I discovered British writer and director Jan Dunn when Jenni Olson of The Royal Road fame told me about Jan’s new film project, Sacred Country starring Brenda Blethyn, Shirley Henderson, Jaime Winstone and other notable cast. She is multi-award winning screenwriter and film director whose roots began as an actress. Following the release in 2006 by Lionsgate Films of her acclaimed first feature film Gypo, The Hollywood Reporter stated she was “a filmmaker to watch” with Screen International calling her “a very promising new British Talent”. The film became multi-award winning including a British Independent Film Award (BIFA) for Best Production, then came Ruby Blue starring Bob Hoskins, another international award winner. Then came The Calling starring Brenda Blethyn and a stellar British cast. Her talent as writer, director and producer will be even more evident when she brings Sacred Country to the big screen in 2016.
I was mesmerized by Ruby Blue (available through Wolfe Video), a film that you wrote and directed in 2006 now is available in the United States. I’d like you to share the heart of the story with us. What was the catalyst for this story and the choice of Bob Hoskins for the film?
JD: While shooting Gypo, the producer asked me if I had any ideas for another very low budget film we could turnaround quickly and shoot locally again. Like most screenwriters, I’m never short of ideas–I probably need reining in rather than ever suffer from writers block. So immediately I started pitching about half a dozen ideas. She focused on the idea I had that involved a pigeon-racer who befriends a young boy and their relationship gets misconstrued and at the same time he finds himself falling in love with this mysterious new neighbor but just as he falls, he finds out ‘she’ used to be a ‘he’. My producer loved that story. As soon as we finished Gypo, I set about driving around looking for the main location, when I found 3 choices of houses belonging to pigeon racers (quite a rare sport now), it seemed a foregone conclusion that this would be our next film. I wanted to find an actor who was a real ‘bloke’, as we say in the UK, a man’s man and Bob was the first and obvious choice. I thought of Josiane Balasko straight away to play his French leading lady, I didn’t even know if she spoke English. The US audience may well know her from French Twist? It turned out that she is married to a Native American actor, George Acquiler, who you may be aware of from his appearance in Percy Adlon’s Baghdad Café. So her English is excellent and her dialogue was improvised around my blueprint.
JC: When I heard about Sacred Country I immediately bought the award-winning book by Rose Tremain. Stories about the lives of transgender individuals are not often seen in film or seen well. What makes Sacred Country unique, special and a must be made film?
JD: For me it was a wonderful read, a real escape into nostalgia. It’s very British and that’s funny as some of the novel takes place in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s an ensemble story, typical of Tremain but of course once you begin a screen adaptation, the market likes to focus on one main protagonist and Pippa Cross, the producer and myself feel Mary Ward is the most obvious to choose. I’m very happy about that because it’s Mary that drew me in to the narrative, I could relate to her childhood on so many levels. It’s a very personal journey for me to translate this to the screen and tell it. Like Mary, I was very confused about my gender identity. I couldn’t relate to anything that was supposedly what girls did when I was a kid and nothing made sense when I wasn’t allowed to be something or do something simply because I was a girl. Like Mary, I grew up poor and my parents weren’t that well educated and until I was in my late teenage years I had no concept of feminism and no idea what a lesbian was. So I simply thought I was a boy and perhaps lots of girls felt like me but nobody said anything aloud about that. And Mary’s identity is in her head until she too is a teenager and begins to express this out loud to those she trusts. Mary took a different journey to me before she became comfortable in her skin, or as Rose Tremain puts it – comfortable in her own ‘Sacred Country’. I found theatre and through theatre, I became very comfortable with my sexuality and it didn’t have very much to do with gender in the end or my body.
JC: Ruby Blue has won the Jury prize at the London Independent Film Festival and the Audience award at the Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival as well as Grand Jury Award at the Washington DC Independent Film Festival. Your first film, Gypo, was the winner of the Best First Feature at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (2007) and nominated for a prestigious award at the Dinard British Film Festival. You’ve quickly become enormously successful and honored in the film community. Now comes Sacred Country. Do you consider yourself to be the premiere UK filmmaker of LGBTQ themed films?
