An interview by Jennifer Fischer.
Liz Manashil is a microbudget feature filmmaker with two features under belt (BREAD AND BUTTER, SPEED OF LIFE). A former film critic, she currently works at Sundance Institute as the Manager of their Creative Distribution Initiative. I organize and moderate filmmaking panels for the City of Santa Clarita, and I booked her as a panelist more than once. We also both volunteered our services for a one-day documentary shoot to support a P.ink Day Los Angeles event in 2017. Each time our paths crossed, I felt an immediate filmmaker kinship with Liz, particularly because of her bold commitment to microbudget filmmaking, my preferred filmmaking style as well. She gets shit done, and I love it. Additionally, the struggle between first feature and second is very real for most filmmakers, and for independent filmmakers, in particular (and women, in particular), so I was excited to have this opportunity to connect with her about her upcoming feature, SPEED OF LIFE.
JF: What is the biggest difference between a first feature and second feature film as a director? Does being a woman directly impact this?
LM: There’s a lot more confidence that comes after making the first feature, at least for me. When I made my first feature, BREAD AND BUTTER, I had a lot of anxiety. Questions I would ask myself were, “Can I do this?” “How do I do this?” “Does a director/producer/insert crew member here possess a mystical talent or is it just stamina?” I also felt a lot of pressure that the film had to be perfect because it was my debut—and it was my perspective that a lot of directors are judged on their first film… for… forever. However, once we picture locked, I had a calmness and a sense of security that I’ve been riding for several years now. I had done one of the very few things I really wanted to do before I died. I remember being on planes in my late teens/early 20s and being concerned about a plane crash only because I hadn’t had sex yet and I hadn’t made a movie yet. This was how obsessive I was about making this first feature.
With the second feature, I had less doubt about getting it actually finished. I leaned on the fact that I had done it once, I would do it again. But I felt a lot of pressure to make more of a statement with this second film, and to use this project to leverage my profile in the indie feature world. I still feel that way.
In terms of being a woman, I am a little bit of an anomaly because I don’t 100% work within the system so I don’t face a ton of systematic discrimination. I’ve never been accepted for a grant and no manager/agent has ever really wanted to rep me, but that always felt like it was because I hadn’t quite made my mark yet—not because I am a woman. In fact from my vantage point diversity is ALL I see in terms of non profit support of artists.
So, from my perspective, because I keep my budgets low and try my damnedest to be open and honest and kind with the crews I get to work with, I’ve been able to get projects off the ground. Being a woman has never been a problem for me and because I do not wait for gatekeepers to greenlight my films, it hasn’t slowed me down either.
JF: What inspired you to write and direct SPEED OF LIFE?
LM: A few things. I wanted my second project to be a genre film so I started to write a horror film about a woman being visited by death in the shape of her ex boyfriend. I realized The Twilight Zone had already done this so I changed the plotline to a relationship film with some genre twists; the majority of the film is set in 2040 and there are time travel elements to the film inspired by David Bowie (and his death, actually!).
I can’t really continue writing a project unless I feel personally invested so I started to imbibe the script with moments and feelings from past and current relationships. I’ve had a hard time getting over a past relationship so I took that feeling I had—the regret, the emotional echo of the fling—and incorporated that into the film. Our film follows a woman who can’t get over a past relationship (with, again some genre twists intertwined as well). So I started with a plot and tried to infuse meaning afterward.
Ultimately I wanted to write a low budget film so that I could get the second feature off the ground as soon as possible. We released BREAD AND BUTTER in 2015. We shot SPEED OF LIFE in April of 2018. That three year difference included pushing the shoot back 8 months because our lead Ann Dowd’s series The Handmaid’s Tale was renewed for a second season. It was a one-location film with a small crew, 12 day shoot. For me filmmaking is a long game. I don’t see myself getting the attention of the establishment until I’ve forced them to pay attention through a prolific and original career.
JF: How have you grown as a director since BREAD AND BUTTER?
LM: I’m less scared (but still scared) and more confident in asking for what I want. I had a very hard time expressing myself in terms of what I wanted the camera to capture with Bread and Butter, and I learned, through SPEED OF LIFE, and conversations with my DP, that my instincts actually should be trusted. When I chatted with Julia Swain (SOL dp) and suggested what I was thinking for certain scenes, I would find we were on the same page and that gave me a ton more confidence than I had ever had.
I’m still a little shy about pushing my actors—because I feel lucky enough that they’ve just signed on to the project that I don’t want to push my luck! I think it’ll be an evolution for me and every project should strengthen an artist.
JF: What was the most challenging aspect of creating SPEED OF LIFE?
