Eleanor Wilson, director, Possum, New York, Australia, actor

Q&A | Filmmaker Eleanor Wilson on making her start in NYC

Actor, director Eleanor Wilson has lived and worked in New York City for the last seven years. Having started out at summer school at the city’s Neighborhood Playhouse, she stayed on to do a two-year acting conservatory and never left. Now locked into the local film community, working both independently and out of Picture Farm in Williamsburg, she released her first short film, Possum in 2014. A positive reception on the festival circuit paved the way for the filming of her second short, Everything All At Once, which is currently in post-production. She talks to Sarah about her journey so far.

Where are things at with Everything All At Once?
I’ve started submitting it now for Spring festivals. It’s a tricky one, because I think that audiences will enjoy it, but I don’t know that festivals will accept it. You just don’t know until you start sending it out. I learnt a lot more on this one, and got some really good practice, working with actors that I didn’t know, and directing older women actors, which is a little bit scary. It was worth it, the experience of it, and the practice run of it. Which is really in a lot of ways what short films should be, practicing how to develop all the relationships, so that when it comes time to do a feature I’ll feel more confident knowing what I’m doing, and how to speak to everyone and all that stuff.

The relationship side of directing must be a big part of the job.
Yeah, I mean part of it is building relationships with people that you want to work with again, but also just learning how to do that relationship. This is what it is to work with a casting director, or this is what’s expected of me in this relationship with a script supervisor, or whatever it is. For me, because I’ve never had any formal training in filmmaking, it’s just good to practice all the components of it, and to get comfortable with talking about the way you talk about things. Just how everything works.

Asserting yourself in the position of director? Is that kind of intimidating with older, established actors?
I got lucky that they were all really awesome, and really good, so I didn’t really have to do too much. The way that we chose to go about it was, all of them were just offered the role, there were no auditions involved. J and Rebecca, the mum and aunt, have both done a lot of work, I’d seen a lot of their work before. And was confident enough to just offer the role to them. I think that was a good start to the relationship, not saying ‘you need to show me what you can do to get this part in my tiny little short film’, but just saying, ‘I believe you’re going to be fantastic in this film, can you come on board?’ I knew [Mary] through a writing lab that I’m part of. She’s one of the actors in that, and she’s part of the Actor’s Studio. She’s been around for a long time. She had such an awesome look for the role as well, so it was easy to offer it to her. Instead of auditions I met with all three of them individually for lunch, and just had a chat about the script, had a chat about the character, and all the different relationships and backstories. So much stuff that is totally not in the film at all, but it was really fun to do that. Once I’d had the lunch with each of them, I felt more comfortable with them, and we talked about a lot of personal stuff, about our own relationships with our families and mothers, and women in general. They really got it, so it turned out that it wasn’t intimidating at all. But for sure, especially with J, the woman who plays my mum, because she’s just done so much stuff – before I first met her I was like, ‘god I hope that I come across as knowing what I’m talking about’.

I guess it must be hard though, being younger, because you want to be confident, but you don’t want to be an upstart.
Yeah, totally, you don’t wanna be a young whippersnapper!

Dealing with that in your head must be tricky.
Having lunch and just talking was really nice. We didn’t really rehearse much before the day. We had one day where we got everyone together and did a read. But yeah, I think what I’m learning as I go along with all of this, is just to not try and be anything. Just do you. Speak how you want to be spoken to, and just tell people exactly what it is that you want, or what you’re thinking. Because I think if you’re trying too hard to navigate someone’s feelings or their ego then it just all goes wrong. I think that was kind of the only way that I managed to stay cool and calm throughout it, is to remember that they’re just a person as well. They want to do a good job, and you want to do a good job, we’re all in this together. It’s not like anyone’s against anyone, or the project.

How did you get into filmmaking?
I’d been out of school for a couple of years, and I joined a writing / acting lab called the Indies Lab. I joined as an actor, but once I got there I had been wanting to delve into writing a bit for a while, so I wrote this short script called Possum. That was loosely rooted in some fears that I have as a woman, I think, and started developing it at the lab with some actors there, which was really cool. The first draft I wrote in October, and it really specifically has to be set in the Fall, so I could have either shot it then, or waited a year. I’m glad that I waited a year, because for about eight months we workshopped it and that time was so invaluable to developing the story, and really honing in on what I wanted to say. Cutting out any unnecessary things and keeping it really succinct. I think in short films that’s key, to get it economic and not try to fill it out too much. Short films are more successful the shorter you are able to make them, and still tell a story.

So that’s how I came about making my first film. It was really just one of those things where you just say that you’re doing it, and then all of a sudden you’re doing it. You don’t really think too hard about the challenges that are going to arise. And they come up, and you just deal with things one by one. I really think that’s probably the only way I could have done it. If I’d stressed about knowing everything, and reading lots of textbooks – although I did read some textbooks! – I don’t know that I would’ve ever actually made it. But a film is such a collaboration that, once you start getting other people involved, any thing’s that you’re unsure about get filled out by other people’s ideas. That’s what’s so exciting about it.

That’s when I discovered how much I love doing the writing/directing thing. It’s just so fascinating to pull people together who have all these different ideas. The trick is knowing when to take on someone else’s idea, and when to say ‘no, actually I think it’s this’. I think that’s what made me fall in love with it, the pre-production process of pulling all these people together, gathering different ideas, and the script evolves then. Then when you go to shoot it it evolves again, and then collaborating with an editor who, again, hadn’t been involved in any of it, and comes in somewhat at the end, and has a completely different idea too. It’s all this stuff that I find really exciting.

You’ve acted in both of your shorts, as well as directing. How does that actually work, logistically?
For Possum and Everything All At Once it was the same DP [Director of Photography], Mica Bradley. I had worked with her before, on a film that I did in Michigan, The Sleeping Bear. She was the gaffer on that. So we had already spent a lot of time together – we lived together in a cabin for five weeks, and got to know each other really well. I just really liked her vibe. We talked about it a bit in pre-production [for Possum], how we would approach that. We had a tech run day, where we just tech scouted every scene and planned out the way that we would shoot things. Then, on the day we would rehearse the scene with the other actors and make any adjustments to the set-ups that we’d planned, if we needed to. Then, it would really just be – she’d take a still of a starting frame, I would look at that and make sure I was happy. From then on we just let it go. I watched dailies at the end of each day, just to make sure there wasn’t anything we completely missed, or that I really felt wasn’t right, but I think it was just having a good relationship with Mica, and trusting that she was getting the right shots [that made it work]. If we’d been watching playback it would have slowed everything down so much.

We did the same thing with Everything All At Once, although for that Mica had this really awesome little handheld remote monitor, which was really handy in the car. We were in such tight confines that when we were shooting someone else’s close-up and I’m not in the frame I wouldn’t have been able to be there with her. She’s so great at following performance, and just being really intuitive with how to move the camera, it just wasn’t a concern. After Possum we’d done it once already, so it was kind of a no-brainer to have her do Everything All At Once as well. It’s nice to have people around who you have worked with before and you know are just going to get the work done and be super cool about it. Especially with such a small crew. Everyone’s a head of department [in that scenario]. Everyone’s dealing with everyone all at once, so everyone’s gotta be cool.

There are similar themes between the films, a.k.a pregnancy. Is there a reason it’s come up for you both times?
The story of Possum came about when I was staying upstate at that house that we shot in, and saw a dead possum on the side of the road and thought that its hand looked very humanlike. From there I kind of worked backwards. I became a little bit obsessed with the image, and I just kind of thought about what kind of woman would be seeing a dead possum and seeing it as a dead child. But I guess the fear of not being able to get pregnant when the time comes is a common fear for women, and certainly something that I think about. With Everything All At Once, I was actually really resisting putting the pregnancy thing in for a long time, in earlier drafts of it, because I had already done a miscarriage film. I was just like, ‘I don’t want all my work to be about this’. But as the story evolved, it was initially just that [my character] was having some problems with her partner back home, or whatever. It just wasn’t specific enough, and then I kept thinking more and more about family, role models in your family, and how I look up to my mum as being this incredible supermum of a woman, who has worked full time all her life while raising three kids. She can just do everything and she’s so well-organised and so on top of it and everything. She’s what I look up to, if I wanted to be a mum one day. I would hope that I could be as good as she is at it. Then the aunt character is supposed to reflect a woman who never had kids. It just made sense for the younger character to be pregnant, observing these two different women. And [her grandmother], who has completely lost her mind. What it means to choose to be a mother, or to choose not to be a mother. I guess I’ve been reading a lot about how people are choosing to live their lives these days, and it does seem like there are a lot of women who are choosing to not have kids. I find that really interesting because it’s always been something that I’ve thought, ‘well of course I want to have kids, it’s part of life’. But as I get older, who knows – maybe I don’t. I guess it all just fell into place and made sense when I was looking at the other characters. I realised I shouldn’t shy away from it, just because it’s a theme I’ve thought about before.

It hasn’t been that long that you’ve been going for it, and you’ve already completed two shorts.
I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it’s not impossible, for sure. Especially living in New York. There are just a lot of people around, wanting to do the same thing. And a lot of people who are really supportive and interested in wanting to be involved. It’s been good to discover that there’s people out there who just want to be involved in good projects. That’s where I’m at as well. Outside of my own work, I’m always, wherever I can, trying to help other people with their things. It’s kind of this cycle of helping each other out that really keeps everything moving forward. People growing together from a really grassroots place. I’ve become a part of this female filmmaker group called Film Fatales. We meet once a month on a Monday night and have a dinner together, and discuss our projects, what we’ve got coming up. We pick a discussion topic for the night, something related to being a woman working in the industry. Then at the end of the night we go around and do what are called the ‘asks’. Basically it’s just anything that you need you just throw it out there to the group. It could be ‘I need a DP’, ‘I need money’, or ‘I need advice on how to do…’ anything. If you can help that person you can just sort of reach out to them. It’s a really, really nice group. It was started by Leah Meyerhoff. Originally just for women who had completed a feature film, that’s how it started, and then I think it expanded; more and more people started becoming involved, then we started the shorts chapter in New York. So we’re all the women who have made short films, and some of us are working towards making a feature. That’s kind of the only way to break it up because it got too big. I think now it’s been split off again, into narrative and documentary too. It’s all just getting too big, because there’s actually a lot of female filmmakers out there. I think there’s a chapter in London, Austin, LA, Sydney. It’s been really awesome getting involved with them. Partly just on an inspiration level, it’s really great to meet up with a bunch of other women. And also meeting future collaborators is really cool.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about how hard it is for women filmmakers. Do you think it really is that hard to be a women in the industry, or is it just hard, generally?
Now feels like a really good time to be a woman in film, because we are getting a lot of attention in the media. It feels like things are changing a little bit there. I think in terms of crewing positions it might be a little bit different. From what I’ve heard, television is still a bit of a struggle. We’re certainly by far a minority. But I’m working on things that are such small scale, and essentially I’m the boss of my own films, so I’m not coming up against that many struggles, just because I have the power to make my crew up of whoever I want it to be. So I do work with a lot of females on set. My DP’s female, my editor, producer and EP, script supervisor. I choose to work with a lot of women. If you want things to change you’ve gotta start by changing them yourself. For me that’s a really important thing. But it’s certainly not only that they’re women, they’re also really awesome at what they do, so it’s a no-brainer. But I get really proud of [Everything All At Once], that I can put it out there and say, ‘yeah, it’s an entirely female cast, and I am a woman, and so is my DP and so is my editor’. Especially DP, I think is a role that is pretty boys-clubby.

In terms of actual challenges, it’s tricky. I’ve been doing freelance work, and you notice things on set sometimes. I had an incident on a commercial set not long ago, just at the end of last year. I was just very blatantly being sexually harassed, this photographer wouldn’t stop talking about my arse all day. And it’s like, ok, I know that this is one day that I have to be on set, and either I can make a big fuss about it, and make everyone feel uncomfortable, or I can just laugh it off and just try and stay away from this guy as much as I can. I chose the latter, because it was the easier choice at the time, and because I was in production, coordinating something. I’m not the boss. It’s hard though – there’s a huge part of me that thinks I just didn’t stand up for women in that scenario, and I always want to be standing up for women, and for what’s right. But I chose what was going to be able to get me through the day, in that moment. And I think it’s a real shame, that that’s how it is, still. It was appalling, really blatant.

And no one else said anything?
No one else said anything, because everyone’s just dealing with their own shit. It was pretty upsetting, and afterwards I was just like, ‘I feel like a terrible piece of shit that I didn’t stick up for women today’. [But] there are many men who work on film sets who are awesome, and not like that at all. It’s just there’s the occasional one. And for some reason it’s still ok. I should’ve just slapped him across the face, and been like ‘go back to your cave!’

It’s hard though, because it’s not like that was the first time you’ve negotiated that kind of situation. You choosing to respond how you did was informed by knowing he probably wasn’t going to change what he was doing if you said something, which is the shitty thing.
In the moment it was just easier to just deal with it, and then feel shit about it later. Anyway, that doesn’t happen that often, but it did happen. Other than that, I just feel like sometimes I get this vibe, like at festivals and so on, sometimes I get a vibe from certain male directors, usually ones who are older, a bit of a ‘oh good for you vibe’. Having a try at doing the big boys’ job. Once I did a Q&A, it was after a screening, and there were five male directors, most of whom were over 40. I’m just this girl sitting on this panel. The Q&A ended up becoming a bit of a conversation between the filmmakers, because some of them were quite vociferous, and just throwing weird things out there. And one of the other filmmakers said to me, ‘I’m just curious’ – this was after Possum – ‘was this experience cathartic for you? Is this a personal story?’ I was like, what is he asking, is he asking if it’s autobiographical?’ I just said, ‘I wouldn’t really call it cathartic, I really enjoyed making it. I guess there’s some fears down there, and maybe that came out a bit in the writing of it, and that’s how that came out’. Then one of the other filmmakers said, ‘He wants to know, have you had a miscarriage. Did you? Did you have a miscarriage, do you know what that’s like?’ I said, ‘Uh, ok, no I haven’t had a miscarriage, but I think that’s a fear that many women have, and something I felt I could relate to.’ It was really strange, I just felt really weird about the whole thing, and afterwards I was talking to a couple of the other girls who were in the audience, and they were like, ‘that was so fucked up that they just pigeonholed you like that.’ Because not one other person on that panel got asked if their film was autobiographical or personal, and I kind of get this vibe sometimes that there’s this stigma around female filmmakers that they [only] tell very personal stories.

Use it as an opportunity to work out their own shit?
Yeah, work out their problems or something. It really upset me afterwards, and I was really pissed off that I didn’t say more about it at the time, because I was like, that actually really diminishes my ability to have a creative thought, an idea. I’m a person who can come up with a story, it doesn’t have to be my own experience. But I really don’t think it’s all negative. There’s a lot of really great stuff happening right now, a lot of support and attention to female filmmakers. I think mostly fairly positive.

What else are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on trying to get a feature finished. I’ve got two on the go. Loosely, one is a mother-daughter story again. It’s about a woman who is a romance novelist, a ghostwriter of romance novels, who lives with her mum, who has Alzheimer’s. She gets wrapped up in pretending to be the birth mother of this young girl who wrote a book about being adopted, because they kind of look like each other and are from the same town, even though she’s never had a kid. It’s kind of a weird story. But through a series of events she ends up going along with the story that she is this young, successful writer’s birth mother. I guess it’s a lot about regret, and dealing with your lot in life. Choices, and so on. The other one is completely different, it’s actually kind of about the way people react to celebrity deaths. I had been thinking about that a lot last year, because there were a couple of big ones, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. There were more. I’ve been quite bothered by the way that people reacted, certain things that were said on social media. At the same time, lots of people had gone missing in Brooklyn last year. There were three or four cases of missing people, who are our age. You would hear on the street all the time, things like ‘oh no no, he was found dead, oh yeah it was suicide. He was depressed.’ The way people talk about people they don’t even know at all, and how the internet’s such an open forum. That’s sort of what that film’s about.

Do you have any strategies for getting work out?
I don’t have so much of a strategy. With the shorts that I’ve done, the goal has always been to get the first draft done as quickly as possible. I think that’s the hardest thing, to get a full first draft. You can change anything after that point, make things better. Even if you don’t know how the dialogue should play out or whatever, don’t obsess over it, just get out a first draft. And I’ve always written them chronologically, start to finish, not skipped ahead to any bit. For me it just flows easier that way. Now that I’m starting to work on writing features it’s definitely different, because I don’t think I can just sit down and write a feature from beginning to end. I think things need to be mapped out a little bit more. I struggle a little bit with outlining. I’ll start and then I’ll get really excited about a particular scene, and get really distracted. But generally if I feel like writing something I try and just go with whatever I feel like writing, because then you’re ready and in it and you want to get it out. You don’t want to fight the urge. It’s kind of a trick though, that whole ‘oh I’ve only got an hour, I can’t get this done now’. An hour is still an hour, and you could do some. That’s what I try and remind myself – I don’t actually need to be up in the woods to write. I can just write in the moments when I have time, I am physically capable of doing that. It’s great to go to the woods and write for three days, and I do try and do that once every six weeks or so, but I think it’s important to remember that you’re human and you have other obligations and you’ve gotta just do it when you can.

Eleanor Wilson is an Adelaide-born filmmaker, currently based in NYC. Find her at www.eleanor-wilson.comView Possum here.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.