Crossing From Loneliness Into Being: On SUPERNOVA and an Interview with Topaz Winters
TOPAZ WINTERS is a poet, editor, actress, and entrepreneur. Her work has been published in Cosmonauts Avenue & Rust+Moth, profiled in The Straits Times and Cicada Magazine, and commended by the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the National YoungArts Foundation, among others. She is the youngest Singaporean ever to be nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She serves as the editor-in-chief and creative director at Half Mystic Press; her latest book, which debuted at the Singapore Writers’ Festival, is poems for the sound of the sky before thunder (Math Paper Press, 2017); her latest film is the award-winning and critically-acclaimed SUPERNOVA (dir. Ishan Modi, 2017). She was born in 1999 and resides at topazwinters.com. She enjoys tea, films, wildflowers, and the colour of the sky when nothing is dreaming of it.
Editor-In-Chief Kanika Lawton was honoured to speak to Topaz Winters again about her latest film SUPERNOVA, the complexities of filmmaking, loneliness, the importance of blue, and the power of softness.
Before Kanika sat down with Topaz, she reviewed SUPERNOVA, a short, yet powerful, film on navigating solitude, the intricacies of being, and reaching beyond the self towards something greater.
(Read the review below, and the accompanying interview after it.)
I first reviewed Topaz Winters’ work in March 2017, when I wrote a review of her achingly soft, fiercely rebellious, and quietly powerful debut chapbook, Heaven Or This. It was my first time reading Winters' words, and they quickly heightened my renewed interest in poetry after months of hiatus from reading, let along writing, any poetry or prose. Still, I was thrilled to see her lilac-tinged words extend into other mediums, such as her debut film, SUPERNOVA.
SUPERNOVA (dir. Ishan Modi, 2017) stars Topaz Winters, who wrote the screenplay and provides her voice. It was chosen as an official selection for the Newark International Film Festival, Across Asia Youth Film Festival, and Laurie Nelson Film Festival, and it was shortlisted for the My Rode Reel Film Festival and CINE Golden Eagle Awards. Winters also received the Overall Best Actress award at the Singapore International Student Film Festival for her performance. SUPERNOVA is a rather short film (including credits, it clocks in at three minutes exact), yet there is much to unpack in this softly-glowing, blue-hued body of filmic wonder. Film has fascinated me all my life; I remember reading film reviews sprawled out on my parents’ kitchen floor at the age of eight; eventually I went on to receive a Minor in Film Studies, and am currently applying to grad school for Screenwriting and Film Studies. Throughout my schooling—and much of life—I have believed in the power of quality over quantity; of powerful words, performances ,and stories that know when to end, as well as how to begin. I would rather a film end at its strongest rather than linger, and I am sure many of us know the frustration of watching a TV series that doesn’t know how to end, stretching a strong premise so thinly that, by its finale, it is barely a whisper of its former self.
SUPERNOVA does not suffer from this lack of direction, nor does it become anything except an intentional and heartfelt look into the intricacies of loneliness, loss, becoming, and blue. It begins with Winters sitting on a bench, writing the words “Where are you going?” on a blank journal page. Here, the film continuously splices between scenes of Winters in a crowded city, an empty park, in spaces both occupied with people yet devoted to the loneliness felt in such places. By the end of the film, Winters’ throws her journal to the ground, filled with the frantic, anxious repeatings of “Where are you going?” and runs towards a vast ocean, impaired only by a fence.
Inner loneliness, even if one is surrounded by others, is the major theme of SUPERNOVA, alongside the navigation of empty space, and the inability to escape what resides internally. In an earlier scene, Winters’ “escape” from the weight of loneliness is physically stopped by a chain-link fence, which parallels the closing shot of her looking towards the ocean as she leans against the barrier that prevented her from reaching it. Even when not physically alone, Winters’ moves through crowded spaces as if in a fog, wanting to reach out towards others, yet stopped by something she cannot see. “These days I see humanity rippling around me and I yearn to touch, joining in on something greater than myself, at once millimeters and light years away.” Even when others moves past her, accidentally hitting her shoulder in the process, she does not respond, both too close yet too far away to swim across this sea of anxiety and loneliness in order to reach them.
This inability to cross is exemplified by documentary-style shots of various people going about their lives in the city: couples holding hands, friends grabbing boba tea together, children with their parents, a bustling food court. It is notable that Winters’ is not present in any of these scenes; any shots that do not feature Winters’ as the main focus are crowded with people that prevent the viewer from gauging a sense of place. “I crave the company of others as much as they overwhelm me,” Winters monologues, and we come to understand this paradox ourselves. Surrounded by people without awareness of where one is, no familiar face to latch onto; it is no wonder that loneliness, even in its heaviness, becomes a source of relief.
SUPERNOVA is poetic in its honesty. There is no dialogue in the film, except for a monologue in voice-over that speaks for Winters’ own inner voice. This lack of dialogue prevents SUPERNOVA from being classified as a “conventional” film, but it is better for it. Winters’ monologue speaks to the power of poetry, spoken word, and the vulnerability of performing as oneself on film. It explores the fear and comfort in loneliness, of inner being, of reaching out and pulling back in, and how to live within these contradictions both in the mind and the world. It is poetic filmmaking at its best. It is film as poetry, and poetry as film.
KANIKA LAWTON: Dear Topaz, we are so happy to feature you again at L'Éphémère Review, and are honoured that you have chosen to judge for us for our Inaugural Writing Awards.
TOPAZ WINTERS: It’s a joy to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Tell us a little bit about your foray into film. What are some of the difficulties of translating written work into a visual medium? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using film as a creative outlet?
I find that when I write, there can often be an expectation of instant gratification; I spend an hour writing a poem and during that time the poem is all that exists and then it is finished, for better or worse. This film, though, had so many moving parts that the sort of laser-bright focus—and subsequent quick finish—that I’m used to was all but nonexistent. We spent a week from start to finish creating it, and during that time we were, at any given moment, writing the script and recording the monologue and filming various scenes and revising parts that felt out of place and editing the clips we had and re-filming past scenes and rerecording parts of the monologue that didn’t convey the emotion strongly enough, repeat ad infinitum. If anything, translating my work into film taught me how to slow, to still, to wait. The importance of patience in the process.
SUPERNOVA explores themes of loneliness, empty space, and self-discovery through the use of inner monologue. What was it like to write on such themes, and why did you decide to employ monologue versus, for example, dialogue between two or more characters?
SUPERNOVA put into words many of the thoughts I’ve had about being a highly anxious introvert—yet also, one who loves people, if only in the right doses. That paradox has always been fascinating to me, one that I’ve been pondering for as long as I can remember, and so it seemed only natural to have the ideas present be conveyed through the use of a sort of stream-of-consciousness interior monologue. I’m only lucky that my lovely director, Ishan Modi, saw the vision of this soft and sky-tinged film as clearly as I did and was willing to work with me to make it a reality.
The colour blue is interspersed throughout SUPERNOVA in the cinematography, lightning, and themes. What significance does blue hold in SUPERNOVA, and what importance does colour hold in your work overall?
I honestly adore this question—it’s one I’ve never received before, but the colour blue holds so much significance to me and this film that I didn’t realise until now how much I’d been dying to address it. I have a condition called synaesthesia, which essentially means I see sound and hear colour (among other modes of sensory confusion), so colour is incredibly important in my work. I find that each of the projects I create or have a hand in creating is imbued with a specific colour in my mind.
So when we were working on SUPERNOVA, I remember discussing with Ishan what loneliness means to both of us, and over & over again the colour blue surfaced in my mind. The script of the film, the settings, the costumes, everything we worked on sang something quiet and blue and tender. It was only natural to work that into the film in a very visual way, which Ishan did so much more beautifully than I ever could have imagined.
How did SUPERNOVA come about, from conception, to execution, to final product? What was the inspiration behind the script, and how has this filmic journey impacted your other creative endeavours?
SUPERNOVA was a very interesting project, because it was the first time I’d ever written or acted for film. Generally I publish my work online or in print, and I’d only had experience with performing in open mic settings before SUPERNOVA. This film creatively challenged me on many levels, but I think especially in the medium; it was odd for me to hand over so much of the control to Ishan, and I know he was many times frustrated with my lack of experience in front of the camera, just as I was frustrated with his lack of knowledge on the intricacies of the script! Even so, this creation has had an indelible impact on my writing and the way I collaborate with other artists. Since bringing it to life, I think even more in terms of the rhythm and music of my words; I visualise the way they sing and flow across the page, the colours they reflect, the names they create for themselves. Just as much, though, I’m learning that this work has to go in the hands of my collaborators, that we must hold it up together. It’s a fine intertwinement of silence and sound, and one I’m still trying to understand how to balance.
Softness, or softness with teeth, threads its way through much of your work and your advocacy for independent artists, especially artists of colour. Why is softness so important to you, and how can we employ it in our own work and lives?
I believe that, in times when it would be so much easier to forget all ways of softness, it’s the only thing that keeps us strong. The only truth I know how to fathom exists in that softness—not as weakness, but as power, as defiance, as the first notes in our battle anthems and the fires that keep us warm. Softness exists in so many shades for me, but mostly, it means being kind to the broken parts of ourselves. Making space for the stories of those who are less privileged than we are. Crying hard and fighting harder. Opening to the ache. Remembering how many debts we owe and retaining that gratitude always, always. Keeping our eyes on the horizon even when the smoke threatens to overtake everything in sight.
How has film impacted your life, both as viewer and filmmaker?
Film teaches me what it means to trust (in the process, in myself, in my co-creators, in the gorgeous and impossible belief that somehow all of it will turn out okay and we will create something beautiful out of the mess). It teaches me what it means to listen and to watch and to laugh and to yearn and to mourn and to stretch. Whether I’m viewing or making, film teaches me what it means to know and not know all at once. That’s a feeling I don’t get enough of, and one I never want to stop chasing.
Thank you very much for spending time with us today, Topaz. We wish you all the love, light, and warmth in the world.
Thank you infinitely, dear friend. I hope your day is gentler than rain.