You get the sense that Matt Creed doesn’t spend much time reflecting on the past. A little over a year-and-a-half removed from when his feature debut “Lily” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, he speaks about it at a remove as if it were a distant memory.
“Emotionally, I’m in a much different place than when I made it, but that’s always going to happen when you make art,” says Creed.
However, while Creed gets to evolve as a person and an artist, he has crafted something so emotionally precise with “Lily” that he’ll likely always be able to recall who he was when he made it, though the film was inspired by someone else. The story of a young woman trying to reclaim her life after coming off of cancer treatment, “Lily” is loosely based on the life of its lead actress Amy Grantham, who started a blog called “Boo Cancer, You Suck” to write about her experience. Like the Tumblr account, the film is both candid and unflinching, though defiantly unsentimental as its titular character’s greatest concerns – neglecting some relationships and perhaps persisting with unhealthy ones – reveal themselves to be of her own doing as much as the disease from which she’s recovering.
To capture Lily’s emergence from back into regular life, Creed and cinematographer/editor Brett Jutkiewicz (“The Pleasure of Being Robbed”) construct a loose, rangy perspective that gradually tightens as their protagonist sees her life come back into focus and with great attention paid to the soundscape of her home in New York City, the film allows audiences to truly step into her shoes. As “Lily” finally makes its way into ahomes this week on VOD, Creed spoke about how he first crossed paths with Grantham, balancing the dramatic and the playful and designing a film open to interpretation.
We had some mutual friends and I met her at a friend’s coffee shop. We got to talking one day and that’s when I found out that she was sick. She put me onto her blog and we corresponded through e-mail a bunch, then I would see her. When she was in the thick of her treatment, I wouldn’t see her, but at the very end, we met up and the idea for “Lily” came about through a conversation at the end of her treatment.
Is it true you were actually working on a story idea separate from what was going on with Amy that you then folded in?
The original idea was a lot harsher than what “Lily” ended up being, but I had this idea for something that had been lurking in my head for awhile, and just from reading Amy, I thought she was a great writer. I gave her this quick synopsis of this idea I had then I asked whether she would want to write a story around it that I would adapt. It was a little naive of me [since I didn’t] realize that she was in the thick of her treatment at the time, but I sent her this thing and there was a few back and forths. She was so sick at the time, but a month after that I just ended up sitting with Amy one afternoon and talking with her for a few hours. I had never really thought about this aspect of treatment, finishing treatment and entering back into life and I was very intrigued by that, so we decided to write about it.
Did that timing contribute to the film in a way? There seems to be this interesting premise that you’re getting to know this person only after they’re diagnosed, but you can see fragments of who they were before they experienced something so dramatic in their life.
In the kind of narratives I like to tell, I try and tap into a very specific moment in time and a certain headspace of the character. Then [I ask] what would have an impact on that character in that moment. The circumstances in which the character finds themselves in will then dictate the story, so it uses that instead of words and plot devices to help tell the story.
It was going to only be this moment that we were going to talk about and I wasn’t interested in exploring treatment, which you see so many times in film. I thought this was a very interesting, relatable kind of moment because what Lily is going through is not cancer at this moment. It’s life and she’s entering back into it, so it was important to tap into that really brief window and try to explore this character’s headspace and more importantly her vulnerability at that time and how someone can navigate through this window of possibility.
You’ve said your favorite scene in the film is when she’s applying aloe to a scarred area. How much did you want to document the treatment while not making a film about cancer?
I tried to shoot it in a way that was very observational. Nothing’s really highlighted. Even in the parts where you do see her get radiation treatment, they’re abstract and obscure in a way. You don’t really know what’s going on, where you are or what she’s doing. But you know something’s happening and you learn, oh yeah, she’s sick, so that must be radiation treatment.
To see her do the aloe was interesting because she told me that’s what she did, even though they give you a specific cream to use and she never used it. But I like that moment because it’s pretty raw and intense, coming after a real playful, childlike moment with the bubbles in the bath, then you see that she’s applying this stuff to a gnarly burn. That’s fake – it’s makeup – but I always get emotional at that part.
What is the collaboration like when the actress has had the experience you’re telling the story about to some degree? I’ve head you wanted to tweak some of the autobiographical elements so that while they were there, they actually were reworked to take the story in new directions.
With Amy, it was easy. Amy hadn’t had much experience writing screenplays, so we’d just talk for hours and I would write things down when something really stuck out. When it was time to shoot, I didn’t have to direct her too much because she knew the story so well because she had written it with me and some of it was based on her life, though not an insane amount. She could help direct inside the scene for me. We did a lot of improv, so I would tell her to do something and she could steer the scene in a certain way.
You also had Brett Jutkiewicz working as both a cinematographer and editor, which is unusual. Did that make the process easier in terms of knowing what would end up in the film when you shot it?
I’ve worked with Brett for 7 years now and he’s almost shot everything I’ve ever done, so I trust him immensely when I say action and there are times where I don’t have to say anything to him. I’m about to and he knows where exactly to put the camera. When it came time to edit, he wasn’t so sure he could do it and we had actually hired an editor, but at the last minute, that editor bailed. So I asked Brett again, he agreed to do it and it sped the process up immensely. He knew all the shots and would remember what take was good. We edited five days a week for three months straight, like 10 to 6, but we found the film pretty quick. But working with Brett is so much fun and he’s a genius.
The dancing becomes an iconic part of the film when Amy finds some tap shoes in a thrift store. How did it happen?
That was kind of last minute. At the end, it was something I wanted to throw in there, just to give it a playful element to it, something that was completely outside of herself at that moment – to remove the character and the audience from the more intense moments. It didn’t really make sense, but I liked it.
What’s it been like to travel with the film?
It’s fun. I got to go to Europe, a couple places in America and it’s been great to interact with audiences [because] I designed it in a way so that it’ll affect people differently. I left it pretty open-ended to allow people to come at it with their own ideas and I like to hear those ideas that people have formulated after they’ve seen it.