Directing her first full-length theatrical production, Caryl Churchill’s A Number (2002) whilst she was in postproduction on her feature film debut Almost Paris (2017), saw Domenica Cameron-Scorsese’s film and theatrical journey synchronise. Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, where her short films Spanish Boots (2006) and Roots in Water (2010) also played, the festival has become a home to the actress turned storyteller.
In the aftermath of the mortgage-lending crisis, banker Max (Wally Marzano-Lesnevic) returns home. Living under the same roof with his parents, sister and her husband, as well as his niece offers him not only an opportunity to reconnect with his family, but discover the harsh economic realities facing ordinary people.
This family centred story perhaps echoes the close relationship Domenica shares with her parents, artist, journalist and teacher Julia Cameron and filmmaker Martin Scorsese. She performed in her mother’s play Four Roses (1999) and played opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in her father’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence (1993). On stage she has also worked with celebrated playwright Richard Nelson, playing the role of Dolly in Franny’s Way (2003). It is not not only at this point in her career that the stage and the screen have synchronised, but throughout her creative journey thus far have been two spaces running in parallel.
In conversation with Film Frame, Cameron-Scorsese reflected on transitioning from an observer of notable storytellers to a practitioner of the craft onstage and onscreen. She also discussed pursuing a communication with her audience, unexpected responses and the transformation of her creative identity with time.
Film Frame: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Domenica Cameron-Scorsese: First off, it’s the way that we tell stories. I think it’s the most immediate and visceral form of communication that we have found, and for me it’s a very personal way of talking to each other. I was born into a family of filmmakers; taken from the hospital directly to the set of New York, New York (1977). I grew up where a film set and a theatre certainly felt familiar, and had a kind of family pattern to it. So in that sense it was attractive, but also as I grew up my dad would communicate with me by sending me videos. He knew that I liked horses and so he would send me, oh goodness, The Red Pony (1949), and he knew that I liked animals so it would be something like Old Yeller (1957). And you know, I would be scarred for life because they all died. But little by little that was like a bridge for us, and as I got bigger he would show me movies that were special to him, and he would try to time it at a point where he thought they would be right for me. So there is this doubleness for me about films, both the wonder and magic of being able to create an entire world, but also the ability to say things that are sometimes hard to say, or hard to see. I grew up with that and initially I found acting was my space in that world, and I very much enjoyed it and felt that was mine. In fact, I avoided anybody saying anything about directing because I liked having my own dance space, and little by little I found myself making things.
In terms of were there very specific turning points, one was actually getting to work with Daniel Day-Lewis on a scene in my father’s film, The Age of Innocence. I had just turned fifteen at the time, and I had been acting professionally for about four and a half years. We had been rehearsing and working on a double act, and then it was time to do the scene. There was just this brief pause, maybe three seconds, and he turned around and it was like his eyes were a different colour. It was the closest thing to channelling I think I’ve ever seen. He was someone else, we were somewhere else; it was like time travel. It was magic and I thought: I want to be able to do that! And that really pushed me further along into acting, but also by getting to see what a generous director my dad is, and how he creates a staged space so that the best of people and their work comes forward. When you get to do that you ask: “Why would I want to do anything else?” It’s amazing!
Little by little I found myself drawn to stories where there wasn’t necessarily a role that I wanted to play, but they were people that I knew and understood, who I felt needed to be heard, and journeys that were profoundly moving for me. And what partly dragged me into directing was that along the acting path, I became more and more invested in the story.
Another turning point would be having had the amazing privilege of working with Richard Nelson as a writer-director on one of his plays, Franny’s Way. I saw the meaning that he gave the actors to play in, and the way that he also gave us spaces to fill the world. While it made my role of being a fifteen year old younger sister richer and deeper, what I found was I was drawn towards looking at the bigger picture, and the impact on things. He had encouraged me to direct as well, and so all of those were key moments.
Film Frame: Hitchcock is one of the most studied and discussed filmmakers, and yet for any director the process of crafting suspense reveals the gulf between understanding through observation versus doing. From both watching films as well as your observations of your father and Nelson, how has the practical experience of directing a feature film impacted your own appreciation of films and their filmmakers?
Cameron-Scorsese: I am glad you brought up Hitchcock right away because when I went to college, I was not supposed to end up a film major, I was supposed to study classics. The first class I took was taught by Jeanine Basinger who runs the Wesleyan Film Archives, and it was a Hitchcock class. What was fascinating for me, and this is very true because I love movies and I come from a family that loves movies, folks with a crazy knowledge about film, is there is this funny thing between the study and the analysis. And often times I would say the deconstruction of a process to try to understand how it works, versus the approach of trying to build or make something, and learning how it works from the physical viewing of it. I feel like I was in a blessed position to have the opportunity to both formally study film, but also to have had the chance to be on a lot of different film sets, and in different rehearsal processes. In terms of [laughs] having made it to the other side of my first feature, the profound respect I have for folks that have a long hard labour trying to bring their dream project into being.
Studying Hitchcock, the first things I had to do was a shot list and to talk about the visual storytelling, the screenplay and the use of themes. When is there an editing rhythm that changes or a camera angle pattern, and what does that convey to the viewer? That’s great, but then you try to go and do that, and if you are anywhere near lucky, you get something that’s sort of comprehensible at a first pass. Everybody gets to have a first time and I guess I’m personally a bit of a perfectionist. I think things over and over, and that serves you only so far. Then there’s the part where you have to get in and roll your sleeves up. It is the twentieth day, you’ve lost your location and you really need this moment. You have to stop and ask: “What’s the moment about? Is it about the location or do we just really need to be on the actor’s face right now?” You have that realisation before going into the next scene and I guess it’s fun and scary in terms of creative problem solving.
