Glitch in the System: Ashley McKenzie Discusses “Queens of the Qing Dynasty”

The Canadian director talks about her second film, an empathetic portrait of friendship and struggle within government institutions.
Lawrence Garcia

Queens of the Qing Dynasty is writer-director Ashley McKenzie’s long-awaited follow-up to Werewolf (2016), her auspicious first feature, and one of the most acclaimed Canadian debuts of recent years. Like Werewolf, Queens is set on McKenzie’s native Cape Breton Island, off the East Coast of Nova Scotia. And like that film, it is essentially a two-hander, following a pair of entwined lives with an at times disconcerting intimacy. When first introduced, 18-year-old Star (Sarah Walker) has been admitted to a hospital for ingesting poison, though we quickly surmise that she has been in and out of hospitals and social welfare institutions for much of her life. Meanwhile, An (Ziyin Zheng), a Chinese expatriate volunteering at a local hospital to accrue immigration points, has been assigned to her case. The strange, symbiotic relationship that soon develops between the two provides the film with its unpredictable, live-wire energy.

In its approach to psychology and character subjectivity, Queens obliquely recalls Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (2002), which likewise sees two straitened individuals form a bond that no one else has access to. As with the characters in Lee’s film, Star’s general demeanor raises complex questions about mental health and past trauma, and continually frustrates the fixed mechanisms of various government institutions: In her scenes with social workers and hospital staff, we see their scripts, as it were, break down. An, for their part, has to negotiate the expression of their sexual orientation and gender identity in an entirely new country, while also dealing with a different facet of Canadian bureaucracy. As they put it to another Chinese expatriate, “No matter how many degrees you have, people treat you as a kid.” But in An and Star’s interactions with each other, we become privy to a side of each that gains expression nowhere else, and which McKenzie draws out using extreme close-ups, judicious montage, and a vivid array of image textures and musicalities.

What is perhaps most distinctive about Queens is McKenzie’s unusual approach to character, which strikes a bold balance between internal and external observation: The film’s very intentional performance rhythms and detail-oriented mise-en-scène continually unsettle our ability to identify with Star and An, and the question of what’s “inside” or “outside” of a given scene becomes more than just a matter of framing. Indeed, by the film’s end, we wonder the extent to which we can claim to know the characters at all.

On the one hand, then, Queens sketches a world where bureaucracy and institutional mechanism dominate, where communication breaks down, and where the characters’ power of action is severely restricted. But on the other, it continually creates subjective pockets of space for the characters to inhabit, however temporarily—spaces before or beyond action, where Star and An are able to be fully themselves.

Ahead of Queens’s world premiere in Berlin’s Encounters section, I spoke to McKenzie about the script’s origins, her approach to performance, and the role of language and communication in the film.

NOTEBOOK: The film’s title and the experiences it relates to are very specific. What was the inspiration for the project?

ASHLEY MCKENZIE: It started with the casting process on Werewolf, when I met two teenage women whom I auditioned for the part of Nessa [played by Bhreagh MacNeil]. I didn’t end up casting them, but they became a part of my life around that time. I spent time visiting them in the hospital, looking for housing, trying to advocate for them with social workers. And these engrossing, tumultuous experiences formed the initial sketch of a patient and a sitter spending time in hospital. Star is a very specific character study of one of those women, whom I became really good friends with. Her way of speaking and interpreting these events that I was a part of really captured my attention. I loved the way her brain worked. With the energy and interest that I had in the character of Star, I wrote a script about as long as Werewolf’s.

Similarly, Ziyin [Zheng], who plays An in the film, became a part of my life when they moved across the street from me. They had a real interest in being a performer, and we connected on a bunch of topics and started having very candid conversations. Because they moved to Cape Breton Island from China, I think they were looking to express themselves in a way that they couldn’t back home. But at the time, I didn’t know if I could cast them in the film because I already had a feature script drafted. When I first met them, they wanted to play a sassy bitch in one of my films and I was like, “Oh, that sounds awesome… but there’s no sassy bitch in my script right now.” So we just remained friends. But once I’d completed my process with Star and was ready to look at the other character, Ziyin reached out to me again about being in a film. And because I felt ready to explore that potential, I rewrote the script with them in mind over another year or so. I also brought them on as a script consultant so I could bring their very specific experiences into the film in a way that they were comfortable with.

NOTEBOOK: How long was the script in total?

MCKENZIE: 138 pages. Werewolf was 64 pages. But at one point Queens of the Qing Dynasty was more like 156 pages, which was very different for me. In the past, my films didn’t use—or even purposefully avoided—dialogue. But because all the decisions were so informed by these two characters, who both had a lot to say, the film became about language on so many levels. The characters pierced through the modes and styles of filmmaking that I’ve operated with in the past.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a lot of very specific language in the film, such as Star’s use of terms like “truth-telling” and “expire.” Was a lot of that on the page or did you incorporate improvisation into the process?

MCKENZIE: Pretty much everything was on the page. A lot of Star’s verbiage was inspired by the way my friend spoke. She has a playful, creative way of using language. She uses words in unconventional ways, not always knowing how some of them may be trigger words. And that was something that excited me and made me want to write. Once I really was in her head, I could then write the way I think she spoke.

There were definitely moments during shooting when we improvised, but that has more to do with the fact that I work with non-professional actors. The process has to be more open and responsive to what each performer needs, and sticking to the script too closely can sometimes kill the mood. The scene where Star speaks with the shrink was just a one-line scene in the script. My cousin, who performs the role of the shrink, had never been in a film before. But he’s a jazz musician in real life, and I just let him and Sarah Walker improvise. I was in the room feeding them lines, and the three of us had that scene in a couple hours or so. But that was an exception. Generally every little “Huh” and “You know” was on the page.

NOTEBOOK: Early on in the film, you see a certain side of Star and how because of this, the hospital staff and social workers take this fixed response to her. But with An, you see a very different side of things, which becomes clear in the scene where Star’s guardian is visiting, trying to get her to leave the hospital, but meanwhile she’s texting with An who’s in the room.

MCKENZIE: I witnessed the social support systems that are Star’s first point of access, and I felt like she subverted them all. Their scripts would just fall apart when she was in the room. She has this “glitch” quality about her that’s very unpredictable and makes these support systems break down, exposing perhaps how dysfunctional they are. In a way, the film almost feels like a comedy of errors. There’s something very absurd and slapstick about the way that Star meets these other people, which was what I observed with the real people who inspired the characters. Nobody was seeing them or hearing them; the communication was all very dysfunctional. Nothing was landing or making sense. But with An, something very different happens. They’re able to listen to her and speak her language. Or, even if Star and An have different languages, their languages vibrate on a similar frequency. So while everything else feels very out of tune, with An there is an attunement process that changes everything. They’re able to connect, and you’re able to see so much more of them.

NOTEBOOK: Throughout the film, they connect through a number of different technologies, but perhaps the most significant is the cellphone that An first gives Star. Did you conceive of the phone as a kind of fulcrum, a means of exploring this other side of her?

MCKENZIE: The phone does reveal a different side of Star, but I’m not sure that I saw it quite so specifically. I do like the exchange of objects in film. I’m a Chabrol fan and there’s a kind of guilt transference that occurs with the passing of objects in his films. So anytime a character passes an object to another character, it is—or can be—a very loaded thing. In the arc of this film, the exchange of objects becomes a seed that’s planted, and which we return to later.

NOTEBOOK: There are a number of different textures and formats across the film: cell phone shots, animations, TV shows, even footage from a VR videogame. Had you always intended to have all of those elements at play?

MCKENZIE: A lot of them were in the script from the start, though there were a lot of texting scenes in the script that ended up being cut. The one thing that developed more through the filming and editing was the use of animations and other textures that go full frame on the screen. Because I’m really trying to bring so much of the characters’ subjectivity to the surface, the edit became a kind of sculpting process: pulling on external stimuli to chart the emotional movement of the film.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty

NOTEBOOK: I’m assuming that Star’s mannerisms and modes of speech are largely patterned off of your friend. So is there a particular mode of delivery that you’re expecting during the shoot? How did you direct the performances for this film?

MCKENZIE: The biggest thing was spending time on the script and having the language and beats there. The second thing, in Star’s case, was the casting. There was just something about Sarah Walker who performs the role. She’s very unlike the character and definitely transforms in the film. But she has a slightly deadpan quality that I think was really important. When she did her first audition, she was already much closer to Star than the other people auditioning. I then gave her a lot of workshopping material and table reads of the script, which I’d done with my friend, whom she also spent some time with.

So she did have access to a lot of material. But I’ve never actually talked to Sarah about how much she actually used. We just started shooting on the first day and she felt so much like the character I’d written that I just tried to not tamper with things too much. When thinking about Star, I’d imagined certain films and characters in my head that were more in the slapstick realm, but I never really went there with Sarah, and she wasn’t modeling off of any of them.

NOTEBOOK: What characters did you have in mind?

MCKENZIE: I’m obsessed with Anna Faris in Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face [2007]. To me it’s a Buster Keaton, Chaplin, Tati-level performance. I also thought a lot about Tati, who has that same slapstick absurdity, the sense of not fitting in the world—especially a world that’s more mechanized. Tati’s use of sound is another connection, and the film has all these little Foley details, like Star’s swallow sounds or stomach growls.

NOTEBOOK: Could you talk about the sound design and music choices of the movie? There’s the electronic score, the Autechre tracks, original contributions from Cecile Believe and Yu Su…

MCKENZIE: The sound evolved a lot through the filmmaking process. Based on what was on the page, I never imagined there’d be quite as much music as there was, but it stemmed from what I was listening to at the time: a lot of music by SOPHIE and Cecile Believe, which sounded unlike anything I’d quite heard before. I looked into what they were using to make their music and there’s this particular synthesizer or mono machine that SOPHIE referred to as a “sculpting machine” or a sound design machine. Rather than use traditional instrumentation, it involves manipulating waveforms to make sounds. So that was something that I just had in the back of my head during the edit, when my co-editor Scott Moore and I would experiment with different choices. A lot of the Autechre ended up coming into play in the beginning of the film. When we’re accessing Star in this institutionalized setting, the glitch nature of their experimental pieces really captured this weird, neurotic, unpredictable energy. At times, it even seemed to characterize some of the machinery, like the capacity test with the social worker, or the machines in the scene where Star gets an endoscopy.

