Meet Elizabeth Wood: The White Girl Behind 'White Girl'

New York ‘was quite a traumatic time, and I needed to figure out how to make a movie’

White Girl is an anti–Cinderella story, following one eponymous white girl’s descent from the ivory tower to reality as she learns that even cocaine won’t double as fairy dust when you need to fly away from the real-world monsters of dealers, creditors, courts, lawyers, and venture capitalists. Newly released into theaters in New York, and soon to expand to the rest of the country, White Girl is also one of the best films of 2016, and alongside Krisha and The Fits, watching first-time filmmakers release work of this caliber has almost been enough to make this trash heap of a year worthwhile. Writer and director Elizabeth Wood is the white woman behind the white girl, and the film is her story to tell in more ways than one, as it is loosely based on her own experiences as a Midwestern transplant to New York in the early 2000s. Though the specific events of the movie are fictionalized, Wood has been open about the fact that the story came to her from her own experience falling in love in Ridgewood, Queens, while attending college at The New School. Even while she was living it, she thought it seemed like it would be a good movie.

“My first plan was to film it myself, have my friends act in it, and just make it. Even years after, I would joke, ‘I’ll make it on my cell phone if I have to!’” Wood laughs as conspiratorially as humanly possible, considering that we’re sitting at a conference table in the basement of a very fancy hotel with no windows. She digresses — “I had really shitty video on my flip phone ... God, what if I had done that?” — before coming to her senses. “The themes in it were so serious, and I always had this feeling that I would only understand what I was going through in life when I was a little bit older. And it seems to be true. I need a little time. Because it was quite a traumatic time, and I needed to figure out how to make a movie.”

In person, Wood is a combination of intense and blasé, vocally espousing a fuck-it philosophy while settled in the room as poised, prepared, primped, and pretty as any actor I’ve encountered at a press call, let alone any director. She laughs again while talking about the movies she made before White Girl — documentaries and Craigslist acting gigs and “experimental films shot on 16mm, girls covered in blood killing each other, naked, with surreal colors and, like, orgies.” Later, when she mentions her husband, Gabriel Nussbaum, who produced the film, and the exhaustion of being a parent to an infant, the change in her circumstances seems only natural. Elizabeth Wood has already lived her fair share of lives — no doubt she’ll live a few more.

But if Wood’s creative adolescence was spent chasing experiences, and her initial ambitions were to show avant-garde films in galleries like her own inspirations Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, and Kenneth Anger, White Girl is the result of a new outlook and a new creative process. It’s still an experiment — if you think about it, any conscious decision can be an experiment if you distance yourself from the action enough to notice the outcome — but with White Girl, Wood’s technique was story as subterfuge. Describing her vision for the movie and how she wants people to see it, Wood starts running me through the questions she asked herself in the process of making this film. “What if I can take the experience of watching films I love, which gives me so many feelings, and put it in a format that anyone could enjoy?” she asked, before continuing with no small amount of purpose, “Like a more conservative viewer. A story with a beginning and middle and an end that makes some sort of sense, and that doesn’t alienate people, because I feel like sometimes with experimental films, people feel left out because they don’t know what’s going on. And so — I feel like this was my exercise — let’s be as experimental as possible, but within a digestible format.”

Recently MTV sent a group of writers to a video presentation seminar where we were told that speaking with feminized “likes” and “ums” and sentences that swing up at the end like questions was a sign of weakness, and that marketable strength is the necessary control of these vocal tics. Our instructor would have had a field day listening to the recording of my chat with Wood, which by corporate seminar standards was a millennial parade of mutual linguistic decay. But belying Wood’s colloquial ease and casual way of interrupting her own thoughts, she is a keen communicator, readily anticipating questions as they’re being asked, connecting dots that were only drawn in suggestion, picking up on facial cues and underlying subtext. White Girl plays out in similar terms, relaying ideas through casual observances that only reveal themselves to be purposeful over the course of their careful repetition and development.

Even when the object of her gaze is a fictionalized version of herself, Wood maintains a vicious eye for the everyday intersections between identity and power, and the result is a movie that looks at its protagonist with all the distance of hindsight and all the hardness that you would only reserve for when that hindsight was focused on yourself. White Girl plays as a kind of real-world thriller where the anxiety comes from reading situations faster than the characters are able to see for themselves. You watch thinking, Of course that faux tough girl with those visible roots and those stringy clothes would garner that reaction from that faux tough boy walking into a bodega in fucking Ridgewood. Of course that grown man is only interested in this girl for money, drugs, and sex. And that man too. But as the dread steeply mounts over the course of the film’s slim 88-minute runtime, the experience turns unsettling as it becomes more and more clear that for a movie about a girl going wild, White Girl is almost eerily under control.

Despite the movie’s improvisational feel, it was tightly scripted, and the majority of the improvisation came in moments when Wood left the camera running deliberately to see how the actors would respond to having to stay in the scene. She notes that while she was writing, she loosely acted out scenes with a friend to test lines for how they would feel, and she held extensive rehearsals before filming to build the relationships between her lead actors, especially Morgan Saylor and Brian Marc, who play the leads, Leah and Blue. Wood and Saylor even agreed that it would be a good idea for Saylor to bleach her hair and to move to Ridgewood before the start of filming, to get a better understanding of how people would respond to her differently when she looked like her character. “Authenticity is very important to me, at least that it felt real to me. Because I know it wouldn’t feel real to anyone else if it didn’t at least feel real to me. I can’t control a number of things, but it had to at least be done on my standards.”

As much as creative success is the result of creative planning, as a new parent, the time for creative planning was hard for Wood to come by. “I’ve only ever been able to write in the dead of night. My mind is so all over the place that I’m worrying what other people think and what’s going on, and I’m constantly communicating with, like, 80 people a day, so I literally wait until everyone else in the world is asleep,” she says. “My mind is also so tired by then that my thinking shuts down and I just start expressing and I don’t judge myself or ask if this is good or bad. I’m just putting words on fucking paper. And it’s kind of hard since I have a child, because if I stay up all night, I’m missing out on my time with him.”

Writing is, Wood tells me, “fucking hard,” but by contrast to the creative stress, the stress of receiving criticism seems manageable for her, even in comparison to more established (and less accomplished) filmmakers. This has remained true even as the film’s criticism has delved into the realm of personal attack, with critics suggesting a story “with less social value” like White Girl could have only been the product of a disturbed mind. (At one point, Wood jokes about how differently the movie would be received if it were about a boy, “Oh my god, it’s so shocking to see a young guy do drugs and have sex! Is there something wrong with him? Was he abused? Did someone break his heart? Could he have sex with two people?”)

“I have to really let go of criticism,” Wood sighs, and if she seems a little embarrassed to be talking about her anxiety, she also seems like someone who knows that her embarrassment is both natural and functionally useless. “I worked with a shaman in the year leading up to making this film, to help me stay focused and see what’s important in my creative impulses and stay really positive, you know what I mean? I do a lot of work confronting that. I worked with a friend doing script analysis and directing preparation to figure out what I need to do to combat my fears and anxieties about criticism or insecurity. Because they just get in the way. So I have tactics for myself: If you get freaked out, touch the ground, carry your crystals, do some weird-ass shit, and, like, meditate. And I’ve gotten all these skills to deal with crippling anxiety.”

But even the most ruthless self-care regimen has its limits, and with Wood already working on a second film script, a book, and a 10-part miniseries, the demands on her time, creativity, and attention have already surpassed where most people’s limits lie. Still, she shrugs. She’s taking things at her own pace.

“I really enjoy writing, and even though they pressure you, like, ‘You have to do something else right now!’ I’m like, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if I did something good?’”

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