Captivated by Film: A Conversation with Eliza Brownlie

The Darcy’s - Itchy Blood - 2013
Eliza Brownlie. The Darcy’s, Itchy Blood. film still. 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Harper Wellman

Eliza Brownlie is a Canadian writer-director who’s ethereal visual style creates atmospheres that beguile viewers and linger in the imagination. The quality visuals are balanced with strong storytelling, often exploring societal issues, cultural phenomena, and how they relate to the experiences of women. The combination of formal education and personal drive has led Brownlie to work with many musicians (most recently Big Gigantic), as well as companies like VICE and Dove. Through an innately collaborative practice, Brownlie has managed to establish a distinct voice for her work.

Could you please tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into filmmaking?

I started filmmaking about seven years ago. I was studying Communications at Simon Fraser University in my early 20s (I grew up in Vancouver, Canada), but found myself taking film theory and history electives every chance I could get. I think I always had this intuition that I wanted to direct… from an early age, I was obsessed with films, and I loved making art, writing, and shooting photos and videos on my parent’s camcorder. But when I was growing up, it was a few years before the women in film movement and diversity behind the lens wasn’t really a mainstream conversation, so I was limited in my awareness and ability to envision myself in the role of a director. You know, there’s that adage “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” which is painfully true. This is why visibility is so important and something that I push for. And I’m grateful that we’re finally starting to see some positive shifts happen as an effect of diversity initiatives, even though we still have a long way to go.

Anyways, in my second year of university, I decided to honour my desire to make films and pursue directing. I started out making music videos for Canadian indie labels, which gained some exposure and allowed me to develop my style as a director. I kept working on passion projects, pitching creatives, and shooting whenever I could (or whenever I could afford to). Gradually, more work within the music video, fashion film, and commercial space followed. Shortly after graduating, I decided to make the move to Los Angeles to attend film school at UCLA. During this time, I wrote and directed a short film that we funded entirely on Indiegogo, and that got into a few festivals in New York and California. I’m currently represented by Boldly– a Vancouver-based production company that does really amazing work.

Big Gigantic - Burning Love - 2020
Eliza Brownlie. Big Gigantic, Burning Love. film still. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

What does your writing process look like? Are you able to visualize all the details while writing the first draft of a script, or do you find more ideas come to you the more you edit?

As much as I enjoy writing, I also find it to be one of the most daunting aspects of the filmmaking process. Honestly, I’ve had to deprogram a lot of perfectionism just to get words out on the page. I was actually listening to a Livestream recently with screenwriters Emily V Gordon, Jen Richards, and Naomi Ekperigin on the challenges of writing and I was practically in tears hearing that they experience the same mental gymnastics that I do… it’s hard work and it takes consistency, and even though the divine doesn’t always come through, you just have to show up at the altar every day and try.

Anyways, I think the first and most important part of the writing process is falling in love with an idea because naturally, everything will flow better if it’s an idea that absorbs you! Once I have found this, I will free write for a while and start to form the characters, the world, themes, and the story—remaining open to everything that comes through (even if I know that I’ll probably abandon certain elements later). From here, somehow, a rough foundation emerges, and I’ll start developing the narrative and mapping out the major plot points into a beat sheet, which is like a detailed outline of the screenplay. I’m also constantly collecting visual material—photography, art, and film stills—so early on during the writing process, I will put together a visual treatment or mood board. This provides a reference for inspiration for scenes and for the look and feel of the film (having graphic design skills helps tremendously). For me, it’s an important balancing act of capturing the images I see in my head, while also making sure I’m serving the story, character, emotions, and central themes.

Film is a visual medium, so when I’m writing a script, I’m always thinking cinematically—how can I show versus tell? I’ll often include camera directions in the script, which is generally frowned upon if you’re a screenwriter, but since I’m writing with myself in mind to direct, it’s helpful to dictate and remember how I want to shoot it. All that said, I often have a pretty good sense of how I want to visualize the details in the first draft, but inevitably there are always scenes that require more time and contemplation to figure them out. Sometimes you get lost, and the best thing to do is to step away for a bit and come back with fresh eyes and new ideas. I do a lot of revisions, so the script is constantly evolving as more ideas and imagery come to me.

The Invisible Ones - 2018
Eliza Brownlie. The Invisible Ones. film still. 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

While writing can be a much more individual undertaking, there is something unavoidably collaborative about directing. Throughout all your projects, your work retains a distinct, almost preternatural quality. How do you navigate all those new relationships on each project while still capturing your vision?

You’re right—directing is definitely one of the most collaborative forms of expression. Part of what I love about it is its inherently collaborative nature, and that film relies on all of these different people coming together, working towards a common goal of bringing a story to life on screen. And when the energy on set is good, and you’re in a flow and making something cool, there’s something really beautiful about that process. I live for those moments! 

I think that the key to capturing my vision and ensuring that it is carried through during all stages of production is first to communicate that vision clearly and get everyone excited about it and on the same page. It’s also so crucial that you surround yourself with a team who understands your aesthetic and point of view, and whose work you equally admire. There’s a lot of delegating with directing, so you have to trust people to be able to do their jobs. I try to make sure that everyone on set feels respected and appreciated, and provide a safe space for them to voice their perspectives and ideas. I’m grateful to get to work with many lovely, talented, and creative people who bring so much to the table with their unique expertise. My work has only benefited from these collaborations.

But of course, since you are leading the team as a director, you also have to be careful that you’re not compromising the version of the film you set out to shoot. With the self-confidence I’ve gained with more experience, I’ve learned to speak up when I’m not feeling something, or I don’t agree. Even if it seems super minor, you’re going to regret not having said something when you’re in the editing room and it’s too late to reshoot. That is the worst!

How do you feel like filmmaking will change, given the current social conditions?

We are going through a lot right now as a global community, we’re at the crux of several intersecting crises… it’s hard to say where things are headed right now. But in terms of discrimination, this has been a systemic issue in the film industry since its inception and change is long overdue. In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of companies talking about equality and representation, partly because we are in an era in which “woke” culture has been capitalized on—but the statistics are still pretty bleak. The industry’s actions and implementation of initiatives don’t always match their words. We’ve reached a tipping point and people are sick of symbolism and tokenism in entertainment (rightfully so), underrepresented creators want transparency and action. Now it’s like, “how do you plan to commit to diversifying at all levels? We want accountability. We want to see the numbers, then we can have a conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion.” True, systemic change will take time; it’s not going to happen overnight. I’m hopeful that this is the start of some transformation. But time will tell. 

The Darcy’s - Itchy Blood - 2013
Eliza Brownlie. The Darcy’s, Itchy Blood. film still. 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Can you tell us about one writer who has influenced your work, and also one director who has influenced your work stylistically?

At the risk of sounding all too predictable, I’ve definitely been influenced quite a bit by Joan Didion and Sofia Coppola—two women who have developed their own distinct and singular sensibility and whose work has occasionally been dismissed as superficial (sexism!) I admire both for their poetic ability to juxtapose style and subject matter, astutely dissecting culture and tackling weighty existential themes through spare, haunting prose, or, in Coppola’s case, dreamy, hyper-feminine visuals.  

Many of us have been consuming a lot of film and television during the pandemic. What has been keeping you busy?

I just devoured Michaela Coel’s new HBO series, I May Destroy You. God, she is brilliant. 

I have also been enjoying High Fidelity and Normal People, both are coincidentally adaptations of novels that I have been meaning to read… I have a long list. 

Final question, what project of yours should people check out first?

One of my most memorable projects was getting to work with the wonderful Millicent Simmonds (star of A Quiet Place 1 & 2, Wonderstruck), on the music video for FRENSHIP’s song, Wanted A Name. Set against a lush natural landscape, the video aims to bring awareness to how the deaf community experiences and interprets music, with Millicent delivering the most incredible performance of the song in American Sign Language.

You can find more of Eliza Brownlie’s work on her website or Instagram.

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