Life is a bit tipsy. Loren Taylor on her debut feature The Moon is Upside Down

Thanks to Sydney Film Festival for providing The Curb with the opportunity to speak with Loren.

Ozu famously had a character say, “Isn’t life disappointing?” through a fixed and sad smile at the end of his heartrending Tokyo Story. In Loren Taylor’s bittersweet feature The Moon is Upside Down disappointment is part of the absurd condition we call living. That thing we are thrown into and think we have some kind of handle on. The strange messy melange of being that is fragile, embarrassing, surprising, infuriating, and where we can become unfixed and reconstructed – sometimes simultaneously.

Revolving around three women who in seemingly disparate storylines end up intersecting in rural New Zealand. Natalia (Victoria Haralabidou) a Serbian woman who comes to New Zealand for business – the business of getting married to the repressed Mac (Jemaine Clement). Briar (Loren Taylor) an overworked anaesthetist whose love affair with ‘Hairy Tim’ (Robbie Magasiva) is a mixture of nostalgia and Skype sex. And Faith (Elizabeth Hawthorne) the privileged wife of a slumlord who inherits an unknown woman who died in one of their apartments and decides she needs to redress the balance and take Rita’s ashes somewhere that could be significant.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m on the side of a hole and it is dark” says Natalia – which is something most of the characters feel at some point in the film whether by implication or inference. Yet, Taylor’s tone never settles entirely into existential melancholy. There is abundant humour both droll and delightful. The Moon is Upside Down is intelligent, heartbreaking, and if not quite hopeful, it certainly registers that ‘hope is the thing with feathers.’

Nadine Whitney had the absolute privilege of speaking with Loren Taylor about her film and epiphanies taking flight.

The first thing I ask Loren in her hazy too many interviews state is “How are you going?” Her response is typical of someone who is cheery-weary. “I’m getting there. It’s all lovely, isn’t it? Life is a funny thing.” I already know the answer to the question because it’s been on my screen and coming from Loren in the film. No need to worry about conversation flow as Loren has just given me the core of her film.

Loren Taylor: I read somewhere that ‘Desperation is the origin of comedy’ – have you ever heard that? I really liked that when I read it. It just resonated with me.

A lot of people will look at The Moon is Upside Down and compare it to European comedies (Aki Kaurismäki is a reference point) but for me it had the distinct flavour of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories.  

LT: Oh! Oh, how beautiful.

Mansfield’s work investigated similar topics to your film with significantly less comedy (although still with some sex). There was always a point in time where someone would realise what they were doing or what was going on around them. The epiphany. Their worldview would shift. Life is not what you thought it was.

LT: Life is mysterious. You can’t quite put your finger on it. Another thing I had beside me when I was writing the film was the work of Mary Oliver. She got me through some hard times. In her poem ‘The Fish’ she writes: “Out of pain, and pain, and more pain we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished by the mystery.” I really loved it because pain is inherent in being alive but if there is any place for the nourishment it is in the unknown.

One of the things you use often in the film is the symbolism of birds. A sparrow trying to get out of the hospital window. A caged canary. A hawk. An empty nest. Caged or free birds are unknowable because we attach to them the idea of flight and needing to fly. We think of birds as familiar, but they are often metonymical.

Briar, Natalia, and Faith each have significant interactions with birds.

Faith and the canary. Faith is married to a venal property developer…

LT: Yes, my feelings on property developers may have leaked through!

The impetus for Faith getting out of her empty nest, gilded cage (self-made, too) is the death of a tenant in one of the apartments her husband is buying up to demolish. “Selling a property with a dead person in it. It’s like buying a jacket with an arm in it. It has nothing to do with me. Did I tell you the canary starved to death?” she laments to her absent husband Alan on the phone. The death of the canary is almost equal to the death of Rita. A requiem for an unknown bird!

The film must have taken quite a while to script, can you tell me how you got it going?

LT: I started with my sister, Anna Taylor’s short stories. Her collection ‘Relief’ won awards. In that there is a story of a couple who are driving and hit a bird on a romantic weekend, so I took that from her. I knew I wanted to make a multi-narrative film. There is a Macedonian film called Before the Rain by Milcho Manchevski which was a multi-plot work, and I just loved the form. Maybe it is because I was working with short stories to begin with that it just made sense to me.

I love that you mentioned Katherine Mansfield, because with short stories you don’t have to answer everything, and you can leave people with questions and space for them to enter their own interpretations.

That was the form I was trying to explore. Probably kind of stupidly, because it’s a bit hard. If I could, I would fix up a couple of things. Never mind. Next time!

Then I was working with someone, and he had a heard a true story of a mail order bride who had moved to rural New Zealand. So that was his story, and he gave to me which is wonderful. Then around the corner there was a person who died in a flat which was the other story. So, it’s a desire to make a multi-strand film and a couple of things that came from my soap-boxy feelings about industrial agriculture and the housing crisis, and our health system. Privilege and colonisation. I had a whole lot of very noisy stuff in my head that I was interested in seeing if the characters would allow me to walk them through any of those thoughts.

