IONCINEPHILE of the Month: Eva Vives (All About Nina)
IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging filmmaker from the world of cinema. This past April at the Tribeca Film Festival, Eva Vives premiered her feature debut, All About Nina, which stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the titular lead role. The Orchard folks will release the film on September 28th. Make sure to check out Part 2 of our profile – with Eva Vives’ Top Ten Films of All Time.
Eric Lavallee: During your childhood … what films were important to you?
Eva Vives: Ah, childhood! That time when movies and books leave an imprint on you like never again! My parents were radically anti-TV which I have been appreciating for some time, specially now that I am a parent myself. So I was mostly a reader. This resulted in me getting detailed explanations of every episode of “V” during recess, while I updated everyone on Jane Eyre. I snuck a few movies in at my grandparents early on. My grandfather, who was a mean SOB, was extremely hard of hearing which meant he BLASTED the TV. He was a huge fan of war movies and westerns. I was into the latter myself and I do remember watching both PATHS OF GLORY and RED RIVER so fucking loud that it’s a wonder I still have hearing left. He was a heavy smoker and the earthy stench of tobacco was permanently on him, which I kinda loved. My memory of those movies comes with that smell too, which is somewhat appropriate.
My grandma in her infinite wisdom was also anti-TV. This was the early 80’s when movies were just starting to play on Spanish TV again – after 40 years of dictatorship and censorship. She was very into spirits and ghosts and clearings and such and she had heard that THE EXORCIST was interesting, dealt with this matter and was playing on the brand new Spanish TV channel. So she actually prepared my cousins and I dinner (she usually didn’t bother with such practical matters) and sat us down in front of the TV where 4 little girls, ranging from 4 to 10, sat petrified slash crying for the duration of the movie. I actually think Linda Blair’s throwing up made it into NINA. The impetus of throwing up when you can’t express yourself otherwise, is a strong one for me. When the film was over, she turned the TV off unimpressed: “That was not at all what I thought it was going to be.” She also hilariously thought that the movie portrayed the priest much too kindly, which (though I have not seen the film since) is probably true. She was, among other things, also radically anti-church and specifically anti-priest – witnessing a priest kill a boy will do that to you.
Lavallee: During your formative years, what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Vives: Mostly American filmmakers! My mom was and is a huge film fan, so she would get us passes to the Filmoteca in Barcelona and we would go ALL. THE. TIME. Of course, Buñuel was big and eventually Almodovar. Interestingly, he was really disliked in Spain for a while because his films were deemed too real, like “you can see this shit at home every night. Why pay for it? But the films I remember having a huge impact on me were a lot of film noir and classic American films such as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, KEY LARGO, IN A LONELY PLACE, CITIZEN KANE, etc.
Interesting, this idea of some men not being able to control their rage and how that might have affected how I “understood” my father and his abuse on us. I also loved JOHNNY GUITAR and GILDA both of whom, I thought, showed women in fucked up situations but displaying their power nevertheless- though in very different ways. Sterling Hayden (who is such an under rated actor with an incredible taste in roles) had a deep impact on me in terms of manliness in JOHNNY GUITAR. The way he sits down and stands up when she tells him to! He is physically such a powerful guy but completely at her mercy.
I got to New York in 1994 and Tarantino was all the rage. I remember going to see PULP FICTION at the Angelika and knowing I didn’t quite get it. I’ve since gotten to really like that film, which feels so indie now. But more importantly, I went to the Paris Theater’s retrospective on Cassavetes. I had never seen any of his films or heard about him. My now husband and I checked out FACES, went out to the street, had a smoke and bought tickets for A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE which was starting right away. I don’t think we talked to each other for a while. Just kept going to see all of his films. Both he and Gena Rowlands continue to be huge influences for me. For NINA specifically MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ which is not one of his better known movies but one I love.
Lavallee: At what point did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker and could you talk about making the big move to Tisch/NYC.
