Please note: This interview contains spoilers.
Eva Vives has been one to watch since co-writing the screenplay for the critically acclaimed 2002 coming-of-age film Raising Victor Vargas. In the 15 years between her first feature and new film, All About Nina, Eva has added director to her resume on two short films. But for a debut feature, Vives comes out swinging. Not only does she show herself to be a self-assured filmmaker with a vision, but a personal and revealing one, willing to address her own trauma in her art. All About Nina, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the title role, tells the story of a stand-up comic trying to carve out a new life in LA only to have to face the realities of sexual trauma she’s tried to suppress in self-destructive ways.
Lesley Coffin: I know you’ve said up front that this is a very personal film. Yet, you made the choice to make your character, Nina, a comedian. What lead to that choice? Do you feel there is a strong connection between filmmaking and comedy?
Eva Vives: The artistic processes are intertwined. I knew the character needed to be creative. She’s somewhat based on me, and I liked the idea of putting forth a young woman who is creative and good at what she does. I understand the idea of being driven by your art. It took me a really long time to find a way to show someone being creative. Most artistic processes are very boring to watch. If you filmed me writing, I’d just be sitting around for a few hours trying to think. So the question was, how do you show that in a visually interesting way? Comedy has been a love of mine for a longtime, kind of a saving grace when going through some really difficult times. I needed to find ways to laugh and filter that darkness in my life. Comics are often very dark people, and comedy allows people to be incredibly honest while never forgetting to be funny. I had years ago dated a comedian and got used to going to clubs, and noticed how they would rewrite jokes or deliver a joke differently, which is very similar to my writing and filmmaking process.
Lesley Coffin: I like that you use the term filter, because that is such a big aspect of the artistic process. Do you think you needed filmmaking to work through this trauma?
Eva Vives: I think filmmaking gave me the desire to tell my story in a way that I felt would be more meaningful and could have a greater impact.
Lesley Coffin: Have you ever spoken publicly about what happened to you?
Eva Vives: No, which is why I was nervous about showing the film to an audience. I don’t know how they’ll react. It will be a meta-experience for me to see people reacting to what Elizabeth is saying on screen, knowing I went through that. I’ve spoken about it in my private life, my friends and family all know. And I’ve been outspoken about women needing to come forward. There are instances of this issue in almost all my previous films, and a lot of young women have mentioned it. Its often something I think about when writing my female characters.
Eva Vives: At 18, I left Spain and came to New York and went to school at NYU.
Lesley Coffin: And you completely cut ties with your father at that point?
Eva Vives: I did years ago and he has since killed himself.
Lesley Coffin: Do you think you could have made this film if he were still alive?
Eva Vives: I think so. It’s a good question because he passed in 2003, so I haven’t had to think about that for a long time. I haven’t had to think of what I’d do differently if he were still around. I’d stopped talking to him a long time before that, so I’d like to think that as I processed it, I would have been able to come to the same place I needed to be to make this film. I don’t name him and he’s not a character in the film, so I hope it wouldn’t have mattered.
Lesley Coffin: Besides not having to identify him, it’s not as if Nina is a complete recreation of you. Did you consider casting someone that resembled you a bit more?
Eva Vives: It wouldn’t have bothered me we had cast someone who looked a little bit like me. But, I think it was easier to have a little distance from Nina when making the film. As for Nina’s race, which is such an important issue, there is a wrong assumption that sex abuse is something which happens to poor people or minorities. And I felt it might be good to have a white woman play the role, a woman who comes from a bohemian, artistic family. To remind audiences that it can happen in any family.
Lesley Coffin: How did you get Mary Elizabeth involved?
Eva Vives: My husband had worked with her years ago and she’s someone who’s been on my radar for years. And as I started writing it, I started thinking about her for the role. I did the Sundance labs in 2016, and one of the things you do is readings with professional actors. We did one in LA and the casting director sent her the script. That day she was going to leave to do Fargo and she called to say she loved the script but she couldn’t do the reading. In terms of casting, the biggest question is does the actor see the character the same way I see it? And Elizabeth and I had very similar ideas about who Nina was.
Lesley Coffin: Did you consider casting a comic in the role?
Eva Vives: Not really, although, a lot of financiers suggested it. It was something I thought about for a minute, and Mary was nervous about doing the comedy. No offense to comedians, but I knew I wanted Elizabeth very early on.
Lesley Coffin: But I assume she had to do a lot of preparation to do the scene where she’s performing comedy. Just the way a comedian holds the microphone is completely different from the way any other performer holds it.
Eva Vives: We went to a lot of comedy. I actually read and listen to comedy a lot, and suggested she do the same. I told her to watch all the stuff coming on Netflix, especially a lot of the women. But we never wanted her to base the comedy on any specific comedian. I didn’t want Elizabeth to be imitating any comic’s mannerisms. So that’s the stuff we rehearsed the most. And we had a comedy consultant, Jamie Loftus, on set all the time. It was a match made in heaven for the three of us. She helped me out with the writing and gave Mary a lot of pointers. We also ran our routines by Jay Moore, who’s in the movie, to make sure we had it.
Lesley Coffin: Did she ever just do a set?
Eva Vives: A lot of comedians recommended that to me, but she was very worried about doing that. And I thought doing that might cause more problems if it didn’t go well her first time up. The first night we filmed her doing comedy, the sound people asked the audience not to laugh because they wanted a clean track. So I was really worried when they weren’t laughing, and Mary had the experience of bombing I had been trying to avoid. The sound guy came and asked if he should let them laugh, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. So we told the audience, laugh if you think it’s funny, we aren’t going to prompt you to react or overreact. Once she was on stage, Jamie and I would throw her lines and she’d do that in front of an audience.
Eva Vives: Four times. Each performance was amazing. We just had to do it for coverage, but everyone was in tears every time.
Lesley Coffin: What was the experience for you filming it?
Eva Vives: It was pretty amazing. It was one of the few times I was caught off guard. We were working these long hours and thinking about so much while directing that I didn’t have time to think about how personal this was. And when she filmed that, I couldn’t be close to her, which I usually prefer. I was sitting behind the audience, so I experienced what the audience experienced but it was also another meta-moment for me, seeing her say what had happened to me. And then seeing people react and start to cry was surreal.
Lesley Coffin: The audience had no idea what the scene was?
Eva Vives: No they were all extras. We did issue trigger warnings.
Lesley Coffin: What are your feelings about trigger warnings with films? Should audiences be given an alert about the content of the film or would that diminish the impact of the film?
Eva Vives: In general, I’ve very pro-trigger warning. I know I’ve appreciated it and I know a lot of survivors who do. There were two main reasons I choose not to do it with this film. So much of the impetus of this film, writing the film, happened before MeToo. But I wanted to give audiences an idea of what it was like to have something like this in your past and not talk about it every day. Her behavior’s coming from somewhere. I don’t see that monologue as a twist, it’s a revelation and clarifies why she’s acting like this. But more importantly, I hope men and women who’ve been through this will stick with this and won’t be triggering as much as it is about identifying with fellow survivor. That’s also the reason we don’t show something graphic. There is a violent moment in the beginning, but we aren’t doing flashbacks. I hope it won’t trigger anyone, but I’ve also been on both sides. I’ve been the person to reveal that and the person something’s being revealed to. How do you warn someone about something like this?
Lesley Coffin: That leads to an interesting question in the movie, regarding the character Common plays and how he reacts. He doesn’t react well, he doesn’t step up in that moment. And it leaves the audience to really reconsider his character and Nina’s relationship with him.
Eva Vives: Were you mad at him when you watched that scene?
Lesley Coffin: I think I understand, rationally, that his inability to process the information as quickly as she’s giving it is very human. But at the same time you already feel so strongly for Nina in that moment, and now the person she wanted to depend on has let her down when she needed him the most.
Eva Vives: I think people react very differently to that scene. And I’ve noticed that a lot of men get very angry with him at that moment. For some people it’s unforgivable that he leaves. To me, his reaction is very human. The way Common and I spoke of the character, he was a man who’d been taking care of his mother for a long time and in so many of his failed relationships, he’d been the caretaker. So he approaches Nina initially because he’s coming out of his relationship comfort zone and likes the very secure, confident woman he’s seen on stage. He thinks it might be better to be with someone more like that, and ironically she is someone who desperately needs someone like him. And she tells him in the most public, worst way possible. So he panics and can’t process the information. He gets scared and thinks he’s done the same thing, made the same mistake he’d made in his previous relationships. I wish that every time you tell someone this truth they reacted exactly the way you need them to. But that’s not life.
Lesley Coffin: There is the romantic aspect of her life, trying to make this relationship work. But there’s also this professional goal you gave her, to get on a show, woven throughout the film. That’s the prize she’s working towards. Where did that idea to add that narrative thread come from?
Eva Vives: I wanted to make sure audiences really understood that she was professionally capable. She is doing something she loves and she does it well. And I wanted her objective to be related to her career, rather than to getting or keeping a man. And I think audiences, even if they don’t understand the comedy business, understand that goal.
Eva Vives: Well, she’s also living at someone else’s house for a pretty long time. I considered putting more in the film about money, but there’s only so many issues you can tackle.
Lesley Coffin: Why start the film by moving her out of New York and to LA?
Eva Vives: It was tough because I love New York so much and feel at home there. LA is different because it’s so tied to my work. I tried to revert stereotypes a little bit. You think you’re playing into this jokey idea of LA being very spiritual, and that seems very silly at first. And then you realize, no that can be very helpful. I liked the idea that LA will be this land of beautiful tan people who like to eat kale, but it turns out to be a really good place for her to be. And I would describe her attitude as me when I got to New York, and she just brings that attitude to LA. It’s kind of fun to see her in LA.
Lesley Coffin: Did you choose to film the cities different?
Eva Vives: We did. We filmed New York tighter to suggest she’s being trapped in New York and needs to escape. And then after she moves to LA and starts opening herself up, that view opens up. We took a similar approach with the sound design. New York sounds very intense and crazy and LA’s quieter and you can hear the birds. I love New York, but when I finally went to LA I thought “it’s actually pretty nice here, why do New Yorkers complain about it all the time.” They’re both nice places, just in different ways.
(C) Lesley Coffin (9/2718) FF2 Media
Photos: All About Nina (IMDb)