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by Jesse Catherine Webber Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

In The Style and In The Storytelling: An Interview With Ashley McKenzie

May 19, 2023

One of the highlights of the 2022 Berlinale’s Encounters sidebar was Ashley McKenzie’s Queens of the Qing Dynasty. Following the Canadian filmmaker’s first feature, Werewolf, Queens tracks the friendship between Star (Sarah Walker), a young neurodiverse woman entering adulthood, and An (Ziyin Zheng), a hospital volunteer who’s assigned to monitor her after a suicide attempt. Working in tandem with Walker and Zheng’s extraordinary performances, McKenzie creates a rhythm that is both regulated and disorienting, and one which keenly reflects Star’s state of mind. We caught up with McKenzie earlier this month following the film’s New York release.

Let’s start at the beginning of [Queens of the Qing Dynasty]. The whole movie is tackling a lot of difficult subject matter, but it often feels like a very tender film, whereas those first few minutes feel much harsher — obviously because of what is happening, but also just in the way that the film is visually introducing you to Star. It’s very striking, but it also feels like a risk. Why did that feel like the place the film needed to start?

I’m trying to think back to the beginning, and if there was a very specific moment when I felt like the film needed to enter in that way. I mean, I think my overall feeling is that I wanted to show that Star is an at-risk person, and that the stakes are kind of high and it is life or death. And I think I needed to show that at the beginning because, in a lot of ways, her attitude toward the barriers and challenges she’s facing in her life, in this particular moment, and this crossroads and aging out of foster care, can be fairly optimistic at times, and can tend to focus on the positive of what’s immediately in front of her and things like that. So sometimes, I think if we’re really in her world, we can forget that dangerous things and bad things have happened.

And having that vulnerability come out — to me, her ingesting poison is a cry for help. And starting the film that way I think brings people in on that note, but then also leaves the question open of whether the institutional model of care is going to be able to actually address that, or if something else can. So I think that’s the main thing:  wanting to lay things pretty bare. And I think that’s true with having like this little glimpse of her in the shower as well. Just feeling that vulnerability.

The film has two lead characters, and one of the actors has a script credit. I know you developed that character with them, and I know Star is also based on a real person. So what was the casting process like for that role?

I will note that my work with Ziyin on the script was more of a consulting process, not like a co-writing process. I decided to rewrite the script as I had written it for them as a person, and I wanted to explore their personal experiences and let them bring experiences that I felt I didn’t have an understanding of in as specific a way as I needed to tell that story. So that was why I involved Ziyin as a script consultant.

And then we moved into doing an audition process to see how it would all come together on camera. But in some ways, I kind of approached things initially similarly with the character of Star because she’s loosely based on a friend of mine. Years before even writing the script, I met her in the casting process of my last feature, Werewolf. And I just thought she was a really creative person, I really liked pictures that I saw that she would take with her phone and post online. And I just thought she had a really interesting eye and way of observing things. So I had connected with her and tried to figure out if we could make a film together, like a short film, or a documentary, where we would’ve been co-authoring things. But anytime I tried to introduce the idea of a project, it seemed like it made our friendship stressful. So I just decided that I wasn’t going to try to collaborate with her on an art thing, that we would just be really good friends, and we continue to be great friends. And that’s just worked best for both of us.

So I was intimidated by having to cast an actor because I could hear Star’s voice in my head in such a clear way, and it was tied in many ways to the cadence in which my friend speaks. But I just did a traditional casting process, which in my community doesn’t mean that I got a casting agent and stuff like that; it means that I just reached out to people in the theater community. I mean, I did audition some professional actors that had film experience and did a few tapes. I was also just keeping my eyes open anywhere in my community.

But it was a call that we put out to the youth in the theater community that ended up leading to finding Sarah Walker. And she was the second person that came into the audition, and she had only read the audition scene. When she played it, right off the top she was really in the register and tone of how I heard Star in my mind as I was writing. So there was just something that clicked right away. Everything else about her as a person on paper seemed completely unlike Star, so I was a little bit unsure. I was like, was that just like a lucky audition? So I kept doing more additions for a couple months. And I kept calling Sarah Walker back to do a few more auditions, and eventually settled on casting her. And once we were on set, she just dialed in the character to such a perfectly precise degree that I really never imagined I could get without casting, say, someone like my friend — or even then, I don’t even know if that could have materialized in the way that I imagined. But Sarah really brought it to life in a way that was so exciting to me.

