L.A. Tea Time

L.A. Tea Time is a road trip like no other

We spoke with Sophie Bédard Marcotte about her new film, a fiction/documentary hybrid in which she appears as herself.

A road-trip movie like no other, L.A. Tea Time follows filmmaker Sophie Bédard Marcotte and her cinematographer Isabelle Stachtchenko from Montreal to Los Angeles, where they hope to meet Miranda July.

Marked by the same playful spirit as her previous film Claire l’hiver (2017), L.A. Tea Time delves into Marcotte’s psyche as she strives to find her place in the world. With magical touches inspired by The Wizard of Oz and humorous asides about the pleasures and pitfalls of microbudget filmmaking (there’s a clever ongoing formal joke about music rights), the documentary is an essay on the nature of art and personhood in an increasingly fragmented and chaotic world.

Testing the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, Marcotte utilizes her subjectivity and imagination to reframe the world as full of potential rather than menace. Predicated on a false premise — that all of Marcotte’s dreams will be achieved and resolved in a short meeting with July — the film examines the role of failure, doubt and uncertainty in the creative process. Speaking to her uncertainty, Marcotte, more than any external forces that might prevent her from fulfilling her quest, becomes her own foil.

I met with Sophie Bédard Marcotte at Cinema Moderne to talk about failure as a useful narrative device and why making a personal film in today’s world is not so simple. 

Justine Smith: You talk about your film in terms of antiheroes, but when people hear the term, they often associate it with characters like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. I would love to hear about your use and understanding of the term, especially since you are usually the central character in your films.

Sophie Bédard Marcotte: I use the word more in the sense of someone who doesn’t succeed. I like characters who are not super confident and have doubts and hesitations. I like to talk about failure because I feel like we are so obsessed with success, and I don’t exclude myself from that. But it’s nice to see people fail [on screen]. There’s a lot to play with.

Including myself in my films came from necessity. When I was shooting Claire l’hiver, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to act because I wasn’t an actress, and everyone was telling me it wasn’t a good idea. In the end, we had so little money; I had to do it. I was at a point where I wasn’t comfortable asking a real actor to be there and not be able to pay them very much. But also including myself in my films gives me the freedom to do what I want. That’s a gift. Especially in documentary, it’s so tricky to use someone else’s life to say what you want to say.

Photo credit: La distributrice de films

JS: The Wizard of Oz is very important to the film. Can you talk about it?

SBM: It was was pretty clear from the beginning that I wanted to accentuate the parallels between the films. [Dorothy] does not succeed and the ending… I don’t want to say it’s lame, but it’s just the man behind the curtain. I knew that whether or not I met Miranda July, it would be a disappointment. The things we are looking for in the film, she couldn’t resolve all those questions with a 30-minute interview. It was funny; once I realized that I wanted to play with The Wizard of Oz it allowed me to free the form and work with magic. As we go on, there are more of these magical elements. It was fun to work with, and it allowed me to distance the film from more typical road movies.

JS: You also use Chantal Akerman as the voice of the good witch using quotes from her interviews. How did you achieve that?

SBM: It was a lot of time just listening to all of her interviews towards the end of her life so that the voice would match. It was a lot of research and a huge Google Doc with all the quotes. I did an interview with someone, and they asked if it might be a problem using someone else’s words and making them my own. The things she says in the film are things she said many times in so many interviews. She is talking about cinema and not her personal life. I didn’t edit the sentences.

I’m mentioning it because I do feel bad, but it also made me think. It was a lot of research, and it evolved while we were editing because the film was constructing itself, and it was more and more clear what we needed to hear, what we needed to get out of the desert and finally end up in Los Angeles. It was tough finding the right words for her to tell me that would be relevant to where we were in the film at that point. [Chantal] is talking to “us,” she’s not talking to me. I’m there to answer but she’s talking about cinema. Obviously, she’s so important to me that I put her in my film.

JS: You have also mentioned Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson as an inspiration.

SBM: I watched it with Isabelle, the director of photography. We don’t see Kirsten Johnson much in the film, but her presence is tangible. It was an example for us of how we could incorporate Isabelle into L.A. Tea Time. We struggled a little bit with how we were going to include her because she’s not that comfortable in front of a camera. That movie was such a good example of how she didn’t have to be on camera to have a presence. The way she talks about life in that chaos… It’s such a complete film.

JS: How was it convincing Isabelle to be a part of the project?

SBM: At a certain point, I had to ask her officially, and she said yes right away, but I could see that she was worried. I had to be careful to protect her and make sure she was comfortable. I had to centre the film a bit more on me in the beginning. It was much easier to talk about my struggles trying to survive as a filmmaker. I didn’t necessarily want to include her in that part because whereas I don’t care about my image because I’m the one in the editing room, I don’t want to put her in that position.

JS: And how did you find the other subjects?

SBM: It was a mix of people I contacted before and just being open to what was happening on the road. Like Eric from Chicago, I just met him at the May Day Protest. But, for example, the redneck — and I only use that term because that’s what he calls himself — I knew he existed. But there was no way of contacting him, so we just showed up and he was there. 

JS: There is a lot of tension in the “redneck scene.” It’s hard to watch even if it’s entertaining.

SBM: Oh my God, it was not fun. People laugh because it’s so uncomfortable. The scene used to be seven minutes, and now it’s two-and-a-half. We thought it was so weird. It was just one long take. At some point, the film was so focused on it, and people would only talk to us about that scene. I cannot watch it. It’s so weird and uncomfortable. I think it’s because we are not in control in that scene and it shows. That’s documentary filmmaking.

JS: He’s not respecting your space at all.

SBM: Some people have said, “That’s what it’s like travelling when you’re just women.” I didn’t think about the scene in that way, but it makes sense. When I was doing research, I found him in a YouTube video, and he seemed funny and weird, but he was a lot different. I only realized later that the people visiting him were these 40-year-old men. Obviously he’s not going to treat young women in the same way, but I didn’t think that before I showed up.

JS: The process of making a film is so long.

When you first developed the idea, Obama was president. Did Trump getting elected change anything?

SBM: It was something I had in mind, and I was wondering how I wanted to deal with that. I didn’t want to be insensitive, and at one point in the research phase I went a little too political, and I had to come back to something more personal. Are we still allowed to make personal films in a world that seems to be collapsing? That question came up in the film a lot.

I don’t have a lot of distance [from my film], but it was definitely important to me. How do we keep pursuing personal goals like trying to be a filmmaker, trying to pay our rent as a filmmaker? How is it still important when there might be a third world war?

There are two scenes, even if they’re funny, with my actual boyfriend and how he’s scared we’re going to go to global war. They talk about paranoia and worries that we have and should have. He’s also the editor of the film.

JS: Can you talk about the edit and how you approached it, given all the different elements?

SBM: In the beginning, we were supposed to have three months [to edit]. And I was like, “that’s not going to happen.” We ended up editing for nine months, which isn’t that long to me. I like to take breaks and not edit full time. We cannot go into editing only thinking of efficiency. Of course, it depends. Denis Côté was telling me that his newest film, Wilcox, he edited for like six days!

We had a first rough cut that we showed to a bunch of festival programmers at RIDM in 2018. It was a bit brutal, but it was really good to confront what we had in mind with that type of audience. After that, we changed the structure, and it became a film that is in search of itself. There’s the first part of the trip, where we just shoot fields, then we think we should meet people, then we go to the wandering. It became more in blocks. Before that, it was all mixed together and had no shape. 

L.A. Tea Time

JS: I was at the second screening of the film at Festival du Nouveau Cinéma and you mentioned that one of the projectionists achieved what you couldn’t: he met Miranda July.

SBM: It was weird! I was presenting the film for the first time in Montreal at FCN. I go up and present the film, then the film starts. I wait to make sure that everything is okay. After five minutes, I leave the theatre. The projectionist is at the stairs at Cinéma du Parc and is like, “Your film sounds interesting. I actually had coffee with Miranda July.” I think it was many years ago and I was like “Whaaattt!” It was pretty freaky. Miranda came to present a film [at FNC years earlier], and he met her through his father, I think. It’s not so difficult in the end to have coffee with Miranda July if you’re well connected.

But, obviously, the film, it was pretty clear to me that we had to distance ourselves with the goals, and then we come back with the lens of The Wizard of Oz.

JS: And there’s elements of animation as well. Can you talk about how you did that? 

SBM: The editor does the animation as well. He worked with me on Claire l’hiver. We wanted to work with animation, and we wanted to incorporate the animation throughout. With Claire l’hiver, the opening sequence has animation, but that’s it. We wanted to make it more integrated. The way he works, Joël [Morin-ben Abdallah], is very artisanal. We play with the fact that it’s a small budget film and we don’t have a lot of money. I think that makes for a more honest film. I like the comedy that comes out of those moments and things like not being able to afford the rights to songs.

I like using humour and laughing at myself. It’s fun to find the ways that comedy comes from not failures but clumsiness. That’s what I want to keep doing. Now I’m working on fiction, and it’s a bit of a relief after working in documentary. Just working with a script is so great. I love writing it — you have your boundaries, you have to stick with it and you know where you’re going.

JS: How much can you say about your new project?

SBM: It’s about an author and an alien, and I can’t say more than that! ■

L.A. Tea Time opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 17. Watch the trailer below.

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