Animal hoarding to fill an existential void. It could have an experimental form of therapy if it didn’t border on animal abuse. Exploring themes of loneliness and addiction, the first feature film of Nova Scotian filmmaker Heather Young Murmur is a narrative film with the spine of a documentary. Having been convicted for a DUI, Donna (Shan MacDonald) divides her time between community work at an animal shelter and attempts to reconnect with her estranged daughter as well as her sobriety. Most of the time, however, she hangs around in her apartment, engulfed by the smoke of her own vape pen.
With a tight 4:3 frame and a static camera, Young lets animals and non-actors fill up the screen. Creating bare, unvarnished cinematography, the greyish and dull tones emphasize the harshness of the main character’s life. Combining the tenderness of cute rescue puppies and the sharp rawness of life’s struggles, Murmur paints the compassionate portrait of an older woman, flawed and broken, as she grapples to hold on.
Wrapped mid-August 2019, Murmur was selected for the Discovery section at TIFF where it received the FIPRESCI-Prize. With these accolades in tow, the debut feature went on a Canadian award-spree. In December, Slamdance announced it programmed the film on its 2020 lineup. Murmur is a solid start to a new decade of film.
IC: Murmur has been described as a hybrid between fiction and documentary. I think that’s how you described it yourself as well. Could you elaborate?
HY: I started working in a hybrid form between documentary and fiction in my shorts. I did three shorts in that style. Some leaned more towards documentary and some more to fiction. But they all have a bit of that same blend. That was working for me. I wanted to take the things that were working in my shorts and transfer it to the feature. It’s a big leap going from shorts to a longer piece. I wanted to give myself the best chance I had by remembering the things that were working for me previously. And not try to reinvent the wheel.
For Murmur, I do describe it as a hybrid. It’s probably leaning a bit more towards fiction than documentary. But there are documentary elements. None of the performers have ever acted before or ever been in a film before. A lot of them are just playing themselves and basically doing what they normally do as their profession. A vet playing a vet, a physiotherapist playing a physiotherapist, a counselor playing a counselor. With all the characters, even with the main character, the dialogue is unscripted. Nobody memorizes any lines. A lot of the performers didn’t even read the script. People are encouraged to use their own words and basically just be themselves in the film. We also shoot in live environments, not closed sets. The animal shelter, where we shot a lot of the film, was open to the public and had people working there, going about their daily routines. That brings in things that we weren’t expecting. You have to be able to adapt and react in the moment. We also recorded some scenes that were real events happening: the animal surgeries, the dog giving birth… You’re just recording something as it happens. We blend [these moments] with fiction in the sense that there was a script. I had a specific story.
IC: You constructed a story with documentary elements.
HY: Exactly. There’s a definite story in the film. It’s all about this one character and her struggle. That is always the focus. I feel the documentary elements bring a nice realism to the film.
IC: Just like the non-fiction elements, I found that some of your more formal approaches really feed into the story. For example, the camera lingering on the foam in the cleaning bucked or on the hands scratching and petting the fur of a dead animal. These are all moments where time slows down. I felt these emphasized the character’s addiction and loneliness. For an addict, time passes rather slowly.
HY: In addition to having the documentary elements, there’s also the pretty rigid formalism, which I enjoy. It’s definitely there to allow the audience to sit in certain moments of the film and really linger with certain moments and try to be contemplative. It’s an attempt to give the film a contemplative element. Ultimately, I’m hoping in those quieter moments that the audience has a chance to empathize with the character and with her struggle. To place themselves in her position or imagine themselves experiencing similar emotions. There are a lot of those contemplative moments that I hope allow the audience to take the time to empathize.
IC: Same with the absence of a soundtrack. I imagine the very minimal presence of music is motivated in a similar way?
HY: It’s interesting. We played around with having a score or having more music in the film. But it didn’t work for me. I decided to go without having any music except that one song that plays when she is dancing with Charlie, her dog. I think it’s a quiet film. Music just felt a bit overbearing. It felt like we were trying too hard or pushing the audience too much. I like when the audience has an active role in experiencing the story and an active role in how they are feeling and reacting to the character. I don’t want to bang anyone over the head with how they should feel or react to the film. In the end, we felt like the quiet moments were some of the strongest emotional beads of the film. The quietness was part of their power. So we decided to keep them quiet. [laughs]
IC: In preparing for the interview, I came across a Carl Jung quote: ‘The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.’ As I was digesting the film, it seemed a good subtext to Murmur. What do you think?
HY: That’s interesting. It makes me think about underrepresented characters and the ability of underrepresented groups to tell their own stories. I feel like older women are underrepresented in cinema. And generally undervalued in society. Telling a story where the main character, who’s in almost every scene, is an older woman was important to me. It’s unusual. One of the most overlooked groups in cinema is women over fifty. It was important to me to put a spotlight on a character like that. To really make her the focus of the entire piece and, hopefully, have the audience experience her story with her. Again, I think that’s rare. The average moviegoer finding himself empathizing with a woman in her sixties, or fully engaging in such a story, is unusual.
IC: It’s commendable and courageous to have chosen to do just that. Especially with the aesthetic choices you’ve made, I imagine there were difficulties or obstacles in portraying her with all her flaws without giving in to a certain miserabilism.