Vives: Kinda underlined it in the above but in terms of deciding … not sure I woke up one day and knew I wanted make films. It was gradual. I had always written and then at 15 or so, my mother started to let me use her camera. One of my uncles was an amateur photographer, so he taught me some basics about aperture and so on and I started shooting for real and have kept it up until now. I love photography.
So those two loves combined just made me naturally gravitate towards film. And all the films we were watching at the Filmoteca. I had visited NY in the late 80’s with my parents and loved it. Also, to be frank, NY was far enough away from home that my father could no longer control me. It was an escape more than a move. But as I soon found out, I wasn’t the only one escaping to New York and it was a positive time for me overall, if painful.
Lavallee: I often think back to Raising Victor Vargas – which stands as seminal film in the indie film canon of the naughts. What I get a sense of here with your feature debut is a certain naturalism in how characters interact with one another. How did you go about developing more artificial text of knee-slappers and zingers for the stage performance portions?
Vives: Nina is really not that kind of comic! She’s what I call a story-telling comedian. Of course, she says funny shit but it’s all circumstantial. To be honest, it was what worried me more about the writing of the script but once I got going I realized that if I just wrote my inner voice, I’d be fine. For example, the period-diarrhea bit is funny because it’s true. The Matt Damon joke that follows, I wrote and I think Jamie suggested the all-female reboot bit. I remember when we did a reading of the script up at the Sundance Labs and a couple of guys came up to me afterwards and told me they didn’t know a lot of women got diarrhea around their periods. So you see, some of the comedy is even educational!
Lavallee: I was wondering what characteristics, sensibilities, perhaps even previous roles help shape your casting choice for Mary Elizabeth Winstead? What were those first conversations like about the character of Nina like?
Vives: Well, most of her work really because I think she’s fantastic and versatile and layered and subtle, which is not valued these days as much as it should be. Specially in women. But the moment that made me fall in love with her (and I told her this) was the scene when she pisses herself in SMASHED. And even more specifically, a particular moment right after she pees when she actually looks relived and happy for a second! I love that. I rewatched it again when I was thinking about casting her and I thought: someone who can play all those emotions so quickly, can also play Nina.
The biggest question for Nina (for any actress) was anger. The very first meeting I had with Mary she said the over-riding emotion for her for Nina was rage. The minute she said that word, I knew we saw her the same way. We had a lot of conversations (on set specially) about how much rage she was keeping down at any given moment. She’s a tough character to play because of all the things she doesn’t say. That’s what I think Mary excels at – and that’s saying a lot because she’s such a great actor overall. I also particularly enjoyed seeing her come to her anger with Nina because Mary is SO not like that. So it was really an amazing transformation to witness.
I would say “action” and she would just… turn into someone else. I remember one day, when we were shooting the first scene with Jay Mohr and Mary said her line: “Have fun jacking off to me tonight.” Jay asked her to say it again and Mary was like: “No, fuck off!” And Jay was like: “No, I just need to get my line right.” We all started laughing because she was so in character that she told him to fuck off which is exactly what Nina would have done.
Lavallee: Your project was selected for both Sundance Labs – I was wondering what key piece of advice help steer you the most in your pre-prod process?
Vives: In pre-production? I mean, the Screenwriting Lab centers on writing and story-telling and the Directors Lab more specifically on the shooting, so there wasn’t a ton of advice about pre-production, although like so many others know, your movie is often made in pre-production, sorta speak. One thing that I was more comfortable with was not having rehearsals. Mary doesn’t like doing it. I think Common likes it more but since their characters meet in the movie and they are supposed to be kind of a weird couple, I didn’t want them to get too chummy with each other, but rather let them find their rhythm as we shot.
I did ask them to read through their stuff together for me once, which they did. I asked them to go again and then, it was really happening. It came to live. I think that was something key that I learned at the Labs – to trust the actors and give them space to find the character. If I hadn’t gone through the labs, I probably would have felt like I need to say something illuminating or direct them in some intense way to make everything clear. But often, just doing the work helps. After they read the second time, I thought: I actually don’t want them doing this anymore. I don’t want them learning it, you know? So we just talked about relationships and all of our experiences. My job as the director is to listen in these instances because they can come in handy when you’re shooting. “Remember when you told me about that crazy red head you dated in high school?” And use that. You also learn so much about the actors just watching them, of course.
