“99% of the work you’re by yourself,” notes Shane O’Brien in “Lily Topples the World,” alluding to the time and concentration it takes to set up hundreds of dominoes with the end goal of seeing them fall in a matter of seconds. He can be see fretting over each one, making sure that the distance between each domino is precisely the same and gently curved to an angle that when it topples, it’ll be most pleasing to the eye, but even when working with a team, he appears alone, deeply in his own thoughts and taking seriously the fun he’ll create for so many others.
As impressive as any of the elaborate and intricately constructed works of domino art you see in “Lily Topples the World,” director Jeremy Workman builds one to match with his marvelous profile of Lily Hevesh, who may stand out as a rare female in the male-dominated field, but more notably is simply being the best at it, garnering millions of hits on her YouTube Channel Hevesh5 with colorful pyramids and triple spirals that need to be seen to be believed. Yet she isn’t one to draw attention to herself, with classmates at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York shown to be largely unaware of the online celebrity in their midst, and the film follows Hevesh as she is pushed towards becoming more of an extrovert, deciding whether college is really for her when offers to lend her skills to “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and advertisements for the Washington State Lottery beckon and the path to career sustainability relies on putting herself in the public eye as she embarks on starting her very own line of dominoes.
There’s never a doubt that Hevesh is a star, but watching her make the decision whether she wants to be becomes one of the galvanizing elements of the film, delighting in bringing others happiness but having a far trickier time navigating what will bring her personal contentment. The instant gratification that has made so many of her videos go viral comes time and again in “Lily Topples the World,” but beyond Workman spending the hours alongside Hevesh to truly appreciate what she accomplishes with every individual project she works on, he allows the perspective to see the much larger achievement she’s striving towards, both in her personal evolution and in showing what human ingenuity is capable of, as he did in his previous film “The World Before Your Feet” tracking the steps of urban explorer Matt Green as he criss-crossed every street in New York.
On the eve of the film’s premiere at SXSW, Workman and Hevesh kindly spoke about their collaboration and diving into filming together while gingerly tip-toeing around Lily’s immaculately designed domino spreads so as not to knock them down prematurely.
How did this come about?
Jeremy Workman: I had finished editing “The World Before Your Feet,” and I was totally burnt out. I had edited 600 hours into that movie, and I found myself just vegging on the couch watching YouTube for several weeks, somehow just watching a lot of domino videos [which] I always had been interested in. I was interested in the community and some other artists, but I kept discovering that all roads were leading to this young woman and I was just like, “what, who, who, what is this?” I didn’t know Lily. I didn’t know about what she was about. I just was fascinated by her channel and her art. And I was at this place where I would just free base on her videos forever and next thing you know, I’m in her house, meeting her and her family and showing her my movies. There wasn’t even a big idea. It happened very very fast and we were super-excited. We didn’t really know what we were doing at first.
Lily Hevesh: Yeah, I was looking back at my old e-mails, and I remember it was a very informal e-mail. You were just like, “Hey, I’m a filmmaker thinking about doing a documentary of a really interesting subject…” and I think I didn’t respond for it for a while because I was in college. Then you pinged me again, and we talked about it.
Jeremy Workman: Yeah, what was interesting, and I think it is for a lot of people, especially older people, is this idea of this YouTube artist. I’m really interested in people doing stuff with these kinds of passions, but it was so interesting to me to see how Lily was kind of re-imagining art presentation in a way.
Not only is that interesting, but it seemed like watching Lily turn this into a sustainable career was something you could hold onto as a throughline. Was that something you could see early on in this process?
Lily Hevesh: When I first started out, I never planned for it to be a job or any kind of career. It was just something that I fell into the more that people watched my videos on YouTube. But quickly I realized after a few big hits that people wanted domino art — they wanted to see dominoes spell out their logo or live events with dominoes. I never really had to necessarily reach out to brands to find work. They would always seem to come to me, which is an amazing position to be in. I’m really grateful for that. And as Jeremy said, all roads kind of lead back to my channel. If you even searched dominoes, you’ll find yourself on my channel and that’s where they find me, so I just saw this opportunity to take dominoes to the next level and turn it into a business and see how far I could go with it. I just kept going. I was very persistent with things and eventually it all turned out.
