ABOVE: ELIZABETH WOOD. PHOTO COURTESY OF GABRIEL NUSSBAUM/THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
Elizabeth Wood moved to New York from Oklahoma City just before September 11, 2001. "We moved to the Financial District right under it," the 33-year-old writer-director says. "There was ash in my room. We had nosebleeds, my roommate started having seizures." The Red Cross gave Wood and her roommate money, "we just didn't use it very wisely...as you can imagine," she continues.
Many elements of White Girl, Wood's debut feature film, are inspired by her time as a college student in New York (she received her BFA from The New School and MFA from Columbia). Not necessarily things she went through herself—some of them are, but it's not an autobiography—but rather a combination of what she experienced and what she witnessed. The thought of the film as grounded in reality is unsettling for some; White Girl's protagonist, Leah (Morgan Saylor), and her love interest, Blue (Brian "Sene" Marc), are exposed to some horrific things, including sexual violence, institutional racism, excessive drug use, and the isolation of trauma. But the film is not about judgment, or shaming Leah; it's about the things that shape us, both seen and unseen. It's about privilege and vulnerability and youth and identity.
"Since the first draft, any flak I've gotten has been, 'We need more backstory. What was she like growing up? Did something happen to her? Did her parents abuse her?'" Wood says. "I'm like, 'Why did she have to have a fucked up life to enjoy sex and do drugs and be naïve and young and nihilistic?'"
On Saturday, White Girl premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Most of the cast was present, including Saylor, Marc, and Chris Noth and Justin Bartha, who play Blue's lawyer and Leah's internship boss, respectively.
EMMA BROWN: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost are two of White Girl's producers. How did you meet them and how did they get involved in producing the film?
ELIZABETH WOOD: They're actually high school best friends, Henry and Rel, with my husband [Gabriel Nussbaum], who's the producer of this project. I was roommates with Henry for a number of years. I remember I told him I had written a script that I wanted to share with him, and he teased me: "What's your script about? Something crazy?" I was really insulted—"You don't think I can write a fucking script dude?" I gave it to him and said, "Oh wow, this is really good, I'd like to produce it." I was like, "Yeah, bitch. Sit down."
BROWN: And then they told you to cut 30 pages from the script the day before you started filming?
WOOD: That wasn't them, actually. We were in this crazy, stop-start pre-production schedule. We were going to start in August —I really wanted to film in August—and funding fell through. Then we were going to film in September, and funding fell through again. I was ready to wait until the next summer and the producer, my husband, was like, "No, fuck this. We're going to figure it out." We went to a million different people and piecemealed it together, which meant we had a very short pre-production process. We realized we could not film the script in 22 days and that's when they came to me: "We're going to go do dinner." They got the nicest bottle of wine on the menu and were like, "You need a drink. We have to cut 30 pages tonight." I was like, "What?" I laid down on the street on Lafayette, there's a picture actually, because I said, "Remind me that I asked for this." We drank, like, a bottle of scotch, we put it all on a board, and we just cut. But it was really awesome to do that then, because I would've had to do it when shooting or editing. It made the film much leaner and meaner. I could focus. The test was how little do we need to tell this story? It's a film of such excess; we didn't need to be excessive in the author's voice.
BROWN: How did you decide on Morgan Saylor for the part of Leah?
WOOD: We saw a million girls in L.A. and New York. It was tough because we had to find an actress who wanted to play this role, who was okay with nudity, who was okay with strong material. It was quite hard to find an actual teenager—an 18- or 19-year-old. I didn't want someone who's 26 playing 18, because I think even if you look young there's a big difference. So we had our feelers out really wide. Morgan came in, in a blizzard in February, wearing a giant coat that was duct-taped. She took it off and she was wearing short shorts and a bra and threw herself on the ground and did the scene and I was like, "Whoa." I asked her to make a few experimental videos of herself and she just fucking went for it. I keep begging her that the trailer should be this video she sent me doing this dance strip. But she's not at all like this in real life. She's a math major at the University of Chicago. She's playing a nun in a movie right now. She's very buttoned up. I wouldn't say conservative, but she's nothing like this character.
BROWN: Did she tell you why she wanted the part so badly?
WOOD: We talked so much about it. I think she saw the value in the story. It's a really fucking good role; it's hard to find a good role for a woman where you get to do the things guys usually do. Usually guys get to have sex and do drugs and no one blinks. She totally fucks up everything out of control, but young people do that shit.
BROWN: Did you read any of the reviews since the premiere?
WOOD: Yeah, all of them.
BROWN: I read the Variety review, and they described Leah as only interested in Blue for his drugs. That seemed a bit unfair. Obviously part of her attraction to him is the novelty of dating someone who exists in a different world, but to say she didn't like him outside of that...
