This week #DirectedbyWomen had the opportunity to engage in conversation with filmmakers Caryn Waechter and Hannah Roze about their short film The Disenchantment of a Young Adult and a Wild Child. It screens August 11 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during HollyShorts.
DBW: Let’s talk about sisterhood. Your short film The Disenchantment of a Young Adult and a Wild Child takes us into an emotionally intense confrontation between two sisters with radically different ways of approaching life. I’d love to hear about how this story arose and what you’re hoping audiences will resonate with.
HR: The Disenchantment arose from both personal and professional needs. When I wrote draft one, I was on the verge: I was facing the terminal illness of a relative, my impending graduation from NYU, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to support myself financially. Family loyalty (in the face of death) and the artistic future I craved seemed mutually exclusive. So I turned my inner monsters into girls. Two girls—Rachel and Hazel—and pitted them against each other to question the nature of unconditional love, and if you can control who you are becoming. (This ‘becoming’ transfixes me—you are not what you were and not what you will be yet!)
It was a very Robert Frost moment for me—you know his poem, “nothing gold can stay”?—I was hyper-aware that the present (school and my childhood and a life) were setting like a sun before my eyes. It was beautiful, colorful, and nostalgic to watch, but the looming dark was terrifying… what I didn’t realize then was that the sun has to set to give way to a new sunrise.
Professionally, THE DISENCHANTMENT is my battle-cry as a female filmmaker and an actress. When I graduated, the only roles I could audition for cast women as victims or vixens. Not people: hyper-sexualized props. In defiance, I set out to create a film about women defined not by their looks, but by their uniquenesses, weaknesses, and choices told from the female gaze. We championed empowered female vision—onscreen and off—by hiring an army of thirty female filmmakers to tell this tale about the dark-side of one of life’s most intimate and least cinematically-explored relationships: sisterhood.
I am hoping audiences, especially young women, will resonate with Rachel and Hazel’s multifacetedness; that they will see and feel themselves in these sisters’ flaws and strengths, their fears and hopes. And I think we are long overdue for some films about sisterhood! Think about it: how many original films can you name (not adaptations of Pride and Prejudice) that are about a sister relationship? Sisterhood is one of the most intimate relationships that exists—I have a big sister. For every single day that I have existed on this earth, for every breath I’ve taken, I have always had a big sister. A relationship that long is inherently complex.
CW: This project, created by a sisterhood of filmmakers, is all about that unique bond between women! This project was the heart and soul of the lovely and talented Shannon Spangler and Hannah Roze. I came in after their successful Kickstarter campaign; Hannah found me through the female directors collective, Film Fatales, and then we have become friends and collaborators since. I had recently completed my debut feature film, The Sisterhood of Night, about the intricate relationship between teen girls in our Facebook age, so it felt like a perfect match for me to help with the on-set directing of their film. Hannah is so passionate about her craft and making a strong female-led film, so I had a fun time being a mentor, a sister, a friend to her in this process. After having shot Sisterhood, I had felt this strong desire to have shot a scene where teen girls confront each other physically, so Disenchantment intrigued me because it filled that missing gap. It was about the unraveling, complex relationship between two sisters and when these two different personalities are locked in a room and it begins to get physical. More than just pulling hair physical. We always highlight the good of sisterhood, but what isn’t always mentioned is that women can be best friends…or worst enemies. I’m drawn to the complex psychology of women and how they work as a team as well as when conflict and jealousy arises between sisters. Women are very protective, competitive and mysterious creatures. Disenchantment was a thrilling continuation of Sisterhood.
DBW: As I was watching the film I was keenly aware of how challenging it is for anyone to simply be present with someone they love and accept them for who they are, and how quickly conflict can escalate. I found myself gasping as the intensity built. Were you thinking along these lines as you were creating the piece? And I’m particularly interested in hearing about what helped you ground the work for the actors so they could move through this nuanced dynamic so grippingly.
CW: The film definitely has a clear starting and ending point. We marked the arc through color, pacing, shot selection, camera movement and actor’s intensity. The film begins with a flurry of vibrant memories seen through Hazel’s lens, and unravels to the cold, hard truth under the revealing bathroom fluorescence. Hazel’s fantasy comes completely undone. We shot most of the story in sequence as Hazel’s fantasy world gets stripped away when her sister confronts her, giving the actresses a clear vision of where they are to start and where they had to go. We took each beat step by step, and both Hannah and Shannon were fantastic in being raw, open and vulnerable to the stage and place their characters had to be in the moment. There was a lot of talking through choices, thoughts, feelings and behaviors in each moment. It was like a cathartic therapy session between two sisters. I guess that’s part of the job of directing, understanding the psychology and behaviors beat to beat, moment to moment.
HR: Yes. Absolutely. We definitely wanted the film to crescendo!
Acting-wise, I think my and Shannon’s pre-existing relationship contributed to this. We met and studied acting together at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, so we had years of a pre-existing technical shorthand and of a working relationship. I was also very lucky that we spent a year together writing—I’d bring her a draft, she’d give me notes, we’d debate over many coffees—the intentionally nuanced nature of these characters. Habits of Shannon’s, conversations we’d had would actually end up leaking into the drafts I’d bring her. The ‘Lepidoptera’ moment (one of my favorites in the whole film, that gives you a window into their past, but is also so symbolically loaded for the present) is actually a fusion of two of our real childhood memories.
And Caryn was pivotal to grounding our work—an absolute godsend! To have someone come on board and take the reins on set, so that I could let go of everything but living as Hazel, was crucial to getting a fully present performance. Also, the characters wouldn’t be nearly so nuanced as they are without Caryn’s directions. She hadn’t been staring at draft after draft, and wasn’t weighed down with the personal baggage that I was; she could see The Disenchantment in a completely fresh light. Her acting adjustments onset had me performing beats in ways I’d never imagined them, ways that added infinite color.
Regarding the intensity, we also relied on technical elements. As their relationship unravels, we forced the two into tighter and tighter spaces: the lobby, to the bedroom, to the bathroom. And as Hazel and Rachel are Disenchanted we unraveled the film itself around them –the cinematic elements of music and color are stripped away, stranding the sisters on a bathroom floor, in raw reality.
DBW: Hannah and Caryn, you share directing credits, but the film is listed as a short film by Hannah Roze and, Hannah, you play Hazel, co-wrote the script and are one of the producers. So you have a complex dynamic there in terms of ownership of story. How did you evolve the process of co-directing together? Can you tell us something about how you approached the process of sharing the crafting of the vision for the film? How did you balance the directing process on set, in post production, etc? Did the film’s dynamic of two women with distinct worldviews clashing inform you in your personal approaches to sharing creative control of this filmmaking experience?
CW: The story is purely Hannah and Shannon’s. And Hannah is definitely the force and fire behind this short film. Before I came onboard, Hannah already had a clear vision, involving color, lighting and costumes, so I came in to help with directing on set and getting that vision captured. Since I had experience with a feature film, I was definitely a mentor in the process. It was a lovely collaboration, where I put forth a shooting plan and the ladies were absolutely trusting of my process in directing them. I usually direct films and put my distinct vision on it, but with this film, I helped to bring my experience to help fulfill Hannah’s vision in pre-production and production. I had just moved to Los Angeles after the filming of the short, so I wasn’t as physically involved in the post process, but I did see a lot of cuts and gave a lot of notes. The collaboration between all the ladies was invigorating and electrifying. My projects usually come from my vision alone, but I usually work with numerous writers on my projects, so I’m used to collaborating with others to fulfill a vision. Collaborating is what makes filmmaking so exhilarating for me. You don’t always agree on things, but you fight for what you believe in and you create something magical together. Making a film together is like a marriage.
HR: Working with Caryn, having the opportunity to learn from her was revelatory— like my own personal film school. I had no idea how to translate inspirational elements into an actual film. From pre-pro to post Caryn taught me countless lessons: how to shot list; how to run a set with a calm, laid back but totally in control presence; how to cut dialogue (kill your darlings!) in favor of reaction shots and silent moments that said infinitely more than words could. Caryn is right: working on a film together is like a marriage. And I think that the film itself, the final product, is like our kid. It gets traits from both of us and takes on a life of it’s own. And I am so lucky for every piece of Caryn’s filmic DNA—her expertise, passion, soul—that this film is infused with!
DBW: The highly accomplished cinematographer Valentina Caniglia served as your DP on the film. There’s an amazing lusciousness to the early scenes where we’re immersed in Hazel’s photographic explorations of her environment that gives way in the hotel room to a much more brittle feel as the two sisters’ engage and the confrontation escalates. Can you share about Valentina’s contributions to the project?
CW: Valentina is a master of light and movement and was an absolute joy to work with! I loved her bad-ass Italian attitude, and she had a cool and confidence about her which was super fun and easy to work with. I’m very visual with a dance background so I have clear ideas for shots and movement, and Valentina has a distinct vision for mood lighting and unique framing. We were limited mostly by our space (and always time!) within the confines of a small hotel room, so we had to pre-light the small hotel room for our shoot. But we made it work in the moment. And when we shot the fight scene in the bathroom, Valentina squeezed herself into the tight corners and bathtub. It was like a delicate dance with six ladies in a tight bathroom.