For An, who is a singer, we tried to bring out their more dramatic element with little touches of music that tied to their culture and interests. Those ended up being more traditional at times, more pop-y at others. Each character has their own musicality, and we tried to bring that to the surface.

NOTEBOOK: What made you choose the tighter aspect ratio of this film in comparison to Werewolf?

MCKENZIE: Werewolf was 16:9. This is 1.37, which felt more appropriate to a character piece. So much of Queens exists in medium close-up; it felt like the frame that really allowed me to connect with the characters. But generally, I just like having more headroom in scenes, because so often a film is about the interplay between a character and the architecture. Once, when I was staying in a house in northern Cape Breton in the middle of the winter, I ended up watching an old VHS of Dances with Wolves on a square TV. The film was shot in CinemaScope or 2.39, but watching it in 4:3 made all the shots way more interesting to me. Because the expanse couldn’t be shown, every frame had to focus on something specific and make a more definitive choice. I tend to operate in a detail-oriented mode, so the square frame is always interesting to me.

NOTEBOOK: You also use a lot of extreme close-ups in the film, often cutting off the characters’ mouths even during some fairly long conversations.

MCKENZIE: Whether a scene has their mouths in it or not was mostly just an aesthetic choice at the moment. The broader choice to use extreme close-ups was also intuitive, but it’s one that I kept returning to because it allowed the characters to slip into a kind of portal where time and space are suspended. The scene enters a liminal space of sorts. Both Star and An have a very generative, creative part of their nature, and in those moments where they connect, it felt good to decontextualize things: to allow them to escape the surrounding architecture, or even their bodies.

NOTEBOOK: Could you more about the endoscopy scene? It seems very indicative of how you frame Star throughout the movie. Even when you pull back from her face, you still avoid presenting her in the same space as the doctors in the scene.

MCKENZIE: In that scene, I’m really trying to capture the way that Star interacts with people, the way she gets energy by looking at people and being stimulated by them. She speaks what she feels in a very unfiltered way, and it plays out uncomfortably with the OR nurses. Are they going to be offended by what she says to them? It’s the kind of interaction that’s very delicate and problematic depending on who’s on the receiving end of what she’s saying.

The way the scene turns around the midway point, with the bite guard being placed over Star’s mouth—that seems like an important moment for me. Throughout the film, I try to maintain a kind of balancing act. I want to let the characters be themselves and really meet them where they’re at. I’m trying to reflect what I’ve actually seen in my community and not correct the characters or their etiquette. But I’m also trying to decide what I as a filmmaker want to be putting in the world in terms of representation, and perhaps maintain a critical undertone. So when I think about that scene, I think about the moment with the bite guard. She’s being herself and I’m letting her really be free, but with the bite guard she more or less gets gagged. I’m always trying to find this balance between how everything lands.

NOTEBOOK: When you’re thinking about a particular scene, do you do a shot list and block things out beforehand?

MCKENZIE: I always try to create a shot list, but it always seems like time runs out. In some ways shot-listing just becomes an exercise to get your head into the scenes and into the characters. As we did camera tests, we very quickly felt like we’d need to shoot with a particular lens—that if we put on anything longer than a 35mm lens the characters become too flat. For similar reasons, we would also put the camera on a three-quarter profile and shoot into corners rather than straight-on and flat against a wall. Those ended up being guiding principles. But outside of that, when we start working through a scene, my cinematographer Scott [Moore] and I take as much time as we need to move around the space. Some people would be like, “Let’s just start on the wide and we’ll figure it out.” But I’m trying to find the shots that just feel right to me in my gut, and I won’t start shooting until I feel like I have them. That ends up being a time-consuming process on set, and it’s maybe not typical because often the crew is there and wants to get going. But we use a really small team and I think the people I work with know my process.

NOTEBOOK: Was the film entirely shot in Cape Breton?

MCKENZIE: Yeah, we shot in five different hospitals on the island, all in small towns. And we shot right before the first COVID lockdown. We were very fortunate to have started when we did because the film might not have ever been made otherwise.

NOTEBOOK: Is it difficult to get access to some of those locations?

MCKENZIE: It’s always a bit scary when you want to shoot in hospitals, and it would probably be more difficult in a different mode of filmmaking. But because this is a smaller, more community-based model of filmmaking, things went really well for us. We have community connections, and everyone at the hospitals was incredibly accommodating. They gave us a lot of access and were happy to have us there. But a month later that would have been a totally different story because with COVID no one would’ve been relaxed about anything.

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