I initially connected with Sophy Romvari through Twitter about two years ago, after seeing her lyrical short film It’s Him. Since then, I have watched almost all of Sophy’s films and have been consistently fascinated by the ways that she hybridizes cinematic modes and genres. Her filmography exhibits strong visual aptitude and raises complex questions about the divisions between filmic truth and representation. Sophy and I have chatted sporadically, touching on everything from M. Night Shyamalan to documentaries to the connections between genre and trauma, and I am always curious to hear her ideas about cinema and the creative process. After recently watching In Dog Years, a moving reflection on death and the powerful connections between human and nonhuman animal friends, I reached out to Sophy asking if she would be interested in doing an interview about her work. The conversation below is transcribed from our e-mail exchanges.
Mike Thorn: I see all your films as narrative vehicles, but some are explicitly non-scripted or “documentary” (e.g. In Dog Years) while others seem to be scripted (e.g. Let Your Heart Be Light, Nine Behind, It’s Him). Pumpkin Movie and Norman Norman, by contrast, seem to fall somewhere in between the two modes. How does your process differ between scripted and non-scripted films? Or does it differ at all?
Sophy Romvari: Like most people, I spent the first couple years after film school experimenting with the types of films I wanted to make in school but wasn’t allowed to — this is certainly where Nine Behind came from. It was the first time I got to tell a story that was actually personal, but still had somewhat of a shield in casting an actor to play myself. The satisfaction I felt from this experience was tenfold compared to the films I had directed about middle-aged white men having some kind of crisis of identity. It’s Him was also a thinly veiled autobiographical film with another Sophy stand-in. Let Your Heart Be Light got even closer, but I flipped roles with my co-director/co-star, Deragh Campbell. She played me, and I played her as “the friend.” So I suppose when I break it down, I’ve slowly been moving to a more and more vulnerable and unshielded place with my filmmaking. This is essentially how I stumbled into becoming a “documentary” filmmaker. The process is not terribly different though. I find, with my more recent films, I have been trying to harness my ability to rely on my intuition, so — for that reason — these films come together rather quickly. There is a long incubation period, but a very short production period. This can also be attributed to my working relationship with Devan Scott, my DP who has shot all of my films (outside of Let Your Heart Be Light, which was shot by the wonderful Nikolay Michaylov). Devan and I have developed a lot of trust. He makes me feel like my vision as a director is supported and valid. I feel incredibly lucky.
MT: I love the way Norman Norman and In Dog Years subvert the human-centric “talking head” documentary format. I think the non-stagey way you center nonhuman characters subtly calls the audience to think about animals’ ways of being in the world. At the same time, both films emphasize familiar, human processes of anticipating loss (whereas a lot of drama typically centers around the aftermath of loss). Did you go into these two projects with the express purpose of reflecting on loss? Or did you maybe want to explore a broader question about the relationships between people and their nonhuman animal friends?
SR: It’s really interesting to me to retroactively see how themes have arisen in my filmography that I definitely didn’t actively plot out. It seems to me now, looking back, that all of my films have been about loss, either having occurred in the past or something imminent. It’s a broad theme, but I think something that I am constantly meditating on in my personal life. I think the idea you express about anticipating loss is very interesting, and really hits the nail on the head. For me, making Norman Norman was preventative — I knew I was heading into a difficult phase in my life with losing Norman sometime soon. I made this film in anticipation of losing him, and also to capture this complicated moment that comes in everyone’s life: knowing you are about to lose something and not being able to do a damn thing to stop it. I wanted to document it happening in real time, and communicate it through my own experience. I’m so glad that I did. In Dog Years was a way to share that hopefully healing experience with other people who I knew could relate to what I was going through. I think my ultimate goal with filmmaking is to make people feel a little less alone in experiences that nobody really likes to talk about. That’s a huge part of how cinema functions in my life, so I hope to be able to do the same for others in some small way.
MT: I see in all your films a persisting ambivalence about the role of technology in contemporary relationships, and you embed this ambivalence into your narratives in fascinating ways (I’m thinking about everything from Pumpkin Movie’s focal Skype conversation to Norman Norman’s bittersweet, Streisand-related YouTube rabbit holes). Do you consciously set out to foreground technology in your work? How do you feel about the role of contemporary technology in film narratives?
SR: This is another one of those retroactive theme discoveries that I only realized after making Pumpkin Movie! I have joked before that I could screen all my films in a program called “lonely girls on laptops.” Nine Behind opens with the main character eating noodles alone at a table, watching David Letterman. There is a lot of screen time in It’s Him: the character reviewing footage of her missing brother on her laptop in a dark room, or fixated on the photo on her phone. In Let Your Heart Be Light, she watches one of my favourite films of all time, Meet Me in St. Louis, alone on her laptop. I would say, to answer your question, that it is actually a subconscious choice, but one that I feel communicates this sense of loneliness that I don’t know how else to express. It’s a form of distraction when faced with anxiety, but also a desperate attempt to feel some kind of human connection, even if it’s just the sound of a stranger’s voice.
MT: I think your filmography presents a novel point-of-view, full of unique ideas and visual style. You mentioned that Meet Me in St. Louis is one of your favorite films — where do you get your inspiration? Are there any filmmakers you would cite as key influences? Do you take inspiration from other media?
SR: I 100% take inspiration from other media/filmmakers; anyone who says otherwise would be lying! Again, I think this is something that happens on a very subconscious level: you see a film that does something differently and you think “oh wow, you can do that??” And then you incorporate that idea/theme/methodology sometimes without even noticing. Those moments are the best! I’m finding recently those moments have been coming mostly from non-fiction or documentary films, but really, they can come from anywhere. A recent example would be Milla by Valérie Massadian. While watching this film, I came up with the idea for Pumpkin Movie — the two films have actually nothing in common, but while watching Milla, I was struck by the simple fact that so much of the “acting” was just Milla doing. Making a bed, cleaning up, counting change — it actually inspired me more as an actor than anything! So that’s when I came up with the idea that during Pumpkin Movie, I would be carving a pumpkin, while having a conversation. It simply inspired me to add something to do with my hands; the concept came afterwards. I was also incredibly inspired by Claire Simon’s Premières Solitudes — in my eyes it’s the perfect documentary. It documents, while sticking to clear formal choices. Its collaborative, it’s honest and earnest, it’s funny and it’s simple. It’s seeing films like this one that make me feel like we are only just beginning to understand the possibilities of cinematic language.
MT: What’s next for Sophy Romvari? What are you working on right now?
SR: I am currently wrapping up my master’s degree at York University — I shot my thesis film in November 2018 but had to set the footage aside for a little while. I needed some space. I will spend the next few months editing this piece, which I believe will be a mid-length film of a genre that I don’t care to define. Outside of that, I have a handful of short film ideas that I am eager to create, but most of all, I am beginning research and development on my first feature film, which I plan to shoot next year if all goes well. With school wrapping up, I’m spending a lot of time investing in my mental health and trying to be proactive about addressing some major pitfalls that I believe are holding me back as an artist. It has been a long-term goal of mine to turn my career toward community outreach via filmmaking as a means of trauma therapy, so as soon as I am feeling stable and have the means to do so, I have some plans on how to begin that journey.
Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, podcasts and anthologies, including Dark Moon Digest and The NoSleep Podcast, and his film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage and The Seventh Row. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.