LM: We have such a weird film that actually the time travel elements were challenging. It’s my first project working with a visual effects artist—he’s FANTASTIC (James Dunovan), but often I don’t know what is possible and what is too much to ask. Also because our film is a tribute to David Bowie—I always wanted to make the film respectfully. Finally, the hardest part has maybe come in post while I wait for festivals to get back to me. I feel like I’m hanging in a delicate balance and this film will either succeed or fail based on a handful of programmers and their opinions.
JF: What was the most rewarding aspect of directing SPEED OF LIFE?
LM: I know this will sound ridiculous but the best part is saying that I’ve wrapped a second feature. Because I’m working in the long game, every additional film I make makes me feel like I’m closer to my goal of forcing people to pay attention to me as an artist. Gosh that sounds really pushy. So my favorite part is telling people that I did it. Also we have some surprising moments in the film that I’m very excited to see how people respond to.
JF: What will you do differently with distribution for your second feature, if anything?
LM: I have two plans. I’m talking with sales agents and distributors as soon as we are sound locked—and I’m still applying to top tier and top/mid tier festivals for their consideration. If we get rejected across the board, I am excited to self distribute this film. I manage a fellowship in self distribution at Sundance so I feel like I have the relationships that could help get this film far and wide. However… I don’t look at self distribution as a Plan B. It’s a Plan 1.5 🙂
JF: What advice would you give to a first time director?
LM: Do not wait for money and do not wait for a TON of money. Get your projects going for as little as you can make them—and if it takes you more than a year to finance, then write a project that is cheaper. I have watched so many filmmakers try to fundraise larger films and it takes them years. But the market is oversaturated as it is. I think quantity and quality have to reign in addition to authenticity. Make the film for yourself. Make something you love. Keep making content and work with the best people you can. Do not wait for the establishment to support you—they’re busy and overwhelmed trying to sift through all the content. Outstay the competition.
JF: What advice would you give to a director who has made the first feature and is struggling to get their second film made?
LM: Let’s chat. Use money efficiently. I’m not a massive fan of proof of concepts. Think cheaply. Use labor swaps. Scrap extraneous characters. Shorten your shooting schedule. Work on the weekends. Hire crew members who have equipment and give them kit fees instead of doing equipment rentals. You got this. Just keep going.
JF: Is it important that audiences, investors and distributors support films directed by women? Why?
LM: It’s important for people to invest in content that’s not made by the establishment most of all. And since the establishment hasn’t fully embraced hiring women, there are a lot of women in the indie world trying to get their content supported and watched. I am a die hard feminist but I still believe women can tell men’s stories, men can tell women’s stories and everyone on the gender spectrum can tell whatever damn story they want. I want the storytellers who are working their ass off to be supported. I’m in a position where I meet and chat with a lot of entitled filmmakers—I’m most interested in supporting those who want to get their hands dirty.
JF: What films or series directed by women are YOU watching this month?
LM: On my to-do is to watch A NEW LEAF by Elaine May and I’m dying to check out THE NIGHTINGALE. Two of our fellowships have female directors—306 HOLLYWOOD and THE DEVIL WE KNOW. Meera Menon is directing an episode of The Walking Dead. Valerie Weiss has been directing a bunch of TV. I’m catching up.
JF: Where can we watch BREAD AND BUTTER?
JF: What films/filmmakers inspire you?
LM: I have a lot of go-to’s for this answer: (Nichole Holofcener, Whit Stillman, Hal Hartley) but honestly as of late, I’ve been watching a lot of classic films. I was really excited by this movie I hadn’t seen until now called CACTUS FLOWER and am going down a 70s rabbit hole because of it. We’re in the middle of Ryan’s Daughter and have a bunch of TCM DVR recordings to get through. Outside of those enjoyable homework films, for the most part I like films that have less plot and more character building. I used to call this “films where nothing happens” but really I mean films where a lot happens internally or over dialogue vs big action set pieces or bank robberies. Also Paddington 2.
JF: What are you watching right now—TV, films, webseries?
LM: We’re watching Better Call Saul, Castle Rock. I looooove The Good Place as well. My secret shows I watch in private are Bachelor in Paradise, Masterchef and Catfish… and Project Runway…. But… those are secret. Basically I just live for Game of Thrones and everything else pales. Except for Good Place.
JF: What’s next (after SPEED OF LIFE)?
LM: My third feature is currently titled SEX AND JESUS and is based off of my current interfaith relationship. It’s another surrealist dramedy like BREAD AND BUTTER and SPEED OF LIFE but this one is pretty personal to me, because it’s not inspired by a past relationship but a current one. Looking forward to polishing the script I wrote a few years ago and starting fundraising. I’m brewing a child as well so I’m currently navigating unpaid parental leave, and where to go next professionally. Any ideas? Please email me! firstname.lastname@example.org.