When making a film about the hardscrabble life of a young woman barely getting by in Southern Ohio in “Holler,” there were bound to be exhausting days for Jessica Barden, who as Ruth, already frustrated with the knowledge of how to calculate elaborate math equations in her head, but has to make do with her hands tending to scrap metal with her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) for keep a roof over their heads, was called upon to lift reels of copper into the flatbed of a truck and run from the authorities in character when the script called for it. The polar vortex that hit during the shoot didn’t make things any easier, but Barden wasn’t one to complain about any of it. In fact, if you were to ask her about the toughest day of shooting, it took place at a roller rink.
“That was actually the most tiring because I was so excited that I just kept on rollerblading in between the scenes, and it went on for like 11 hours,” says Barden. “Everyone was like, ‘Jess, you should probably just take a seat,’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m having such a good time, please. This is the best.’ I scorpioned at one point into a wall — my ego was hurt, but I was fine.”
It makes sense watching “Holler” that the most enjoyable parts might’ve been the most taxing when writer/director Nicole Riegel shows how hard the fight is for those moments of joy, growing up in poverty and being able to see miles ahead when there’s nothing but flat land, but no opportunity anywhere within reach. Riegel, who enlisted in the Army as her first steps towards making her way out, may tell a story that isn’t unique on the surface, particularly as that story becomes more universal in a country where upward mobility seems all but impossible for most, but what becomes truly special about her feature debut are the ways in which you come to understand why Ruth hasn’t left the only home she’s ever known just yet, reasons beyond her obligations to finish out high school and visiting her mother (Pamela Adlon) in prison.
Between Riegel’s tender and nuanced view of what strength can be found in having few to rely on but yourself and Barden’s spirited performance as the resourceful Ruth, “Holler” takes audiences places they don’t ordinarily see on screen well before reaching the scrapyards. With the film recently premiering at Deauville followed by a bow at the Toronto Film Festival’s Industry Selects section, the pair generously shared how they came to collaborate on “Holler,” getting the liveliness of the locations and the community they were filming into the drama and instinctive qualities that guided both Barden’s work and the camera to reach such great heights.
Jessica Barden: I read the script and I immediately fell in love with Ruth and her brother Blaze. I knew people like that, and there were things in the script that I felt in my life as well, so I fell in love with it for those reasons and I couldn’t wait to go and meet Nicole who wrote the script and was going to direct it. Then I go and meet her for lunch and she was like, “This is going to be the most challenging thing that you’ve ever done. I’m going to work you harder than any other director has ever worked you. This is going to be really tough, can you do it?” And she gave it to me like a challenge and I was like, “Yeah, of course I can do it.”
Nicole Riegel: I wanted not someone who was just incredibly talented for the part, but an actor who I could take to a scrap yard, who would embrace power tools, the frozen landscape, be in the cold, who would just be really down for how physically demanding the role would be, and [when] I had lunch with Jessica, she was Ruth. She also made me think about the character in new ways. I left that lunch feeling like, “I love this actor,” and then she sent me a film she was in called “Ellen” on Channel 4. We had auditions, but she was the first audition in the room and she had the part after she closed the door.
Jessica Barden: I wanted to work with her. You could see that she was so strong and she had such a strong vision for the movie and that her expectations were going to be so high of the actor that she worked with and also for herself and for the movie. It’s hard as an actor to not feel so inspired by that. When you meet somebody that’s just like, “This is going to be really tough. Can you do it or can’t do it?” I was like, “I will do anything to get this role.”
Nicole, you’ve said that you had trouble getting an opportunity to direct even when your scripts got traction. Were you holding onto this one particularly tight?
Nicole Riegel: Yeah, “Holler” was written six or seven years ago and I think the climate is different for women behind the camera now, but women were more embraced as writers, not as directors. It was just really challenging to get to direct and control anything that I was writing. There were many, many years where I was [told], “This is fantastic. I know you have a vision for it, but hand it over to the male director with more experience.” I could never get that experience unless someone gave me that experience, so it was this really tough Catch-22. Skip ahead a few years, and the climate shifted and I think everyone just had this watershed moment for a few reasons that we need more women behind the camera. I’m so happy that I finally got that shot. I knew it had to be good or I might not get another one, and I’m just really grateful that I finally got it and that I can hopefully continue to tell stories like this.
