Karen Hines shifts her stage character to an award-winning short film.
In 1992 Karen Hines created a wildly popular solo show, starring her character Pochsy.
After having much success on stage she decided to bring Pochsy to the big screen to share her sarcastic view of the bleak world she lives in. We recently had the opportunity to interview Karen to learn more about her background and her craft.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Chicago, and raised in Toronto. Now I live part-time in Toronto and part-time in Calgary.
How did you become interested in cinematography? Did you have any formal cinematographer training?
I have had very little training as a cinematographer – a bit of instruction in photography and Super 8 shooting. My main talent is picking talented cinematographers to work with! Greg Woodbury and Benny Zenga were my cinematographers on My Name is Pochsy. Both are highly talented photographers and shooters, with strong knowledge of the trickiness of Super 8 cameras, film, etc.
I believe your short film, My Name is Pochsy: An Industrial Film was awarded the Best Experimental Film at the US Super 8 Film & Digital Video Festival. What does it mean to you to have your work recognized?
That was a particularly amazing award to win, because of course the films were being judged by people who really know their way around Super 8, and all the idiosyncrasies, problems and possibilities of that medium. The film has won a number of other awards now, too – each one very different (an Audience Choice award at the Boston Underground Film Festival, a directing award at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto, an international award at Dawson City’s Short Film Festival, and of course the Kodak Prize at Edmonton). The fact that the film seems to defy classification, and yet it has been recognized and warmly received in so many different ways, is truly thrilling. More importantly, it is extremely encouraging, and gives me added drive to make more films.
Has My Name is Pochsy screened at any other film festivals?
It has now screened at about ten, from Dawson City in the Yukon to Atlanta, Georgia. It is about to screen at two environmental film festivals, Hazelwolf and Mountainfilm at Telluride. Again, as with the awards, I am really excited that it can go from a festival that specializes in creepy horror films (as with Boston Underground) then the next month it can be part of an environmental festival.
In general, can you describe what My Name is Pochsy is about?
The film is a black comedy shot in the documentary style of old industrial films from the ‘fifties. The landscape is ravaged and industrial (we shot around the nickel mines in Sudbury, Ontario). The only character in it is Pochsy, who works at Mercury Packers ... where she packs mercury. Pochsy is quite probably mercury-poisoned (something she doesn’t seem to notice), and in her dementia, she has somehow missed some kind of mass evacuation (also something she doesn’t seem to notice). The film is basically Pochsy shooting herself as she goes through a day in the life of Pochsy – ostensibly on abandoned scraps of Super 8 film. It is a baldly narcissistic exercise on Pochsy’s part to record her life and her philosophies about the world, which include affirmations she mangles from various sources including the Dalai Lama, 'The Secret' and the Wal-Mart Mission Statement. In the end though, it does appear to be a sort of message in a bottle: she knows she is dying, and she speaks between the lines to a world that has abandoned her.
(By the way, 'Pochsy' is pronounced 'Poxy' as in 'the pox,' and is an anagram for 'Psycho.')
The character Pochsy has a loyal following and can be seen in theatres and festivals around the US and Canada. Tell us about all the activities Pochsy is involved in.
I have recently taken a hiatus from the stage with Pochsy, focusing on a number of film and TV projects, but I will be working on a new solo stage show for 2009/10. Pochsy is an amazingly fun character to work with because, in her obliviousness, she says lots of things many of us would like to say but censor ourselves. And she gets away with it. She’s a great vessel for satire and dark comedy, being both a victim and a perpetrator of environmental degradation. I like to call her a “spokesgirl for a species on the brink.”
What was the inspiration behind the project? Where did the idea come from?
I booked myself into a fringe theatre festival in1992 without having a show written. I had said I wanted to do a solo show – and then I balked: I was mortified by the idea of being myself alone on stage for an hour. It just seemed so narcissistic. So I decided to create a character who was not autobiographical, but rather a microcosm of the world – at least of North American consumer culture. I came up with this character who is dying but doesn’t seem to notice, and meanwhile is blithely killing the land and the animals around her. It’s very black comedy, but with a real serious aim. My parents are scientists, so perhaps the real seed of it all came from the telling me, calmly, from a very young age, that we are past the point of no return on a global scale. I have a very bleak family, and we all use humour to mitigate that. The comedy in the work is all part of the spoonful of sugar that goes along with Pochsy’s dark reality. The comedy is absolutely essential, and by embracing the narcissistic aspects of doing a solo show, I ended up creating a character who gets a lot of comic mileage about being totally and utterly narcissistic: problem solved.
What film format did you use for My Name is Pochsy and why?
We used Super 8 and, in the beginning, we tried to “Super Duper 8” the gate, scratching part of it away, transforming the film in camera to a “widescreen” format. Unfortunately, that’s a really hard thing to do properly, and we bunged up a camera and lost some footage and had to revert: we were running out of time and money, so sadly we had to abandon the Super Duper ship. So the film is now in classic 4:3 for television – this was a Bravo!FACT funded film, and my first responsibility was to deliver them what they required.
In the future, though, I would like to try to make a Super Duper 8 film again, just when there isn’t so much at risk, or when we have more time to ensure that everything is working smoothly (we were shooting on Manitoulin Island when we had camera problems, and of course there was nowhere up there to quickly develop the film and see how we were doing -- risky!)
Why did you choose to shoot your project on Super 8 mm film? Which film stock or stocks (brand and number) did you use, and why?
We used Kodak Tri X reversal and Kodak Plus X Reversal 7265.
The reason for using back and white Super 8 was that I wanted there to be an otherworldly quality to the film. I also knew that the graininess of the Super 8 film, especially the Tri X, would be really perfect for shooting the ravaged industrial landscape that is the world of My Name is Pochsy. That look really hearkens back to another era, and Pochsy’s story has a timelessness about it: the period look of the film contrasts with some of the hyper-contemporary content in a way that straddles eras. That juxtaposition is a key part of the film’s trippy quality; the historical feel to this “documentary” also supports the rather grand and far-reaching notion of Pochsy as a metaphor for all humanity.
What was the “look” or mood you wanted to achieve? Can you describe your method of photographing a particular scene that illustrates that “look”, including what lights, gels, camera movement, exposure, and lens that you used?
I had written a couple of Pochsy shorts before (directed by Sandi Somers for Bravo!FACT), and we used 35 mm colour for those, which were gorgeous, and excellent for brighter comedy and for shooting scenes where colour (hospital green, for example) was a big component.
My Name is Pochsy was a very different thing: the world really needed to look unwelcoming and bleak. I wanted every image to be unsettling in some way, to reflect Pochsy’s dementia and her imperiled existence. So sometimes we just let the film stock and the images do the work (slag heaps, empty highways, a creepy furnace, a hospital bed…). Sometimes, though, we added elements like a super wide-angle lens for intimate interior moments.
I really let my cinematographers go with their instincts on things like gels and filters, as that was not my area of expertise. But we had a lot of communication about how things would “feel’ so that, even if I didn’t have the experience of the specifics of how a certain gel would work, technically speaking, their more technical decisions were always grounded in the very specific “feel” I was going for in any given scene: whether I wanted it to make Pochsy look “creepy” or “glamorous,” for example. Or whether the room should feel “dream-like” or “spooky.” Those were words in our shared vocabulary. We often shot different versions too, so that the cinematographers could feel free to take risks, while always ensuring we had options for when it came time for editing.
We were working in the dark a lot, without playback or monitors, which, of course, are always tricky things to rig on a Super 8 shoot. In a way though, it kept our minds really open and alert to possibilities.
In fact, there was a really specific dogma that I worked out with the writing of the script that I referred to as “the aesthetic of narcissism.” It was kind of a joke at first, but became central to our capacity to work on the same page. The documentary was, ostensibly, being shot by Pochsy after all, so shots of the landscape would be shot “through Pochsy’s eyes.” When Pochsy was in the shot, except for rare instances, the angle and lighting was always chosen in a way that would capture Pochsy in the most flattering way (a little over-exposed, say; placing the camera above the chin line, etc.). With all the shots, discussing framing and angles, lighting and such, my crew would always be informed by the mantra: “What would Pochsy do?” It was a really fun way to work with my team, and really helped us achieve clarity in terms of a shared vision – especially in the absence of monitors and playback!
You can notice in the film that there is very little camera movement. Not until near the end. This again is consistent with the notion that Pochsy was shooting herself so, except for the odd shot that she’s not in, the camera would necessarily be static. When the camera does move, closer to the end of the film (when it becomes more clear that Pochsy is not well), I referred to these shots as “the hand of God” shots. The joke being that Pochsy is so narcissistic that the only other person she’ll allow to shoot her is God himself. The nice thing about that was it gave the cinematographers a real freedom after being so tightly constrained for so long.
Did you use any unusual techniques such as push or pull processing, or abnormal exposure, to achieve certain effects?
We often shot things at two or even three different exposures. There is a shot in the film of Pochsy standing on a slag heap with a smoke stack in the background. It is stunning in the first version Benny shot, then he asked to shoot it again at a slightly different exposure that lost all the detail on Pochsy and rendered her only in silhouette. It wasn’t our plan, it was his really smart guess – and it became one of the most gorgeous shots in the film. There was so much that required us to follow our instincts, especially because there was no monitor showing us along the way, and, given the geography of the shoot (all over Ontario) when in doubt, they just shot whatever variations their intuition told them to. Given that, again, exposures were not in my arsenal of technical knowledge, I was more than happy to let them play around. We went way over budget on film, but we had so many great options in the end, some accidental, which made editing a dream.
Where do you look for inspiration? Which other director or cinematographers’ work do you admire and why?
It may be no surprise that David Lynch (especially early David Lynch) is a huge influence. I adore Cronenberg, Luis Bunuel, Carlos Saura, The Cohen Brothers, Edward Burtynsky and his “Manufactured Landscapes;” visual artist Gregory Crewdson and his toxic scenes; Annie Liebowitz, and Gary Mulcahey who has been the Pochsy productions photographer for fifteen years. I love reading Adbusters and am always inspired, visually, by their stable of brilliant photographers and artists.
Where can we see the film next? Theatres, TV, DVD, internet, another festival?
The film will air soon on Bravo!FACT if it hasn’t already, but I’m turning my attention away from the screenings for the moment, and going back to shooting. I’ll be pulling Pochsy out of the festival circuit for a bit, as some amount of the footage is going be used in a longer adaptation of the film.
What is your next project going to be?
My Name is Pochsy was my first film as a director, so the acclaim and awards it has won have been instrumental in securing funding for another, longer film, either based on and incorporating footage from My Name is Pochsy. The working title is Horribly Beautiful World.