Jenni Olson: The Royal Road

Jenni Olson describes her new film The Royal Road as “a cinematic essay in defense of remembering.” It transpires abstractly, by wayfaring along El Camino Real, fixing gazes on vacant urban scenes, meditating on the history of California’s colonization, and yearning for people and places which might ultimately be knowable only through their absence.

Patiently photographed on 16-millimeter film, intimately narrated by the director herself, The Royal Road seems — mesmerizingly, edifyingly — to extend from Olson’s 2005 feature The Joy of Life, a poignant personal history of the Golden Gate Bridge as a suicide landmark. After seeing that earlier masterpiece, and her great short film 575 Castro Street, an elegy for Harvey Milk, I was glad to chip in to Kickstarting The Royal Road, and to talk with Olson in advance of its local premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival tonight.

How did you discover your interest in cinema? How did you find your voice?

My background is as a film historian and a film programmer. I started the gay film festival in Minneapolis, almost 30 years ago. I’ve always been a film fan, since I was like 6 years old, watching Hollywood classic movies. And then in college I read a book called The Celluloid Closet, by Vito Russo, about the history of homosexuality in film, and that was what enabled me to come out. I kind of came out through film. And I read the book and thought, “Oh, I want to see these films, and I’ll bet everyone else wants to see them, too.” And so I started a film series on campus, and that was how I became interested in LGBT film history and festival programming. And as a festival programmer, you see a lot of conventional filmmaking. Very traditional. Romantic comedies, that kind of thing. I think I got kind of jaded seeing so much conventional work, and so I really connected with a lot of experimental work. And when I decided that I wanted to make films, I knew I wanted to make experimental work, even though you don’t have the same level of reach or wide exposure. I’m interested in telling stories, but not in a conventional way. So my films consist entirely of landscapes, with no sound, no actors. Just voiceover.

And the images you show us aren’t necessarily direct descriptions of what your narration talks about. Also, the voiceover is often in the first person, and quite self-revealing, yet we never see you — or anyone else. So is it maybe also a little coy?

It’s interesting that you phrase it that way. It is done in first person — it’s a very diaristic format, and very intimate. At the same time, as I even say in the opening sequence, there is this way that I think of myself as a fictional character. It facilitates being very vulnerable. I think of this voiceover as a persona. And I do work a lot in a kind of poetic construction. There’s also a lot of self-deprecating humor. So it’s a more complicated relationship to who’s speaking, and what is being said. Some of it is very much me speaking. I have after all been shooting these landscapes. Then there is the pining over unavailable women. Some of that is real, and some of it is made up, a sort of composite.

Occasionally you use the word “melodrama” to describe some intense emotional stuff, but all the while we’re looking at these empty spaces. Is that to preempt the melodrama? Is it that if you’d dramatized these things directly it would be too much?

That’s the great thing about it. It’s your film. Every viewer is going to have an individual experience of the film, of what they project onto it.

Talk about some nuts and bolts. You have a crew, but it’s very small. How do you work with them, and articulate your vision? How do you choose your shots, and decide on their order and length?

In some ways my original choice to make movies like this was essentially: “How can I make movies as much by myself as possible, and with as few moving parts as possible?” Like, I don’t want to deal with actors, I don’t want to deal with lighting, I don’t want to deal with telling multiple people what to do! So with shooting, it’s usually just me and my cinematographer, Sophie Constantinou, going out early in the morning. I have a shot list. I’ve had shot lists my whole life. I’m driving around, scribbling on the steering wheel. “Oh, 25th and Capp!” And seeing shots. So we’ll go out and set up, and hopefully the light will be right. And often times, well, it doesn’t look as good as we thought, and so it’s like, “What if we turn the camera around this way? Oh, look, there’s a shot.” With The Joy of Life, part of it was about the bridge, so, ok, we needed a lot of the bridge. Here, we needed a lot of Junípero Serra statues. There are some moments where I want it to be like you’re seeing what you’re hearing. But the majority of it is just knowing that we’re going to shoot a lot of landscapes and put it up there. Then I do my voiceover recording. I get the script fairly solid, lay that down in audio, and go into picture edit with my editor, Dawn Logsdon, and we just start putting pictures on top and feeling it. There’s an overall method of bringing up the shot, giving the viewer a moment to see it, then blah blah blah, then being quiet, holding it moment longer so you can take in the feeling, and then cut to another shot.

Did you always know that was the right rhythm?