It’s rare to see a film in which the dialogue and the visual style are both so specific, and also work so well together. How did you develop those two elements of the film?

I think it probably has to do with, you know, a couple of things. One thing I suppose is I’m usually compelled to tell a story because of things, people, events, or locations that I encounter in my real life, like very specific things. And, you know, I’m not sitting down to write, thinking, “I want to write a character who’s aging out of foster care,” or “I want to write a character who’s moving from Shanghai to Canada.” I never start in that place. And I could see if I was starting writing there, how I could maybe start to lean on some clichés, or maybe I just wouldn’t go deep enough to get the nuances in there.

I usually am starting on the ground, mixed into the textures of it all, whether it’s meeting a specific person who wears their clothes this way or speaks this way or sings this particular way or, you know, has an interest in Queens of ancient China. I’m very much a detail person, and it’s those textures that kind of excite me. And usually that’s the stuff I start to work with, and then I build out from there. So, I don’t know, I think it’s almost like I’m starting more on the granular level. And then it’s more just trying to figure out if I can build it out to be something that is a story worth telling. And that’s maybe when I know that it’s gonna be my next film, when enough textures and details and things have coalesced into something and are there to warrant a story that’s worth putting on the screen. I think that some sort of bottom-up approach is an important part of my process.

And then the other thing that really defines the characters or the dialogue, style, these sorts of things, is just me trying to stay true to my instincts as much as possible. And because you could define the way I’m making films as being in isolation — you know, I’m not totally isolated, but I am on an island far removed from a traditional film industry, [working] with a super small team, and [I] end up having to wear a lot of hats and do a lot of roles myself. So in doing that, I spend a lot of time working alone, or working with a few close collaborators where there’s not a lot of having to filter my ideas through other people, or justify my ideas to other people, and have them potentially watered down or questioned.

Of course, in the collaboration process, we’re all trying to find the best way to tell the story, and things do shift. And there are really amazing collaborators on this film that took it to places I never could have on my own. But I think the scale on which I’m working, I think the the degree of removal of where I choose to live my life and where I choose to make my films, ends up leading to being really instinctual, really intuitive, and really working the material in ways [where] I kind of just commit to things that feel right, even if they might not be conventional. If I was in a different setting, I could imagine that I might really doubt myself. But I think I do try to honor those impulses, and I think it does lead to a different cumulative effect on the style. And the dialogue is also a bit more of my personality, and my love of being silly and playing with language and little things like that [which] came out in this film that didn’t really surface in some of my other work.

Another thing that struck me stylistically is the way you visually express point of view. Going back to that first scene — Star’s point of view is set up very clearly in the way she looks at the medical staff. How did you think about shooting the points of view of these types of characters who we don’t often see in films?

I think a big thing… specifically with point of view, but also just the basic mechanics of film grammar, is that I like to shoot the characters in single shots when I can, because I just want them to be interfacing with one another. To me, that’s so much of what the film is about, and the way I like to move through the world is really connecting with people. And I don’t want an over-the-shoulder shot where you see a bit of the other person or have that sort of dirty frame, they call it, I think. So in just the building blocks of the film, there are a lot of medium close-ups that are moving back and forth, and that to me was really in single shots, and there’s very few two shots in the film. That felt right for two characters that are coming from very different places, but trying to not interfere with what energy is moving between the two of them.

And when it comes to point of view, I think I’m thinking more subjectively, and that makes me think more of sounds in some ways. That’s where I was trying to sort of tease out a bit more of an internal landscape or process, I guess. But I do also focus on props and details a fair bit, too. And so that’s a little difference in terms of point of view — that is definitely more of an authorial point of view. And that’s something I’ve always done in my work as a way to focus on things that I think can be graphical elements that can become part of the story [and] can help me tell the story. I think that’s there as well.

