RUSTY TALK WITH FILMMAKER NADIA LITZ
Nadia Litz is an award-winning Canadian actress and director. After her debut at Cannes in the award-winning film The Five Senses, Maclean’s magazine voted her “One to Watch” for the new millennium. She played Sam Shepard’s daughter in 2002’s After The Harvest and was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Actress for that role. In 2007 she won the Vancouver’s Critics Award for her role in Reg Harkema’s Monkey Warfare. Her 2010 short film, How To Rid Your Lover Of A Negative Emotion Caused By You!, produced by the Canadian Film Centre where she was a director-in- residence, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010, has played over a dozen film festivals throughout the US, Canadian and internationally, including out-of-competition at the Cannes Court Metrage, winning best short at Austin’s Fantastic Fest 2011. In 2012 Litz was featured on the prestigious Wholphin anthology, alongside Jay Duplass (Jeff Who Lives At Home) and Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene). Recently Litz completed an experimental short doc on Canada’s revered and controversial Right Honorable Adrienne Clarkson, which makes its world premiere at VIFF in September 2012. Her first feature Hotel Congress, a comedy-of manners that takes place in a Tucson hotel is in post-production. While her second feature, a love story that takes place in a suicide forest in Japan, goes to camera in 2013. You can follow her on Twitter.
RUSTY TALK WITH NADIA LITZ
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Nadia Litz: In grade school we had to choose a story of a historical figure, do research on the figure, and then make a book on that figure. We had to write it, illustrate it, and even bind the book ourselves. My dad had taken me to go and see Milos Forman's Amadeus and I became obsessed with it and subsequently Mozart, so I chose to write my "book" on him. I called it "Wolfie".
KM: When did you first start directing and writing for film?
NL: I tend to do a lot of "research" before I try something. I read screenwriting books and had taken classes, and I had been aimlessly writing pretend scripts and treatments for a while—maybe 10 years. But, it wasn't until my last year of university studying Cinema Studies that I directed. It was a 3-minute experimental short that was an assignment in a directing for non-majors class. It landed me a spot as a director-in-residence at the Canadian Film Center months later. That was in 2009. Which proves I'm a noobie and you should probably stop reading this.
KM: How do you think your acting background influences or affects your directing and writing?
NL: I think it does but it is hard to articulate how. I suppose I trust what good actors can bring to a moment, so when I was first writing, I tended to underwrite (according to producers and story editors). I continue to learn the balance of what should be on the page and what shouldn't be. I was just re-reading Allan Ball's American Beauty, and in the script he writes a stage direction for the character Carolyn: "Even when she slept she had a look of determination on her face." That kind of writing is gold for an actor. As an actor if I read that one line, I would understand the character, so I try to be mindful of things like that when I write and when I direct. The script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is also full of stage direction like that. Simple editorial clues that will be an anchor for an actor, without force feeding it. I don't mind breaking what might be considered screenwriting convention in order to make a script come alive for an actor; however, I do believe in a firm structure as a base.
KM: What inspires the stories you tell?
NL: I have noticed that locations seem to inspire the first grain of an idea for me. However, I hope that whatever inspires me at a given time will evolve as I do as a writer. I think the first few stories we tell tend to have a personal element. Filmmakers can seem like we want our trajectory to be the indie personal story root because when we are first starting out, we have budgetary constraints that lend themselves to personal stories. I love including personal elements in my stories, little nods to my life, but I have yet to ever want to tell the truth about my life on film. My preference is to look around me. I also like emotionalizing things that are "concepts". Also, I get a bunch of ideas via the Sunday Times. Too many, really, it's shameful.
KM: Was there a writer or filmmaker that had a big impact on you?
NL: Kurt Vonnegut was the first great literary writer I read as a teenager. He had those naive drawings in a few of his novels, which always seemed subversive to high art literature and cinematic to me for some reason. His voice resonates with me still. He is wry and detached but wholly emotional to me. His satire is never mean. He points out the meanness of the world because his heart is broken that it is like that. That's how I see him. I relate to that way of thinking. His voice/tone is highly original.
