First-time writer/director Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl sets out to be a Great Gatsby for the 21st Century — and perhaps in the process, to depict the orgastic future that Fitzgerald mentioned at the story’s end. College sophomore Leah (Morgan Saylor, gung-ho) arrives in NYC shortly before the start of classes and promptly strikes up an affair with her neighborhood drug dealer Blue (Brian Marc, impossibly sweet) — but not before a coked-up tryst with the guy who gave her a magazine internship. (Leah has numerous sexual encounters, each with its own tenor and interpersonal dynamic: sometimes celebratory, sometimes intimate, sometimes mercenary...) Blue is so smitten with his pale shorty that he decides to better himself by expanding his operation. Trouble ensues, whereupon the plucky blonde declares that she “always figures it out” and...well, you can probably guess. Wood doesn’t dig too deeply into her characters, instead relying on verve, style, hard partying, and sweet emotion to make you mourn for the optimism and audacity of youth. It mostly works, thanks in part to a committed cast and a surprisingly clear directorial eye.
Matthew Lickona: Why did you choose this story for your debut feature?
Elizabeth Wood: Well, it’s inspired by real events, and at the time they were happening to me, I knew this would somehow be the first movie I’d make. But it took time to figure out what the hell was going on, and to figure out how to make a movie.
ML: Is there an example of an event that you knew would be in the movie even as it was actually happening?
EW: Yes. In real life, it was perhaps even more cinematic and wild: the above-ground train passed about five feet from my window, lighting up and shaking the apartment. And I remember watching as someone was arrested and taken away from me, and everything showing up [in my head] at that instant — [I knew] that this was a movie. I see much of life as a movie. I love stories, and this was one that I really wanted to tell.
ML: Did you set out to learn filmmaking just so you could tell this story?
EW: Yeah. I was making experimental films, but I knew this would be my first narrative feature. On a whim one night, I thought, “Maybe I should go to film school.” I applied with my first pages of this script. I hated every second of film school and I wanted to drop out, but I’m glad I didn’t. Before then, I was working as an assistant to other filmmakers, and that kind of drew the line in the sand as far as me making films for myself.
ML: On the filmmaking side of things, can you talk about the lighting and use of color? Sometimes, you’ll shift in the middle of a scene; everything will be green, and then it’ll be purple.
EW: I feel like most people mention how real the film looks and feels, but yes, the lights are totally insane and much more amped up than in real life. It’s like neon life. I do think it kind of reflects the drugs, the excitement, and the adventure of the story. I worked with Michael Simmonds, who is one of my filmmaking heroes, and he did a lot of really insane lighting. He wanted to shoot the whole thing crazily — in fast motion, or slow motion, or looking through a glass. I’d always let him get it out and then be like, “Now can we just shoot it?” But I was very honored — he doesn’t really operate cameras any more, so it was cool to have him doing handheld the whole 22 days.
ML: What did you tell your lead actress Morgan Saylor about the character and the way you wanted it played, especially given that it was inspired by personal experience?
EW: I told her immediately, “Leah is your own; you need to discover her for yourself. At no point is this about me.” That said, we had months of rehearsal and time to establish the character together. Everything from giving her exercises to help her become more extroverted — because she’s actually quite shy — to dance classes to going out to clubs to getting her hair dyed that platinum blonde. And we talked about the sexual material: how we agreed that it was necessary to the story. And about films we both loved where sexuality and the naked human body were necessary. Breaking the Waves came up a lot. It allowed us to hit the ground running. There were scenes where people would want me to call cut, and even I’d want to call cut, but the longer we kept rolling, the more comfortable it got and the more real it felt.
ML: And why would you say it was necessary? I ask because sometimes, nudity will bump me as a viewer out of the narrative, and I’ll be more conscious of the nudity than I am of the story. But here, I was guessing that you showed as much as you did because it actually makes things less titillating: well okay, now there’s coke on that guy’s...
EW: It’s a bit gross and real and awkward and silly even, the amount of sex in my film — which I feel is more realistic to the experience of sex in my life. But it’s interesting that you mention the way that seeing a naked body onscreen can bump you out of the narrative. I think that’s the amazing power that sexuality has in our own lives; if sex or somebody’s body is suddenly in the picture, then the whole dynamic changes. That’s a dynamic change that’s occurring in many scenes in the movie.
ML: Why don’t Leah’s alarm bells go off more often? Why is she so confident?
EW: I think this kind of wild experimentation often comes from someone who is so protected and privileged that they need to feel what pain and darkness feels like. I think if you’ve grown up surrounded by drugs and crime, you’re more likely to protect yourself. I also think that a lot of young women are extremely confident, and a lot of young people think they’ll never die. Those things, combined with her specific personality, makes her a bit explosive.
ML: Tell me about styling Chris Noth’s somewhat jaded lawyer character. Even the haircut helped get his character across.
EW: I will tell you that he designed the hair for this character, and he was very excited about it. And he had a strong vision of how his tie should be super-wide. He’s such a serious actor, and the way he treated it elevated the experience for all of us. He’s old-school.
ML: A cynic might say that this is the kind of film that breaks through because you get a pretty white girl naked a lot, and that gets people’s attention. How do you avoid being seen as a shock-and-awe director? Or aren’t you thinking in those terms yet?
EW: I’m thinking about the kind of film that I would like to watch, one that’s exciting and involves a wild experience and often deals with sexuality. I’m making the kind of film that I like. Luckily, I’ve found that people pick up, at some level, on the nature of the story, and realize there’s a conversation to be had. It’s a story about a lot of serious stuff. It could have been just titties, but we got some real stuff in there.