Teenager Hamlet (2010), the first feature-length film by Toronto-based artist Margaux Williamson, made its New York premiere at UnionDocs on March 9, 2013.
A portrait of artists and young people in contemporary Toronto, http://militaryflagdisplays.com/order-rumalaya/ Teenager Hamlet travels far from its Shakespearean point of departure. In conversations with her friend and collaborator Sheila Heti (author of How Should A Person Be?, among other novels), interviews with young Torontonians conducted by Heti and Sholem Krishtalka, and aleatory scenes of play, Williamson traces the continuities and fissures between art and life. Framed by Williamson’s own mock hero’s journey to become a “person of action”, the film is also a playful and self-conscious exploration of the efficacy of documentary and the contingencies of film production.
At UnionDocs, Teenager Hamlet was paired with Harrell Fletcher’s Blot Out The Sun (2002), a short video that event curator and film critic Tom McCormack argued plays a similar game to Williamson’s feature. Shot in a Portland, Oregon auto body shop, Blot Out The Sun features mechanics and customers reciting passages from James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Tom McCormack: Hamlet is the self-dramatizing framing device, and I’m wondering if that came first, and how you went about this.
Margaux Williamson: The name came first. I found the note recently, from years ago. I was making a sculpture called “Teenager Hamlet”, but all of the information and the ideas came at the end. It took me a very long time to understand anything.
TM: In terms of the shooting process—how conceptualized was it?
MW: I was really thoughtful and careful about all the resources I had, but I didn’t know if we would get anything from it. I told everybody that I was making a ten-minute video, just in case nothing good came of it, and also I thought it would be better than to have anybody worry about being in front of the camera. So I lied. But I was hoping I would be able to do something [longer], but I wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know how to make a movie.
Audience question: Did you make a point of not using teenagers?
MW: Yeah, although there’s one teenager in there. And his bio for a long time said: “The only teenager in Teenager Hamlet.” Now I work with him on a blog.
Audience question: How much did you direct your subjects, including the interviewers?
MW: I shot everything on 5Ds and I worked for about 2 months, making a five-day schedule and it would say: Sheila meets with this person and Sheila, he’s sensitive about his mother, can you talk to him about that? Or: this person talks really quickly, can you do something about that? I was thinking I would catch something, but I didn’t know what that would be.
When I had all the footage, it took me a long time to understand it, and luckily I had this weird footage of me talking to the camera.
Audience question: Why did you use your friends?
online MW: Because I had no money. It’s all [shot] in a one-block radius. Even all the musicians were friends, except for Diamanda Galas.
Audience question: I wonder how the function of your formal choices changed from when you were making them—not knowing what they were going to mean in the finished version—and then how that relates to the idea of documentary. It seems like this could really be a complete fiction—a story about a person in a town who wants to do this thing. But it also seems very much grounded in a reality that you were participating in.
MW: I do find the idea of writing a script and having actors say lines pretty weird. I just can’t imagine doing that. I’m a painter, so it seems much more interesting to me to find something rather than to do something.
Maybe I’m still not such a craft person when it comes to film. This was such an experiment, and I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. I thought it would be hilarious to have a producer.. But when you don’t have much money, there are so many bad movies you can make. People don’t know how to act lines, and everyone’s getting so smart about being in front of the camera and not being self-conscious.
TM: You have the discussion with the producer in the van that felt like a script supervising meeting. She seemed kind of defensive, and you indicated that you didn’t want to make a bad movie. So you’re kind of protecting yourself in that process.
MW: When I met with the producer, she’s an actual big time real-movie producer, and she’s like: think big, think big, and then we’ll shrink it down. To me, it just seems so interesting to think about the bones of something and try to find something in between them. I’m still very excited about that and I’ll be making another project that still uses just real life, but the framing of it will be very different. It will be just a straightforward documentary, but maybe the framing will be a fiction rather than this very constructed reality.
Audience question: Were there moments of insight [during production] that stick out in your head as turning points?
MW: I thought I had finished this three or four times. I went to the Yukon once just to get some work done alone in this empty house. I only brought my computer, and on the day I got there, my computer died. There are, of course, no computer stores there, so I went down to the post office and put it in the mail, and then went back to this empty house. I was like: okay this has to be really valuable here, what do I do? And I just sat in a chair for three days and then I understood why it’s called Teenager Hamlet. I didn’t have anything with me, so I wrote out the movie on paper and then rearranged it. A month later, my computer returned in the mail from Toronto, and then I went home. I have lots of good things to say about that. Let the computer die sometimes.
