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Dead and Loving 'Em

The Canadian Touch: Director Lynn Stopkewich.

Photo by Kharen Hill

Director Lynn Stopkewich tells all about her hymn to casket cravings

By Richard von Busack

"Directing films is like playing Barbie with real people," says Lynn Stopkewich. Her flippancy is belied by her gift for handling actors in a range of ages--Stopkewich doesn't treat the actors like Barbie dolls, in any case.

Stopkewich is a Canadian filmmaker whose singular debut film, Kissed, concerns the necrophiliac desires of an otherwise well-balanced young woman, Sandra (Molly Parker). Kissed is strong-minded for its tenderness and for its soft-focused love scenes; the film is less an exploration of the attractiveness of the dead than the story of a woman discovering what turns her on.

Stopkewich was a suburban Montreal girl who studied for a BFA in film at Concordia University; her two shorts, "The Flipped Wig" (about a girl's first trip to the gynecologist) and "$3 Wash & Set," sent her on the film-festival circuit. She later relocated to the booming film town of Vancouver, B.C., where she received her masters in film at the University of British Columbia. Meanwhile, she worked as a production designer for John Pozer (The Grocer's Wife) and Mark Malone (Bulletproof Heart, a.k.a. Killer).

Stopkewich, a woman of great charisma and wit, is a surprisingly angst-free character; she is apparently used to defusing the grisly aspects of her film through force of charm. She would seem to be aligned with her fellow nationals David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan as artists mulling over modern sexuality with a sympathy and interest too often missing on this side of the border.

Metro: Can you tell me about the story on which you and screenwriter Angus Fraser based Kissed?

Stopkewich: It's from a collection called The Girl Wants To; the story is by Barbara Gowdy, titled "We So Seldom Look on Love." I read it and put it away, meaning to work on something else. But this story stayed with me for days and days. I was working on another screenplay that we were talking about making. The window of opportunity for the first screenplay closed, and I wanted a new project. I suggested Kissed to my producers, and they didn't run out of the room screaming, so

It took three years from the idea to the completion. Of that time, 2 1/2 years went into getting up enough courage to tell my parents what the film was about. I was really edgy, since it was my first film. I told them it was a love story at first; and I didn't have to go into more detail than that.

I'd see them once a year at Christmas and try to explain. I'd fantasize telling them, "This is the reason I've been wearing black all of these years." I had to phone them when Kissed showed at the Montreal Film Festival, to tell them. I sort of hemmed and hawed with my mother and eventually said, "Heh heh heh, put Dad on the line." He said, "So, are you going to tell us what this is about?"

I said, "Dad, it's pretty far out there." I tried using a different synopsis--"It's about love and life and death"--and then I told him everything, in this singsong voice: "This girl, she's really curious about death, Dad ..." (It was like a role-reversal, like he was the 10-year-old, and I was telling him about death for the first time.) "She falls in love with dead guys. She, uh, has sexual relations with them. I had never used the term "sexual relations" in my life before. There was a silence from him--just "Oh, yeah ..."

It helped when Margaret Atwood said she liked the movie--and when my parents found out that the National Film Board was helping with it. They finally saw it, and they were crying afterward. But they said, "You'll understand if your grandparents never know about this movie."

Metro: What sort of extreme reactions have you been getting to Kissed?

Stopkewich: Oh, I prefer that people hate it or love it; if they talk about this film like they talk about the weather, the film has failed.

Metro: Can you talk about your approach to the material?

Stopkewich: I was working from a different perspective; I tried to make it accessible--somewhere audiences have never been. I could have taken the easy way out with a dark Gothic tale; I wanted to go 180 degrees around with it. I did do a lot of research. The embalming scene isn't in the story, for example.

Metro: Is the trocar (the grisly metal tube used to vacuum out the insides of Mr. or Mrs. Cadaver), really called "the undertaker's sword"?

Stopkewich: No, I made that up. There was a six-month waiting list at the library for the one book on embalming, so that was no help. I went checking out funeral homes. I was really terrified of death and dying after I turned 30. I found out, when shooting started, that I really didn't want to go into a funeral home at all--all those dark curtains ...

Having been a production designer for several years, I decided to make my own funeral home. The prep room at the mortuary is the same set as Matt's apartment. But I still didn't have the feel of the funeral home, and so I got the first assistant director, Michael Gazetas, to come with me, and we went to a funeral home and told them we were making a film.

Metro: They didn't ask to see the script, did they?

Stopkewich: No, they never mentioned that. The mortician was showing me the place as if he were a proud father. We got to the end of the tour, and the mortician asked Michael, "Do you think she's prepared to see the embalming room? I think everything is in order."

Inside, it was a really clean room, really sterile. There was a cadaver on the slab, a sheet up to its waist, embalmed. It stopped me in my tracks. I was thinking, "This is the kind of guy Sandra would be into." It all sort of came crashing in. Michael came out on the sidewalk with me afterward, trying not to faint. It was at that time that I realized how challenging the story really was, and how out on a limb I was.

Metro: The only movie remotely like yours is The Loved One.

Stopkewich: I only saw it after I was through filming Kissed. I love Rod Steiger's Mr. Joyboy, but I wasn't directing Jay Brazeau [the actor who plays the mortician in Kissed] to act like him.

Metro: Was the decision to set Kissed in the 1970s because that was the era before AIDS?

Stopkewich: Yes. The '70s was a great period for me. People were less restrained in the '70s; there weren't all of these condoms and rubber gloves. I could insert myself into the story having lived through it. It's a great frame of reference, and of course, there are cheap costumes from the Sally Ann [Salvation Army]. The actors cursed me, having to wear all of that polyester under hot lights.

Metro: What did Molly Parker think of this movie?

Stopkewich: She said, "If you were a male director making a movie about a necrophile, I never would have been it." Mostly, when people think of a movie about necrophilia, they're thinking of something like those German movies, like Necromancer. It's a lot more subversive to make them comfortable and then get them.

Metro: I'd think directing the Natasha Morley as young Sandra conducting her funerals in the forest would have been difficult.

Stopkewich: She had less of a hard time with it than Molly. Maybe I warped her forever, but in her scenes, she gets to be a child. Natasha was talking to the driver on the way to the set, and she was telling him she'd seen Pulp Fiction seven times. I think people my age were allowed to be children longer.

Metro: Finally, how did you come up with the title?

Stopkewich: We didn't have one right up to the time of finishing the movie. It was actually very tough choosing--and eventually, I decided I couldn't be the only one responsible for picking it. We eventually decided that some sort of the title should be, The Kiss, but that was too corny. And then I thought of the past tense: not the kiss of life but not the kiss of death either--really, the kiss of the past. That made it.

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