SxSW 2020 Interview – HOLLER director Nicole Riegel

“HOLLER is a drama about a young woman named Ruth who joins a dangerous scrap metal crew one brutal winter to pay for her education and the chance of a better life. She works the scrap yards during the day and steals valuable metal from closed down factories by night and sells it to overseas buyers. It’s very cinematic and immersive and was filmed on location in the scrap yards and manufacturing plants of Southeastern Ohio. At the very center of it, Jessica Barden gives a leading performance that I haven’t seen since Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.” Director Nicole Riegel on HOLLER which screens at the 2020 edition of SxSW Film!

Editor’s Note: While SxSW was officially cancelled on March 6th, 2020, the below interview was one of many that already took place prior to the festival. To respect the creators, all already performed interviews are presented in their unedited entirety below. All of the below works WILL make their way out into the world in one way or another, and we will update this article with updated information when we have it. — JW

Welcome to SxSW! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

This is my first movie and my first time at SXSW. I’ll be at all four screenings. Paul Feig, who is an executive producer on the film is introducing me and the film at the HOLLER world premiere and our amazing cast will be there too. 

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past?

I joined the military after high school and then studied filmmaking in Ohio under the tutelage of Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert & Steve Bognar (AMERICAN FACTORY, A LION IN THE HOUSE, UNION MAIDS) who are concerned with labor movements in our country. I’m also from Southern Ohio and that confluence of things shaped my voice as a filmmaker. Then I moved to Los Angeles and was able to earn a really good living writing screenplays for some incredible people while always writing my own films but none were ever produced and nobody would let me direct them. I was always asked to hand my scripts over to more established and trusted male directors. I struggled to make the leap from short films to feature films for several years. Looking back, my real break as a director came in two ways. First, when Michelle Satter and Anne Lai invited me to the Sundance Institute family and started supporting me through various labs and grants. Then when director Paul Feig started championing me. 

That is a great intro. How did HOLLER come together for you then?

HOLLER was a 5-year journey from script leading up to SXSW. I wrote the script and a lot of people loved it, and I had a directing sample but I couldn’t get financing without cast. I didn’t want a star-studded cast for HOLLER. I also had zero access to getting that kind of cast. I wanted to find a fresh face for the lead. I was open to more established actors for key roles but never wanted a face that couldn’t disappear into the authentic world of the film. I also wanted locals for all other roles, to film on location and to shoot on Super 16mm film during winter. I saw Jessica Barden in a Channel 4 film called ELLEN and knew right away she was the girl. Then over 70 places said no to financing the film, but Jessica stuck with me and I stuck with Jessica as being the girl. We didn’t have any more doors left to knock on. Everyone with money rejected us, but I didn’t quit. Then the script made it to Paul Feig who immediately came on board to executive produce and use his power and cache to help get access to doors I couldn’t open on my own as a young director. Finally, Abigail Disney and Adrienne Becker formed Level Forward to support women directors. Paul, Adam Cobb (one of the producers) and I met with them and I pitched them my vision for the film. They financed the film and gave me creative control the following week! That was the summer of 2018 and they completely changed my life. We started prepping the film in December 2018 and  production commenced January 2019. We filmed for 18 days in my hometown and in very remote scrap yards during the harsh polar vortex that was sweeping that part of the country and somehow we all pushed through the frozen metal and blizzards together. I posted in Santa Monica for eight months and my editor Kate Hickey and I built the house. Towards the end of that time, Sundance supported me through the Skywalker Film + Music lab at Skywalker Ranch where I met Gene Back, a violinist and composer, who composed a breathtaking string quartet score for HOLLER in New York. SXSW notified us during the sound mix that we had made it into Dramatic Competition. 

Now THAT is passion! What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

Every story starts with an image in my mind and then it turns into an obsessive drive to get that image out of my head as soon as possible. In the case of HOLLER, I had an image in my head of a young mysterious woman wearing a red hat walking and running past the smokestacks of a factory during the winter time. Also, purely the love of the game. I love the process and creative collaborations. Directing is the best job in the world. 

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The most rewarding moment of HOLLER was the first thing we shot on day one of filming. It was the image in my head that inspired the entire film of Holler. It was an itch I finally scratched. The snow was falling. The smokestacks were in the distance and Jessica was running in her little red hat. We were all just so excited to finally be on the ground after all those years of rejection. The biggest challenge was getting someone to finance my film. 

Earlier you mentioned shooting on Super 16mm, which is awesome to hear as I am a fan of film-based photography. Could you talk more about the visual design and how the movie was shot? 

We shot on Super 16mm with the Arri 416. Both Super 16mm and 16mm are so distinctive and alive. HOLLER’S subject matter is about a community and region that feels left behind and only celluloid could give us that feeling. We wanted to use as much natural light as possible and not be afraid of things being dark. Anything digital would feel too clean and inauthentic. I wanted the film to have a visceral, poetic realism to it. Inspirations and references were Andrea Arnold’s work and the photography of Mary Ellen Mark. As well as the 1970 film WANDA by Barbara Loden that was shot on 16mm in coal country and the 1999 film ROSETTA by Dardenne brothers. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

It’s been with mostly me for five years and I can’t wait to share it with everyone and immerse them in this world. A few of the local people featured in the film will also be attending the festival and I’m excited for them to see themselves on a big screen. It will be like having a piece of home with me at the festival. 

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

Hopefully more festivals and a theatrical release. Because HOLLER is a cinematic film, it’s important to me that people see it in a theatre. 

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

The original United Artists Theatre formed by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s now owned by the Ace Hotel and they use it for film screenings with live scores. It’s part of my dream to show the film there with our beautiful live score led by our composer. 

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie, even if it’s a screening of your own?

This has happened to me and it’s very frustrating. Whether it’s my film or the film of someone else, I would politely ask them to stop talking. I have enormous respect for directors. We pour so much into our films that people don’t know about. This is also why I love the strict no talking policies of Alamo Drafthouse and I’m grateful to be screening HOLLER there. 

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

If your desire is to be a filmmaker, and that’s all I can really speak to, then the most important thing is to find and hone your distinct voice. Your voice is going to be the thing that makes you special and carries you through. Don’t try to be exactly like Martin Scorsese. We already have one of him and he’s amazing. What everyone needs is you. 

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen?

My all time favorite movie is SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS by Elia Kazan. It’s also the film my grandparents saw together on their first date.

For more information on this film and to follow its progress into the festival world, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film!

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