Exclusive Interview: Director Eliza Hittman

19 01 2011

Director Eliza Hittman’s short film  Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight will premiere on Friday as part of the Sundance Shorts Program III.  Eliza chatted with PSD about her film and career so far.

Eliza, like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Darren Aronofsky, and Noah Baumbach before her, is a Brooklyn native.  Eliza and I held an email interview and we opened the discussion with her talking about the rich history of film in her hometown.

Historically there has always been a film industry and culture in Brooklyn. The American Vitagraph Movie studio was housed in Brooklyn, which made so many contributions to the evolution of early filmmaking and film technology. One of the first movies in the country that screened with sound premiered at the Brooklyn Paramount. Brooklyn is very multi-cultural, so it makes sense that talented directorial voices emerge from it. These days a lot of young filmmakers call themselves Brooklyn-based filmmakers and there’s so much hipster work being created. But that’s a really different version of the city than you’ll find in my film “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight.” It’s about a Russian teenage girl who lives on the fringes of Brooklyn and is forced to make an unimaginable decision to protect her aging father and herself. Faced with this decision, she tries to drown out her problems at a Russian night club and with a one night stand. It takes place in a few of the Russian neighborhoods in Brooklyn (like Sheepshead Bay). Most audiences only see a fantasy Russian mafia world on film. I wanted to transcend those stereotypes and make a more sincere portrait of this community and its neighborhoods.

We’ll jump into her gripping short film in just a minute.   Eliza’s earlier films have dealt with younger actors as leads and she discussed the power of filming children.

One of my earliest and favorite assignments in grad school was to shoot a landscape and from that landscape generate three story treatments. My father is an anthropologist and I spent summers as a kid on a Paiute reservation in Nevada. The tribe is like my second family. Naturally, when I was given that first shooting assignment, I knew I had to shoot it on the reservation. I went to visit and wandered around with a couple kids–Brandon and his older sister Kiani (nicknamed Cody and Mikey). I let them guide me. One of their favorite places is “the pit”–a dumping spot in the middle of the desert that is full of dead animals at various stages of decomposition and discarded furniture and trash. It’s definitely a place where a child’s imagination can run wild. So I shot a landscape of “the pit” and generated the story idea for “Trickster,” which is my first narrative film. The Paiute creation myths are about two siblings, coyote and wolf, and how life is created from coyote’s mischief. It seemed like an obvious jumping off point–I had a pit with dead animals and two eager siblings. It’s a really quiet portrait about a boy and how he conceals the fact that he has killed his great grandmother’s cat. It was a really small shoot with four crew members. It’s hard to make movies with kids, because doing things over and over is tedious. By the end of the shoot, Mikey and Cody were dying to be part of the camera crew because they thought what the crew was doing was more interesting. It’s a challenge to keep kids engaged. But I really love stories about children and their worlds and will continue to make films about them.

Eliza went to Cal Arts which is the place where she not only grew as a film-maker, but also found love while there.

I had a great experience in film school because it was a very prolific three years for me. I wrote and directed three short films (on S16mm) that have each screened internationally. And I developed and wrote two full-length scripts. In film school, you are not only practicing the craft of visual storytelling but also deconstructing how canonical films are made. When you are immersed in watching so many brilliant films from both past and present you have a sense of how high the bar is. The exposure seeps into your critical eye and you begin to challenge yourself to make strong formal choices. At Calarts, you get a really eclectic mix of faculty with radically different ideas about filmmaking. There weren’t many commercial filmmakers there, so you get very extreme points of view about experimental film, experimental narrative, essay filmmaking and traditional narrative. Calarts strongly encourages non-traditional processes with narrative, which I don’t think you get at other film schools. Don’t get me wrong, I could go on a fucking tirade about the flaws of that institution. But at the end of the day, I really judge the experience based on how I used the time. I hate the arguments against going to film school. I especially hate it when people say “save the money you would spend on film school and make a feature.” A practical and formal education lasts a life time. An unmemorable, amateur feature disappears forever.

I met my creative and romantic partner in film school. Scott was in his last semester, which was my first semester. He taught a class on transgressive/exploitation cinema history that I was required to take. It was one of my favorite classes at school, because he really took the time to curate our screenings and invite guest filmmakers into the discussion. Incidentally, after we met, Scott also looked me up on IMDB and saw that I was a “collaborator” on a Hal Hartley film and was very impressed and wanted to talk more about it… The rest is history. He is one of the most talented filmmakers that I know. None of my recent success would have happened without his immeasurable confidence in me. We work together in different capacities depending on the project. He was the editor on “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight.” We wrote a full length script together. And recently co-directed a music video together. We haven’t co-directed a film yet. But maybe in the near future.

Second Cousins Once Removed is one of Eliza’s more intriguing and haunting shorts.  I asked that since she’s a young film-maker herself whether this tale of a young girl’s harsh and quick jump into adulthood had any personal background.  Eliza was kind enough to tell of the inspiration for the film and expand on how she created the intriguing plot from that memory.

“Second Cousins Once Removed” is loosely inspired by an experience I had at Lake Tahoe. My great uncle wanted to gamble and left me and my cousin alone in a motel room. We didn’t spend much time with each other growing up, and we were a little desperate for something to do. We crept across the highway to buy a deck of cards at a gas station. None of this was my idea. My cousin was infinitely more brave and mature, even though we were only a year or so apart in age. Again, being out west sort of triggered the memory and I thought the events and the relationship would work well as the framework and characters for a short film. In the film, the older cousin Jo-Jo craves physical attention, but at the gas station, she gets a little more attention than she bargained for. It’s really about a twelve-year-old girl wanting to be looked at and how it feels to be looked at in the wrong way. The film is a cinematic exploration of this simple yet transformed moment. I watched “Paris, Texas” a bunch of times when I was in pre-production and it influenced some of our approach to lighting and color. We didn’t use film lights for any of the night sequences. When I interviewed cinematographers for the project, I hired the first one (George Su) who agreed we could do it without generators. Instead, we strategically parked cars and worked with headlights. I prefer working this way. I hate the burden of having a giant cube truck full of expensive gear. In the film, the camera work is pretty static until the girls leave the motel, when it gradually becomes very character motivated with ultra steady handheld tracking. It was a device to create character subjectivity and suspense.

And Now Eliza shares her experiences on her Sundance bound short film, Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight.

I really wanted to make my thesis film in Brooklyn but thought it was a big challenge, because I have so much nostalgia for NYC in the 80’s and early 90’s. I grew up in a neighborhood called Flatbush at the height of a crack epidemic, so I have a lot of affection for a much grittier city. NYC circa 2011 is a giant strip mall inhabited by people from America’s richest suburbs. Whenever I go out, I meet people from the suburbs of Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, etc. and it’s frustrating. I knew I couldn’t afford to make a film set in the 80’s, so I rode the Q train through Brooklyn, looked out the window and brainstormed. Mostly about high school, the types of people I knew and their home lives. My great grandparents are all from different parts of Eastern Europe, and came through Ellis Island. There is some Russian, Yiddish, and Polish language still in my family, but very diffused. So I naturally gravitated to those communities.


“Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight” is an attempt at some kind of urban poetic realism. I wanted to capture the intimacy between teenage girls. So I watched and rewatched Lucretia Martel’s “The Holy Girl.” Her film really beautifully illustrates that type of bond between young women. I also think she is brilliant with framing and close-ups. I took a lot of formal wisdom from that film like discarding the use of any kind of establishing shots, etc. I also love Andrea Arnold. “Fish Tank” was released right before I started shooting and the film and it really stuck with me. There is a lot of great atmospheric slow-motion in “Fish Tank.” I’d never used slow motion in a film and I tried to use it to punctuate subjective moments for the main character Sonya.

Eliza talked about the casting process and in particular the casting of that main character, Sonya.

I want authenticity and write roles for people, not actors, so it was important for me to find real people that were true to the world. I worked with a casting director on the project because I was in school in Los Angeles when I needed to start casting. We scouted Russian ballet studios and approached people on the street. Nina Medvinskaya (who plays Sveta) came with a glowing recommendation from her ballet instructor. When I met her, I knew she could play either role. But I kept searching for a good counterpart. I was so lucky to find Viktoria Vinyarska, who plays Sonya. I think she submitted through craigslist.org. She had a guarded quality during the audition which was exactly what I was looking for from the character. My dialogue is pared down, and she could communicate so much dimension with a single-word response. She was the last person I saw for the part in a three month search. Nina and Viktoria met for the first time at a costume fitting. They bonded instantly and had a six night sleepover throughout the course of the shoot. They are still terrific friends. That bond they formed off camera really shows through in the film.

Eliza talked about her film’s Director of Photography on the film, Smokey Nelson, who is an accomplished gaffer.

Matt Henderson (2nd AC) is frame left, Tim Trotman(1st AC) is on the opposite side of the camera, Eliza on Camera, DP Smokey Nelson behind Eliza and blurry on the right is Adam Lukens (Gaffer).

Smokey and I have mutual friends and he was recommended to me. I had lost my initial DP to another job, so Smokey jumped onto the project last minute. There was a lot of immediate like-mindedness. Our favorite Lynn Ramsay short is “Gasman.” We both adore Lukas Moodyson. I knew he was the right choice last minute because he is so energetic and enthusiastic and I could tell he really thinks on his feet. We didn’t have an extensive process or discussion. I had come up with my shot lists, visual strategy and blocking from Los Angeles and pretty much walked him through everything a couple days before we started shooting. Those ideas changed and evolved in the locations and with the cast. Smokey was part of that process. I really wished we could have worked more extensively together, but maybe next time.

Of Course I asked about what it was like to get the call from Sundance.

I had been sending the film out for four months and was rejected everywhere! So I felt totally relieved when Earnesto (one of the shorts programmers) called to let me know I was accepted to Sundance. The most powerful thing he said in our conversation was that Sundance is invested in seeing me make more films. To be honest, that affected me more than hearing that my film was accepted. That it wasn’t just about the moment and the screening but about my future films and career. I don’t think there is one particular thing that made my film stand out to the programmers, because I put 100% of myself into that film.

Eliza was kind enough to also chat with me about her future projects, in particular a feature film that she gave me the basic plot structure.

“Old Man Tim” is an extremely bleak story, inspired by even bleaker events. Like my other films, I started with an evocative landscape and characters that are based on people from my experiences. It’s about the quiet desperation within a group of teenage boys in the midwest. There’s a lot of extreme behavior and graphic content. My biggest concern is finding a cast that would be willing to bare all, emotionally and physically.

Don’t worry Eliza’s going to be chatting with us about OLD MAN TIN in the near future.  In the mean time check out the trailer to her Sundance bound short film, Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight.

Cast from the film:  Andrew Drozdov, Nina Medvinskaya, Viktoria Vinyarska, Fedor Filonov.

Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight written and directed by ELIZA HITTMAN cinematography by SMOKEY NELSON edited by SCOTT CUMMINGS casting by ANNE TEUTSCHEL sound design by BEN HUFF sound recorded by DAVID STEVENS costumes by SARAH MAIORINO sets by ANDREW BOYCE

All photos by photographer/film-maker Claire Marie Vogel

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