As a way of celebrating this year’s nominees for the Spirit Awards in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, we reached out to as many as we could in an effort to better understand what went into their films, what they’ve gotten out of the experience, and where they’ve found their inspiration, both in regards to their work and other works of art that might’ve inspired them from the past year. Their answers will be published on a daily basis throughout February.
Ordinarily, one would refrain from mentioning in a piece intended to praise a Spirit Awards nominee that an early trade review of a film counted the number of walkouts that occurred during one of its press screenings. But in the case of “The Wolf Knife,” it may just be the best way to describe the film’s uncompromising nature that drove away some which makes it something worth celebrating for so many others. Of course, Laurel Nakadate has likely become accustomed to such divisive reaction to her work. As a renowned video artist and photographer, her art — currently on display in her first major exhibit at the MoMA PS1 in New York — often deals with the objectification of young women and the politics of sex. “The Wolf Knife” is no exception as it follows two teen girls (Christina Kolozsvary and Julie Potratz) on the road from Hollywood, Florida to Nashville, Tennessee in a style as stripped down as its swimsuit-clad leads.
Shot in 10 days with just two other people on crew using a car that wasn’t Nakadate’s, the production was not one for the timid. Naturally, the film that resulted is similarly brave. While the implication of a nomination in the Acura Someone to Watch category of the Spirit Awards that suggests Nakadate is new on the scene may be a slight misnomer since her debut “Stay the Same Never Change” in 2008 already made that announcement, there is perhaps no more apt nominee, since with her films, it’s hard to look away. Navigating the fragile psyche of girls on the verge of becoming women with equal aplomb as the American landscape that has long been a backdrop of her art, Nakadate may often travel a lonely road, but continues to push boundaries wherever she goes.
Why did you want to make this film?
I was interested in telling a dark and awkward story about teenage girls’ relationships. I think that, in the moment between adolescence and adulthood, there is a complicated window where childhood relationships are tested and out of that testing can emerge an uncomfortable and urgent story. I was really interested in talking about discomfort, beauty and desire. I knew I could make the film, the moment I met the lead actors, when I saw their faces, I knew I could tell the story I wanted to tell.
What was the best piece of advice you received that applied to the making of this film?
When I was in grad school, I was lucky enough to take classes with the very gifted photographer Gregory Crewdson. He told us a story about how, early on in his career, he left a note at a woman’s house asking if he could make a perfect circle in the grass behind her house in order to make a photograph. The woman left him a note in return saying something to the effect of “Do whatever you need to do”. I’ve never forgotten this story, and I often marvel at and find comfort in it when I’m up against a massive creative obstacle.
What was the toughest thing to overcome, whether it applies to a particular scene or the film as a whole?
I’d say it way I chose to cast the film. I only cast the two lead actors in advance; the entire supporting cast was found, after I’d arrived in the cities we were shooting. I loved working with all those local people, in the towns we traveled to and shot in, but it was a bit harrowing at times, the uncertainty of knowing whether I would find the correct actor for the part we had to shoot the next day. Some days it was thrilling, the challenge of just going with it, and some days it was very, very, scary. I really learned to trust my gut and settle into the idea that all the pieces would fall together and that chance and fate would be more brilliant and exciting than absolute, pre-planned certainty and traditional casting approaches.
What’s been the most memorable moment while you’ve traveled with the film, either at a festival or otherwise?
On the morning that we shot the final scene of the film, we drove to a baseball field that we’d noticed the night before. The sun was just coming up and Chrissy had to cry in front of that sunrise. I remember her standing there, in her dirty costume, tears welling up in her eyes as an airplane rose across the sky. It disappeared into the sun and then emerged on the other side. In some ways, I feel like making this film was like disappearing into the sun and being lucky enough to emerge on the other side.
What’s your favorite thing about your film that’s been largely uncommented upon?
The production crew was only three members. I wrote, shot, edited and directed the film. Christina, the actor who played “Chrissy” brought on two of her friends from school to serve as sound and productions assistants. I love that it was a challenging shoot and that the three of us managed to produce the film that we did.
What’s been the most gratifying thing to come out of this film for you personally?
The film was shot on an extremely modest budget. We had to borrow everything: camera, car, floors to sleep on, swimming pools and living rooms. It was an affirmation of the greatness of friends, trusting the creative process and the idea that if you want to make something badly enough, you will find a way to make it. I suppose that was the most gratifying thing. Humbling too.
Your favorite film, book or album from the past year?
I love Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime.” I can’t stop thinking about that film, actually. It sort of destroyed my heart. He’s just so brilliant.