Australian audiences first tasted the bittersweet world of Zach Clark’s White Reindeer on the genre festival circuit in 2013. The story of Suzanne, a recently widowed suburbanite who uncovers her dead husband’s hidden world and eventually her own renewed inner strength, has at its core a pitch-perfect performance by Anna Margaret Hollyman. The actress, adored in the indie sector after performances in Small Beautifully Moving Parts (2011) and Gayby (2012), is a revelation in Clark’s cult classic, which took out the Best Feature trophy at the Boston Underground festival. She spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about her friendship with the director, the inspirations that helped her understand Suzanne and the enduring, endearing legacy of the film…
I was fortunate to have met and interviewed Zach when he brought the film to the 2013 Revelations Film Festival in Perth.
I remember I wanted to go to that festival so badly! Zach was trying to get me there but I was shooting something at the time.
What immediately struck you about Suzanne when you first encountered her in early script drafts?
I responded to the quiet heroism in her that I really admired. I equate Suzanne to being my own personal superhero or avatar. She continues to persevere and push forward and put herself in uncomfortable situations in order to work through her mourning. She has a huge heart. She put herself into extreme situations with no judgement of others or herself and that’s admirable to me.
Zach has been very precise in interviews about the film that he wrote this as a break-up movie.
When Zach and I first sat down to talk about it, over tacos in Williamsburg (laughs), he just stated outright, ‘Essentially, this is a break-up movie.’ I do think that is a great way to describe it. I’ve never lost a loved one in the manner that Suzanne has to deal with but we’ve all gone through some kind of heartbreak in our life. Her arc is such a heightened kind of a break-up, because there are so many issues of betrayal and new definitions as to who this person was she was in love with. Recovery is a cyclical process and when someone has passed or murdered in (Suzanne’s husband) Jeff’s case, it seems more extreme but the experience is still a very universal one.
He has been very clear about Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama All That Heaven Allows being an inspiration for White Reindeer. The collection of DVDs he made you watch to prepare for the shoot has become a thing of legend.
Yes, his stack of DVDs is legendary at this point. I actually thought about them this morning and hoped I could remember all of them (laughs). Apart from All That Heaven Allows, which was so important to Zach and to the film, is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman* (pictured, left). It is three and a half hours long and is so meditative and quiet and very pervasive. There is such power in the rudimentary and the stillness of this human being. The repetition of this woman’s home life, juxtapositioned with the running of a prostitution ring from her apartment, is so impactful. The two extremes pull her and the audience in a really realistic and emotional way. Understanding how the counter-culture can exist with the mundane in a very symbiotic way was very helpful to me.
*Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Dir: Chantal Akerman, 1975; IMDb)
As dark as White Reindeer goes at times, a very positive Christmas message is part of the film’s resonating charm.
Well, Zach also made me rewatch Scrooged and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. At the heart of it, as I’m sure Zach told you, he really, truly does love Christmas, is very inspired by it. He has this childlike appreciation for it that he really feels and it was inspiring to come into contact with that as well.
You’ve mentioned words like ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet’ and ‘meditative’, all of which come through in your performance and Zach’s film. Suzanne’s journey often feels so painfully personal…
So much of what the film explores is a sense of ultimate aloneness, which is something that each of us experience in our own way. It is something that is not explored a lot on film but it is not necessarily a fun feeling, but one that is often particularly uncomfortable. The reason that many of us go to the movies in the first place is to escape that loneliness. And yet there is something relatable about watching a woman process being alone. It is something we all do every day, yet is something we never really talk about when we do interact. Nobody goes on a dinner date then confides that they spend all day alone and crying. The movie really takes the time to explore the externalizing of an individual’s internal self.