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Tribeca: Tell us a little about Lotus Eaters.
Alexandra McGuinness: It’s a big ensemble, comedy/drama, which charts a summer in London amongst of group of models and artists. It’s told through a series of parties and has a doomed love story at its core.
Tribeca: In Greek mythology, the Lotus Eaters were a race of people from an island dominated by lotus plants, narcotic fruits and flowers that caused the people to sleep in peaceful apathy. How does this title reflect the characters in your film?
Alexandra McGuinness: The island of the Lotus Eaters was mentioned in The Odyssey as a place where Odysseus is washed up on the island for about 10 years. The title of the film insinuates being waylaid. The main character, Alice, is at a time in her life where she hasn’t really figured out what she wants to do and gets waylaid in this circus of so-called friends who aren’t really doing much with their lives. It’s a movie about making the wrong choices and trying to recover from them. There is also an [Alfred, Lord] Tennyson poem of the same title and [Percy Bysshe] Shelley mentions them in a poem. But really it’s about a lifestyle of excess and being delayed on your journey, not knowing where you are going next in your life.
Alexandra McGuinness: No, not necessarily. I think it takes its cues more from films from the ‘60s or ‘70s like Blow Up.
Tribeca: Or La Dolce Vita?
Alexandra McGuinness: Yes, those sorts of films that have big casts and a character that navigates through the madness. There are bits of fashion in the film, but some of the characters are artists and musicians, and they’re all involved in the arts in some way. It’s a cross-section of London now and young people who haven’t found their direction yet, so they’re just being wild and having fun and wrecking themselves along the way. They’ve found fashion or music, and so those are a backdrop to the film, but I don’t want it to be thought of as a commentary or a satire.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Have you been involved in the fashion industry yourself?
Alexandra McGuinness: I’ve always kind of been on the outskirts of it and had friends who were in fashion or in art. I’ve dabbled in it, but film has always been my main focus. So when I first came to London it was exciting, and you can get distracted, and there’s that choice you can make of whether you’re going to be really focused and do the things you want to do or you can make the choice to just get lost in a world like that. And people definitely do.
Tribeca: I gather Paula Fox’s novel Desperate Characters was a big influence on the film
Alexandra McGuinness: While I was writing the script I was reading it, but I think even more influential was the quote by Jonathan Franzen about the novel: "Full of people utterly unknown to themselves at brilliant parties youʼre grateful not to have been invited to," which really distills what my film is about.
Alexandra McGuinness: We saw a lot of people who were coming out of drama school in London as well as models, people in bands, people on the street, really anybody who seemed interesting to us who we saw at the time. Johnny Flynn, who plays Charlie, is a recording artist who just released his second album. He is also writing an original song for the end credits that will be in the version at Tribeca. So he was primarily a singer but he’s always acted, and his whole family are actors. Amber Anderson, who plays Suzi, is a model and the new face of Kenzo, and she also sings on one of the tracks in the film. Antonia Campbell-Hughes, who plays Alice, was in a band and was a fashion designer for a while and she’s also modeled.
They all do bits of everything, and since they are all so young and kind of unknown, it was nice because they had a lot of ideas and were all eager to contribute to the film in different ways. Cynthia Fortune Ryan, who plays Orna, is a shoe designer, so she made all her own shoes for the film.
Tribeca: Which brings us to an important question, where did all those gorgeous clothes come from?
Alexandra McGuinness: Rather than using a costume designer, I used a fashion stylist, Ruth Higginbotham, who is Irish as well, and who has worked with lots of UK magazines. We wanted to use a lot of current collections, so we have a lot of new designers like Shao yen Chen, a recent St. Martin’s graduate who designed the amazing sort of chicken dress at the end. Simone Rocha is another designer who just showed for the first time at Fashion Week, and then we combined the new clothing with pieces by Chanel. So each outfit is current spring/summer or last autumn/winter. I wanted it to be slightly stylized, and maybe slightly unrealistic, but I wanted it to look like the stills could almost be editorials. And especially since we were shooting in black & white, I wanted to maintain a very architectural look to the clothes, so that they would be a big part of the film and really stand out.
Tribeca: What drew you to shoot in black & white?
Alexandra McGuinness: When I was writing the script, I was living in Berlin and taking a lot of black & white still photographs, and I was also watching a lot of black & white films. I thought it would be nice to shoot this contemporary story in black & white, and I think because there is a lot going on and we cut it very quickly, very short and snappy, that black & white suits it. My cinematographer Gareth Munden and I also decided to steer clear of shooting the film in a noir style, so it’s clean and bright with no deep shadows. We were much more inspired by fashion photography from the ‘80s: Lindbergh, Helmut Newton and photographers in that vein.