Jeremy Workman: And looking at her, saying, “Wow, she’s a freshman in college and her talents and her skill, but also of course her involvement in YouTube, was leading to her being a professional. It’s revolutionary in terms of today. It’s not just this social influencer thing, but a real artwork and a real craft. That to me was fascinating. When we started, Lily was 19, [and I wondered] how does a 19-year-old navigate that world? It’s really unprecedented.
Lily Hevesh: Yeah, with YouTube nowadays, you can really do anything as your passion and make it into a part-time job or a career if you really push at it. That’s the beauty of this new internet era. Growing up with YouTube especially, I saw where it could head and how people were starting to monetize it and bring in new brands and start their new entrepreneurial ventures through their YouTube channel to promote it, so I was able to jump on it. Whereas a lot of people, they might just like consuming the content or just building and that’s totally cool, but I thought it would be really exciting to kind of take this new leap and try something different.
Lily, you may not have been thinking this far ahead, but when you commit to a movie about your life like this, is there something that you want to make sure that it gets across?
Lily Hevesh: Yeah, I wanted to get across [that you should] pursue your passion and just be so with whatever you’re doing that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It can be the weirdest, most niche hobby in the world, but if you enjoy doing it and you really believe in it, then nobody’s going to be able to take that away from you, whether it’s an art form or a new talent or hobby. If you can kind of stay in your lane and focus on what you really want to do, you can make some really great things out of it.
When I’m seeing Lily tiptoe around these amazing domino art spreads, I’m wondering how on earth do you film them so closely?
Jeremy Workman: One of the overarching visions was to show Lily in a way that people weren’t necessarily seeing on her YouTube channel, so how do we do that? It was really about trying to get into this personal space of hers and see her in a different way. Of course, that was also a question of dominoes — how are we going to film dominoes differently than from how Lily and other domino artists are doing it? The approach [meant] we really had to immerse ourselves and really put the viewer in that space.
It was very much also about [capturing] the process of building the dominoes, as opposed to just the topple — for obvious reasons, a lot of domino builders, Lily included, the topple was such an important element for any of the videos. But for me, it was only part of it. The process of the art was so important as well, so we had to come up with all these strategies to film so that we wouldn’t knock over her stuff and we could be right in there next to her, side by side [with] multiple cinematographers and camera operators, leaning on footage that Lily was capturing as well, so it was just bombarding these locations with video possibilities so you’re really feeling like you’re there. But it was always tense. It could just be a little piece that Lily was doing in her living room and it was always tense that we were going to knock something over. We did pretty good, but it was always very, very hard.
Lily Hevesh: There was one time, Jeremy, you actually did knock it down.
Jeremy Workman: I know. I know. [laughs] I think I had declared, hubristically, that we’re going to do the whole movie and I’m never going to knock down dominoes. I had just come off this crazy movie of walking the entire city of New York and I was like, “Okay, I’m good around dominoes.” I did pretty good. But there was one time where a piece of equipment dropped and destroyed a spiral a week into it.
Lily Hevesh: But I would say you were very good around dominoes.
Jeremy Workman: It’s hard because anything — an edge of a tripod, a wire from a microphone – could hit one domino and then they’ve lost hours, so it was very, very difficult. Also we were bringing on a lot of camera people and there was a lot of times when I would look at Lily and I could see it in her eyes, like, “Get that person away.” [laughs]
Lily Hevesh: Yeah, I’d give talks to the camera people and be like, “All right, when you’re filming, you need to be this distance away from the dominoes. Don’t lean over the dominoes, no throwing things, don’t run around it. Be very aware of where you are.”
Jeremy Workman: There was lots of times when I’d be like hovering right behind Lily too, and I would feel her looking at me, [thinking], okay, I’ve got to back off.
You’ve made it this far – what’s it like putting this out into the world?
Lily Hevesh: It feels super exciting, especially since we’ve been filming for three years now. I’ve been waiting for people to see it and I’m excited because people haven’t really seen this more personal side of me, so I think it will be really interesting to see how they react to it and just get an overall sense of the behind-the-scenes rather than the finished product.
Jeremy Workman: It also coincided really well to what was happening with Lily. Somehow it lucked out with these years with where all this stuff changed for Lily, and that was a really awesome part to it. As much as we’re all living in such a weird time right now, it’s cool to have this movie coming out at this time. It feels like it’s going to be a real blast of awesomeness, so it’s a great time for the movie. We are super amped.