Filmmaker Goran Stolevski Says, ‘85% of my brain can be described as a difficult woman’

GO had the pleasure of sitting down the 38-year-old Macedonian-Australian filmmaker to discuss how a cis-gay man manages to portray women with such a keen eye. 

Macedonian filmmaker Goran Stolevski’s 2022 debut, You Won’t Be Alone, is a lucid dream-like film that follows a witch around a 19th-century Macedonian village, as she assumes the identity of different people with varying genders and dispositions. Classified as a horror, You Won’t Be Alone turns the genre on its head, serving as a poetic visual documentation of what can become of us in isolation, and how that “monster” might be nursed back into human form with the proper care and community.

I watched the film like a child given rule over the television remote—my face nearly pressed up against my computer screen, my chin cradled in my cupped hands. As a cinephile, as an artist, I engage with art quite often, but with the onslaught of “content,” it has become increasingly rare to interact with art that reminds you of yourself, of humanity, of what and how we make meaning of these experiences, memories, and emotions that sit in our chests.

Stolevski’s next film, Of An Age, spotlights a teenage Serbian-born Australian ballroom dancer who falls into an unexpected whirlwind romance with a friend’s older brother. His latest feature, Housekeeping for Beginners,  takes us to 21st-Century Macedonia, where we meet a queer, rather rambunctious and chaotic chosen family. The sound design is such that conversations are often indistinguishable from brawls, save for the actors’ facial expressions and body language. The antagonism is a character all its own, but so is the delicate softness that comes at all the right moments. 

LGBTQ+ representation is increasing on screen in many parts of the world, but the same can’t be said of films in North Macedonia, a country bordering Greece and Albania that is notoriously conservative when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. To be queer and to see your community, in one of its many forms, depicted on screen with such precision is both moving and crucial for all people everywhere. 

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Goran Stolevski, the 38-year-old Macedonian-Australian filmmaker, to discuss his films, how he avoids getting pigeon-holed into one genre, and how a cis-gay man manages to portray women with such a keen eye. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

GO Magazine: You Won’t Be Alone is not your typical horror film; it’s lyrical and beautiful. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a cis-man portray women in such a way, especially with the fact that the male gaze gets brought up in film criticism and review so often, with good reason. I think this same care is evident in your direction of Housekeeping for Beginners as well. Can you talk more about that? 

Goran Stolevski: Thank you. I find myself drawn to female perspectives. If we reduce things down to the binary, I think my brain could be described as 85% female. I’m not interested in stories that are solely about men. I get bored. And often, there are stories about women that I just don’t quite believe. I think a lot of gay guys suffer from diva worship. Perhaps, “suffer” isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean. I connect to women differently. People often think that Of an Age is autobiographical because it’s about two gay guys who vaguely look like me. A lot of me is in their personalities, but the most autobiographical film I’ve done is You Won’t Be Alone; it’s essentially my thoughts split between characters. Transmuting my feelings into female characters felt more natural. Also, a lot of the people I like watching are meant to be unlikable. I think a lot of people I like, connect with, and understand deeply are meant to be unlikable or “difficult” women. So maybe it’s better to say that 85% of my brain can be described as a difficult woman. 

GO: I’m sure I’d be described the same way by many people that know me. You’re in good company. 

GS: Yeah, absolutely.

GO: What was it like to work with Anamaria Marinca again for this role? In You Won’t Be Alone, she plays a kind of a pseudo-mother. In Housekeeping for Beginners, she plays a pseudo-mother as well, but the roles are strikingly different.

GS: It was incredible. It always is. She learned all the dialogue phonetically for both You Won’t Be Alone and Housekeeping for Beginners, as Macedonian isn’t her native language. I’m extremely grateful she took on that challenge. Because she was going to learn the dialogue phonetically for Housekeeping for Beginners as well, the script had to be mostly finalized, especially for her character. We met via WhatsApp for days, going through every line. To me, she’s a co-creator in the film, like every actor is. But it’s a privilege working with her. The film was made better in the end by how much input she had and because of how much she cares about everything and everyone in the film. It’s not about making herself look good. She’s probably the only actor I would tell the shot size and the framing to, just so she knows how she calibrates herself. She just has such a deep understanding of cinema that she will build on what I’m telling her and she makes it feel more cinematic. I just feel very lucky and privileged, as a filmmaker, having her on set.