HY: I was certainly warned about miserabilism before making this film. When people read the script, they thought: ‘Oh, this is going to be a big downer.’ Miserabilism isn’t something I aspire to. I think things are always more complicated than that. One of the reactions that I have been getting, is that the film is sad but also funny. That pleased me. There are some funny parts and it’s good to have people appreciating that. It is sad but there’s also hope. It varies so the story isn’t just a downer throughout the entire film. I think that is just more realistic. In life, even when you’re struggling or going through difficult moments, there are always lighter moments, surprising moments, funny moments. I wanted to make the film real in that way too. It’s not just one beat. It’s not just one tone. There are moments of levity throughout the whole film.
IC: And there are dogs.
HY: And there are a lot of dogs! [laughs] The animals are great actors. They definitely bring surprises and some humor to it.
IC: People in the audience laugh each time there’s a dog on screen. Was this intentional? Were the animals a way to avoid the negativity?
HY: I’m always looking for moments of humor, even though my films could be considered quite dark. [laughs] A great way to find those moments is with animals. Because they do things that you just wouldn’t have come up with on your own. They do things that are unpredictable, they’re so … They are not self-conscious. They are who they are. They put it all out there on display. Everybody loves cat videos for a reason. Animals are funny. That is definitely something that my producer [Martha Cooley] and I talked about. With the script being kind of depressing, we’d say: “Well, at least we’ve got kittens”. And it really does serve the purpose of lightening the mood. It also shows why the character is drawn to the creatures: they brighten your day. They do bring levity to your experience. It fits into that. Showing that she is trying her own darkness through her relationship with these animals that can lighten up a room.
IC: The feature was inspired by the short you made in 2014, Howard and Jean, which was about your mother. Was everything in Murmur derived from the short?
HY: It wasn’t a straight trajectory. I made two shorts in between. With Howard and Jean, I tried to make a film by myself. I was trying to not pay attention to what the film was going to do. Who was going to see it and where it was going to play. I just wanted to make something for me. To get back to why I was making films in the first place, I just made this little film with my mother. It was about her relationship with her elderly Chihuahua. It was a doc-fiction hybrid about an older woman really relying on this relationship with her dog and not having anyone else to turn to. I thought: What is the most extreme outcome of this story? Where could this story go? What would be its most extreme ending? That’s when I got the idea for the scenario of animal hoarding. A futile attempt to fill the void in her life. But it’s not working. She has to keep trying and keep trying. And getting more and more animals. It all started with that short, for sure.
IC: I’m asking about the origin of the idea because I found myself very comfortably adding a political layer onto the film. Was there a political dimension to the film for you?
HY: I don’t know if I would say ‘political’. Certainly, the aspect of representation is something that I thought about a lot. I’m getting really tired of looking at beautiful women. [laughs] I don’t know if that is necessarily political. But I’m getting really bored with looking at beautiful women. It seems like only beautiful women are allowed to be in films. I find that very boring and frustrating. I want to make a film about the people I encounter in real life. People that feel real to me. Those are the people that interest me. In terms of representation, I wanted to have a main character that didn’t fit all the beauty standards that we are used to seeing in cinema. People who look real are an underrepresented group. People who look like you could know them in real life, as opposed to someone who belongs in Hollywood. That was part of the process. And that’s what I want to continue doing: telling stories about women I feel I could know in real life.
IC: I do feel that this idea is translated into the filmmaking choices you’ve made. For example, Donna is often the only character on the screen. Her opponents, the other characters, are often outside of the frame. She carries the whole thing. Giving the whole frame to that one person also helps alleviate the negativity we’ve talked about. It gives her presence strength and pride. She fills the screen, the film and two whole hours of the audience’s time.
HY: Definitely. I wanted to give it all to her. I wanted to give the whole thing to her. I think we did. That was part of the reason we choose to shoot in 4:3, the smaller aspect ratio. Because it’s like a portrait frame. You can frame someone’s face with that. I wanted to fill the screen with her.
You mentioned not seeing the secondary characters. They are authority figures. Having them off-screen was another way of giving more to her. I really wanted the audience to focus on her experience. Her reactions to what other people are saying are more important to me than looking at them while they’re talking. I wanted to see what her reaction was as opposed to watching other people talking at her.
IC: Especially if those other people are figures of authority.
HY: Exactly. They’re usually instructing her on what she should be doing in her life. I wanted to focus on her experience of hearing that and her reaction to losing control of her life in that way. That’s why we choose to have it on her face instead of the other characters.
IC: To conclude, an obligatory question. What is next for you and will it be in the same vibe of your previous work?
HY: I haven’t decided exactly what I’m doing next. I have a few ideas that I’m working on. But I’m not sure which one is going to take hold. I am interested in working in a similar way in the future. We had a really small crew and I like working like that. With people that I know and that I am friends with. I’m planning on working with the same producer, Martha, again. That was a really good experience. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be but I’m definitely focused on having female characters as my leads. It’s important to me to tell more stories with women as the lead characters. Because growing up that just wasn’t the case. Watching movies as a teenager, it was always [about] the male protagonist. It was a very rare thing to have a woman in a lead role, telling a woman’s story. Of course, things are changing and that’s happening a lot now. But I think there’s still a lot to be done.
Watch Heather Young’s previous work:
This interview was conducted during the Vancouver International Film Festival in September 2019 and has been edited for clarity.