Tribeca Interview: Matt Creed & Amy Grantham ('Lily')

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So I've been pretty outspoken about the fact that, of the approximately six bazillion films premiering at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, my personal favorite is Matt Creed and Amy Grantham's "Lily." Because I'm super lazy and exhausted on account of not sleeping through nearly as many films as I have in years past, I'll just re-post what I wrote about "Lily" yesterday when Film.com ran an exclusive clip from the movie:

“Lily” is a beautifully rendered portrait of a young woman preparing to take the next step as she finishes treatment for breast cancer, a film that’s tiny but true, as precise as it is universally relatable. Indebted to the free-flowing spirit of John Cassavetes and inspired by lead actress Amy Grantham’s fight with cancer, “Lily” is the kind of movie that proves – among other things – that there’s hope for indie film beyond the likes of Sundance and SXSW, and that Tribeca is full of buried treasure if you know where to look.

Couldn't have said it better myself. Yesterday, Matt and Amy were kind enough to sit down with me and chat about "Lily," all of the choices that made the film possible, how such a personal story can be so universally relatable, and how a blog can save a life.

David Ehrlich: So this is a pretty unusual situation for me because I know nothing about you guys other than the movie, which is not typically how I go into these things, so if I ask you some super asinine questions... well, sorry about that.

Matt Creed: No you’re good.

Amy Grantham: (laughs) it’s okay.

David: So this is your first feature?

Matt: Yeah.

David: Your first festival…

Matt: First festival… first film-related experience, really. I’m learning, trying to figure it out.

David: Do you come from a film background?

Matt: No, more like art history and fine arts…studio art stuff. But, I watched films while I was growing up like crazy.

David: "You’ve seen movies?"

Matt: (laughs) Maybe just a couple. You know, I just started making a bunch of short films about five years ago and then about three years ago I was like OK, I really want to make a feature. So I started writing a couple, just kind of dedicating all my time towards writing and finding the right project, and then I met Amy and I found her story.

David: So you guys met as a result of this, you didn’t know each other before?

Amy: No we didn’t.

David: And you’d been acting before?

Amy: In my apartment, if that counts.

David: It definitely counts.

Amy: In my wildest dreams, I thought, ‘yeah that’s definitely something I’d like to do someday, but I have no idea about doing it. How about we just write a script?’ (Laughing)

David: How did that conversation even start since you didn’t look at her as an actress, first? How do you make that leap from “I don’t even know this person” to “you should be an actress in this movie?”

Matt: I don’t know, I kind of just had this idea for a story that I wanted to expand and, I had been reading Amy’s blog and she’s a great writer. I asked her if she’d be interested in taking this little idea I had and writing a short story because she had been telling me that she wrote them, so she was very interested and then went into chemo, and then, obviously, disappeared into chemo world.

Amy: That put a damper on the writing (laughing).

Matt: And then I hadn’t seen her and we kind of crossed paths accidentally and decided to meet up one afternoon in a coffee shop towards the end of her treatment. So I said to her ‘Oh, you must be excited that your treatment is coming to an end’ and she said ‘no, I’m not’ and I was just struck by that. She said ‘it’s the only thing I had ever done from beginning to end. It’s my purpose, but it’s weird, how can it be?’

She was only 31 at the time. And I just, related to that and was a little weirded out at first because I’ve never had cancer but what I realized was that I related to her vulnerability. I was just getting out of a relationship and was feeling the same way, very unsettled, so I thought it would be interesting to explore that through Amy’s story and I found that to be so much more interesting and unique. I mean, if you’ve ever felt unsettled or vulnerable, you can relate to Lily.

David: It felt to me like a coming of age story in a way, with higher stakes. So, Amy, it seems like your experience with cancer was something that you wanted to communicate and express, as opposed to something you wanted to internalize.

Amy: Yeah, as Matt was saying, I already had a blog to chronicle the treatment as it happened.

David: So you started the blog when you were diagnosed?

Amy: I started it the day I was diagnosed. I just thought this could be really important because I was so young and there was just nothing out there for me that was the least bit comforting.

I thought it was important when we talked about doing the script to show what for me was the hardest part emotionally, which surprisingly was when it all came to an end because you know, everyone was happy for me. My friends were ecstatic, the doctors were ecstatic, other patients were ecstatic…but I went from having a very tight-knit family of doctors and nurses, assistants, other patients, and then literally overnight waking up and everyone was gone.

David: There’s a certain inertia of being in that life and then…

Amy: It’s hard because you’re supposed to wake up the next day and it was the hardest day of my life. You know, get out of bed and there’s supposed to be little Disney birds flying around your head and it wasn’t like that at all. It took me about three weeks to get over being really bummed out.

