LONDON — Unsurprisingly for a musical made by a director and musician with no formal training in either, Rachel Mason’s feature debut “The Lives of Hamilton Fish” — which made its European premiere at London’s Raindance Film Festival — looks and sounds quite unlike any other entry in the festival. With striking visuals that owe as much to Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie as the art of Picasso, it is a Fortean rock opera that tells the life stories of two very different men, both linked by a macabre quirk of history. Described by the New York Times as having a voice that is “part Emmylou Harris and part Yoko Ono,” the L.A.-based artist first screened her film at Hong Kong’s Pineapple Underground festival, where she sang with it live. “After that, I toured with it and I would sing the entire vocal track,” she recalls. “For me, one of the great pleasures is that, thanks to festivals like Raindance, it’s starting to get a life of its own. The programmers saw it and immediately understood that this could be just a film screened by itself.”
How did you come to write “The Lives of Hamilton Fish”?
It really all started with the songs, and the songs came from the characters that I was researching. I discovered this really strange fact. I came across the front page of a newspaper that happened to report the deaths of two famous men, both named Hamilton Fish, who had died within 24 hours of each other. And when I looked up who they were, their stories really inspired me. One of them came from the most prominent American family you could imagine, descending all the way back to one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. And the other was one of the most depraved serial killers of all time!
Did you immediately see it as a film project?
My first thought was, “Wow, I wish somebody who makes movies could do something with this — but that’s not me. I write songs and I make art.” [Laughs] I hadn’t made a movie, ever. It was a very long journey that eventually led me to make the film. I just started writing the very first song that came to me, and it kind of went from there.
When did you realise it had potential?
My background is as an artist, and I do shows in the art world and museums and galleries. I was invited to do a show in Philadelphia in a little gallery, and the friends that organized it actually suggested the idea that I perform some of my songs. So I did an installation, and after the show, I had so many people come up to me, asking questions. It led me to think, “How could I make this idea better, more clear, and take it out of the art world, where everything can easily live as this weird, esoteric thing that nobody understands?”
Did you have any experience?
I had never really set out to make a feature film at any point, but, as an art student, I went to UCLA and I took a number of film classes. I shot a very short 16mm film while I was there, and I learned about editing. My dad actually worked in the film industry. He worked on “2001” and “Star Trek,” so I’d kind of known a few things about film, and I had made a few video artworks. So basically I put together all the different skills that I’d acquired over the years.
How did you finance it?
In the U.S. a lot of people use non-profits. You get fiscal sponsorship, and then you can ask for donations as a charity. So I was able to get a really good fiscal sponsor, called the New York Foundation for the Arts. They became my charitable sponsor, and then I asked for donations from friends and family.
What inspired the very stylised look of the film?
“The Threepenny Opera” (1931) is a really huge point of inspiration to me. Films made around that period often had a staged, theatrical look, and I really wanted to capture that. I love composition. Also, I should say that abstraction in painting, and Cubism, is a big inspiration to me as well. That’s kind of what I feel the idea of filmmaking is. I’m not trying to compete with the reality of our world. I’m making a theatrical version, and that’s why I use face make-up that is really obvious. It’s like a rock opera.
How was your first experience of making a feature film?
I had the classic experience of doing everything yourself: producing, directing, acting, writing. I realized all the things that I’m good at and not good at. I loved directing — as soon as I was behind the camera, I knew exactly what to do. But managing people and producing was the world’s biggest nightmare. There are people that are great at that. And I’m not one of them.
Do you see the world of art and film as being separate? What’s the difference?
I would say that one of my favourite things to come out of this experience is that, in the film world, the audience is broader. A lot of my screenings have been at museums, where everybody is over the age of 60 — just a sea of white hair. And then I’ve had screenings where there have been a lot of children. They laugh, they cry, they tell me what moved them. Just a huge range. Whereas in the art world I often will see people who look very similar to me! The exciting thing for me about making a film is being able to make something that is more accessible but no less experimental or unusual. I wish more artists were venturing out.