Lauren Wolkstein is an award-winning writer, editor, and filmmaker. Her 2011 short film The Strange Ones, codirected and written with Christopher Radcliff, and her 2013 film Social Butterfly, were both Official Selections of the Sundance Film Festival. In 2013, she was named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker Magazine. She will next participate with four filmmakers on collective:unconscious, a web series based on the collaborators’ respective dreams, which successfully completed a crowdsourcing campaign in January 2015. Currently an Assistant Professor in Film and Media Arts at Temple University, Lauren Wolkstein spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about the merits of short filmmaking, finding trustworthy collaborators, and the cinema of outsiders. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: You teach film now at Temple and have taught or lectured in a few other institutions, which we’ll talk more about in a minute. Your own work comes out of a prestigious graduate program. What was the biggest impact of your time directing films at Columbia?
Lauren Wolkstein: As a filmmaker, the visuals have always come first for me, then the story, and finally the casting. So the process of beginning to cast and learning how to work with actors when I was doing my thesis was pretty new to me. I think I got the most out of that and, as a result, I have some amazing friendships with actors I’ve collaborated with. When you first start making films, working with actors can seem like a very scary thing because it requires real learning: directors have to learn the crafts of both acting and talking to actors. It’s an entirely new way to communicate, and before I got into film in grad school, I had no experience with the language. And more, I’ve always hated the audition process.
SM: I hear this a lot from filmmakers. It seems somehow impersonal and inappropriate to many.
LW: Yes, but as soon as we started getting into that process, I started developing relationships with my actors. Performers seem to understand character or psychology or behavior in more ways than I could have expected. So many of those relationships have translated into long-term friendships; some of them are actually my best friends. Once you’ve exposed yourself as an actor to your director, it’s not like the relationship just ends once you finish the film. You’ve gone through something so intimate together – especially if the work you’re doing together is coming from the actor’s experience, as it often is – that you rarely experience on a day-to-day basis, much less onscreen.
I have become really close friends, for example, with Jonny Orsini and Emily Morden, the actors from my film Cigarette Candy (2009). They have both gone on to do amazing stuff on Broadway and in film. The same with David Call, [the lead] from The Strange Ones (2011), or Anna Margaret Hollyman [from Social Butterfly (2013)] – they are both such warm, wonderful human beings that it’s made me cherish working with actors. I feel a kinship to them that I had never expected before I started studying film; in fact, it was the thing I was most insecure about when I was in college. I used to cast my friends instead of professional actors because I felt I knew how to work with them.
SM: You seem to have a vested interest in that immediate kinship given how personal some of the films you’ve mentioned are. Cigarette Candy has this dedication to your father’s service in the Air Force, for example. And in an interview with Scott Macaulay, you mentioned that the idea for Social Butterfly came from a party you actually attended. When setting out to make these films, did the actors know just how personal the work was to you?
LW: As personal as these films are – and you’re right that they come from extremely personal experiences – I could never have imagined the sensitivity and development that Anna, Jonny, or David bring to their characters. Simply writing the screenplays for these films transforms these stories by one degree, like the real-life experience of my father coming home from service or attending that particular party. But the sheer fact of these actors performing adds another layer of fictionality to these nonfictions.
For Cigarette Candy, one of my best friends, Jeff Sousa, ended up writing the script that we shot. He heard all my stories about my father coming home, and my father’s stories about the teenaged Airmen he was in charge of, and translated those into a screenplay that kept some distance from those stories. My feeling is that if I had tried to write my headspace into the screenplay, it would have been too subjective to my experience and much more difficult to direct.
SM: You’ve since collaborated on projects with Mr. Sousa and people like Christopher Radcliff or Jonathan Lisecki in non-management positions. As an accomplished writer/director yourself, is that experience creatively satisfying? Or are you antic in those situations to get back to personal filmmaking?
LW: Some filmmakers are the kind that need to be making something new every month; I can be that antic person, but I itch just to make something good every year. I’ve had several feature projects in development for extended periods of time, which is one of the reasons I keep making shorts. I’m going to keep doing that until I’m able to make my features because I need to practice my craft. Features are basically just eight short films anyway, so the hope is that when funding comes together and I’m shooting my feature, I’ll know the form really well. When I work as a script supervisor on someone else’s feature, or as an editor or producer, it helps me understand the entire process and to become a better filmmaker. In fact, I don’t think you can be a successful independent filmmaker these days if you don’t also know how to produce.
SM: I completely agree. Half the process is applying for funding and looking for the money at the moment.
LW: That’s part of why I value working on and producing my friends’ work so much. And I was so happy to be asked to gaff something like Gayby (2012) because if I hadn’t been [asked], I would have asked to do it. You think of people outside the Hollywood system in the past, people like John Cassavetes, who had to find money elsewhere for his entire career. He really had to know the practicalities of how you can and cannot get your film made and shown.
SM: You are in the rare position of being a filmmaker who has managed to sell your short films for individual distribution. Other short-film-makers have described that as a virtual impossibility…
LW: Oh, yeah, I know. I didn’t think it was possible myself until I met [mine and Christopher’s] producer, Sébastien [Aubert].
SM: There’s a bit of a resurgence for short films on websites like Funny or Die, Jash and Vimeo, but they’re typically not commercial products. So what’s your secret – how does one make a short film saleable?
