Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
Eleanor, you wrote, directed, produced, and starred in Everything All At Once. Can you tell us about the experience of juggling so many roles? What is gained and what is lost when we take that approach to a project?
Eleanor: The juggling of writer/director/producer is a pretty common one these days, given that in short films we are predominantly working with low budgets, so you need to learn how to do everything yourself. And shorts are learning ground, so it’s a great opportunity to figure it all out and understand all the different roles and relationships within the process of getting a film made. Adding acting to the picture does present a little bit of a challenge, in that once on the set, you need to compartmentalize your hats a little more — knowing when to take the producer hat off and focus on directing and knowing when to take the director hat off and be present in a scene. I really enjoy being able to be in the scene with the other actors because it makes the whole process of directing much more intuitive and spontaneous. You can tell very quickly if a scene isn’t feeling right in a way that you might not be able to if you’re watching it through a monitor. On the flip side, it’s tricky jumping from having a technical discussion with your DP, or a time discussion with your AD, to right away having to do an emotional scene. In those times you just have to be as prepared as you can be and trust that the crew are all taking care of the rest. That’s the real trick to it — just work with people that are very good at their specific job and are nice people, and it’s not hard at all.
Mica: From a DP’s perspective, Eleanor is able to accomplish this extremely well. She knows what she’s looking for in a scene, so once we finish blocking and dive into the performance, she becomes completely immersed in her character. And as soon as we cut, she reviews the take and addresses her concerns in a very focused way. It makes everyone’s jobs on set run very smoothly.
In what ways does your acting experience influence the way you write and direct your work, Eleanor?
Eleanor: Most of my acting training has been about following instincts and being truthful, so I think that comes through in the way I write. I talk to myself a lot as I go and daydream about what the characters would say and how they would behave. I love it once I have the cast set and we do a reading and find out what works and what doesn’t. I really trust that if the film has been cast well, the actors will often know better than you do how something should be said, and it’s important to listen to that. In terms of directing, I think the best thing that acting has given me is to not be afraid of the actors! They are just people.
You have both done a lot of work on television. What are the differences between working on TV versus independent film and in which ways do the experiences complement each other?
Eleanor: Well, money, of course, is a big difference! I think the best thing to be taken from working on TV, or anything with a bigger budget (commercials, etc.) is that you get to learn how things are done when there is real money involved. Correct protocols, such as dealing with agents or making sure everyone has the information they need to do their job. You can then take that knowledge and level of professionalism to your small, low-budget set. Even though you aren’t offering a ton of money, it goes a long way to be sending a proper deal memo, for example. Things like this often get overlooked on short independent films. On the other hand, having started out acting in student films before I got a job on TV helped a lot cause you learn pretty quickly that you need to get it right on the first take because you’re not going to get to do it many more times. In that way, indie film and TV are pretty similar. Mica, you’ve probably seen more of the drastic differences than I have in the camera department.
Mica: You learn how to be fast when you work on TV, which can be a huge asset when you’re working with short films. The budget constraints and typically tight schedules impose certain demands on production, which means you have to think on your feet and, like Eleanor has said, to follow your intuition and do what feels right in that moment. Experience always rolls over from project to project independent of the medium and that’s what’s great about filmmaking in general — it’s about so much more than just the technical aspect of it.
Everything is one of the most accurate portrayals I’ve seen of women in a family interacting with each other. It wonderfully captures inter-generational love and conflict. Can you talk about your inspiration for telling this story and your approach to portraying family dynamics on film?
Eleanor: Thanks! The inspiration for the story was my own family. I had a similar car ride with my mother, aunt, and grandmother when I was home once, and on the plane back, I just wrote out what I could remember of the conversation almost verbatim. That was really just a scene, so the script needed a lot of work before it became a film with an arc. The thing that I love about what you can do with characters related to each other is that they can be mad one second and then completely recover from it the next. There’s not always a lot of logic to the way you behave around your family, but the emotional logic is there. When J. Smith-Cameron came on board as the mother, I was just praying that she would feel comfortable with jumping from one emotion to the next so quickly, as her character does, and lucky for me I think that’s what drew her to the project and excited her about the role.