It’s something to see these films and realise they aren’t being made the same way now. There is a gift in having more accessible technology, but there’s also some things that are going away. I think it is important to have a knowledge of working linear so that when you are flying non-linear, you are able to use those tools consciously to tell your story and to reach your viewer.
Film Frame: If we look at the history of film, the feel of the medium has changed across the decades. For example, the American gangster film of the 1940s has a different feel to the gangster film of the 1970s. I asked Agnieszka Holland whether this goes beyond technological development to a more aesthetic consideration, and she offered the opinion: “…it is something more mystical – a mystery that is included in the particular film, and which doesn’t age.” Do you perceive there to be a mysticism within cinema that influences its communicative nature?
Cameron-Scorsese: I’d have to say that it effects me on a lot of levels. One is I feel it is so challenging to make a film that you have to have a wonderful and crazy, maybe a little bit of a calling towards it, and a lot of faith just on the sheer mechanics of: Hey, I think this is going to work. There’s a certain amount of faith in action before you even get to the end result of it being something that is going to go and live on, and be impacted by your viewers subjectivity. Though I go with that, I also say that I feel there is a certain amount of, as we would maybe say, ‘movie angels.’ There are things that you just look at and you go: “I don’t know how we are going to pull that off.” Then it happens or some piece falls away and it changes for the better, that shift that needs to happen to tell the story more clearly. There has probably been a lot written about the sense of people coming together in a theatre to have this communal experience, watching a film where there’s a sense of being alone together in a group. What personally drives and connects me to the stories, which then hopefully get to live on a screen, is the opportunity to recognise our humanity. And for it to not always to be the most attractive types, but in the moment to remind people by putting a magnifying glass to some of the aspects. With Almost Paris I certainly felt drawn to trying to create a world with people that I hoped the audience would recognise and may be able to align with, and to have that little bit of a moment: Oh, right, that reminds me of my uncle who could be bad. Oh, maybe that’s what he felt. The audience are a part of the story and I try to hit them on an emotional level, a place that’s not necessarily cerebral, and try to leave room for the audience to feel what they are going to feel, and think what they are going to about this. My hope is if I leave a little bit of room for that, then they will come forward and connect all the more. It’s just a personal thing, but if I watch something and I feel like I’m being told what to think and how to feel, and when to feel it, I start to pull away from what’s being said. So it’s about how do you find that balance in the craft, and also in the intention.
Film Frame: Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Cameron-Scorsese: Right now I am in the process of letting go of Almost Paris, enthusiastically, but still letting go of this first feature. We’ve carried this thing that has evolved for over two years and what I find is that in terms of ownership, and if you are looking at the extension of the auteur theory, the more control I have in the process as a filmmaker, ultimately the more I have to let go as it comes out into the world. Now, I would like to think that this creative venture is going to be accepted and welcomed because we ultimately made this film for people to hopefully connect to, and in doing take something away from it with them. So I can see that, but I also feel there are a lot of parts to it where once I’ve stopped, it will be defined by whatever the context is that it’s being released, and how it’s being viewed. If there happens to be a world event or if somebody has recently lost their job, or has had their adult children move back in with them and watches this movie, then in that way there is a shift that will happen. And the earlier part of letting go along the way as a filmmaker has been letting go of what I thought the idea would be, and of then getting to that place. I’ve heard someone say that a movie is made three times, in terms of your screenplay, the production and the edit. This project certainly evolved and grew, and changed throughout, and it was a pretty tremendous opportunity for me to understand how that works. It means when I’m watching it for the fourth time with an audience, I need to not be worrying about the shots that I didn’t get that would have worked so well in moments, but just look at how it lands. To come to a place of accepting that a millennialist is going to come to the film very differently than someone of my parents generation.
Film Frame: There is a line in the film about how tough people outlast tough times, which captures the essence of the story. Speaking of the context it plays in, Almost Paris deals with universal and timeless themes such as aspiration, love and companionship, which will allow it to endure, to not age, but connect with any contemporary audience.
Cameron-Scorsese: In terms of getting to watch this movie with different audiences, my hope was that it would be something that would be accessible to folks. But when I first watched it at Tribeca, it was surprising to find how much humour people found with it, and I was grateful for that. I had wanted to tell a story that leaned into the dynamics and connections that people have, and I feel there have certainly been wonderful films made about the recession that were very much about the mechanics and the business of that, and how it transpired. I’ve certainly been witnessing that families, whether it’s a recession or a health crisis, a job loss or a change in plans and circumstances, families really do have to try to pull together. This is something that we will maybe carry on seeing in the film eighteen months after Tribeca, in Jersey City. There was a line in the movie about how there are worse places — you can get sent to Jersey City [laughs]. Everybody laughed, but not quite why we thought, and so the context shifts that way. But I am hoping that the heart of the story will be something that five years from now will not feel dated.
Film Frame: Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Cameron-Scorsese: Yes, I do think that there is an energy that a project will carry with it, whether that is the team of people who come together, or the thematic or underlying content of the piece itself. You do live with and work through that, and you learn how to hopefully grow and create under those conditions. And I do think it changes a person. I have been trying to make a feature since my early twenties and when it actually happened, which was turning thirty-nine, I was a different storyteller. I feel like my second feature is going to be different in terms of the pieces both formally, but also holistically that I had to adjust to here, to deal with the process.
Almost Paris is available on VOD courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media.
Images provided courtesy of Prodigy Public Relations.