What Girls Are Made Of: Shirley Manson on Joining the Shorts Jury at the Sundance Film Festival

Movies Features Shirley Manson
What Girls Are Made Of: Shirley Manson on Joining the Shorts Jury at the Sundance Film Festival

With over 10,000 submissions to draw from each year, the short film program at Sundance is one of the most competitive film festival slates in the world. Jury prizes given at the festival have elevated talents like Don Hertzfeldt, Destin Daniel Cretton, Damien Chazelle, and Janicza Bravo to international acclaim.

For the 2018 shorts program, a mere 69 films were selected, with a jury presided over by director Cherien Dabis, cartoonist Chris Ware, and Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson.

Paste spoke with Manson during the festival to learn about her experience attending Sundance, the relationship between music and film, and how women artists can forge their path to success.

Paste: How were you selected to be on the jury? Was it your first time at the festival?
Shirley Manson: Out of all the names in the world, how mine came up continues to be a bit of a mystery. I got the call to go, and having never been to Sundance, and possibly never having the opportunity to go again, I leapt at the chance. It was a great opportunity for me to go and peek behind the curtain, and that brought me to Park City.

Paste: Are you a movie lover? Have you always been interested in films?
Shirley Manson: I love the visual arts, and certainly we have taken care to educate ourselves as musicians about directors, photography, lighting. But you know I’m a storyteller—that’s what I do for a living—so I’m attracted to any of the arts that deals with communicating, and trying to connect with another person. I think being an artist in general you are attracted to other art forms.

Paste: Are there any films that you’ve seen in your life that have impacted you as an artist?
Shirley Manson: Yes, everything from The Sound of Music to Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard. All these films have had major impacts on me. The Conversation was another big one. Oldboy was another one. Films really impact me, for whatever reason, and I use them often as inspiration or as sort of visual stimulants.

Paste: I think the first time I ever heard a Garbage song was on the soundtrack to Romeo + Juliet. And you performed the Bond theme The World is Not Enough. Is that musical relationship with film something you’ve explored as a band or personally as an artist?
Shirley Manson: Two members of my band went to film school, so when we were in the recording studio in Madison, Wis., where we recorded our first two records, we were playing films whilst we were recording. We ran them on the screen in the studio the whole time.

The other reason I think we became particularly tuned in to visuals as a band was because we emerged during the heyday of the ’90s when artists like ourselves were spending a million bucks on videos—on the visual representation of our music—to reach an audience. And if you made a great music video, you’d be guaranteed of getting on MTV and having your video played 16 to 24 times a day. That’s enormous exposure.

Paste: What were some of your favorite experiences making videos for the band?
Shirley Manson: Arguably the most exciting was making our video for the song “Special.” We had access to Ridley Scott’s team in London, and we got to work very closely with his art department and some of his visual team. We made an extraordinary video with the director, Dawn Shadforth, that was so cutting edge at the time but also really cinematic and to this day really holds up as a little mini film.

But every time we approach a music video (or not every single time but most of the time), we tend to think of it as making tiny little movies to go with our songs. With one of our videos we made with Sophie Muller, for a song called “Bleed Like Me,” we storyboarded absolutely everything, and it’s got a very sort of cinematic feel.

Paste: Maybe you just answered your question as to why you were selected to be on the jury.
Shirley Manson: Maybe so, maybe so.

Paste: When you were watching shorts at Sundance, what was that experience like for you?
Shirley Manson: It was incredible, actually. The spectrum of work we saw, and different styles, different attitudes, different stories. Some were incredibly accomplished at telling a story in an incredibly short amount of time. I came away really inspired.

Some filmmakers you could tell were all ready to jump into a feature. And others you could tell had this flair, they had a unique voice that was interesting, and a great fresh approach to storytelling. It was just painful to have to pick a winner. I really hate that because I really, genuinely, believe that art is not a competition. Art so subjective. One man’s meat is another man’s murder, literally.

It’s a weird discipline to be on a jury and to pick representations of each category, but I do it for selfish reasons. To be invited onto a juror’s panel exposes me to art that I’d never normally see, so that’s why I jump in with enthusiasm. The actual concept of winners in art is somewhat silly, but it does help whoever gets the award to springboard onto the next level, so it has its function.

Paste: What drew you and the rest of the jury to the films that won the top two prizes, the U.S. Fiction winner Hair Wolf, directed by Mariama Diallo, and the grand jury prize winner Matria, directed by Álvaro Gago?
Shirley Manson: Matria was a film that we all watched and we came out of the cinema and were breathless. We’d felt that we’d seen—as I said on the night—an entire universe within… I don’t even know how long it was—fifteen minutes?—but it was such a beautifully told, fully rounded story without using much dialog. It was poetic, and we loved the editing of it, and there’s this extraordinary performance by the lead actress. It was a story of a matriarch, and the selection of that story felt really appropriate and resonant to the times, so it was just one of these moments where we were all like, “Oh my god, I loved that.” Each one of us. And so it became the frontrunner for the whole competition for us because we couldn’t find a flaw in it. When you’re asked to be on a jury, you spend a lot of time picking holes in people’s work because it’s the only way to come to any sensible conclusion in the end.

As for the U.S. Fiction winner, we were utterly blown away by Hair Wolf. Not only was it so beautifully art directed, beautifully styled, the lighting was really stunning, [but] I think we all felt the movie was telling a story that needs to be told, hasn’t been told, and was told with incredible humor. It felt very unique and provided a new voice and a new narrative.

The whole cast I thought were spectacular. The script was fantastic, and really funny, but really confronting society, confronting America, confronting race, things that people don’t particularly want to talk about nor do they feel particularly comfortable talking about. We all thought it was a masterful approach and such an extraordinary accomplishment for such a young team.

Paste: Did you see any other films at the Festival?
Shirley Manson: I saw some interesting documentaries while I was there, and that was inspiring and definitely had a major effect on me. Yayoi Kusama, for a random example, I didn’t really know much about her story, and I watched the Vivienne Westwood. She is a hero of mine, and even though I know she has problems with that particular film, it’s still an incredible documentary to watch. You get to see someone who’s just pure gold, get an insight into their world. And of course I saw the MIA music documentary, and that was great, as well.

Paste: All three of the films you mentioned are about women artists. A lot of the time women artists don’t get the same attention that male artists do, and Sundance accepting these films, where you can learn more about the artists in more depth than a Wikipedia page, helps cement them as icons in a substantial way.
Shirley Manson: As you get older as a woman, you realize that history has just been controlled, literally, by the patriarchy. Without sounding like such a bleeding heart, our narrative has been controlled by white men. I think we’re living in a time where that’s slowing being disassembled, and we are creating a new narrative as we move forward. I’m not saying the struggle is over by any means, but we’re certainly in a moment that feels to me that we have the opportunity to build upon and start evening things out between races, between genders.

But the one thing that did strike me about the Sundance organization is how sincere everybody that I met who was involved with the festival was, and how egalitarian they were amongst themselves. At no point did the color of their approach change. I kept waiting for “the boss” or the “corporate beast” to enter the room, and it never did. It was very sincere in championing the arts for all the right reasons. They have this incredibly talented team, who seem to give a lot of their own time to what they do, and a lot of enthusiasm, and that seems very genuine to me.

Paste: There are a lot of eyes on Sundance, but I think it’s that sincerity that has pushed them to the top of the film festival sphere. There’s a reason they’re number one.
Shirley Manson: They are number one because they are pure of heart. That’s the thing that I don’t think corporate America or corporate The World seems to understand. You can chase a hit—anyone can do that—and you’ll make a lot of f*ing money, but sooner or later over the years if you just keep being pure of heart I really believe that you can create something magnificent that doesn’t rely on necessarily just commercial cool.

Paste: That seems like great advice to give any artist as they start down a path of creating art.
Shirley Manson: It’s easy to become corrupted in the arts. It’s easy to feel like you’re failing as an artist because you’re not selling as much as all the artists that everybody and their dog fusses over. But if you approach your career slowly, and have patience and just keep doing work, focus on the work, always the work, and always on sort of a righteous path, as opposed to a commercial one, I think you’ll enjoy a long career. And you will remain relatively uncorrupted as such. You can sleep in your bed at night.

