Director Jenni Olson. Photo courtesy of Jenni Olson Productions.

Director Jenni Olson. Courtesy of Jenni Olson Productions.

GALO: Who are some of your favorite writers that inspired you to find your own voice?

JO: Well, the biggest inspiration, especially for film itself is a French symbolist poet named Jules LaForgue, who was a huge influence on T.S. Eliot and not that well known, but I became obsessed with him in college. He has a poem that’s quoted in the film that’s called “Solo by Moonlight,” where it’s a persona and it has this level of artifice to it. He’s on a journey along a road, and simultaneously, he’s making poetic observations about the landscape as well as interesting observations about this unavailable woman. I just love the style of that and have for 25 years been inspired by him, I’ve seen the structure of this film as very much related to that simultaneous wanting to convey the sense of an external and interior landscape.

GALO: I’m glad we went in that direction because my next question is that, paradoxically, people have said your films make them feel less alone, but in The Royal Road, there’s a sense of isolation and loneliness in many of your empty streets — it’s almost a melancholy, even surreal landscape, yet can be hauntingly beautiful at the same time. Is it because you talk about unrequited love? You depict yourself as the roving Casanova who doesn’t get the girl.

JO: Right!

GALO: So there is that isolation. Tell me, when people say they respond to your work, that it makes them feel less alone, is it in the sense that they are lonely but you’re sharing their loneliness?

JO: I think part of it is sharing a story many people can identify with — pining over someone you can’t have, that’s a piece of it. There’s also a bit of humor to it, quite a bit of self-reflection: “Oh, I’m so pathetic,” in a humorous, not like LOL humor but a kind of…

GALO: Humor. The narrator in the film takes herself very seriously. There’s a sense — especially how a younger person feels about his or her obsession about their loved one, their despair and the unrequited love itself.

JO: Right [pause].

GALO: I want to get to this other topic. There’s a section in the film where you use a voiceover cameo by playwright Tony Kushner from one of his lectures. He sees nostalgia as a bourgeois escapist phenomenon. But nostalgia is at the core of your film. By shooting often mundane imagery of El Camino Real — your royal road, your romantic vision of the bygone era…of the Spanish Missions, a smog-free ecology eclipsed by freeway blight and overcrowding — you obviously long for the California of dreams rather than its current reality. How do you make peace with that?

JO: For me, it’s not as simple as nostalgia in the traditional definition of that word, simply “Oh, I wish it were like it used to be.” There’s a little piece of that, but living in California in this moment…that’s just not possible [laughter]. As I say in the film, I think what experts may see as simple nostalgia is rather me trying to connect with certain emotional qualities in connection with this real place where we live, and that in the fleeting awareness of time passing, we do have the capability to become more connected to our physical existence in the present. In a lot of ways, I think of myself as quite Buddhist, in that I have these long static takes and I really want people to stop and slow down to look at something that seems like a mundane shot of the street, but to feel being there and alive in the moment.

GALO: To focus.

JO: And particularly in this day and age, where so much of our time is spent online or on one of our devices, it’s a really powerful thing to be present in the physical landscape in which we live.

GALO: So right, and I’m finding more and more people are finding it difficult, who have grown up with the Internet, to focus for any real length of time.

JO: Yeah, and I have two kids, actually. I have an 11-year-old and a 16-year-old and I worry a lot. I also try and have a lot of faith. The world looks really different than it did when we were kids — it’s changing, that’s a part of life. I don’t feel like I want it to stay like it is, but I am interested in talking and engaging with that as an artist. And I do have this line where I say I’m engaged in a completely impossible and yet partially successful effort to stop time. And the other thing…I’m capturing these landscapes, I’m shooting on 16 mm film, a medium that physically exists (it’s on celluloid and I have a whole philosophy about that, what it means to shoot on film as opposed to shooting on digital video), and it’s all tied up with that — to nostalgia, but not in a bad way.

GALO: I admire that you are trying to find a way to connect artistically, just how important that is rather than living out a fragmented existence. In terms of how one decides to live one’s life, I want to go back for a minute to films. So many people who immigrated to California, especially in the early to mid-part of the 20th century, came because of a dream in their suitcases. Hollywood is a perfect example of that. William Holden’s character Joe in Sunset Boulevard is as much a tragic victim of his bankrupt dreams as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Do you think there’s a danger in clinging to illusion?

JO: Mmm…I don’t know if I’m qualified to say.

GALO: It may be a tough question, but I think illusion has always been so wrapped up around California that it’s as if it’s a landscape that exists somewhere between reality and a dream.

JO: Right. I do think there’s something very unique about California in a delusional way, a way that isn’t really true; the way people project their ideas on it. But it’s also a place of possibility, whether that’s the craziness of Hollywood (I don’t really care for that version of it), or the possibility of San Francisco, although that interestingly has actually shifted… The gold rush of techdom is more the thing, the current zeitgeist than of the San Francisco historically [known for] the summer of love, the hippies and the gays. I think we still have that as a sense of civic identity to a certain degree… I personally say to myself many times, I live in San Francisco and to me it means I care about my mental health and my physical health — there’s a culture of self-care and emotional growth and commitment to social justice and things like that. I don’t know. That’s not exactly the answer to what you were asking.

GALO: I think it’s a good answer because you’re telling me what’s really working for you in California and it’s viable. You’ve mentioned about shooting on 16 mm film, your focus on framing your shots and playing with light — do you see yourself branching out into still photography? I was thinking about Berenice Abbott who was shooting early photos of city structures, she even had at least one foot out of the closet even at that early time, and I think she was accepted because her concentration was on building structures. Who are some of the photographers you admire? Do you see yourself embracing that art form?

JO: Yeah, I love Walker Evans, and actually, not a photographer but a painter, Edward Hopper. And there’s a San Francisco painter called Robert Bechtle, a kind of landscape and composition [artist]… But yes, I’m very inspired, you know, by these kinds of landscapes and compositions — landscape photography and urban landscapes especially.

GALO: It’s interesting you mention Hopper because he always seems to move us by isolation in his landscape.

JO: He almost always has a figure in his landscapes, a human figure, which I always very intentionally avoid. I mean, there was one pedestrian I couldn’t quite get rid of in one of my shots, but we usually go out at six in the morning to make sure there are no pedestrians. I work with a cinematographer who has the skills to do the actual shooting, while I’m directing the compositions, and knows [what] it is I want.

GALO: So you’re very directly involved, unlike a director that’s concentrated on the actors, the authenticity of the scene but is not that interested in framing the scene we’re seeing. I’m sure you have a close relationship with your cinematographer when you’re planning these things. She worked on your first film, The Joy of Life, I believe?

JO: Yes, Sophie Constantinou. She’s my regular person that I work with. I really love working with one person. I don’t know how a director does it, working with cast and crew, a bunch of people. I can’t even imagine it!

GALO: It could be pretty overwhelming. I do have one more question. I’m sure it’s been a busy day for you. Do you see yourself in another locale? Forgive me, but like Tony Bennett said so well, have you left your heart in San Francisco? For the observable future, do you see that as your home base?

JO: I would really love to make a film about any place. And whenever I go to different cities, I think I’d love to make a film about that place. I got to spend a bunch of time in Salt Lake City a couple of years ago for a Sundance thing, and I’d like to shoot a film there and the history there…but yes, I’m a San Franciscan now.

GALO: Well, Jenni, I think that wraps it up for me, but I’m certainly going to look out for the other film, The Joy of Life.

JO: It’s available on iTunes and it’s out on DVD. And I also have a short film from five years ago that’s called 575 Castro Street that’s available online.

GALO: I wish you all best and the very best at Sundance.

JO: Thank you so much for the interview.

GALO: A real pleasure for me, too. Thank you.

THE ROYAL ROAD Trailer — Sundance World Premiere 2015 from Jenni Olson on Vimeo.

The Royal Road” premieres at The Sundance Film Festival, Frontier Section on Friday, January 23, 2015. The film is 65 minutes, color, 16mm HD. || Featured image courtesy of Jenni Olson Productions.