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Landscape and Memory: A Conversation with Jenni Olson

"The Royal Road" weaves a woman's search for love, the Spanish colonization of California, the Mexican-American War, and Hollywood cinema.
Jenni Olson’s latest film, The Royal Road, weaves through seemingly unrelated subjects, including a lesbian woman’s search for love, the Spanish colonization of California, the Mexican-American War, and Hollywood cinema. These subjects are connected by El Camino Real—the Royal Road—which originally linked Spanish missions from San Diego to Sonoma in Northern California. Fractured by hundreds of years of urban development, El Camino Real now runs through some of California’s most iconic and populated locations.
The Royal Road meditates on these locations, the steady 16mm camera lingering on graffitied buildings, Edwardian apartments, historical statues, and San Francisco’s Mondrian-like cacophony of telephone lines. Olson’s narration bridges the apparent chasm between the contemporary landscape, the region’s past, and her own experiences. Two hundred and fifty years of history converge poetically and almost seamlessly. The Royal Road traces the residue of colonization and war and gestures toward their role in shaping the California landscape and mindset. The film is neither blunt nor evasive and wanders through subjects like a confident and relaxed traveler, urging viewers along.
The Royal Road follows Olson’s first feature film, The Joy of Life (2005), which explores a woman’s love life in San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge as a suicide landmark. The Royal Road premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and will screen at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April and QDoc in May.

NOTEBOOK: What initially drew you to El Camino Real as a film subject?
JENNI OLSON: I’ve been living here in California since 1992. As I’ve gotten to know more about the history of this landscape one of the features that most interested me was this road that represents the Spanish colonization of the territory so vividly. Especially since it has been imbued by the colonizers with such a mythological, heroic quality—and yet when you think about it you can see it was essentially a kind of weapon in an atrocity (the decimation of the Native people). Which actually reminds me of a line from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The way that Scottie ultimately figures out Judy’s deception is from the necklace she had kept from the first half of the film. “You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing,” he scolds her. “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.” I also was drawn to El Camino Real as a literal connector between San Francisco and Los Angeles since I knew I wanted to tell a story that involved both cities as the main character is pursuing this woman in Los Angeles. So it was also a perfect structural device for that.
NOTEBOOK: A contemporary love story, Spanish Missions, the Mexican-American War, and Alfred Hitchcock seem like unlikely counterparts, yet the subjects blend together in the film rather smoothly. Was it difficult to write these transitions or are there a lot more crossovers between the subjects than one might think?
OLSON: So, as you can see from my reply to your first question there are many ways of making connections between Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the history of the landscape of Northern California. I wrote much of the Vertigo section actually sitting on the front steps of Mission Dolores. As a San Franciscan I drive or walk past this building a few times a week. I loved writing the script and making these connections between things. I started out by writing pages and pages of reflections and ideas about the connections and trying to spell out various philosophical conclusions or creative things one might say about all this. It was through the process of writing it all out that I solidified my main ideas and then trimmed away to keep only the most essential material to convey this. As a writer I’m most interested in a poetic prose approach to storytelling—the composition of the lines is as important as the composition of the shots.
NOTEBOOK: There is a line where you talk about buildings and landscapes as foundations for our identities because of their endurance over time and their link to history. This really captures the essence of how I interpret your films. When the structure of the city I live in is a direct result of the actions of Junípero Serra or President Polk, it’s easy to collapse their stories with my own. How do you see past and present coming together in your own life and environment?
OLSON: The film is essentially a reflection of the way I experience the world. I find myself very impacted by the physical qualities of my surroundings: the light, the wind, the weather and humidity—all of which evoke various emotions for me (rather than calling it a disorder I think of this as a Seasonal Affective Response). And then related to this is the impact I feel from my awareness of the larger history of the landscape—both the capital H history (as in Polk and Serra) and the personal history of my life experiences.
NOTEBOOK: Most of your scenes lack any human subjects. Does this create an empty stage on which viewers can project either your story or their own associations? For example, when a story taking place in a bar is accompanied with a shot of a residential neighborhood, I can picture the subject returning home from the bar to this neighborhood. I also live in a similar looking neighborhood and so I begin to think of my own experiences.
OLSON: Yes, that is definitely part of my intention. The landscapes serve as a kind of evocative wallpaper where you can project your own associations. I think the shots exude their own qualities of inherent melancholy and loneliness simply due to the lack of human figures but for me these spaces also represent a kind of existential empty slate where each viewer can be alone with their own impressions.
NOTEBOOK: The film is full of references to classic Hollywood cinema. California landscapes have served as backdrops for films for over a hundred years. They help usher along everything from love stories to space invasions. As a result, Californians inhabit a sort of living movie set. Do you think this landscape impels us to act out our lives with cinematic flourish, like Madeline in Hitchcock’s Vertigo?
OLSON: Yes, I see what you mean—whenever I’m in Los Angeles I have that sense of awareness about movie locations and the homes of movie stars. As a landscape filmmaker going about my daily life in San Francisco, I basically am living in a movie—I’m surrounded by great shots and constantly scribbling down notes about certain streets and buildings I want to shoot, the quality of the light, the time of day, etc. I like to think of myself as a serious artist when I’m in this mode, but I can also see this whole approach to life as essentially dysfunctional. Having this kind of mediated experience of life—that it’s all just material for storytelling—definitely makes it all more bearable.
NOTEBOOK: What’s your relationship with Hollywood cinema as a filmmaker? Your cinematography is restrained, your monologue is contemplative, and there is no dialogue between characters, but I get the impression you are influenced by classic Hollywood.
OLSON: As I mention in the film itself, I grew up watching classic Hollywood movies. As a filmmaker I have no interest in trying to make that kind of film, but I absolutely see these texts as key creative touchstones. Obviously Vertigo is one of those muses—and has been ever since I first moved to San Francisco. I also really love the landscapes of Los Angeles—especially because one is surrounded by famous Hollywood movie locations. The film includes shots of Barbara Stanwyck’s house in Double Indemnity, William Holden’s apartment in Sunset Boulevard, the Hollywood Center Motel from L.A. Confidential, and the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills (the site of James Mason’s funeral in the 1954 version of A Star is Born). In the same way that Sunset Boulevard is a Hollywood movie about Hollywood movies, The Royal Road is a film about film.
NOTEBOOK: There seems to be a relationship between The Royal Road and your last feature film, The Joy of Life. There is even at least one similar shot in each film of a faded advertisement on a brick building. How are these films in conversation with one another?
OLSON: Yes, that’s nice that you noticed that. That was my little self-referential homage to The Joy of Life. And in fact there are two other shots in The Royal Road that are also in The Joy of Life—of the cranes at the dry docks down at Pier 70. I think the films are connected in that I am continuing to develop this approach to storytelling in which I craft this poetic persona, a semi-fictional version of myself to tell these stories and offer these reflections on the California landscape and the lesser-known histories of this place. I have various ideas for other projects and all of them revolve around complex examinations of California, which I think will cumulatively also connect to my previous work. I’m also very curious to see what various film critics and academics might have to say about the connections between my films. That has always been one of the most gratifying things for me as an artist.

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