WOOD: It's so funny because this very man gave me an award on stage a couple weeks ago at Variety's "10 Directors to Watch." He hadn't seen the film, yet he gave a glowing description to the crowd, shook my hand, and hugged me. And then this comes out. He doesn't mention gender, he doesn't mention race. He kept confusing me with the character and talking about my personal life. It was very strange. I didn't even notice this until a friend today pointed it out, but at the end he actually says the character "transforms" Chris Noth's character into a rapist. Is that fucked up or what? "Transforms" a sleazy guy into a rapist? It was a very angry push button response, which I luckily haven't had much. When it has happened a few times, it's happened with a white males with their panties in a knot because, "How dare a young woman have so much fun and have so much sex and do so much drugs."
BROWN: I do think I would've died if I'd done that much cocaine.
WOOD: You'd be fine. [laughs] I turned out fine. I'm a mom. I just stay home and online shop now.
BROWN: Were you concerned about the scene where Chris Noth's character rapes Leah?
WOOD: I thought a lot about how we were going to film it. I wasn't concerned. It was really interesting working with them because right before we shot the scene, I asked Morgan, "Do you want to talk about this, or do you just want to interpret it?" And she was like, "I want to talk about it," and I was like, "Do you want me to tell you some stuff about the story this was based on?" And she said, "Yeah." So I shared information I had never shared with anyone. At this point, I'd really like to remain vague about the circumstances and who it even happened to. It was this very intimate, quiet moment and Chris Noth comes up and he's like, "Hey, are you telling her about the real life..." So I spilled my heart to him and we all had this moment. It was the most private moment we've had. I'm trying to figure out how to talk honestly and openly without actually giving away anything.
BROWN: Who was the hardest person to cast?
WOOD: I think the hardest to find was Blue, Sene. As you know, he had never acted before. We searched to the ends of the earth for Puerto Rican actors, and knowing that there's a million talented Puerto Rican performers, it was bizarre that we couldn't find any in this age group. We went to L.A. to a major agency and they had a presentation ready for me: "What about Lil' Romeo? What about Anton Yelchin? Dave Franco?" I was like, "Do you know what Puerto Rican is?" He was like, "It doesn't matter, right?" Actually it does. It was kind of appalling. So we came back to New York. My friend works at genius.com, so I asked "do you know any Puerto Rican New York rappers?"
Then Anthony [Ramos], who plays Blue's the sidekick, got the job in Hamilton right after. Ralph [Rodriguez] just got this big role on Chicago Fire. I feel like they're all doing so well. We found these people who were just breaking out—same with Morgan and India [Menuez]. It was a long process, that's why I'm glad we had that extra year. Taking that time really brought everyone together. Chris Noth, we found him last second.
BROWN: What made you think of him?
WOOD: He was on the list, and in my mind I thought, "He'd never do this." I don't know why I was being so self-defeating, but I thought, "It's not a big enough role, it's so controversial." He was the only actor I didn't really pursue, because I really wrote it off. Nonetheless, we submitted it to him and he called me up. He was like, "Hey, it's Chris Noth. I have some really dark ideas for this. I'd like to talk about how we could take this further." And he talked my ear off. He was the most fun to work with. You felt you were dealing with this classically trained master—he went to Yale and you felt that. He was such a theater nerd, he wanted more takes, he was so nice to everyone on set. I liked having someone who was so experienced and so delightful to work with.
BROWN: Are you someone who likes to do more takes?
WOOD: A million. And I feel justified in that because I always use my last take. I know I'm going to get it, but I don't want to stop until we get it—that chill factor. So your AD, your team starts yelling at you that you're out of time, and you have to shut them out and say, "We're making a movie and if we don't get this fucking take then what's the point, we don't have our movie."
BROWN: Were you ever hesitant about telling people that it was inspired by real life? Because that risks people assuming that you are Leah...
WOOD: Yes, definitely. I didn't want to say it, but then I realized how powerful it was as a talking point when I was trying to get this film off the ground. The hardest thing about making this film was, "Why will anyone trust you as a first time director?" And it's because it's your story and it comes from your life, and so you know more than anyone else, and therefore they trust you. I can talk more articulately about my own life than about things I don't know. I still am in a way hesitant, because it's a movie. You decide when it begins and when it ends. Any time you tell a story it becomes fiction. And life is much crazier than a movie. Real life is so surreal and insane, it would never even made sense as a movie. You have to frame it and make it palatable, if you can call this film palatable. To me it is.
BROWN: But you'd worked in film before, so you weren't completely inexperienced.
WOOD: Short films, commercial work, industrial work, cancer films—those are my favorite. Informational films for people diagnosed with end-of-life illnesses. They wanted someone who could make a DVD to synthesize all the information you're going to deal with in a better way than fluorescent lights and a scary doctor. I feel that's the most important thing I've done to date—breast reconstruction films and bone marrow transplants—because of having a profound impact on someone's process of getting this news.
BROWN: How do you make those videos? Do you have someone who has gone through a similar experience talking?
WOOD: You're in the hospitals with people in treatment and with the doctors talking to them. It paid the bills and it was really gratifying and educational work. That was the first time I was really on a crew where it was high stakes.
BROWN: Are you thinking about your next project?
WOOD: Yeah, I've been writing. The script's nearly done—it's called Spiritual Crisis. It's kind of this lo-fi, sci-fi relationship psychodrama about someone who takes ayahuasca and decides to change their life.
WHITE GIRL IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL.