It’s Jessie Kahnweiler’s first time at Sundance, but she’s not there alone. The writer/director/star of “The Skinny,” premiering in the Special Events lineup at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, can’t say enough about how it’s Jill Soloway who got her — and “The Skinny” — to Park City.
“The Skinny,” produced by Soloway’s Wifey.tv and Refinery29, is (format-wise) one of the fest’s more unconventional projects. The six-episode web series, following its Sundance premiere, is now available online in full, but its intimate and personal story about a young woman named Jessie (played by Kahnweiler), who’s balancing a serious eating disorder with her aspirations of making a name for herself as a YouTube creator, tonally fits right into the Sundance vibe.
Via phone, Indiewire spoke with Kahnweiler the day before “The Skinny’s” premiere to learn how stalking Soloway got her the mentor she’d always needed, what it’s like being a Sundance first-timer and why she’s delighted when people call “The Skinny” a “bulemia comedy.”
How’s Sundance treating you so far?
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It’s been awesome! It’s really overwhelming, but it’s been a really incredible experience. It’s nice to be with everybody. I’m just really excited about putting the show out there, it feels totally surreal. [laughs]
It seems that with Wifey and Refinery29, you really landed in an interesting community of creators.
Yeah, it’s really cool. I’m Jewish and I really love filmmaking because it’s this tribe aspect, like finding your tribe, it’s such a collaborative thing. The show is really personal and it’s all that stuff that it really feels I’m on a team and we are all bringing all these strengths together. Not to be cheesy — having producers like Jill [Soloway] and Illeana [Douglas], creating a place where I can feel safe to totally fuck up and take risks and just go there — it really just feels like having this feminine energy around, it’s just totally transformative.
Tell me a little bit how the tribe came together. You’ve been working on YouTube for a while…
I’ve been doing short films for a few years and I stalked Jill Soloway a couple of years ago and sent her my film. I was really seeking out female mentors, sometimes in this town, really when you are trying to get your stuff made or you’re looking for people for advice, a lot of times the people are men. I think that there is something inherently about wanting to find somebody that understood the experience of what it’s like to be a woman creator, and I think seeking out Jill and having her really say to me:, “If it’s not scary, then it’s not worth doing it,” and “take chances and keep fucking up.”
That wasn’t what I was really hearing in this town. So much of Hollywood is, you only get one shot and one big break and you better utilize it. You have to make the perfect decision, you have to make the right decision and that is so anti-creative. It goes against the very essence of creativity, which is about taking chances and challenging yourself, leaping into the unknown, and it’s really hard to do that when you’re really worried about, “Oh my god, is this person going to like me?”
And that goes into me being a woman — am I being sweet enough? Am I being fuckable enough? Am I being this object? Working with Jill really transformed everything for me because it was about me being the subject of my own story. Me being the creator of my own life and being active, that helped me make my own work. I can’t wait for somebody else to give me permission because nobody is going to.
Wait, you said you stalked Jill?
Oh, yeah. I messaged her on Facebook. I was interning at Bad Robot at the time, and I sent her a Facebook message asking her to watch my film and she wrote me back! It was crazy. We went and got some coffee and we kind of noshed and she was like, “Do your art.” I was like, “What do I do, what’s the magic key?” “Do your art. Keep doing your art. It’s all about creating and finding your voice and that’s how you get your power. It’s not about impressing an agent.”
What does it mean to you to act in your own stories?
It can definitely be an all-consuming challenge sometimes — and be really intense — because I’m acting in something but I’m also directing it. “The Skinny” is not a documentary, and I’m really trying to create a world and trying to tell a story that’s really personal but also really universal. It can be really complicated but, for me it’s just about the best way to tell the story in the most honest way. I really thrive in that challenge. I’m really riding that razor’s edge.
At the end of the day, were there times that you had difficulties putting aside, “The Skinny” Jessie and being “Jessie” Jessie?
You can ask my ex-boyfriend that. [laughs] Yeah, I think it’s something all actors go through. You’re channeling the personal to create the characters that have these experiences. But I will say specifically what days, where we were shooting a bingeing scene or a purging scene or a fight with my mom. It was hard, but it was also incredibly cathartic and the reason, again, why I love filmmaking so much, is that.
I work with a lot of Jill’s producers from “Transparent” and they helped me with the script for “The Skinny.” It transformed when we were on set and we did a lot of improv and then, when we ran the edit it, changed more. I catch its flowing with the process of the story and seeing what the story told me what it wanted it to be. I think that was really helpful of putting the story first above what I think, or how am I being portrayed or how is this the same as me or different than me. That’s my ego. If there’s a shot where my ass looks big, I definitely wanted to cut that out. [laughs] Wait, isn’t this web series about how hot I am? No, it’s about honestly telling the story. That was a challenge.
