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Categories: Interviews

We chat to writer and director Kate Jessop about her much lauded animated web series Tales From Pussy Willow in the wake of its second series.

Kate is an award-winning animation filmmaker whose work has been screened around the world, Cinema Jam screened her animated short Little Elephant at one our Jam Sessions last year and, after the incredibly strong response, invited her back earlier this year with one of the latest segment from her animated comedy web series Tales From Pussy Willow.

Explain to us the genesis of Tales From Pussy Willow’s collage style, why does the series look the way it looks?

I wanted to present my observations of the world in a way the audience would be able to relate to, but put a surrealist edge to it. I love the interactions you get with actors but didn’t want it to be fully live action. The animated bodies and environments adds a slight other-worldly element to it which I think softens some of the sharp dialogue. Some of the scripts can be quite breathtakingly close to the bone and I think it being partly animated makes it more digestible.

For example when the daughter is bluntly told “Don’t get AIDs” by her mother after coming out in Parents Chat I think it would be more shocking if it was just a live action scene. Plus it means I’m able to use the same actors and design different hairdos and outfits for them to make them into different characters! It’s a development of a technique I pioneered years ago in music video Wish You Rocked My World and comedy short Girls Guide to Muso Boyfriends where I used pixelation, where you shoot an actor frame by frame, heads with digitally created bodies.

Were the characters developed with your actors or designed independently? How do you think the colour palette influences each character and scene?

To begin with I just had the scripts and then the actors came afterwards. Now I’ve got a core group of actors as I’m writing new scripts I’m thinking who would suit what.

In regards to characters I try and have a bit of continuity throughout the series to portray the sense of Pussy Willow as a whole world as opposed to individual isolated episodes. For example in Coming into the Station the fellow passengers are Dave from the Muso Boy episodes in series 1 and the girlfriend from Lesbian Argument later in the series, who goes out with the femme we previously saw in Staffroom in series 1.

With the colour palettes I just follow the basic rules of design of not making the environments too busy to distract from the action, and thinking about what mood I’m conveying. With Coming into the Station I wanted quite a grey environment to contrast with the colourful activities unravelling in the train carriage and also to add contrast to the Orgasm Unicorn scene and chant scene.

The flat share interview episodes originally had a purple background as thought it would add to the eccentricity of the interviewer but in the end it was too much so changed it to yellow so it wasn’t too distracting.

How long did the writing process for each series take? Was there much room for improvisation given the shooting style?

Oh not long, they spill out of me. Maybe about 10 minutes per script. It is often things I’ve been mulling over in my mind for months though, on train journeys etc, then when I sit down it just seems to come out fully formed. I think when I first sat down to write I did about 20 scripts in two days. I barely edit either, just a couple of lines here and there. The ‘Animals have got souls too you know and they are not blue’ closing line for Vegetarian Houseshare came to me the night before the shoot when I emailed Anna the scripts as a potential spill over to film and now I think that closing line really makes it.

We have such a riot on the shoot day we don’t stop laughing. A couple of things are improvised on the day – like in The Astronaut when The Mansplainer turns up at the end of the press conference with his ‘Actually I think you’ll find’ line. That wasn’t in the script but since it was the same actor that was playing the journalists when he came out with it we just fell about laughing.

With the flat share interviewer in Series 1, Anna (Maguire) just made that character her own. Those two flat share episodes we just shot on a whim as we still had some time left on the day in the green screen studio, she learnt the lines as we were shooting the Muso Boy episodes. They ended up being some of my favourite episodes of the first series.

How long did the post-production process take for each series? Do you find that the work changes and evolves as it goes or do you have a more rigid plan from the start?

Oh it can take a painfully long time. First of all I go through each take of each actor to get the best delivery of the dialogue, usually two front and two side heads are shot. Then I design the assets so the hair, bodies and environments. A lot of the assets I reuse, partly for a time issue but also for world building purposes to give it a sense of coherence. In general I have an ‘asset bank’ throughout all of my Animation work so you may see the same plant or table used many a time! Again this adds to the coherence of my style. Once I have all the footage and assets I put it all together and animate! In Series 2 Leo Crane from London Animation came on board to help with parts of the animation. I met him at a queer animation event I was speaking at and he was a big fan and wanted to be involved which was wonderful. In general though the animation is pretty basic cut out style partly due to the volume of work being made on no budget but also it adds to the overall awkwardness of a lot of the situations presented.

What kind of studio space was required for the shoot? Was the availability good for your requirements or did you have to construct things for your needs?

I have access to a green screen studio so we have one day there all day where we shoot all the scripts. I worked with the same DP on both shoots and we’re learning as we’re going along.