It has Tuffy (Rachel House) who is one of my favourite characters in the film…

LT: (Almost squeals) Isn’t she the best? I adore that character.

She’s just trying and doing her best. She has a, shall we say, challenging fiancé in Hilary (Robyn Malcolm) who is Mac’s sister. Her interaction with Faith is both hilarious and pointed. She says that the mountains are sacred to the Māori people, so perhaps if the rich white lady could try not putting random dead people on there, that would be a generally good thing.

LT: The paradigms are so utterly different. But in Tuffy saying those things it does have an impact. I love Rachel dearly.

I think Rachel has a deeply dedicated fan base. I have watched some things I otherwise wouldn’t just because Rachel is in them.

LT: I agree, I agree. I’ve worked with her since we did a play together when I was nineteen, I think. I’ve known her for such a long time, and it feels amazing that we are both getting to direct our own films (Rachel’s The Mountain is releasing via Madman Films) as we have been working around other people’s films as collaborators. You’ll need to bring your tissues for The Mountain. I cried all the way home in the car.

I was crying watch The Moon is Upside Down even in sections where I knew I was supposed to laugh.

LT: I wanted both. Don’t you find in life we are the enormously complex feeling animals, but we so often don’t have the tools to communicate properly? That’s so often the problem, isn’t it? I love all the characters in the film. I feel like if they had the tools to communicate things wouldn’t go so awry.

Tim and Briar’s ‘relationship’ is a good example of that. A totally miserable weekend in reality when they finally meet in person after over twenty years. I felt so uncomfortable with that one because it’s so relatable. It’s not as if Briar has been distinctly romanticising Tim (no spoilers but one scene is possibly the least sexy long-distance sex you’ll come across), but there is so much hope that maybe it will work out once they get together in person.

LT: Oh, it is disastrous! But don’t you find it funny, especially when sex scenes are directed by women there’s something where we pick up on the profoundly awkward parts of sex. It’s not as often neatly erotic nor stylish. So, all those just bodily silly bits which are put to the side in male directed sex scenes come to the centre of the frame in my film. I wanted to show the bits that films generally don’t want people to see.

The unsexy sex comedy? The honest sex comedy? The plain honesty of the film, perhaps. That leads me into my next question which is how you managed to balance the comedic and dramatic tones. A lot of people know you for your comedic work (Eagle vs Shark or collaborations with Grant Lahood) but these works tend to have some weight in them.

LT: I think I drew on my own experiences a lot. I’ve been through lots of difficult things and during those times of physical illness and breakdowns of several varieties, I also laughed enormously with my friends and family. And it felt like the worst times were also some of the funniest times.

I also feel that suffering can maybe be transformational. So maybe a ‘spiritual’ perspective on difficulty… if that makes sense?

It is how I have experienced the world. That it is profoundly funny and profoundly sad, and depth comes out of witnessing both of those things together. Just how surreal it is to be a human floating on a ball in an infinite universe.

I think too the title The Moon is Upside Down is the line in the film which spoke to that absurdity (Natalia is from the Northern Hemisphere – the moon is upside down to her in Aotearoa). My composer David Long, who is such a genius, talked with me about how everything is sort of offbeat – not just the music. Everything is off kilter, off balance, almost tipsy.

The films I love are poetic, political, and comic. So, I think the title might have a bit of that.

We have to talk about Jemaine Clement as Mac. Because I think Jemaine is possibly the best man in New Zealand (definitely in the ‘hot dad’ category – also apologies to Cliff Curtis). You have worked with him for years. How have you kept that friendship going?

LT: We have been friends since I was eighteen. We shared a flat for five years. So, he’s one of my closest and oldest friends. A case of me finding my people. We haven’t worked together for ages until The Moon is Upside Down and he likes telling people that he was my third choice for Mac. I cast two other people and neither of them could do it before I went to him. To be fair, he’s pretty busy so I didn’t think he’d be able to do it and I was so thrilled when he could. And he’s bloody good, isn’t he?

He really is. Because Jemaine manages hot swagger and on the other side really quite pathetic.

LT: He does them all so well. He’s such an amazing clown. The reason he’s such an amazing clown is that he’s a really sensitive deep-thinking kind of person. He does showy and the opposite. I think it’s lovely because I know him so well that I could keep nudging him into the drama territory and he would go there.

I feel the scenes with Jemaine and Victoria who plays Natalia are some of my favourite scenes in the film. The intimacy and the tenderness feels so beautifully delicate. It was a real pleasure to direct him.

Victoria Haralabidou is on cultural loan from Australia, so we do actually give back occasionally and not just steal all your talent. White Australians generally just like stealing things so we have claimed almost everyone we can (laughing)…

LT: White New Zealanders do too, we’re one and the same, I think.