HR: And while Caryn is a master of movement, Valentina of lighting and framing, I am a student of Art History. I minored in the subject and interned at The Metropolitan Museum for four years, so Valentina and I actually spoke to each other in paintings! Before we hired anyone, Shannon and I had created a Look Book, to pique cinematographers’, directors’, and funders’, interest in the project. Ours was full of art history references. I knew I wanted things to move from a classic look in the hotel room (the lush golden Renaissance light of Caravaggio and idyllic reclined poses of Botticelli or Mucha’s women) to a raw photographic place (like Nan Goldin’s stark photos). But when we brought Valentina on she completed the vision. She asked, what if we desiccate the whole thing? Start in a world of vivid color and slowly strip the film of it entirely. Disenchant it to that ‘brittle’ fluorescent white light.
DBW: The film is quite satisfying on its own as a short, but I also had a feeling that there’s potentially much more to explore in these two women’s lives. I’m wondering if we might be able to look forward to a feature film or a series involving their stories.
CW: I would love to see and create more. Again, I’m always intrigued by the complex, special bond between women. I’m sure Hannah has more up her sleeve…
HR: While the short was written intentionally to be a short—the structure of it is so tight and microcosmic—Rachel and Hazel are so complex! Shannon and I love playing them, love working with each other, and love working with Caryn. One dream outcome from our festival run would be to attract the attention of a producer or writer who’d love to develop their story further with us. If not, yes Caryn, I do have an idea or two up my sleeve…. but at the moment need a break from Rachel and Hazel to explore other characters and worlds percolating in my imagination.
DBW: The #DirectedbyWomen initiative is dedicated to helping film lovers find out about and explore work by women directors. Can you share about women directors whose work you wish more people were aware of… maybe someone whose work you’ve come across on the film festival circuit that we should have our eyes out for?
CW: I’m drawn to the visceral emotion and distinct voices of Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsey and Sofia Coppola. Hannah and I actually met each other through the New York chapter of Film Fatales, a collective of female film directors who meet monthly to support one-another in the industry, so I’m constantly introduced to amazingly talented women directors in my circle. It’s a beautiful sisterhood of its own. Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is an exciting film to keep a lookout for, starring the upcoming young actress Helena Howard. And I also totally fangirl the work of Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) and Olivia Newman (First Match). Inspiring to be in a circle of talented women. We all help raise each other’s game.
HR: Leah Meyerhoff (who we are blessed to have as our EP, and I am blessed to call mentor! When she came on board I geeked out), Andrea Arnold (American Honey has been such a huge inspiration to me), Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats is a masterpiece), Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale is helping define the female gaze)! Also, another Fatale and friend whose work is STUNNING: Isabel Sandoval. Her work is nothing short of groundbreaking, unique, and gorgeous. Her next film will be called Lingua Franca. Look out for it! I am in awe of Isabel and would kill to work with her some day.
DBW: Do you have other projects in the works or already out in the world that you’d like to share about?
CW: Oddly enough, Disenchantment prepped me for my second feature, where I had to shoot everything inside of a hotel room, which we recreated on a stage. I recently finished this second feature film, DeadCon, a horror film with Gunpowder & Sky and Hyde Park, about the horrors and isolation of being a social media influencer. Yes, everyone is on their phone. The horror! Like my first feature Sisterhood, it revolves around teenagers and technology. I’m very tapped into how technology is changing the landscape of our youth. I’m about to fall down the rabbit hole with my third feature that has been in the works for a little while—again, a vibrant yet dark piece about a teen and social media. I also recently released a short film about a woman who breaks her cycle of physical, mental, and sexual abuse called Escape. This story was based on a woman’s real story and memories, and we had a cathartic experience working with primarily women. As I get deeper into my work, I feel that I’m getting more raw and visceral, trying to understand my own female brain and how I see and feel the world around me.
HR: Acting-wise, I’m about to embark upon a four month run of a new immersive, site-specific play: ‘The Bloody Deed of 1857’ in NYC. The whole play is a seance that takes the audience to limbo to solve a historic murder. As far as projects of my own creation, director-wise, I have begun simultaneously writing two feature films. They are in very early stages. One set in the Middle East about a romance in the midst of today’s volatile Israeli/Jewish-Palestinan/Muslim conflict. One, so far, I can only describe as a post-apocalyptic Moulin Rouge meets Beasts of the Southern Wild!
DBW: Thanks for taking time to talk about your film and your filmmaking collaboration. Wishing you all the best with The Disenchantment of a Young Adult and a Wild Child and all your projects. Keep us posted.
The Disenchantment of a Young Adult and a Wild Child screens at Hollyshorts in the Women in Film program on August 11, 2018 at 2:30pm. Follow The Disenchantment of a Young Adult and a Wild Child on Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo.