In his introduction to Saturday’s NEXT FEST screening of Elizabeth Wood’s “White Girl,” Sundance’s Director of Programming Trevor Groth made explicit reference to Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen.” Through these two films made their debut in the indie film world over a decade apart from each other, the careers of Wood and Hardwicke now serves as intriguing parallel case studies. After the screening, both women talked about the genesises of their respective first films, in a conversation moderated by The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato.
No film can survive without a solid foundation, one that Wood was able to build with a script that drew from personal experience. “White Girl” (a Sundance 2016 alum) follows the story of Leah, a New York college student and midwestern transplant who decides to sell cocaine to help get her boyfriend out of prison. Wood is quick to point out that the film isn’t completely autobiographical, but does incorporate details from her own life. “While this real-life experience was happening, I did know this would be my first film. I just needed time to figure out how to make a movie,” Wood said.
Amidst a multi-year process of script revisions (Wood explained that about a quarter of the script was cut shortly prior to production), casting became a key focus. Wood looked specifically for a younger actress to play Leah, eventually finding Morgan Saylor, who was only 19 when shooting began. Finding an actor for Leah’s boyfriend Blue proved to be the source of some additional pushback.
On top of making a film with a young female protagonist, Wood found trouble with agents who were trying to flood her with performers who were not Puerto Rican, as Blue was written in the script. “I came out to LA for one week and they were like, ‘What about Lil Romeo? What about Dave Franco?’ And I said, ‘It matters that he’s Puerto Rican character.'”
Once Brian Marc was on board as Blue, the next step was to foster a believable relationship at the story’s center. The two directors described their slightly different approaches to on-set chemistry, with Hardwicke talking about the chemistry reads that she’d done for “Thirteen” and later studio efforts from her own bed. Wood’s unorthodox approach involved plunging the actors right in on the first day of shooting. “They were in the car, about to get out and I said, ‘Okay, guys, just start making out! Rip off his shirt!’ They said, ‘That wasn’t in the script,’ and I told them, ‘Yeah, just go for it!’ I knew I wasn’t going to use it, but I wanted to get them a little warmed up,” Wood said.
Both “Thirteen” and “White Girl” convey specific, frank stories of young female sexuality and how it connects to other generational themes. Though “White Girl” bowed to acclaim and a distribution deal in Park City, Yamato asked Wood to address some of the more negative criticism that the film received after its first public screenings. The director argued that those distracted by Leah’s sexual behavior are missing the point of the film. “I feel like more importantly, the film is about race and whiteness and gentrification and gender. So if you get held up by sex, I think it’s a personal issue.”
Despite both having notable Sundance debuts, Hardwicke and Wood slightly deflated the idea that a successful festival run instantly translates to a fully funded sophomore film. Wood briefly touched again on the process of taking meetings in the post-festival glow, but even just a few weeks away from the theatrical debut of “White Girl,” the next step still isn’t locked in. “Every project, you’re sort of starting over in some ways,” Hardwicke explained.
Many aspiring filmmakers are one step removed from that initial success, still trying to shop independent stories to potential investors as a first-time director. “Luckily, women are in style, so you can use this trend,” Wood lightheartedly responded to one audience member’s question. But she then connected that idea back to drawing from her own experience for the story. “My best talking point in meetings was that this was very personal. Whatever I lacked in experience, I could talk about in terms of it being so personal,” Wood said.
While Wood didn’t speak to the murmurs that she’s potentially being considered for a seat behind the camera for the impending “Captain Marvel” film, she did say that she’s currently working on, among other things, “a sci-fi apocalypse love story.” Either way, definitely something (and someone) worth keeping an eye on.
“White Girl” will have its theatrical opening in New York on September 2, followed by a L.A. release on September 9, and a wide release on September 16.