Pin It
White Girl

The director of White Girl on her ‘fucked-up fairytale’

Elizabeth Wood discusses white privilege, power structures and why these topics need to make people feel uncomfortable

White Girl is the sort of film you’ll walk out of feeling something – whether it’s pensive, exhausted, guilty, or a mixture of the three. There’s just no way to watch main character Leah’s crash course in the deceptive power of privilege without becoming entangled in her honest naivety, and invested in the outcome of her choices. We’re never asked to feel bad for Leah (Morgan Saylor), though – especially not when she coolly escapes the lifestyle her love interest, Blue (Brian Marc), is already buried by. 

The film was partly inspired by writer and director Elizabeth Wood’s own life as a young adult new to New York – but that fact is far from the most interesting thing about this story. In White Girl, we’re met with complex characters all exploring their own arsenals of privilege and power, which vary in reach by race, gender, and class. It’s difficult not to feel sucked into their world, which is largely due to the lighting, the beautifully choreographed camera movement and the sound design. 

Inviting and cautionary yellow light burns over Leah as she ventures out of her apartment to solicit Blue for some weed; a seemingly endless flow of cocaine in soft, neon-lit corners of a club; the unpleasantly familiar call of a neighbour eager to warn Leah away from the block – all these coalesce, forcing us to feel the protean shapes of privilege and power from all sides. 

You’ve said that this is not your biopic, but when the events the film was based on were happening in your life, you knew it would be your first movie. Why was it important for you to tell this story? 

Elizabeth Wood: I feel like there are moments in everyone’s lives, especially in my life, where I’m like, ‘Is this real, or is this a movie?’, and I don’t know if that’s just my tendency towards being a storyteller, or feeling like something exciting or important is happening to me, something I want to understand better and that I want to share. So, while this is not a play-by-play of my life at that time, it is very much inspired by what happened. 

The earlier drafts were more true to life – it was more like a novel. In the process of making this a short, dramatic narrative film, it became further from reality... It’s interesting even to discover and learn that process for myself, which I didn’t know how to do before. It took some time to figure out. 

I’ve read a lot about race in White Girl, but the parts of the film that deal with sexual assault seem to have gone under the radar in comparison. What makes the inclusion of those parts of the story important? 

Elizabeth Wood: You’re right, people don’t ask much about it. I don’t know if it’s that they’re uncomfortable, or if they think it’s sensitive. I feel like a lot of being a young woman is experiencing a lot of unwanted attention from men that becomes aggressive quickly, and thinking you’re in control of the situation, or that you have limits, or that you’ll be able to control how it turns out – and then it gets out of your control. That’s what I understand, not just from my experience. And I felt like it belonged in the story. 

I still feel quite sensitive and protective of where that comes from, and it’s just about trying to figure out how these things happen to us. I realise I’m sensitive even talking about it, actually. 

It is hard to talk about. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s really important. 

Elizabeth Wood: It is. And it’s been surprising and touching how many women have come up to me and shared their stories with me – just complete strangers, I didn’t expect that. I guess I’m a bit numb to the film by now, but it can bring up a lot of emotion in viewers. 

We see a wide spectrum of high and low-profile actors in the cast of White Girl. What were your priorities in casting for this film? 

Elizabeth Wood: My focus was on finding the right Leah and Blue – and the casting process for them took close to a year. I saw a lot of people – it was really hard to even find Puerto Rican actors, which is strange. But after finding them both, they felt very authentic to me and had the right energy, it was just about filling out the roles authentically. Justin Bartha, Chris Noth and Adrian Martinez are higher-profile actors, so I had to ask, ‘Will they blend into this world? Will they be distracting?’ But they did a good job of integrating with the more unknown actors. 

Luckily with the film, the way it was funded, we were able to focus on who would be right for the roles. And I’m amazed everyone came out as well as they did – that we found everyone that was right. 

Were you surprised by anything in particular that the actors brought to the story and the film as a whole? 

Elizabeth Wood: Because I worked most with the Leah and Blue characters, what (Morgan and Brian) brought to the table was what really impacted the production. That they were willing to rehearse for months leading up to it, unpaid rehearsal time, that they were serious and communicating with me, and the research they did, and how dedicated they were to getting it right... The higher-profile actors would really just show up on set – and they were glorious, and perfect on set. I learned a lot from working with them, but it was really the dedication of Leah, Blue and their friends India Menuez, Ralph Rodriguez and Anthony Ramos. They dedicated more time than anyone could have asked for. 

There were points watching the film where I felt high myself. Can you speak to the cinematography choices you made – did you intend to induce those feelings? 

Elizabeth Wood: Working with (director of photography) Michael Simmonds was fucking amazing. He worked very intimately, very close to the actors, using handheld, which really gives you the experience that you really are with these characters on this journey. I feel like the film looks real and naturalistic, but if you take a closer look, there are actually crazy, wacky colours, and it’s hyperreal. But then again I think when you’re inebriated, lights are brighter, sounds are louder. 

Yeah, it’s interesting, there is a lot of camera movement, but it’s not excessive – it all seems very intentional. 

Elizabeth Wood: Yeah, we did a lot of takes, and I felt good about it when I realised we weren’t wasting everyone’s time – that we would use that last take. There was never a moment where we’d call a scene if we didn’t feel like that moment was magic – even if it took 30 times.

“It’s about real shit, not just blowjobs and cocaine” – Elizabeth Wood 

Let’s talk about privilege in the film. It’s an interesting time for this story to be released, because the conversation about privilege in this country is beginning to enter the mainstream, and it hasn’t always been that way. So, how do you feel about your film being released in the midst of that? 

Elizabeth Wood: I think it’s really great that it can become part of the conversation. When I was in college, I took a class called ‘Writing on Whiteness’, and I had never heard that term before. And when I talked about it, even as recently as this year at Sundance, I used the term ‘whiteness’ and people didn’t know what I was referring to. Hopefully it’ll help the conversation about the film go deeper. 

I think people of colour don’t really need to be told about privileges at all – they know very well. But for white people, it’s important to discuss it, to feel uncomfortable, to have to talk about things they’d rather not, to have to admit things that they like to pretend are not real. I think my film is uncomfortable in a lot of those ways. I hope people can see it for what it’s about. It’s about real shit, not just blowjobs and cocaine. 

On the note of privilege, Justin Bartha’s character (Kelly) really widens the privilege disparity in the film, because he’s the epitome of privilege. Can you talk about the hierarchies we see in White Girl

Elizabeth Wood: There are a lot of hierarchies, right? It’s this kind of pecking order of who uses their privilege and sexuality towards other characters, and how complicated that is. It’s the lawyer, and the boss, and then it’s Leah not realising she’s using that against Blue, and how the good intentions – I do believe all the characters have good intentions – can all go wrong. To use that power, when you’re not totally aware you’re using that power – this power system is designed to allow us to abuse power in that way, and there’s not really any fairness. Even with Leah’s best intentions, her privileges tore her and Blue apart. I don’t know that they could be together no matter what, because of the systems against them. How can these people from two different backgrounds reconcile these differences? It happens all the time, but in the case of these two characters, I don’t think it’s possible. And that’s the real heartbreak in my head. I’ve thought of it as Romeo and Juliet on coke. 

What do you hope people take away from this film? 

Elizabeth Wood: I did a lot of work, and my team did a lot of work to tell this fucked-up fairytale… I hope it’ll be remembered. I hope you feel anything.