So I feel like the logline that I was handed for “The Skinny” was bulimia comedy, but, of course, it’s about much more than that. Is it tough dealing with that pigeonholing?
I get super excited that people are even saying that word because I think that was a huge inspiration for me wanting to take on the subject matter. I feel eating disorders are everywhere. In the media they’re nowhere. It wasn’t honestly being portrayed. Words like gun and rape, everyone is so numb to that, but no one says the word bulimia. I was bulimic for 10 years and never said that word because it was so dirty and weird. So I get excited, the fact that people are saying that word. If that makes sense.
It makes me realize that I had a hard time asking you about it just now.
Yeah, it’s dirty and gross. Dude, it’s based on my life and I don’t even want to watch that shit. I get it. But I think we need to. We need to start a conversation and I just want people to watch the show. I wanted to use my specific experience, because I feel like the more specific you are the more universally it touches people, if you’re landing on an emotional truth. That’s where Jill is really helpful because it’s not about, “How do we make bulimia funny?” It was never that. It was more about, “How do we tell the story honestly,” and for me that is comedy.
The other aspect that I find really interesting is how big the world of social media influencers and YouTubers is, as an element of the series. It’s a really specific world to bring in. Was “The Skinny” always something that would be set in that environment?
For me, because I make YouTube videos in my own work, I really wanted to incorporate that into the story. I feel like, first of all, I wanted it to be about a character who was aggressively going after her dreams because, for me, I was a very strong feminist. I always really cared about my career, but then there was this other side of me that was shameful and I hated myself and didn’t understand why. I really liked having those few people existing within the same character, I think that is a very universal theme for women. I liked the idea of using the Youtube world of instant gratification, and it’s never really good enough. You had a million hits, why wasn’t it a million and one? I thought it would be a nice world to play in that felt very real to me.
How has it been playing at Sundance? How are people reacting?
It’s been really cool to just tell people at the bar, on the bus, what the movie is about. You see people go, “Okay!” We’re screening tomorrow, and it just makes me super excited. I was on a panel yesterday, and this girl came up to me– We showed a scene of me bingeing. It was the first time I had been with people besides my editor watching it, and it was the scene where I have an orgasm and then binge, so it’s, “All right, there we go, definitely not going to get laid after this.”
I’m sitting there watching the people watch the show and this girl comes up to me afterward and says, “You know, these people were sitting next to me and said, ‘This is too funny. This isn’t what eating disorders really are.'” And she looked at them and said, “I have an eating disorder and that’s exactly what it’s like.” I just hugged her and cried because, yes, I get it and that’s a huge goal of mine. Even though it’s such a personal story, it’s not just my story. We need to be talking about it until it’s not a story anymore.
How much of a community vibe do you get from being at Sundance?
It’s really cool to be around other filmmakers. It can be a little bit lonely. You’re never really with other directors. The Sundance community is really supportive and It’s really cool to be here, but I also feel so excited to premiere here. I also feel so excited to be on Refinery29 because we’re just putting out to the world. Working with a platform that really lets me be myself and encourage me to be myself, and they encouraged me to direct it and it feels like it has this indie spirit and it feels like, we’re not here to make people happy. We’re here to tell the truth, which makes me very happy. [laughs]
Strategy-wise, are you releasing episodes weekly?
No, we are releasing all the episodes on Wednesday [the day after the premiere].
That’s exciting. How are you looking to promote that?
It’s been awesome. I was in New York last week and we made a bunch of marketing videos. The really cool thing about Refinery is that it’s not just distribution. It’s also this ecosystem where there’s print. I am writing an essay about filming a sex scene with an eating disorder. I made three different marketing videos last week talking to young girls and women of all ages talking about their body issues. Marketing is just another way of storytelling. How can we make this conversation go beyond just the six episodes? It’s this culture of play, where it’s all storytelling. Like Snapchat is storytelling. It’s just embracing it.
Based on your experiences, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give other people looking for this sort of experience?
I would say, it’s not really about waiting for anything to give you permission. You’re always like, I want to be a director! What can I do? It’s, you have to make your own work. You have to make really bad work. You make something and then you make something else. No one is going to proclaim that you are a director. No one is going to give that to you. You have to take it. You have to be proactive and put yourself out there. What’s the worse thing that could happen? You fail? The real failure is not creating. That’s what kills you. For me, I feel that art has literally saved my life. It’s great to be at this party at Sundance but the real party is making the work.Sundance will never let me in again. [laughs]
I’m sure people have said far worse about it and gone back.
No, it’s great, it’s such a cool validation. This is totally fun. But the work is the real fun.
“The Skinny” Season 1 is now available on Refinery29.com.