Ness Simons you a screenwriter and filmmaker from Wellington, New Zealand. You created and directed a 'Pot Luck', a New Zealand’s first lesbian web series which won several nominations and got several awards. The series, six-part 'dramedy' about three 30- and 40-something lesbian friends follows Debs (Nikki Si'ulepa), Mel (Anji Kreft) and Beth (Tess Jamieson - Karaha) as the three friends negotiate friendship, family and finding love at their weekly pot luck dinners. You wrote that inspiration for the series came from the many pot luck dinners you were to over the years, and the scores of characters and stories came from such an occasion, can you elaborate that? I came out when I was really young and over a couple of decades I've shared so many different experiences with lesbians and women who love women, including a bunch of pot luck dinners! Whether it was with a group of close friends or a broader community event, getting together and sharing food is such a strong connector and always good for the soul. I've seen the whole range of emotions at these dinners, and all types of people, so it felt like a natural setting to bring a bunch of characters together.
You also said that each character in the web series is part of your character too, in which way? So much of my writing is reflective of my world and my experiences and I find myself peppering these through my work. The characters are not exactly me but we share some traits, or outlooks, or maybe we respond to things in the same way, so there's little bits of me in each of them, but there's probably also little bits of my family, or friends, or people I've met in each of them too. One of the fun parts of developing the characters further with the actors is to explore where the characters thoughts and feelings come from... it can be enlightening!
I believe that Pot Luck is not only universal, it is also quite unique in the way that brings attention to lesbians and universal topics through food which is in every culture connected with values, such as family, love, friendship, parents, special occasions, new beginnings, etc. and in this sense it reminds me a bit of a lesbian movie Nina's Heavenly Delights which also revolves around food while combating prejudices towards and acceptance of homosexuality. However, Pot Luck is beyond that, and goes further by presenting everyday lives of lesbians which is beyond struggle of acceptance although we partly see that through Beth's story and really tries to show everyday lives of women which happen to be lesbians. Currently there are two seasons with Mel and Beth found love, Mel acquiring self-respect and self-confidence and Deb accepting Beth having a new partner, are you planning the third season and if yes, what we can expect to come for your characters, Deb, Mel and Beth? The 'everyday lives' exploration has been a huge part of the vision for me as I think historically there's been a real lack of authentic positive representations of lesbians and queer women on screen. I wanted to address this in a way that was fun and had heart, yes these characters are flawed and their lives are chaotic, but they're all just trying to do their best to be good people. We have thought a lot about a third season, there's certainly a lot of interest in it, but unfortunately challenges with funding and time mean it's unlikely to happen. There may not be more 'Pot Luck' but there are certainly other projects in the pipeline and I hope to give the audience more diverse characters and storylines in the future.
How much would you like 'educate' the audience also regarding self-acceptance and self-respect through the story of Mel and Beth? We see both struggling, one through self-image and other through coming out to her mother in the first season which they finally resolve in the second season, thus third season would be really appropriate to see how they fully live their lives. I always set out to allow an audience to meet these characters and to discover that there's probably heaps they have in common, rather than obviously 'educate'. One of the things I've found really interesting is how often I've heard from heterosexual guys who really connect with Debs character and her sense of fear and feelings of not fitting in, they were so surpirsed to see themselves in her and in the most gentle way it has helped to change their views of what a butch woman is. Yes, there are so many possibilities for another season and the stories that might come through for these characters. It's been so rewarding to see how much the audience has engaged with each of them, and how invested they are in their lives, I wish I could continue into another season to explore all this on screen!
You have full-time job as head tutor at the New Zealand Film & Television School in Wellington. And before you were a business owner, working in the pizza chain’s original Kelburn store, then opened one franchise and bought another, selling up six years later to do the one-year course at film school. What made you change a career, was being a scriptwriter and director something you long wished for? I had always been interested in writing and first studied writing when I was 20, but then got caught up in work and business and went down a different path for a few years. When I sold my business I realised that I wanted to act on my passion and so off I went to Film School to find out what it was all about. I've been working in the industry ever since.
