‘White Girl’ director/screenwriter, Elizabeth Wood, explores NYC’s darker underbelly

‘White Girl’ director/screenwriter, Elizabeth Wood, explores NYC’s darker underbelly

Indiewire wrote, "'White Girl' is a movie you can’t easily shake off, not even days after you’ve seen it." (Credit: Michael Simmonds)

Summer, New York City. In Elizabeth Wood’s filmmaking debut, White Girl, a college girl falls hard for a guy she just met. After a night of partying goes wrong, she goes to wild extremes to get him back. White Girl stars Morgan Saylor, Brian ‘Sene’ Marc, India Salvor Menuez, Anthony Ramos, Ralph Rodriguez, Justin Bartha, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Adrian Martinez and Chris Noth. The film, which drew raves at Sundance, was inspired by Wood’s own journal entries. She recently sat down to talk about discussed here much buzzed-about feature debut.

Where did the idea for the film come from? Were any of the characters inspired by people in your life?

This film is inspired by my sophomore summer of college. People always want to know how much is real, and I tell them real life is always much crazier. This is just a movie.

Can you tell us about the casting process for the film and the characters?

Leah is quite an extreme role. And it’s not so easy to find an intelligent young actress who is bold enough to take her shirt off. Morgan Saylor came into the audition in a blizzard in February, wearing short-shorts and a tank top under her coat. She threw herself on the ground and did the scene and it was crystal clear we’d found our girl. Amazingly, Morgan is not AT ALL this character. Morgan is currently a math major at the University of Chicago, and in her next film role she plays a nun.

Blue was an amazing discovery. We searched to the ends of the earth for a young Puerto Rican actor. In LA, some big-shot agent pitched me ideas for the role: Dave Franco, Lil’ Romeo, Anton Yelchin. I was like, ‘dude do you know what Puerto Rican is?’ The agent didn’t. Meanwhile, a good friend that works at Genius.com recommended the Brooklyn rapper, [Brian] Sene [Marc], who has a kind of cult following. He had never acted before, but came into the audition and blew us away. Our casting director initially thought we were crazy for casting a non-actor, but he’s amazing and is starting to blow up already.

When Chris Noth called me and expressed his interest in the lawyer role, and pitched how he wanted to make it even darker, I was in love. I could go on and on, everyone was perfect.

Where there specific films that influenced you? Did you show films to your actors and if so, which ones?

Because this story is so personal, my main inspiration has been to make it feel as real as possible. However, in preparing with the actors, there were films we talked about that had the kind of truth we hoped to achieve.
Kids came up quite a few times, because it’s a film that shows NYC youth going crazy and feels totally authentic. And of course, one of our executive producers, Christine Vachon, was a producer of Kids.

Morgan and I talked about actors/roles in other films that just fucking go for it, that have that “fall of a cliff” feeling as we called it. Breaking the Waves and Wolf of Wall Street are two movies that have leads that go on a wild sex/drug adventures.

I also spent a lot of time in the real neighborhood with Morgan and Sene, with some of the people that the film is based on, visiting the barbershop, the pool hall, the roof of the apartment building, smoking blunts and drinking 40s, so they could absorb the energy of that specific place.

How long did it take you to write the script?

I wrote the script off and on for a couple years, but was trying to finish the final draft right before I had my son in October of 2013. I had him early, and so in the first two weeks after he was born, I spent every moment he was asleep finishing the draft with blessed help of my producer Gabriel Nussbaum, who also happens to be my husband and creative partner. This film was shot in twenty-two days, 2 six-day weeks and 2 five-day weeks. Then one day of additional shooting in February when it was four degrees outside and the actors were still wearing their August finery. It’s a fun game to guess which scenes took place in four degree weather, with snow shoveled away on the street.

What were some of the most intense moments on set?

A few days before shooting began, two of my producers, one of whom is my husband, took me out to dinner, ordered a really nice bottle of wine, and then told me I had to cut 35 pages from the script or we couldn’t afford to make the film. I laid on the sidewalk in the East Village and kept asking them to remind me that I wanted to do this. We stayed up all night, over several more bottles of wine, maybe some scotch too, and revamped the new, much shorter script. It felt good- the new draft was a lean little machine. It was a blessing in disguise.

After a club scene, a SAG monitor came to set to observe our behavior, because of reports of rampant drug use and drinking. We found this funny because there was absolutely no real drug use on set (that I know of ;), but everyone was snorting Inositol, our fake-coke, which is a B vitamin mixture that is almost as pricey as real coke and gives you a nice boost of energy. I like to think of it as the perfect drug for your 30’s- a nice healthy alternative.

Some of the sex scenes were, for obvious reasons, rather intense experiences. Let’s see…, one of them was in public, in broad daylight with pedestrians trying to take phone pics, another was outdoors in the middle of the night in icy rain, and another was just violent therefore upsetting to everyone involved.

Fairly often we would run out of time and everyone would freak out, but I’d tell them to chill out – we were gonna get what we were gonna get, and I love that feeling of knowing we are going to GET IT NOW or NEVER. Got some of our best stuff in an insane hurry with everyone freaking out. I perhaps perform best in utter chaos.

Were there any issues that you encountered that you didn’t anticipate beforehand?

Well, my son was still nursing during production and I underestimated how tricky it would be to breastfeed while making this film with our insane schedule. But damn it, I did it. I can do anything. Tell you the truth- having a kid made me so tough. Made nothing seem like it really mattered too much, because it doesn’t. This was just a freaking movie. It’s fun! Everyone stay calm.

Talk about your inspiration and choices for the film’s style and setting.

Again, this film’s goal was to feel as real as possible. We shot in the real life locations, one block from where I used to live.

Michael Simmonds, our amazing DP, was an ideal collaborator. We didn’t have the luxury to plan much ahead of time, so we would get there and make a plan. We wanted the film to feel very alive, so it is 99% handheld. He always had an unlimited supply of creative energy.

How did you decide on the soundtrack for the film?

Our lead actor Sene is a musician, and we used a lot of his music in the film. We broke a record for most musical tracks our music supervisor (Josh Kessler) had ever pursued. There’s no score, and we have thirty-three songs, many of which were in the script. Kessler also found some really obscure tracks, especially a Prague noise rock song that plays during a pivotal moment. Perhaps the best track on the soundtrack is a single by my now defunct rap group.

White Girl opens in New York on September 2nd and Los Angeles September 9th with a nationwide rollout to follow on September 16th.

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