You obviously had a specific way of getting into this story. What was it like to put Jessica through boot camp?
Nicole Riegel: A lot of it is just selecting the environment and the locations. That does a lot of the work for me. I don’t have to do a lot to immerse you once you’re already in a polar vortex in the middle of nowhere, in a scrap yard surrounded by machinery and metal piled a hundred feet in the air. I just have to let these talented people that I’ve selected loose and let them do their thing and let the environment inform all the choices that Jessica made.
Jessica Barden: The experience was immediate from the second that we touched on in Chillicothe, Ohio. Gus and I stayed in an AirBnB in the middle of nowhere on this farm in Ohio. We’d spoken briefly over FaceTime, but we never met each other before, and that was where we spent our first week. Our first bonding experience was actually finding all of the China dolls in this house because it was full of them, and politely and carefully putting them into another room that was separate. And just saying to them, “In case you have any spirits, please. We think that you’re great but just stay inside this room.” We just wanted to be so respectful to those dolls, but we were terrified of them, so we closed the door on it and never opened this door again because the China dolls were freaky.
But Gus is from New York and I was living in London at the time and we were trying not to get the car stuck in the snow because we were both hopeless at that. Mainly, what was the most important was the same for us as Ruth and Blaze – just learning each other’s boundaries and how to live in space with this person, because that’s what Ruth and Blaze are like. Everything that they do is together, and we needed that bond. We needed to know the things about the other person that annoy them and the trigger words that are going to make them feel angry and how you make [each other] feel better again — all of these things that siblings have. That bond where you can hate them more than anybody in the world, but you love them more than anybody else. We needed to create that together as well. And I couldn’t have asked for a better person than Gus to have that crazy experience with. When I think back to this movie, I just think back to us just wrecking around Ohio for a month and having so many deep life conversations.
You involve a lot of locals in the film as well, and those scenes in big social environments like the roller rink or the factory have so much authenticity to them. What was it like working in those places?
Jessica Barden: It was amazing. Apart from the main five actors that you recognize, everybody else is really from there and I think that it was extremely influential in the movie spirit. Everybody in this town knew that we were there filming and couldn’t have been more welcoming or more excited about the movie. For me, it made my job so easy whenever we did scenes with them because all you had to do was just make sure that they were comfortable in the scene and I just reacted to whatever they were doing because that’s real life.
The film is beautifully shot, but there are so many moments where it looks like it was such a dance between the actors in the scene and the camera person in those live environments. Were those difficult to block?
Nicole Riegel: I storyboard everything first and I draw it myself, so it’s just a huge binder and pull clips of how the camera’s going to move, but it’s not like standard coverage. When you watch it, you see how close [the camera] is on people’s faces and all that’s planned, but of course, that plan goes out the window. The DP [Dustin Lane] and I learn the dance and prepare as much as possible, watching a ton of Andrea Arnold films and documentaries [to] have that poetic realism and docu-fiction feel to it, but when we’re there in the actual scene, I don’t know all the choices Jessica’s going to make and the rule for camera going into it was always stay with her [because] something will fall off if we’re not with her. She might move or do something that’s different than the last take, but when characters are talking in the scene and she’s observing them, stay on her because I don’t really care about what they’re saying. I care about what she’s reacting to and how she is absorbing what they’re saying.
One of my favorite moments in the film may be when she’s at the dinner table, maybe biting her nails a little bit and you just stay on her and see what she’s thinking. It’s just such an extraordinary piece of acting and as a shot, it’s just beautiful.
Jessica Barden: I don’t even know what I’m going to do. I just do it when I’m doing it.
