Elizabeth Wood on “White Girl”

WHITE-GIRL_Elizabeth-Wood_Director_Headshot

Nothing about the cinema of Elizabeth Wood could in any way be defined as timid. I’ll never forget the experience of seeing her solo feature debut, “White Girl,” at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center two years ago. The imagery was so galvanizing and the pacing so breathless that I left the theater in an exhilarated daze. Morgan Saylor, the film’s astonishing leading lady, participated in a live Q&A afterward and told me about her close working relationship with the director. From then on, I knew that I had to interview Wood.

Set in Ridgewood, Queens, the film stars Saylor as Leah, a university student who falls for a drug dealer, Blue (Brian Marc), soon after moving into an apartment with her best friend (India Menuez). When Blue is arrested, Leah sets out to free him, all the while remaining in possession of the drugs that supposedly got him incarcerated. Wood’s examination of the white savior complex is unlike any I’ve seen, and it is to the credit of her and Saylor that Leah emerges as a three-dimensional human worthy of empathy rather than a caricature inviting our disdain.

Last month, Wood spoke with Indie Outlook via Skype about her approach to crossing lines onset, conjuring the essence of summer amidst freezing temperatures and her response to the film’s largely male critics.

In the excellent audio commentary track on the Blu-ray edition of “White Girl,” you spoke of how this film was your exercise in “authenticity and straightforward storytelling.” How so?

To me, this is quite a conventional story told in a straightforward style. There isn’t much that is experimental about the narrative. The story is told in order, and I hadn’t ever tried to work that way before. I thought I would be making installations where you walk in, freak out and then leave. When I said I was going to study screenwriting, my professor, who had been my mentor and whose own work was experimental, was like, “You really shouldn’t do that, you’re selling out. Keep making avant grade 16mm short films!” And I was like, “But is that a career? I’m not sure.” I think there is a way to use that kind of storytelling in more mainstream films to get to a similar place. You’re just reaching more people that way. I am more interested in talking to real, regular people than I am the coastal elite. While I appreciate them very much, and that is where I get the support to be able to make films, that community isn’t really what is most interesting to me. So “White Girl” is my attempt to make something for the masses. [laughs] Some may argue that it may still not be that digestible, but I think it is.

In what ways did the documentary you initially made about a friend who got arrested serve as an influence on “White Girl”?

As an undergraduate, I was making documentaries, and my first film ever was about my friend in Ridgewood who got arrested. I was in a multimedia class, and I decided to make a short film about him. That is where I learned to edit, and I started carrying around this camera that I had been given by Pepsi to make some money. I was standing outside Rikers hiding the camera in heaps of trash when I would go in and visit him. Even though I didn’t know how this story was going to play out, I knew that it would be in my first movie. I even wrote the first page of the script, which remained very similar in the final draft. I drew a storyboard, but I knew that I needed some time to really figure out what it meant, and figure out how to make a movie as well. Documentaries remain interesting to me. I think they’re actually harder to make than scripted narratives because you have to force a shape out of real life, which does not always exist.

Your film is every bit as subversive as “Get Out” in how it explores white privilege from a startlingly fresh perspective. How did the character of Leah come into existence?

It was very personal. When I was sharing this script in early phases, a lot of feedback I’d get was, “Your protagonist isn’t likable. Why should we care, why would she ever do this? This person is horrible,” and I was like, “Yeah, well that’s the point. I’m confronting these conflicting values that she has, and it feels very realistic to me.” Perhaps the more unpleasant it comes across on the page, the closer it is to some truth. Also, I had faith in finding an actress who you wouldn’t just despise so you’re not like, “You stupid slut!” You actually are sympathizing with the choices she’s making as a young person, and you’re not judging her for her experimentation or her sexuality or her naive social choices because—to be honest— we’ve all been there, even the most enlightened of us. Finding someone who was believable and seemingly young enough was important. I didn’t want to make some sort of soft-core, disgusting movie. It had to feel real. I never was worried about Leah not being likable. I wanted to find moments where her character is doing f—ked up things and she doesn’t even mean to do them. Isn’t that the most human thing? We all do that everyday. I do tons of f—ked up things that I don’t even mean to do.

Morgan Saylor’s performance is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I heard that she created a mathematical, color-coded graph in order to track her character’s drug-induced state in each scene.

In terms of her process, she is a psychopath. [laughs] She was studying math at the University of Chicago at the time, so she talked out everything in terms of math. Her understanding of the performance was illustrated by her graph and her colors, and I was like, “Sure, great, whatever. It looks beautiful!” [laughs] For me, it was about finding somebody who actually was young that would also be willing to take on this role. A lot of girls who were 25 and older felt prepared to do it, but Morgan was 19. She had just moved to New York from Atlanta, and she was believably young. I think her age softened the whole premise of someone doing these things. Yes, perhaps it’s more shocking, but it also felt more authentic to me. I saw so many girls in New York and in Los Angeles, and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted them to be like, other than resemble a real young woman who had just moved to the city. I didn’t want her to have an actorly, overly prepared or seductive demeanor. She just had to be a girl in the room.

Morgan came in and sat down on the floor. She had a big duct tape coat on, took it off and was wearing a bikini underneath, but not in a gross way. It was like she was dressed for a hot summer, with her short shorts and bikini top. She did her hair during the audition, and her voice wasn’t at all like I had imagined her character sounding. But that was great because it helped me depart from the personal aspects of this story. I always told her, “This is not my story. This is Leah’s story and this is a movie.” While it’s inspired by real events, it is a fictionalized movie, and I wanted it to move away from my own life. Seeing her embody the character really helped me do that, because she just made it her own. She has a very chill, slow-talking demeanor, and the way she looks at the world is always from a few feet back. Everything about her performance helped me to see the film come alive outside of my brain.

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How did you help your actors, particularly Saylor, lose their inhibitions while performing nude scenes in crowded rooms or in broad daylight?

That was really hard. Morgan hadn’t done stuff like that before. My approach to making those scenes feel real is to roll an uncomfortable long take, past the point where everyone—the AD, the producers and even the cinematographer—starts to think, “Okay, that’s enough!” And I’m like, “No, the fact that we’re all uncomfortable right now means that it is actually starting to feel real.” It’s a little gross and awkward and that’s what we’re all reacting to, but that doesn’t mean it has gone too far. The actors aren’t having sex and they’re not stopping the scene. I am embarrassed and uncomfortable too, and that feels right. But it was difficult. The first few times it happened was a challenge for Morgan and I and even some of the crew. We had to talk it out before we could fully get there.

The first time Morgan followed through with something and felt really vulnerable, it just broke open for her, and from then on, she was able to go into it and be wild. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen prior to filming, but once we were in the moment, Morgan went there. She was able to step away from herself and fully become the character. The further she went, the more comfortable she was, realizing that Leah wasn’t Morgan. We always said, “Jump off that cliff naked!” That’s what is great about acting. It’s not you. Getting there was a challenge, and once we were there, I was like, “Wow, I didn’t even imagine it going that far, but great, keep going. Just go for it.” And she did.

Was there a particular scene that evolved in a way that was unexpected?

The most extreme footage we shot didn’t even make it into the final cut. I ended up cutting it because I was like, “I’m pleased that even I have allowed things to go further than necessary, but this film is already enough without it becoming just pure insanity.” In the party scenes, we had to cut out hundreds of naked people basically having an orgy. [laughs] People got so carried away and Morgan was leading them. When she ran through the crowd at the club, her enthusiasm set off a chain reaction of very excited extras, which included a lot of my friends. It evolved into something past “Spring Breakers,” and it wasn’t even intended. I was having a lot of fun. As extreme as the film may seem, the craziness was somewhat cut back because it caused me to ask, “Okay, what are we really doing here?” The orgy sure would make a great special feature for the twentieth anniversary.

Your cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, was a camera operator on “The Messenger,” a film that brilliantly utilized long takes, as did “White Girl.” What inspired you to craft scenes that derive their power from unbroken movement?

That will always be the optimal goal. If you can get a performance or a scene to unfold in one take, that is the gold star. It’s not always possible and it takes more preparation as well as more time, because you might have to do thirty takes. The goal was to see just how little we could cut. This film is so intense, and I wanted to allow for moments that breathe.

According to your commentary, Simmonds’ striking lighting scheme evoked the “peachy orange” color of your Queens apartment.

While the film does look very real, the lighting is often unrealistic. To me, it’s experimental in how it makes the audience feel like they’re high when Leah’s high and low when she’s low. Simmonds and I had spoken about the look of the film beforehand, but during our first lighting test, he lit the room, and I was like, “Oh, it’s not going to actually look that insane, right? Because that’s a little much. It doesn’t look real.” And he was like, “Trust me, let’s do this.” I appreciate him leading me further, utilizing unrealistic lighting in moments that are quite subtle. As part of the whole, that approach helped with this emotional journey between extremes, feeling so warm and full of life, and then so drained and cold and bereft of life. I took it even further in the color correction for moments where we literally sucked the color out, and you don’t even notice because it happens subtly. We wanted to convey that kind of morning after, queasy feeling where everything is very harsh, and then how it becomes very rosy at night.

That room in my old apartment had the weirdest peach coral color. It was very womb-like, but also very hell-like. I’d always talk about this room, describing it as a place where exciting as well as terrible things happened. I was out of town once for a period of time, and when I came back, my husband had painted our bedroom the deepest shade of orange coral. I was like, “Woah,” and he was like, “Oh, you don’t like your room in Ridgewood?” I told him, “I don’t know if this is a room we necessarily want to recreate in our marriage.” [laughs] But it grew on me, and I still sleep in this crazy, deep orange room. It’s like sleeping inside of hell, but I like it.

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My mind boggles while imagining how you went about conjuring a sweaty NYC summer while shooting for over four weeks under icy weather conditions in the fall. Somehow, the warmth is palpable onscreen. 

It was a true exercise in indie filmmaking where I thought I was going to make this film one summer, and then it didn’t happen. I was going to shoot it while seven months pregnant, and it wasn’t coming together. We just said, “Let’s take our time,” and it was so frustrating because I felt ready. Then we were going to do it at the beginning of the following summer, which was good because it gave time for Killer Films to come on and to cast properly, and to push the script a bit further. We thought we had the funding for May—it fell through. We thought we had it for June—it fell through. July it fell through, August it fell through, September it fell through, and I was like, “You know what? This just isn’t going to happen.” I had a newborn too and I was feeling like the world was impossible. I will give credit to my husband, the producer [Gabriel Nussbaum], who was like, “No, f—k it, let’s just make it. When is the absolute latest that we can make it? Maybe if we finish by November…” and I’m like, “It’s supposed to be a summer film!” He’s like, “It’ll be fine.” It kept getting pushed back week after week, and whaddaya know, we wrapped filming on Halloween.

The very first scene when Leah and her friend are driving in and parking, the leaves had all fallen that day. There were leaves on the ground that we were blowing and sweeping for every shot. During the love scene on the roof, it was icing outside. We literally had to brush ice out of the actors’ hair in between takes, and we were shooting in the middle of the night. All the trees had turned color, so in color correction, we turned them back green, and we were spraying people with fake sweat so it would look like summer. Covering the actors in glycerin only made them colder. That shot early in the film where Leah comes downstairs and meets the boys at night was the very last shot that we filmed. I think it was on October 30th, and it was around 18 degrees outside. The actors were all in short shorts in the middle of the night, smoking and pretending to sweat. It was hilarious, but when you look at the scene, it really feels like summer. I’m so impressed by how everyone nearly killed themselves making this film, while being paid nothing. I would go around and thank everyone every moment—all of these PAs and crew members who were there at 4am, working for probably less than minimum wage, in order to make my dream come true. They were a f—king incredible team.

Like Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” your film moves at an exhilarating pace that is devoid of a single lull. Was this partly due to how you cut 30 pages from the script in one night?

Definitely. The first read-through was a great exercise in realizing what was important very quickly. If it could go at all, it went, and that’s something everyone should probably do because too many films are too f—king long and boring. We’re looking at our phones and we’re like, “Wrap it up.” The goal is to not have the audience looking at their phones. I’m easily bored, and that mentality remained during shooting. If you’re running out of time onset, you just have to slash another page and prioritize. Then in editing, you end up cutting a whole lot more. At my one test screening for the film, people said, “Put stuff back,” and I realized I had cut too much. People missed the moments where you just experience the world of the characters. It’s this exercise of making the film as exciting and as succinct as it can be, and that process is a roller coaster. I’m not trying to waste anyone’s time, and I had no problem just killing stuff. The most elaborate, expensive, tiring moments were usually the first to go because they were forced. I’m glad you noticed the pacing. I edited with Michael Taylor for two months and then with my husband for ten more months, just shaving away scenes until the film got shorter and shorter. I like short movies. Who’s got time for all that?

The decision to edit out certain details—such as whether or not Leah’s boss steals the money after she passes out in the bathroom—places us within the main character’s sense of disorientation. 

That moment went back in and out of the edit hundreds of times. Another example is when the drugs are left in the restaurant on the seat. Some people felt very strongly that you should see Leah pick it up, and others didn’t because it’s kind of a surprise that she ended up with them. Ultimately involving the viewer in making those decisions—“Were the drugs sitting there? Did she take them?”—is much more exciting. Viewers are smart. They can figure out what’s going on.

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I’m curious to hear, from your perspective, the ways in which male voices attempt to dominate the set even when there is a woman in the director’s chair.

That is something that causes deep rage in me and yes, they can attempt to dominate, but perhaps one reason why I want to work in film is to dominate men, so good luck to them. My crew never fought and I never had any drama. We actually all got on famously. But the moments that made me mad were when men voiced their opinions on something that only had to do with sex. I heard comments like, “Not sexy enough,” or, “We didn’t come here to not see a girl with her shirt off,” and I’m like, “Shut the f—k up! I’m working with a 19-year-old actress. Give me a f—king moment here. I’m not taking your opinion right now.” I also heard men say, “This is too far,” and, “I didn’t know there was going to be this in the film.”

I was harassed by some crew members who were only there for a day or two but were deeply upset by some sexuality that they saw being portrayed. There were times I ended up having to close the set because I was getting too much feedback. That was the only problem, and it all came from the men. The women never said a thing to me. A guy would come up to me and say, “Not enough, give me more,” or, “Too much, this is too far,” and I’d say, “I didn’t ask you. I don’t care what is not sexy enough or too sexy for you.” That was the only thing that made me mad, and I really have no problem with telling people to shut the f—k up. That being said, I’m also extremely kind to my crew because I know how hard they’re working for me, and how little they’re being paid.

Do you believe that lasting change can truly be achieved through the #MeToo movement?

You know, I’m not sure. Probably the fact that changes are already happening means that the movement is working. I wouldn’t have a platform or even be listened to if change wasn’t already in the air. I’ve never felt particularly held back by men at all. They’ve never been a great hindrance to me, and in fact, they can be very helpful. With that being said, when someone is being taken advantage of, it’s important to give them a voice. I also haven’t worked in a conventional studio setting. I work with indie filmmakers who are primarily friends, so I’m perhaps in a unique situation. But yes, more power to anyone saying what they think! It’s great when women are in style.

You’ve mentioned some disturbing reactions to the film from audience members, particularly men who suggested that Leah was “asking for” the abuse and harassment she endured. 

Everyone loves to refer to the Variety review because Peter Debruge was so horrified by “White Girl,” which is kind of cute. I’m so honored when anyone watches the film, let alone has a strong reaction to it. I’m like, “Wow, you cared enough to hate it? That’s great!” Peter’s way of discussing Leah’s rape has been echoed quite often, even so much as last week. A friend at a large company suggested me for a film. The woman she was meeting with singled out Leah’s drinking and drug intake, and said, “She was asking for what happened to her.” My friend and agent ended up getting into a big battle with the woman about her assumptions. They all had some big conversation, but at this point, I probably would’ve just laughed it off.

It was funny to hear about some woman who’s appalled by this young character’s behavior. I actually expected that response from women more. I felt that women would be more judgmental about this younger woman, and I was quite surprised that it was men passing judgement instead. I was mad at myself for thinking differently. Older women were actually the ones who could understand and empathize and connect Leah to their own experiences of youth, whether it was in the 70s or the 80s. It was men who said, “She’s being so provocative that she’s causing this to happen. We shouldn’t be seeing this!” It disturbed men more, which was cool. I could easily make a judgment on someone’s character by their reaction, and it is very entertaining for me to see the variety of them.

