“Mayday” is a coming-of-age dystopian drama about a girl named Ana who commits suicide and her death launches her into another realm. She lands on a brutal coastal area with a small group of young women who are caught in a never-ending battle with young male soldiers coming to shore. She feels that she does not belong and is getting signals drawing her back into her old life. The film stars Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Soko and Juliette Lewis.
I got the opportunity to interview director and screenwriter Karen Cinorre via Zoom just before her world premiere at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival.
DAWN BORCHARDT: Congrats on your Sundance feature directorial debut! I was drawn in to your film by the fantasy elements, which is not a genre I’d normally watch. Could you talk about what inspired this story and the fantasy elements?
KAREN CINORRE: It’s interesting that you use the word fantasy because I don’t watch any fantasy films, and I didn’t really set out to make one. What I learned after I made the film is that there’s a very specific genre that people think of as fantasy and it’s not really a type of film that I’m interested in. But “fantasy” is a word people use to express what’s not reality, like there’s another world at play. But there are films like “The Wizard of Oz” that were a big inspiration, and “Alice in Wonderland”. A fairytale sensibility or a parable or myth is interesting to me. I guess that takes me into the fantasy territory, but I don’t necessarily consider myself a fantasy filmmaker. That word has never really come into my own lexicon.
“Mayday” is really a coming of age story for me, and I’ve always been inspired by Greek myths. The women characters were so powerful and unapologetic, and I found myself through these characters. These women were the protagonists of their plays and their stories and that made so much sense to me. When I set out to make a film about growing up, and violence and women, going into a mythological space didn’t seem like a leap to me.
I’m very obsessed with the myth of the sirens; it’s always been a fascination for me. I was making my short film “Plume”, and I learned through my research that during WWII, they used women’s voices as weapons. They would have these radio stations, like Tokyo Rose had one, and there were these women who they put on the radio, and they would use their voices to try to demoralize the soldiers. They literally had radio shows where they would sing and use their voices to humiliate them and make them feel demoralized. I was like “oh my god, women’s voices used as weapons sounds like the siren myth.” With that realization, I got a constellation of ideas when I was coming up with the story. Little things would appear to me, and then a shape took form. And that shape is the “Mayday” film. So the film has elements of lots of different things, but to me the film as a whole makes sense. And I hope “Mayday” will make sense to other people [laughing].
BORCHARDT: There were a couple of quotes in the beginning of the film when Ana goes into the other world that really stuck with me. I was wondering if you could talk about these quotes, why you included them, and your inspiration for these quotes? The first one is when Marsha says “girls are better off dead. Now they’re free.” The other is when Ana says “I’ve never been in a war” and Marsha responds “you’ve been in a war your whole life, you just didn’t realize it.”
CINORRE: The quote “women are better off dead” probably comes from my deep frustration regarding western narratives of all mediums – movies, television, streaming, everywhere. There’s always a dead woman at the center of the narrative, or a dying one. You see this even in the opera! Even filmmakers that I love for their experimentation, like “Twin Peaks”, takes place around a dead woman. It came to the point where I couldn’t watch certain things. I love mysteries and I wanted to watch “True Detective”, but I cannot stomach another dead woman’s body that’s been destroyed. I was like, ‘there must be a way to tell stories without this at the center!’ There’s some sort of deep rot in our narrative that’s happening over and over again. For “Mayday,” I just thought the women start off dead and now we can go from here. Now it can be their story.
The way it worked was that Marsha was the siren in a war, luring men to their death. And Marsha recruits Ana when she is transported to a new world. Marsha recruits girls that are right on the edge because their lives involve violence or trauma. Marsha wants to save Ana and give her power. It’s not that I feel that we’re all in a war at all times, but that line has resonated. It’s resonated because sometimes, not always, but sometimes it does feel like we’re in some sort of weird war.
I wrote this script before #MeToo and it was interesting because #MeToo then started to feel like a war in a way. I think a lot of women really feel a struggle against something. I don’t think we’ve really fully come to terms with how much violence there is in girls’ and women’s lives in subtle ways, huge ways, and globally, it’s really it’s own pandemic. And I feel that. It does have a dramatic conflict element to it. It does feel sometimes that it’s a bit of a battle to get to where you need to be and to say what you need to say. It’s an internal war too, not just an external.
BORCHARDT: I like the film because I feel like it’s something I can relate to throughout my life, you know, just for various things, whether they’re big events or just small everyday things. But also, I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media and articles lately about trying to prevent or stop needless scenes of violence or sexuality against women in films. So it seems extra relevant right now to have a female-driven film.
CINORRE: Yeah! I mean, it’s everywhere. The amount of storytelling around that specific thing is scary to me. All my work, everything I do, I’M not interested in continuing that lineage of storytelling at all. Let’s start fresh. Let’s have new kinds of women characters. I feel encouraged that we are starting to see that onscreen more, but it’s not like it’s new. There are always incredible female storytellers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians. I’ve always been drawn to women in every discipline to see what they’re saying and see how they’re saying it. It feels very different from the more dominant versions of the stories we are fed.
BORCHARDT: What do you hope people see in your film, especially young women?
CINORRE: For young women and women, I want them to feel the courage to find their voice in whatever way that is for them. The film is also sort of playful even though it deals with some dark themes, and it certainly is not meant to be a battle cry as much as it’s an opportunity to transform thinking around using your voice, and thinking about different ways we can use our voices. And to let young women and women figure out for themselves how to best do that, and to not be afraid to do that. Even if something terrible has happened to them, or is happening to them, I hope they can feel transported in some way by the movie and have that feeling. That would mean the world to me. A lot of the people in the cast came to the film because it gave them that feeling. That was really encouraging and gave us a beautiful working relationship around the story.
BORCHARDT: That goes into my next question about how the principal cast felt about being a part of the film, and how they felt being a part of mainly an all female cast.
CINORRE: The five women characters just sort of leapt out at me in a non-traditional way. We chose actors who felt a deep personal connection to the film. All of the characters speak in sort of an usual way, their language is a little bit idiomatic and I wanted actors who could embody that well. I ended up choosing actors who did that but also had a really intense reaction to the script. That just instinctively felt like the right thing to do. I mean it was a risk basing casting on a reaction from the actor, it’s not really the traditional way, but I felt it was important to find the right women to play those characters. So I just did it that way!
BORCHARDT: What advice do you have for any young emerging filmmakers?
CINORRE: I would say to not listen to people who tell you what your films should feel like, or look like, or be like. Trust that what you feel is authentic, even if they can’t see that. And to not be deterred and to just feel secure in that feeling of believing in your work. It isn’t easy, it is a very male-dominated world and stories aren’t always understood when they’re new or told in a new way. I encourage you to stay the course and you will find your people.