“The film isn’t about you, you’re secondary characters…” Joanna Arnow tells her parents in the opening scene of “I Hate Myself :).” This isn’t meant as a slight, but rather seemingly a reassurance that they won’t bear the weight of whatever she’s working on. They don’t know what exactly they’re being filmed for, and as it happened at the time, neither did Arnow necessarily, probably envisioning herself as similarly tertiary in cinematically recounting her relationship to James, who recites poetry at open mic nights and throws out statements like “Obama should be assassinated” just to see what the response will be like. Presenting herself at first as a moth to the flame of James, whose ability to toss off sparks is indicative of a potential to explode, Arnow gradually emerges as the star of her own film, taking stock of some self-defeating impulses and growing into her burgeoning sexuality.
One will be able to see this evolution at the Anthology Film Archives this week, where Arnow is presenting both her feature doc debut “I Hate Myself:)” and her narrative short debut “Bad at Dancing,” soon to be followed by an online release for both. While “I Hate Myself :)” serves as Arnow’s bold declaration of the woman she’s become, the films taken together announce a distinctive, self-aware and mischevous filmmaker who may inhabit the role onscreen of someone uncomfortable in her own skin and around others yet fearlessly throws herself into her work out of a desire to understand the way certain relationships work. A passive girlfriend in the real-life “I Hate Myself :),” she positions herself as the third wheel in the stylish “Bad at Dancing,” her place as the friend of “See You Next Tuesday” star Eleanore Pienta being the most grey part of the black-and-white comedy when Pienta and her new boyfriend’s (Keith Poulson) inability to leave their bedroom has taken its toll on the bond between the women. Both films are sexually explicit, but are far more bracing for their keen observations of the compromises we make personally to accommodate others, often resulting in some deeply dark chuckles along the way.
On the eve of the New York premiere of Arnow’s work after circulating on the festival circuit the last few years, the filmmaker spoke about the inspiration for both projects, the ups and downs of being in charge of presenting your own story on screen and what she’s up to next.
How did this run at the Anthology come about?
Short of the Week is having the online premiere of “Bad at Dancing,” so that led me to see if a theatrical release would be possible for “I Hate Myself :)” It just seemed like a good opportunity to release the two films online and theatrically together. It’s funny because “Bad at Dancing” was more successful at festivals and that’s what made this theatrical release for both films possible. I would’ve definitely liked to have released “I Hate Myself :)” sooner, but I’m excited for people to see both films now.
Is it interesting to show them together?
I’ve never actually sat through a screening for both films back to back, and the films are connected to each other. They’re both personal and have female characters expressing sexuality in unconventional ways and the humor comes from uncomfortably candid moments, so I think it will be interesting to show them together.
How did “I Hate Myself :)” come about in the first place?
I started filming it in 2010. I was filming the open mic night for James, the boyfriend in the film, as a favor for him and I accidentally recorded an argument that we had. He was wearing a wireless lav and we went outside, but his friends in the juice bar turned on the camera to record their band. It was a painful argument at the time, but after some time had passed, I was listening back to that recording, and it seemed like material that could be funny and entertaining and perhaps relatable to others that would allow others to think about their own relationships. So that first accidental recording that sparked the idea.
Did you start casually filming your time with James or did you have a pretty good idea about the form this would take?
Once I started filming, it was definitely going to be for a documentary film, but I initially thought it was going to be for a short film. It became a feature when it went longer than I thought, as I guess it does sometimes. Throughout filming, I envisioned the film more with James as the primary protagonist and the relationship more as a subplot, but in the edit process, I decided it would make sense for me to be a protagonist as well because I had changed over the course of making the story.
I didn’t have very much footage of me because I was behind the camera most of the time, but I wanted to get myself into the story, and I thought that given the subject materials, interviews or voiceover seemed too self-indulgent. Meanwhile, Max [Karson, the film’s editor] and I were having some conflicts about our approach to the narrative, so I thought it would be interesting to film my part of the story in a more conflict-driven way, and I became more in front of the camera subject.
I couldn’t help but notice Caveh Zahedi pops up in the credits for both these films – is he a strong influence, given how he injects himself into his narratives?
Yeah, I really like “The Sheik and I” and “I Am a Sex Addict” and I’ve been enjoying “The Show About the Show” a lot. I feel like he’s someone who doesn’t adheres to rules in documentary filmmaking and I don’t feel there should be rules in documentary filmmaking, so that idea definitely influenced “I Hate Myself :)” There were some other influences like Ross McElwee’s films and the idea of the character who’s behind the camera and getting a sense of their perspective that way.
What was the attraction to documentary filmmaking?
Part of what appealed to me about it originally is I liked both shooting and editing so much and it’s exciting to me how with documentary, you could do it in such a small way that it was affordable to just shoot and edit yourself and I just like being part of all parts of the creative process on documentaries.
