An Interview With Erin VassilopouloS
Erin Vassilopoulos is originally from Minnesota. The earliest work on her Vimeo page goes back to 2013 with Beached, a black-and-white short film with a quiet intimacy and way of pacing that she has developed since. Her next shorts came in the form of Walking and Talking, Superior, and her most recent: Valeria.
Walking and Falling, which was released only a year after Beached, feels like a big jump in her work. At the most basic level, it jumps from B&W to color (which she has worked with ever since). But it also feels more mature in the storytelling. There's echoes of David Lynch, but it still feels like her own. As with his work, there's an important dream-like and surreal element constantly lurking throughout Erin's projects. She's not afraid to go dark.
It's important to note that Erin writes and directs all her work, so not only is she very involved from start to finish but also the ideas are personal to her films.
After Walking and Falling, she continued to make and release a film per year with Superior (2015) and Valeria (2016), which feel very informed by the style she developed on Walking And Falling. With Superior, Erin hones in more on the dialogue between characters, where as Walking And Falling was more heavily fragmented and split up. Erin also shoots on film, which gives the work a beautiful sense of color and light - at least when properly utilized, as she does with cinematographer Mia Cioffi Henry (a fellow classmate she met at NYU who has been the constant Director of Photography on all of her work thus far). There's a thoughtful approach to color that's not just because of the usage of film. It's also in the clothing, locations, and other elements that bring together the frame.
Superior was shown at Sundance in 2015 and had additional screenings at festivals that included Berlinale, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. Valeria, meanwhile, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival a few months ago as part of The Eyeslicer series and got a Vimeo Staff Pick, where it's racked up over 40,000 views. Erin graduated last year with an MFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. She is currently working on her first feature film and another short she hopes to direct this fall. Below is my interview with her.
INTERVIEW - JUNE 2017
INTRO + QUESTIONS BY JACK SOMMER
Valeria was your thesis film for NYU. How do you think that impacted (if at all) the way you made it or why you chose that particular idea?
I actually started writing “Valeria” for a class I took in my third year at NYU, which was a collaboration between the film department and the production design department. The class was funded in part by the Sloan Foundation, a foundation that promotes public understanding and engagement with science, in this case through the arts. The main project for the class was to be a short film that was somehow science-related, which would be written and directed by a film student and designed by a student in the production design department.
So “Valeria” was definitely the result of me specifically thinking about and doing research for a story that was related to science and medicine. During that time, my partner told me about Isabelle Dinoire, and when I started reading about her case, I knew right away I wanted to write a short film inspired by her experience. There’s actually a whole host of films about face transplants, made way before the procedure was medically possible. Two of my favorites are Eyes Without a Face, by Georges Franju, and The Face of Another, by Hiroshi Teshigahara (based on a novel by Kōbō Abe), both made in the ‘60’s. This is definitely a notion that has been on people’s minds for some time, probably because of the powerful themes and questions surrounding the idea of a person adopting a new face.
This this was all in the back of my mind when I discovered Isabelle Dinoire, and realized that face transplants have become more and more common since her surgery in 2005. So I decided to try to find my own angle for a short film about the aftermath of such surgery, and decided to focus on a woman who feels increasingly connected to her donor as she grapples with the healing process. In the end, my script got way too ambitious for that class, so I decided to hold off and make “Valeria” as my thesis film, which I did the summer after my last semester of classes.
For Superior, you said that you got in an elevator with two twin girls and felt something from them so strongly that you immediately went home and started writing. Do your ideas generally just come to you randomly from a real life experience like that? How much of it is thinking about possible ideas vs. just letting them come to you?
As I described above, “Valeria” came more from an idea, and from thinking about a woman’s healing process in the aftermath of a radical surgery. “Superior” was much more intuitive for me, since two of my best friends growing up were twins. I think seeing twins in the elevator that day reminded me of my friends, and the uniqueness of their relationship. Being in an elevator with them also almost certainly conjured up the twins from The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, which had a lasting impact on me, as I’m sure it did with most people. These things combined got me writing “Superior.”
After I started writing, I began to approach the short somewhat as a “break up” story. I was trying to channel some of the complicated emotions you feel when you realize you have to break up with someone, or on the flip side (and usually much worse) when you realize someone is about to break up with you, both of which I felt were relevant to the experience of a twin who feels compelled to distinguish herself, and the effect this might have on her sister.
But going back to your question, even though “Valeria” came more from an idea, there are aspects of it that are personal, that come from my own experience. I think writing will probably always involve some combination of ideas and personal experience, along with research, and, of course, imagery. Locations are also very inspiring to me, and I often start scouting for locations as I write.
You shoot on film. This is obviously more risky and expensive, of course, but the payoff can certainly be worth it. This is particularly noticeable for me in your work in terms of the colors, texture, and lighting that you are able to achieve because of that. What made you decide to go that route and what are some of your personal biggest pros/cons in working with it?
My first assignment at NYU was to make a five minute silent film shot on 16mm black-and-white film. Right away I loved the feeling of directing this way — knowing in my head what I was aiming for and trying to get everyone on the same page so we could capture it in the few takes we had. This process requires a kind of trust in the present moment that I really like, since you can’t play everything back.
Then there’s this period of waiting for the dailies to come back, which is both nerve-wracking and exciting. When I finally got the footage back from that first shoot and watched it for the first time, I was ecstatic. Not everything worked out of course, but I found that a lot of what we’d captured not only reflected what was in my head, but was often even better, and I kind of fell in love with the whole process. It’s a very special form of delayed gratification.
I have been fortunate to shoot several shorts on film since then, although I’m definitely not opposed to digital. I recently directed a music video shot digitally and it was a positive experience, with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. But I definitely love the organic quality of film and since I tend to come at a story very visually, considering visual layers including textures, colors, and lighting (as you mentioned), I do think film is often best suited to capturing these details.
While it’s not the norm, there are a significant number of shorts and features being shot on film right now, especially 16mm, and I hope to continue to work with film in the future. I’m actually planning a new short film, and I’m trying to raise the funds to shoot 16mm film again this Fall.