Alexandra McGuinness: I definitely knew going in that I wanted to showcase new music, clothing and art, which is not as featured. The film has 4 live performances by bands, and we wanted them to be there as a key part. I think when you make a film it’s so wonderful because you get to combine all your interests, and these are all my interests. It’s a medium where you get to paint it all together, and this is also what I did in my previous short films. They all have a strong fashion and music element to them. So I looked at a lot of bands and chose the ones that were going to perform in the film, which ended up being O Children, Josep, a band from Barcelona, Little Death, the band in our trailer on the Tribeca website> And then there’s the song that Johnny Flynn sings in the film, which I wanted to be a cover, so we talked and decided together that he would perform this really beautiful and ironic love song by The Magnetic Fields, from from their album 69 Love Songs. And the original music is by a German composer Birger Clausen; we were really happy with that music as well.
Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
Alexandra McGuinness: We shot for a week in Ireland and we were at this big castle and there were these pigs that bit three of the cast members. Cannibal pigs. But there were lots of moments. We had animal issues, 3 car crashes, crazy outfits and we were on a really low budget with a big cast of many first-time actors. So every day was amazing, but tough in some way or another.
Tribeca: But it sounds like the cast was really excited to give themselves to this project.
Alexandra McGuinness: Yes, they were all wonderful and we did a lot of improvisation. I was shooting with two cameras a lot of the time, so I always had a second floating camera, which the cast got used to. I was also re-writing quite a lot at night when we would discover certain things that were working on set. We would improvise around the script if a certain line was not working, and we would often go “roaming” with the cameras, where we would have 2 or 3 cameras going around and catching little snippets of the cast improvising party dialogue.
Tribeca: Were there any particular techniques you used to build ensemble between the cast members?
Alexandra McGuinness: I just had a few days of rehearsal with them, which was kind of tight, so what I focused on was building the existing relationships, the characters who were supposed to have been friends for ages, or in a relationship with one another. We would figure out when they first met or improvise what had just happened before a scene, and I would often film those moments and ended up using quite a few of them in the film. But towards the end of shooting as the cast became looser, I started doing that less and less, and it came fluidly.
Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making Lotus Eaters?
Alexandra McGuinness: Well, it’s actually a year to the day [March 30th, 2010] since we decided to make this film, and it was my first feature and it's been great. But I think I might take more time next time. Try to enjoy the ride a bit more.
Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from Lotus Eaters?
Alexandra McGuinness: Well, for New York audiences, I hope that they see a London that they’ve never seen before on film. I hope they find it fun and exciting and very moving, as well. I also hope they enjoy the music and the look of the film.
Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Alexandra McGuinness: Just go out and do it, because that’s what we did with this film. Sometimes we didn’t know if we would get to the end of the next week of filming, but somehow we got there. My producing partner Mark Lee, who’s from New York, and I made the decision based on sheer will, and I think we said the other day: If we’d known what we know now, we never would have been able to do it!
Tribeca: Well, we’re glad you didn’t know! What are your hopes for Lotus Eaters at Tribeca?
Alexandra McGuinness: I hope people come and see it and tell people about it. It’s great that Tribeca has given it a platform, and it’s really nice that it’s being seen outside the UK and Ireland first. It will be great to show it outside and then be able to bring it home. I’ve only ever seen the film with one audience and it was a rough cut, so I’m nervous. We’ll see!
Alexandra McGuinness: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, because he would have been pretty wild, and I think he might have appreciated the way in which the movie was made and might have gotten a kick out of it.
Alexandra McGuinness: A TV show from Denmark called The Killing that’s on in the UK, and then a book called Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.
Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?
Alexandra McGuinness: [laughs] I think that would be a really lame film, especially if it was made now! “No Life,” I think that would the name of the film: “I Have No Life.” They should teach a class in answering these Proustian questions. Maybe James Franco could teach it at the New School.
Tribeca: What makes Lotus Eaters a Tribeca must-see?
Alexandra McGuinness: [laughs] It’s 78 minutes long! Which is pretty good. But it’s also a whirlwind and a London film for a lost generation. It features a new, young cast, and showcases what’s happening in music and fashion now in a certain pocket of London in a stylized way.
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