Conversation With Tracy Mathewson, Director of ‘ORTOLAN – Bones and All’, and Kate Winter, Writer, Producer & Actor.

‘ORTOLAN: Bones and All’ was born as a proof of concept for a much larger exploration in a feature by writer, producer and actor Kate Winter who, channelling her own experiences dealing with trauma and memory, takes a deep dive into a complex and ruthless relationship between three sisters through an immersive and meandering psychedelic trip. The 24 minute short takes place in a luxuriously grand house oozing with history as we see the sisters, after their mother’s wake, acerbically fight over their family estate. The short is a sheer delight, traversing the tight-rope from comedy to drama and peppered with surprisingly pleasing moments of horror. It will entice you in, play havoc with your senses and chew you out…leaving you wanting more. 

This formidable creatively aligned duo sent me the trailer a while ago, and it was a true pleasure to see the full short in all of its glory which will be showing at Hastings International Film Festival 14-16 April. ‘ORTOLAN – Bones and All’ takes no prisoners as it opens up the meticulously planned world Kate and Tracy have devised and which is now being developed into a feature film. RocksBlog took the time to speak to the duo to give you a glimpse into their minds and the film. 

How did you two come to be working on the project together?

Kate Winter: I love this story, it’s so romantic. I was looking to connect with more female artists, specifically directors, and I was creatively stalking Tracy online. I found a lot of her  past films and as I was watching ‘Appellation’, I thought “what else has she done?” At this time, Tracy’s getting notifications as I kept liking her videos and of course, she was wondering what was going on. I then found her online on Twitter and I said “look, I’d really like to meet you because I love your work and I’d love to collaborate.”

Tracy Mathewson: The message was very brief, cryptically brief. It was at a time when outdoor meets were the only things that we could do and so we ended up having a park date.

KW: I recced the park before the date to find the perfect space to meet. I was so excited to have this park meet lady date and then we were talking about what we’re working on and I started talking about ‘Ortolan’.

TM: She very subtly pitched her vision and I got goosebumps. I’m normally quite coy in romance or in business but I just thought “fuck, I need to get on this now.” So I said “look, I know we just met, this is crazy but let’s chat in a year and if the script is ready and you are still looking for a director, I see what you’re seeing and I would love to direct it.” Within a year we had shot the film.

KW: With the history of all of Tracy’s work it just instantly aligned. I was looking at her work, I could really see where she was going, she had a very specific style and it was something I enjoyed. There was a consistency to it and I like that someone’s sure of what they do and what they like and they follow through on that.

I love the incredible and obvious creative connection you two have found. What was it about Tracy’s films and her directing that you thought would fit with ‘Ortolan’ and your script?

TM: I just want to say I have no clue because I had done mostly sci-fi before!

KW: I love sci-fi, I like the darkness and my idea is quite dark. There’s something about her unapologetic choices. I don’t like when people say too much when they can say it in less words so when there’s a no nonsense approach to storytelling, and there’s the darker tones and darker subject matter that’s done well, like psychological drama, sci-fi and thrillers they my bag.

TM: I was surprised. When we met my short film ‘California’ was beginning its festival run. It’s more of a woman’s story whereas my sci-fi was more male-oriented. It was more familial, more about memory, more about the past affecting the present but Kate hadn’t actually seen it which I think is really wild. If she had she probably would have been even more sold!

KW: When we sat together it felt like we’d known each other for a really long time and the conversation was so easy and that was just such a lovely building block for working together. There were so many things we were doing that were just in sync with and funnily enough, that has been one of the strongest threads for us creatively.

TM: I see what she sees and she feeds me the information that I need.

KW: It’s always really bizarre stuff, we’ll come in and go “today I’d really like to talk about this” and she’ll have exactly the same note. Just being on the same page has made this process really excellent. It was a feeling, the rest is history.

Was ‘Ortolan’ always supposed to be a proof of concept for a feature?

KW: Yes, I originally wanted to build a series so it was born as a very expensive look book to encapsulate the main ideas – a tasty little entrée to the main dish. I am good at pitching the story to people, but to have something to back that up with makes me feel even more confident.

TM: Kate pitched me the feature which she was working on and said “let’s do the short and if we get along on that we’ll do the feature” I thought it sounded good and was also a great platform for us to develop our working relationship. I think we forget that I felt like I was on probation in a way. I realised I had to make it work in order to move onto the feature. 

KW: I remember that now because I just have so many ideas. I’ve got ADHD and mild autism so that’s the way my brain works, I need to be guided and Tracy is my shepherd. ‘Ortolan’ the short was a nice way of me going “okay, great you’ve got all these ideas and you’ve got 20 minutes”. It’s interesting because it showed me what I truly latch onto, what I find most interesting in this sea of ideas that I had. It was a nice way to clarify vision, develop our working relationship, and also just have fun – of which we did. 

Out of all of your ideas, how did you know that the scene following the sisters on their psychedelic trip was going to be a core you developed from?

KW: When I was trying to spit out a piece of the story, I wanted to choose a combination of events that would not only highlight the story but us as creatives. So I thought about where we could cut our teeth the most and when it comes to pitching the idea we’re pitching ourselves as creatives, we’re pitching our style. The trip is a huge part for me as it is a way of exploring really big ideas that are in my head and gave us the opportunity to go really far, it was an avenue for our bigger, bolder choices. Then the dinner was this opportunity to develop the characters, the sisters and that world which is really important.

TM: When I read the early drafts of the short I did have to ask, you know… do we really need the mushrooms? I have to ask what purpose they served because I felt like they could be alienating to some people. This is something we’ve noticed since completing the film – but that reaction usually often from people who haven’t… partaken. Kate brings so much support in terms of the research that she’s done on psilocybin in relation to trauma, PTSD and memory, there’s a very well-researched foundation there. Also, and I was literally thinking about it this morning, we always see guys doing drugs but we never see women doing drugs! Unless it’s really tragic. Then that’s OK. But guys are allowed to do drugs and be silly and I think ORTOLAN is unique in that a major part of the film is 3 grown women on a mushroom trip.. On a lot of levels it allows us to be really visually ambitious and to bend the rules of what we’re seeing and what the women are feeling. Most importantly, it’s what sparks that intersection of playtime and trauma.

KW: We set these women up as being very wealthy and extremely privileged and to show them unravel and be softer was a great motivator. Coming back to the research side of things, I’ve been microdosing most of my life alongside talking therapies for PTSD and trauma and there is an incredible, beautiful science around this combination. The story itself is born from my experience with memory. There are my experiences that I’ve been told happened, but I have no memory of them. There are things that happened to me that I remembered 20 years later, and there are things that I’ve experienced that I misremember. A way of unlocking those memories is the use of psilocybin and psychedelics, they unpack traumatic memories. The sisters are in a space where they can lean into it as they are in the house and near the stimuli, the smell, the taste, the texture, the people, so more likely to have these things come up. Sometimes people ask why they get high, is it just for fun – but there are so many layers to this onion!

The sisters are deliciously contrasting, which is such an accurate reflection of families and siblings. How did you develop the characters leaning into their differences and the clashes this would bring to the story? 

KW: I’m very inspired by my own siblings. There’s an age gap in the film that is the same as my sister and I. My sister’s 14 years older than me and we look the same but we could not be more different. I have memories of her 21st birthday party as I was throwing food at her from a balcony as this shitty little kid. So this divide of maturity and experience is very important. So that’s Anne and Dorothy and Jean and Anne are closer together. You know the differences between them come with that age difference. 

TM: I also have a huge age gap between my siblings. So there was that dynamic but I also always wanted to align the sisters based on their relationships to their parents and explore how theses alliances can shift and shape who they are and how they might react. In the feature the parents really do cast a large shadow and we wanted to seed this idea in the short.  

KW: And their alliances to those parents. Jean and Anne adore their father, they worship him and loathe their mother because they are convinced that she is what pushed him to kill himself and that is where we delve into how they remember things. Whereas Dorothy was so young, she doesn’t even remember that, she loves and adores her mother and I think that’s definitely what draws them apart. The last point is also the way that they were treated within the varying degrees of abuse. That is something we are developing now and it is a really hard conversation to have because the story itself is about the pain that shapes us. I can only speak from my point of view in the way that my pain has shaped me and who I  would be without certain things. Anne was abused so badly to the point where she calls it love and that abuse, child abuse specifically, changes and molds the foundations of our brains. So I really wanted to do justice and give respect to what that does to adult women growing up. That definitely divides them as people, how they absorbed that trauma and how it then shapes their relationships, their choices and their future. 

The camera work is really admirable, it is frenetic whilst smooth. How did you plan these scenes to offer the audience such an intimate viewpoint into their experience? 

TM: Meticulously! I think part of my duty script editing and then directing was to really shape the material and it was really important to me that we would be going up and we would be going down, that we’d be laughing and then we would be paralyzed and so each of those little sequences begins fun and playful and then take a darker turn where you’re just riding that trip and you’re like “oh fuck”. To go into the technical side we did a lot of handheld shooting, we did have a steady cam for one day which was really nice and gave us that floating dreaminess. But there is a very strong visual divide in the film. The dining table scene is all locked off and it’s only when we enter the trip that we’re becoming a lot freer with the camera. We’re throwing our DP Yannick Hausler all around with making him chase the gals. It was very meticulous. My AD, Tam literally storyboarded the whole schedule with me. We had really nice professional, storyboards for some of our marketing material. But in terms of organising the shoot, my AD’s an amazing artist and everything was planned. We were blessed with two days of rehearsals which was a first for me! I got to work with the cast and set the rhythm, the energy, the placement, the blocking which really helped so when we got there on the shoot, everybody knew what to do.

KW: I wanted to book those rehearsals as I knew I was being incredibly ambitious with the amount of content. Tracy’s schedule was pretty tight so there was no wiggle room and I knew as a producer, I wanted to preserve the morale on set and be able to stay on track. If we did have a little technical issue, there was time and space for that and that nothing would have to be sacrificed on that journey.

