Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Future Filmmaker: An interview with Eliza McNitt

Some of you might remember that two summers ago I attended Campus MovieFest's Hollywood awards ceremony. CMF is a wonderful program that goes to college campuses throughout the year and provides students with Apple laptops and Panasonic HD cameras to make short film within one week. Each school then has their own finale to select the best of the best, which then move on to the Grand Finale in Hollywood.

I was so taken with the quality of the films shown there that I spotlit a number of them in a segment I called Future Filmmaker Friday.  I was able to run interviews with all of the filmmakers I wanted to showcase, save for one: Eliza McNitt, who directed a short called VIOLET.

Recently, Eliza reached out to me to tell me about her latest short, Without Fire. Without Fire is the story of a Navajo girl who has to figure out a way to heat her home without electricity or fire in order to save her asthma-stricken mother from a bitter winter storm.

The film was the recipient of a $25,000 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant and just screened at NYU's Fusion Film Festival and received the top awards for Best Cinematography and Best Film.  It will also be appearing at the Sun Valley Film Festival, and the Atlanta Film Festival. You can find it's website here.  

Eliza found time to answer a few questions, so I took the opportunity to get the interview I wasn't able to complete before:

So tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in film? Where are you in your school career? 

I found film through science. I was researching the role of the pesticide Imidacloprid on Colony Collapse Disorder - the disappearance of honeybees around the world - when my friend Charlie Greene told me about a documentary contest for C-Span. The prompt was to “inform Obama of the nation’s most important issue” so I immediately thought of Colony Collapse Disorder. A world without bees is difficult to imagine considering one out of every three bites of food we eat is a crop pollinated by honeybees.

I won first place at the Intel Science Fair for my research, but the audience I was able to reach out to was limited to scientists and environmentalists – I thought this documentary competition would be a good opportunity to transform my research into a film. I traveled to Florida and Pennsylvania to interview leading scientists and beekeepers. And there was a moment when I was in a bee suit holding my little HD camera in a swarm of bees when I realized I was fascinated by this. Not the sweaty suit, but the process of making a film. There was a real adventure involved in the creation of a film and the stories you discovered along the way.

Our documentary Requiem for the Honeybee won first place in C-Span’s competition and was broadcast internationally. As a competitor in science fairs I told a narrative about my research – my hypothesis, the materials I used, how I came across my conclusion – and I realized what interested me all along was the process of storytelling.

I just graduated in May from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in Film and TV and I am pursuing a career as a writer and director.

I was really impressed with VIOLET when I saw it at CMFHollywood in 2012. Can you tell us a bit about how it came together? 

Thank you! Violet is the story of a frightened teen who channels her dislike for the color purple into an inventive plea for help.

I wanted to tell a story about hair. It’s a simple thing you can run your fingers through or get tangled up, but it is also your identity. I’ve always had long hair. But one time I cut it a little too short, and felt like I didn’t recognize myself. I wanted to tell a challenging narrative about the meaning of something you love, that you have to learn to hate.

My cinematographer Hunter Baker lives in Monmouth Beach County, which became the backdrop for Violet. I admire how Alexander Payne casts authentic people and places that sculpt the world of his films. In that style I wanted the locations where we filmed to bring their own sense of character.

We found this unbelievable hair salon called “Chop Chop Bang Bang” with a purple car parked out front. I even ended up casting one of the hairstylists who worked there. She wasn’t an actor and in many ways was just playing herself. When I met her she had pink hair, and the day we filmed it was green. That was the kind of personality the character would have. And what made her perfect for the role.

I really admire my versatile actress Amanda Yarosh, who brings a real complexity to her characters. I was also really fortunate to collaborate with my cinematographer Hunter Baker. Together we developed a subdued visual tone to make the images feel still and let the performances play out on screen.

It’s a short film, so we put everything into making this possible. I funded Violet using my prize winnings from the Intel Science Fair and the Baker’s were kind enough to let the cast and crew stay at their home. Violet was made for Campus MovieFest, where you have a week to create a film - so we shot and edited the whole thing in seven days. I missed a lot of class. What - in your opinion - makes for a good short film? A short film is about a moment. And story is the driving force behind that. I think a lot of shorts get lost trying to squeeze a feature length plot into a couple of minutes. The simpler you are, there is a greater opportunity to dig deeper.

What have you taken from the CMF experience? Can you tell us how CMF played a part in the genesis of your new short film WITHOUT FIRE? 

CMF is a true test of your survival skills as a filmmaker. Here’s a camera and a computer and seven days, go make a movie. That sounds crazy. But it’s possible (with little sleep and great determination). I was fortunate to be a finalist two years in a row at CMF and participated in the festival that culminates in Los Angeles. Through CMF I met talented filmmakers from schools all over the country. When I decided I would be filming my NYU thesis film Without Fire in Arizona, I immediately called up friends I had made through CMF who lived out there.

How did you come up with the idea for WITHOUT FIRE?

Without Fire is the story of a young Navajo girl who must find a way to heat her home without electricity or fire in order to save her asthma-stricken mother from a bitter winter storm. The story is inspired by a friend of mine who I met through my experiences at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. Using soda cans he created a functional solar and water heater that could warm a room and heat water up to 200 degrees. I wanted to explore the journey of a young person’s unconventional use of science and technology. But like many of the themes in Violet, Without Fire also explores a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship.

You actually got a grant to shoot the film. Can you walk us through the process of getting that kind of funding? 

I was the recipient of a $25,000 production grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for Without Fire. After writing the script I was fortunate to discover the Sloan grant, which supports projects about science and technology.

Once I was selected as a finalist the process involved months of rewrites and a great deal of patience. I was assigned a writing and science advisor. In order to ensure the accuracy of the science in my script I had the opportunity to consult Tyler Volk, the Director of Environmental Studies at NYU. My story mentor, veteran screenwriter John Warren also helped me develop and structure my idea. I was up against several other filmmakers and there was no guarantee I would receive the funding, but I was driven to make the film with or without the grant. It’s a great honor to have received the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation throughout the production of Without Fire.

What were the challenges in making WITHOUT FIRE beyond getting the funding? What was the production like? 

Without Fire was filmed on a sheep camp on the Navajo Reservation with a crew from New York and Arizona. I was very fortunate to be granted permission to film on the Reservation thanks to the support of Ryan Begay and the Community of Pinon.

Casting was one of the biggest challenges and I was lucky to find two powerful lead actresses, Magdalena Begay and Misty Upham. I first saw Magdalena in a film online where she was building a time travel machine. She’s a ten-year-old Navajo girl who carries herself with great maturity and experience. It was an honor to have Magdalena and her father be a part of the project.

I really admired Misty Upham’s work in Frozen River – and I kept telling our casting director Angelique Midthunder, I want someone like Misty to play the lead role – and finally Angelique said "why don’t we just reach out to Misty?" She had just completed production on Jimmy P and August: Osage County with Meryl Streep. I was thrilled when she read the script and accepted the role. She brought forth a truly powerful performance and was such a professional actress to work with.

Shooting in Arizona presented many of its own challenges. I had to go to the hospital one day when I became severely dehydrated halfway through the shoot. I asked the doctor if he’d let me bring the IV to set so we wouldn’t fall behind schedule. He probably thought I was joking.

What do you think are the most valuable ways a filmmaker can make a short film work for them and what is your game plan for WITHOUT FIRE as you start to work the festival circuit?

Making short films has given me an opportunity to experiment with different visual styles and methods of storytelling. In both Violet and Without Fire I have pushed myself to use images to tell a story instead of just words. A short film is a chance to work creatively within limitation.

I want to take advantage of every opportunity to screen Without Fire. It’s currently on the festival circuit and has been accepted to NYU’s Fusion Film Festival, the Sun Valley Film Festival, and the Atlanta Film Festival. We will also be screening at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle before Arnaud Desplechin’s film Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. Once Without Fire completes its festival run – it will be showcased on the website for the Museum of the Moving Image.

Do you have any ambition to direct a feature and what sort of movies would you like to make? 

I’m currently developing a feature version of Without Fire. The feature focuses on the experiences of my friend leaving the Navajo Reservation to participate in science fairs and the obstacles he encounters along his journey. But first I’m going to make another short, this one is going to be about my true passion – honeybees. I want to tell stories about compelling characters that challenge contemporary views of science and technology.

1 comment:

  1. I just graduated in May from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in Film and TV and I am pursuing a career as a writer and director. I was really ... nwohnzimmertisch.blogspot.de