Interview with Natasha Cantwell, Director of Genevieve and Spinneret

Copy Edited and Posted by Megan Elias

Your films are incredibly succinct expressions of social behavior. Have you studied sociology or any other social sciences, or are your films influenced solely by your life experience and observations?

My influences come mostly from life experience—discussions, overheard conversations, observed social interactions of friends and strangers. But I’m also interested in how these small gestures fit into what is happening in society on a larger scale, so I do read a lot on sociology-related topics.

Natasha Cantwell, director of “Genevieve” and “Spinneret,” shooting in Melbourne, 2018

Also, moving countries four years ago, I became acutely aware of the social behaviour I took for granted as being “normal” but realised was actually very specific to my home country. Moving to a country that outwardly seems quite similar (New Zealand to Australia) and adapting to a new “normal” really highlighted all the subtle ways in which societies grow a distinct set of social norms and then fight hard to maintain them.

Your films Spinneret and Genevieve are very short, yet packed with symbolism. Is the short film format itself also a symbolic expression?

It’s emblematic of this age of short attention spans—of sharing articles without bothering to read them, of endless scrolling and film festivals dedicated to GIFs. But I would say that my short works are the product of this mindset, rather than a statement about it. I feel the pull to be constantly moving forward, and as an artist, I don’t want to be locked into the same project for too long. There’s always the lure of the next film work—still a mess of ideas and full of potential.

I was compelled to view Spinneret and Genevieve repeatedly, and each viewing revealed further thematic complexities. Is it difficult to inject such a wide array of potential subjective interpretations into such short films?

Throughout a project, from writing to directing and editing, I’m thinking about questions I want to investigate, rather than trying to make any statements. In addition, my working process is very free-flowing, and it always evolves as the project moves forward. I like to work spontaneously, and I encourage myself to work with rather than against the elements that are outside of my control. If an actor’s performance or a change in the weather suggests something new to me, I explore that during the shoot, so by the time I get to the editing stage, I’m working with many different angles. I want to provoke the audience to engage with their own ideas, even if that leads them in a different direction than what I imagined.

As a particularly visceral visual artist, how important to you are physical reactions from your audience?

Perhaps those are for my own benefit! It’s an unnerving experience to watch your film with a silent audience; I want to hear them gasp or nervously laugh, or see them squirm in their seats.

Trudi Ranik in Spinneret

The music in your films is incredibly effective in heightening the intensity of visual elements. What was your process for choosing your soundtracks?

The score for Genevieve was actually composed for an earlier film. When my silent film Lauren screened at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm last year, Maria Lindström and Anna Rubinsztein created a live soundtrack. They sent me the recording and I loved the raw and haunting quality of the live piece. Immediately I imagined it in Genevieve, which was in pre-production at the time. But when it came to editing, I didn’t allow the music to influence my decisions. Coming from a photography background, it’s important to me that the visuals can hold their own, so I always edit as though I’m making a silent film then fit the soundtrack around the cinematography. I picked the key moment of Felise tapping the boil, and lined it up with a loud ‘crack’ in the soundtrack. The emotional journey of the visuals and the music ended up being surprisingly harmonious, and I only needed to make a few minor adjustments to the soundtrack to sync up the rhythm to the editing.

With Spinneret the key moment was Dean’s leap off the bench. I trawled through Bandcamp for days trialling out different tracks. Grain Elevator by Youth Worship was the only piece of music that even came close to working, so it was a bit nerve-wracking emailing the band to ask for permission. It then turned out that Youth Worship was actually the same guy as Talk West—who’s track Errand I had used for my previous film Cove!

Trudi Ranik and Dean Robinson in Spinneret

I am really grateful to the composers and musicians who allow me to incorporate their music into my films. I like working with existing pieces of music as it creates serendipitous moments where the visuals and the soundtrack come together in uncontrived and unconventional ways. There can be parts that don’t 100% gel together, but this can work to heighten the tension and awkwardness of a scene.

 There are no speaking parts in Spinneret and Genevieve, yet the actors are able to convey a lot of information. What were some of the specific characteristics you looked for when casting these films?

These are the first films where I’ve worked with actors rather than just coercing my friends to step in front of the camera. For my casting sessions, I arranged informal meetings rather than auditions because I wanted to get a sense of the person, not the actor.

With Spinneret, I wanted actors with enthusiasm for either physical theatre or dance, who weren’t afraid of looking foolish and who didn’t flinch when I said, “think of yourself as half spider.” Trudi and Dean had the confidence to work collaboratively with me on their performances and choreography.

For Felise and Genevieve’s roles, I was looking more for inward acting qualities. I wanted actors who were thoughtful and could mix staged horror film performances with more subtle expressions drawn from real emotions.

Above all else, I was looking for actors who were on the same wavelength as me and were genuinely interested in working on an experimental film. I was really very lucky as all four actors were an absolute pleasure to work with.

In both Spinneret and Genevieve, your female characters are quite expressive in ways that are nontraditional in mainstream media. Are these films a specific challenge to the way gender norms are perpetuated through media?

Female characters in the mainstream media often seem really inauthentic to me. Characters who defy outdated gender norms by being assertive or disruptive are a better representation of the world that I live in. While the media is still trying to sell us these stereotypes, I think that art has the power to push society forward simply by normalising more realistic and diverse experiences.

Genevieve Brott and Felise Morales in Genevieve

I felt a particular aspect of social rebellion in your films. Do you hope to contribute to some level of social change with your work?

I feel like society has the potential to drift towards a dystopian future of social isolation and synthetic experiences if we don’t become more self-aware. My work asks people to question their everyday actions because even though something may be “normal” it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it. Once you start to pull “normal” apart, it becomes increasingly absurd.

Are you currently working on any projects we can look forward to seeing in the future?

I have three pieces in production that explore disappointment and discomfort through dance, ritual, and repetition. Ironically, I sent these film reels to a digitizer in February, and I’m a bit scared that I’ll never see them again as he’s stopped responding to my messages. If they do see the light of day, my personal experience of disappointment and discomfort with not being able to finish these films will have to form part of the narrative.

You can learn more about Natasha by visiting her website or her profile, and you can view her other films on Vimeo. To learn more about Rebecca, visit her profile.