Why do Zelma’s perfect relationships keep falling apart? That’s the tagline for director Signe Baumane’s award-winning animated feature film ‘My Love Affair with Marriage’, which opens October 6 at The Quad in NYC and October 12 at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles.
The film is about a spirited young woman determined to find love in the bewildering world. ‘My Love Affair With Marriage’ follows Zelma on her 23-year quest for perfect love and lasting marriage set against a backdrop of historic events in Eastern Europe. Told from a woman’s point of view, the film blends historical, biological, societal, and emotional arcs with a lively sense of humor and musical numbers. This animated film for adults tackles the issues of love, gender norms, domestic violence, fantasies and toxic
relationships to propel a woman’s journey toward independence and liberation.
The film, a Latvian – USA – Luxembourg co-production, took seven years to make and was financed with the help of 1,685 individual donors along with grants from many arts and cultural institutions. ‘My Love Affair With Marriage’ had its World premiere June 11, 2022 at Tribeca Festival in New York City and has screened at over 85 film festivals around the world.
Signe’s incredible body of work is a testament to the power of animation as an effective storytelling tool for films made for adults, not just children’s content. Signe is a Latvian-born, Brooklyn-based independent filmmaker, artist, writer, and animator who has made 17 award-winning animated shorts but is best known for her first animated feature ‘Rocks in my Pockets’. The film covers a 100-year history of depression and suicide of women in her family, including herself.
Wanting to get more of an understanding of the epic amount of work it took to bring ‘My Love Affair With Marriage’ to life, and talk a little deeper about the intersection of themes included in Zelda’s story, we had the chance to speak with Signe ahead of the film’s theatrical release in NYC and Los Angeles.
How did the story for ‘My Love Affair with Marriage’ begin, and what made you want to make a feature film?
The first impulse to make ‘My Love Affair with Marriage’ came while I was making my first animated feature film “Rocks In My Pockets” (released in 2014). I was writing a weekly blog and had to come up with a new story every week for the blog. At some point I ran out of short stories and decided to write about my second marriage. I thought it was a pretty dramatic story – love found, passions colliding, secrets kept, misunderstandings galore, cultural gaps too large, love lost etc. The story ran for 12 installments and my readers loved it.
“This could make a good film,” I thought. So, in September 2015, I started writing a script. But a script is not a story for a blog, it requires different structure. As I was restructuring the story, I started thinking – why did we want to marry so desperately? And why did we fall in love? And from there, like an animation Sherlock Holmes, I went deeper and deeper to unveil the secrets of the most overhyped human emotion – Romantic Love. Of course, the story is so epic, covering a span of 25 years and a collapse of a country, and it travels from macrocosm to microcosm, it could not be possibly told in a short form. It had to be a feature.
Creating an animated feature film is a huge process, and can be very expensive. How did you raise the funds for it and how long did it take?
The process of making the film took 7 years – from 2015 when I started writing the script until the film’s premiere in June 2022 at Tribeca Festival. And YES, you are right – making an animated feature film is very expensive, partly because the process is so slow. In January 2017 we ran a Kickstarter campaign and with the help of 1,562 backers raised $132,773 which helped us to get the film off the ground.
For the next 6 years I and my partner Sturgis Warner, who is also the film’s producer, regularly submitted the project for grant considerations and raised money from small donors through our fiscal sponsor Filmmakers Collaborative. Fundraising was hard and nerve wrecking, at times we thought we would have to fold the production, but somehow we always managed to find a way to keep going. We do love our backers, the 1,682 amazing people who supported the project through those 7 years!
The film was made in English and Latvian. What was this process like, and how did casting play a role in ensuring the voices did the characters justice?
Because Sturgis is a seasoned New York theater actor and director, and has a vast experience of working with actors, and he was in charge of casting the film. As a theater director he understands how crucial casting is. We discussed the characters and the style of acting. We both agreed that the style of the film called for elevated, theatrical acting and that we needed to get the best actors with experience in theater. Sturgis was able to cast some of the best New York actors. We were lucky that Matthew Modine (Papa on Stranger Things) agreed to be part of the project. Matthew voices Bo, and he is also an Executive Producer of the film. He is perfect as Bo – enthusiastic, strong yet vulnerable.
But the main character Zelma was harder to cast because an actor would have to have diverse skills – in storytelling, comedy, tragedy, and she’d have to be able to convey different ages of the character – from ages 7 until 32. I was very nervous to cast that role. If we made a wrong choice, the film would not work. For every candidate that Sturgis proposed I found a reason to refuse. Then one day Sturgis showed me a YouTube video of the actress Dagmara Dominczyk (Karolina on Succession) reading from a book she wrote “Lullaby for Polish Girls”. Instantly I knew she was the one, she could switch from funny to serious, and she is a great storyteller. Dagmara is from Poland, so her understanding of Eastern Europe was a great bonus. I did not have to explain to her what it is like to be from my part of the world. She was our Zelma.