The list is too long for filmmakers. However most of the films I love tend to be some form of comedy-of-manners in a broad stroke way. I think a lot of Kubrick's films, for example, are comedy-of-manners so I have a broad idea about that genre. Bunuel, Oshima, Ozu, Rhomer, Kubrick, Cohen Brothers, Whit Stillman, Coppola (Sofia)—usual suspects.
KM: When you are directing films that you didn't write—what is the process like? Do you have any advice about what screenwriters can expect when working with a director?
NL: I love the process of directing others' work. It's a whole other ballgame then directing your own work, and both are equally satisfying for different reasons. In directing another screenwriter's script you have to find clever ways of making it meaningful to you. It's a challenge to have one more person you need to satisfy. It can be exciting that your only way to tell the story is visually/emotionally. With the short “How To Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused By You!” it was a case of having two very strong voices in the mix—the writer Ryan Cavan and mine as a director. It's successful because both visions were honored.
KM: When writing your own scripts what is the writing process like for you? How do you approach revision?
NL: I love to write. It is a joy. I don't feel bogged down by it. If I hit a block, it's a challenge and I like challenge. The thing that gets me down is when I lose interest in something that I have been working on for some time. Do you try to revive the interest or do you let it go? That's an obstacle for sure. For revisions I like to have a plan. I'll start with strengthening the peripheral characters and work my way towards the protagonist. I just read these great tips from James Schamus, who had some harebrained ideas for revisions I think I might try. Revisions are a drag, but he had these thoughts about standing a draft on its head that seemed very smart.
KM: When getting notes from producers—what do you do when you get a note that you don't like or agree with on your script?
NL: Only take good ideas and only from people you respect. You know your script and characters better than anyone. People will try to convince to take their note by saying things like "you're too close to the script". I say, "yes!" It is a good thing to be very close to your script. Also, when you are starting out people will tell you are suppose to consider all producer notes, because you are new. Like it is a manners thing. This is what I think: your script is the thing you are the expert on. Have the conversation, if only as a way to articulate why you don't agree with their note, but ultimately you make the choice. You are the CEO of your script and a CEO needs to believe in the company and lead it. No one calls a CEO 'precious' when they believe in their company, so don't let words like that deter you...Now, if you're a bad CEO, your company will fail and the public will let you know quite quickly and you won't be allowed to be CEO anymore! So, you have to be a good CEO! But, ultimately I'm all for screenwriters, respectfully, standing up for a choice. Most producers in the real world respect people who can articulate and communicate a vision. It is your responsibility to instill trust in your producers and funders about that choice, however. Also, that was a really long CEO metaphor. I hope it was clear...Also, if you are a gun-for-hire, it's a totally different thing. Then you apply the note and you find your way into the note. Case closed.
KM: What are you working on now?
NL: I just finished shooting my first feature called Hotel Congress. I had been in development on what was suppose to be my first feature The People Garden when this opportunity to make a film for no money presented itself. Hotel Congress is a film full of things I swore I would never do. I wrote it in 12 days. Very little revisions. Very talky. We shot the film in 40 hours. I star in it. I co-produced it. I co-directed it with Michel Kandinsky. Did I mention we shot the entire feature in 40 hours? We shot it on location in Tucson Arizona in a hotel called Hotel Congress. It is a romantic comedy-of-manners that we shot in 40 hours. We're in the edit now. We don't know if we're crazy, but so far we love it and think it's quite charming, actually. It was made with so much drive and love by an insular team of my favorite co-horts. It would be impossible not to love a feature film. That you shot. In forty hours. In the desert.
I hope to make my film The People Garden next year. With a smidge more time.
Feature Film, 2012
Hotel Congress Trailer from Sofia Francis on Vimeo.