Nicole Riegel: There’s a moment where she’s in a little cart in the scrapyard and she pulls her red beanie down over her face. And it was just magic. On the day, I was like, “That’s one of my favorite moments in the film and it wasn’t in the script.” Another rule for camera was natural light. It’s dark when it’s dark and let it be dark, and also Ruth’s kind of in the back and the middle. She’s not in the foreground, she’s behind with the scrap crew, but then as the film progresses, she’s at the forefront increasingly. So there were lots of conversations about how to film her. I think all our roles like this typically go to young, twenty something men, exalting them when you see that camera giving them those hero shots, and Jessica does a lot of aggressive things in this film and the camera’s never really looking down on her too much. [The idea] was, “Let’s lift her up.” It’s all about the gaze of the camera on this young girl. Let’s try to lens her a little differently.
I understand the very first image of the film was of this young woman in a red beanie – and you decided to shoot it on the first day. What was it like to actually realize that?
Nicole Riegel: It was surreal to watch Jessica with her red backpack and all the little trinkets on it, clinking and her wearing that red hat, walking past the smoke stacks, knowing that I walked in that same spot when I was Ruth’s age. Now, I’m filming it and it was very emotional for me, but getting that image out of my head on day one was cathartic because I had that image of her running with those cans past the smokestacks for five years, so it felt like a release. I couldn’t control the snow. I don’t think I slept the night before [because] I just had so much nervous energy and it wasn’t snowing when we woke up around 4 a.m., but I wanted the snow by the time camera rolled, it was snowing, she was running and…
Jessica Barden: I was trying not to fall on the ice while I was running. [laughs]
Nicole Riegel: That was definitely a highlight of “Holler, was filming that scene with her.
Jessica, was the physicality of the role helpful to get into the character?
Jessica Barden: I really enjoy it when I’m acting. It’s one of my favorite things when I watch something that I’ve done, going back and being like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that’s how I was walking when I was doing this.” I don’t like to think about it at the time, and like I said before, I don’t really want to think about what I’m going to do in the scene. You get that privilege when you’re working with a director like Nicole, who explains all to you before and you have the chance to talk about all the emotional beats and then I just like to go and do it and see what happens.
I wasn’t aware of changing my physicality because I don’t want that ever to be forced in any way, and it probably sounds insane to say that I didn’t realize that [the role] was physically demanding [because] I did what was asked of me because that’s Ruth’s mentality as well. She is a survivor and she survives things. I think that I just woke up every day, went to work and had that same mindset where whatever was asked of me that day because that’s how Ruth was approaching her life as well.
As a big “Better Things” fan, I had to ask when Pamela Adlon plays your mom in the film — did this role lead to your appearances on the show or did that lead to this?
Jessica Barden: I just became obsessed with Pam. Pam filmed for one day on this, I think, maybe two, and this was before “Better Things.” I made myself be in that show. Pam didn’t necessarily ask me. I worked with her on this and I was like, “This woman is incredible,” and on [“Better Things”], she really does do everything. It’s not something that she just says in interviews. I didn’t see her again [immediately after the shoot], but then I was in Los Angeles and I had dinner with her and she told me that she was writing a character that was based on me in the series. She didn’t ask me to do it, but I was like, “You have to give me this part or I’m going to tell everybody that you didn’t give me it and you just ripped me off.” I tried to blackmail her. She was like, “Okay, you can do it.” Yeah, she’s amazing. More people need to watch that show.
Obviously when those kinds of connections happen on the set, you’ve created a pretty special environment. Nicole, what’s it like finally getting this out into the world.
Nicole Riegel: It feels amazing. I’m so happy all these people wanted to come with me and make this film. So many more people said no and these are the people who said yes. And now more people say yes, but I feel loyal and grateful to this group of a few who [initially] said yes, and it’s like a dream come true. I can’t even believe we made it, and I want to get to keep telling stories like this, so I’m excited for everyone to watch it next week.
“Holler” will screen at the Deauville Film Festival on September 11th at 4 pm at the Casino and September 13th at 6:30 pm at the Morny. It will also screen virtually as part of the Toronto Film Festival Industry Selects section.