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White Girl Director Elizabeth Wood On Why Her Debut Feature Is So Subversive

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Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Wood.
Elizabeth Wood says that White Girl, her first feature, is a realistic coming-of-age movie that's not without romance. The movie (see the NSFW trailer here) is flooded with cocaine, backseat sex, and one or two corner-office blow jobs, to be sure, but to really understand her perspective, you've got to — as Wood says — look past the titties. White Girl might follow a coke binge, but it's telling a much more subversive story.

In the movie, Leah (Morgan Saylor) is a bong-ripping sybarite whose blonde hair and lucrative privilege takes Blue (Brian Marc) under her spell. White Girl made headlines at its Sundance premiere for lots of sex and lots of drugs, but whiteness — and the immunity it begets — is at its core. Wood's camera never interrogates, as it slowly and persistently suggests that maybe there's more than one America: nights where Leah can play with chaos but also glide above it, clubs where a blonde girlfriend can let Blue sell coke to a crowd that shoves hundreds into his hand two at a time, and days that reveal true hierarchies of men and women, power and possession.

White Girl isn't perfect (its narrative centres on whiteness a little too much), but its rawness is dizzying. Maybe you haven't done fistfuls of coke or fallen into the fever dream of 19-year-old love. Though, these elements are only the setting for a larger conversation: In White Girl, Wood wonders aloud about occupying and navigating different worlds, realities divided by gender, class, and race, and what happens when they all collide.

Wood spoke to me about making a movie that's partly based on her life, asking questions about race and gender, and creating female characters that live textured lives.
You’re from Oklahoma and Leah is too. I know the movie isn’t totally autobiographical, but why was that an important detail to carry over from real life?
"It's based on a real story. It’s not my biopic; I feel like this is very much a story from the perspective of a, in this case, Midwestern white girl. But it could be a white girl from anywhere that moved to a big city, and is discovering whiteness and what race really is in America for the first time.

"I think some people see the film and are so kind of shocked by the sex and drugs that they don’t realize this is a film really more about race and gender than sex and drugs."
Especially with news surrounding police brutality and Black Lives Matter, what conclusion should we get from a movie called White Girl?
"I think it’s quite a bold name. I even had a screenwriting professor in grad school who told me there’s no way I can name a film this, that no one would ever watch it. I hope she sees that it’s coming out soon. [Laughs] I very much want people to know that it is a film exploring whiteness, but there’s also the playful side of it because it isn’t a totally dark cautionary tale. This is also a story about youth and discovering oneself, and there’s a lot of fun in it. So I feel like you can kind of get that all from the name. "

Was making the movie cathartic for you in processing your time in college and your own youth?
"I knew that when I was having this real-life experience that eventually it would be my first film. In fact, the first [short film] I ever made was a documentary in Ridgewood about the boys that were hanging out on the block. I knew I needed time to try and process what this story was really about, and even as I wrote it, filmed and edited it, now that I discuss it, I continue to pose the question to myself: what is this really about? Because it continues to evolve.

"I have a lot of questions about myself, about race, about gender, and we’re all just trying to figure stuff out. This world is so complex and heavy."
Let’s talk about the white men in the movie. Justin Bartha's and Chris Noth's characters are both predatory in different ways.
"In the film, there’s a lot of hierarchy: How your gender, how your race, how your sexuality is used as different currency in different situations, and as you go in and out of different worlds. I try not to, too often, to say very sweeping, terrible things about white men because of course that’s not true about most of them. It’s a handful of pretty terrible ones. But I do think [Leah's] experience is that these men are taking advantage of her."

I just read the Variety review out of Sundance. It was a lot.
"It was the first one that came out after the first screening! They published it at like 3 a.m., and the first version that came out had lots of typos. It was so reactionary, like 'Oh, you stayed up all night to get this one out huh, Mr. [Peter] Debruge?' I’m glad I just laughed, because it was like 'This is what people are getting from it?'

"It felt so off-base that I actually thought, okay, that’s surprising. Thank God that’s not been the overall reaction. In fact, it’s led plenty of people to talk about one particular southern white man’s reaction to the film. He couldn’t see past the titties and forgot that it was a film about something."