Maybe. But we not only steal indigenous land here we also manage to kind of steal it there and colonise those have been colonised. I don’t even know who has custody of Jane Campion on any given day. Or Sam Neill. But back to the point before I keep trying to organise the great ‘We will give you back Russell Crowe’ exchange (laughing). Victoria is astonishing as Natalia. How did that come about?

LT: Victoria is ASTONISHING. There’s no one like her. When I first casting the film, it was just before COVID, and we had settled on quite a famous Polish actor, but we couldn’t bring her over. So, the film people said you need to be closer to home. I think that was the cinema gods smiling on me. I called a casting agent and said, “Have you got any Russians over there?” I then zoomed Victoria for three hours and was captivated by her.

Victoria is so remarkable. For a start she’s just pure cinema. She’s got so much depth; her interior life is incredible. Her face is compelling. I adore her – I don’t even know how to express it.

I’d written the character of Natalia, and I loved her so much. Natalia was so dear to me and to find an actor who was able to just be her so completely was remarkable. Spine tingling!

I don’t think there’s a bad performance in the film. I did see a brief cameo of your sister Anna speaking to Briar. Where did the name Briar come from? It’s quite unusual.[1]

LT: There were two Briars working on the film. The costume designer was called Briar. My aunty is called Briar. It’s always been one of my favourite names. It’s a gorgeous name. In Anna’s original story the character was called Bella and that didn’t feel right to me. I wanted it to be a ‘B’ name and there was Briar.

Bella (meaning beautiful as we know) is perhaps too nice?

LT: Yes, exactly. Briar has spikiness to it. The briar rose.

Almost everyone in the film is imperfectly relatable to. There’s a particular scene where Briar is talking with an elderly patient for post-operative pain management and the patient says, “I didn’t want to wake up. I wanted to be snuffed out.” (sic)

LT: Yes! Yes! That’s actually my 93 year old grandmother who never acted before but she’s hilarious, eh?[2]

I stole that conversation from life when I was in the emergency ward myself. There was a curtain between us so I couldn’t see her, but I could hear it. And she was saying, “I wanted to die.” These young doctors were just brushing what she said off. The depth of her acceptance of death. “What is wrong with dying? I’m done.” It was such an amazing conversation.

Tell me about where it was filmed. It feels really South Island.

LT: I love that you saw that because it was written for the South Island, but we couldn’t go there because of restrictions both financial and pandemic related. So, we just filmed it outside Wellington. I want people to think it is South Island.

I was hunting for locations that had that endless irrigated fields in that quite scarred landscape. And, those gloriously mountainous and epic healthy landscapes.

I think that’s also playing into your tonal shifts. Rich city, poor city, barren landscapes, beautiful landscapes. Worlds of opposites that exist together.

LT: Yes, yes, yes. Beautiful!

Loren I honestly could pick your brain forever about the film but at some point, I’m just going to have to hand you the mic as such and tell people why you’d like them to see it.

LT: (Considering) What is there to say? I guess when you make something you just want people to connect with it in a manner you intended them to. If you can make something that has got enough space in it for people to find something in there… in so many films everything is tied up too neatly narratively. There isn’t time to enter into the story because the story is fixed and immutable.

I mean I have driven some people nuts with the film.

Nuts how? There are deeply frustrating characters because you want people to just say what they have to say and connect. But that’s life. People don’t know how to quite tell the truth because they are afraid of what the truth means.

LT: Exactly! We miss each other all the time. I deeply agree we should tell each other the truth. I think a lot of us have had life make us feel thwarted. But I do wonder if out of that it gives you a perspective on being honest.

Two similar animals – Nadine and Loren chatted in their vague and oddly garrulous manner. We both agreed that we didn’t make a huge amount of sense when we were tired, and this interview which is well over three thousand words is edited down.

What is undeniable is just how thoughtful The Moon is Upside Down is. Intersecting narratives are hard to do as stories often don’t translate well on the screen. It can take someone like Robert Altman years to get it right (and after Short Cuts he also got it wrong again with some of his other films), but Loren Taylor has come out swinging. She’s also an incredibly good sport and laughed at my terrible jokes some of which are in the asterisked parts below.

*In addition to the story about Loren’s family we were discussing New Zealand music and I mentioned Kimbra. Because there are approximately fifty-four people in Aotearoa and they all know each other (settle down, Kiwis, you know it’s true) it turns out that Kimbra is named after Briar’s sister.

[1] In addition to the story about Loren’s family we were discussing New Zealand music and I mentioned Kimbra. Because there are approximately fifty-four people in Aotearoa and they all know each other (settle down, Kiwis, you know it’s true) it turns out that Kimbra is named after Briar’s sister.

[2] Further proof that there are only fifty-four people in New Zealand.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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