Audio Interview w/ Eva Vives
TTF: You have written, produced and directed short films in the past, what was the transition going into your first feature?
EV: Sure, I mean I’ve been primarily a screenwriter for most of my life. That’s just something that I’ve been doing you know for money and there’s jobs. I wrote a movie called Raising Victor Vargas which was my first film then continued writing. I had always wanted to direct, so like you said, I directed some shorts, some music videos and then as for everybody getting your first feature done and finances is a struggle for everyone. So it just took me longer than I would’ve wanted it to do. Yeah I guess you can say, transition wise I came at it from a screenwriter’s point of view.
TTF: I am a film connoisseur myself and trying to get into production work so I can understand the struggle and determination it takes especially when doing it by yourself so I very much commend your working process and going through everything.
EV: Thank you, I appreciate that. It’s hard for everyone but as we are now finding out if you’re a member of a so called minority it can be even harder because your point of view isn’t necessarily that of the mainstream.
TTF: Does the demand on yourself become greater when dealing with a personal story?
EV: You know it didn’t feel that way to me. In a way it was more liberating I guess, because for better or for worse I was mostly left to my own devices and things which is the good thing that can come out of having a smaller budget movie but you know you don’t necessarily have to cast huge actors or something like that. Also because people knew it was my personal story they were less inclined to give me notes or to question certain things also because I had the answers to them you know “oh yea, she thought this because of this, this and this”. No in that part I don’t think it was harder. Each script and story has their own difficulties but the personal part wasn’t one of them. I would say the only thing that was a little hard was writing her breakdown on stage because I think it was more of a tone thing like how Rachel does she go on there, you know, like I think there was a version where she could’ve been like Carrie setting the whole club on fire. That was the only thing that was kind of hard to write and to shoot was also pretty emotional.
TTF: You have stated the personal relevance this story has to you, what makes comedy a fitting backdrop for the film?
EV: Well it was just comedy was something I had followed pretty early on. In particular, Richard Pryor once I found out about him I was very surprised and shocked to hear about how much he spoke about his own abuse and how brutally he did on stage. Which honestly, is still shocking today specifically for a man and specifically for a black man. I think men have their own issues in terms to owning up to this kind of abuse and he did it just really openly and it’s not particularly funny when he does it, it’s just honest which is another thing I’m attracted to in comedy as well as in life. I tried to do this with Nina, like some of the stuff she says isn’t that funny it’s just that it’s honest and recognizing that we laugh. There was a lot about comedy that I liked and that made sense to me for her and I also really liked the idea having a woman protagonist who is creative and who has a voice and who uses that voice for her profession. That she is able to state her opinions on things and I also like the contrast of that with what’s going on in her personal life.
TTF: What was the working relationship between you and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in developing Nina as a full character?
EV: So we mostly just talked a lot about her and some about me. I gave her a lot of information and certain background on what things were like for me growing up and why she might feel certain things. She is such an accomplished actress that obviously that most of the time we’d get dinner and talk for three or four hours then go to sleep and then have that work in your subconscious. For example, there’s a line in the breakdown so it comes later in the movie where she talks about how she has to fight the instinct of breaking a beer bottle over a guy’s head who just wants her number or directions. So that’s something you’re not aware of at the moment but she’s really using that in the beginning of the film when somebody comes up to her or even Rafe when she meets him. In the back of her head she’s kind of like “is this guy going to be dangerous?” “am I fighting the instinct of breaking a beer bottle over his head?” Again it’s things that aren’t necessarily obvious or set but that an actor like Mary can really use and work with. I think she’s pretty remarkable and I’m grateful every day that I got to do that with her it was really painless I know it sounds weird to say that we’ve mostly talked about it but that is how it kind of went. She doesn’t really like to rehearse and I now understand why.
TTF: Her performance seemed so effortless from scene to scene the way she carried herself. It seemed like that was Nina, a real person, that’s how strong she came off the screen.
EV: I agree and it’s hilarious because she is nothing like that. It was amazing to me to see her take that on. Of course how committed she is because in real life she’s kind of shy and so sweet and just the nicest person ever and then you turn on the camera and she would just turn that on. I guess again that’s what actors do and I’m sure there’s a part of her that also really enjoyed playing that kind of character but I remember one time when she was doing that early scene with Jay Mohr where he keeps asking her if she’s going to fuck him. I think Jay had forgotten his lines and he said “at some point can you say that again” and she just stayed in character and she was like “no, fuck you”. He was like “no, can you tell me the line again.” So it was kind of interesting to see her stay in that Nina mode which is not what she would do as Mary.
TTF: What was your process in working with cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton in recreating the world of “the comedian”?
