SHORT FILM | Louisa Krause stars in Isabella Wing-Davey's latest short about bathroom politics
Unlike most short film directors you come across on the festival circuit, the work of Isabella Wing-Davey isn't of the poorly-held camera and poor student acting variety. Her work is both impeccably produced and impeccably cast; her last short, which I caught at the Athena Film Festival earlier this year, was a mini-period drama called The Rain Collector and starred a Spielberg-certified child star (Celine Buckens from War Horse) and British TV queen (Hermione Norris of Cold Feet fame). She's spent much of the past decade in New York's cinematic confines, gaining some notoriety as Philip Seymour Hoffman's personal assistant at the time of his death. But she also used that time to craft an immaculate filmic style, somewhere in that netherworld between Sofia Coppola's perfectly groomed costumes (Wing-Davey, like Coppola, was born into a family deep in the business) and Wes Anderson's penchant for the pastels.
"For me it's about exploring gender stereotypes, specifically, I was interested in the camaraderie of the bathroom experience."
Her latest is something different or, at least, isn't a period piece. It's about the world of small interactions between women, the world of awkwardly needing to borrow a tampon and overhearing conversations you could already fill in. Scrapping the character-building euphoria of The Rain Collector for the intelligence of a fly-on-the-wall vignette, it stars indie darling Louisa Krause and romcom player Nadia Dajani among others inside a bathroom inside a wedding reception. Within three minutes, Wing-Davey is able to turn the energy of those moving parts into nothing short of a masterpiece of observation, the kind of space that immediately feels populated by real people.
It's called Waiting and what are you waiting for?
Pop a watch:
I also had the chance to chat with Wing-Davey about bathrooms, the short-movie making life and how she nets those great casts.
AK: Tell me about what's behind Waiting. Personal experiences and the like.
I don't think there's a woman around who doesn't have some sort of bathroom story, something that's happened in a bathroom, or that they've overheard. For me it's about exploring gender stereotypes, which is, I suppose, a theme throughout my work, but with this project specifically, I was interested in the camaraderie of the bathroom experience for these women. I've always found it amusing listening to the different conversations people have with each other in the ladies room. Sometimes you're listening on purpose, but sometimes you're being forced to because of the sheer volume of the people talking in there with you, some women take on an almost performative characteristic to tell a story to their friend hoping that it will shock or amuse anyone else in the room- the captive audience.
How complicated was the shoot?
Waiting was shot in one day, one very short day, at a bar on the Lower East Side in New York. It was a little complicated in terms of camera, because we wanted to explore different areas of the single room at different points in the film.
When I was at Grad Film at NYU we studied Barton Fink, with a floor plan: the Coens' shot the film so that new areas of the hotel room were being revealed throughout the film, because if how they chose their shooting angles, and that really stayed with me. So, with Waiting we chose areas of the room to use for different sections of the film.
The Rain Collector [on the other hand], was a much more complicated shoot, over 4 days in Yorkshire in the north of England, with multiple locations in and around Wentworth Woodhouse. Our cast and crew were such good sports about being outside in winter...and with corsets on!
A still from The Rain Collector
You're also able to establish a very distinctive color palette in Waiting. Were there any filmmakers or styles you wanted to evoke?
At the time I was heavily influenced by various photographers, portraits by Rineke Dijkstra and the swimming pool series by Jeff Wall. Thomas Ruff's depictions of women's bodies, I've always found very moving, and the way that Uta Barth photographs windows, frames and light reflection.
With Waiting, I was also excited to play with camera movement, and work with the possibilities created by the mirrors to speak to the many angles of the experiences we were trying to show. I usually don't like to use a lot of camera movement, but in this confined space we looked at using a different camera style, something more influenced by Antonioni, who was such a master of reflections and camera movement. [Yasujirō] Ozu said you should never move camera unless you needed to--in Waiting, we wanted to use the large camera move to mark the shift of audience focus to the bridesmaids and my DP, Rob Leitzell (The Heart Machine) had the idea of using the mirror wall to break up the scene.
How are you able to get some of the best faces from TV today in your shorts?
For Waiting it was a much more informal casting process. The whole shoot came together very quickly, probably about a month between writing the script and then shooting it, and, living in New York at the time, I cast people I had worked with before, or knew personally, and they said yes so we had one rehearsal, a costume fitting, and then we all went to into the bathroom!
Both Waiting and The Rain Collector, I think, share an interest in gender roles, from the gendering of who is 'allowed' to be interested in science in Victorian England to the gendering of a woman's bathroom. What about these spaces appeals to you as a filmmaker?
I think I've always been interested in looking at how women occupy space, physically, culturally, socially, when they are seen as intruders or are within an expected or traditionally female space. In "The Rain Collector", part of the tension comes from the fact that Vanessa is consciously stepping into a male-dominated space, the scientific space, and coming face to face with expectations and judgments specifically because she's female. In Waiting I was interested in spending time in a space that is specifically gendered and with women having all kinds of different conversations, with each other, with strangers, on the phone.
The most interesting things happen or reveal themselves when you challenge the accepted wisdom, when you ask why, or you say no to those pressures or defined spaces. I was never told, growing up, that I couldn't do things or be things because I was a girl. I had feminist story books and we did not have Barbie-dolls because they enforced unhealthy stereotypes of female beauty, or so the story of my upbringing goes. So it was only as I got older that I came up against restrictions or expectations that weren't based on me personally, or my behavior, but seemed to be dictated by my gender. I think how people respond to those restrictions and expectations are very interesting, and with art we can shine a light on those, we can articulate some of that struggle, and we can play with ideas of expectation, or gendered assumptions, while also having fun with the traditional roles that some people are happy to occupy.
I suppose for me it's always been about trying to show many facets of the female experience, of the human experience, whether that's through period drama, or this little vignette in a ladies room.
That's also a big thing in TV lately, from the friendships in Lena Dunham's Girls and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson's Broad City to the OB/GYN practice in Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project. As a filmmaker exploring similar terrain, how do you relate to these pop cultural depictions?
I think it's great that more nuanced depictions of women's experiences are being explored on our screens, and I don't think it's a surprise that those are shows run by women. But I hope it's not a motif per se but the beginning of a sea change towards a more inclusive depiction of our society in popular culture, which does not simply prioritize the white male heteronormative perspective. It's not just about women, but also people of color, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups who haven't been seeing their experiences on screen and that's as much about hiring diverse showrunners and writers and directors as it is about telling stories with storylines that explore these complex issues. I'm excited that Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is doing so well, and Dear White People on Netflix.
You've made a lot of shorts, no feature. Are there things you feel like you can accomplish with it that you feel like you can't in a feature?
I love that short filmmaking gives you so many options, it is a very playful medium.
Short filmmaking can take so many different forms, and that is part of what's exciting about it for me. It's all about knowing what you're trying to achieve with it. With Waiting I wanted to shine a light on this room, experience a moment with each of these characters, and leave the audience wondering what happens next. It's meant to be fleeting. That was fun for me.
With The Rain Collector, I wanted to create a short film that explored a world so different from today, I wanted to experiment with shooting style, and create something that felt different from other period films, but was much more similar to a feature in terms of character development and narrative arc. I wanted it to exist as a complete story, with a definite ending, but also to serve as a proof of concept for a longer project.
What are some essential shorts every filmmaker should watch?
Le Ballon rouge by Albert Lamorisse because it's just so beautiful, and sweet, and also is such a great example of visual storytelling. Wasp by Andrea Arnold because it's a short film that's been around for a while now, but it's still just as powerful, and touching as when it won the Oscar back then.
Two of my favorite single scene short films of the past couple of years are Operator by Caroline Bartleet because I found it really moving when I first saw it at LSFF in 2016 where it played in the same block as The Rain Collector. And Join the Club by Eva Vives, which is really funny, but also touches on some great issues and insecurities that a lot of female writers have too.
Project time, what do you have happening?
I'm developing a feature right now about a woman coming of age in New York while studying implicit gender bias and planning her sister's wedding.
Andrew Karpan likes short films but is, otherwise, very tall. Follow him on Twitter.