It’s become almost a cliche that modern directors make period pieces because they’re afraid to engage with what’s going on now, and that’s not at all the case with your film, which really embraces technology and social media as well as things like the fluidity of social identity. Did it feel intimidating to do that or was it more natural?

I would say it probably feels more natural to me. I mean, I am aware of this feeling that I’m in this, again, island mentality or landscape, and that maybe what is timely here is not timely in other places — often things land here a bit later. So that is one thing that comes into my mind, and in some ways the film is trying to explore that… in contemporary times, especially in social media and information sharing and that culture that exists. You know, when I unplug from that and I’m just on the ground in my community, I can feel like they’re very different worlds happening almost in different times. So that is something that isn’t a discomfort, but I think was an interesting thing to be aware of while I was making the film.

And yeah, in terms of, say, working with certain visual elements that are very much of our time, I think as long as I’m doing it in a way, whether it’s like texting or a logo or social media platform, as long as I’m doing it in a way that feels honest to me and I can find a way to do it that feels cinematic and aesthetically interesting, then I don’t feel deterred to tell that story. I think it’s interesting. And maybe it would entail more research if I was trying to tell a story at a time that wasn’t what I’m steeped in. It is exciting, that there is a challenge in it. Do we have time to really reflect on things? Things do feel like they’re shifting daily. But yeah, I think with this film, I felt like I was in my own world with the two characters, writing, and they were like my best friends for years. And then I was editing the film for a long time during Covid, and I just felt like I was in my own bubble with Star and An. And that felt like a happy place for me to be.

It’s interesting that you say that you feel like the community that you’re in is sometimes kind of behind other places, because I feel like the film is, if anything, ahead of where I see things culturally, even being in a huge city.

Oh, I like that, and hopefully, yeah, the film can have that effect. That’s great for me to hear because the film is trying to look at things from a different perspective, I guess, and sort of question some of these notions that we have about ourselves, or that we have of other people. And hopefully in the filmmaking, and in the style, and in the storytelling, it does turn some of those things on their head.

I know you were in New York this weekend, and we’re talking right now even though the movie premiered over a year ago. I know that’s not uncommon for films going through the festival ecosystem, but how does it feel to not only sit with the completed film, but sit with audience reactions for that long?

It’s definitely on my mind, I think probably because I’m feeling like I’m coming to the end of my marathon race — my legs are a bit rubbery. And yeah, I’ve questioned: what’s the best way to release a film? And it can be nice to have it all happen in a more condensed timeline so that all the energy is moving it toward this bigger release. But then, I don’t know; I would say with both Werewolf and Queens I’ve had a bit more of this traditional platform sort of a release — done the festival circuit and then done some theatrical runs. And there’s been something nice about the slow burn sort of process, too, because it doesn’t just come and go in a blip. It does allow the film to remain in consciousness and in conversation for a period of time, which I think is actually quite nice. And so much of what the film is trying to do and what I wanted to do is to open communication and to find how we can move through little idiosyncrasies and bumps and discomforts and continue to have a conversation as people. So I think there is something nice about having this longer conversation that I’m beginning to appreciate more as I kind of look back at the different ways of sharing a film with the world. 

And I think for me, again, because I’m someone who is very curious about other humans and likes to meet other people — and be outside my own little bubble of a life — when I do attend screenings and do talkbacks and travel to different places, it does allow me to meet people that I wouldn’t meet otherwise. And that’s another thing I’ve come to realize: when I think, “I don’t know if I should keep traveling with the film,” but then I have these connections or these conversations and I learn a lot and I meet interesting people. And it’s almost like, to me, it seems this is meant to be, this is a very fortuitous way for me to have a reason to talk to someone new. And that is what the film was about and what I love, moving through life. So I have been reminding myself, as I get tired, that each time I show the film somewhere and go there with it, that it’s giving me this really cool opportunity to be able to start a conversation with someone that I would have no basis on which to get to know them otherwise. That’s a fun part of being a filmmaker that I appreciate.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.