It took me a while to figure it out. And then also to figure out that I needed to shoot much longer takes. Sometimes we would shoot like four-to-five-minute takes. But then you really don’t know how it’s going to feel. They have a very particular feeling.

Especially on film, as opposed to digital. Why is there such an aura with celluloid? Something about the grain, the way the movement looks…

It’s interesting that you use the word aura. I have this whole elaborate theory, kind of a riff on Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. My theory is about the work of art in the age of digital reproduction, which is that, where Benjamin said only a painting has an aura, and photography doesn’t because it’s infinitely reproducible, I think now photography has an aura and the digital is what’s infinitely reproducible, and lacks an aura. I mean, it’s a theory that’s easily shot down. But you know, just like you’re saying, inarguably there’s something to it. There is a quality about film. And to me it is about an aura. Which is also what this film, full of history and nostalgia, is about.

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Speaking of which, another point The Royal Road seems to make is that to live here and to love movies is to keep coming back to Vertigo.

Yeah, living in San Francisco, Vertigo has been a muse for me — as a writer, and filmmaker, and just as a person. I first came here to work at Frameline, and their offices were across the street from Mission Dolores for the first year that I was here. So that was my view literally every day. And we’re all movie lovers, so there’s that really intimate connection to that film. But the big thematic element in this project is El Camino Real, and one of the crucial elements in Vertigo is that journey they make to Mission San Juan Bautista, along El Camino Real.

Right, let’s talk about Junípero Serra. 

The pope announced recently that he’s going to canonize Junípero Serra, and of course the Catholic Church is doing this PR campaign because there’s been this huge backlash against it. People are like, “You can’t canonize this guy, he massacred Native Americans!” Of course it is complicated. The church is talking about how Serra is essentially the first Hispanic U.S. saint, and they’re emphasizing his identity as Hispanic, saying basically all the Latinos in California should be on board with this. But if you think a little bit more about it, the truth is that the Spanish were the conquerors of that territory, in the same way that the British were the conquerors of New England, and the people who lost were the Native Americans.

So does this topical controversy make you feel any urge to somehow reconfigure the film?

No. As a filmmaker, I’m most interested in making a work of art. I want it to have social relevance, but again, I don’t want it to be conventional. So to me it’s the perfect mix. I mean, it is very political: In the middle of it there’s the injustice of the Mexican-American War, and Junípero Serra’s colonization. There’s a strong political viewpoint, but that’s only an element of it.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you’ve faced, with this project or with your work in general?

It’s challenging in that it’s very difficult to get any funding. So then everything is challenging. And it’s just a lot of work to raise the money. Especially to shoot in 16-millimeter. Most funders want to fund conventional documentaries that are dealing with social issues — and I’m thankful that they’re funding all those films because there are so many important stories to be told. I think it’s just harder to prioritize something that’s…well, it’s art. As a filmmaker, it’s really depressing, really demoralizing. I’m grateful for Kickstarter because that’s how the majority of money was raised, but it’s an insane amount of work. And it’s hard to imagine going through that again. I’m sure that I will continue making films, but it’s hard to imagine. There’s just no way right now. Where we live now, in the current economy…

And you have kids, right?  

I have a wife and two kids, and we both work full time, and it’s not really working very well. Or, it’s a tough time. Making films like this doesn’t make money, it costs money. It’s a horrible time right now for the arts in San Francisco, actually.

Do you think people might respond to the film more strongly because of this? 

People really do connect with it. I’ve been working on it for years. My original shooting was during the first dot-com boom, in 1997 — when I was part of that; I was one of the founders of planetout.com. And at that time we were all freaking out that the city was changing so fast. And of course we look back and that was nothing. At least in comparison to what’s happening now. So when I started working on this, I didn’t anticipate that it would come out in this landscape. The film connects with that, and expresses my reflections on the importance of place and history and being here, now. I’m also participating in the festival’s “Boomtown” program, and I’m excited to see how other artists are responding to that. The truth is that San Francisco has always been changing, and everything is always changing. But it’s not like we don’t have some best practices about development, for Christ’s sake.

At some point in the future, the majority of footage in your films will be of structures and spaces that no longer exist. 

There is some already! There’s footage of the Transbay Terminal, that’s gone. The Bank of America clock tower, that’s gone. And my favorite of all, the 17 Reasons sign. I also had one shot of a gas station that we couldn’t use because it was too anachronistic; the gas prices were too low.