Interviews · Movies

Elizabeth Wood: “White people need to be reminded of their privilege.”

By  · Published on August 30th, 2016

The White Girl director on that title, how much of the film is based on her life, and the imminent end of the “female” filmmaker label.

In her remarkable feature debut White Girl, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, ballsy writer-director Elizabeth Wood boldly goes where few filmmakers these days dare. Telling an unapologetic story of white privilege full of sex and drugs, Wood delves into complex topics around gender, race, class, and gentrification, and confronts each of these issues unreservedly.

The film is set over the course of one summer in New York City. Interning at a hipster-ish online magazine, Leah (Morgan Saylor) moves into a Queens apartment with her roommate Katie (India Menuez) and falls for the neighborhood’s kindly drug dealer, Blue (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc). When a seemingly simple plan turns into a complex scheme of drug trafficking that eventually sends Blue to jail, Leah rolls up her sleeves to help him and hires an opportunist lawyer (Chris Noth) with the money she doesn’t have. One poor and infuriatingly unaware decision leads to the next, where Leah not only finds herself stuck in deeper trouble, but she also drags Blue alongside her obliviousness.

Wood is vocal about the fact that she made a provocative film about ‘white privilege’ that aims at white people through an unflattering portrait of a girl who’s had it easy all her life. “It’s ultimately uncomfortable to talk about for white people, and I think that’s the point, to be critical of one’s privilege of whiteness,” said Wood, when we sat down at The Crosby Hotel last week to dive deep into the the issues she raises with White Girl. “It’s important to have conversations where you don’t feel like the good guy.”

Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation, in which Wood talked about the making of her film, how she pulled off those extended sex scenes and an especially disturbing scene that involves rape. Turns out, that was (like other parts of the film) inspired by a true story.

Tomris Laffly: White Girl is one of the most provocative films I saw at Sundance this year. Even the title…it’s very confrontational and in your face.

Elizabeth Wood: I agree it is confrontational. I think a lot of people make assumptions of what the movie is about before even knowing or that maybe I’m not aware what the name could mean. But I’m very aware. I think it invites discussion. It’s about whiteness and privilege. It’s about being a woman, about cocaine ‐ and white girl’s a slang word for cocaine ‐ so I felt like it covers all the bases. I had a film school professor who told me, “You cannot name a movie that.” And I was like, “I hope she sees it’s coming out.”

When somebody tells you that, that’s probably your cue that you’re on the right track.

Right? If you have that much feeling about it?

You’re obviously coming to this film as a white person and telling the story of racial divide from a white angle. How did you enter such a huge topic?

I don’t think people of color need to be reminded of white privilege, it’s white people that need to talk about it and be reminded and do the hard work right now. I don’t think it paints it in a flattering light at all, and I think with a title like we have, some people could misconstrue my understanding or even my angle, which is quite critical. I’m quite critical of this character, while I also love this character, and that was something, even in early drafts, some people would be worried about: “How will we like this character?” I knew that I’d find an actress whom you could somehow empathize with. It’s all difficult and tricky and scary.

You’re not making up excuses for Leah. She doesn’t have this broken, troubled past. And as far as we know, she has a supportive mom.

I think actually it can be privilege that makes one choose to act out and try to experience pain and the real world and hurt oneself. Because maybe you’ve been overly protected and so I think it’s quite the opposite. For people who’ve grown up experiencing a lot of terrible things, why would they possibly want to throw themselves into it just for fun?

This is a really risky movie, not necessarily the easiest kind to get financing for. How did you pull it off?

It was a disaster, really, a year process or more of trying to get financing. Twice I thought it was going to come through from a traditional company, going to be written, many meetings, whatever, and they pulled out, both times. I thought we pushed the movie to the next summer, because it really had to be a summer movie and it was already August and it wasn’t happening and my producer, who also happens to be my husband, was like, “No, let’s make this happen.” I was just like, “There’s nothing we can do; I give up.”

Hank said, “Let’s sign you a really awesome producer.” He just woke up the next morning at 6am and just started calling people and started piecing it together from as many places as we could, as many people ‐ begging really. I couldn’t be a producer. I couldn’t ask people for money like that, and then we had to cut half a million dollars off the budget. I cut a number of pages to make it work. Then we started filming in October, rather than August and it was already getting cold. The leaves were changing and we were brushing the leaves off the street.

Everybody is in really summery clothes. It must have been cold.

Yes, we sprayed sweat on them. They were actually shivering. And the sex scene, it was sleeting outside. I’m so glad it looks like summer and it feels like summer, but it was close.

I heard you say in Sundance that the movie was inspired by some of the things you have experienced in college. But this film is not autobiographical, is it?

I feel like it’s such a strange line of what is fact, what is fiction. When you tell a story, even when you tell a story to a friend it’s, “What do I dramatize, what do I take out the story?” So it’s very much fiction, and to make it into a movie, it has to be fictionalized. But it is inspired by real events.

Would you be comfortable saying which events were real?

I can’t even remember at this point. Sometimes I actually recall the movie in my memory and I’m like, “Wait, no, no, no. [That wasn’t real.]” I was already so confused to begin with.

Your entire cast is amazing, but Brian ‘Sene’ Marc is especially striking. He just goes back and forth between this tough guy image and a boyish innocence.

I think he is just a born talent. I think he is made to be a performer, made to be a star. This was his first acting role. I didn’t have to help him discover that [divide]. I worked a lot with all the actors, we rehearsed, and we talked a lot about what they were trying to do. But he really brought that. If you have any reason to interview him or talk to him, you should call him up because he has really good answers and he’s, I think, so spectacular. So, so special.

And where did you find him?

I was having trouble finding Puerto Rican actors and a friend worked at It’s a website with song lyrics and you can annotate, and we said, “Do you know any Puerto Rican rappers?” And everyone there was in-love with him because first he was a rapper, then he had a singing group. Now he has more solo albums and he has an underground cult following. Amazing music, you should check it out.

Some of the music in the film belongs to him.

Yeah, four or five songs in the movie. He just had a new album that came out last week that will blow your mind.

I am so going to check that out.

It’s under Brian Marc. It’s on Soundcloud, on iTunes, and his earlier stuff is under ‘Sene’.

You had some distinct names in the rest of your cast, like Morgan Saylor, Justin Bartha, and Chris Noth. How did you, as a first time filmmaker, get them on board?

I think that having my executive producers attached helped. I had two of my best friends, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and also Killer Films, which is Christine Vachon, and David Hinojosa. I think that was the best part of having someone like an executive producer attached to your projects. Just helping get attention and not getting lost into the ocean.

White Girl visually has a ‘70s-style grit. We see a version of a grim, but dreamy New York. It loosely made me think of the films of Cassavetes and Scorsese.

I think I am very inspired by films from the ‘70s. They’re gritty and not as polished. They feel very authentic. But really, the look was something Michael Simmonds, my cinematographer, and I really just established early on as our visual language. What’s funny is I think the film looks quite real, right?

It does.

In reality the lighting is insane. It’s bright blue and yellow and pink, but I think because it’s about these heightened states, it reflects how you feel when you are living life at your craziest moments. I think also the camera work is so intimate.

There is a lot of sex in the movie. It’s actually refreshing in a way because I feel we’re in a more sterilized space in American cinema right now, with sex stripped off of the films.

First of all, isn’t it crazy that films don’t have sex, but violence is PG13? You can literally watch someone be beheaded and stabbed in the eye, and kids can see that, but they can’t see sex. Which is the natural thing here? I watch films with my niece and nephew and I’m like, “Why is this okay?” Maybe violence is more natural than sex, who knows.

How did you get the cast comfortable with those scenes? What is your approach to talking to the actors and setting up a sex scene?

I think the first thing really is casting people that are okay with it. Literally my first question when the actors walked in the room, that had to have sex, was, “Are you okay with nudity? Will you take your clothes off?” It’s like a joke and they’re like, “Ha, that’s the first thing you say to me?” If they have a reaction like, “Um, you’re rude.” I’m like, “We’re not going to work together very well.” There were some, especially young women who would be like, “It would depend, I’m not comfortable with that.” Then I know we’re probably not going to work well together because I’m crude, I love getting people to take their clothes off, not just in movies, just on a daily basis. I like to photograph people and I don’t find it offensive at all.

We talked a lot about it. I knew they were okay with it. We talked about where the boundaries were, how far they were comfortable going. There were things that they weren’t okay with and then laugh a lot about, make a lot of jokes. In the moment they felt comfortable for just going for it, l let them go wild. They have to feel very comfortable to go wild.

Did you have to do multiple takes?

