Interview with Bat-Sheva Guez, Writer and Director of Behind the Wall
Interview by Shewonda Leger
Copy Editing and Posting by Sabrina Hirsch
When did the idea of writing Behind The Wall present itself to you? Where were you and what were you doing when you decided to take that story and bring it to life on the screen?
Behind The Wall had its first life as a subplot in an early draft of my feature script: And How She Tried. The feature illustrates different magical encounters in an old Brooklyn neighborhood, a neighborhood rich with hidden eccentricities visible to those walking slowly enough to notice. I based the script on my years living in Greenpoint, which felt to me to be a truly magical place. The hidden gardens tucked away behind two-hundred-year-old buildings, the older generation of neighbors with their collection of stories from before the gentrification, and the rich and sometimes comical history of the region were all major source of inspiration.
And How She Tried, is my upcoming feature currently seeking financing. It re-invents the neighborhood with a tarnished kind of magical realism. It tells the story of a young woman who struggles to find her place in the world and seeks advice from her neighbors: eccentric, elderly characters who face gentrification using their own kind of street magic. For example, there’s an old woman who captures spirits that live in her tree -and she eats them for a very strange purpose. Then there’s a man who can make himself invisible at will in order to live in an abandoned lot “rent free.” The feature script also contained a subplot about a girl who sees magical things through the walls in her new apartment. But when it came time to revise the script, that subplot didn’t fit, so I cut it out. The story nagged me for a chance to come to life, so I made it into a short film, and that’s how Behind the Wall came to be.
How did you go about funding your film and what advice do you have for others wanting to fund their own film?
About four years ago, I started my own production company, Adventure Pants, so that I could direct films for hire. I saved every dollar that I earned directing over the course of a few years and put it into this film. Making a movie with one’s own money? It’s either incredibly irresponsible or an investment in one’s future, and my opinion on the subject vacillates with the weather.
I live extremely frugally and put all my earnings back into my work. My fellow filmmakers joke that this is like “surfing.” It’s risky and it’s scary and it’s not for everyone. My advice for fellow filmmakers who choose this path is to take these financial risks early on in your career, because the longer you wait, the more difficult it gets. At some point, you’re going to want to keep your money so you can live comfortably, buy nice things, pay for a wedding or a house or to raise a child. You’re going to have a hard time paying for a movie.
I thought the cinematography really helped set up the mood for the film. Did your vision when writing Behind The Wall change as you engaged with the cast and crew? If so, how?
I actually had a very specific vision for this film and I was very lucky to find an amazing DP (Giacomo Belletti) and production designer (James Bartol) who really understood what I was trying to do. I loved those moments when we sat down to meet and talk through my Look Book and their eyes lit up. It was such an exciting moment – that spark that seemed to occur when they could see it too. After that, everything they brought to the table made the world that much richer.
Your portrayal of the main character, Katrin, was extremely realistic in bringing us the story of a young dancer facing the end of her dream. It made me wonder the extent to which you relate to her. Are there similarities between you and her and did they inspire your writing and directing of the film?
I don’t share any similarities with my protagonist that I know of, but I did often joke that if I encountered a magical portal to another world, I wouldn’t even notice because I’d be too busy to see it. I was very curious to tell a story about what happens to a person when she’s moving full steam ahead on a particular path, and then abruptly stops. What sort of things will she notice when she has no choice but to slow down? Will she notice the magic portal?
Our lead actress, Alexandra Turshen, did have a similar experience to our protagonist. She herself was once on a track to be a professional ballerina, but during the first flushes of her professional career, she injured her foot – and that was all it took to end it. She had to re-invent herself, returning to college and eventually becoming an actor. We were all struck during her audition by how genuine her emotional response was to an imagined injury, and only learned later that she had some very real memories to pull from for the role.
Katrin flawlessly and silently conveyed emotions through her body movements throughout the entire film. What tips can you give to inspiring directors who want to work with sound and music rather then spoken words and in what ways did you make sure that the emotions you were trying to convey came through?
I wanted to challenge myself in this film and tell a story with a silent protagonist. I was inspired by films like The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist, movies that are so rich with drama and emotion but incredibly sparse with dialogue. Also, our story was about a ballet dancer, and since dancers rarely get to speak on stage, it seemed appropriate for our young dancer to remain silent. I tend to be drawn to films that are subtler in this way, films where the characters do not announce their emotions to you out loud, but instead leave you guessing as to how they really feel. Those kinds of films always seems more like real life to me.
It was incredibly challenging to carry this out– especially with the length constraints of a short film. There’s just not a lot of screentime available to you to tell a story, and silence is not often the most economical way to convey emotion in a film. I spent a lot of time with Alex talking about how much demonstrating she should do and how covered or uncovered her internal life should be. We tried it a few different ways and settled on one eventually.
My advice to directors who want to eschew dialogue in favor of music and sound design is to be aware that it takes longer. It takes more time to write, it takes more time to shoot, it takes longer to edit, and ultimately, it takes up more screentime in the final film. I don’t think I really knew this myself until we were in the thick of things, but that’s part of what’s fun with experimenting in your own work.
You’re a member of Film Fatales, a group of women filmmakers who support each other, how has your involvement influenced your work as a woman filmmaker? What has been the biggest take away and how is what you learned from being in that community demonstrated in Behind The Wall?
