Fantasia 2020 Interview: Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess on MORGANA
Playing at Fantasia 2020, Morgana is one of the most interesting docs I've seen at this festival --- or ever, due to its sheer humanity and empathy. You can read the full review here.
ScreenAnarchy was able to speak to the directors of this thought-provoking, tear-inducing doc --- Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard --- who told us about how Morgana came to be, normalizing the sexuality of mature women, and more.
If you're in Canada, you can watch Morgana on demand via Fantasia during the run of the festival, from August 20 - September 2. Check out the trailer below.
ScreenAnarchy: How did you come to meet Morgana Muses, and what sparked the idea to follow her for a documentary?
Isabel Peppard: I first met Morgana through Josie, who was working with her at the time. They were looking for a director to document Morgana’s 50th birthday experience, and Josie asked me if I was interested, as we had already been working on a few projects together. When I found out that a few years earlier Morgana had been a housewife in rural Australia, I became really interested in her as a character and how she got to where she was. After chatting about it with Josie, we decided that it was a story that we’d both be really interested in telling and so we approached Morgana with a pitch.
Josie Hess: I was in film school and wanted to make a documentary about making porn, where we actually filmed the process of making a porno. My school’s ethics commitee rejected the idea, but it led me to find out that one of my lecturers was actually this bad ass feminist porgrapher Anna Brownfield, who had made the legendary feature porn film The Band. I’d already interned on a few porn sets, so I hit her up and she agreed to let me help out on her next production, which just happened to be a film she was making with Morgana.
Morgana and I hit it off during that production; we bonded over our love of organizational stationary. At the same time, I’d been helping Isabel with some of her script work. We would meet on my lunch breaks while I was working at Monster Pictures and just spit ball ideas. Morgana had her 50th birthday coming up, where she had this very special rope bondage installation project planned, and she wanted to film the experience. After Anna couldn’t direct the project, Morgana asked me. I was 24 and hadn’t directed before, so I didn’t feel capable of something like that, but I knew Isabel was an amazing experienced director, and suggested her instead.
Isabel and I knew Morgana's story was special, so we pitched that we would make a short film about her using the footage we shot during her birthday experience as a starting place. We just kept rolling from there.
Was Morgana immediately up for the idea of being a subject, or did it take some convincing?
IP: When we initially pitched the idea to Morgana, she was pretty open to it from the start. Because she was already quite public with her work, she didn’t feel concerned about being “outed” in any way, so that definitely made it easier. I think she could also tell that we had a very personal connection with the material, and wanted her story to be told by other women who were coming from inside the communities of kink and porn --- rather than looking in on them from the outside. I remember leaving the pitch meeting that we had with Morgana and feeling tingling in my body! It must have been the tingling of destiny! Ha ha!
JH: She really was up for it, she is a very giving subject --- she would keep us abreast of her plans and say things like, “I'm doing a nude glitter shoot, do you think that would be good for the doco?” Um, yes!
A documentary evolves on its own, but it also needs structure to start. How did you navigate the process of writing and shaping the doc, versus capturing what happened naturally?
IP: We initially thought that the documentary was going to be a short, calling-card film for our production company, so we didn’t start with any kind of feature film structure in mind. As we kept filming, Morgana kept evolving in surprising ways that constantly changed the structure and direction of the narrative, as well as our understanding of her as a character. Over about five years of filming, her story developed and reformed until we found a natural end point --- and by then, it was a feature.
We had already done a few full edits before the story “ended,” but once we had it more or less in the can, we started to do the serious shaping. We identified all the pickups we needed and started to gather more archival and illustrative footage to help pad the narrative out. Both Josie and I did complete cuts of the films at different times in the process even before the editor came on board. We had story cards set up in my office with the structure mapped out on a large cork board, and would sit there over a few years of summers, moving scenes around and rearranging things. We got so enmeshed in the story and character that we would even quote parts of the film to each other, because we basically knew it by heart.
JH: We shot a LOT, like a LOT of footage, since it evolved from a short, to a feature just by nature of Morgana’s life taking so many twists and turns. We actually all had a crack at editing the film with the hundreds of hours of footage, and while those cuts didn’t make it, it did help us solidify what the film was about and what Morgana’s story was. We eventually got down to business with scene cards and the hero's journey to work our the key beats --- and then shaped the doc from there.
What surprised you about the process of making Morgana?
IP: I was constantly surprised and fascinated by the character. Every time I thought I knew her, she did something or said something to overturn my expectations and change my perception of her. I was also surprised by how much I could relate to her on so many different levels, despite the fact that we come from such different backgrounds generationally and culturally.
JH: Probably Morgana herself. Every time we thought the story had ended or that we sort of understood her she would go in an unexpected direction or throw a curveball at us about where she was heading.
What scenes or events did you want to include but didn’t work for pacing, length, or any other reason?