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One of Simmonds’ most effective choices was to frame Leah’s rape in a reflection that makes it appear as if she’s having an out-of-body experience. It reminded me of a story shared by an actress who filmed a sex scene in which a line was crossed, causing her to feel alienated from her own body.

Simmonds always had crazy ideas for every scene in the film, and a lot of them were too crazy. He shot through a weird mirror that created eight reflections of Leah in a prism, and it was very cool, beautiful imagery. But we saved that approach for the scene you mentioned, where the style seems to progress the narrative rather than just be beautiful. It was so graphic filming this scene. We were trying to get it right, and we probably filmed it too much, because it was either too much or not enough. Simmonds suggested the shot and it was obviously the right solution. You were talking about crossing lines, and I think it’s important to cross certain lines in terms of how comfortable you are in order to get the performance. That’s what is so vulnerable and so difficult about being an actor. I don’t think I could do it. Being able to facilitate an experience in a room with people where they are comfortable enough and safe enough to cross a line and do something that feels gross, uncomfortable and “too far” is important to the kind of films that I want to make.

At the same time, the actors must feel very safe. I am always aware and in tune to what they are experiencing, to where we are talking about every sensation of where they are being touched, what’s considered “okay” and choreographing that with the actors. I’ll ask, “Are you okay if you are touched here, and with what layers in between?” My actors and I go over every element of the scene, and the more we talk about it, and also the more we joke about it, the more okay it’s going to be. I want to cross lines, but in a way where everyone knows that lines were crossed intentionally and that we are all on the same page while creating something together. That takes a lot of trust and a lot of talk ahead of time in rehearsal, as well as someone like myself who is very sensitive to that and aware of that. You need someone who isn’t going to play tricks on anyone. Little tricks are okay, but not big tricks. [laughs]

I love the final shot that cuts from Leah looking at Blue to Leah staring into space in the classroom. It’s so subtle that she doesn’t even appear to have moved between shots. 

The idea for those shots came in the writing. A million different beginnings and endings of the film were attempted in the script until this one was landed on. Both of those shots had complicated setups, and the final one in the classroom had incredible technical difficulties. The dolly broke, and it was supposed to be this slow push to match her standing outside the cop car in daylight. It was also the last day of shooting, and we ran out of time, since the whole fight sequence that occurs beforehand had to be choreographed. Everyone started panicking, and it’s in those moments that we just had to find what we could get. All we needed was for her face to match between shots. I don’t think we had time to pull up the reference image. We just knew what it should be.

Anytime there were technical issues, questions or problems in shooting, it helped so much to have such a firm tie to what the story was and what we were trying to say with the shot. Anything I lack in technical knowledge—which is probably vast, because I’m a story person but I do have strong aesthetic preferences—can be answered with story. The ending is all about these two moments connecting. It’s just about her face. Anything else can go. We’ll hear what’s happening in the background, we’ll see some of it in the edges of the frame, but the rest of it doesn’t matter. That moment is all about this realization of what Leah’s done and where she is going to be now versus where Blue is. We had to improvise and use human bodies as dollies just to get the shot we wanted.

What can you tell me about your next project, “Spiritual Crisis”?

It’s a film that has taken many incarnations and is now a script that is nearly finished. I am taking a long time writing it and perhaps driving the people that are working with me crazy for how long I’m taking. But I know it’s more important to make a good film than to make a film. I know the work that it takes to make a story come to life, and that is why so many films suck, because the mentality is, “Make a movie, make a movie,” and I’m like, “Well, why?” Think of all the things that could be done with millions of dollars other than make bad movies. My latest script is nearly finished and scheduled to shoot this summer, but again, I’m not in a rush. I’m just trying to get it right. The story is about two women—one of whom is older than Leah’s character and one of whom is younger—and I think it is, in a way, a companion piece. I won’t say any more than that.

“White Girl” is available to stream on various platforms (including Netflix and iTunes) and can be purchased on Blu-ray and DVD on Amazon. For more information on Elizabeth, visit the official sites of “White Girl” and Bank Street Films.

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