Director Of Lesbian Movie Concussion
Author: Emily Moulder