IP: There was a short drama film that Morgana starred in in Berlin called Etage X that had an amazing, hilarious, and very rude pay off scene that we would have loved to include, but unfortunately it was too much of a spoiler for the filmmakers (totally fair). There were also some additional scenes in Morgana’s film The Life of Bi that were just a bit too dark for a section that was already extremely dark. I don’t want to say too much about them, but they did involve vomit!
JH: There are so many moments we became attached to, that just couldn’t fit. (I think our director's cut would be like 3 hours long.)
One of my favourite scenes is an off-the-cuff thing we filmed at my house. Morgana has my stuffed toy octopus on her head and she is reading through her fuck it, bucket list” of all the stuff she wants to do --- some of it’s like your typical, jump-out-of-an-aeroplane type stuff. Other stuff is like foot torture or erotic fire play. She is the best!
You’ve successfully normalized many things we don’t often get to see because society deems them shameful or distasteful: older women owning themselves, their sexuality, taking back their power, and feminist pornography. What kind of attitudes or reactions have you come across in making Morgana?
IP: We have found that for these reasons, there has been a huge amount of interest in this story. I have been really pleasantly surprised by some very strong empathy and interest from male viewers who were really touched by the material. Maybe it’s almost educational in a way, seeing sexuality and desire through a different lens and perspective by grounding it in the experience of a middle-aged woman railing against her own repression and sexual invisibility.
JH: Well, I have two current warnings on my FB and IG from trying to do promo for this project, so ya’ know there is the whole anti-sex work thing in tech. You do encounter the odd mega-conservative who fundamentally disagrees with everything you believe in on occasion, maybe someone conflating all sex work with sex trafficking or that sex work is inherently internalized misogyny or stuff like that. But that is really very rare; honestly most people have had positive reactions so far.
Has getting Morgana made been difficult for any of the above reasons?
IP: I think it has been difficult to get made in the way that all independent films are difficult to get made. If anything, the issues addressed in the film helped us find our audience because there was a need and a hunger for this story. One thing we did really come up against was internet censorship particularly in social media. We struggled (and still struggle) to promote our content online, which was a real issue --- especially when launching a crowdfunding campaign. Facebook particularly did not want us to promote much of our content, even when it was very vanilla!
JH: Making anything is hard, putting art into the world is work for sure, so I don’t think our project has been uniquely difficult. I also think our full-service, sex worker sisters and brothers expereince stigma and censorship on an entirely another level than we have with this project. We’ve been really lucky to be working independently, with a supportive producer so we have been able to retain a great deal of creative control. The worst stuff is just being unable to promote the film properly on social media because “the algorithm” hates female nipples.
Has Morgana seen the doc, and if so, what was her reaction?
IP: She has. We actually wanted to show her the edit before we locked the fine cut in case she had any major issues with the material or the way she had been portrayed. She was very happy overall and only had a few small tweaks which were more about protecting people's privacy than anything else! Since then, she has attended the premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival (before the world shut down!!) where she received a standing ovation so that was a big thrill for her and very affirming that she was reaching other people with her story.
JH: She has! We wanted to show her and give her a chance to flag anything that didn’t sit right with her before anyone else saw it. So after we locked the edit, I went round to Morgana’s house one night after work and we sat in her little bed holding hands and watched the film. It was pretty surreal to watch it with her for the first time. Afterwards, she only had the tiniest changes to a few photos to protect some other people's privacy. She gave the film her blessing, which we were so incredibly grateful for.
What’s Morgana up to now?
JH: Well, Mog and I recently got our latest film into the Berlin Porn Film Festival, which will be screening in late 2020. It’s a documentary, called All of Me, about disability activist and sex worker Melinah Viking. We are really excited for people to see her story. Other than that, Morgana is just chilling in Melbourne mostly.
It may be too early to ask, but is there anything next for each of you? Are you working on any other documentaries?
IP: I’m not working on any docs at the moment, but definitely would make another one if the right story and character came along! At the moment, I am writing a feature horror/animation hybrid and have just had some funding to develop a short stop-motion animated, virtual reality project, which I can only describe as feminist body horror!
JH: I’m working on a feature horror called Lenore, which is like a nightmare combo of Videodrome meets Youtube and has this epic ARG component. And doco-wise, I’m shooting shorts with Morgana (like the one I mentioned above).
Morgana’s parents disowned her for what she does. Any chance a copy of the doc will be sent to them?
IP: I don’t think there are any plans for that at this stage. I guess if Morgana feels like it would be helpful she could always share it, but I don’t think that is on the cards somehow.
JH: Well, since we shot the doco, Morgana's father has actually passed away. We certainly wouldn't send her mum a copy. We know her mum may get sent the link by other people, but we are basically avoiding doing a wide release in Australia, because we want to be respectful of the difficulty Morgana has had with her parents view of what she does.
Congrats on Morgana! I hope the doc gets the attention it deserves.
IP: Thanks so much! It has been a long and arduous journey getting the film made, so it’s great that it is out there in the world now and starting to find its audience.
JH: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.