Jenna Mattison on Her Directorial Debut The Sound, and Being A Headstrong Filmmaker

Jenna Mattison

By Niy Birden

In Jenna Mattison’s directorial debut for “The Sound”, we experience Rose McGowan as Kelly, a completely in-for-it-all ghost buster who finds herself uncovering secrets of the death of a suicide victim in a subway station. Through social media and thoughtful, star-studded interactions both living and dead, we get to see the emotional breakthrough for a character based in survival and deep emotional and mental pain. But the character of Jenna Mattison I’ve found, is a far more interesting character, and like Kelly, has many sides.

Q: The film seems like an antithesis of your acting work- Is this by design?
J: You know, I had an injury about 10 years ago, and went through subsequent surgeries over 5 to 6 years and that essentially ended my acting career. And during that time period, I went deaf on one side…it was insane. And when something that intense happens to you, it changes your perspective a lot. And it kind of makes you a more soulful person, may be in ways darker? [laughs] So when I wrote the sound, it was definitely different than my previous writing because it was a very different experience for me. And within that, my writing as a filmmaker changed.

Q: Did you put a lot of your experience in the film, or find yourself seeing some similarities in there?

J: I wouldn’t say that, but definitely the importance of sound, you know, for someone who has had their hearing damaged. And you much, how we hear. And how we see the world, because it also changes because it gets heightened. You just realize how important it is. And so I got really interested in sound, and then this sort of you know, came out of that.

Q: How do you compare the creative process of doing a darker plot vs softer characters? Which inspire you more?

The Sound

J: I’m into all sorts of different things, so I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m really one or the other, but I do really enjoy sort of getting into characters and people that are a bit broken, that their lives (past) have shadowed their view of the world and kind of made them a bit darker, so yeah I guess in that, that is a reflection of the person I’ve grown to become since my injury and, you know…the [sarcastic]“nightmare that happened to me” [laughs].

We then started talking about how her injury was an empowering one, especially since women are really held into looking a certain way on screen.

J: I have to be honest, I never felt pretty enough to be acting. You know that little pixie- blonde look that so many actresses have, that’s not really me. I have to say, the decision was made for me because of my injury, but looking back I don’t miss acting at all, I don’t know that it was necessarily my thing. I think writing and the filmmaking part was always what I was gravitating towards.

Q: So you are more of the voice behind the story on screen ,rather than the face?

J: I think so and I think it..I’m really bossy [laughs]. And so I’m very opinionated, so I think its very difficult for an actor, unless you are a huge star. And that does not happen overnight. And I think thats whats didn’t appealing to me, [about acting]- sort of being.. But I don’t want to sound disrespectful, because actors are essentially one of the most important parts of the film or tv show, but…There is an element of people controlling you all the time, which is very frustrating in your career.
…I actually just wrote an article for Movie Maker, and its kind of about how women are supposed to be “sugar, spice, and everything nice”, like, glittery and makeup-y, and at some point, you kind of just look at that and go “This is exhausting! Who am I trying to prove anything to?This is silly!” And you start to approach life differently and your life priorities get different than pushup bras and fake eyelashes, and I love that. I love that that’s sort of becoming a wave in our culture.

Q: Did you ever feel alone, especially since you are in this type of genre, did you ever feel maybe you wanted to get more female input or advice, but couldn’t find it?

J: Umm-no! No, I wouldn’t say that but um, I tend to write strong female characters, and I think that that sort of brings to the table innately what its supposed to,so I don’t necessarily need to audition for anyone, it just kind of is what it is, and these are the characters I’m writing. And everybody likes it! [laughs] I had a couple of my male producers say like, “She doesn’t smile enough, she isn’t sweet”, and I’m like that’s exactly the point! You will never say that about a man.

Q: Is there anyone who definitely inspired you to get into filming?

