I started acting when I was literally a little tyke. And then I started doing photography in high school. Then I made my first experimental short film senior year of high school where I combined all of the mediums that I loved – all the different art forms including collaborations, drama, theater, visuals, and photography. I studied film in college, and when I got out of college it was the dawn of the consumer cameras. The PD150 had just come out, which was a three-chip camera, and all of a sudden indie people started using these digital cameras, and that’s when I started making movies on my own. I made an independent feature with six girls literally in the wilderness, very, very low budget, and wrote it with the intention of making it on my own. I made a short before then that had played in festivals, but just kind of took the big jump with a feature early on.
I went to Oberlin College in Ohio, and I studied at NYU. I did two semesters away from Oberlin – one in Ireland studying documentary film, and I did Sight and Sound, which was a 16mm course at NYU. They don’t use 16 mm anymore, but back than they did. I thought about transferring to film school, because I knew I wanted to do film, but I liked the freedom that Oberlin gave me to study other kinds of art like visual art and whatnot.
I made Marion after I had gotten out of college. I grew up in New York and was living at my parents’ house, because I couldn’t afford rent, and I was working part-time at a vintage clothing store. I was watching Psycho, one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m a big Hitchcock fan. I was fascinated by Marion Crane as a narrative venture and how Hitchcock killed the lead character off. It struck me as revolutionary, and it pulls the rug out from under the viewer. You’re so on team Marion, but then she dies suddenly. I thought, what was the feminist take on that, in a sense, and wondered about her character, and I loved character studies, ultimately. So in some way I wondered what are the kinds of devices that make this character die in this film? I thought, well, what if she had done things differently? How would that affect her fate? The film cast three different actresses all as Marion Crane on three screens, and each one does something different in each screen, which ultimately affects her fate in the shower scene.
It was the first short film that played festivals that I made when I got out of college. I think I had practiced a lot with other films.
When I was younger, it was really important to understand how other filmmakers worked and what their process was. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and I wanted to strategically look at each Hitchcock shot and examine why he was pushing in and what was he trying to reveal in a shot. So, it was a cinematic exercise for me on some level. The first thing I did was storyboard each Marion – I had Marion one, and I drew her out, then Marion two, and I drew her out, then Marion three, and then I cross-referenced those individual storyboards to make sure certain images were happening concurrently and then the timing would be right for them to interact. That was the pre-production. It was very meticulous storyboarding, and a lot of watching Psycho. When we were shooting we had Psycho on a monitor and we were constantly looking at the frames and the body language and the pace of the movie and getting micro about it.
Marion was shot on Super 8. I had a Super 8 camera that I used a lot. Marion was more of an experimental version or a more underground take on Psycho. It felt right to go with the dirtiest form of film. I contemplated 16mm a lot, but we didn’t really have the budget for that, and I loved shooting Super 8 all the time, and I still do. It felt right in a lot of ways. We shot it in my parents’ house. I picked a weekend that they were going away, because I knew they would freak out. My sister was out of town, so I used her room. I noticed that the bathroom tiles that I had in my childhood bathroom were the same kind of bathroom tiles in Pyscho. That was what initially made me decide to shoot in my parents’ house.
I don’t like when people say “break a leg”, because it makes me always imagine breaking a leg. It sounds negative, and it’s really important to have this positive “we can all do this together” outlook. So, I don’t like any negativity even though breaking a leg is suppose to be good luck. It make me thinks of breaking legs, and it scares me. No break a leg. Just look me in the eye and say good luck. It makes me feel centered and ready to go. That’s what I like to get from my loved ones before I go to set.
An aha moment for me was how much I learned through the process of storyboarding – how I was figuring out everything in advance. I was seeing problems that were going to happen and the issues and the cutting. You are making so many informative decisions very early on by storyboarding it. Even though I couldn’t draw, it was really helpful for me to struggle through it. Another aha moment was for me was feeling something was perfect on set and then having it not be in the editing room.
I have this vivid memory of driving home on my first feature. I was literally driving the van home from set every weekend, because we were shooting at a house upstate. We would spend all week upstate and would go home for the weekend. I remember driving through the snow really slowly. Everyone was exhausted, and I got really scared about driving. I was like, should we stop? Like, what do we do? We made it through. We got into the city, and I remember being so relieved when I got everyone home safely. I had this feeling of inner strength and peace that everything was going to be okay. I was doing it, and it was happening. It was so hard, but it was all coming together. I felt like this complete elation and rush – that endorphin sort of feeling, and I was like – this is what I really want to do. And it was that specific moment where I was making it through one of the hardest parts that made me realize that I was completely addicted to doing this.
It was such an amateur hour experience in some way. We were literally like six girls, cast and crew, just doing it and figuring it all out. I was really organized to the point of obsession in terms of everything from storyboarding to giving way too much direction and just crying everyday after the shoot because it was just so stressful. And I cared so much, because I wanted it to be perfect. There was so much emotional intensity to making it.
The Iranian film director, Amir Naderi, is an incredible guy and was my film mentor. When I was seventeen he told me to watch all of these dark films in consecutive order by all these filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and others I had never heard of. Those films were totally inspiring. Amir told me to go and shoot my first feature and really encouraged me to do it. I don’t think I could have made the film without his blessing. Him telling me I could do it made it possible.
My plan was to write a movie while working a shit job that wouldn’t take up all of my time. As I was writing the script, I ended up visiting my boss’ house in upstate New York, which was an incredible house on a hill top. It was a beautiful old farmhouse. I wrote the whole script around that one location, which really helped when we secured the house location for very little money. We were just like six people. Amir hooked me up with a great cinematographer, Ku-Ling Siegel, and she shot it. We had a sound person, one girl who was like the PA, an Italian girl who cooked all of the lasagna and meals, and we all got really fat while shooting. It was just super down and dirty. The movie is basically about two sisters, and it takes place in a house the entire time. I think we shot for like thirty days. We would go up there Monday morning, spend all week, five-day weeks or six-day weeks, and then go back to the city for one day or two days of rest.
The big lesson was to know when to shut up. I think you’ve probably heard this before, but it’s just so true. When to let people find it themselves, and step back from the process, because I think as a director, by nature, you’re kind of a control freak. You have to have your hands on every single bit of the process, but knowing when to let go and to let things happen, to let people play and for the process to dictate itself is a really important thing for that personality type. I felt at times I ruled with an iron fist, but then a part of me learned to lighten up at times, and that helped everyone including the film. It’s finding the line between controlling every little piece of the process but also inspiring people to be creative and to bring out their best. That’s why you hire them. That’s why you want them on the project, because they have their own take on the world.
That’s a good question. A lot of it is about casting the right people. I think every actor is different. Every process is different. The most important piece is making sure you and the actor are on the same page and that you’re getting what you want out of the actor. It’s different with every person, and I think part of it is figuring out what that actor needs from you to get a good performance.
Well we all got to know each other in the rehearsal process, so I felt pretty comfortable. Two weeks before the shoot we had gone and shot all the bug footage and had shown people the footage and edited those films. I had already worked with the DP in that capacity, and we had gotten on the same page in a major way. So, that was a huge help in terms of coming to set and feeling confident. I was in the zone. I was in a “I can do it” mode. I always felt like the beginning was the hardest anyway. Like the first scene that you shoot of anybody actor-wise, it just always takes forever. It’s tricky to get on the same page. Then once you get past that you are in the zone.
I feel like it was a necessary rite of passage, and it was successful in one way. You know, I think I learned a lot, and I think there’s something to be gleaned from every film. I don’t think about things in a way of was it special or not, because it’s all kind of a moving forward process. Was I happy with it? I think I have grown to appreciate it. When I finished it I felt it’s hard for me to feel proud after I finish a film as I’m seeing all the things that I didn’t do.
