January 24, 2022


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TIFF 2021 Women Directors: Meet Ruth Paxton – “A Banquet”

TIFF 2021 Women Directors: Meet Ruth Paxton – “A Banquet”

TIFF 2021 Women Directors: Meet Ruth Paxton – “A Banquet”

Ruth Paxton is a Scottish filmmaker and writer. Her short film “Paris/Sexy,” a grim tragedy about a young caregiver and her brain-damaged father, premiered at the 64th Edinburgh International Film Festival. Her other directorial credits include short films like “Baroque.” “Nevada,” “Pulse,” and “Be Still My Beating Heart.” She has also written screenplays including “Liam Fights The Darkness” and directed six episodes for BBC’s “River City.” Paxton is a professional mentor with Raindance’s International MA program and an Associate Lecturer at Cambridge University and Screen Academy Scotland.

“A Banquet” will premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10. The fest is taking place September 9-18.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

RP: The film is a slow-burning psychological horror, which, at its core, is about a family dealing with grief. 

The story is about the demise of this once tight-knit family unit and the disintegration of the relationships within it following the suicide of the father, and the subsequent spiritual awakening of the eldest daughter, Betsey. Widowed Holly is mother to two teenage girls, and she’s struggling to maintain the middle-class family lifestyle her daughters are used to, as she strives to cultivate a nourishing, positive environment at home while they work through their grief. 

Betsey in particular is at that delicate age about to make the transition from high school to university – but she doesn’t really know what she wants to do. She doesn’t really have any specific passion or drive and is finding it hard to see the point of her future, especially considering she lives in a world where panic about the climate crisis is hyperpresent. For Betsey’s generation it’s hard to have confidence in the future, let alone invest in one.

And early on, Betsey has a profound experience when she breaks away from a party and finds herself led to the woods. After a spiritual revelation, a sense of purpose seems to manifest. Betsey comes to believe her body is no longer her own but in service to this purpose and stops eating. However, she doesn’t lose any weight, and Holly is faced with this agonizing dilemma between choosing to buy into her daughter’s apparent madness, and new belief system, or accepting that Betsey is insane, or worse, vindictive. 

The brooding family drama borrows tropes from psychological thrillers and cinema depicting possession and biological gore, which comes in moments where we delve into Holly’s psyche. But the real horror is about the very human cost of what Betsey does with her grief.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

RP: The original script was written by Justin Bull, and when my producer, Leonora Darby, pitched the material I was instantly attracted to themes that are significant for me in my own writing: the ferocity of maternal love, the psychology of food, and power, the importance of one’s sense of purpose, the depiction of female madness, and the question of faith. I was also keen to develop ideas I had to do with the concept of inherited suicide, and cyclical mother/daughter relationships.

I’m interested in writing and directing stories that explore emotional and psychological terrain, and when it comes to horror I think we are in the midst of a trend of transcendental horror – where at the core, the monster is less beast and more rooted in what it means to be human. Characters in films like these tend to transcend their ordinary human life in order to face up to psychological horrors and the extremities of human existence. And the human body is an ultimate source of horror, as are our psyches and their capacity for mayhem. 

I felt that parallels in the story comparing what is felt rather than what is known, and the potency of faith and disordered beliefs about food, were exceptionally well-drawn. The impression of harnessing a sense of control by controlling food is something I’m acutely familiar with, having experienced a defining period of Disordered Eating. The all-consuming nature and the specific madness that comes with starvation generates an irrational fear of food and weight gain: the purist belief that something terrible will happen if one does consume. It’s isolating and scary to trust something so deeply when others don’t, and extremely distressing for parents who can’t comprehend the truth of their [children’s] mental illness.

Also, I’ve always been attracted to horror films that lean into the scary side of holiness. At its core, religion is arguably a response to our encounters with an unknowable extreme otherness, and it is our capability both to love, and take leaps of faith, that go to the heart of what makes us human. 

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

RP: I think we, as humans, want to believe there is value — or virtue, even — in suffering. That pain has some kind of upside, and whether dead or alive, we can reap some kind of benefit from pain, humiliation, torment, and torture. And in its own dark way I think our film rewards Holly’s effort, her incontestable love for her daughter, however ambiguously you may read the ending. 

And for me, so much of the narrative’s ideas lead back to the idea of death awareness and the vanitas theme, which is about reminding us that life is transitory. I think we ought to remind ourselves of this as often as we can. 

I imagine there will be mothers and daughters who recognize themselves in the women of this film, and I am always interested in finding ways to encapsulate the potency of maternal love. I guess the film lets us know that being a mother is hard, and being a teenager is hard, especially in this contemporary setting. Hopefully, it will invite women not to be so hard on themselves.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

RP: Big Bad Covid. 

I mean, for a host of reasons the pandemic threw uniquely shaped spanners in the works; it limited so many creative choices, put pressure on an already limited budget, and put distance between the cast and the crew. People had to learn how to do their jobs differently, and less satisfyingly. Going into it, I was irrationally frustrated by the prospect of directing with a mask on, insistent that I use my whole face to do the job — to communicate. And I stand by it. Having said this, every individual involved in making this film rose to the challenge with spectacular grace.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

RP: Once I’d read the script and came aboard production, I put together visual and written materials to demonstrate my vision for the film, which went out to prospective financiers. We were really fortunate to secure private financing very quickly from Riverstone Pictures and REP Productions 8 Ltd. 

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

RP: It’s hard to identify a moment or a single motivation. Storytelling was a huge part of my childhood and development — it was how I built relationships and how I played. I was a creative kid, and was always headed for a creative profession, but looking back, I can see how film was a major player in my upbringing, and how watching films was deeply rooted in the context of my relationship with family and friends. Both my parents — and their parents — were really into films, and so many of my memories are built around going to the cinema with family, or other experiences of watching films with pals, going on dates, escaping by myself. I’ve always loved how encounters with film can be shared and be celebratory, but also be highly introspective experiences.

I think a defining moment in my route to wanting to be a filmmaker, was when I watched films and began to recognize the voice of a director, the authorship, and how a film can be a collection of their passions and interests. It’s a magic kind of alchemy – getting the balance of authorship while inviting an audience to forget they’re watching a film. I want to master that.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

RP: Best advice Have patience. Don’t grind. Take note of anything — big or small — that strikes you as remarkable, that turns you on, sparks something in you, then work out why it does. Always be unpacking. And to quote journalist Brenda Ueland, don’t forget that “everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” 

Worst advice: Don’t cry on set.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors? 

RP: I don’t think of myself particularly as a woman director, and I don’t think I particularly make women’s films. I’ve never considered myself different – and maybe that’s helped me. 

I would advise directors to have faith in themselves, and to establish networks with trusted collaborators — people who believe in you and who will be there for you when keeping the faith gets hard. I wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for the people who propped me up. 

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

RP: Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” 

It’s tough to pick only one, but “The Piano” comes to mind immediately because it’s one of my favorite films and one which I continue to draw inspiration from. I’m such an admirer of Jane Campion, and particularly her dedicated, often brutally authentic examination of female characters with [mental health issues]. 

“The Piano” was one of the films I saw in my formative years that had a deep and lasting emotional impact. It taught me about the profundity possible to convey in cinema. I love its high gothic aesthetic, and its painful, raw erotic charge — how Campion links the intimate connections between revulsion and attraction. And I adore Michael Nyman’s score. 

Close runners-up would be Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” and Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages.” 

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

RP: My experience of the first UK lockdown(s) in 2020 was unique because I was in pre-production for the film, so I was really busy. Then when lockdown lifted in July, we went into production. Originally we were supposed to shoot in May 2020, but this was pushed – and I am extremely grateful for the additional time it afforded my department heads, and particularly my director of photography, and me, to prepare. David Liddell — my cinematographer — and I would spend every Friday on a day-long Zoom discussing the material and our influences, honing a very focused and considered vision for the visual language of our film. Those days were gifts. 

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

RP: I don’t have all the answers here, but I feel it’s obvious that the goal is to increase the representation of people of color on screen and behind the scenes telling stories about the lives and experiences of people of color, as well as stories that have nothing to do with color. It’s the responsibility of those in power to investigate and find out who these voices are, and then to nurture the growth of writers, actors, producers, directors, and people in all filmmaking departments who come from minority backgrounds.

Organizations ought to consider what their part is in institutional racism, take responsibility, and enact change. While those who make the decisions about casting should be conscious about whether color matters, and always cast blindly.

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