EV: Thank you so much very asking about that I always feel like cinematographers, editors, production designers like the head of departments in movies do so much work and contribute so much creatively and every other way to movies and we don’t talk about them as much as we really should. Thomas is an incredible collaborator and DP. I remember we talked a little bit about comedians as if they were vampires because they really do kind of live by night. I was in that world, I was never a comedian, but I was in that world a lot when I first moved to New York. I also was a night owl until I became a mom because once you do that you can’t really work through the night anymore or least I can’t. I would often go out at night and go see a couple of shows and then come back and do my writing start at 2 or 3 in the morning. We talked a lot about that and how dark those places are there’s always a lot of red in comedy clubs and I really like that and I used that toward Nina’s color as well. She’s obviously always dressed in black but then she’ll wear the red lipstick and the red boots like these little flashes there. I really love darkness in movies so we used that a lot obviously in the monologue as well to just kind of let everything else fall off and just have her be there on her own because she really is being truthful, naked. That was a big part of it and in a way it helped us to shoot that way anyway in terms of how little time we had and not a ton of means either. By contrast to start opening the light and the spaces when she gets to LA as she continues to open up. For example, at Rafe’s house everything feels much more airy not black not red more earth tones that I think would complement a character like his. We shot the film with anamorphic lenses and I love the way the movie looks like that. I think it gives much more of a cinematic extension which is not really what you see with comedies although then again, this isn’t really like a straight up comedy either.
TTF: I did laugh but it’s that uncomfortable laughter where you have to test yourself.
EV: I think it’s very funny I hope people laugh, I keep thinking I should give people permission to laugh. That’s the way it has been in my life and that’s probably why I also like comedians because to me it’s that mixture you laugh because it’s true so to me the truth a lot of the times doesn’t stop from being funny as well as fucked up, those two things can co-exist together. I don’t know I guess it’s my own dark sense of humor but I know I’m not the only one.
TFF: I love the world of comedy and depending on who you watch you can get a very harsh view of their reality but at the same time they break it down in such a manner you compared it to modern day philosophers.
EV: Yea I agree some of these comedians, I remember when I first saw Bigger & Blacker the Chris Rock special I think his writing is incredible and so ahead of his times. He was saying if we asked for $5,000 for each bullet the rate of death would diminish incredibly well. You laugh because your instinct is to say “oh that’s so funny” but if you think about it “no he’s his putting his finger on a major problem here”. Just to name one person but he’s always been so political in his writing and in his humor to call it something. Obviously George Carlin, Ali Wong more recently in terms of so many other women who are given a voice to what’s it like to be a mother in comedy, what it’s like to give birth and get on stage afterwards. It’s all taken from their lives and I really appreciate the honesty as well as the laughter.
TTF: The chemistry between Mary & Common feels so natural and true to life, was that something the three of you crafted together or a gift from the film gods?
EV: You know mostly a gift from the film gods probably. One of the things you do as a director is first of all it’s true you never really know with chemistry, how would I know if they’re going to get along or not? I remember the first time I didn’t really rehearse with them because I didn’t want them to get too chummy because since they meet in the movie and so much of the beginning of their relationship is that they’re kind of an odd couple; their energies aren’t really matched up at all. I wanted to keep as much of that in the beginning as possible which I think is kind of awkward but I like it and I think it’s realistic really until she goes to his house that night and it’s not quite happening for them. I just had them read their scenes together a couple of times one afternoon and I remember when I first saw them together and they first started reading and I was like “ahhhh” I just took this big sigh of relief “oh it’s going to work, like they’re totally cool together” and “it’ll be fine”. You don’t really know regardless of how talented they each are because it is obviously a very intimate relationship that they have. In terms about sequence most it as a director I’ve learned that setting the mood is really important. The beauty with that sequence was that we were in Rafe’s house, we shot there for about three days, which is really the longest time we stayed at any one location so that already was giving us a little bit more of a relaxed atmosphere. We could always come back to the same place, it was in a very pretty area of the city and the other thing I had discovered was that obviously, Common is a musician but so is Mary. I realized working with them that music really affects them. I played a lot of music on the set and I think that went a long way, a lot of us were kind of like dancing and talking about music, letting them bond that way. When it was time to shoot, we all still had the sound of music playing in our heads. It lends itself to the intimate dance that they do throughout that whole evening. That was one of the funnest things to shoot.
TTF: It’s definitely one of the lighter scenes throughout the film. That relationship builds so slowly and strong at the same time. I really love that apartment date scene.
EV: I’m so glad I love it too. It was a very weird thing to write because it did feel like its own short movie inside the film in a way. It was a bit of a risk to do it that way if it hadn’t worked it would’ve ground the whole thing to a halt but I’m glad that it didn’t. Despite the fact that they end up having sex my main thing was that I need to see them build intimacy which I think again something that movies often skirt over. You’ll get the falling in love montage but you don’t actually know why they fell in love with each other. A lot of visuals of them eating ice cream and laughing but you don’t know what they’re laughing about or what is that they actually like about each other. I always find that really weird in movies, I know it doesn’t just have to be one moment.
TTF: What I enjoyed most were the small silences throughout that scene because in movies there would be chatter but this felt so real from beginning to end. I’m not sure if it was Common’s portrayal of Rafe but it felt so natural.
EV: I’m so glad. Yeah he’s pretty great I love his portrayal of Rafe too. I think the fact they were so comfortable with each other also allowed for some improv and some funny moments. I had always that line which is a tiny Spinal Tap reference Rafe says “our drummer died and then the 90’s ended” and she says “oh I’m sorry that must be so hard for you” and Common just added on his own “I want them back” which always makes me laugh so much because it feels like a little bit self referential, like he had such a great time in the 90’s too. I always feel I’m doing my job right if the writing is where they start off and then they can add things that feel so much like their characters.
TTF: How much of the comedy world were you aware of as the scenes seem so dead on (Nina rehearsing bits, Jay Mohr’s character, the female comedians vying for a live TV spot)
EV: A lot of that stuff in New York, I mostly hung out at the Boston Comedy Club which is no longer here but it was on West 4th. It was a really well known club in the 90’s and I got to New York in 94’. Chappelle was just starting out, Louis CK was there a lot, Jay Mohr was there a lot, Attell, a lot of comedians that we know that have gotten bigger. I just watched it from a writing and performance point of view because really they do everything, they’re their own directors in a way and obviously there’s that immediacy which I think what scares actors so much that they have to completely be there for the audience and be feeding off of them and knowing what to say back or if they get heckled, like how do you deal with that. That was always fascinating to me I could watch that stuff forever both when it works and when it doesn’t, I just can’t get enough. I was very into that scene and I think I carried enough of it with me to feel comfortable writing it like things like the Jay Mohr character, I met a lot of guys like that. Because it’s such an honest world if you’re outside the comedy scene saying something like “when are you going to fuck me?” would be seen as very aggressive, which it is but in the comedy world it was super accepted. Nina would have been seen as a weak person if she had been offended by that, they say brutal stuff to one another. It was for better or for worse a world that I was comfortable with and in, despite having my issues with it. One of the things that really has changed since I was in that world is that now there’s are a lot more female comedians. I remember seeing one or two off in the 90’s. I know Sarah Silverman got back in that time and they started there’s obviously some great female comedians but now there’s just so much more. Now you go to the clubs it’s much more normal to see women there, that was something that despite the sexism still inherit they’re all still vying all for only one spot. I have to say all those ladies are comedies except Ramona who’s the one who does the introduction in the beginning and the laser guns, which is a favorite thing of mine. Everybody else has been in that world and we had to go very quickly I wish I would’ve had more time with them but I trusted them to be realistic especially the scene when Nina finds out she got it and their reactions to it was hard. I’m very cognizant of not being negative against women and not showing women being shitty with one another but I thought that was kind of the right response. They’re happy and they want to be supportive of her but they’re also hurting. Nina also acknowledges that so it’s kind of cringe worthy that whole scene. A lot of credit goes to all of them: Nicole Byer who’s incredible she does the Jabba the Slut impression and tours all the time, Andree who’s the blonde girl that does the Chelsea Handler impression, they’re all veterans so they know that world obviously even better than me.
TTF: In today’s social climate, how important is it to portray characters like Nina who as strong as she is on the outside is hiding that pain and feelings inside of herself?
EV: Well it was important to me even before today’s climate and obviously continues to be important. It was very much my experience as a survivor and I think that dichotomy you just mentioned whether it was so important for me to show because usually survivors are portrayed as these sort of like these crying messes that are shriveled up in a corner. Certainly a lot of us have been through nights like that, my experience of surviving is that not just myself is that we’re really tough, As the word implies you had to survive things that are really difficult and so a lot of us are really fucking strong and you never see that portrayed. Sometimes it goes the other way that strength becomes an armor and then it’s also because you’ve been hurt, in my case by men. It becomes hard to then allow myself to love someone or to be loved in an intimate relationship. A lot of the emphasis for the movie was to show that. Even though she likes this guy and she can tell that he’s a good guy it’s still really hard for her to open herself up to him. That was a lot of what I wanted to show that what seems like a contradiction at first but really if you think about it, isn’t. I think it’s very misunderstood and as we’re seeing now with the #MeToo Movement coming out. It’s so prevalent whether it’s rape, abuse or harassment it effects people and I would like for others to think about that and have some more empathy.
TTF: The main goal behind my site is to encourage people to follow their dream/passion, which is not the easiest path to take. There is a need to follow that feeling to which many people might not understand, do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement to offer those who are not ready to take that step yet and feel there is something holding them back?
EV: That’s such a good question and you’re right to mention the fact that sometimes it’s our own fear of whatever it may be that is holding us back that’s not to say you shouldn’t listen to that. Any words of advice would be to be honest with yourself and to try not to let whatever that fear is hold you back and I say that with caution because as we are seeing in today’s world speaking out isn’t always received well for example as we saw with Dr. Ford. Just a week ago she went out there and I don’t believe that anybody doesn’t actually believe that she’s telling the truth and that didn’t seem to matter in terms of the decision that was made by a whole lot of Senators in this country. I’m not saying that necessarily speaking up the truth is always going to turn out well like you’re saying just because you want to pursue something doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen. I do feel like squaring with yourself and saying “what is it that I want?” and “how can I tell that honestly?” certainly in a creative way goes a long way. If my movie is being understood at all it’s because at least it’s honest. Even if people haven’t go through what I’ve gone through they can understand what it is that’s happening. I don’t know if that makes sense but I think honesty goes a long way, even if it’s scary.