As an animator, I don’t get to work with actors very often, so I feel I don’t have enough experience or understanding how to get good performances from actors. How do you give directions to actors so that they can give life to the characters’ lines written on a page? Luckily, Sturgis with his directing background, was able to teach me some of the skills.
What has been the reception from audiences since you premiered at Tribeca in 2022? Which reactions have surprised you the most?
Since the premiere, “My Love Affair With Marriage” went to over 90 film festivals around the world. It won over 20 awards. The film was released in France, Spain, Italy Latvia and Central Europe, and it is about to be released in the US on October 6.
The film has been well received by audiences, but especially by women. My biggest surprise is how similarly women from very different cultures and countries react to the film. “This is my story,” – is a comment I heard the most from women in India, Turkey, France, Latvia, Italy and US. The second biggest surprise is that a lot of men relate to the main character Zelma: “I am Zelma, because like her I don’t fit in!”
The themes included in Zelma’s story are quite universal, and seem more timely than ever. What kind of messages did you want to share about gender norms and the expectations on women?
I would love for audiences to see the film and decide for themselves what the messages of the film are.
But I do want to mention one thought that I grappled with when making the film is how social and political inequality can corrupt intimacy in relationships. When one person in relationship feels superior to their partner, the relationship cannot sustain. When gender roles in relationships are rigid, intimacy erodes. When one person keeps a secret from their partner, the trust is lost.
Only with equality we can find true intimacy and true intimacy makes us more powerful. We become like the mythical creature with two heads, four legs and four arms.
The idea of a liberated woman who makes her own decisions is still considered such a threat to much of the world. Why do you think this is?
I feel I am not qualified to answer that question, I am only a filmmaker. But yes, I have felt the fear (in disguise of disdain, derision, rejection) directed at me for being too strong, too opinionated, too sexually free. One story I often think about is the age old story of Carmen – a woman determined to live her life the way she chooses and is killed in what today we would call an act of domestic violence. Don Jose would not let Carmen break up with him.
One may think we have made progress since the 1800s when the story was written and then made into an opera. But in 2023 every day we hear of women being killed by their partners who would not let them go. And we still blame the victim.
I believe that the stories we tell matter. Prosper Merime, when he wrote the novella “Carmen,” made Don Jose an innocent victim of Carmen’s charms. She made him do it. Nobody has told that same story from Carmen’s point of view. Inequality and abuse rely on the existing paradigms. The existing paradigms rely on the stories we hear and see. Carmen had her own inner life, her own agency but the stories about her focused on the suffering of a man. That’s how the myth of Femme Fatale, a man’s agonizing fear of a strong, independent woman, is perpetuated.
What is at the root of a man’s fear of equality? Fear of losing status or fear of the unknown? But perhaps, an inability to perceive a woman as a person with her own agency, needs and wants. That’s why I want to tell stories from a woman’s point of view – how does it feel to be a woman, here and now.
Domestic violence is also an issue incorporated into the story. Why was it important for you to include this?
Because love in an unequal society can easily take a bad turn towards domestic violence. Also, because this is my personal experience.
What was the most challenging aspect of making this film for you?
Definitely the fundraising. Also, for 7 years every day I was working on and thinking about the characters, who they are and how to best express their journey and then one day the film was finished and the characters were in the movie living their lives without needing me. I felt acute grief for several months, a loss of my purpose.
What do you hope audiences will love most about ‘My Love Affair with Marriage’?
I hope audiences will appreciate the humor, dialogues, great score and the 24 songs written by composer Kristian Sensini.
When introducing the film, I always plead with audiences to stay for the film’s end credits to hear the song “Lion.” It was especially written for the film. I wrote the lyrics, the film’s composer Kristian Sensini wrote the music and the one-and-only Storm Large (Pink Martini) sings it. The song sums up the film and gives you an idea what is next for Zelma and for you. I want you to walk out of the movie theater humming “Lion”, feeling inspired and charged with hope.
What are your plans for the film in the coming months, and where can audiences watch it?
The film continues to screen at film festivals around the world. It opens theatrically in the US on October 6th at Quad Cinema, NY. Our Team and I will present the film there. I plan to give away a drawing to audience from the film at Q&A sessions. Then we’ll go to Los Angeles where the film will have West Coast premiere on October 12th.