The Mark of a Great Talent

***this interview originally appeared on myfilms2010 in 2011***

Rona Mark is a director.

Rona Mark is a writer.

Rona Mark writes scripts and directs films.

Rona Mark is a writer/director.

Rona Mark has made two feature films.

Rona Mark wrote and directed “Strange Girls”

Rona Mark wrote and directed “The Crab”

You have probably never heard of Rona Mark.

It is not your fault that you have never heard of Rona Mark.

Rona Mark, however, really deserves for you to see her films and to know her name.

Rona Mark.

People often say that they would like to see something “different”, something “new”, something “clever” or something that is worth their time and money.  The strange thing is that despite their being a lot of people who want those things the film industry is reluctant to give it to them.  Rather than give us what they want though they give us what we don’t want safe in the knowledge that enough of us will go and see it anyway.  This is the only explanation for things like “Meet the Parents: Little Fockers” and, controversially, “Inception”.

Her first film “Strange Girls” offered a script and a vision that was, very clearly, her own.  It wasn’t like anything else that screened during the 2008 EIFF.  It was dark (telling the tale of two murderous twin girls), it was funny and it was, really, strange.  It was the sort of film that really connected with the people who saw it (and a lot of people did) and yet three years later we are no closer to seeing it in the local multiplex or on DVD.

Last year Mark brought “The Crab” to the EIFF and while it was still dark, funny and strange it also represented a giant leap forward in technical terms.  It features a performance from Guy Whitney, as the eponymous “Crab”, that is brilliantly, gloriously, defiantly scabrous.  The character, “Levi”, is hideously but fabulously unpleasant.  With a script that is full of rage and blistering attacks on all manner of targets (not all of them justified) it is the sort of film that rewards you in so many ways.

A quick look at the trailer reveals exactly how terrible a human being Levi is; immoral, angry, unpleasnt, profane and he has some bad qualities too.  So it seemed obvious to ask where in the world does Levi come from?

“Largely, of course, he comes from my brain…Levi is me at my nasty, male alter-ego worst, mixed in with 20% of an old boyfriend and 20% of a fantasy character and maybe 5% Grady Stiles who was the lobster boy.  The 20% that was the old boyfriend was the part of Levi who refuses to put citations into his final dissertation and so never got his degree…at least that’s what he says and I think it’s probably true”

Levi suffers from ectrodactyly and his physical disability is used by him as a means to justify some awful behaviour; womanising, drunkeness, drug abuse…the list is almost endless.  Despite that his brutal honesty and refusal to “play the game” is inspiring and a cause for celebration.  That Mark has been able to create a character who is so vulgar and yet so beautiful is testament to her talents as a writer.

Levi is also convinced of his own brilliance and is sure that it’s everyone elses fault that this hasn’t been recognised.  Of course, his refusal to insert citations in his dissertation ensures that he cannot be recognised and I wonder if that is a defence mechanism on his part, a means to ensure that he can’t be criticised?

“That’s definitely true and it’s that part of him that sees the difference between us because I went ahead and finished my film (Strange Girls) and put it out there.  I paid a high price for that, I took a lot of beating, emotionally, for that film…people here (Edinburgh) really seemed to appreciate it but I got a lot of rejection, a lot of stupid reviews, people don’t get it.  I mortgaged my life away to make that film, I’m still paying for it.  It’s a good film, you know, it’s not perfect but it’s a good film that doesn’t have distribution yet.  You put so much into something and then it goes nowhere…and I’m pissed.  Everyone I know has kids and property, I’ve made sacrifices to make films.”

At this point there is laughter but you get the sense that there is a part of her that really does feel angry that something that she has invested so much in has been ignored while films that have so much less emotional investment are given so much attention.  Of course there are many examples of people creating work that is filled with their own drive and ambition that doesn’t equate to art (“The Room” anyone?) but in this case we are talking about someone who is creating films that have value and meaning.

Both “Strange Girls” and “The Crab” feature characters who have a genetic condition that sets them apart from the “herd”. The attraction for most of us to these conditions is the opportunity it affords us to be shamed voyeurs, with our necks distended looking at the freaks. Is there something about the “otherness’ of these conditions that attracts you?

“Well, I guess I feel like a freak.  A great way to dramatise that feeling is to make it physical in some way.  I think that’s the connection between both of the films.  That feeling of being “different” but without having anything to mark it out.”

Something that struck me about both films was the shift in that physical manifestation of the outsider…in “Strange Girls” the condition of twins is something quite common, most of us know twins or have met twins so there is a connection there but in “The Crab” Levis condition isn’t all that common, indeed it is a much more violent demonstration of being an outsider.  Was that purposeful?  Has there been some emotional journey you have gone on that has made you feel more of a “freak”?

“Yeah, like I said, the production of “Strange Girls” was brutal.  It was a real struggle and it left me broken and in pieces.  I didn’t ever expect it to make money or anything like that but I thought it might open doors and make it easier to make films…but it didn’t do shit for me.  That, I think, is the base of it.  This is the professional side of my personal failures.  There are others but I’m not going to get into that.”

If “Strange Girls” didn’t open those doors and make things easier do you think that “The Crab” will?  

“I don’t.  I don’t.  Here’s the thing, I got a great response to the film in Edinburgh but I don’t think an American audience is going to respond in the same way.  That’s just a feeling I get.  It’s all about America in a way…they have a kind of mindset about how films should be, how they work out.  I wouldn’t say that they are any more or less sophisticated because I don’t think that’s true.  Part of the problem is that Levi doesn’t learn anything in the film and when things don’t fit into a certain paradigm for American audiences they don’t like that.  I think there will be a lot of people who will dig it but the question is can I get it to them?  Can I get it through festival people, the people who are programming so that the people who would “get it” can see it.  It didn’t happen with “Strange Girls” so I’m sceptical that it will happen with this.”

I have spent a lot of time in the States and I find the idea that American audiences are less sophisticated as offensive as Rona clearly does.  When I am in America I find a lot of intelligent, urbane, sophisticated and interesting people…who would have thought it.  The problem clearly lies at the door of the people who decide what we get to see.  That’s a difficult thing to cope with as a viewer…heaven knows how miserable it must make the artist.

“It’s a hard film (The Crab) to market, it’s not a straight up horror film, it’s too “low brow” for the indie thing, it doesn’t have anyone famous so those are all things that close doors on us.”

One of the things that is most compelling about “The Crab” and about Levi is that he is the sort of person that a lot of men, I think, wish they could be.  He says and does exactly what he wants to, he has a boorish charm that means he is never short of female company, he is witty and intelligent as well as caustic and angry.  At the risk of being sexist I wonder how a female writer creates such an, apparently, alien character?

“A friend once told me I had a very androgynous brain.  I think that Levi gives expression to that and also to my own anger.  The thing is though that women are not allowed to be angry.  If you’re a woman and you are angry then you are somehow less of a woman.  I always thought that if I was thinking these things then other women must be thinking them too.  Unlike Levi I don’t want to destroy myself physically but on screen it has to be that way…when I am angry or depressed I sit at home crying but who wants to watch that?”

The person I am reminded of as I sit in Rona Marks company is Patti Smith.  Rona, like Patti, is, in person, charming, funny, intelligent and passionate.  There is also, however, a very definite passion, fire and anger burning inside of her that is tangible in her work but isn’t off putting. 

“I’m sorry if this has been grim” she says “But the thing I’m most proud of is that despite my films not having distribution and despite the struggles I’m still doing it, you know?”

I do know and I’m really glad that she is.  Hopefully, one day, you will be too.

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