JD: I am totally out and have been operating in the queer community for decades so yes but I’m not sure if I would personally call myself a lesbian filmmaker anymore than a woman director – other people can, and have put those prefixes to me. Do they call Clint Eastwood a male director for instance? First and foremost I would hope it is something to applaud me for; that I have never been in the closet even though I work in a very heterosexual and famously misogynistic professional environment. That’s hard for any woman, lesbian or straight but honestly I’m driven by good stories first and I would be concerned that I was letting the side down if I was to start prefixing myself. I am attached to direct a feature with no queer content also at the moment but I also have another great lesbian adaptation (well, at least my adaptation has totally focused on that subtext from the novel…) so much like Pedro Almodovar doesn’t always write stories about gay men (he writes for great female roles), I think all my films are informed by my being a lesbian – it is who I am.
JC: There is much discussion in the United States about the longevity and future of LGBTQ films as a specific genre. As films evolve into mainstream films enjoyed by a wide general audience, do you create your films with only the LGBTQ community in mind or are you aiming for mainstream?
JD: It would be insane to make my films just for the queer community, film is a business and Americans understand that much more than the Brits. It’s an industry and should be at least partly led by commerce if you want your financiers to make their money back. Of course it is great that we can all utilize and hook into our lovely and supportive community who are as hungry as I am to see films about us, telling our stories. Also I think of my films as art-films rather than LGBT films and in the UK, those films fill the same screen spaces as foreign language films as we have American movies dominating our screens. And don’t get me wrong, I love American movies, I’ve grown up with them and Mary Ward references some of the favorites I saw as a kid and could relate to (you’ll have to watch the campaign video to get a taste of those). To be honest, I find the whole LGBTQI, a bit confusing, especially as (in the UK anyway) my generation reclaimed the singular word queer in the 1980s and I sometimes wonder if we’re going some ways backwards to separate all our differences. I thought it was fabulous that we had this common identity which is of course LGBT and I think I am still somewhat L and T but simply took a different path to Mary Ward so I see queer as more comforting than the list of letters. The word was reclaimed in defiant, cheeky humour, these letters all seem a bit serious to me.
JC: With Ruby Blue now available through Wolfe Video (and I highly recommend everyone to see this brilliant film), our American viewers will quickly place you amongst the top lesbian filmmakers. In a few words, tell us how you see yourself in the global film world?
JD: It would be great to be the first woman to direct a James Bond film but realistically I still think it will be a while before that happens and if it does, I think your Kathryn Bigelow has first dibs on that one! Seriously though if the lesbians support any film I make, regardless of whether the main theme is lesbian but because I might be considered a good filmmaker then that will be a fantastic achievement. We filmmakers, as artists, need to experiment and be allowed to fail but hopefully interest and support in our early films will build an audience to come and see all our endeavors if we are lucky enough to keep on. So if you find lesbians are making pretty decent attempts at films from the start, with no help in the early years and against all odds, with very little budgets then keep watching us to see what great may come and forgive the ones that don’t cut it. It’s very easy to be a critic and very hard to make films, otherwise everyone would be risking all and sacrificing so much to do it.
JC: Funding is always the difficult part of bringing a film to the big screen. Sacred Country is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign. Why should we donate to this film project?
JD: Firstly, it’s very, very hard to raise money for any film and it’s got worse since digital because now the market is saturated and the financiers are inundated so they tend to be even more risk averse. There used to just be a hand full of film schools in the UK and now there are many, many hundreds. Here is where I do start identifying as a woman-director because nobody seems to know why we just can’t seem to get taken seriously for funding. Often we prove ourselves several times over compared to our male contemporaries and yet still don’t get taken seriously. Some of the film financiers in the UK are even blatantly obvious about not funding a film if it has a woman attached to direct, I’ve heard horror stories. I know my first few films won way more awards and critical acclaim than some of my male friends who got real budgets for their second and third films and here I am finally aiming to raise a proper budget for Sacred Country because I have truly cut my teeth on micro-budgets that all got theatrical release, all got acclaimed and all had A List (British) cast attached and US distribution which is rare for low budget British indie films. Added to this the main financiers in the UK like BBC Films and FILM4 only fund a very small number of films a year, so of course they will fund the usual suspects. Sacred Country is a great story and will be a lovely film to see realized and one of a rare adaptation of the great Rose Tremain’s works.
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