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Short of the Week: Discussing ‘The Wheel’ with Emma Tillman

Patti Smith once remarked that her varied creative pursuits were all one and the same, married under the collective term of art, before adding with great profundity: “Men cannot judge it, for art sings of God and ultimately belongs to him.” Whether she is directing her husband Father John Misty’s music video for ‘God’s Favourite Customer’ or working on photography, creative writing or crafting short films, this is an ethos that Emma Tillman seems to share in. There is a depth to her work and a shared commonality that stretches beyond the medium she chooses to use. 

With her latest short film, The Wheel, she applies a photographic eye to a tale of human narratives and relations. With a unique blend of the monolithic landscape tranquilly unspooling and the jarring reality of the silent upheaval inflicted in its shadow, the movie is captivatingly beguiling and abrasive in equal measure. Importantly, unlike many films these days, The Wheel probes at a depth and connectedness with the darkness that it shows. 

We caught up with Emma Tillman earlier this summer to discuss this short film, her creative projects in general, her new erotic self-portrait photography series, Masterpieces, and what the future holds for her. In the interview below, we explore the impetus and method of the stunning short film which you can watch at the bottom of the piece. 

Here, we meet Tillman to discuss her work…

Far Out: Given the current situation with the filming industry, how difficult is it to be an independent director right now?

Tillman: “I have to say I wouldn’t know! I can’t say I’m really an independent filmmaker at this stage, more of an artist who has made films. I would like to be, but we’ll see how far the path of filmmaking takes me. From what I can see from afar, however, it seems very difficult. The only way would be to make something for absolutely no money.”

On a similar note, how important has cinema and a creative outlet been in recent times?

“I have had a few creative outlets over the last year and a half that have sustained me. Small things and big things. I’ve been working on my book Masterpiece, that’s been a big thing but also practising taking photographs with my eyes instead of with my camera. I’ve been learning how to capture life in new ways. 

“As far as cinema, I haven’t watched too many films, but my husband and I did watch a British BBC series from the 90s called Escape to River Cottage, it’s about a man who moves to the English countryside to try his hand at homesteading/smallholding. It’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. 

With regards to The Wheel, what urged you to tell this particular story?

The Wheel came to me during a very particular time when I was still watching the news. I noticed a particular narrative forming in the media, a reactive, vindictive narrative about human relationships, and in particular the relationships between men and women. 

“I felt that the narrative was very limiting and ultimately was dictating the way a woman, or any person really, should process the difficult experiences in this life. The writing of the film was born out of a desire to write something that was rooted in the specific wisdom of women, or of the feminine in general. Taking that idea to its most extreme conclusion was revealing for me in a variety of unexpected ways.”

The film also seems very literary, what were the inspirations behind the piece?

“Well, I’m a writer first. I graduated from college with a degree in Creative Writing, so maybe that’s what you’re referring to through the writing. But I was also interested in ancient themes too, which might communicate as literary. In the Tarot, The Wheel of Fortune is one that communicates that life is made up of opposites, and that the cycle is one that we cannot control. 

“The Dharma Wheel in Buddhism is an important symbol that represents the wisdom and awareness needed to dispel ignorance, while the rim represents the state of consciousness required to hold everything together. These ideas are represented throughout the film in their own way.”

One aspect where the film triumphs is the fantastic cinematography that brilliantly captures the awesome landscape, where was the project filmed and what was it like being there?

“I worked with an amazing cinematographer, James Wall. We are friends and work very well together to create a shared language. I am lucky to have had an effortless partnership in that way. 

“Our experience of shooting in the abandoned motel, the Joshua Tree desert, and the Salt Flat where some of the final scenes were filmed served the film beautifully. They were haunting, quiet, and full of wonder.”

The film seems to explore gender, was that a purposeful theme?

“It is exploring man and woman, with each character expressing masculine and feminine qualities. The relationship between Rose, the main character and her lover Clay has its own dynamic in the way they explore feelings both masculine and feminine. In the film we watch Clay move through emotions and transform at the hands of Rose’s story. 

“We also watch Rose go through the same process as she imagines the Killer’s story. We even see the Killer transform emotionally. Although these responses inhabit their masculine and feminine sides, which is very interesting to me.”

The film has a distinct aesthetic, was this developed throughout the project or is it an inherent style?

“It is a style. The colours, the clothes, the way the film looks at the landscape. It’s something I’ve tried to develop over time through my photography and started in cinema with my first short film. Capturing the essence of a feeling through all of these aspects commingling. I’m probably not always successful but that’s at least the goal!”

Finally, do you have any plans or ideas as to what you’d like to explore in cinema next?

“I have some scripts written, and some ideas that have been brewing for a long time but what I’d really like is a new idea to strike like lightning. We’ll see.”

See the full film, below.

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