After Decades of Queer Filmmaking, Patricia Rozema Is Still Full of Ideas

A collage of three images of Patricia Rozema against a blue background.

Patricia Rozema collage by Autostraddle, photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Sonia Recchia/WireImage, and Lester Cohen/WireImage

Idiosyncratic Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema first made a name for herself with her debut feature film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, a light and airy critique of creativity versus commerciality. It debuted to much acclaim as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival and went on to win Genie Awards for its stars Sheila McCarthy and Paule Baillargeon. That was only the beginning for a filmmaker who has continued to make startlingly original feminist works of cinema.

She followed up her daring debut with a cadre of films about misfits and outsiders including White Room, a genre-bending deconstructed fairytale featuring a breathtaking turn from Kate Nelligan as a reclusive singer and an unforgettable cameo from Margot Kidder as an ill-fated pop star; When Night Is Falling, a romance starring Rachael Crawford as an earthy circus performer named Petra who awakens the sapphic flames of Pascale Bussières as Camille, a repressed literature professor at a religious college; a slyly political twist on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with a stirring performance from Frances O’Connor as the beleaguered heroine Fanny Price and a decidedly queer-coded Embeth Davidtz as her friend Mary Crawford; a filmed production of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days with a captivating performance from Rosaleen Linehan; Kit Kittredge, a star-studded lesson in socialism for children via the beloved American Girl dolls; An adaptation of Jean Hegland’s apocalyptic book Into the Forest starring Elliot Page and Evan Rachel Wood as siblings learning to live off the grid; and Mouthpiece, a cinematic experiment featuring a dual performance from Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava as a woman named Cassandra grieving the sudden loss of her mother.

After making waves in independent film for nearly four decades, several films from the singular filmmaker’s body of work have made their way back to cinemagoers. Following restoration efforts by Kino Lorber, several of Rozema’s films will be playing retrospectives at the Roxy Cinema in New York City and the Academy Museum and UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles.

Ahead of these retrospective programs, I spoke with Rozema about finding inspiration in everything, the joy of writing in notebooks, and her thoughts on the landscape of lesbian cinema 35 years after her directorial debut.

Marya: You’ve said your jumping off point is often dance or a field. I’d love to hear what you mean by that. It’s always fascinating where people’s initial kernel comes from.

Patricia: All the information is in the seed, isn’t it? Everything is there. I was just looking at an amaryllis this morning and thinking, Okay, that is just this bulb. It doesn’t have any water. Just some sunshine. And then year after year after year, it just comes back. So, I wait to be struck. You know, a coup de foudre or something. I wait for something to feel time both meaningful and maybe a little bit confusing. Because it shouldn’t just be, “Oh, I know what I’m going to teach the great unwashed.” It can’t be reduced to a slogan. It can’t be reduced to even a sentence. I set such terrible standards for myself, but it has to be simple.

I have this one sentence that I always write on the front of the script: Make it simple, but bursting at the seams. Because if it’s simple, and it’s strong, then I can detour. And that’s my favorite thing to go off on other subjects. It can be a person I see on a bus. It just dawned on me the other day that leaves have veins. Lightning is in the shape of veins. Rivers are veins and deltas are veins. What’s this veins thing? I have no idea what kind of movie would come from that.

Marya: I can’t wait to see what you do with that thought.

Patricia: I have, just on my phone, I write “idea.” This morning, I had this idea about the new science around body weight. I don’t know how new it is, but the science is that the body is always fighting to get back to its highest, biggest number basically. And I thought, I wonder if that applies to our financial psychology as well? That somehow we always feel most comfortable where we were when we had the most.

I’m open to many things. If I see something in a film, generally, I think, ah, it was nice, but hey did it already, so I can’t borrow it. I might borrow a shot, especially if it’s something very, very different from what I’m doing. Every once in a while I’m shocked by a rule broken. That just makes me think wow, what other rules have I absorbed and I believe are firm and fast but, in fact, are just arbitrary conventions?