As I developed it I wanted to show sides of what it is to be a woman, so the mother became the ultimate mother/caretaker, who just can’t escape her impulses of looking after everyone, and the aunt represents the woman who never had children. That choice of whether or not you will have children feels very relevant to my generation, so it was interesting to me to place my character in the middle of that.
Three of Everything’s characters are older women, a group for whom very few parts are written, especially in film which seems even more reluctant to explore the experiences of women over 30 than television. Why do you think that reluctance exists and what can we do to change it?
Eleanor: My guess is that when people are spending a lot of money on something, they are scared and want to play it safe. Young, beautiful people sounds safe on paper. But I do get a sense that things are shifting in what audiences want to see toward more realistic portrayals of life. People want to be able to relate and not just escape. It’s been a joy taking this film to festivals and so many young men come up to me and tell me how much they loved and related to the film. It just goes to show that female stories aren’t just for females and old people’s stories aren’t just for old people.
What we can do about it is keep writing those roles! And a hint to indie filmmakers out there: if you write good roles for older women, you will get really good actors! They are out there, and they have been in the business for a long time and know how to work, and are looking for interesting scripts. They will teach you a lot as well.
The film was made with a primarily female crew and features an all-woman cast. Why do you think it is important for women crewmembers to work on women-centric stories?
Eleanor: For a story like this, it sets a tone on set that we all understand the material and what’s going on here. Acting is very vulnerable so it helps to have crew around that the actors feel comfortable with and not threatened by. Not to say that you can’t find those qualities in men, but it certainly helps right off the bat to feel that there’s some ingrained sensitivity to the subject matter. It builds a sense that we are all in this together.
I found the cinematography to be playful and lyrical. How did you approach this project visually, Mica, and what advice do you have for women cinematographers wanting to work on their craft?
Mica: When I first read the script, I immediately connected with the characters and the story. Like all of Eleanor’s writing, it felt very honest and human, which is what I look for in a story. I wanted that feeling to get translated to an audience, and the best way I felt I could achieve that was by having a straightforward approach to the camerawork. We didn’t use many connecting shots and used mostly singles to isolate each character and contribute to a claustrophobic and lonely feeling. Even though they are in the same space, they are each in their own world trying desperately to connect in unsuccessful ways. In terms of lighting, my approach was very natural, just trying to balance the exterior by bouncing some light to the car interior. We also used a very diffused light panel in a couple shots.
My biggest advice for women cinematographers would be to shoot as much as possible and to work with people who have the same taste and vision as you do. As cinematographers there is an array of stories and styles we get hired to achieve, but at least for me, developing a work relationship and friendship with a director I admire is honing in on my craft and paving the path to the career I want to have in film.
I thought it was very gutsy to film most of the story in a car, a famously complicated endeavor, especially on an indie budget. Can you both discuss the logistics of the process?
Eleanor: I’ll let Mica take over on this one, but I will say that we’re very lucky that she is of a small stature! She squeezed herself into a lot of nooks of that car. Also, we had discussed early on that we wanted most of the moments to live inside the car, to ramp up the claustrophobic feeling, so that quickly eliminated the need for any expensive rigging. And I adjusted the script so that there was very little that J. Smith Cameron had to do while actually driving, just to be as safe as possible (and eliminate the need for expensive insert vehicle!). The only actual driving scene on a street is during Rebecca’s monologue.
Mica: It was definitely tight. I’ve never felt so lucky to be 5ft! An insert car is not always the answer, and I think shooting from inside the car really helped us in this case. Not just in terms of budget, scheduling, and such, but for the portrayal of each character overall. From a cinematographer’s perspective it helped that all the characters were there, in the same space reacting to each other without paper tape marks for eye lines. The emotion was there, and it made us explore angles we really enjoyed, such as the CU profile on the amazingly talented J. Smith-Cameron when she stops the car to check her phone. We’re shooting from Eleanor’s perspective but revealing more of J. Smith-Cameron’s face as if to show another side of her.