Do you teach your students the importance of a proper representation of the LGBTI characters and do you think it matters that writing and directing about LGBTI characters comes from members of our community? I am a huge advocate for diversity on screen across the board, it's time to change the historically narrow representations of anyone who sits outside the 'mainstream'. Part of this is how I approach my own work, and also how I have conversations with students and other filmmakers about diversity and inclusion, representation, and the power we have as storytellers to impact the beliefs and understanding of individuals and society. For me inclusion is a massive part of this equasion - I don't necessarily think that all LGBTI+ characters have to be written from members of our community, but I think community voices should be included in the conversation through feedback on scripts, or co-writing, or directors and actors doing their research in order to position themselves to create strong representations rather than re-creating damaging stereotypes. It's not possible for any one writer or director or actor to be all things they may be representing on screen, but it is possible for them to do the work to become informed and aware of what they are putting out into the world. I personally value the authenticity of telling stories from within the community by including diverse voices on both sides of the camera and make this a big part of the kaupapa of my work.
Do you think that lesbian roles should be played by lesbian actresses? Yesterday I read this quote regarding the film Ammonite with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan having a lesbian romance. Film is based on Mary Anning's life story and a member of Anning's family, Barbara Anning, said: "I believe if Mary Anning was gay she should be portrayed as gay and this should also be by a gay actress'. I was pleasantly surprised that people start seeing the importance of sexual orientation of the actresses while playing a certain character. As a filmmaker exploring diverse characters I am all too aware of the catch-22 for a lot of LGBTQI+ actors - they are often forced to hide their sexuality in order to fit the mainstream roles, or if they do look 'too different' there are so few roles it's not possible for them to remain viable and stay in the industry. I think that wherever possible the opportunity for LGBTQI+ actors to portray characters that reflect their identity is a powerful thing. I also think that all actors should be able to work and research and explore the humanity and emotion in their characters in order to bring a strong and authentic portrayal to the screen.
Do you think film art should be progressive and portray certain values and attitudes (i.e. portraying more inclusive, diverse, equal, free, democratic relationships and world in which people's origin, colour, status, beliefs don't matter much)? I think screen art can both reflect the world as it is and has been, and show what the world could be too. There are films that have changed the world and brought attention to issues or topics, and there are also those that have done damage by reinforcing crappy representations or negative stereotypes. Each storyteller has to choose which pile they want their work to sit on, but I know for myself I want to create characters and stories that help people understand more about themselves and those around them.
Aistė Diržiūtė you are best known for the role of Austė in The Summer of Sangaile (Lithuanian: Sangailė or Sangailės Vasara) by Alanté Kavaïté for which you became the first Lithuanian actress named as one of the European Shooting Stars, alongside actors such as Maisie Williams and Moe Dunford at Berlin Film Festival in 2015. You also won the award for Best Lithuanian Actress at the Vilnius International Film Festival and was nominated for both Sidabrinė gervė and KINFO awards. How that made you feel and what attracted you to the role of Austė?
It wasn’t my awards, it was our awards. Without director, crew and of course Julija, I couldn’t have done anything. Maybe because from the very beginning we were all focused on the idea and how to spread it, we didn’t think about a journey the film could have, so everything what came after was a big and pleasant surprise. Though my most important award is people who decided to come out, to change their lives, find and accept themselves after watching The Summer of Sangaile.
When I was invited for the first audition for Auste, I was so impressed by the amount of similarities I have with her as a character. My mother is a sewer, so I knew how to sew, favourite Auste’s song was my entry’s exam to the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre song etc. On the second round I’ve met with Julija, who is actually my very very very old and dear friend. We know each other since we were 13 years old, we were very close friends and when we reached 16-17 we just stopped talking, nothing happened, just our lives have changed, and we’ve met in audition room after not seeing each other for around 3 years. This part was crazy and it was more or less clear that a destiny brought us there to make that film together. After a film we became inseparable. Being more particular about Auste, I was really impressed by that kind of a character, positive and happy lesbian character, who knows herself, who is confident and who is accepted by her family (mother). Usually LGBT characters are shown in more melancholic way and I think we need to show more positive stories to inspire the ones who are still fighting with their sexuality to accept themselves and enjoy the love.
Can you tell us where your inspiration, knowledge, perhaps even experiences came from for playing Austė? For sure there was a good guidance by the director Kavaïté, however the way you portrayed the role it depended solely on you.
Me, Julija and Alante (director) became friends, we were spending a lot of time together, talking a lot and just enjoying our time together even before shootings. That helped us a lot during all the process, we were friends who built a world together and lived in it for some months. As it was my first ever role in a film, I was following Alante and absorbing every word of her. Though all of her guidance worked with everything what I’ve had in mind about Auste. First of all I’ve found an animal of her which is fox. Auste is cute and charming fox and sometimes a Teddy Bear, when you really need it. I am a ‘giver’ one by myself, so just needed to work on that part of mine even more and be very open, loving and sincere. For the lesbian sex part of the character, I watched The L World and talked a loooot with my lesbian friends, because we wanted to make it as real and beautiful as possible. To get the flow for the character I watched many films from 40s, 50s and 60s and listened a lot of music from that time. And I was madly in love at that time, that probably helped too : ))
Do you think that sexual orientation of the actresses and/or director matter in making a lesbian film? I know acting is acting and good acting shouldn't influence the performance of which ever form of love portrays, however do you think that a certain experience adds to the quality of the role portrayed? Do you think film art should be progressive and portray certain values and attitudes (i.e. portraying more diverse, inclusive, equal, free, democratic relationships and world)?
I don’t think that sexual orientation or gender matters. I do believe that everyone of us is bisexual, some more into heterosexual part, some more into homosexual part, some equally in love in both genders. I don’t think that I would play a lesbian character better if I would have had more experience with girls, after all, love is what matters. It would be worse if I would have never been in love before the shooting.
I think film or in general art shouldn’t portray certain values or attitudes just because it’s progressive or trendy now, you should want to talk about it and care a lot about that matter. However nowadays I see another a bit dangerous thing when many people try to talk about it just because it’s “not good not to talk about it” without really caring, believing and changing the world.
I read that after playing Austė you, your co-star Julija Steponaitytė (who played Sangailė) and director Kavaïté got many love letters, how that made you feel?
Surprised and inspired! I could have never imagine how many people from all over the world would be inspired by the film and get connected with characters and the story. The most amazing thing is that even though the film was released in 2015, we still get so many beautiful letters from people who got inspired by The Summer of Sangaile! People’s love is the greatest award.
In 2016 you stared in Kings' Shift directed by Ignas Miškinis and the short film Back directed by Gabrielė Urbonaitė. Both films premiered at the Vilnius International Film Festival. Can you tell us about those roles and alongside the role in The Pagan King (2018)?
Julija, Alina and Lauga. All of them are very different. Julija in Kings’ Shift is typical up and coming millenial, who doesn’t care much about anything but fun and easy life. She works at the private hospital as a nurse, just because her grandpa was an important doctor etc. That kind of a person, who is not bad by herself, she just grew up in particular circumstances. She has everything, but in fact doesn’t have anything. She is lost and she doesn’t even understand that. Alina in Back was more or less a small and joyful cameo in my friend and really good director Gabriele Urbonaite film. Lauga in The Pagan King is my first ever lead female role in English were I worked with such an amazing actors like Edvin Endre and James Bloor. Lauga is a pagan girl who became queen and managed to remain that wild spirit. I had to learn how to throw knives, fight with swords, ride a horse, hold grass snakes in my hands, get well super fast with dogs and of course how to love and trust without any doubt. Julija, Alina and Lauga were such a pleasure and joy to live in!
You played Marina Malich in Kharms by Ivan Bolotnikov (2017). How come you decided for that role and you played Joana in Ashes in the Snow (so called Baltic Schindler's List, 2018) based on the best-selling book Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Both films are about the times of the Soviet Union.
Marina came to me out of the blue. Casting director just wrote me on Facebook and asked if I can speak in Russian, I said “no, but I can learn” and that’s how it all started. Beautiful journey of Marina, from shootings in Saint Petersburg to the premiere in Shanghai IFF. One friend was helping me with a language, another friend was translating a small book of Marina memoirs from Russian to Lithuanian and all people around were just supporting me a lot. I fell in love with her from the first sentences, such a character! Such a story! Filmmakers should make a film based on her life, seriously! I would always remember my days off and shooting days in Saint Petersburg, walking around city, museums and exploring everything through Marina’s eyes.
Ashes in the Snow is a very special film for me too. It all started with readings of script some years before shootings and ended up with a beautiful story based on a great book. Joana is that sparkle of joy and happiness in a scary, sad and tough world in Siberia that reminds you about the bright days before the war.
What is your biggest inspiration (film or not film career wise) and what are your plans for the future projects? I watched an interview where you mention actresses like Merly Streep, Irene Jacob, Tilda Swinton and Ingrid Bergman as your biggest inspiration.
Love. In all possible and impossible ways and senses, love is my biggest inspiration. Love for people, world, life and amor. Actors, books, films, art, fights for good, it all melts in the power of love.
I’m very superstitious and never talk about the future, because I know very well from my own experience, if I say something, that usually doesn’t happen or happens in a bit different way. So let’s say, we’ll see.