When I saw Little Children, and I know it’s not the first one to do this, but it struck me then when I saw the movie Little Children, how they use the omniscient voiceover. And here I’ve been reading novel after novel going, oh, this is so beautiful, but I can’t use that because, of course, you know, it has to be from someone’s point of view. I just had this stupid assumption that voiceovers had to be a first person narrative.

So, I’m open to everything. I waste a lot of time strolling around. I just follow whatever interests me. I’ll read any old thing. I could dive into bowling. I could dive into any subject. Because it’s all metaphor.

Marya: Do you keep notes in a bunch of different places, like phone notes and handwritten notes?

Patricia: I have little books because they fit in my pocket on set. There’s just a whole series of them. Some of them are separated by category, some are just sort of running logs of whatever’s happening to be going along. I like to think that I get the finest writing features from these notebooks. So that pleases me. Then also on my phone.

It always starts with an idea. Sometimes it’s a title that has no film attached to it. I paint as well. It’s all figurative, and I feel like they’re people that don’t have a film yet, people that don’t have their story. They’re just people floating about aimlessly.

Marya: In your films, you have many characters who are perceived as misfits. But really, by the end what your films reveal is they only feel like misfits because of how people perceive them. They’re almost all very comfortable in their own skin, until they are made to feel that they aren’t. Like Polly in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, loves her photography until someone tells her otherwise. Fanny Brice in Mansfield Park is a great writer until she’s told otherwise.

Patricia: I have never put that together. But I think you’re right. What else does that apply to? In When Night Is Falling, Petra is completely content with what she does, yeah.

Marya: Yeah. She’s in a field that we consider for oddballs, but she’s not really an oddball. She just is who she is. In White Room, Jane, the actual singer, just doesn’t want the spotlight. But that’s considered odd because if you’re talented, you’re supposed to want the spotlight.

Patricia: It’s very interesting. Thank you for that. You’ve shone a light on what I’ve been up to for the last 150 years. Wow. But, yeah, they’re actually quite comfortable with themselves and that it’s in fact society that has the problem.

Marya: That’s what it feels like to me. I love your films so much because I feel like you’re never you’re never pointing fingers at any of the characters. You’re just sort of letting them be in a situation that frames what you’re watching.

Patricia: I love to think that comes across because I find that even people who do really wrong things, from my set of moral values, they all think they’re pretty good people, right? They all are, somehow, with what they were given doing their best. I was just walking through Times Square a couple days ago and someone said be careful pickpockets are out in force. And I thought, I guess some people are going around saying, “I am a great pickpocket, the best,” with incredible pride, and they have some really good use for the money and they’re taking care of the right people, and that there’s a professional pride in that in that job. You know?

So, if everybody is feeling like they’re doing the best with what they’ve been given, then how could I sit as an author and point fingers and say, “You don’t rate. You are lower on the mattering scale.” I’m loath to do that. I mean, I do have a set of moral standards that I apply to myself, that I got from my environment, but I’m no better human.

Marya: I love the line in When Night Is Falling where Camille says something like, “There’s a lot of multiplicity in God’s creation.” That felt like a very enlightened way of looking at that moral law and the way we as humans try to go through life but are often taught to judge people in a way that isn’t necessary. It’s just society puts these ideas or religion puts these ideas, or the way people teach religion, sometimes even not necessarily the religion itself.

Patricia: Well, the versions of religion that I can accept, do believe that or don’t need to judge; they’re just welcoming and they’re just all embracing. I fully understand why some people derive great comfort and necessary comfort from the idea that someone’s watching, someone sees their suffering. I just think there’s so many people suffering all by themselves and no one in their relationships or in their family or in their circle sees what they feel. For those people, am I to be the one to take away some idea of an unknowing presence that is loving them and caring about what happens to them? That could be the little inch between death and life for them, you know? So it’s not my place to take away people’s comfort.

But religion is also, sadly, used to bludgeon people. Usually, people like me. I’m one of the lucky ones because I am white and was raised a certain way. But for those who haven’t had some of the advantages that I’ve had, religion is a terror. It’s a gun to the head. That’s a terrible thing and America is just riddled with it right now. The wrong kind of religion is worse than nihilism.

Marya: I feel that deeply. In When Night Is Falling, Camille works at a religious college. But then on the other side, with Petra, you have magic and naturalism and the fairy tale of it all with traveling troubadours almost. Could you talk a bit about how fairy tales and myths make their way into the way that you look at the world? You also see it in White Room as well, with Norm, who thinks he’s a white knight, but actually he’s kind of a mess.

Patricia: I was raised on myths, right? I was raised on these stories that aren’t real, but I believed them. It’s always fascinating to me why we pass down certain stories to each other. Fairy tales are some of the oldest and the most frequently revisited. They bear interpretation after interpretation. And what is it about them that creates such a staying power? I don’t know. I’m trying to unravel that sometimes. And maybe I’m just trying to borrow from stories that have had a really deep and long impact.

I thought of White Room as a journey through genres. Which really, I had never heard of that before. So that’s why it appealed to me. I thought, what if you had someone who’s shape shifting and the whole tone was shifting, and then it landed in the mother of all genres, which is the fairy tale.

I’m mesmerized by how we need stories like we need air. When humans have time off, when they don’t have to feed themselves or their children, and they have a moment, they go to stories. Children need stories to go to sleep. When we have time, we go to water. Most people like to be near water or some nature. Sometimes I think it’s just a place for moral instruction in both, which sounds really dull. Because these stories have a causal relation. Here’s someone who was selfish and then they die. Here’s someone who was vain and then their face gets scarred or something. So maybe it creates a little bit of order out of chaos for us, because otherwise, it’s just a series of random disconnected events. And the story puts things in order.

It’s also a way of remembering things. When you hear about people who have crazy memorization skills, like they can just flip through a deck of cards and remember the order. Apparently, the trick is to create a story, then re-tell yourself that story when you’re trying to remember. So the Jack had teen Queens, etc. The other tip for extreme memorization is to make it really wildly sexual, because if it is sexual or violent that will grip you.

So why am I interested in that? Because I was raised on it. As a little child, I believed that there was this man who was pinned against some wood in front of everybody else with nails, and that if we drank his blood we would feel really good. What the hell is that? We’re going to feel clean again. So every bad thing we’ve done, we can feel clean again. Whose idea was that? It blows my mind. I understand the wish for purity and the wish for cleansing. Have you ever read Alain de Botton?

Marya: I don’t think so.

Patricia: He’s an English public philosopher. He has a book called Religion for Atheists, which made a lot of sense to me. It basically says, if you can’t buy the hocus pocus of it all, but you want the music, you want the forgiveness, or you want the reason for gathering, or the spiritual ring to the language when your baby is born, or something to say when your beloved dies, you can just pick and choose from any religion and pull together what you want. In fact, just take what you want, and put it together and make your own mishmash of religion, because there’s so much that we’ve lost since we threw away religion. Like the time of the week where you think about something other than your career and your life and your own.

Marya: A life of compassion and contemplation. That’s what Edmund says in Mansfield Park.

Patricia: Wow. You know my stuff.

Marya: I’ve seen your Mansfield Park probably fifty times. I love that movie so much. It’s probably my favorite Jane Austen adaptation. It’s not my favorite Austen book, but I like what you pulled from it and I like what you changed. I think it’s really interesting adaptation,

Patricia: Do you feel like I was abusing my rights on that one?

Marya: I don’t think so. I feel like it’s a very intertextual adaptation, because you include bits of her life, which was probably part of what inspired her writing anyways. Any writer knows your life often inspires aspects of your writing, right? So you kind of put that back in there. You added the political context. I love that Laurence Sterne story is in there, which is something the characters may actually have read, but also really reflects the themes. The starling says “I can’t get out,” then you have the Maria character repeat the line.

Throughout your films there’s this theme of women in cages, whether it’s society’s cages or cages they’ve made for themselves. Do you have an idea of why that is something you kind of returned to over and over?

Patricia: Well, I know very, very explicitly that was the theme for Fanny Price, but are the other ones in cages?

Marya: The one I was thinking of the most is sort of Camille has kind of put herself in a box at least. Also, in Mouthpiece, Cassandra is trying to be the opposite of her mom, she’s created her own box that she’s put herself in. Even if it’s a different box from the box her mom was in, it’s still a box because she’s still trying to do the opposite of what she thinks society wants her to do. But in doing that, is she actually doing what she wants to do, and is that then itself a cage? Maybe.

Patricia: Well, I guess I was born into a cage. If we’re going to take a biographical lens to my choices. I was a lesbian in a small Dutch Calvinist town, a petro-chemical town in Southern Ontario. That’s the most effective cage.

I remember, I met Paul Schrader at Calvin College. Actually, I just found an old picture of us from when I was still in school. He had come back to visit and he came to visit the newspaper office, we both looked like puppies. We were hanging out after he gave a speech at Calvin, and I said, “Why you? Why do you get like these movie stars and these millions of dollars to do things? What is it about you?” And he said, “Hollywood is easy. You just have to do what they tell you to do.” Which I’m not sure he ever did, but that’s what he said. He said, “Calvin College? Now that’s hard because you have to believe what they tell you to believe.” So the ultimate cage is to have someone controlling your belief systems.

But then I had a kind of a contradictory upbringing and influences, in that I think both of my parents were really very wild individuals. They were very free-thinking people and broke with the traditions they were raised in, although we all stayed within that tradition until I left Calvin College. They loved to travel. They were very interested in alternate ways of thinking. My father turned things on their head very easily. So I had that example in front of me, of someone who just didn’t really care what anyone thought of him, like really didn’t care.

He once told me, he was reading National Geographic or something, and he said “I have to admit that when I read, I still sometimes think that I’m reading in order to retain information that I will then speak and try to get people’s respect. Information that will be used to get other people’s respect.” And I thought, wow, he was attempting such a level of purity. He was suspicious of himself for wanting to show off his knowledge. Doesn’t everybody do that anyway? So he was a real free thinker, and very willing to challenge all the expectations. That could be something to do with it.

When I left Calvin College, I cut off almost all contact with everyone I grew up with. I started over as a human. There were people in Toronto, where I was, who would have taken me in. I didn’t know a soul in Toronto, except there were some people who were friends of friends, friends of the church, friends of my family and relatives, but I deliberately decided to make myself over and be new. Because otherwise I would have never survived. I think that’s how I survived. That’s how I came to kind of think I was okay, and not live in a kind of shame shadow for most of my life.

Marya: Do you think that that’s maybe part of why several of your characters have that duality? They hide their art and they have someone else be the face. Maybe this is reading too much into what you said, but is cinema your way of doing that?

Patricia: I’m a dialectical thinker. Sometimes I’ve discovered that it annoys people. Because people will say A and I go B, but it’s just me kicking the tires and being interested in the idea, but they think I’m just being contradictory. When in fact, I’m just coming from thesis to antithesis to synthesis kind of process. But it feels like I’m disagreeing.

I always thought I would live in two cities, since I was very young, I thought I would have two apartments. I just thought there’d have to be two of me so that I could have a family and friends, to be my authentic self and have a lover and be an artist. So fortunately I made the break, and now I’ve since included a lot more people from my past. But at that moment, I had to just completely erase so that I didn’t have to be two.

But obviously that bifurcation left a deep imprint. When I did it in White Room, it was an accident. I’d written all this stuff about this woman who was hiding and being stalked by a guy who was sort of an innocent, who just wanted to understand and there was this place of purity that she was coming from. In the final draft, just before shooting, I split her and made her into two people, which I think now is interesting. But then when I did it, I realized, oh my god, I had just done that in the last movie. I did that in Mermaids, with one who made the art and one who spoke for it. That division.

I feel like I’m in a bit of therapy here. It’s fun because I think of my films as all very different. But, the themes that you’re pointing to really make sense. I think the tone of White Room is so different from the tone of Into the Forest, which is so different from the tone of Kit Kittredge which is so different from… I don’t know if you’ve seen the Beckett?

Marya: I really want to see it. It sounds amazing.

Patricia: It’s Beckett, so you really do have to stand back and just let Beckett…

Marya: …be Beckett.

Patricia: Yeah. But it’s very, very different. It’s a whole different style of filmmaking. Ah, wow. You’re knowledgeable about me, and many other things, I’m sure. I’m interested in where you come from. What’s your background?

Marya: I’m from the middle of nowhere, which is where I currently am. I’m helping my dad who just had hip surgery, but I’ve moved a lot. I went to school in Berkeley, and I lived in the Bay Area. Worked in Hollywood for a while. Worked at Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta for a while. Worked in Hollywood again. Then quit to do writing full time. But I’m lucky. I don’t have a family, so I could just drop out of it. I mean, I have a cat that I support. But I had the freedom to quit so I just left, and it’s been good. I’ve gotten to talk to so many filmmakers since then and really get to do what I love.

Patricia: Who else’s work do you like?

Marya: I love Jane Campion. You know, she’s so fierce and unique. I love Gillian Armstrong. I think she’s another one who, like you, people wouldn’t necessarily think all of her films thematically connect because she’s worked in a bunch of different genres, but they do. I love Miranda July. I think she’s really idiosyncratic and unique. She makes movies everyday on TikTok and Instagram.

Patricia: She’s just relentlessly creative, isn’t she?

Marya: Are there any filmmakers that you like or that have inspired you or that you really feel an affinity for?

Patricia: I have many filmmakers that I like. Céline Sciamma. When I saw a Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I DM’d her and I said many very ecstatic things, compliments and I thanked her. Then she wrote back and said, “My 15-year-old self, who skipped school and took a train to Paris to see When Night is Falling, thanks you.”

Marya: I love that.

Patricia: That was really lovely. To think that you’d been a little bit instrumental in somebody’s life. I don’t know if I was, but she’s just a really exciting, creative mind. I think she’s very interesting.

It’s funny, there’s a lot of men whose work I really love, but less so now. Like, as I’m getting older, I’m less tolerant. But, I used to just put aside their reprehensible views of women and their objectification of them because I loved so much else about their style or their work and I would think, okay, yeah, now you’re doing that stupid thing, but the rest is exciting.

Charlie Kaufman, I don’t have complaints about him. He was an inspiration. He gave me the daring to make Mouthpiece. Because everybody said, how are you gonna do this? It’s two people? But I thought, well, what would Charlie Kaufman do? He wouldn’t bat an eyelash. That challenge would be right up his alley. Being John Malkovich, that was strong. Also films like Magnolia when that came out, that was really powerful for me. Jonathan Glazer I think is really interesting. Yorgos Lanthimos, I think he’s pretty malevolent and I don’t like a baby woman who’s sexually voracious. Yeah, of course you’d like that, buddy. But the filmmaking is thrilling. But he’s a bit too misanthropic, I think, for me.

When I was starting out there was Marleen Gorris. Yvonne Rainer. Chantal Akerman. Who else will I always drop everything to see? I love Truffaut because I felt a kind of tenderness in him. It just seemed like it, he was really loving to his characters and I liked that. Buñuel was strange enough. Bergman had a kind of sobriety, like an austere thing that I recognize from my northern Dutch world, and yet just infused with so much longing and fear. I love that one of the last lines in The Magic Lantern, or one of his books, is “but did my mom love me enough?” I love that it’s so simple, so childlike, and yet with so much intelligence and discipline.

Marya: I love the line in When Night Is Falling, after Camille hang glides, and she’s like, “but I did it.” I love that so much. Something can be scary, but you did it. That line really affected me. It’s very simple, but it hit deep. Obviously early in your career, there weren’t a lot of lesbian filmmakers and if there were, they were often very boxed in. Now there is a broader spectrum of what a lesbian film is and what lesbians filmmakers can make and a lesbian can look like on screen. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that journey for yourself as a filmmaker seeing the way the world has changed in talking about lesbian film.

Patricia: I wish I had known how open it would be. How many lesbian characters there would be. At the time, I had the sense that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. But I didn’t really expect anyone to watch it. I just wanted to see it. I would make the film that I wanted to see, and I thought there would be a handful of people like me who would like it. I couldn’t imagine that there would be much of an audience at all. Nope. I was quite certain there wouldn’t be. I really thought there would be a handful of people, but what cool people! I just wanted to touch people; that mattered to me more than to touch vast numbers of people who don’t think like me.

I could never have known it would be such a rich landscape. It’s thrilling to see how many kinds of lesbian filmmakers there are now and how many films have lesbian characters. Just being lesbian is not such a big deal now. The new thing that the collective mind is wrestling with and seeking to absorb and understand is the trans experience. We’ve moved on to the next step towards inclusion of everyone. This will be a struggle for a while, and there’ll be a point that there’s the next one. I feel like disability rights are still very, very much ignored. When people talk about diversity, they generally leave people who have disabilities off the list. That has yet to really come to the fore. But there’ll be someone else that we don’t even realize we’re being awful to them and they will be the next frontier.

When I started, I went to festival after festival and it was just a bunch of old white dudes. Not even old, sometimes young, fun, artistic dudes, for sure, but I was often the woman there. Sometimes I wonder, why did I get through? Why was I allowed to make movies? I think I made a pretty good choice to stay in Canada and work there because I got to make the kinds of movies that I wanted to make. I was freer because there was more of an understanding of art house or a wish to make art house, rather than to make big business blockbusters. Of course, there’s thriving and beautiful independent cinema in the United States, too, but I had government grant money I could use to make things work. And we have so many women artists and authors that a woman as an artist was less foreign of a concept.

Marya: I noticed Alice Munro’s books in a couple of your films.

Patricia: Alice Monro and Atwood. There’s so many singers who are really huge, like Joni Mitchell. So I think primarily living in Canada was a good choice. I am very thankful for the way society has opened up.

That said, my very good friend Ann-Marie MacDonald, who is in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, and is a painter and a playwright and wrote a book if you haven’t read it, called Fall On Your Knees, which is a beautiful lesbian story, wrote a piece a little while ago. It was about how her parents now accept her children, accept her wife, and everybody’s loving and everyone’s so nice and isn’t it great? But she was told when she came out, “I’d rather you had cancer.” She was so filled with shame, deep, deep, deep shame. Which finds its way into your life and into your body for so many people. And I guess I have to say that I made that break, but you can’t forget how demonized we were.

I saw a film I love, Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers. And this idea that hadn’t really dawned on me, that all of us, we were strangers in our own families. Even the most loving family says, “oh, no, no, we love you. Of course, we accept you.” It’s often “We still like you,” not “Oh, you’re just the one we wanted.” It’s never you’re what we wanted, it’s we can get past this, sometimes even now. So this idea that when you have no filters, and you’re just trying to find out who you are, and you’re just trying to find out whether you deserve to be cherished or not, you’re a stranger and people are looking at you like you are other even if they don’t even know you’re other yet, but you know you’re other. That’s a pretty profound formation to grow up in, so it can’t be all roses and bubblegum.

Marya: I think that’s a very grounded perspective on the way that, even if things are better now, it’s built on a foundation that is still traumatic and that still echoes. It takes a long time for those echoes to, not even go away because an echo never actually goes away, but to get so that you barely can hear it anymore.

Patricia: I think it takes generations. It’s a glacial shift. The procreative binary of man and woman making babies and that as the best and the purest form of humanity. That’s going to take a long time to shift.

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Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Her other bylines include, IndieWire, Emmy Mag, The Playlist, Nerdist, and Vulture.

Marya has written 2 articles for us.


  1. Ahhhh I was so excited to see this interview!!!!! So many talented lesbian filmmakers in Canada and so little light shone on their amazing bodies of work!!! This is wonderful and I love the dig at Poor Things hahaha

  2. Thank you for this terrific and insightful interview! I loved the little anecdote about Patricia DM’ing Celine Sciamma, and Celine’s reply. This makes me want to dust off my DVD copy of When Night is Falling and rewatch it :)

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