LW: I can only speak for my experience, of course, but I think there’s still a significant market for fiction shorts in Europe. If you show at festivals like Clermont-Ferrand [International Short Film Festival], you can see just how marketable they really are. Short film buyers go to those festivals exclusively for shorts, and many of these countries provide subsidies for filmmakers looking to make shorts. I think that’s amazing, but some of those subsidies would be large enough for independent filmmakers in the States to make features. So it’s viable for producers only to make shorts and to have opportunities for distribution in certain European markets.
I’m very lucky to say that I have a strong relationship with some of these producers and their distribution company, Ad Astra Films. They got in touch with me after Cigarette Candy went to the Clermont-Ferrand video market and asked if I had a European sales agent for the film. Of course I said, “No, I didn’t even realize that was a thing.” You don’t make short films thinking, “I need to sell this!”
SM: It seems like, for you, it’s closer to “I need to make this.”
LW: Exactly, though you hope that people will see it and want to work with you, which is exactly what happened with Ad Astra. They ended up selling the film to French television, and I’ve heard that when Cigarette Candy showed there, it got a larger audience than Juno (2008). After that, Sébastien e-mailed me and said that the company was looking to branch out into production, which led to The Strange Ones. Chris and I had wanted to make something together after finishing our thesis films at Columbia, even if it needed to be on the cheap, and we devised this idea for something that only involved three people in a single location. We sent the script to Séb, who loved it, and it ended up as a French-U.S. short coproduction. And we’ve continued to work together with Séb as producer since.
SM: You’ve worked as a producer yourself, though you’ve directed quite a bit more than you’ve produced –
LW: And I wouldn’t want to produce if it was for anyone but my closest friends.
SM: I also think you probably would not have the opportunity on some of the work you have done, like your commercials work, right? Companies must contact you to direct because they want your visual ideas and a sure hand behind the camera, without allowing you to deal with the business end of those projects.
LW: I think that’s wonderful! *Laughs* I have not had the opportunity to do that often enough, but when I do, it’s great. You have everything you need there for you and you just have to make things look good.
SM: Your work with Gucci from a few years ago is so beautiful. Have you maintained a collaborative relationship with them?
LW: That project was more of a one-off, but I’d love to do it again. Gucci was coming to New York and wanted to shoot something kind of nostalgic, with that 1970s feel, at the Hotel Chelsea. Love in a hotel, punk-rock living at the Chelsea sort of thing with a bid of romance. They sent me a mood board –
SM: *Laughs* A “mood board”? I’ve never heard of one of those. What is it?
LW: It was just a set of stills they sent, taken from Breathless (1960) and shots of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe – some of my favorite things. I had heard about the project through Felix [Thompson], a good friend of mine at Buffalo Picturehouse, a production company who had had some short films on the festival circuit. They had this gorgeous, black-and-white video from Hurricane Irene that went viral in Italy right around the time they were starting to branch into commercials work. So the production company that always works with Gucci saw the video, and knowing that they were going to New York to shoot something to promote [Gucci’s] eyewear, contacted Buffalo Picturehouse.
Felix usually directs their productions, but he was in Paris at the time Gucci wanted to shoot, so he called me and said, “They just sent me a mood board. It looks like you. *Laughs* Would you like to shoot this?” I drew up a treatment in a day or two, and they gave me a week to prepare. Then I showed up to set, where there were actors that I had never met and anything I could have needed. And I just played.
SM: One of the formal continuities the Gucci short has with the other work you’ve written and directed is this precision with actor movement. You have a real, visible skill for choreographing upwards of ten people into and out of the frames of your shots. There’s a few of these in the crowd scenes of Cigarette Candy, and another scene I’m thinking of in particular, in Social Butterfly, where twenty partygoers or so run towards a lit pool. The movement is complex.
LW: That is one of my favorite elements of shooting and making films, just trying to figure out how to move people around and choreograph. I really see films as dance. The camera is your lens to seeing that dance, and as a director, you get to control the lens.
SM: In addition to your filmmaking, you have also lectured and taught at several institutions. Do you consider yourself an academic?
LW: I think I have to, now. Teaching film is what I’ve always wanted to do. And what is so special about working at Temple is that they encourage the faculty to continue being artists as productively as they are teachers. I have to continue making work in order to teach there, which is so important both for the professors and the students. It’s kind of a dream job.
SM: What about teaching have you always wanted to do? Are there specific responsibilities that attracted you to academia?
LW: The analysis aspect of being a cinephile is something I’ve always wanted to teach at the college level. I think in order to be a good filmmaker, you have to understand the theory behind filmmaking and how to analyze movies. How else would you know which influences to take from? How to start your film? Or how even to practice filmmaking as a craft? Picking up a camera doesn’t make you a filmmaker; you have to study film over time to learn how to really do it.
SM: This last question is a roundabout way of asking you about your influences but it’s a little bigger than that. I’ve heard you mention here and on Twitter your love for a huge range of filmmakers – Nicholas Ray, Ashby, Altman, the French New Wave, etc. As a cinephile yourself, what styles and filmmakers do you think your films have drawn from most extensively?
LW: As you’ve noticed, I have not finished my own film scholarship, so that’s a tough question. I can say I’m drawn to the cinema of outsiders, work by filmmakers who are sensitive to those stories. In that space I see Hal Ashby, for example. But then I also think that Hitchcock’s the master of shot progression, so I’ll look at his films to learn how to build a scene dramatically. Olivier Assayas is a master of choreography in shots and fluid camera movement – I’ve learned so much from his wonderful handheld cinematography, moving in and out of the frame. There’s just so much…I store them away so that when I’m making movies, it’s like making a soup. You mix ingredients and flavors into the soup in order to make the recipe your own.