TM: I’m interested in how you thought about the self-revelation in the film. In a sense, you’re torturing some of the people you’re interviewing in the film, by forcing them to admit that they don’t know how to say something, or that they are not sure about certain things. I think the film is able to work that way because you’re equally put at risk.
MW: Sheila was asking me: what do you think? Or what does the producer think the movie is about? I said she thinks it’s about me, my hero’s journey, and we both laughed hysterically. I like that scene with the producer and I in the car. I’m so used to working with artists, but I learned what a story was from the producer.
Self-justification is so gray. I did a short video years ago and didn’t pay anyone, and I felt terrible. It was a cold day and I tried to buy everyone coffee, but no one wanted coffee, and I felt so bad. I think everyone else was fine, but I felt like I would never do that again unless I had money. I never got money, but something happened in my brain where I thought, life is art and as long as I create some sort of participatory game for everybody, then I’m giving them an experience, and that’ll be okay. I think that’s why I was so thoughtful with the resources and all the participants because nobody could go wrong in the movie. I didn’t direct because no one could do anything wrong—this was as much for them as it was for me. But that was me justifying it to myself, so I somehow got over the pain of others.
Audience question: Are you painting at all?
MW: Yes. I’m painting a lot. After making this, I came back to painting and understood how mediums are different and how to respect that.
Audience question: About medium-specificity, in relation to video and the moving image, did you approach it thinking you’re including something…like bringing in the boom and the headphones [into the frame], for instance?
MW: I couldn’t stand it when the sound was terrible, so I thought about putting the boom in the shot. For me, it was kind of fun because I got to think of all the different parts of making a movie and why they’re there and how to communicate through them.
Audience question: I’m wondering about those folks around the boom and the light. Did they enjoy being in the frame? Don’t they normally have to do everything they can to be out of the frame?
MW: You can ask the man behind you.
Lee Towndrow: Hello. I was the cinematographer for the movie. Margaux and I had a lot of discussions about what to include. When we first started, I said: “Okay. We’re gonna need this light and this size of truck to carry everything around, and Margaux was like, “No way.”
MW: We had to be light on our feet because I didn’t want to get permits.
LT: We compromised. We could have a light as long as we could carry it around. I was making a joke about it, like we’d get one of those battery-operated fluorescent lights that you can get at the Canadian Tire (which is a hardware store). Then Margaux said, “Okay, then we’ll have it in the frame.”
MW: He’s a beautiful cinematographer, and I’m an artist, so for me it doesn’t have to be attractive. It was a fun experiment with this movie to meet in the middle on things.
LT: I wanted to have things on tripods and stable shots, and Margaux wanted it to be shaky all the time. But it was a fun process going back and forth and trying to find something that we could both be really happy and excited about and could play with.
MW: It was fun because from just doing painting, I never really quite think about the medium at all. I’ve never had so many conversations about why something needs a light, so it really was a bit like film school.
Audience question: What about the juxtaposition of the two films tonight? They’re similar in some ways—they use these big texts, they have a very DIY thing about them, but they’re so different, almost opposites. In Blot Out The Sun, [Fletcher] is taking only lines from the book as the text and using people he doesn’t know, and you’re not taking lines from the text and using people you do know. The effect is so different.
TM: Both movies are dealing with people who speak in ways we’re used to acting patronizing towards, young people and auto workers, and the movies are trying to take them seriously.
MW: It’s nice to take Hamlet and just make him dumber and shorter. Just kidding.
I always hope art can be more integrated into the world. I never think about accessibility being about dumbing anything down. I think it’s about not being specific, about a medium or field. You can be very smart and not know anything about art and still get Harrell’s movie, which is always my favorite thing.
Audience question: In an interview, I read you talking about how much you can know someone just by seeing them a little bit on screen. And I wonder, between those two films, how much do you feel someone in the audience would know the people in the film through just briefly watching this film?
MW: I didn’t worry about anybody being misrepresented because we’re all just split in 7 different ways on Facebook, or here or there, with your family or friends [anyway]. I wasn’t worried about the authentic person. I felt like I took some responsibility in attempting to show that this is my creation and this is my world and these aren’t portraits. Buy
Sheila is such a curious person, so I had her wear a wig and sunglasses to remind them: don’t get comfortable here. And I told them they don’t have to answer any questions. It can be an intense situation, but I think we were all kind of figuring out how to do it together.
TM: One last question. Do you think you’ve become more of a person of action since you made the movie?
MW: Unfortunately, I’ve become more like an artist.