I think that it’s harder now, but I don’t know if I really believe that. It makes sense if it’s harder now, because you can say the competition is steeper, but I also feel like if the work is really good, it will eventually find its way into the world, and its audience and people that support it.
I think it’s a really tough call. Do you put it online first, or do you try to go the festival route? I think what you want to do before you make that first feature is make sure that you’ve made a lot of other work. I think that’s really important and often not said enough. You want to have a body of work that is similar to your first feature in some way or that explores ideas and themes or techniques. And you want to put the stuff that you’re proud of online and share it with people and have that stuff really live before you make that first feature film. When you make sure you know yourself as an artist, go to festivals and meet the programmers, and other filmmakers. I’m seeing a lot of people that are starting out continue to do that. Relationships with people that you meet through festivals, big and small, will be important.
Ingmar Bergman was a huge influence for me. Watching Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, and Cries and Whispers, I was just kind of riveted by the characters and the visuals and the sets. I grew up on Scorsese, too. Antonioni and the French new wave were all the first films that I saw where I was like “Oh, this is something really different” and where I became conscience of film as a medium that was meant to be artistic expression.
Amir told me about them. He basically told me to watch directors in consecutive order. Like Truffaut and Hitchcock and Asian cinema, and then I would come back to his house after I watched all these videos. He would lend me DVDs and VHS that he had, and then I would watch them and talk to him about them, and he would ask “What did you like?” or “Why didn’t you like it?” and “What was your favorite moment?” and all of that stuff. It was really helpful. It was like my film school.
It was an independent film. Jonathan Schwartz financed it.
It was great, because I didn’t have to wear twenty thousand hats. It wasn’t as physically labor intensive as my first film. Working with professional actors is a huge difference as well, but besides that, it’s not that different.
In the edit I certainly felt pressure. There’s a lot of decisions that are made in the edit that really affect what you’re saying in the overall film. I felt more of the intensity of “Whose film is this?” in the edit room than I did on set. I think on set I did have a certain amount of freedom to make the movie that I wanted to make, and that was really cool, and I really respected the producers for that. I’ve always been an on-schedule kind of person. Even on my first shoot, we didn’t work eighteen hour days; we worked twelve hour days. So, it really wasn’t that different. I think I felt a responsibility to the crew on every movie I have made. To end at a certain time and to get the best I can within those constraints, and I think the constraints are sometimes your friend.
I’m actually surprised at how notes can be really good, constructive, helpful and right on the mark and make me work harder and make me do better work. I do think that’s a big piece that’s also overlooked in the world of complaining about notes. With commercials, if you have a team of twenty people, everybody wants to say something, and feel like they’re doing their job. So, sometimes people say things when we’re losing light and we have five minutes left of shooting time. There’s those moments when you’re like “Let me work!”. Sometimes people who aren’t necessarily in creative roles take on creative roles.
I think I have a really good no bullshit meter for performance. I can tell if it doesn’t feel real, both in the editing room and off and on set. I think that truth barometer is very important to me in everything I make.
I think it’s just different people have different skills. Like some are better at pacing, some are better at camera movement. Part of being a good director is knowing what you’re good at and knowing what you are not and finding people that are good at what you’re not good at and filling the holes. I think that the thing that I’m good at is knowing what performance is actually hitting. Being an actor is so hard, and a lot of actors have survival skills of faking it. Maybe you can’t tell on set, but you can tell in the editing room.
Just work really hard. Just keep at it. Keep going. This is for everyone though, not just female directors. Everybody is so fucking afraid and scared and full of fear and insecurities, and that plagues everyone. You have to rally within yourself, as hard as it is, and make it and fight for what is inside you and what you believe in, and just feed off of that and be in there and not let that other voice, the voice of fear, eat you, because that’s what will stop you.
I can’t pick one. To chose one film would be a lie. I’ve watched The Godfather countless times. Other films that I return to again and again and get inside me are The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Postcards from the Edge, In a Lonely place, F is for Fake, Fish Tank and Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami.
What Maise Knew. The emotion in that film knocked me out.
New York City