Nadia Litz and Michel Kandinsky – Directors’ Statement
“Instead of bashfully wearing its microscopic budget as a badge of honor, Nadia Litz and Michel Kandinsky’s HOTEL CONGRESS aims for a genuine economy of craft. Ironically, in a project devised and executed in the shadows of the Canadian production stream, it’s a combination of old fashion virtues – a resonant location, clever camera placement, and a worthily wordy screenplay – that elevates Litz and Kandinsky’s first feature debut beyond a novelty item.” –Adam Nayman (Cinema Scope, The Grid)
Hotel Congress is a tender comedy-of-manners about two people who meet in a hotel famous for its nefarious associations to Depression era bank robber John Dillinger. Sofia and Francis try not to have an affair, while trying to find true love. The film comically deals with ethics in an unethical situation and could aptly be re-titled “What Happens When Cynics Try To Care.” Or “Why John Dillinger is Not A Bad Guy.”
The film was Shot for a $1000, in under 40 hours at the historic Hotel Congress in Tucson Arizona. Litz had been to the hotel 7 years prior to see the post-punk band Interpol play a show in the parking lot. She was struck by the dichotomous feeling of isolation and warmth the hotel had. The way the hotel felt stuck in time.
Nadia Litz (writer, co-director, co-producer, actress):
This film was under ‘willing duress’ from the start. I say willing because we wanted to prove a point in this very competitive market: you just need some smarts and an air tight work ethic to make an interesting film. Film at its best is about ideas and relatable emotion. Let that be the end of budget and time constraints.
When you start to think of what you can do for $1000, you quickly realize the script can save you. In writing this particular project, I focused on films that we all deeply admired the dialogue of (because dialogue doesn’t need lighting!) and why those films work. Obviously we love Mamet and Woody Allen and Hal Hartley and of recent years Lena Dunham comes to mind. We were going through a major Sturges period – hence the 4:3 - his films are simply shot, but beautifully romantic yet not at all ‘twee’….But, Whit Stillman is still the quintessential dialogue screenwriter for me. His characters are satirical, but his films are tender in a way that sneaks up on you. Could the Chris Eigeman character be more of a jerk, that you ultimately feel for, because a) he is truly stuck in his own jerk-ness and b)he’s the least hypocritical character in the Stillman world. I had him in mind for my character Sofia.
Stillman’s ideas and his modern philosophy (or philosophy of modernity) are what you care about in his films. Ideas and philosophies don’t inherently cost money so they bode well for indie filmmaking. That seemed like the highest bar to work towards.
I’m not into improvisation, shooting everything and finding the film in the edit for indie filmmaking. I think you need to be more meticulous and disciplined in the basics of the craft as an indie filmmaker
I wrote the film round the clock in twelve days. We were shooting three weeks later. Every word we said is in the original script. It felt mischievous to do it that way, to not belabor the process with second-guessing and rewrites. Just write it and shoot it.
When you don’t try to fit into a preconceived mold, the mode of storytelling becomes more interesting. You feel uncensored.
Michel Kandinsky: (co-director, co-producer)
For me, the film is about two people trapped by their own erudite, iconoclast self-awareness. They know what to say at the appropriate moment and how to say it in a clever way but this knowledge keeps them from feeling as deeply as they could.
I approach film as an intuitive medium, one in which too much thought gets in the way when time on set is spent trusting your intuition. It’s the opposite of what the characters in the film are doing, until they do it…And then once they trust in it they become the kind of love they aspire to, without even realizing it.
This was the first time I had co-directed anything. The remarkably short amount of time that we had to shoot this film kept us from too much discussion once we were on set. We simply didn’t have the ability to talk things out once we started shooting. We had to trust the script and our base instincts, keep out the temptation to over-think. I think that comes through in the finished product. There’s an energy there that I find very empowering. We knew we had to just start.
HOW TO RID YOUR LOVER OF A NEGATIVE EMOTION CAUSED BY YOU!
Short Film, 2010
Produced by the Canadian Film Centre
Directed By: Nadia Litz
Starring: Sarah Allen & Joe Cobden
Screenplay By: Ryan Cavan
Produced By: Heather K. Dahlstrom & Daniel Bekerman
Edited By: Alexandre-Nicholas Giffard
Director of Photography: Daniel Grant
Production Design By: Nazgol Goshtasbpour
Love can make us do weird things. Sadie does a weird thing. She does it to her boyfriend Dennis. Keep in mind she only wants what's best for both of them—a perfect relationship. It could be the perfect relationship, too, as long as nobody bleeds to death.
Rusty Talk Editor: