A film about three lesbian space aliens sent to earth to be de-gayed? Rachel Cook meets a filmmaker who dares to go where few have been before.
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same is not just a film with a great title. Director Madeleine Olnek’s film about three lesbian space aliens who have been sent to earth to be cured of their ‘big feelings’ – which are apparently destroying their planet’s ozone layer, is impressing critics the world over. The film was a hit at Sundance and recently screened at the Mardi Gras Film Festival and is about to play at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Rachel Cook spoke with the intrepid filmmaker who dares to go where few have been before.
How does an idea for a story such as Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same start?
I first got the idea for this movie doing this kind of writing called automatic writing which was started by the Surrealists in the 1930s – that's how I came up with the idea [of] there being a planet with certain aliens that have these certain problems. I started writing for a while before I came up with the title, and then once I had that I knew I had to finish!
There’s that common theme in film of putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but in Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, it’s more a case of putting extraordinarily ordinary people in absurd circumstances, what attracts you to characters such as your protagonist Jane?
I'm attracted to characters who respond truthfully despite whatever ridiculous circumstances they are placed in. Comedy has been defined as the juxtaposition of opposites and I think having characters who ground the action give the movie emotional stakes, and also serve to heighten the comedy.
The cast is so great. How do you go about casting your films?
I never audition – just try to go see people presenting finished performances, most usually in live theatre. When an actor auditions it may be the most shallow representation of what they can do – similarly there are other actors who are brilliant at cold readings but that's all they have, it never grows from there.
What was behind the decision to shoot the film in black and white?
The film is in black and white to make a deliberate reference to B-movie sci-fi, but also early indie films, especially very earnest lesbian ones. The sci-fi in these movies played on Cold War fears, and there's a part of homophobia in modern society that is retro, like sci-fi, it almost seems difficult to believe that people can still think that way, yet there it is.
What sort of budget do you work with and how do you go about funding your films?
We rely on the kindness of strangers, but also on people we know really well. In kind donations, borrowed equipment, and we did get a grant from Frameline in San Francisco. A lot of places helped us in post-production, like Goldcrest Post, with our finishing – once we got into Sundance a lot of people stepped forward to help us get there.
Mainstream gay and lesbian comedies often come out as particularly cheesy. However, queer cinema has produced brilliant comedies that are often sidelined. With your inclusion in Sundance and the recognition you’re getting, do you think we are seeing a shift in this area?
There is a big difference between Sundance and many of the queer film festivals. Sundance is a festival which has always been ahead of its time with queer content and has always celebrated individuality of vision over a glossy, slick product. The gay festivals are frankly in a different position with low-budget films. When they see a low-budget LGBT film, they often see it as an example of how we are second-class citizens and how we can't get big budgets or big stars, rather than seeing all the wonderful ideas and subversive stories which can be told in the indie film arena – the freedom that comes from working that way, the quality of the ideas that you can communicate when you don't have a producer leaning over you making you dumb down your script. Aristotle distinguished six elements of drama and one of those was "thought". I do think that LGBT film festivals need to pay more attention to thought – and what that's worth – and less to how slick it looks, if they want to foster filmmakers who are avoiding the cheap and "cheesy" comedy choices. And for what it's worth, the LGBT audiences at the festivals have always been right there with us, and enjoyed the film very much.
Has the success of your film taken you by surprise at all?
Everything I do that's successful takes me by surprise – tonight I made a delicious dinner and couldn't believe it!
I see you’ve been compared with Woody Allen, I imagine this is because the writing is so strong and funny. Is he an influence for you at all?
I love Woody Allen. I remember when I first started watching his movies when I was in high school – all of a sudden the world was a better place because he was making fun of it. I think the main lesson anyone working in comedy takes from Woody Allen is that comedy can be intelligent, and can assume a level of intelligence on behalf of the audience. I think Bullets Over Broadway is the best movie that's ever been made about what it's like to premiere a new play – Annie Hall is another great, great movie. Even looking at comedies like Sleeper and Love and Death – his sophistication with genre is just stunning.
You’re also a playwright, what elements do you prefer about filmmaking as opposed to theatre?
Film is a million times better than theatre, that's the phase I'm in now. What I loved about theatre was live performance, but in film you have the editing room and you can get the very best of every actor. Also, film can travel the world without you. This film has already been translated into eight languages! Theatre was dependent on where I could go with my plays. Film has a wider audience, for sure.
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same screening at ACMI, Federation Square, Swanston Street, Melbourne, as part of MQFF. Saturday, March 17, 6.15pm, Friday March 23, 8.15pm.