The Variety critic seemed so struck by it being a coming-of-age story that wasn’t his idea of 'romantic.' Was that a conscious choice for you?

"Well, I feel like it’s very romantic, and also it’s very sexist of men to think that a female’s experience in falling in love isn’t very sexual. We’re not so different than guys. Also, young romance is not as romantic as anyone would like to portray in a movie, especially in the last couple million years.

"I find [Leah and Blue's relationship] to be very romantic and full of romance. I don’t think they’re equipped to deal with real love, and I think this is a Romeo and Juliet story where they’re kept apart really by the system at large. In this moment there’s no way they can be together, even if they want to be. There is actually no room for their love; things are just keeping them apart. I thought it was funny [the critic] didn’t see any tenderness between them. Plenty of people who’ve been watching the movie it seems are in love with one or both of them afterwards."

Can you talk to me about working with Brian Marc? He’s a musician in Denitia and Sene, and this is his first time acting. How did you find him?
"Amazing story. It’s — surprise, surprise — ridiculously hard to find Puerto Rican actors in New York. Even though we have a huge Puerto Rican population, I was shocked. I talked to an agent who suggested Lil’ Romeo, Anton Yelchin, (rest in peace) and Dave Franco. I’m like, ‘Wait, none of these people are Puerto Rican,' and they were like, 'Oh, it doesn’t matter.' I'm like, 'Actually, it does.'
"I had an amazing casting director. She brought in the other two friends [of Blue's], Anthony, the best friend, and then Ralph, who’s the bigger one. Anthony’s in Hamilton right now. They were great, but I was looking for someone else. I asked a friend who worked at Genius if they knew any Puerto Rican musicians. They were all going crazy for his music, so when he walked in and he read, I was like, this kid’s amazing. I was warned how working with a non-actor may be difficult, but he wasn't at all. He blew it out of the water, he’s so naturally talented and is now getting all kinds of work, it was a great discovery. He was an absolute gem to work with."
Did he do any songs for the movie?
"Yes! He has four or five songs in the movie."

Can you talk to me about the process of getting this produced?
"Sure, well I’d written it with some good friends of mine — Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who made Catfish and Paranormal Activity — they’re some of my best friends and I showed the script to them and they were super hype on it. Christine Vachon has been my idol since I was like 13. That was the first meeting I ever went on: I was super pregnant at the time, so I was like, 'Aaah, how do I do this? Are they going to be freaked out that I’m pregnant?' But I went in there and she didn’t even look at my stomach or ask about it."

I read an interview where you said that some early feedback on the script was that people wanted to see Leah have a weird childhood that made her enjoy the sex and drugs in the movie. What was your response to that critique?
"Yeah, [the critique was that] she was so likeable that, ‘Oh, we need a backstory, was she abused, had terrible parents, never had a good relationship, etc.’ I’m like, ‘Actually, I think so often a young person that’s white and privileged and acting out is not the result of a bad background, it’s the result of a really good background where everything has been so protected that they’re willing to take insane risks just to feel alive.’

"Some people think her character was too unlikable because of all these “crazy” things she does, so it was really important for me to find an actress who you could watch doing these crazy, stupid, reckless things and still feel sympathy for, or at least [empathise] with for being young. Most people can relate to that on some kind of level."

What was it like working with Morgan Saylor, especially with bringing a story that’s very personal to you to the screen through her?
"I’m just in love with her. I spent a lot of time trying to find this character, I was so terrified that a young woman who would want to do this role would be out of control, if not more than the character. Morgan is quite the opposite. She’s currently at college for math in Chicago and is so intelligent and mature for a young woman, and I’d actually forgotten how far she went for this role, because she became this character. She dyed her hair, and she started dressing differently.

"I saw her a few months later and her hair was back to the way it usually is and she was back to being Morgan Saylor. I was really struck after the fact, like, 'Wow, this is such an incredible performance, she actually became someone else.' I had the luxury of having time to get to know her — we had months to work together ahead of time, to talk, to hang out to try and get into the character of the film. I feel like there were a lot of luxuries for a low-budget first film, that I really hope to have when making other films, because it was a pretty magical experience."
This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!
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