David: Yeah, I was struck by the obvious intimacy between Lily and her various doctors.

Amy: Luckily I get to see some of them because I still have to go pretty frequently for check-ups, and its ridiculous because I kind of get a little excited when it’s time to see my oncologist and I’m like ‘Hey, how’ve you been?’. But it really is like seeing an old friend because these are people that were with me constantly for almost two years of my life and its intense – that’s a long relationship.

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David: To what extent is the film autobiographic in that sense… how much of the details explicitly reflect your story?

Amy: Yeah, 80-85%. A lot of it.

Matt: I mean, it’s like some things are true but then you embellish them a bit to make it more cinematic and you kind of give it that narrative pleasure.

Amy: The cancer stuff is all real, like having that gene and you know, doing the egg retrievals.

David: Well, the gene thing really struck me because so much of the film is about the rift between the things we choose and the things that choose us, especially as it pertains to Lily’s parents. There’s the hereditary nature of the disease, but also Lily’s relationship with her parents, which is strained on both sides, and inspires her to she make a very clear decision to become her own person...

Matt: The film is definitely about choices, and making choices from kind of this little window we all get every so often. Not to sound sentimental in a way, but every so often you get this opportunity where you have this clarity and I find that comes from being very vulnerable, and it’s one of the purest state of minds we can be in. A lot of people don’t want to stay there very long because it f**king sucks and you see yourself and you see everything and it’s really scary so we tend to stay where we are and not try to move forward and just not deal with things.

For Lily, she really sees it and is like ‘alright, I need to do something here. I don’t need to do something insane but I need to take a step in the right direction, or in the opposite direction of what I’m going into’.

Amy: Yeah. The day you’re diagnosed and it’s decided you’re going to need treatment because surgery isn’t enough, you have ‘x’ amount of time mapped out for you from there.  In my case, they said you’ll do two surgeries, chemo and then do radiation, so you know from this month to this month my life is planned and it’s kind of great, but then afterwards you have to make decisions again.

In regards to making choices, we had someone ask a question last night that at the time, I kind of tried to brush it off, but she was saying how she wished that Lily had just said something to her dad, or emailed him or anything and, I have to be careful not to get defensive because it is a character, but I found myself thinking about it this morning when I was walking around and thought it was a really good question because it shows how different our choices are for each of us as individuals because she might’ve been projecting her life onto me with that question.

Maybe she’s got a great relationship with her dad, and it would be devastating to her if he didn’t know, and maybe it’s hard for her to understand that someone might not have a relationship at all with her father and then vice versa, like it’s hard for me to understand what it’s like to have a good one.

David: That might be the healthiest response to a Q&A question in the history of film festivals.

Amy: (laughs) But truly, I think with most questions in an environment like that, that’s a reaction to art or any form of music, cinema or painting. I think a lot of questions that come up for us are obviously from us, you know, we’re projecting in some way. So that was a good question, emotionally difficult, but good.

David: Well, the art is important to that moment as well because to me, I didn’t read it as a decision for her not to reach out to her father at all, but just her expressing herself in a particular way and her father not being especially engaged.

Amy:  And that was just one moment. Who knows what could happen later.

Matt: To me, my response to that question is that she just opened a dialogue. There is just so much she hasn’t seen in three years or spoken to him in three years and, she immediately sees him and he’s just a fucking asshole.  I think Lily really wants to tell him but maybe just not at that moment. Maybe she goes back later on, but that’s just another film, right? And you can’t just cover everything.

Amy: Well, we were at asked if we’re doing a sequel.

David: Like a trilogy.

Amy: (laughs) "Lily: Part Two."

Matt: We had talked through the writing process but to me, that was a very honest response and the moment was very human. I think a lot of people want to go and tell someone something and they have the opportunity, and they just can’t do it because it doesn’t feel right or that person has scarred them enough to where… you know, obviously there were some medical things there with the gene, but I think it was one moment.

Amy: For sure.

THE CONVERSATION CONTINUES ON PAGE 2.

 

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David: And for me, at least it comes down to the process of Lily deciding who she is.  I’m, well, I'm just projecting my own s**t…

Amy: It’s like therapy.

David: Exactly. Was this whole process really cathartic for you versus the blog. How are they different?

Amy: Well, I just wrote on the blog today that I’m surprised at how just now I’m starting to feel more vulnerable. I think that with the more people that are analyzing how much of my life is in it, I’m kind of like, ‘wait a minute’. But it’s okay, I feel in a way that it’s completely different from the blog. The blog at the time saved my life. I really and truly believe that, because I found this network of people at the time, three girls in particular that were starting treatment at the same time as me – one had breast cancer, one had non Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and another had like a football-sized tumor in her back – so we were all going through it together, we all finished at around the same time, so that was the blog.

Then the film was cathartic for a number of ways because it was a way to be brave and follow Matt’s lead and say OK. I mean, I look up to him because he says, ‘I wanna make a movie, I wanna make a movie’. Hello. (laughs)

But he did and it was largely him, honestly. He gave me the guts to do that so that was cathartic because I felt like I proved something to myself. I said, OK, well, I’ve wanted to write something and look, we wrote something and I wanted to try acting and, that happened.

Matt: Art is made because it is cathartic. It’s the only way for artists to process and deal with the world around them. A lot of artists don’t like to talk about it, so it’s therapy. I was super vulnerable and pretty f**ked up at that time, so I needed this film.

Amy: You were quite the character while we were writing this film.

Matt: We would spend sometimes and we wouldn’t write a thing and we would just talk, and that’s writing.

David: It’s funny hearing about your collaboration, because something that really came across in the movie for me is the idea of isolation, it all sort of pertains to the idea of catharsis and needing to express yourself through a blog or film. There was one scene in particular that really communicated that for me, which is when she’s talking to the woman about the hereditary cancer gene and the camera goes to that long shot where they’re both in the same room but never in the same frame, leading two very different lives, and never sharing the frame. How do you feel now that you’re sharing this story, do you feel like you’re breaking that isolation? Are you going to feel comfortable if thousands of people see this movie?

Matt: That’s the difficult thing about being an artist. You’re basically surrendering yourself to a lifetime of judgment and vulnerability and, it’s tough but I think it’d be amazing for an audience to see it and I think it can reach an audience. I just think it’s very relatable, for me, because if I can relate to this, anyone can, and that’s why I wanted to write about it because I thought it was a unique way of telling this story. I could’ve easily written about someone breaking up and explored it though that or explored it through someone graduating college and not knowing what they’re doing with their life.

David: That’s funny because that was the first touchstone for me while watching this, in a really crass way, but I was like this is like the feeling you get when you’re graduating college.

Amy: It’s totally like that.

Matt: It’s the same thing when you’re in a relationship for a very long time or if all of a sudden a loved one passes away. It can be profound, that’s why older couples when they’ve been together for 60 or 70 years and one passes away and it’s an omen for the other one to pass away soon because of the amount of emotional strain that can happen and the amount of change, and their bodies can’t handle that.

Change is very profound and very powerful and we’re all afraid of it because it’s so foreign. No one wants to explore foreign territories, but that’s where you’re going to get to know yourself and learn to break creative boundaries. I learned to embrace my vulnerability in the past few years over rejecting it, and as soon as I did that, I’ve never been more prolific in my life or more excited about things.

David: The wig in the movie seems like a tangible way of playing with the idea. The second time I watched it, I was trying to keep an eye on when the wig was on and off.

Amy: I think that’s one of things about breast cancer in particular very hard because it attacks everything that makes you feel like a woman. A lot of women lose their breasts. I had very long hair at the time it came out and you lose your pretty hair, you might lose the ability to have kids ever in your life. It’s kind of all these things that you’re told make you a woman and you might have all of the above taken away from you.

The wig, though, that was my safety net, and that was the wig that I wore throughout my whole treatment, but even every time I put it on I still felt like I was wearing a costume or something. Though, at the same time I didn’t want to not wear it because I wasn’t that girl that could rock the bald head and I really wasn’t that brave to go out in public.

David: Did you ever feel you were being judged for that? My initial inclination would not be to say that you were less brave for not doing that...

Amy: That’s just me.

Matt: I was very interested in that and what the film would kind of show. Is that insecurity? Her hair is not that short, thousands of women cut their hair that short because they want to. It’s never been about shock value when you take it off; it was always about this woman that has lot something very important to her.

Amy: And she’s hiding something, you know.

Matt: Women like to hide behind their long hair a lot. They put their bangs up front. Its kind of makes you…

Amy: Makes you feel a little feminine. Then again, so did the short hair.

Matt: But the wig was definitely a conversation we had a lot while shooting because there were moments where I would wonder if she should have the wig on. Should she have the wig on when she goes to get the door for her neighbor? Would she have it on with her mom? In these moments, I think it’s very telling of Lily. And the dad, that scene, too.

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David: Was the wardrobe yours?

Matt: All the t-shirts were my t-shirts.

Amy: The clothing not being similar to how I would normally dress was great because it was more comfortable stepping into that because it really felt like someone else that wasn’t me. I guess that’s a simple tool to use to get to that space but it certainly helped.

Matt: For me, directing that was definitely important to have her wearing stuff that she probably might wear but doesn’t wear. When we were writing it was little things like you’ve never told your dad, you’re going to go tell your dad and make that effort. You’re with this guy, and you’re not breaking up with him but you are; its details that throw people off. It’s going left instead of right. I think that was important for her to get her out of… while a lot of this is Amy’s life, it’s not Amy. It’s Lily and it is a character and she’s performing and we’re doing takes, there is a camera.

Amy: I was acting, for the record. I gave it my all.

David: Do you see yourself acting again?

Amy: I’d love to! I get so nervous when I say it out loud. Movies have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and it’s always been a fantasy to be able to do something like this. I hope this isn’t the very top of it and then it’s all downhill.

David: What were you doing before you were diagnosed?

Amy: I was just kind of floating along. I had just stopped doing a job I really didn’t like but I was putting my all into for about a year and it really emotionally drained me. I was kind of a wreck after it, and not long after that I was diagnosed. For about year and a half that just felt like my job and purpose at the time. Now, I hope that this is.

David: How did this happen? Who were the people you were reaching out to if you’re not coming from a filmmaking community?

Matt: My cinematographer, Brett Jutkiewicz, is a genius. He just has an eye for things. I’ve worked with him on some smaller projects and I wanted to use him and told him at one point that I wasn’t making this film if he wasn’t shooting it. So, Brett has his team and crew and I’ve worked with him because of Brett.

Our crew was small, it was only about ten people. I asked a friend who was a playwright if she would script supervise and she said sure, why not. My friend did the wardrobe, and my friend, Isabella produced the film, which I’ve known since high school, she came on and grabbed the reins.  It was really a labor of love. No one makes money and…our environment was really mellow. Everyone just got a long and it was just a pleasure to be on set every day.

David: Are you guys New Yorker people originally?

Matt: I’ve been here 12 years. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my life and I definitely consider myself a New Yorker at this point. This is my home. I hope to make more films here.

David: There are so many great spaces in the movie. The image of Amy dancing in front of the green wall was instantly iconic, in a way.

Matt: I mean, it’s all my New York. That’s the wall I pass every day going home.

David: Where is that?

Matt: Howard and Lafayette Street. I think it’s a federal building actually. Almost all those locations are within a ten block radius.

David: And her boyfriend’s apartment?

Matt: That’s my parents place. That was a lifesaver, I owe them so much for that because we shot a week there. That’s like $20,000 to rent if you were to do it anywhere else. My mom actually let me re-decorate and knowing her, that’s the craziest thing ever. Yeah, you call in every favor you can to make a movie like this happen.

David: Even the staircase feels like a major character. There’s that scene that we’re following you up the stairs and it feels like we’re there.

Matt: I wanted the audience to really be there with Lily, as if they’re shadowing her. When she’s getting treatment you’re in there with her, and you feel like that you’re in hat room. When she’s walking up the stairs, you’re walking up those five flights and by the end, you’re tired with her.

David: For me, a trap that this movie could fall into is really trying to conflate the viewer’s experience with that of the character. But your shooting style makes you feel like you know her and you’re going along through this with her, but you aren’t her.

Matt: I wanted it to breathe a lot. Which is why people always talk about this docu style thing. A lot of new wave is shot in that manner. I hope people view this as more narrative than a docu thing.

David: Have you heard anything else about what’s next for the film?

Matt: I don’t know honestly. I hope that someone will give this film a chance and will see the potential that it has and that it can reach an audience and that it may not be the most conventional way to tell a story but that there is something to be said in that. I think that after last night the response from the audience, which is not premiere night and not all you friends, was really positive and really connected with a lot of people. It just takes one person to give it a chance and I hope that person sees it eventually.

David: Do you know anywhere else this film will play in the future?

Matt: I do, but I’m not allowed to say yet.

David: So there will be more opportunities to see it.

Matt: Yeah, but I think we have a good team behind it and they believe in it and think an audience will see it.

“Lily” will screen two more times at TFF, and you should see it if you like to see things that are good.

MON 4/22 8:30 PM Clearview Cinemas Chelsea 4 BUY TICKETS
WED 4/24 4:00 PM Clearview Cinemas Chelsea 5 BUY TICKETS
FRI 4/26 7:00 PM AMC Loews Village 7 – 2 BUY TICKETS