J:Um, you know honestly no [laughs], I wrote my first movie totally on a whim because I was going through a really shitty breakup and life just seemed really, really bad at that time with everything. With my career, relationships, all that stuff. And I started writing a screenplay, just for fun, called “Fish Without a Bicycle-“ like man a man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle. And I wrote it and I cried a lot, and I wrote in the nude and drank a lot of wine (laughs)- and I wasn’t working at the time. But, afterwards I gave it to this agent, and I was like hey I wrote this little screenplay, do you wanna read it and see if it sucks? And he read it and he’s like “Hey this is really good. This is funny and clever”…so randomly, the money sort of dropped in my lap, and next thing I know I’m making this movie, next thing I know it’s showing in Cannes, next thing I know it’s premiering at the Beverly center, it’s this little tiny film that got bought, and the rest just happened, its history I guess.

Q: Wow. So you really are a self-starter, just like the character in the film, she kind of just goes, without any real direction or input

J: Yeah, I mean I’ve never really been one for rules, or people telling me it can’t be done. I think my whole life, everything I’ve ever chosen to do…people have told me it can’t be done. I had the mindset that if somebody’s doing it, then why can’t I do it? And I just don’t even consider not doing it, or filming not being an option. And that might be almost stupidity [laughs]in its blind face, but I think we have to have that, on some level, some sort of blind faith in ourselves and blind faith in what we believe in to be able to succeed in a business like this.

Q: I wonder, is there an underlying commentary on the way that social media users tend to downplay certain things? I notice the character and her followers are very consistent with sharing all the discoveries or debunking them in the start of the film. But I noticed that no one ever asked her if she was ok.

J: You know, honestly, it wasn’t [laughs], but I felt like really it was a storytelling tool to use social media, in that you have a woman, by herself, in a subway station for an hour and a half-so what do you do with that? How do you tell her thoughts cleverly? So, thats really what it stems from. But I’m sure theres tons of social media commentary that can be made [laughs].

… I thought about voice over, but I realized “Oh my gosh, the whole movie’s gonna be voiced-over”, thats ridiculous, you know? So I came up with this idea and this tool, and I thought, she’s already a blogger, we might as well use that. And I don’t really know which came first but it was just something that came about and it felt right.

Q: I’ve noticed most horror films tend to have quicker cuts and edits than others, but in psychological films tend to really emphasize on a one take kind of shot. Would it be fair to say that this tip toes on a psychological thriller and that you were trying to be a bit anti-cliche with the shots?

J: Oh I think this movie is straight-up psychological thriller. I think there are horror elements to it, but I would say that it’s definitely much more of a psych film. Which, obviously you can tell, there’s no cheap thrills, blood, gore, and that makes some people mad, frankly. Some horror watchers don’t like that. Because its a slow-burn film. It’s not going to be for the people that want to go see “Saw”. I think it takes a certain kind of viewer with a certain level of intelligence, frankly, to get it and understand it and follow the story and stay with us.

Q: This is a heavily star-studded cast. When it came down to casting, did you play any role in it?

J: I actually was the only person who cast the film. I did not get a casting director. And the reason for that- and I have really close casting director films, and I really value what they do, but for a cast this small, there was no margin for error, there was no room for someone to be on set that wasn’t just absolutely fantastic, and so I handpicked every single person in the movie, down to the tiniest role. Because, what ends up happening is that you have to locally hire in Canada, just like in Louisiana. Unfortunately, not everyone can be as experienced as actors in L.A. who have been doing it for a really long time. And so even though I may be hiring someone inexperienced, there’s a difference between sort of a raw, innate ability that you can recognize..for example, the boy in the subway, the young guy. I auditioned a lot of young guys before I ended up with him. I wanted someone with a quality. And I think that may have been his first thing.

Q: So what quality do you mean specifically, because I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him-not just because he was cute and tall, but because I also noticed he seemed to have a little bit of a quiet humor. But in the sense that he seemed like he was humoring her?

J: Yes, he was really cute! And yes, he was humoring her, he was mocking her in a way. I wanted someone who understood the subtlety. I didn’t want actors who were pushing being too presentational. And so I knew exactly what I was looking for. And so if they were doing too much, I would give them direction. And if they weren’t abele to handle that adjustment, I knew it wasn’t gonna work. I actually, sadly we had to fire the little boy who was supposed to fire him after his fitting because he was so rambunctious! [laughs] It never would’ve worked. I was like “Oh my god, I’m firing a 4 year old!” I felt so terrible. But you gotta do what’s right for the film….Sometimes as a filmmaker you have to make the hard call.

Q: Rose is awesome in this film. Her character has a certain quiet strength that I don’t think many people would probably catch immediately because they’re so caught off-guard with her being a girl that just wants to prove this wrong. Were you trying to take any admirable elements of Rose’s acting techniques and apply it to there?

J: Very much, in fact I probably stifled her a little bit (laughs). I know I did (laughs) because I really wanted it to be internal, I really wanted it to kind of come out in trickles and breadcrumbs, so that the audience could it slowly the change that really connects to her human side and her emotional side.
…I love her performance, I’m thrilled at all of the performances in the film, it’s pretty awesome to walk away and feel that way as a filmmaker.

Q: Did any of your actors ever give any input on how the characters should function? Any commentary or anything like that?

J: Honestly, not really. They all were…oddly enough, they all sort of- once I explained to them what I was going for-the subtlety, the slow-burns, these are all pros, so they all got it really fast. So yeah.

Q: There seems to be a certain amount of affection between Kelly and her husband rather than her mom and her. Is that an inclination of Kelly searching for a certain type of protection that she didn’t receive as a cild?

J: Well, yes, she feels like her mother betrayed Emily. And so she created this entity. In her mind, she thinks her mother abandoned her and did not protect her, didn’t protect Emily, when in the end, her mother saved her.

Q: Tell me about the score. There are so many ways you could have gone with it, but the sound effects and the music are very easy and not too harsh. In this case, did you feel that you definitely wanted the focus to be on the acting or script more?

J: The score was everything!

Q: It was!

J: I’ll tell you, that poor man. That poor, poor man [laughs]. He is like super, super classically trained, he trained with Hans Zimmer, and he came with this big, full score, and I was like-strip it all away. And literally, we, like 10 or 15 times, for the first opening scene, and I was like “Strip it away, strip it away, strip it away.” He stuck with me, and he had the patience of a saint. And I finally said to him- I said “Aaron, give me four or five naked piano keys. That’s it. That’s all I want.” And his head just exploded. He was like “What?!” [laughs] And he said “I hope I can give you what you want-I do-I’m not sure” And he went away, and he just, he just was such a trooper, and then when he got it, I was like “Oh my god, I have chills-like, you got it on a level”.

…The sounds aren’t pushy, shove-y, and you know, I wanted to make sure what existed was that the subtlety of that and not shoving the audience-you know like in a lot of sound effects? You’re supposed to be scared here, and its just [imitates cat screeching] all the stuff. And I kind of went through the same thing with the FX people, I was like I don’t want any of that, just take all of that out [laughs]. And they were like “But its a horror film!” and I was like “Not really, but kind of, but no I don’t want any of that.” And if you notice, there is not a single scream in the film.

Q: By the end of the film, Kelly became a believer of the supernatural, followed by a narration in a sense. Can you tell me how that came about? Your motivation? Does the supernatural personally scare you?

J: Well, I think it’s how dare we be so arrogant, as to think there’s nothing else out there-as people and as this tiny little dot on the planet, tiny little planet in the universe. So that’s sort of where that came from, as she experienced everything, as the story unfolded, as she became a more whole human being, she understood “Hey, there’s something out there, and its bigger than us”, and there’s souls out there; there’s a universe out there. There’s all sorts of things. And thats what I wanted to leave the audience with-we are not alone, and as big as we should feel, we are also small in that there is a lot that we don’t know about, that we shouldn’t discount, and be cynical, to immediately think that everything is false and fake.”

Q: So as a director, is there anything specific you are trying to in your career, are you trying to tap into something that you have been looking for for a while?

J: No. Right now I’m in development on a couple television series that I’ve written. I really enjoy writing, I really enjoy creating worlds of characters and I really enjoy continuing those characters on. So in a perfect world in a year from now I’ll be shooting one of my own series, directing a bunch of episodes and writing a bunch of episodes. That’s sort of where I see my path now going. I’ve been in independent film now for-good golly- 15 years, and even though this is my first directing gig I’ve written several films and I’ve produced several films. So its like at some point the independent filmmaking, you know- its really sort of a bearer . You’re carrying that film literally on your back for two years. So I started going down the path of television..they’re really pushing the envelope right now in television, so I’m really excited about that medium.