In the second series I got the actors to wear green swimming caps to cover their hair I could mask out afterwards. The first series was such a pain masking out all the hair!

What’s the feedback for both series been like for you? Has there been anything that’s surprised you?

It’s interesting it’s had quite strong reactions. I’ve had quite a few women thank me for writing it. I guess it’s the first time some of these topics have been written about and presented on screen. Then I have some people say they find it quite painful to sit through which I think is equally valid, a lot of people saying they find it quite close to the bone. I also find some of it quite painful to sit through! After I made Staffroom I think I watched through it once once it was uploaded to make sure it played through properly and then can’t really bear to sit through it again!

A strong reaction either way is good though because then you know you’re reaching people and making them feel something, even if it’s discomfort. I’d be more concerned if people were ambivalent. I’ve been called the queer Lena Dunham, which is a great compliment, but I think I’m bit more absurdist than her!

You’ve spoken to us before about the situational comedy being derived from personal experience, do you think there’s room to expand to experiences beyond your own (say, trans or gay experiences) or will Pussy Willow always be a personal place for you?

I’m an observer and reporter of the world around me. About half of it is based on real conversations that I’ve had, at times pushed to an absurdist extent. About half of it I’m relaying observations of the world and maybe making protagonists out of people who don’t usually get voices. Like Coming into the Station is about the invisibility of the sexuality of older women (and inappropriate use of technology in public spaces).

The experience of being informed how to pronounce your own name like in The Mansplainer, usually by white cis men, has been relayed to me before from partners or friends who are women of colour. It’s an unbelievable and infuriating condescension that I’ll never really have to go through but more common than you realise. When I sent the script to Peyvand (Sadeghian) she was ‘Oh this has happened to me’.

Comedy is a really good tool to highlight peoples experiences in a digestible way thus starting difficult conversations about challenging topics. For example I love how, in the last series of Broad City, Ilana realises she hasn’t been able to come since Trump became president. This is obviously an exaggerated reaction but highlights the anxiety a lot of women, and people of varying minority statuses, feel about having their future in the hands of someone like this.

I’d say my overall lens I’m presenting is the world though a female lens as opposed to just a queer lens.

One sketch in particular this series, titled The Astronaut, does extend beyond pure personal experiences (please do tell us if you’ve had dealings with NASA before). Was  there a particular event which set the writing of that scene into motion?

The Astronaut is dealing with the way that women are treated in the media, the workplace and world as a whole. She has just accomplished a remarkable achievement but yet people seem fixated on her status as a mother – she is initially presumed to be one and judged on that, the first question is a damning how dare she leave her kids, and then judged on her not being one. She is objectified in terms of her appearance in her astronauts suit and has her knowledge of space travel questioned and then mansplained to her despite her obvious outstanding achievement. There is no way if a man was presenting his achievement at the same conference he would be judged on his paternal status, objectified on his appearance or have his knowledge questioned in the same way.

The theme of this is similar to the Muso Boy episodes where Muso Girls achievements go unregistered and ignored yet hero workshop over nothing happens between the Muso Boys. It was Bjork that said ‘A woman has to say 5 times what a man says once’ and that has always stayed with me. I wanted to think of the biggest most remarkable achievement that could be celebrated in our society i.e. reaching Mars in space travel and have a woman achieve that and show how she is belittled. This is something that women face everyday; they are objectified, questioned and judged over their achievements in a way men never are.

Are there plans to extend to a third series yet and, if so, do sketches like The Astronaut and Coming into the Station, with its musical break and debut of the Orgasm Unicorn, mark the beginning of a segue into bigger, more fantastical, scenarios in Pussy Willow?

Haha yes I love a bit of fantastical absurdity! It gives the chance to break out into more exciting animation as well as opposed to static talking heads. I’ve got a few more sketches that have a surrealist bent so watch this space! But yes I’ve got about another two series’ of content written. It’s getting it made that’s the challenge!

You mentioned to us how you originally considered pitching Tales From Pussy Willow to broadcasters. With the ever increasing creation of more independent platforms, do you think there’s a need for queer orientated content to conform to mainstream broadcasting’s rules or should it be doing its own thing on its own terms?

Watch this space. I do love the DIY element of web series’, I feel like it’s the punk rock of moving image. In a way it allows you to be way more risk-taking as there’s no gatekeepers to get past, which in media are usually white cis men. There’s a rawness and a vision that is uncompromising as there’s no-one to answer to. Which in a way is quite important to the kind of story telling I’m presenting.

To find out more about Kate, and her work, visit her website katejessop.co.uk

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, and lifelong cinephile, who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University of London. You can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

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Posted on Jan 11, 2018

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