Eleanore Pienta is known for striking a nerve, rather than having them, but October 1st was a little bit different. It was the night her directorial debut “Ada” was premiering at the New York Film Festival, and her friends and family were going to descend en masse upon Lincoln Center not only to show their support, but to wish her a happy birthday as well. A fearless actress and entertainer whose confidence often earns those laughs you can only get once you’ve pushed well past one’s comfort zones both on film and live performances, Pienta was told by friends that they had never quite seen her like this before.
“Once I hit the stage, I’m fine because even if I’m failing, I know I can try to work myself out of it and I love watching people fail because I love watching people try to rescue themselves,” Pienta said recently at AFI Fest, which sent an invite for “Ada” to play Los Angeles on – you guessed it – October 1st. “With film, you can’t. If people aren’t into it, you can’t do anything.”
Pienta may have been helpless as the film unspooled, but “Ada” built up a head of steam both onscreen and off at the Walter Reade Theater where the laughter began to roil inside when the fierce, speed-walking title character started to mercilessly trudge through the streets of New York in curlers and pajamas that make it look as if her determination blinds her to any other ritual of a typical morning routine. It is simply a joy to watch as gifted a physical comedienne as Pienta muscle through Manhattan – eventually in a dress made up entirely of toilet paper – and defiantly scrunch up her face as a form of protection from all the strange beasts in the city, from random mimes, pushy subway patrons and genteel store clerks hawking random wares. Yet perhaps even more rewarding is how she builds the character – and by extension the film – with means beyond her own performance, creating a spare, piercing piano score to speak when she deprives “Ada” of dialogue otherwise and employs the emotionally prescient cinematographer Ashley Connor (“Madeleine’s Madeline”) to bring Ada’s exasperation and rebellion into focus.
After playing a misfit to great effect for so many other filmmakers such as Bob Byington (“7 Chinese Brothers”) and Drew Tobia (“See You Next Tuesday”), there’s real poetry in how much it feels Pienta belongs behind the camera as much as in front, celebratory of rough edges and discovering a rhythm all her own that you can’t help but surrender to. While in Los Angeles, Pienta spoke about finally feeling ready to call herself a filmmaker, the five years of disparate bursts of creativity that she pulled together to create “Ada” and running and gunning in New York to pull off the frenetic and ferociously funny short.
I’ve always had the sense you were raring to get behind the camera. What took so long?
It was purely anxiety and also finding the thing I wanted to make. I’d been making videos which are very self-contained – basically me setting up a camera [doing] 20 to 60 minutes [of material] and then it’s me in the editing room where I find it essentially. I’ve been doing that for years and then I’ve been in the film world as an actor, but it’s taken me [some] time to be able to say I’m a filmmaker.
I’m still uncomfortable saying it, but when the New York Stories program started four or five years ago [at the New York Film Festival], “Bad at Dancing” was in there and it was at that time I saw Joanna [Arnow, the director] up there and in my head, I was like, “You need to be up there.” I was like, “You make videos. You’re a maker.” And I realized why shouldn’t I consider myself a filmmaker and try to make a film in a way that I’ve seen it done instead of just a solo mission with one camera, one girl, that’s it. I [wondered], “What would it look like if I wrote a script, followed the script, and gave myself enough room in the editing – because that’s what I love to do – to be satisfied?” So [“Ada”] was a bit of a test for me.
Has the actual character of Ada been percolating in your mind for a while?
A bunch of the scenes have been percolating for years. I personally am that kind of competitive walker who needs to pass everybody, like, “You think you’re going to pass me? No, I’m going to pass you.” And there are all these little snippets of things that I was interested [in] that just kept coming back and [I thought] the walking would weave everything together. I’ve always had this dream of a woman crying under those powerful hand dryers that [typically] make your hands dance, and I didn’t quite do that with the face. It did a different thing [with running mascara], which is totally fine, and then I walked into an Anthropologie one time and there was this beautiful woman who looked just like Maria [the actress in “Ada”]. She was so friendly, and there was this beautiful display of plates, and I was really so taken just by how kind she was and then I was [thinking of the dichotomy], “What if I just look down and bash all of those plates?” Like that would be insane. And then [I was thinking] one of the vignettes was a dress made out of toilet paper and it starts to rain – perfect, and she’s devastated, so [there was] this balance of an unlikable character, who’s kind of a dick, but then gets hurt, and piecing it together was when the character really came to be.
You seem to be attracted to unlikeable characters as an actress, and I was touched here particularly by the idea that there’s a place for her in this world. Did you actually see this as an apotheosis of your work thus far?
Yeah, I think I’m really drawn to unlikeable characters because what I think my job is as an actor or as a creator of characters is finding the root of that unlikeability, where somebody’s broken and acting from that – how they’re reacting to what’s been done to them and how that’s shaped them, so with that knowledge, there’s obviously an empathy. And coming to a character with empathy, I think, is my greatest strength in terms of finding these characters that are nasty and do things that should make you want to not watch them, so I see my job as finding something in there that keeps you watching.
How did Ashley Connor come to collaborate with you on this?
Having Ashley onboard was crucial and I was holding out for her. We’ve worked together before [on “Snowy Bing Bongs”] and she knows me and understands my voice. Because I like working by myself, it’s incredible to think that somebody has an idea and you ask these people to get onboard with it, like believe in my voice, believe in my project. That’s insane and for me, it’s still a little terrifying, but I wanted people who I can perform in front of, at ease, and the other reason I love working with Ash is that as a choreographer myself, she’s doing her own choreography with the camera. I really saw that in “Snowy Bing Bongs” she’s got her own language and it changes from project to project, and it’s still Ashley’s voice, but part of her job is finding that voice for the particular project, so I really believe in the images she makes. There’s something very genuine about it and curious to in a way that I’m super drawn to and it helped that Ashley is also a director and certainly has a director’s mind [since] I was going to be acting in this.
But Ash was in between two big projects and she didn’t know when the second one was shooting – short story long – and it was honestly like a week or two before when I was with Rachel Wolther, who helped me produce, and I was like, “Am I shooting myself in the foot [by seeing if she’s available]?” She had three days off [at one point] and she gave me one, so we shot the whole thing in a day.
Was it your idea or hers to shoot on film?
Mine. [laughs] I studied photography in school and it was 35mm black and white, so I love the thingness of it, even though I didn’t actually cut [“Ada”] on film. But that [tactility] was important for me and then also there was a parallel to how I shoot my video work because I’m not looking at the footage until I’m in the editing room. I know I have to have certain things that make sense [as a whole], but by shooting on film, I didn’t have the luxury of seeing what I was getting and I love being in the editing room and finding moments that I didn’t even think [of]. Like [there’s a scene] when I see the old man with the jacket, Ashley was just finding focus during a [camera] test and I reversed it, so things like that were a surprise.
The editing is wonderfully playful with some of the stop-start riffs you’ll throw in there for effect. Did you know from early on you’d have that rhythm?
In writing a script and having a narrative, that was what I didn’t want to lose was this “playfulness” in the cutting room because so much can happen there. I like essentially to sculpt the footage that I get, so I wanted to keep some of those elements that I love to play with in as long as it was helpful to the story and not just there. The moment when the two dancers pass her, it was just an accentuation of [this feeling Ada has of] “What’s happening, what’s happening, something’s happening, I’m inspired” – [the stylized cut] worked. And then [with the] hose [hitting Ada’s toilet paper dress], I just didn’t have enough footage, so to just capture this moment of terror, [I thought] holding steady on this happening in real time [would amplify it].
