Olson’s ‘The Royal Road’ is a poetic love letter to San Francisco
January 20, 2015
Jenni Olson’s "The Royal Road," which has been selected by the 2015 Sundance Film Festival as one of the New Frontier films, is a love letter to San Francisco, through references as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock’s film "Vertigo," the Spanish Colonization of California and that unattainable woman lover.
It’s not a documentary in the traditional sense, but a visually and audibly poetic work that runs a little more than an hour.
Olson said the idea for the film and the narrative, which is done by Olson and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, was to meld scenes of San Francisco she had shot on 16mm film with a script she wrote about the area.
"I’m an ongoing documentarian of the landscape," Olson told The Park Record during a telephone interview from her Bay Area office. "Ever since I moved here, I have gone out and shot landscape, mostly not knowing how exactly they would be used, but knowing I wanted certain types of scenes with different compositions, light quality and long, static, contemplative takes."
Olson makes lists of places she wants to shoot.
"Since I’m always making movies, I’m continually grabbing scraps of paper and writing things like, ‘Corner of 25th and Folsom Street at 4 p.m., when the golden-hour light is going down’ and then I’ll add from what direction I want to shoot and what building I want to focus on."
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Then she makes a schedule and heads out with her cinematographer, Sophie Constaninou, to get the shots.
"I’ve been doing that since 1997 on a regular basis," Olson said. "Back then, during the dot-com boom, I had a sense that the city was changing and I wanted to document things before they were gone."
Her scenes all contain a melancholic quality to them.
"They show a kind of a loneliness with a sense of wandering," she said.
At the same time she films these areas, Olson writes down her thoughts.
"I’m always writing, particularly things in the first person like some dire voice-over narrator," she said. "Then I patch and thread the things together and in ways that I’m interested in.
"I try to write in a poetic way," Olson said. "I spent a lot of time on the writing and try to be poetic and dense. I cram a lot in it."
The result is a string of ear-catching words that take the audience through the poetic imagery, which includes facts from the Spanish colonization in California and the Mexican-American War.
"The film is not done in a conventional way, because there aren’t any talking heads in the picture, but I did work with a couple of historical advisors to make sure the things were factually correct," Olson said with a laugh. "It’s kind of almost like a love poem to the city and to California,"
In addition to significant historical events, the filmmaker adds examples of iconic films in the narrative to highlight her points.
"My first feature, ‘The Joy of Life,’ was at Sundance 10 years ago and at that time, the film was an extended reflection on suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge," she said. "I talked about the Frank Capra film, ‘Meet John Doe.’
"For whatever reason, I seem to be interested in combining a personal analysis of Hollywood movies with history, especially lesser-known history with a social-justice angle," Olson said. "I especially do this related to place, namely California."
For "The Royal Road," the film she referred to was Alfred Hitchcock’s "Vertigo," which was shot in San Francisco.
"The film has some touchstone aspects to it and that served as a muse for me as a filmmaker and writer," Olson said.
Another piece of the puzzle is how the voice-over works.
"I’m not doing it in an objective way or a conventional, nonfiction way," Olson said. "It’s personal and poetic in that the narrator takes on a persona like what singers and songwriters do. My thing as a narrator is like pining over unavailable women and combining that with the through line to make the plot."
Because of its nature, "The Royal Road" relies on nostalgia as a filmmaking tool. One of the lines in the film is "Nostalgia might be the thing that saves us."
"When I put that line in, my editor told me it was a pretty bold thing to say and every time I see the film, I have to agree," Olson said. "As I say in the film, I’m looking at nostalgia from a different perspective because I’m using it as a way that helps us stay more connected to the present, physical world. It helps us remember the history in the context of the current state of things today."
That ties directly into the Mexican-American War references.
"That event is pertinent today, because of the issues surrounding immigration and the anti-Mexican sentiment," Olson said. "It’s important to have a greater awareness of the history of this place that I think certain people want to forget. We need to remember to slow down and being present and mindful in the middle of it."
Olson’s goal for her films, including "The Royal Road," is to help herself and her audiences find a more philosophical and spiritual connection.
"I hope that people will see the film and come out of it with a new way of looking at the world and feel more connected to the landscape and physical place we live," she said.
The Sundance Film Festival will screen Jenni Olson’s "The Royal Road" in the New Frontier Category at the Temple Theatre, 3700 Brookside Ct., on Friday, Jan. 23, at noon. Additional screenings will be at Redstone Cinema 2 on Jan. 24 at 4 p.m., the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake on Monday, Jan. 26, at 6:45 p.m. and at the Holiday Village Cinema 4 in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org.