The Labs gave me confidence, which is HUGE.
One other piece of advice that Redford impressed upon me was to let the actors tell the story with their face. I think I took that to heart I this film, though I missed Mary’s coverage in one key scene and I still regret that. See if you guess which one.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your cinematographer?
Vives: Thomas Scott Stanton, my wonderful DP, was seminal in helping me choose the look of the film, of course. But also, and since we are acknowledging the contributions that key people have on film, I want to say that Thomas was so so great in dealing with actors.
How people behave on set has a huge impact on everyone. Thomas is a gentle giant. He was a child actor so I think he intrinsically understands and appreciates actors. I learned a lot from the way he moved around them or gave them space. And in turn, he understood if I needed something for them.
For example, in the scene in which Nina cries in the bathroom… I went to see Mary in her trailer and as soon as I saw her, I realized she was ready to go. So I left and ran back to the set and the bathroom where Thomas was lighting with his team and I said: “She’s ready. We gotta go.” And he saw my face and understood, I didn’t want to miss it, to let the moment pass with Mary. So he said: Ok.
She came in, I said lets just do one shot and let it go and see what happens and the minute I said action, she started crying like… she hadn’t in years (the character I mean). We let her cry as long as she wanted, until she was done. I checked in with Thomas a couple of times. He gave me the thumbs up. And that was that.
It sounds simple but he could have fucked that up by adjusting lights too much or being precious about something in that moment. He understood that Mary’s performance was integral to the film and if he didnt get that, the rest didnt matter.
One more sequence that I love and that Thomas had a big hand in, was the monologue scene in Nina’s apartment. I knew I wanted her to look into the matt box – and we of course knew she was gonna be topless but I also didn’t want her breasts in the entire scene, so Thomas suggested we set the camera in one spot, give Mary her parameters and let her be her own guide. And if she went in and out of focus a bit, we both liked that. We did that in front of her and behind and I LOVE everything about that scene, but also how comfortable Mary was and how she was able to have agency in it, which is kind of the point of the scene anyway.
I could write a book about the ways in which Thomas contributed and I am so glad you asked this question!
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your editors?
Vives: I had the luxury of working with two very talented editors on this movie, so I will talk a bit about each of them.
Saira Haider is a young editor who had cut THE LAND and is now cutting CREED 2. Susan Littenberg is a veteran who has worked with a lot of directors I admire and has extensive experience. They are both lovely and serious and professional and I learned from both of them a lot.
I admit I was worried about communication at first, but we almost immediately fell into a great rhythm. It was also really sweet to see how respectful and encouraging they were of one another! If one had an idea that the other thought was good, they would say it. And if one was itching to cut a sequence, the other would agree, etc.
We would often get together at one of their houses, watch a cut and give each other notes. Then they would decide which reels they wanted to tackle and I would take turns working with one or the other. Lucky for us that we all live in Silverlake and Los Feliz so not much time was wasted driving back and forth.
Again, they each made amazing and wonderful contributions to the movie. Like so much editing, you have major breakthroughs some times and then you spend another month fine tuning… but with that in mind…
Saira really cut the monologue sequence in Nina’s apartment I mentioned above which was a delicate balance. I remember the first time she showed it to me, where she cut from Nina in her apartment to her in therapy in silence and then we go back – I got tingles down my back. It wasn’t done and man, did we work on that sequence, but we all knew we were on the right path. No to tell it linearly but over several time cuts.
Both of them took stabs at the breakdown scene on stage but it was really Susan who finally stripped it down to the bare confession that it is now. I thought we needed to show the effect her words were having on the crowd but Susan really thought, their sound was enough and of course, she was right. We only show them once or twice, I think.
Editors have to be so obstinate and keep trying things and banging their heads against the wall. I admire their tenacity and endurance so much. They of course have such a huge hand in shaping the movie.