Stuck in a Rut—Brigitta Wagner
Indiana rarely gets screen time in movies. Aside from Illinois, and Chicago in particular, which has been home to countless films, directors tend to pick other states around the Great Lakes. And yet, a few Indiana films leave a mark on the collective consciousness: the biopic based on the iconic Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne, All American (1940); the other Notre Dame biopic, this one about football player Daniel Ruettiger, David Anspaugh’s Rudy (1993); the other Anspaugh film about high school basketball, Hoosiers (1986). In recent years, David Cronenberg set his critical crime film, A History of Violence (2005), in the fictional town of Millbrook. However, it is only with Kogonada and his first feature, Columbus (2017), that a filmmaker has captured not only that particular town, filled with modern architecture, but also the state’s languid pace and pastoral scenery. And there is yet another film that evokes the boredom and beauty of Indiana: Brigitta Wagner’s Rosehill (2015).
Rosehill follows two friends. One is Katriona (Kate Chamuris), a struggling actress in New York. Upon hearing a bit of surprising news, she heads to Bloomington to visit Alice (Josephine Decker), a sex researcher at Indiana University who is at an impasse in her life. Once they get together, they’ll have casual, then serious chats about work and life; visit the countryside, a limestone quarry, the adjoining and financially strapped town of Bedford; and meet an assortment of locals. Rosehill (which is now streaming on Kinoscope) is a bit elusive. It is a character-driven film centered on these two women that incorporates elements of documentary cinema, archival footage of erotica, and Super 8mm black-and-white film.
To grasp this genuinely independent film a little more, I spoke with Wagner. Last March, I met with her over coffee and hot cocoa at a café in Midtown Manhattan, where we talked about Rosehill’s production, the use of archival and Super 8mm footage, friendship, and, of course, Indiana.
As someone from the Midwest, from South Bend, Indiana, I thought your film captured the easygoing but also mundane, pastoral quality of Bloomington. Why Bloomington?
It was mainly because I was living there at the time. I lived there for five years, right after the Great Recession [in 2008]. I moved my entire life to this place that I didn’t know, where I knew almost no one, and I kind of arrived with the eye of an anthropologist or ethnographer. I was curious about it because it was such a different experience from the East Coast. I tried to get to know the place, and I think it’s through that process — and also the fact that you need a car to drive everywhere — that I became familiar with the countryside. I was driving around and having these thoughts like, oh, I wish I could film something here. I would see an open cement pit, and I’d want to film there. I learned about all these different places that come up in the film — the drive-in, the countryside, the highways, the rock outcroppings — and I felt that there was a geological story here as well as a personal one.
You were a professor at Indiana University. Did your background in academia inform your filmmaking?
I would say definitely, and in a couple of different ways. First, because I lived for a long time between the U.S. and Germany, I would go in and out of my academic self. I would be this professor, but then for three months each year, I would be somebody else in Germany. I was fascinated with stepping in and out of that role, and also, thinking in broader terms, when you live in a small town, what does it mean to be the lawyer, the judge, the professor, the pastor, whatever it is, and you take on this other role. I kept thinking, what is the life of an anthropological professor in one of these places?
Another part that was feeding into the film was talking with students, and I had a lot of them working on the film, as well as acting in it.
I also did a project with the Kinsey Institute in 2011 and invited a German filmmaker, Monika Treut, to come over for two months and spend time teaching a graduate seminar in the institute looking at their film materials. Through that process, I was looking at these things and just thinking, it’s somebody’s job to catalogue these images, to spend all day with them, to be an expert on them. Wouldn’t that be an interesting character?
You use a lot of archival footage, does it come from the Kinsey Institute?
No, because the institute was always afraid of people misusing their images, even though they don’t have exclusive rights to a lot of these films. But I was like, this is Monika Treut; there’s not going to be any misrepresentation. But they were still concerned because I think the funding comes from the state legislature. As you might remember, Indiana governors are very conservative. Then I thought, well you know, maybe I shouldn’t go through an actual institutional route, and I knew a guy who was a private collector — one of the top collectors of erotic films in the U.S. He keeps a careful database, and I was looking for certain types of images. You think porn today invented everything, you watch these films from the 1920s and ‘30s, they do all the same stuff, in the same order, and there’s only slight variations sometimes. I was always interested in the exceptions, films that do something else or reveal something different about the people acting in them, like little moments where there are mistakes or when women are looking at the camera, dropping their guard, laughing, or touching each other — really looking for something that would be extraordinary like that. So, he was able to connect me with some of those films.
The other type of footage in the film is black-and-white Super 8mm, which you shot. Combined with archival, I felt like they conveyed a sense of fantasy and collective memory. My question is: how do you go about selecting the archival footage, and choosing where to place it — that and the Super 8 footage — in the film?
I knew I was going to shoot Super 8 footage from the very beginning; I was going to use erotic archival footage; and I would have access to some older film footage from San Francisco and some about limestone production history. I knew that all existed, and I was going to shoot these wise women in black-and-white video, so I kind of had these other elements that were going to be part of the film beyond the color HD footage. Only when I started to work with my co-editor, Javier Loarte, we began laying down the main film story, only then when I could see those [archival and Super 8] bits together did I start to think, OK, I’m getting a sense of where the other footage could come in. It was very intuitive; I had to figure out what story these women were really telling. You have to know the archival footage so well; you have to know every move it takes, every gesture, every look on someone’s face to feel the power of those images and where they can do the most work.
You mention improvisation, and intuitively placing archival footage within the film, but how does improvisation manifest in the performances?
There were some scenes that I wrote in which I wanted something more specific to happen, but we talked a lot for five months leading up to the initial shoot. We talked about the characters, women’s lives, the situation. I would fly from Indiana to New York, meet with Kate and Josephine, shoot some material with them, fly back, show it to the other actors, maybe film something with the other actors, and then bring it back to the two. So, I had a way to make the Indiana and New York people comfortable with each other. There were also moments when things were freer, and when I would direct the actors — they would know what the scene was about, what the outcome would be — who were freer to play and experiment. Sometimes we would do a couple of very strict takes and then switch to something a little looser.
Going more into the content of the film, two longtime friends are finally getting together, but it seems like both are longing for something else, to be something else. Katriona’s reexamining her life after ignoring some big news; Alice is frustrated and in a rut with her position as a sex researcher. Rosehill seems like a film about characters in transition or in a flux. Could you speak a little bit about that?
Yeah, I think it comes back to Bloomington as a place. Any American college town, or any college town in the countryside for that matter, is kind of an odd place. It draws people from all over the world who would never otherwise live there and gives them purpose, bringing them into a community. It gives the town another life. One of the major thoughts for the film was: how did we all get here? I had a lot of deep conversations with people in flux. College towns have a lot of healers, lot of thinking people who kind of stay in that orbit. I wanted to know their stories. We would talk a lot about how do you get from point A to point B in life? How does anyone do that? How do you survive in flux? How do you survive in a state of change? What about a situation where someone is in a rut? How do you end a rut, how do you get out of that?
I was intrigued by the energy transference when a person from one place visits a person in another place. If you’re the person in the place, you have someone coming from outside bringing news from around the world or from another place, opening up your world a little bit. And if you’re that person traveling to the foreign place, the unknown, maybe you expect something to happen. In Katriona’s case, she expects Alice to give her something; and Alice expects Katriona to give her something. I was intrigued by that dynamic.
There’s this sense of expectation that comes to a head when they are at the quarry and with what Katriona’s revealing and not revealing.
Yeah, there’s definitely a discussion the whole time about what is real, and who is the real self, and how can you be true to yourself?
When we were doing the Kickstarter, Josephine had said something. We were putting together that initial video, and I think she said something like, good friends are the people that challenge you to be most yourself. We talked about what that is and what friends can give each other and pull out of each other — sometimes to places you don’t want to go.
Brigitta Wagner’s Rosehill is now streaming on Kinoscope.