Ashley McKenzie’s Film Queens of the Qing Dynasty Stays With You

An illustration of Ashley McKenzie
Illustration by Ashley Peña

When I first call Ashley McKenzie, she pauses the conversation at one point to step away: a neighbor is at the door, bearing the gift of a giant zucchini. From my cloudy patch of gray in New York, such a bounty sounds idyllic. “I’m surrounded by woods and mountains, and the village where I’m located is about 500 people,” McKenzie softly tells me from her home on Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia. I’d reached out to talk about her one-of-a-kind film, Queens of the Qing Dynasty, which just had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. Queens is an immersive portrait of Star (Sarah Walker), a young Canadian facing challenges with an absolutely distinctive outlook on the world; McKenzie finds innovative and entrancing ways to paint a portrait of her experience. “The film feels like it’s tapping into this ‘You’re on a different planet’ feeling, this insular, secluded environment,” McKenzie says.

The filmmaker grew up in a former coal mining town and has directed several shorts and a feature, Werewolf, that tackled life from a social-realist approach. Queens of the Qing Dynasty takes a somewhat different tack as it follows Star through the hospital and welfare systems. Its finely tuned representation of neurodivergent experience (which rejects the cutesy or pitying habits of conventional dramas) also shows the bond Star forms with another outsider, An (Ziyin Zheng), a hospital volunteer originally from Shanghai who’s embracing his queer identity in his new home. The soundtrack adds its own experiential ecosystem, blending sound design and music with tracks by Cecile Believe, Yu Su, and Autechre.

I talked with McKenzie about bringing Star and An to the screen and the real-life source material, how she pushed herself to find new directions in filmmaking, and the movies and moments that have inspired her, from Cassavetes to Anna Faris.

What was the starting point for the character of Star?

The development of Star’s character is closely modeled from a young woman I met when I was casting my first feature, Werewolf. She was not an actor, but just an interesting, young teenager in my community whom I’d asked to do an audition. She wasn’t comfortable in front of the camera, but as soon as I turned it off, we’d be having fun again. I realized it wasn’t going to work for that film, but we connected and she became a friend. She started to have experiences that are similar to what you see in the film, as far as Star moving through the medical system and trying to find a place to live. I became her confidant and maybe advocate while witnessing her go through those life experiences.

But it was so much related to being interested in the way she spoke and the way she looked at everything. Anything she did was not what I was used to hearing or thinking or seeing, and I found it super-creative and really fun to be around and stimulating. As part of processing a lot of these events, I started to write the script.

How did you work with Sarah Walker to capture Star’s particular way of being?

I didn’t know if I was going to be able to find someone who could capture what was on the page and what was in my mind because it was so linked to a real person. I was shocked when Sarah Walker did her audition; she was able to get quite close to that without her and I even talking. I didn’t know how she was doing it. But since then, she’s told me things about herself, about ADHD and OCD—different things in her life that do actually sync with the Star character on the inside, whereas superficially when she walked into the audition room, she was very unlike Star.

A huge part of what made the performance hit the mark was Sarah’s background as a singer and a dancer—how great her ear is and how much command she has over her body. She was able to spend quite a bit of time with my friend who inspired the character, and also look at a lot of material that I had developed with my friend, who was a script consultant on the film and would do table reads of the script with me in development.

Could you talk about Star’s relationship with An?

I was having very candid conversations with Star because she has an unfiltered personality, and that leads to conversations you wouldn’t have with the average person on an average day. When Ziyin came into my life, they had just moved here from Shanghai. They were ready to explore this new life as a queer person, and were having a lot of new experiences and felt a new freedom to express themselves. We very quickly spoke candidly about things, and when I put the two of them together and removed myself, things lined up because there was a yearning to connect and a yearning to talk that was vital to each of them,. They don't necessarily feel burdened by their circumstances. I feel like they actually have a positive outlook and quite a positive energy.

There’s a kind of alchemy that happens when they talk.

Chemistry and alchemy felt, to me, like the driving force of the film. It’s so easy to look at Star especially and see her as... not a star. I was interested in changing the way they view themselves and society views them—instead of something that is dull or useless, something valuable and beautiful.

Your last film, Werewolf, was more of a handheld, mobile drama. How did you create a new language for this film?

I felt after I did Werewolf a bit limited by the more social-realist way of making a film: scenes that are shorter, more understated, a more stripped-down approach, with more ellipses. As I started to write Star and An, they felt way too vibrant, too active, too layered to fit into this understated mode. And I had this idea that ellipses were something I was hiding behind. I wanted to know what would happen in the scene if I stay there and move through some uncomfortable moments. I want Queens to pick up where Werewolf left off.

Looking back, are there particular scenes from movies that have stuck with you and inspired you?

The first thing that flashed through my head when you said that was that while making Queens of the Qing Dynasty, I was inspired by actors—tiny moments, more than focusing on one director-auteur. I was taken by the performances in Mike Leigh films, like Career Girls, those two female leads [Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman]. Their performances were just vibrating. The tics that they had, the idiosyncrasies, the energy was something I’d never seen before. And in Secrets and Lies, I was fixating on performance details. There’s this super-simple moment, a comedic thing, when the main character is in the hallway talking to the other main character. She just brings this pencil up into frame at this particular moment...

And a third one: in Love Streams, when Gena Rowlands, her lawyer, her ex, and his lawyer are in the room with their daughter talking about the divorce that's happening. The daughter's basically saying she's a terrible mother, and it’s a really uncomfortable moment. And Gena Rowlands gets up out of her seat, walks over to her husband, and says, I need to sit down, and asks him to move out of his chair!

What is it about these scenes?

I think it’s creators that are giving these other creators, actors, a wide open space to be free. And those gestures capture to me a much more uninhibited performance that feels so alive and also crafted. It really floors me. Maybe it's also that some of those performers aren't spoken of like a Chaplin or a Tati or a Keaton, or given as much credit as certain Method actors. And they're not just running wild, which might be the John Cassavetes approach. It feels like the technique is really precise. These women are doing the most fascinating, interesting things that are giving these films so much of their creativity.

That was a shift for me, seeing those performances and not being afraid of coming off as too much. It felt liberating. Because writing Star and An as the script developed on the page, they felt like bright characters that had a lot to say and had very specific energies. So maybe seeing something like Career Girls, I felt permission to take the risk and try to go in the other direction. Just let them be a bit more free.

When making Queens of the Qing Dynasty, were you looking at other films that center portraying a particular headspace?

I'm not sure if there is a particular one. I don't think I quite realized how much the film was going to get into Star’s interiority. I knew it was a character piece and that the characters were more vibrant than a social-realist mode could handle, but it was really in the edit that things went extra-subjective. The films that were on my mind going into shooting, none of them had a very subjective interior perspective. Except for Smiley Face! That film is hilarious and really fun.

I love Anna Faris’s performance and did feel like it was comedic genius. That's one where it can feel like you're going in and out of her consciousness. The way [the director] Gregg Araki designs it, it does shift between modes where you're seeing her being super-high, and then you pull away from that and see things as they actually are.

Last thing: Has your friend who inspired the character of Star seen the movie by now?

Yeah. She watched it, and she was really into it. She said it was like an acid trip!