How did you go about funding the project and what advice do you have for others wanting to fund their own projects?
Eleanor: Our wonderful executive producer, Judy Posey funded the project. She basically did a private crowdfunding, asking businesses and people she knew for larger donations. I think she pieced it together with about 12-15 donations. But also, it was a very small two-day shoot, and many things we were able to source for free, like locations and camera. The majority of the money went into feeding and accommodating everyone. I would advise filmmakers to start with the script and see where you can cut corners and use it to your advantage to tell the story (see question above about shooting in the car). And if you want people to help you out on your film, start helping out on other people’s films.
In terms of the funding process, crowdfunding is great, but reaching out to people and businesses in person can be a really effective way to get larger donations. Not everyone lives their lives on social media like many of us do. Moreover, so much social media is saturated with crowdfunding these days that it’s getting harder to stand out on that platform. A personal phone call, email, or meeting goes a long way, and I think better prepares you for what it’s going to be like getting actual investors interested in a project once you start the process of funding a feature.
Smith-Cameron, who plays your mother in the film, has been a supporter of yours since the early stages of this film, Eleanor. Can you talk about that relationship and about the need for women to mentor each other in the industry?
Eleanor: I got incredibly lucky with getting J on board! Our casting director, Allison Twardziak, reached out to her agent with an offer and a personal letter from me, and thankfully she read the script and said yes! We became closer during the shooting, and she has since really supported the project so much and offered me a lot of advice. She taught me how to use Twitter! And much more than that. I think it’s incredibly important to have the more experienced, seasoned women help those of us who are starting out because it helps create a sense of possibility that sometimes is hard to feel as a woman. All artists need encouragement, but I think it’s especially important to be giving women or any minority group permission to work and tell their story. And starting that culture of mentorship from women helps eradicate this stigma that women are so competitive with one another. Which I just don’t think is accurate, at least not in present-day New York indie film.
You are also members of Film Fatales, which is a strong force supporting women filmmakers. Can you talk about your involvement with them?
Eleanor: I cannot speak highly enough of Film Fatales. I joined about a year ago when the New York Shorts chapter began, and it’s been such an incredible group to be involved with. On the base level, we meet once a month in each other’s homes to have dinner and talk about filmmaking and all that goes along with that. Which would be excellent even if that were all it was. But now that we have expanded to 20 chapters around the world, it has opened us all up to a network of female directors that we might never have met or known about. We obviously interact a lot on social media (especially with those outside of our cities) but also within our groups have been working on projects together and tangibly supporting each other’s endeavors. Many of us volunteer our spare time to organizing events, partnerships, even running free workshops for each other and generally spreading the word. It’s exciting to be a part of. The progress feels significant.
Mica isn’t a member yet, but the LA Shorts chapter is starting soon, and I’m going to make her go to meetings!
Mica: I can’t wait. I’m a huge fan of the group already.
It is such a joy to be able to watch a short film outside the festival circuit through the Sundance Rectify Short Film Festival. What other outlets have you found for getting short films to those who don’t attend festivals?
Eleanor: I’m so grateful for Sundance TV putting this out there. It’s such a trip to have your short film seen by a wider TV audience. There are a lot of good websites these days that will show your short, such as Short Of The Week or Film Shortage, but those are all mostly catering to a similar niche market of people who are seeking out short films. Shorts HD is exciting to me because they are actually getting short films broadcast on TV around the world. And United Airlines have partnered with Tribeca Films to show curated short content on airplanes! New opportunities are cropping up all the time.
What advice to you have for women filmmakers honing their cinematic voices?
Eleanor: I guess just don’t be afraid to explore what is true to you. I’ve tried writing things that are edgier or “cooler,” but it always feels forced. I’ve learned that, at least for right now, emotional dramedies with realistic dialogue is what I do best, and there’s no point fighting that. Watch a lot of films and walk as much as you can. There is so much to be inspired by out there.