Woman, Director, Writer …Nicole Chávez

At only 17, Nicole Chávez has already caught the attention of The Love Witch’s director, Anna Biller (earlier this year, Biller retweeted Chávez’s latest short film) as well its eponymous star, Samantha Robinson, who is one of Chávez’s thousands of Instagram followers. It’s fitting that Chávez’s influences should connect with her via the internet, as connecting over this medium seems to permeate Chávez’s work – it’s how she meets her lead actresses, it’s how she presents her work (film festivals don’t particularly appeal to Nicole – and who can blame her, when she can instantly share her films with the whole world at a click of a button?), and how she connects with other Peruvian female filmmakers. It’s also how I connected with her – over Skype, email, and Insta, Nicole kindly chatted to me about her work, her future, and her influences.

So, you’re still in school — are you thinking that you would like to do a university course in filmmaking, or do you do any classes in that at the minute? Or is it just totally extracurricular for you?

Well…I’ve thought about going to a film school, but I’ve realised that it’s not very academic. Because they actually teach more you technical stuff, that I think you can learn on your own. So I’m actually very against that. Like, I’ve had a lot of friends that they’re in film schools right now, and I don’t think they’ve learned “creative stuff” – just, ‘how to use a camera’, ‘how to use a big budget’. I actually want to study either Literature or Art History.

Yeah, I totally get what you mean – I guess, if they just teach you the technical things, that’s the kind of stuff you’re learning by yourself anyway, doing your current filmmaking. So I guess what you want is that extra, sort of, fostering of creativity? So if you end up doing something like Literature or Art, you’re learning a lot about storytelling and visuals, things that can influence your references for telling stories.

Yeah, and I think it’s good when a person practices a lot, and that’s what I always try to do. I have a lot of scripts that I’ve written. I think it’s important that, if you want to make films, apart from watching a lot of them, I think you should just go out, grab a camera, and do something, even if it has no budget. I think that can have a lot more meaning than just going to classes and spending, I don’t know 3 or 5 years of your life just sitting in a classroom and, I don’t know, just learning stuff that might help you, but is not that creative?

I’d love to learn about when you started making films, especially the kind of films you’re making now. Or is this something you’ve always played around with?

I actually got interested in film thanks to Tumblr, in 2015. Because I always saw those films stills that were so beautiful from, like, Pierrot Le Fou or, I don’t know, Léon: The Professional

Yeah, there are certain films that seem to have second lives via Tumblr screen caps, like [Věra Chytilová’s] Daisies, and some other more ‘vintage’ feel.

Yeah, and I was so interested in them, and I always searched and found new ways to watch those films, so that’s when it all started. But, I didn’t direct my first film until early 2017. In 2016 I wanted to write this twenty minute film that would have been so complicated, and I didn’t know how to write a script, but I’d seen so many movies that I thought I could do it! But then I realised that I just wanted to make something more experimental, and not so big. So my first film, from 2017, it’s called TV-o Mamá – it’s very experimental, I actually didn’t write anything for that, I just thought about it and recorded it with my sister.

My favourite short film I’ve done is actually Coxxxina Misoginia, because I think it really expresses something that I had inside. I think it’s the film that people like the least of my films, because they don’t understand that personal significance. The actress is actually my ex-girlfriend.

Oh, really? I didn’t know that!

Yeah! And it [the film] is just so magical and so specific, and you don’t even know what time it’s set on. That’s why I really like it. And I also recorded that on just one afternoon in my aunt’s kitchen, and that was all – but the idea for the script had been going round in my head for, like, I don’t know, half a year.

Is that quite common for your process? Do you think about things a lot before you write them? Or is it a kind of mix of sudden ideas and maybe longer ruminating ones?

That film that took me a long time to finally put it on paper. [But usually] I guess when I have an idea; I just brainstorm and start developing it right away, because writing scripts for me is way more fun than directing. I guess it’s such a mix of things – I can look at a picture on Tumblr and get inspired instantly, I don’t sit around thinking “I want to make a film about this, how could I do it?”, it usually just comes to me.

The poster for Pitch the Baby bears the tagline “SEXIEST DREAMGIRL or HYSTERICAL BITCH?”. How do you go about exploring female archetypes/stereotypes and societal ideas around women in your work? 

My work is solely based in my own experiences as a woman and I sometimes fall into some stereotypical categories such as that of the hysterical woman, to which I relate very closely and try to explore in Pitch The Baby. What I find striking in the archetypes is what they actually represent, which is society demonizing and ridiculing us for having feelings and acting upon them. Anger in women is seen as hysteria and instability, and though we’re more allowed to feel sadness in comparison to men, I’ve noticed that pain is also considered the woman’s “state of mind” by default and that’s why we tend to glamorize it and even internalize it so much. That would explain why we idolize figures like Lana Del Rey. I’ve written a script on that. But I guess, the subjects I’m the most concerned about in my art are the male and female gaze.

The Pitch the Baby poster also has a little speech bubble next to Rubi that says “You’d be lying if you say you don’t relate to my pain!”, and I noticed in the comments section a girl commented that the movie description “is my entire life omg”. Is reliability, and examining the experiences of young women, especially in their dating lives, a concept you’re particularly interested in?

If by reliability you mean “trust”, yes, absolutely, but only in relation to the life experience of a woman. I’m also way more interested in catering toa public of teenage girls through my work rather than full grown women because girlhood are the years when art still has an active influence over a girl’s life choices, its impact is at its most powerful. Dating lives or more specifically, romantic love, is a subject I can now only explore freely after having released Pitch The Baby, but I’ve noticed it’s the most painful to write about. Love is capable of driving women insane and taking control over all aspects of their lives and that, in particular, irks me, how underneath it all there’s a power dynamics subject that goes completely unnoticed.

 Also, in the poster for Pitch the Baby – which I love by the way, there’s so many cool little details littered throughout it –, you put in the credits “Directed by Nicole Chávez… Written by Nicole Chávez… Produced by Nicole Chávez…Actually everything by NICOLE CHÁVEZ!”, and so I was wondering is that just a matter of what resources are available to you, or do you like to have that amount of control/responsibility over the film? Would you like to continue doing it that way in the future?

Well, I actually really like the idea of myself having all of the control over my films, in the way Anna Biller does.

I was actually just going to say that when I read those credits, it really reminded me of her! Of how she does everything on her films – writing, producing, editing, music, directing, costume design.

Yeah, I had very few people working with me, so it was a lot of work. The only person I would say did totally help me with the locations and costumes and such was my actress, Rubi [del Talisman].

I wanted to ask you about her; actually, I think she’s so great in the film. She has such an expressive face – because, you know, the dialogue is all voiceover so while she’s not really ‘directly’ speaking throughout the film in that we don’t see her physically speaking, she ‘speaks’ and communicates so well through the kind of looks she gives. So, how did you come to cast her? Did you know her well before you made the film?

Well, I had no idea who to cast when I wrote the film. So I just uploaded an instagram story where I said that “I’m looking for people who’d like to participate in a short film that I’ll be making, and a lot of girls answered that story. But I have this other account, Chicas VHS, so Rubi actually answered that account not my personal one. And when I looked at her pictures, I thought she was perfect because she had such a look of not being from this time, and that was what I was looking for – someone that didn’t look too “modern.” So I told her “I’ll send you the script, and you can tell me if you’re interested. She totally felt that she related to the script, so we met. Before we met, she actually thought that I wanted her to art direct the film [Rubi does a lot of professional art directing], and I said, “No! I want you to be my actress!” We just became friends instantly, and hung out as friends a lot rather than just talking about the film.

That’s so great, and I guess it must help if you’re directing someone to have that bond?

Totally.

Have you often directed people that you know? You mentioned you’ve worked with your sister before.

No, I always look for new people. And it’s all because of instagram, I think, because follow a lot of people I don’t necessarily ‘know’, from all different countries. I think I instinctively pick my actresses, because there’s just a feeling that they might be ‘the one’, the person perfect for the role. Like, right now I’m working on this medium length film. The actress is an Ecuadorian singer, I had no idea who she was before – she actually responded to the Pitch the Baby casting call – but when I wrote this medium length script, she just popped up in my mind. So I’m enjoying working with her right now, she’s also really cool. I love it, because I don’t really think that much about who should be the protagonist, it just appears. 

I like what you were saying about using Instagram, because it reminds me of what we were saying about how you, and so many girls our sort of age, got into the stuff they’re into via Tumblr. Instagram almost seems like the ‘few years later’ version of that. You can explore interests and meet people, kind of use it as a mood board. 

So, you’ve already mentioned Chicas VHS, which I love the concept of. So, maybe you could tell us a bit about how you got the idea for it, how it got started?

It’s all so crazy, because I just created it because I read this article on i-D magazine about Miranda July, because she had this feminist film collective back in the 90s called “Joanie 4 Jackie”. Well, when I read it I thought, “that’s everything that I would like to do!”, and I knew that there was no one doing that in my country…there was a lack of something to give female directors attention, that I could see. It was so fun; I felt so inspired and spent entire days creating posters. I’ve stopped posting as much [on Chicas VHS] though, I didn’t receive as many responses as I wanted to and it didn’t work out quite how I would have liked it too. I’m so glad I did it though, it’s how I met Rubi and I still think as a concept it’s totally great. But, I guess, it’s not the 90s anymore, so I’m not sure if it’ll work! I still love it.

If you happened to get a bit more interest from some people you’d like to start doing it again?

I’d totally love to do it. The idea was for women to watch each other’s films, exchange tips, and inspire each other, and I’d still like to do that.

I love that the concept is you send the films to each other privately and they remain within the group. It’s quite intimate, and doesn’t put too much pressure on people.

I wanted to do that because it would feel more intimate, like you said, but it was also actually because I was afraid that some girls would feel ashamed or afraid of posting their works. Because when I first posted my short film it was online for like a month, and then – I didn’t delete it, I just made it private on YouTube – because I was ashamed. Because I was the protagonist, and I thought I looked kind of ugly, which is so stupid. But it was what I felt. And I felt ashamed of the editing and stuff like that. I actually haven’t seen that film since last April. I felt embarrassed of seeing myself of the screen. So I wanted the compilation to be ‘secret’ because of that. Only the filmmakers would see them, because I know shame is so common, especially amongst women. Especially teenage girls, they get criticised a lot, and people just can’t leave them alone. And men get to make really shitty films all the time! But when women make a film, it’s seen so differently.

When you put Pitch the Baby out there, it must have been so gratifying when you saw that Anna Biller has retweeted it, as she clearly influences you a lot, and in fact you feature clips from her film Viva within scenes of Pitch the Baby.

Totally, and I was so surprised! I would like to direct something like Viva, as it is a feminist take on sexploitation films. I always felt really uncomfortable looking at sexploitation films, because the sex scenes are so long and boring. But I really like the aesthetic, and there’s a certain feeling to them that I like that I can’t explain. And I don’t really care; I don’t feel any guilt saying it, because I think inspiration and references are something that should always happen in your work. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, I’ve heard directors say how they don’t want to have any other movie references because they think their work wouldn’t belong completely to them. But I love referencing. 

So, what do you have planned for the future?

Well, the next film that comes out will be the medium length one I mentioned. And then after that I am planning on making my first feature film. I already know who my two lead actresses are going to be – one of them, I’ve already met her, and the other one we follow each other on Instagram but I haven’t met her yet.

Can you give us any sneak peak of what the story is about?

Yeah! It’s actually going to be an experimental and gay adaptation of The Lady of the Camellias. . I love the fact that it’s a tragedy, and a romantic one. I thought that if I make it from a lesbian perspective, it’s going to be really interesting I’m just so excited. I’m still writing it though.

That sounds so interesting, I can’t wait to see it! I was actually going to have my last question to you be that if you could adapt any work of fiction into a film, what would you pick? But I guess we have our answer!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.