Writer-Director Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival and is now coming this month to the Seattle International Film Festival. The Royal Road is a cinematic essay set against a contemplative backdrop of 16mm urban California landscapes. It offers up intimate reflections on nostalgia, the pursuit of unavailable women, butch identity, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo alongside a primer on Junipero Serra’s Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War.
My conversation with Olson for The Seattle Lesbian is below.
What is the genesis behind the title of the film The Royal Road?
Having lived in California for nearly 25 years, I have long been fascinated with the story of El Camino Real (The Royal Road) and all the mythology that has evolved around it. The origin of this particular script was wanting to tell a story about a character in San Francisco (my own persona) pining over an unavailable woman in Los Angeles. I’m always wanting to combine some aspect of California history into my storytelling (partly because my visual track of urban landscapes goes well with this and partly because I am always wanting to convey lesser known, and politically relevant, histories).
Early on in the writing process it came to me that El Camino Real would serve as a very rich structural device which would be able to move the story forward as well as being a great jumping off point for the story of the Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War. And then in the course of further writing and research, Junipero Serra emerged as this kind of lead actor in the tale.
Fortuitously I was also writing during the time when my younger daughter was in the midst of her 4th grade Missions unit which is one of the standard components of California’s official grade school curriculum. Although the curriculum has been updated to give a slightly more politically nuanced perspective on all the terrible consequences of Serra and the missionary conquest, it remains primarily focused on a very romanticized version of the story. I just wanted to give a short primer giving a more politicized version of the story.
How many different shooting locations did it take to make the film?
Wow, great question. At the end of the day there are approximately 95 shots in the film – 95 shots, 95 locations. In a way that sounds like a lot, but really is quite minimalist compared to most conventional films. Because really the shots are all just simple urban landscape images, some of which are as long as 2-3 minutes long — all shot on 16mm film by my cinematographer, Sophie Constantinou. We did our shooting over the course of about 15 years, actually – mainly in and around San Francisco as well as in Oakland, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and San Juan Bautista.
Having compiled about 5-6 total hours of footage over the years, we then drew from all those shots in the editing process (with my editor Dawn Logsdon) and matched the images with the voiceover that I wrote and recorded over the past couple of years.
The film premiered at Sundance this year, what sort of responses have you received from it?
The response to the film has been amazing both from audiences and critics – we have a very high 86 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com (meaning basically, the critics love it). Premiering at Sundance is always exciting and a really great way to bring a film into the world. We got a terrific deal through the Sundance #ArtistsServices program, which means the film will be available on iTunes and on Netflix streaming at the end of this year. You can even go ahead and add it to your GoWatchIt queue now to be notified when it becomes available.
If there’s one thing you would want viewers to take away from the film, what would that be?
I often say I want my films to have a physiological impact on their audiences – you should physically feel the editing, some moments should take your breath away or make you cry. I am very personally attuned to having this kind of experience myself – as a lover of experimental cinema I know this is one of the things we can get from unconventional filmmaking forms. But I would also say that the most important thing I want lesbian viewers (especially butch lesbians) to come away with is a sense of connection with a butch experience. In my background as a film historian, one of the things I often write about is how important it is to see ourselves reflected on screen. There are very few butch lesbian characters and stories in film. So this is something that has always really driven me and my work.
It seems you take a great effort and pride to insert California and Hollywood history into the film; can you talk more about your connection to California?
Yes, I moved here in 1992 and have long been fascinated by the state as an actual place but also as this land that has so much mythology about it. The story of El Camino Real and the Spanish missionaries is a big part of that and so is Hollywood – which is such a place of mythmaking itself (as I was writing the script I found myself drawn to incorporating references to Hollywood cinema as an essential component of my own storytelling practice and it does also dovetail very nicely with the whole California-centric focus of the film).
And then of course there is Hitchcock’s Vertigo – which is such a muse for me as a filmmaker. Living in San Francisco is basically like living on the set of this film. When I first moved here to work at Frameline (the organizer of the SF International LGBT Film Festival) our offices were right across the street from Mission Dolores – the spot where Madeleine emerges from her Jaguar and where Jimmy Stewart follows her into the cemetery was the view out my window for more than a year.
Are the stories about the women in your life true to real life?
The stories of the pursuit of unavailable women in the film are a complex mixture of truth and fiction. As Somerset Maugham once said of his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage: “This is a novel, not an autobiography; though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention.”
When will it be premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival?
The film will premiere at the SIFF Film Center as part of the Seattle International Film Festival on May 30 at 7 p.m. and 31 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available through the SIFF website at $13 for general admission (or $11 for SIFF members).
Tickets can be purchased here: siff.net/festival-2015/royal-road.