GO: She’s just magnetic. There’s so much intensity in Housekeeping for Beginners, and it borders on being  uncomfortable to watch at times. The way the characters talk to each other — you’re almost waiting for them to break out into laughter after and the laughter never comes. You’re waiting for the relief and there’s no relief. But bred into that antagonism is this unbelievable delicacy. Can you talk about the marriage between those two elements in the film?

GS: The dynamic you see on screen, that family dynamic, is very much shaped by the people I grew up with. I was in a household with, like, six people in two rooms as a child, and that’s not counting the 36 cousins that were in and out of the house every day. I loved that. I miss that feeling. But it was constant energy and fighting that was also not fighting at all, you know? But there was never any relief. I actually think a lot of the world lives that way. I moved to Australia in my teenage years, which was a very different way of life. But once I was taken out of [the chaotic dynamic], I appreciated what it was. For many years, my voice was too loud for everyone because I had grown so used to being in that kind of space. 

I feel like I never actually see these kinds of dynamics reflected on screen. I really wanted to document that way of living. It’s also important to me that the energy is about the cast. I also want to honor each of their perspectives. The raw, individual humans, ultimately. Especially as an editor, my job is to make sure everyone’s perspective is seen and served. While on set, there were these moments that just happened naturally for them. They’re living in this situation in real time. And you see this in the film. Unscripted feelings flicker in, and sometimes these moments of realness make it very tricky to edit, but you find a freakin’ way because that’s the gift, you know? You’re looking for those moments.

GO: As a non-binary, queer person living in the US, I found something particularly compelling about your film. Here, things feel intensely political, polarized, and frankly, frightening. The laws and rhetoric often shock us, and there’s so much happening elsewhere that we can’t even fathom. I’d wager that many Americans might not even recognize North Macedonia as a place, let alone find it on a map. But that’s a conversation for another time. I understand you’re Macedonian yourself, which influenced the film’s setting, but the backdrop of Macedonian politics and culture added significant depth to the story.

GS: With Macedonia, I just know it that much more intimately, but I kind of see it as a stand in for most of that region. I’m very much driven by documenting a time and a place and what day-to-day life feels like for a person. Life is directly and explicitly shaped by politics in these countries in a way that you don’t feel as much in more economically developed places. Like the corruption that you’re surrounded by in Macedonia. Your entire life is shaped by it. Then there’s all these little leeways that get created because you have to make the best possible life you can out of it. I wasn’t even really trying to shed light or make a statement. I think ideology is something you need to work on yourself as a person, and then hopefully the films that come out of you reflect that inner-dialogue. 

GO:  You Won’t Be Alone was classified as a horror, Of an Age, a romantic drama, and now Housekeeping for Beginners is a family-focused drama. So often filmmakers are pigeonholed into one specific genre, whether by choice or by force, and you have not, which I love. Why is genre diversity so important to you?

GS: Honestly, it’s not a strategic decision. I’m driven by ideas that feel like they should be turned into movies. I’ve written scripts that I know I’ll never film because they just don’t transport me enough, you know? But when I sense that spark, that feeling, it’s usually about the main character or a particular idea. I don’t typically begin with a specific genre in mind. Although, I’ll contradict myself with You Won’t Be Alone because I did have the notion of creating a horror or genre film. This instinctive feeling leads to a diverse range of projects. I feel fortunate for the opportunity to make such a variety of films and grateful to my reps who don’t push me into projects that don’t align with my vision.

GO: Your films are truly captivating. Thank you for making them.

GS: Thank you. I’m gonna remember this conversation. Most days, I don’t know if anyone’s heard of my film, so to have this kind of conversation…I’m really grateful.

You can stream Housekeeping for Beginners on Peacock now.

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