During the early part of my career, I felt as if I was working in a vacuum, with only one or two director friends to turn to for advice. After joining Fatales, the feeling of isolation has been replaced with one of being part of a large community of directors. Now I have access to a HUGE number of fellow directors to ask for – and offer – advice. That has been an invaluable addition to my professional life.
But more importantly, I feel that groups like Film Fatales are making great strides towards combatting sexism in the industry. There’s something very powerful that happens when women band together, look the industry square in the eye and say: “Sexism in Hollywood is a problem, and if you want to fix it, here are films and filmmakers to pay attention to.”
Before being a filmmaker in New York, where were you living and how did those places contribute to who you are as a filmmaker? How does New York influence what you make as a filmmaker today and the process through which you make it?
I’ve spent most of my adult life in Brooklyn and despite all the ways it’s changed recently, I still adore this city. A lot of my recent work has a very strong sense of place, and Brooklyn features prominently in it. I love the history of this place, I love the secret gardens choked with morning glory vines tucked away in back alleys, I love the colorful graffiti walls that change with the seasons. I love the characters who ornament the neighborhood – the man that takes long walks around the block whistling everywhere he goes, or the woman who fixes watches in a tiny booth in the laundromat.
Especially now that these old neighborhoods are changing so quickly, I feel a strong desire to document them before they change forever – but document them within a fictional context – with a larger-than-life sensibility. That’s what I’ve done with Behind the Wall and intend to do with my upcoming feature.
I am personally new to the canvas of filmmaking and I would like to know how that feeling of finishing a film has evolved now that you have directed several of them. What emotions stay the same as when you completed your first piece, what new feelings emerge with subsequent films, and how do those combinations of feelings influence future projects?
The process of making a film is an emotional rollercoaster, but the ride is surprisingly similar from film to film. It’s exhilarating and miserable and wonderful—often at the same time. There is no real feeling of “finishing” a film, only resignation—the sad acknowledgment that I must stop working on a film in order to begin the next one. I feel no satisfaction or pleasure upon finishing a project, just a strong desire to begin the next one and for the next one to be better than the last. The joy doesn’t come from the completion of the work, it comes in little bursts during the process. In my early days of making films, this surprised me, but now I expect it.
Your work has been compared to Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Do you agree? Are there other filmmakers that influence your work as you find your own voice and style as a woman filmmaker?
I’m definitely influenced by Gondry and Jeunet, and also Julie Taymor, Guillermo Del Toro, Sylvain Chomet, Maya Deren, and Terry Gilliam, among others. I love building colorful, magical worlds, and I also love pushing the envelope for what can be done with the medium of film. I’ve projected my films on special 3-D screens that I’ve built myself, I’ve told stories using only still images, I’ve made triptych films, dance films, and surrealist films. I’m fascinated with the potential of the medium, and I often mix experimental techniques into more traditional storytelling. The goal is to tell engaging stories with rich characters, while simultaneously experimenting and exploring with the medium. The experimental techniques do not replace the narrative, but rather enhance it.
I really enjoyed the hint of magic that you brought to your film. Where did your decision to portray magic in this story derive from?
I grew up reading a lot of books with magic in them and watching a lot of magical films, but as I matured, my taste for magic matured with it. I became less interested in films with overt fanfares of music announcing magical elements, I lost my taste for fairy dust, wizardly gadgets and fantastical beasts. I found myself craving magic that was more—for lack of a better word—real. I want my magic gritty, unexplained, unadorned. I want it to fit snuggly into the little moments in an eccentric neighborhood in an old part of town. I want it to exist in a world of very real adults who often make the wrong choices.
Films evolve through the editing process, often highlighting the difference between what you envisioned and what you achieve. When editing Behind The Wall, did you encounter this issue and how did you move through it? What was your process for deciding what gets cut and what ends up on the screen?
Since our budget was so tight, and my background is in editing, I made the decision to edit the film myself. It’s always very challenging to edit your own work because by the time you get to post-production, the film is crying for fresh eyes. This challenge was compounded by the fact that the film had two contrasting rhythms: the slow-paced world of Katrin’s day-to-day life, and the faster-paced world that exists behind the wall. I worked very hard to find the right balance between the two. Sometimes the slower scenes took the longest to edit. I had to ask myself, when do I challenge the viewer to be patient and simply experience a slow moment, and when should I indulge the viewer and move the story along faster?
Finding the right pace for the film was especially challenging in a film where the protagonist never speaks and rarely interacts with another human being. When you’re working with multiple actors or scenes with dialogue, it’s easy to speed up or slow down the pace of a scene. But when the character is alone, you don’t have the luxury of cutting out lines, or cutting to another actor to move things along. You’re stuck with what you shot in the room. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in post. That was a great lesson to learn from this film and not something that I was expecting.
My assembly edit was 22 minutes, and I finally settled on a story that paced out to a little over 16 minutes. Luckily, when I got too close to the material, I was able to get some great feedback from colleagues I trust and to use their eyes to help determine what was working and what needed to be cut.
What words of encouragement do you have for women filmmakers wanting to write and direct their own films?
Go for it! Don’t delay. It will be easier now than later. Really.
View the trailer for Behind the Wall here. For updates and more information you can follow Bat-Sheva on Twitter and visit her website. You can also find more information about Behind the Wall on the Adventure Pants website. Make sure to check out Shewonda’s profile.