Paste: A struggle for a lot of filmmakers is watching deadlines pass and thinking, “maybe next year.” But you mentioned Kusama, who’s now receiving a resurgence because her work, which has been so visual, suddenly seems more relevant and engaging thanks to Instagram. And not to say that her work is only special because of Instagram, but the cultural lens has shifted, and now she’s a big name. Sometimes it’s not a traditional path that leads to recognition.
Shirley Manson: I had an acting teacher that I studied under, Sharon Chapman, who gave me the most incredible advice. It’s something that I’ve applied to my life in general, and particularly in my life as an artist. She has a mantra, which is: “I have time.” Meaning there is no rush, there is no competition, there’s just the work that you do, and take your time to do well. And once I learned that mantra it really changed my whole approach to my career.

When you give yourself time, you then are no longer at the mercy of other people’s schedules, commercial pressure, you can just start to go, “Okay, I have time to get this right, and I will focus on it until I’m really proud of it.”

Patti Smith said the same thing: just do you work. Do what is right. Allow your name to be pure. And sooner or later, your name becomes something of worth because you’ve put out good work. It’s the classical tale about the hare and the tortoise. You’ll always see people running past you and you’ll go, “Oh my god, I need to speed up,” but I think you can just keep marching forward. Do the work.

Paste: Especially as a woman artist you’re taught that your youth, in a way, is more important than your artistry, and that if you’re not going to hit it when you’re young and cute then you’re not going to hit it at all. I think that’s something that affects women across all artistic disciplines.
Shirley Manson: And that’s not relative just to female artists—that’s women across the board. We have been taught—and we have swallowed this ludicrous lesson—that we are of no use to anyone unless we are young and beautiful. It creates this impossible barrier to break, because nobody can hold onto their youth, nobody can hold onto their beauty, so we’ve already been outmaneuvered.

We need to break those ghastly lessons that we’re teaching young women and create our own education for women on par with how men see themselves, and their agency, and their currency. Men don’t feel, I don’t think, disengaged from culture as they start to age. Quite the opposite, actually, a man gets more and more respect, and a woman is given less and less. It’s seen as some kind of failing on her part, and it’s ludicrous. it’s just part of the patriarchal method of controlling women.

Paste: Artists mature over the course of their careers, and if you’re not giving them the time to mature, they don’t necessarily get to a place where they can achieve the same success that men do. And as a young female artist, people want to put you in one particular box.
Shirley Manson: As I say to lots of young women: that’s your call. You need to design the door, build the door, open the door, and walk through it. Because it’s easy to pontificate, but it does require girding yourself against ageism, against sexism. The reason why women have been told that they have no agency after, you know, the age of thirty, is because women get so much tougher, so much more dangerous, so much more troublesome for—and I hate using this word—patriarchy, but it does exist. White men have this insane privilege, as I do as a white female, by the way, and so white men have figured out, “Oh, if we control white women, we can hold onto our privilege.” We’re already cut the competition down by 50%. So that is what women have to fight against.

Paste: Gender is such a huge conversation in the film industry right now. There was actually a whole documentary at Sundance about the lack of women filmmakers, Half the Picture. I think women knowing that they have to make a door and walk through it themselves is a good way of confronting that particular problem.
Shirley Manson: And even as a white women, you still have so much more privilege than women of color. And they are the ones who are not even in the position to build their own door and walk through it, and that is the biggest problem we all face, and something we really need to address with great urgency.

Paste: It’s so important and so awesome that the U.S. Fiction Prize for Sundance was awarded to a woman of color, because you guys opened a door for her to walk through. The jury’s recognition makes her eligible for the Academy Awards.
Shirley Manson: I’m literally getting goosebumps right now. It’s really exciting.

Paste: This year of all years, and on the day that the Oscar nominations are announced, it all comes together to create a great feeling of change and positivity. And both Get Out and Mudbound premiered at Sundance, so they have been a big part of pushing this change as an organization. So it all sort of snowballs in this wonderful way.
Shirley Manson: God bless Sundance.

(This interview has been edited for clarity.)

Elle Schneider is a filmmaker and writer who makes a valiant attempt to sing Garbage at karaoke. You can follow her onTwitter and Instagram.

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