Nicole Riegel and Jessica Barden spoke with Solzy at the Movies for nearly half an hour over Zoom on Thursday about Holler.
Holler was originally supposed to premiere this past March during SXSW in Austin. The film screened for the first time in front of an audience during the Deauville Film Festival in France. Tomorrow, Holler will screen for industry attendees during the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival in the Industry Selects program.
Holler is a semi-biographical film. How excited were you when the film was selected for SXSW?
Nicole Riegel: I was so excited, I cried. I jumped up and down when I heard.
How disappointing was it to lose out on the red carpet premiere for Holler and not be able to attend the various screenings in person this fall?
Nicole Riegel: South by Southwest was sad for everyone including SXSW and all of those wonderful people and who selected it—Janet Pierson and everyone. It’s had this delayed earth but I think we’re so excited to finally be releasing it and sharing it with people in Toronto and Deauville. It’s bittersweet that we can’t be there but to be able to still share it with hundreds or thousands of people who will be there is really special.
Jessica Barden: I just really missed all the free stuff that we would have gotten, especially at SXSW. They put together an incredible goodie bag. If anybody wants to just send us that free stuff anyway, we can make that happen.
Nicole Riegel: I was really looking forward to the Onitsuka Tiger shoe shop. If anyone wants to send me a pair of size six and a half Onitsuka Tiger, I would love that.
One of my favorite parts of going to Toronto is the South by Southwest karaoke party and you can’t just recreate that virtually.
Jessica Barden: We can’t but we can hope for next year.
Nicole Riegel: You can do that, yes. Or 2022. We’ll see.
At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Nicole Riegel: Always. I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. I don’t know that I could do anything else so it’s sort of like actually getting to live out your childhood dream.
Was there a film that you saw that made you fall in love with film?
Nicole Riegel: Barbara Loden’s film Wanda. It’s her first and only film she ever made. She was married to Elia Kazan and was in his films and Splendor in the Grass. She was this incredible actress but she made a film called Wanda that she filmed in Pennsylvania coal country, shot on 16 millimeter, and used local people. It was just this portrait of this marginalized, very, very messy, controversial woman in coal country. The first time I saw a woman like Ruth on screen was in Barbara Loden’s film, Wanda. It just completely rocked my world and I felt like I could do that.
Was it cathartic to write Holler?
Nicole Riegel: It was really cathartic. The first thing I ever wrote and I didn’t know where it would go in the screenplay but I wrote a scene about a young woman—I specifically initially laid out that she had red hair. Jessica sort of does and has these amazing freckles and just looks so amazing on film and by amazing on film, I mean on celluloid—Jessica is like the perfect actor on film.
Jessica Barden: I was born too late. (Laughs)
Nicole Riegel: Jessica was born first for 16 millimeter film. She just looks incredible in it. But the first thing I wrote was a girl with red hair and red hat running through these back alleys with the smokestacks in the background in my hometown. I didn’t know where that would fit in the film but it was like having a photograph in your head and I had to give birth to the image. That image had to get out in my head and then it just became, how do I tell my personal story about a poor girl trying to get education? I knew that that image was that girl and just telling her story.
Jessica Barden: That was day one of our shoot. That was the first day.
Nicole Riegel: It was my favorite my favorite part of filming because it felt like such a release after we filmed it because that image was out of my head. It existed in the world. It was so surreal to watch Jessica running and walking through this town like I did when I was that age. That was a really wild experience to watch her in scenes that had actually happened to me was unreal.
Jessica, what attracted you to the script and what do you typically look for in choosing projects?
Jessica Barden: What attracted me to this script was the script alone. I fell in love with Ruth and Blaze the first time that I read it. There were so many things I could relate to in both of those characters. I, myself could just see this—I am from a small town in England and like Nicole and the characters in the movie, I have a working class background. I had kind of done that one or two times in England but the subject was always completely depressing. It was always about abuse in some way and there was never a happy ending to them. For a while, I’ve really wanted to represent where I come from and those types of people in a whole way—where you can see the humor, you can see the successes as well as the heartbreaks and sadness—you just see these people as whole person and that script had this. I just had been obsessed with bringing that to life.
I met Nicole for lunch. I thought that I was walking into this meeting, and it was just gonna be so obvious that it was me. What I met was this woman who like myself is a very small woman as well. I was like, Okay, she’s going to be tough because I know that that’s what we’re like. She was like, “This is going to be the hardest experience that you’ve ever had. I’m gonna challenge you every single day. You’re gonna work hardest for me than you’ve ever worked for anybody else.” I was like, Oh, wow, I want to prove to Nicole that I can do this. This is the type of person that I want to work with and I have to get this role. It was the combination of the challenge that Nicole was telling me that I was up for it. It was going to be a huge challenge and who doesn’t want that? Also, it was just the chance to do a performance in a movie that I would want to see if I was still where I lived and give that to other people as well.
Can you talk about finding the character and shaping your performance?
Jessica Barden: We did speak about that. I think we spoke a lot about my own experiences, how I came to the industry, and how I grew up. We spoke a lot about my family and my brothers in particular because I really loved the relationship between Ruth and Blaze. That was always one of my favorite parts. I don’t think it’s something that I see. I haven’t seen a lot in movies and I don’t read a lot. The relationship between a brother and a sister is really intricate and there’s so much care in it. I think that when women have brothers, you have this strength, humor, and kind of like I don’t give a fuck attitude. If you’re growing up with a guy, I don’t know—it gives you this fight that I see a lot in other women who grew up with brothers. I really loved that. There’s also a lot of vulnerability in guys from this background that I don’t see a lot in movies and Nicole has a lot to say about that as well. That was something that she really wanted to be present in the movie. She wanted to cast an actor that was going to play Blaze with all of those different layers to him. I really believed in that character as well. There was a lot of things that I just knew naturally from my life. Obviously, I’d never worked on a scrap yard before and I’ve never been to Chillicothe, Ohio. I’ve never been to Ohio before. I made a movie in Massachusetts before this so I was familiar with this part of America in a way—that type of person. Austin, who plays Hark, and Gus Halper, who plays Blaze, and I did a crash course on a real scrap metal yard. The one that’s in the movie is a real place and it’s working. (Inaudible) We worked for the day. I did an honest day’s work for the first day of my life and I did manual labor. I really loved it and it was really fascinating to learn about it.
What was the experience like with shooting the film during a polar vortex?
Jessica Barden:. It was crazy. Also, not only were we in a polar vortex but that was the first week of our shoot. We’re filming on film so you have a limited amount of film for the day. You’re rationed what you can film. I think we did a maximum three takes, maybe more if it was a big complicated sequence but we didn’t have a lot of takes so everything has to be perfect before we went and did it. The weather was changing all the time and it was the first week. On the first day when you’re waking up and you’re like, I wonder what the shoot is going to be like. It was crazy. It was the coldest experience of my life.
I think that it helped everyone get into the mindset that you needed for this movie, which is their lives are tough and they are surviving. There’s a survival instinct every single day they wake up and that’s what we had on this movie. We were always safe, obviously, but it was also on a personal level completely fascinating to realize that you can survive something like that genuinely. In between the takes, we were obviously protected and we were warm. We would go into a car with heating. We were wearing layers but like not really because it still has to look realistic. It was cold. I remember when I watched the movie for the first time, I was just like, Yo, thank G-d, it looked like I was acting because it was hard to concentrate. It was hard.
Nicole Riegel: On one hand, it’s a beautiful experience to watch your actors in that environment because they are actually freezing right now. They’re so cold. It’s informing all of these little nuance things in their performance that are just out of everyone’s control in the moment. I wanted that. I wanted us to embrace the chaos for the film. You plan everything as much as you possibly can and then you have to just let it go in the moment. The weather really impacted that in a beautiful way. But what’s really hard about it is I love them and I care about them. I feel very protective of them—of Jessica in particular. And so to watch someone who’s come to Ohio to do this and be a part of this, who’s given so much to it, and who you care about to be there freezing while they’re being filmed and to be uncomfortable, it’s hard to not jump in and be like, Can we put blankets around her? Can we make her more comfortable? But at the same time, knowing that she’s giving one of the best performances I have ever seen, this is incredible. As a director, I’m a little at war with myself, standing back and watching it.
Jessica Barden:. For anybody that reads this and in the future, they’re auditioning for Nicole, that sentence is like the entire experience where, true to her word, she’ll push you harder than anybody else. It’s incredible
Nicole Riegel: There was an amount of discomfort. I’m very comfortable with pushing out of comfort zones because I like the art that it creates. You cannot tell every single actor please pick up an axe, pick up a power tool, let sparks fly around your head, go to this freezing scrap yard. I don’t know when we can go to the bathroom. I don’t know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. For some people, I don’t think that’s an environment for them. For Jessica, she’s like, Yeah, I’ll pick it up. Yeah, I’ll cut this metal. You almost have to remind her to wear the safety goggles. It’s a specific kind of actor that I absolutely am in love with—she’s that kind of actor.
When you saw the weather forecast, did you ever consider postponing or was this a set scheduled that you could not delay?
Nicole Riegel: It was a set schedule. We could not delay because we were a very low budget film and we have actors who work on other shows and films. There was a fear because of schedules that we could lose Jessica or Austin for their other commitments. We could not delay. We could not say we’re going down today because of weather. That was a concern for most of the shoot but again, I like that pressure and that discomfort of everything stacked against this film. We’re going to go do this scene now. I think it adds something to the art in the moment to have all of that stacked against you. I know it sounds crazy to say but it just sort of does something to you and in the moment. There was definitely a fear almost every day that the weather could take down this film because it was a polar vortex. Places in the community were closed down. Roads were closed down. There were safety and health concerns. We knew ahead of time there would be snow and that it would be cold but we did not know it would be a polar vortex for 18 days.
Jessica Barden:. I did the second series of The End of the F***ing World the day after I had wrapped the shot. That was how tight it was. I had left this set and then went to Wales to do the second series of the show. It was like, Okay, I’m doing this now and everyone was like, what was the movie like? I was like, it was great. I was like, there’s too much to say. It was a great experience and it was cold. It was a crazy world to jump from.
Nicole Riegel: We had sort of behind the scenes, this inside joke every day while watching the weather reports that we were making low budget The Revenant.
Jessica Barden:. Oh yeah, I remember that. Oh, yeah!
Nicole Riegel: It felt like that like someone was going to fight a bear at some point. It felt like low budget The Revenant.
Jessica Barden: It was incredible.
Nicole Riegel: It was.
How has the pandemic been from a creative standpoint?
Jessica Barden: As you can see, just a newer experience of the part of Holler. It’s honestly just another notch in the belt at this point like we can handle it. This movie is made of strong stuff. It’s just another thing.
Nicole Riegel: This movie has survived a polar vortex, a pandemic and it will be just fine. If any movie can survive the pandemic, it’s Holler.
Jessica Barden: I agree.
What led you to shoot on film as opposed to digital?
Nicole Riegel: I think most people shoot on digital and I think it’s just a personal choice as a director. I just prefer the look of celluloid and the look of Super 16. I think 16 is very distinctive. Kelly Reichart continues to shoot on it. Andrea Arnold mixes 35, 16. American Honey was digital. I’m not opposed ever to ever using it. I just feel very intimate with shooting on film even though it has its challenge. I think people shot on it for so many years before we had digital and they made lots of great films on it. Holler is a film about a people and place that feel left behind—16 to me feels left behind. I think the just a grain, the film stock—everything about 16 matches the characters in the place.
Jessica Barden: I think it also makes everything look beautiful as well. When you’re filming on film, it makes everything look like a picture. I think that you said this to me early on that it was a choice that you wanted to capture this world in a beautiful way. Because of course, what we’re used to seeing is a movie or TV show where it’s capturing a working class life and they make it look very gritty, and everything looked very rundown and this very harsh, ugly landscape, when actually, they’re usually very beautiful. Everything has something beautiful about it. It’s in the script and the characters—Ruth and Blaze are very beautiful, extraordinary people. I think that because it’s on film, it adds to that as well. It strengthens that side of the movie where of course, you’re trying to show the hardships of these people but you’re also trying to show the successes as well. The good things that are there and not just the bad.
Nicole Riegel: I think everything she said, I totally agree with it. I think that I love characters who just feel like these. I love women who just sort of feel cast aside, left behind, forgotten. I feel a kinship with them and film feels that way. You have people like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino who are the major filmmakers who are purists and they fight for things to be shot on film. I’m excited to hopefully be a part of a new wave of filmmakers who are going to use film and commit to it if you love it that much, which I do.
I thought Holler was a spectacular debut feature.
Nicole Riegel: Thank you.
I only wish I got to see Holler in a theater back in March.
Nicole Riegel: I know. I know. Lots of people see it in massive theaters around the world next week and that’s so exciting to me.
Were there any items that you were going to be giving away at the Holler premiere that you now have stuck in boxes?
Nicole Riegel: Oh my goodness.
Jessica Barden: This is the time, Nicole. This is the time.
Nicole Riegel: This is the time. I don’t know—
Jessica Barden: Tell them about the hats.
Nicole Riegel: I’m looking around my office for it. I have it. The Holler beanie—the red Ruth beanies that that Jessica wears in the movie for a little. It’s so iconic. We made a bunch of Ruth beanies to give away for people attending the premieres to have that I have in boxes and I might have one here somewhere—a little buttons and pins and stickers that have the red Ruth beanie on them. But yeah, the red hat is the one that I hope—actually, I’m being handed it right now by some help here. These were going to be used in the film. (The interview was done over Zoom.)
Jessica Barden: They’re so cute.
Nicole Riegel: So yeah, hopefully you will get one, Danielle, at some point.
You’ve gotta support USPS! What was going through your mindset that first week of March leading up to the press conference? I was talking with Paul Feig yesterday about it. Of course, I was like, do I cancel my hotel reservation, my flight? What was going on leading into that press conference on Friday?
Nicole Riegel: I think I talked to Jessica more than anyone that week because we were both—we didn’t know what was going to happen. You were hearing so many different things, but ultimately, I think it felt good to just have an answer at the end of the week to just know and to just have finally have some resolution on it either way because just the tension of not knowing for a week straight on something so important was really stressful. It’s been a while since all of that. Deauville and Toronto have sort of helped us rise from the ashes.
Jessica Barden: I think the conversations that I remember that me and you had around that time were truly we were looking at a situation that was completely unprecedented, which is like the word everybody used then. It was frightening. I think that the right decision was made. Everybody had to remain healthy at that time. Also, I just truly believe in this movie and I’ve done this job for a long time. Somehow I’ve still kept it but I believe in our industry. I believe in films and I knew that the movies would be okay. I think that’s what we’re finding now. I believe that everybody that had a movie in any festival that was canceled, they just have to believe in the industry and they should do and they’ll find their movies will find a way to be seen. The industry does that. It still has that magic in it. It still does exist. I’ve never become jaded or complacent about it. It does happen and it can happen for your movie. There was never a second where I felt that we weren’t going to achieve what we wanted for the movie. I never gave up hope basically.