Girls On Film interviews New York based film maker Lily Baldwin, as she embarks into the unfamiliar territory of feature length film. With an extraordinary talent for dance and choreography, Lily is fast becoming recognised for her uniquely visceral shorts that combine silent narratives with commanding dance sequences.
“I’ve always loved stories,” Lily says, “and how much can be said with a snapshot of a moment, or a frozen simple gesture of someone talking. What can a body say that words can’t?” As a trained dancer, Lily worked with The Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the Trisha Brown Dance Company, which is renowned for their experimental style. Yet, it wasn’t until 2010 when Lily was invited as a dancer onto David Byrne’s world tour for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, that her passion for filmmaking began. “As opposed to traditional back up dancing, our idiosyncratic choreography and performance spoke to a vast audience in a bold way, all around the world. I think it made them feel the music more, differently. This opened my eyes to the tools and language of dance, a universal alphabet of sorts. This started me thinking outside my contemporary modern dance “box”.” She continues, “On tour each day was a new place and culture. I began taking snapshots of myself in hotel rooms, and making these raw, stylised documentaries of a place told with dance – or some reincarnation of it. I think I have about 9 shorts, raw stop motion experiments, in which I learned the basics of story and studied the rhythms of editing. It was like a film breakdown. I wanted to find a way to make the electric space of live performance exist as a product, something that someone not in front of me could experience, and feel from. This was the beginning of what I’m calling “visceral cinema”.”
“Bodies say what words cannot. They can bypass alphabets, and communicate universally.”
You don’t need a passion for, or even an understanding of dance to watch Lily’s shorts. On the contrary, we challenge you to not become immediately transfixed by the rhythms on screen or her strange, sometimes troubling narratives. Her films such as Sea Meadow (Art Basel Miami, V&A Museum, SXSW, Best of SXSW St. Kilda, iTunes) and Sleepover LA (Nowness, Berlinale EFM, SXSW, Short Of The Week, Vimeo Staff Pick), have received praise for their “hypnotic” qualities. “I like to tell common stories in unexpected ways. How many stories are there out there? I think they all boil down to a select few, and it’s the nuance of how that makes a story worthwhile.” She continues, “I use movement and gesture to reveal what I call a subterranean truth. Bodies say what words cannot. They can bypass alphabets, and communicate universally. In my films, I use dreamscapes when the world as we know it is too tentative. That which is feared, fantasised, and felt, but not realised, must be expressed.”
Usually the star (or at least in the constellation), Lily always features within her films. From writing the scripts to creating choreography for large casts, acting and directing on top: Lily’s talents are clearly multidisciplinary.“It is a tad fractured! Being in my films certainly adds a layer of chaos and impulsive intuition that I refer to as my split personality authorship. It’s similar to the space of performing. You must be aware of yourself in space and of how it looks to the audience — “your lines” it’s called. If you fall onstage, there needs to be a new choice with utmost commitment made almost immediately. You must stay awake. My pre-production prep is extensive. I always make heavily researched mood boards, and have a lot of back and forth brainstorming with key creatives prior to a shoot.”Part of evening out that workload is working with people Lily knows and trusts. “Everyone on a production is curated specifically, and is usually a perfectionist like me. It probably harks back to my crazy dancer rigour. I have a great community of artists and performers because of all the hats I’ve worn, and I like to draw from them and push them beyond what they think they can do. On each production I like to propose this premise with all collaborators: “What haven’t you done that you want to do? This production is a platform for that.” ”
While experimental dance allows for a certain level of creative freedom, the cliché of an-actress-in-New-York is one that is widely known for its lack of opportunities.Two years ago Lily’s long time friend (and fellow actress within Sea Meadow) Celia Rowlson Hall created a video entitled, The Audition, which featured herself auditioning for the role of ‘Clipboard Woman’ and subsequently cutting her hair off to make it shorter, literally jumping through hoops and making herself sick to get the part. It’s a continuing discussion as actresses such as Keira Knightley and Ophelia Lovibond campaign for more meaty female roles in cinema, in front and behind the camera. “I have always been slightly self conscious about being in my own films, fearing “The Lily Show” syndrome. But I figure things out with my body, and by doing. Using myself as an instrument to understand something and what needs to happen. I wanted to find a specific relationship between body and lens. Through trial and error on set and then in my own editing process, I have honed what I think works.” This is why Lily’s characters feel so multi-faceted. Her performances leave the audience thinking about the film for days after, a delicious mixture of skill and suspenseful stories.
Developing spaces to take creative risks is something Lily is very good at. As part of an ongoing series entitled The Paperback Movie Project, Lily explores the imaginative effects of literature on the mind by using quotes from writers such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh and immersing herself in their minds. “I have a collection of paperback books. They’re like artifacts to me. This series is about making the mechanisms of imagination tangible. What is it like to literally fall into book? I get to corrupt a book with dance, as fantasy, rooted in words. In this series, adhering to the physical constructs and associations of a book helps me get wild and take risks.” How much of it is corruption is up for debate. As Lily recites excerpts from Lindbergh’s Bring Me a Unicorn, “The whole week has been a horrible revolting waste,” Lily gyrates and contemplates the words in equal measure. A powerful score by Mark Degli Antoni accompanies her as she moves, the contemporary music creating a disharmony that ironically suits the retro lens, costume and set design, “there is always a large sonic conversation that occurs that shapes the narrative.” Lily says.
Lily’s next step has been her first feature length film, GLASS. The narrative, she discloses, is inspired by a remarkable personal and painful experience of her own.
“I was performing in Lyon, and a man saw me dancing. He said we met and that I kissed him on the cheek, which was a lie that he believed to be true. He tracked me, and then stalked me for five years. I built a case with the N.Y.C. Special Victims Unit, and was in hiding for two months when he came looking for me in N.Y.C. and then chased me to L.A. He was eventually arrested, detained in Rikers Island, diagnosed as schizophrenic and deemed unfit for trial. I never once met nor responded to any of his outreach. This criminal case has been the launching point for my first feature.
The incident was of course terrifying and I had all my own dysfunctional coping mechanisms at the time. But the more I talked about it, I realised it struck a nerve with a lot of people who had similar experiences or fears of unwelcome attention and invasion of privacy. As I dug deeper, the story was ripe with themes about humanity and society, our cultural appetite for fantasism and its consequential blind spots – projection, idealised selves and false intimacy – so enticing, so destructive. Social media has us offering our private parts for public authorship. What’s the crash and burn of reality not matching the fantasy we’ve built?
Diving into this material has been ripe, to say the least, I have been deeply compelled to tell this story within the format of an elevated genre thriller. I’ve used my experience as a launching point to create the story of two fictional characters who are neither strictly villain nor victim. They each fill a gap in the other’s life at first, but when this twisted alliance turns non-consensual, it becomes a life-threatening cat-and-mouse game. On a deeper level, GLASS reveals the double-edged sword, the corrosive seduction of seeing and being seen, in our Internet age of accessibility where you can’t close a door once it’s been opened.”
Without fawning, it’s hard not to appreciate the level of commitment Lily has given, to turn a menacing struggle into an artistic and inspiring story. In a situation where it would be so easy to denigrate the male character, each character is presented with the personal complexities that make empathy within the viewer plausible.
Despite receiving recognition from the likes of Vimeo, ShortsHD (as one of the top emerging directors to watch), and taking part in film and music culture festival SXSW, there is still a palpable gender divide for Lily. “I don’t like leaning on the fact that I’m a woman to get “underdog” attention, as long as I’m given equal attention. But, that being said, it’s rough! As a female director I encounter these cards: “bitch”, “fuckable”, “stupid”, “emotionally over the top”. It’s a continuing conversation.” If Lily is a “stupid” filmmaker, it is certainly a contradiction considering her work is exceptionally polished and thought provoking. It is hard for her not to imagine a world where her gender isn’t always laid on the table. “I’m kind of sick of gender being a card, from all sides. In my utopian film world we would be genderless makers, or be able to flip back and forth between making as a “man” or a “woman”; whatever that really means. I’m quite amped to direct more “male” content, violence/suspense and science fiction, using dance as a unique choreography of fear and aggression.” Yet that’s not to say that romantic comedies aren’t usually directed by men, so here the inconsistency lies.
On a lighter note Lily assures me, “It’s an incredibly exciting time for woman makers. It coincides with the utter upheaval and upstart of distribution platforms. Everything is a free for all. And the committed innovators are rising to the surface. With so much content being made, it’s really about making unique content.” So what advice would she give young aspiring filmmakers? “Take yourself seriously no matter what. Even if you don’t always trust yourself, keep moving forward. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. Work hard, and even harder at what keeps you curious.” Lastly, “Don’t be afraid to throw away your work and try something new.” Other than her eagerly awaiting upcoming feature film GLASS, Lily is in post-production on her short film SWALLOWED for the Collective Unconscious project as well as in development for two episodic series.
Image One- On the set of SWALLOWED. Photo by Lauren Lancaster
Video One- Sea Meadow
Video Two- Sleepover LA
Video Three- A Juicebox Afternoon
All images and video courtesy of Lily Baldwin