SxSW 2021 Interview – LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD director Jeremy Workman

LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD is about Lily Hevesh, the world’s most acclaimed domino toppling artist and the only woman in her field.  Part a portrait of an artist documentary, part of a coming of age story, the documentary follows Lily over three years beginning with her freshman year at college. Through the course of the film, we really see her find herself as an artist, a young woman, and a role model.  More than just a story of a quirky niche artist, the documentary also gets into some deep subtext about following your passion, being the best you can be, diversity, adoption, and what it means to be a Gen Z artist working today.  Lily’s story is an unlikely American tale of a quiet Chinese adoptee who transforms into a global artistic force with over 1 billion YouTube views. 

Making its World Premiere in the Documentary Feature Competition at SxSW Online, we talk with director Jeremy Workman on LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD!

Of course you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past!

THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET in 2018. It was in the documentary feature competition and it was a great experience. The film went on to have really great success and I attribute a lot of that to the SXSW world premiere. 

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

This is my 5th longform documentary and I love documentaries and really find them to be so exciting to make and work on.  I love diving into a world or subculture and telling a story that viewers might otherwise not find.  When I was in my late teens, I just started making documentary films doing most of the filming and editing on my own, and just trying to make them good without really worrying about big picture goals. Now, all these years later, I’m still at it and following the same approach.

How did LILY all come together?

I have been making LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD for over 3 years. I was such a fan of Lily Hevesh and knew that I wanted to share her story.  She has such a massive YouTube following, but I wanted the film to take you to a different place; a place very different from her YouTube videos. So, I was eager to tell this very unusual story of a 19 year old, which was Lily’s age when I began filming, and how she is navigating this very interesting and complicated terrain as a young artist, professional, YouTuber, and role model. As I was filming, I was also editing. I think I shot over 500 hours, but I lost track. 

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

Usually the subjects of my documentary films inspire me and give me the confidence to keep going. This project was no different. I was so inspired by Lily’s dedication and passion and commitment. She’s someone who just wants to be the best she can be, and doesn’t let anything deter her from that. So that was a real inspiration for me.

What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge was really being able to crack through and make sure the film got to a deeper place. When I met Lily, I found her having a real depth and profundity and was this very unique individual who was living with passion and focus and finding herself through her art. So I really wanted the film to convey that depth, and not just be a series of fun domino toppling eye candy. I knew the film would have amazing domino toppling and incredible domino art (and also be fun!), but I also wanted the documentary to take a viewer to a deeper level about some of these bigger issues. 

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was made. 

Yes, it was very interesting.  Michael Lisnet and I were primarily the co-directors of photography.  The main cameras were a series of Canons – a C300, C200, and a C100.  We shot interviews and most of the verite with the C300. However, since LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD is a documentary about the world’s most acclaimed domino toppling artist, we wanted the film to really capture the unique flair of domino art.  I also really wanted to put audiences right alongside Lily and her team as they were building  So, we realized that we needed to have more cameras for some of the big domino topples in the film. More cameras! So, we brought in a lot of other cameras – Sony A7s’s, GoPros, Canon Vixias, even iPhones and sometimes had as many as ten cameras for some of the really elaborate topples. In one scene, we even crowd-sourced some camera footage from people in the crowd.   So, it was a bit of a balance between stripped down personal human-to-human verite shooting and more complex productions where we were shooting these elaborate live events with a ton of cameras. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW Online?

It’s a really joyful and fun movie and we’re just excited to be able to share it now with so many people. One of the benefits of the virtual festival is that it seems like so many more people can see the movie than at an in-person festival. Because of the online presentation, I know that more people will watch LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD at SXSW 2021 than my previous film when it was at SX a couple years ago. So that’s exciting. 

Clearly this is such a different time with virtual festivals and online screenings. How do you feel about releasing movies in this current format and how do you feel audiences will see most films in the future?

I’m totally okay with it. The theater experience is obviously wonderful, but the virtual festival is really an awesome way for audiences to be able to find the film.  It’s exciting.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?

Try not to be discouraged. Everyone is going to tell you no. Everyone is going to say you can’t do it. Everyone is gong to assume your film isn’t going to be good. Just put your headphones on, your blinders on and go for it. Don’t listen to so many people. 

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival? 

I’ve seen so many great films at festivals. Film festivals always have such great films and particularly great documentaries.

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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