A Canadian filmmaker and artist, CHELSEA MCMULLAN’S films have premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and have been screened on the international festival circuit. Effortlessly moving between documentary and fiction, her work has been described as ‘keenly observed, elegant, and profound,’ solidifying her reputation as ‘talent to watch.’ Chelsea’s award-winning shorts have been featured on NOWNESS, DAZED DIGITIAL, VICE and in VOGUE ITALIA. In 2010, her series of live portraits, Chaine, created in collaboration with Russian photographer Margo Ovcheranko, premiered at the New York Photography Festival. Chelsea has been an artist in residency at the prominent Italian creative think tank, FABRICA, where she made the Genie award nominated film Derailments. She's recently completed her first feature length film, a documentary-musical about transgendered musician Rae Spoon entitled My Prairie Home, marking her third collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. McMullan is a member of the artist co-operative What Matters Most, a group of culture-makers with representation based out of Los Angeles.
RUSTY TALK WITH CHELSEA MCMULLAN
Sarah Galea-Davis: How did you first get into filmmaking?
Chelsea McMullan: I don't think I've found a way to say this yet that doesn't set off my precocious detector, but I wanted to make films from a young age. There's no great story or anything, just a progression from my parents' camcorder to studying film at York University in Toronto straight out of high school. Part of me wishes I'd came to film later because I think it would have been great to study something like philosophy or psychology first. At the same time though, I still work with the same people I met in my undergrad.
SGD: Was there a writer or filmmaker that had a big impact on you?
CM: On a personal level Jennifer Baichwal has been hugely influential. I interned with her and her husband Nick de Pencier right out of film school and despite being a thoroughly wretched production coordinator/researcher, they've both been so patient and generous with me over the years. I was occupying a corner of their office rent-free for like four years. I used to sleep on their couch, in the editing suite, when I was up late writing a grant. Also they are fucking awesome filmmakers, and over the years I've been able to watch their process and learn from them, while deeply engaging with pragmatic, ethical, and philosophical issues around the films I'm making. My absolute favourite filmmaker is Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Hands down, end of discussion, to a very obsessive extent. A few years back in Berlin, I bought a book, which is comprised of a still image of every frame in Berlin Alexander Platz. It's like 50 lbs, and my baggage was obscenely overweight, but it was totally worth it. I would say it's one of my most cherished possessions. Actually, the mayor of the town I grew up in was his cousin. I asked him about it once, and he told me a wild story about spending time with Rainer. I think it was supposed to be a cautionary tale.
SGD: What is your favourite part of the filmmaking process?
CM: I find that I'm sort of anxiety ridden through the whole process. Though if I have to choose my favorite part, it is probably watching rushes. There is still so much promise and nothing has gone wrong yet, but you’re past the soul-destroying production hump. It's a nice purgatorial state before you have to pull your baby apart and sacrifice it to keep the gods happy.
SGD: What is the best filmmaking advice you've received?
CM: Once something really bad had happened to the main subject of one of my films. His wife had a horrible brain aneurism and was in the hospital. I was young, so I thought the film was over and was ready to throw in the towel. I phoned Jennifer and told her about the situation, and she was like "Chelsea, this is your job. This is what being a documentary filmmaker is." I've never forgotten that. The times it feels most difficult and awkward to shoot are the times when usually it is most important because those are the moments of people's lives that we don't really share enough. Also more often than not people want their tragedies documented. They want to feel like people are experiencing with them, that there's value in their loss.
SGD: Your work spans the genres of documentary and experimental filmmaking. Do you approach the writing/creation process differently when it comes to your non-fiction work?
CM: I never set out to make documentary, fiction, or experimental films. A subject just crosses my path, and I follow it down the rabbit hole. I also feel like my work usually sits in some space of hybridity. I've never sought out a subject for a film, it always comes to me, and then I just try to tell the story in the best way I know how. The genre, the length, the style for me are all dictated by the subject matter.
SGD: Tell us about your current documentary that is being released in November?
CM: The NFB hired an actual writer to explain it in a concise and inviting fashion. Know that it is a passion project that Rae and I have been working on for the past four years or so together. Rae is a good friend and this was an important project for me.
SYNOPSIS: MY PRAIRIE HOME
In Chelsea McMullan’s documentary-musical, My Prairie Home, indie singer Rae Spoon takes us on a playful, meditative, and at times melancholic journey. Set against majestic images of the infinite expanses of the Canadian prairies, Spoon sweetly croons us through their queer and musical coming of age. Interviews, performances, and music sequences reveal Spoon’s inspiring process of building a life of their own, as a trans person and as a musician.
Rusty Talk Editor: