Mayday, a dreamlike fantasy about a woman who wakes up on a mysterious shore where she encounters a group of female warriors engaged in a seemingly endless war, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is the feature debut of director Karen Cinorre, and stars Grace van Patten, Mia Goth, and Juliette Lewis. We sat down with Cinorre to discuss sirens, World War II, letting women take on action roles, and much more.
I’m always curious with first time directors, especially women directors, what was the process like for you of putting this together and actually getting this movie made?
Okay, so it took a long time to get the movie made, I don’t think that’s unusual for any first timer — money is required, and unless you just are very lucky, it takes some time to get it together. This film has been kicking around for a while, and I even had a man — a producer who was otherwise pretty great — tell me that I didn’t deserve to make this movie, and that his friends worked much harder than I did. Because he knew that I had an investor who had read the script and was willing to back me, and he said that to me just in a van on a scout in front of colleagues.
And it was astonishing. It really, really was. So there definitely are hurdles, and sometimes you don’t hear them out loud and sometimes you do! It can be challenging to have someone respect you as a woman, as someone who can lead, and I don’t think people generally think of women as visionaries. Not to say I am one, but that’s typically how people see the great male directors, and I don’t know, women just aren’t referred to that way, and people have a hard time making the leap, and so it was challenging. But I found my producers, I found wonderful producing planners, and I took a lot of the producing on myself because I thought, “Well, no one else is gonna do it, I’m just gonna do it!”
Which created a lot more work, but it gave me more freedom, and that’s it. I ended up in Croatia shooting, and luckily, the people there do not have any kind of trouble with a woman leader and they’re quite evolved, and they were so supportive and wonderful, and that’s how we did it.
That was another question I was going ask you, because I’ve seen that a lot of female directors tend to either be producing or writing the film as well, and I was thinking about that. How much of that is do you think is related to gatekeeping, and feeling like you kind of have to tell the story yourself?
Yeah, I don’t think that there are enough good parts for women, so of course, you’re going to want to write them. And yeah, the characters aren’t very innovative or complicated or well-rounded or exciting, there’s always something, and it can be discouraging, or there are cliches. So writing, I highly recommend it. Writing what you want to see, what you want to hear, what you imagine the world is like is really important for all different kinds of people. And producing, I feel the same way about.
So I guess thinking about that, if you could give any woman out there who wants to make their first film, what would one piece of advice, either philosophical or practical, be for them?
I would say…well, I would have a lot of advice. But I would say, don’t let anyone tell you or try to convince you what your work should look or sound like. It’s not a bad thing if it’s different, it’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing, and you can get tangled up in the opinions of other people and stop yourself from making something really unique.
When I was watching this, I found myself thinking about, I don’t know, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys or Narnia or the Sirens, and things like that. So I was wondering what influences you did have and what tied into that?
Definitely the myth of the sirens was a big one for me. My growing up, my coming of age was shaped a lot by what a huge impression mythology had on me, and Greek playwrights… that’s the first time I encountered incredible women characters who were unapologetic and powerful and fascinating. Who did incredible things. And so those kinds of myths always stayed with me, and when creating a world full of powerful women, the siren myth was a big influence.
What do you think about this sort of burgeoning movement of feminist genre filmmaking, and how do you think Mayday fits into that kind of larger context?
I don’t know. That is my honest answer. I know what you’re talking about, and I see this work, and I see what people are saying about it. To me, it’s just more work by more different kinds of people, fresh viewpoints, fresh perspectives, unexpected things, it’s exciting. And to me, the word feminism is not controversial, it just means equal. Equal rights! So it shouldn’t even be a word, it should be given that we’re hearing and seeing things from women, and I’m encouraged that we are. I don’t know how it fits, because I never think of it as that, but others can decide how they feel about it.
So thinking about your characters, your cast of women warriors, what were you looking for when you were doing the casting for that? What were you trying to find and how did that casting process go?
At first, I was really just looking for people who felt natural using the kind of language that I write and wrote for these girls, which is a little bit atypical, and I wanted them to sound like they inhabited that language very well. But what it turned out to be was really a startling experience where the actor sort of leapt out at me, because they felt such a strong connection to the characters. And each one had a strong connection to a particular character, it was really intense. They seemed to find me, I didn’t feel like I found them. It was like we all found the work together, so that was surprising and exciting to have these women relate so passionately to the women I created. When someone has that kind of incredible response, I took them very seriously and made the choices based on that, which is not what I expected it would be like, but it felt right for this project.
I think you can definitely feel that when you see them, that they have that connection to each of their individual characters. I thought Mia Goth has such an interesting contrast, where she seems almost fragile, and then it goes in complete contrast with her character.
Yeah, she really, really was exquisite in the movie. Being able to inhabit an entire universe of kinds of people, there’s like a spectrum and myriad of ways that she can be, she’s just extraordinary. It was a delight to see the character come to life.
Did you do anything special when you were working with the women to kind of help them develop a rapport with each other in our relationship, so they feel like they had been together, isolated for a long time?
We spoke about our personal experiences, we did a table reading, which went really beautifully, and then we spoke about the work we made that we felt proud of, or just our own experiences in life. And why the story meant something to us, so that was a real bonding experience. We got to learn each other a bit, and then we got to do gun training together! And go jump off a cliff together and learn stunts. So that was also incredibly fun and satisfying to get to do the action things that are usually reserved for men. So we kinda had a blast learning all those things.
That’s a really good point too, with the action sequences, and also thinking of their costuming, how it’s very simple, very utilitarian, which is different than what you normally see from women in action type roles.
Oh yeah, they’re all in spandex! These are just pretty normal clothes that you might wear. Yeah, it was refreshing to me to see them in clothes, period — women rarely wear clothes in the movies *laughs* so it was so nice to put clothes on them.
They’re wearing them, and they take them off at some point, and I wanted their undergarments to be clothes as well. They asked me about that, they were like, “What happens when we take off our clothes?” And I was like, “You’ll be wearing clothes under your clothes.” It’s not about showing your bodies in that way, it’s about what you do and the actions you take and your athleticism in the water and your relationships with nature.
Yeah, that scene, when they jump into the water and when they’re just kind of together at night, and made me think of that prompt from probably a couple of years ago, it was like, if there were no men around, what would you do? And so many people said I would take a walk at night.
I hadn’t heard that, that’s wonderful. But sad. But wonderful, and it says a lot about the world we endure.
Shifting gears slightly, one thing I really liked in terms of the set design, can you talk to me a little bit about your decisions to use period technology, like the World War II kind of era radios. What was the thought process behind that?
I was very drawn to World War II… I think it’s for a number of reasons, I’m not exactly sure, but one, I think there may have been, there must be a million films about World War II. I don’t know, people cannot stop making these movies, it’s like, my entire life, I’ve been watching movies about World War II and sometimes World War I, but usually World War II. So to me, it’s almost like the nature of film itself has something to do with that war and that conflict, and the whole thing has evolved around that.
And I learned when researching in other films that there were women in WWII whose voices were used on radio broadcasts to demoralize men who were away from home. Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally in particular, and I thought, “Oh wow, there were these sirens in World War II.” And also in Russia, during World War II, women were snipers, and they were excellent snipers, and I don’t know, I guess the constellation of interest came together and it seemed like the right environment for these particular women. I think also during World War II in America, you get these images of women that we never saw before at work, being mechanics, because all the men left to go to war, so they had to do things and they were wearing pants and they were active. So those images of those women stuck with me because you don’t see that in a major way, so that war continues to be interesting to me always.