TM: Rehearsing also allowed us to create a shared language between me, Kate, the cast and Yannick. Very little needed to be rehashed during the shoot. 

KW: Developing a shared vision pre-shoot was so valuable. But going back to one last note on the mushrooms, from my point of view, I was so keen on capturing the ups and the actual downs and how sometimes you feel like you’re on the cloud and sometimes you feel like you’re at the bottom of the mountain but you want to get back up there. There is the texture and the flow to that experience in itself which Tracy did a great job with. 

Let’s talk about the house. It’s beautiful, it’s plush, it’s luxurious and really comes across almost as a character in the film. How did you find such a perfect location?

KW: I’m so glad that you said the house was a character because I’ve been parroting that from day one. The house has seen more than they have all seen together. The walls hold secrets, it holds history. The house itself belongs to a dear friend of mine, it’s her childhood home. We were so incredibly lucky to be offered, or invited to shoot there because all the years that I’ve known this friend, I’ve always just adored this home and in the history that it holds. So that in itself just painted so much, It filled so much of this world.

TM: Anywhere else we would have had to dress or build but with this location we actually had to take stuff out as there was just so much. Ellis and Fran, our art department, were meticulous and respectful in cataloguing and wrapping everything that was removed. 

KW: The house always needed to feel like something that had been very lived in. Tell the history of these lives. Absolute snaps to our art directors and their obsessive attention to detail, especially with the food. They were such a joy to watch work, I’ve never seen someone so excited for candles in my life or smears of oil on the edge of a glass. Everything was meticulously placed to look like a wake. The scene is post-wake and all the guests have left, and they’re picking at the carcass of the event as they then they pick at the carcass of the house. There was so much time put into prepping every room. We would shoot in one room and give Ellis and Fran time to be setting the next room for the next day. 

I love the balance, it’s a comedy, it’s a horror, it’s a drama. How were you able to find that equilibrium?

TM: I feel like that was one of my core ambitions for ‘Ortolan’, you know: in order to bring you down, we really have to build you up. So what you’ve observed is one of my favourite responses to hear about the film. We’re treading this tightrope between those genres and the emotions and that was really, really important to me. In the drafting stage I would try to return to the script with a kind of scepticism, and think about balance. It’s like when a magician has you looking over here while the slight of hand is happening over there.

KW: The girls in their own right are actually really funny people, they are just jaded, they’re very dark, very sarcastic but they are still themselves, they still carry this dynamic and comical relationship of siblings and cutting each other down and being little bitches every now and then which gives you the opportunity to laugh which you need as a relief from the tension. People will laugh as much as they actually want to cry. I found when we watched the short, we were shocked at where people laughed. They needed that relief.

TM: When we were assembling the film in post we saw how dark the film could be. It was something we had to be really conscious of. The comedy was absolutely a decision.  

KW: A lot of the lines are very much in my head. I’m Australian and there are certain things that I would write in there that felt very Australian. So “50/50 split between me and Jean then, great outcome, off you fuck Anne”, there was the comedy in there and the harshness of responses, and the honesty.

TM: The honesty of it is what is funny, and then the truth of it is what’s scary. So oh I’m glad that you picked it up. 

Lastly, what are the next steps for building this into the feature?

TM: We’ve been working on it since finishing post on the short and the world is there. All the detail is there. The way I see it is you have like the “what” of the story and the “how”. We know what the story is, but I think the most challenging bit is figuring out the how. We did some development before Christmas and then left it to rest. Now we’ve come back and we’re at the treatment stage. We are really starting back from character and releasing ourselves a little bit from the short and it’s been so interesting how the actions, the echoes, the palimpsest of that original vision is there but now as we’re digging around and really breathing deep life into these characters, it’s changing and that’s really cool. We’ve done a real deep dive with the three sisters and are letting that dictate the feature, which is takes place over full weekend… well, we won’t spoil it.  

KW: I have so many ideas and I’m still very much wrapping my head around structure because I always worked in a devised creative work which really lends to just putting it all out there. 

TM: It’s so wonderful because my background in theatre was also in devising. And I think we have such a positive workflow where we will discuss things as options.

KW: Then we will come back to it if it works later. We’ll have multiple scenarios for one scene, it’s like Ready Player One! We just leave options and we’ll come back to them. When we get there we’ll know which one’s appropriate. We were discussing something that’s very unique to this project, we often say “oh that’s terrible, write it down”. 

TM: It’s a dark history. These women are fucked up and it was a challenge in the short to make sure they were charismatic enough. Whereas with the feature we’ve got more room for them to actually be bad. 

KW: I keep coming back to the truth of it which is “the pain that shapes us.” We can get caught up in it in it being fun, and we do actually, we get caught up and then we pause and we go “Oh god it hurts to actually write that” because the truth of it is exploring how one person’s terrible actions can influence and darken the lives of others. 

‘ORTOLAN: Bones and All’ will be screening at Hastings Rocks on Saturday the 15th of April at 2:15 as part of our programme RELATIONSHIPS: Good, Bad, Ugly… and “Complicated”

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