I tend to let scenes, especially love scenes, go for very long. They thought it would be three minutes, three and a half, and they’d be like, “Don’t you think that’s enough?” I’m like, “No I don’t think they came yet.” I love that. I know we’re all sweating and feel like it’s rude to make the actors do this, but that’s probably a good sign if we’re all feeling very uncomfortable, it’s going to be really good to watch.

You also have a very uncomfortable rape scene, that I haven’t forgotten since Sundance. How did you prepare Chris Noth and Morgan Saylor for it?

That was hard, and I was very nervous, and that day before we shot the scene, I asked Morgan, “Do you want me to tell you the real story of what this is based on, or do you want to just come at it with your idea for the character?” She said, “I’d like to know.” I took her into the costume room, but it was very small so it’s more like a closet. And I’m telling her these very intimate details and right then Chris Noth walks in. He’s like, “Hey, are you telling her the real story?” And I was like, “Oh my God, Mr. Big is really asking.” Then I told both of them and this is like a surreal life moment where you’re telling this very dark story to these two actors, one of them being Mr. Big from your childhood, you watched everyday.

We just laughed and made a lot of jokes. Because I feel that’s the best way sometimes to deal with difficult things. And then again discussed boundaries like, “The skin can only go this far.” Each of them had things they didn’t want shown or to experience and then we filmed it and yeah, we filmed it a lot of times and it was hard. It was hard to watch, it was hard for Morgan. It was hard for him. Everyone was a little upset afterwards.

So what you’re saying is that kind of trauma is familiar to you because it happened to someone you know.

A lot of people I know. It’s actually strange how many people have come up to me after screenings, watching the film, not thinking that maybe that would be the main thing someone would take away. Many women have come up to me crying and hugged me and told me their stories, and that’s not necessarily something I expected. But I think we’re trained not to talk about it.

Often times in our culture, rape victims are not necessarily getting the support they need, not legally, not emotionally.

No, and it’s very hard. If you want to press charges, it’s so public and maybe it’s not something you want everyone you ever knew and your family to know. So I understand the conflict. It’s unfortunate how many women I know have told me how much sexual violence they’ve experienced.

Leah parties a lot, does drugs, and dresses the way she wants. But of course, she is 100 percent the victim in that rape scene. But it got me thinking how a certain part of society would perhaps blame her instead of her rapist. “Oh maybe you should have behaved differently, or…”

…Or maybe you shouldn’t have done drugs and drank and brought a strange man home. Well, you don’t necessarily expect the strange man to then rape you.

I’m wondering if you heard things along these lines. As in, “she brought that onto herself.”

Sure. There’s been a review where they said; “She transforms him into a rapist.” [Laughs.]

Oh…I know the review you’re talking about.

Which is very interesting language.

It is interesting language. I’m not sure how you transform a rapist into a rapist. He already is one.

Right?? Those women wearing short skirts, you could hardly “not” rape them just when you see them. [Laughs.]

Are you working on something currently?

Yeah, I am working on a 10-part series and also another film.

These days, we talk a lot about the lack of female voices in the film industry. Did being a female filmmaker work against you at any point?

I think this is a special case because it was my first film. I was really only working with people, or talking to people, that wanted to talk to me. I think the next project I do, I may experience that more because I’m going to have to probably make it on a bigger scale, with more money, etc. I only had one or two meetings where someone was an absolute asshole. That one asshole told me I’d never make this, come on, come back with a marketable film, blah, blah. But that was an accident. I accidentally ended up there. It was just unbelievably rude and then everyone was horrified that they’d set me up for this meeting. So it was just somehow a miscommunication. Besides that, I was meeting with people who were really receptive and I feel like this is very lucky and rare. But this was quite a small project. Come back and ask me next time when I have to [make another film.]

Why do you think in the year 2016, we’re still talking about female voices and filmmakers as a separate group?

I feel like the same reason we’re still talking about race, women’s rights. The end of legal segregation is still recent history. I think it’s almost a mistake for us to assume it’s been so long. I feel like the system wants us to think that everything is resolved. “Oh, everyone has equal rights now, it’s all over, guys. Stay back in your places.” But really it’s all very fresh, and now we’re only really beginning our fight. But we’ll be fine. Women will take over.

Sometimes I just want to be a filmmaker [and not labeled as “female”.] I don’t know, I think, aren’t there more female doctors now than male doctors? Yeah, we’ll overtake and put them in their place. We’re resourceful, us women. And yes, we’ll make a lot of good films.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.