I tried a bunch of other things, but with the edit, it’s just what feels right and it was important for me to leave flexibility in the script to have those moments. Of course when you’re working with somebody like Ashley who gives you these surprises, where you’re like “Oooh, yes,” it makes it a lot more fun to edit. She and Joe Stankus directed a short [“The Chore”] that was at New York Film Festival, where there’s a shot of Joe’s uncle in the sideview mirror [that looks like a found moment] and it’s a beautiful shot, but it’s also such a gift to an editor, so in those ways, I also love Ashley.
She’s not shy about stealing shots in public places – were the shots on the subway captured on the fly?
Oh dude, we just went for it. I had this dream shot of when Stephen Gurewitz’s character pushes me down the stairs at a subway station and there are these long, long stairs with an escalator at the station on Lexington and 63rd, so I wanted Ashley to follow me on an escalator. But we were a little bit behind [on our schedule], so at lunch Ash was like, “Do we need that shot? Can we do it somewhere else?” And because I had been dreaming of that shot, we needed to get it, so we ended up going uptown because we shot most of it around the West Village. Then I couldn’t even get that shot because [the escalator] was closed!
But we scheduled [the subway shoot] before rush hour and when school let out, but because we were pushing and pushing, it was [basically] rush hour. It was terrible, but for the part where Ada’s falling asleep [on a fellow rider’s shoulder], there were these two girls sitting there and we were going to offer them money, like, “Hey, do you mind?” But they said, “No, it’s fine. Take our seats.” So it all worked out fine, having Ashley onboard, who’s not shy about what she needs because we only have so much time, and once I’m in [the zone], it doesn’t matter. It’s just like, “Fine, let’s do this.”
You also have this amazing score. How did that come about?
That was the most anxiety-producing part of this process. The reason I made a silent film was partially because sound really intimidates me. You can have bad footage and bad acting, but somehow in the edit, you can make it work. But if you have bad sound, it takes you out of it. You can’t be totally ensconced in the story, and also what I love about film, because I also perform live, is that there are these nuances and subtleties that you can capture. I love being able to tell a story with your body, and I remember after a screening of “See You Next Tuesday” in Boston, a girl who was studying screenwriting [asked me], “What do you look for in a script?” And I [said], “Actually, I look for the least amount of dialogue” because I like to tell a story without saying it. The nuances of just putting your lips together can tell a whole range of emotion from anxiety to shyness, so [the possibilities with sound] were really exciting to me.
We recorded sound while we were shooting just in case and obviously we used it, and with all of these vignettes that I was imagining over the course of five years, I knew I didn’t want the music to do the work for the film, but I was super into piano. I was working with Brian McOmber for a little while and we had a cut of that had more 1920s piano tracks, like an ode to your Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin silent films. And it was fun, but it wasn’t adding anything to the character or the piece and I had picture locked it really quickly [knowing] I would come back to figure out the sound, but Brian was working on a different project when we came back around, so I was just playing the piano – out of time – to the edit – and while I was trying to duke this out, my friend who was learning how to play the piano was showing me pieces he was learning. We were hanging out and it was like, “Wait a minute, can I record you? I just want to see what that might feel like.” So I did and then I sat on it for like a month because I was totally scared of it not working and I was totally scared of it working.
But I finally placed it and pretty much didn’t move it, and it’s funny because I [thought] I can’t tell if I think it’s good because I need it to be over or it actually works. Drew Beattie, who is my partner and was a huge force in terms of supporting this film and keeping me on track, saw it – and he can be critical – and said, “This is it.” Then Kenny Warren, who’s my best friend’s husband, is an incredible trumpet player and he gave me two tracks – one that lived in the world of the piano and then another that knew of the piano’s existence, but did its own thing – and I ended up using some of both, knowing that I only wanted trumpet to accentuate certain moments, like the trumpet is for her glee and her excitement about life, and also for the old man. Kenny sent me the tracks and I had a deadline for New York Film Festival, so I waited very last minute for fear of it working or fear of it not working and again, I just placed it, and I was like, “Oh my God, I think this elevates it even more.” It was kind of magical how that worked out.