It would seem to be excruciating for me to edit a film that I was a main character in, but also could see how there would be freedom in being able to shape your own narrative – what’s that like for you?
The challenge is to see yourself as a character with the eyes of someone who doesn’t know you, so it’s always a leap of imagination to try and see it that way. In the edit process, it was always helpful to have lots of cut screenings and get feedback and hear how people were perceiving the characters. Working with Max as a co-editor was terrific and like you see in the film, brought a different perspective. And Suki Hawley did additional editing, so it was definitely helpful to get others’ feedback on that, but I don’t mind editing myself. [laughs]
And you actually include that screening process in the film – was that an obvious decision to include?
It ended up being a story about the process of me coming to be more open about my identity and aspects of my sexuality than I had been in the past and reshaping the narrative around that as I was making this film, so the ending, including the screenings of the rough cut at the end of the film, made sense once we were thinking of the film in this way.
Since there’s a real relationship at the center of “I Hate Myself :),” is there a point where the film overtakes the relationship or the relationship is perpetuating because of the film?
The film and the relationship were definitely intertwined, but not as much as it seems since I only have a hundred hours of footage for like a year, so I didn’t film for that long for it to be so impactful.
Was that “Bad at Dancing” actually a reaction to “I Hate Myself :)” in any way, since it involves similar themes about relationships and sexual empowerment, only this time you could do it as a narrative?
It was interesting to explore creating another narrative with myself as a character, like a different version that I hope works comedically in “Bad at Dancing.” After “I Hate Myself :)” I wanted to switch to fiction because I did want to have more control over the story, so in that sense, it was a response, and I also didn’t have another documentary after “I Hate Myself :)” that I was wanting to make. I’d definitely be open to making [more] documentaries, but I like to come about them naturally, not go hunting for them.
Had you planned to star in “Bad at Dancing” from the start?
No. [laughs] I I wrote the character as Joanna and I was thinking about playing myself, but I made myself do a screen test with Eleanore Pienta and thought about whether it would make sense before I went ahead with that. I showed the screen test to friends and hearing their feedback and one of them said, “Well, do you want to do it? If you want to do it, you should do it. It’s your movie.” So I decided to do it. [laughs] I was hoping by casting myself in it, as a version of myself, it would give the film an authenticity and create that personal world that I hope allows others to better respond to, just because it is so specific.
How did Eleanore come into the mix?
Eleanore and I had acted in another short film together, Sarah Salovaraa’s “Google Ambien,” and she was just great to work with. She’s really talented and funny and she reminded me of some of the friends that I’ve had in the past, so I wrote this with her in mind. The film was inspired as a composite of the friendships I’ve been in and I was interested in the leader-follower dynamic in those friendships.
It’s so immediately striking visually. How did you come up with the style for it?
I had in mind Simon Leung’s “Vive L’Amour” as a visual reference, and I was interested in the long shot, long take style to emphasize the contextual absurdity and comedy of the situation, especially for the sex scenes. I wanted [those] to be a recurring element, almost a set-piece in the background that adds humor because it’s so minimally acknowledged. With the black-and-white, the story is [slightly] surreal in terms of how the characters act with each other, so I wanted the black-and-white to add a layer of removal instantly and take any ordinariness or casualness out of the image and give them a more formal cohesion that would go with the stylized dialogue and acting.
Despite the title, there actually was a choreographer on this – how choreographed did you want this?
My friend Jenna Hill helped me choreograph these dances because I’m not that great at dancing and I wasn’t going to improvise. [laughs] I wanted something that was planned. And her pitbull was watching and barking throughout the whole choreographing process, so I think that was special – she had to be tied up because he was so excited about it.
For the record, I enjoyed your dancing in the film immensely.
Thank you…well, that’s because we practiced. [laughs]
Are you up to anything now?
I’m about to start on pre-production of a feature film, a dark comedy called “Fucking Imaginary Friends,” that I’m writing and also hoping to act in that and that it will be the final part of this series of three films.
It sounds like that’s as personal as the others. Have these films in any way been therapeutic for you?
It’s interesting because as a personal documentary filmmaker especially, I feel like you don’t want to say making your personal documentaries is therapeutic for you because you want to be thinking about your audience first and foremost. I went into the process of making both of these films – and all of my films as a filmmaker – thinking about my choices in terms of the audience. But with “I Hate Myself :)” because you are a character in the film too, you need to be open to the change in yourself while making the story, so reclaiming the narrative or my role in my own life wasn’t my intention going into making the movie, but it was something that happened that I wanted to use in the film. And as a byproduct, I feel like my films have, in and of themselves, made more space for honesty and openness in a way that I hope makes space for viewers too. I don’t think they’re a good therapy though. [laughs]