The last time I spoke to Nicole Reigel for Filmmaking, it was in 2014 to profile the Jackson, Ohio native for our 25 New Faces list. After serving in the military and producing her own plays, Riegel had arrived in Los Angeles and quickly made a name for herself as a screenwriter, with directors like Cary Fukunaga and Justin Lin on board for her scripts.
But her ultimate goal, which she revealed in the play, was to direct – an ambition that was realized this year with her flinty, extremely sure and convincing debut Holler. The film was selected for the 2020 SXSW storytelling competition, which was canceled in March, and will reach audiences and industry this week at both the Deauville American Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. The latter will be shown in the festival's recently announced industry market.
Set in Riegel's hometown of Jackson, Holler is a story of ambition that fights against conformity shaped by economic circumstances. It records adolescent Ruth's efforts to flee her desperate hometown – where Trump's cynical promises of "jobs, jobs, jobs" grumble on the AM radio – and go to college. With her mother (Pamela Adlon) in rehab, it is up to her and her brother (Gus Halper) to make ends meet. These efforts intensify when Ruth receives a letter of admission to college. A gig that hauls scrap metal that the local farm manager sells to offshore buyers starts off physically demanding and then turns into a criminal and becomes just one of the adversities Ruth has to overcome if she is to rise from her surroundings. As Ruth, Jessica Barden (The Lobster, The End of the Damned World) is driving, engaging and, with often minimal dialogue, suggests the sense of the character's deep inner world. Inspired by Barbara Lodens Wanda shoots bars in Super 16mm, the wintry landscape that DP Dustin Lane has kept in deep blue and gray.
I spoke to Riegel earlier this month about the path that led her from selecting 25 New Face to this first feature seven years later. She shared the experience of learning to "throw the script away", filming in hands-on workplaces, and why a new generation of storytellers need industry representatives.
Filmmaker: The last time we spoke for filmmakers was in 2014 when you were one of our 25 new faces. You were mostly a screenwriter at the time and you said you had hope of directing. You talked about it in this play, but Holler wasn't one of them.
Riegel: Holler wasn't.
Filmmaker: Then can you tell us about the path that led you to film that first feature a few years later?
Bars: Shortly after this interview, I started working on Holler in 2014. I'd got out of the military, gone to film school, and made short films. I always thought I'd drop out of film school and work in some form in film curation, be a critic, or write more academically about film. That was the goal, even if I didn't really want it. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found some ins scriptwriting and was able to cobble together a living and earn rent. And then, over time, it became a very convenient way of making a living for me. But I was told, "Give these scripts (you write) to these male directors who are very hot right now. And you will get your chance, you will get your chance, girls!"
The years passed, I tried to make hollers and in 2016 everything changed. Harvey Weinstein's turning point has happened. Companies like the company that made my film (Level Forward) were founded to help women directors and not just give us mentoring or apprenticeships or internships – so many ships! – but hire and finance. Say “yes” in the room. I feel like I benefited from that moment because before it was years where "We'll give you this shadow position (directing)," but then (they would) give the script to someone else to direct.
Filmmaker: Did you have the script for Holler before you made the short film, or did you make the short film and then developed it into a script?
Bars: I made the short film and had an idea what I would like to do with a feature. The short film was an exercise in filming in a junkyard. I grew up in this environment, but I didn't know how it would work with machines, power tools and factories on an almost "documentary fiction" basis. How do you take a professional actor and surround him with "first-time visitors" as I call them. How do you mix these worlds together? I have a documentary background – I went to a film school in Ohio and studied with the likes of Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. I love documentaries, but how do you fuse the two? I learned all of these tough lessons on the short film. Then I wrote the feature and it became a more personal story for me. I took the lessons from the short film, but went creatively in a completely different direction.
Filmmaker: What did some of these practical lessons learn?
Bars: How to work with people who really live in the churches (the story takes place in). How to have something that's like a script just so we all know the beats, the moves of the dance we're doing right now, but then put the script away, give it up and be in this very messy junkyard together and hug whatever always these people will. Prepare as much as you can, then set all of the prep aside. I think I tried to stick too closely to the plan in the short film. I think in order to perform really well and have things that feel authentic, you have to let go. If this is your approach, you need to allow that person to do whatever they will do. You can't override it.
Filmmaker: Then what was the personal story that you wanted to include in the feature version of Holler?
Bars: The most obvious was that it was a young female lead. That made it very difficult to make the film back then. I went to over 70 rooms where people wanted a male lead. They saw my short film and they liked the guys that were in it. These guys are local and they are amazing in the movie, but it didn't feel personal to me because I'm not a little boy. I wanted to tell my story, and all I knew was that it was a young woman in a very rough, muscular environment. And then I wanted to tell you how difficult it is for young women to get an education in America. I grew up a poor woman in south Ohio and no one in my family above me had gone to college. I haven't had people tell me about scholarships, FASFA, or grants. And I thought if I felt this way, a lot of other young women would feel this way. I wanted to tell this story.
Filmmaker: You have a number of producers who are involved in this film. What was the process of connecting with the different producers, how did they work together and what was the catalytic moment that led to the film actually being made?
Bars: I feel like all early films have so many producers and that they have such a huge special thank you area. Katie McNeill and Adam Cobb were my producers on location with me. Adam was there from the short film to the feature to the script to the preproduction, production until now – from start to finish. Katie and Jamie Patricof from Hunting Lane are amazing – they've been involved in some development and preproduction so far. And then Level Forward, who helped finance and produce the film, is just a wonderful company. You were the first to say “yes” – you made it happen.
And then, as for the executive producers, there were so many people over the five year trip helping out with various things that I needed – especially Paul Feig. I was looking for an executive producer who could think of funding the film and maybe a cast, or get people to take me seriously and give me a chance in the room. And Paul is one of those great, powerful directors in Hollywood.
Filmmaker: Did you connect with him through your script?
Riegel: No. An agent I work with who's on the Reframe project in Hollywood knew Paul through Reframe and told him about me and set up a meeting. Paul read the script and brought me in and asked me how I was going to make the film. He checked me out thoroughly. How I was going to shoot on Super 16mm film, what the days would be like, the weather and everything. He said yes in the room and then took part in meetings with me to get funding. He was in my room with Level Forward. He called for me. I am really grateful to Paul. He's part of that generation that has made so many films. And I think if you are interested in your profession and want to let it flourish, you have to pass it on and help people with marginalized voices have a seat at the table so that the cinema continues. He is generous in that way.
Filmmaker: How many days did you shoot?
Bars: Eighteen. We were mostly in one place.
Filmmaker: The idea of filming in a practical workplace was carried over to a large extent from short films to feature films. Could you talk about the challenge of shooting in really working factories and scrapyards?
Riegel: Yes, the production facility and the scrapyard were in operation. We couldn't turn it off. We were in the middle of a polar vortex shooting on film and worried about the film industry. I found these places because (the place) is in my hometown – I was born and raised there. I knew all of these places. I had driven these back roads as an adult. I didn't have to do a lot of research. I remember selling cans to that junkyard as a kid, so it was an emotional thing to go back and film there.
Filmmaker: Then how did you get into Jessica?
Riegel: I got a call through her and this person asked me to have lunch with her because she read the script and I specifically said, “I want, I want a fresh face, someone who can jump in and it uses an angle grinder that goes into that frozen junkyard with me and really rolls up my sleeves. “I think a lot of actors really loved the role, but when it came to that way of working, maybe it wasn't for them. And so I get that call through Jessica and we had lunch and told her how challenging this really was going to be because of the cold, the location and the fact that it's so haunting with local actors and not sticking to that script. This is really difficult, especially for TV actors – (they) have a very strict schedule for a show and the script is everything. It is the medium of such a writer. And she had no problem hearing that. So Jessica auditioned – it was the first audition of the day. And she makes the scene and throws the script away in the middle of the audition and starts improvising with all the readers in the room. It was amazing, electric. And then I had to go to New York and audition about 200 girls that we had already planned. I phoned (with the producers) and said, “No, we already found you. We can cancel (the rest of the auditions). “But they didn't agree with that. And then, in the middle of that process, Jessica kind of got my personal email and sent me this Channel Four movie that she was in, Ellen. And she was Ruth in that movie. I thought this girl is persistent for that part. So that's what Ruth would do.
Filmmaker: And when you talk about being in contact with the local actors, what is that immersion like? Do you spend a lot of time off-screen?
Bars: It means being open to someone who has worked in a junkyard their whole life and tells you, "I wouldn't do it this way. I would do it this way." And let that person be your teacher. There's a lot of humility in that I wanted an actor who was affected (by this type of interaction) and who didn't say, “Well, I'm the actor and I make a choice.” She allowed herself to be a student. I think you always have to Being a student and not getting too much on your mind if you want to mix a documentary approach with fiction.
I said to her, "I'll send you to work in the junkyard before we film. I won't be with you. I'll drop you off." We dropped her off at that rainy, snowy junkyard in Jackson, Ohio, and she worked hard day in and day out. She loaded the cans and the baler. They made them lug metal around. They operated on bobcats around them. There would be a number of customers from the door to the waystation, and she had to help the workers with all of this. I remember her little hands were so blistered and bloody and it was so cold because it was a blizzard and she was a wild animal. And then it was like, "Well, now you're going to chop wood. And then we're going to be in this factory and you have to learn how to use all of these power tools." We made the rule early on that she wouldn't do anything, what I wouldn't do. If she is handling an ax, I have already chopped wood with that ax to make sure the blade is secure. When she uses the angle grinder, I worked with her a day before leaving her alone. I don't think you should ask an actor to do this (something you won't do yourself).
Filmmaker: You came to Holler from professional screenwriting and developed a directing style in which the script is thrown away. I'm assuming you still write scripts for hire.
Bars: Yeah, I'm still working on things that I don't stage. You could call that my day job.
Filmmaker: Has your process or attitude about this job changed after doing Holler? Your approach to writing dialogues?
Bars: I would say if I write something that I know I won't, I just write. I'm in a different, very pragmatic area where I find out what they want – "they" are the producer or an executive. It's always for (producers and executives) – I don't write things for other directors. So it's like almost figuring out what the customer wants – that's how I see it – and delivering it to them with as much care and hard work and skill as it can be. But it's a very different mentality when I'm working on things that I don't manage.
Filmmaker: And what are the scripts that you want to shoot for yourself?
Bars: Well they are a lot shorter.
Filmmaker: Is the mix of fiction and documentary that you explored in Holler something you want to continue with?
Bars: Yes. I like doing independent films. I love it so much. Yes, there are challenges with funding, but that's a challenge with everything. But doing films like Holler, taking portraits of young women like Ruth, and telling women's stories is what I want to keep doing.