“She’s New Zealand’s least known famous person,” said director/documentarian Lucy Lawless about photojournalist Margaret Moth, the subject of her first feature film, “Never Look Away.” For Lawless, it’s a shame because “she ought to be legendary.”
In a conversation with TheWrap’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman, Lawless explained she wasn’t interested in telling a hagiography of Moth that only looked at her good points. Moth was a complex woman who made questionable choices in life, including dating a 17-year-old boy when she was a grown woman. “I’m not sugarcoating it. She was an an outrageous human being and her boundaries weren’t where our boundaries are,” Lawless said at TheWrap’s Sundance Portrait and Interview Studio presented by NFP.
What Lawless hoped to do as a director was remain completely neutral in her storytelling and compel the audience to stay up pondering the film and what their response to it says about individuals and society. “I didn’t want to put my attitude, impose it, on the film,” Lawless said. “I’ll make her transgressions your problem.”
“I love the underbelly of the common man, not that Margaret’s the common man,” said Lawless. “I want to show people as they are.”
It’s an audacious start for Lawless, who is best remembered to audiences for her leading role on “Xena: Warrior Princess.” But Lawless explained, “I didn’t choose her, she chose me.” She was approached by Moth’s best friend and asked if she wanted to direct Moth’s story. “I was so freaked out that they might have sent this out to a hundred other people that I immediately jumped on it.” But once she agreed Lawless realized, “I don’t know how to do any of this. But Margaret utterly possessed me in that moment and never let go.”
Lawless describes Moth as a “punk princess” who refused to conform to anything that was perceived as normal. Even her look, dying her blonde hair black, was a rejection of ideals imposed on her from childhood. Looking the way she did was “a rejection,” according to Lawless. Even her name, Margaret Moth, was an attempt to live on her own terms. “As a child she had a phobia of moths so it’s really weird that she chose the name Moth,” said Lawless, explaining that it was inspired by the gypsy moth.
Moth never married and didn’t want children, going so far as to go to court to have her tubes tied. “This was during a time when women. didn’t have possession of their own bodies…she knew that was not for her. She didn’t have a good start in life and didn’t want to carry that on,” said Lawless. Moth found her children within the young kids affected in the war zones she traveled to.
Moth traveled to countless war zones throughout her storied career and for Lawless a big challenge was that there wasn’t enough footage of her in these areas to showcase. Lawless said Moth wasn’t reckless, but didn’t fear death and would often challenge it by playing herself in dangerous situations.
“Never Look Away” is a sales title at Sundance.
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