On the eve of Cinema Femme’s inaugural short film festival, it seemed fitting to post my feature with a team of talented and amazing womxn. I felt so honored to get the opportunity to interview the artists behind the excellent short film “As They Slept”, including director Haroula Rose, producer Rhianon Jones (of Neon Heart Productions), writer Nicolaia Rips, cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby, and stars Rachel Hilson and Maya Hawke. I was fortunate to interview all of these phenomenal womxn individually and have edited together their answers according to each topic for discussion.
“As They Slept” is a short film about two girls in NYC who are old friends, Margaret (Maya Hawke) and Eleanor (Rachel Hilson). Both have started new chapters in their lives after high school. We follow them late one night as they try to piece themselves and their friendship back together. You can watch the film below, which was originally featured on the site Nowness.
“It’s beautiful but also painful and awkward to reconcile all the moving pieces of each other’s life.”
Being a college student, what inspired you to write this screenplay?
NICOLAIA RIPS: At a certain point during college I began–and I believe this is a common experience–to really notice the dynamics with my high school friends beginning to shift. Everybody is growing in a different direction, and it’s beautiful but also painful and awkward to reconcile all the moving pieces of each other’s life. I wanted to capture that moment of a relationship groaning and stretching.
Growing up in the Chelsea Hotel, how did that shape your formative years, and how was your transition into Brown?
RIPS: I grew up only around artists and writers and club kids and other fantastically creative people. There was never an expectation for me to do anything but be creative. And then I got to Brown and that was not the norm. Suddenly I had friends who were graduating and going to work at Goldman Sachs, and I was like “You can do that?”
It took a little bit, but I eventually found my community at Brown and couldn’t love the people I met there more, but it was a different.
I wonder what Maya [Hawke] would say. It was magical for me and defined so much about me, and the things in which I place value.
“I think I would’ve felt less alone had I seen this short at that age.”
What brought you to this project?
RIPS: Haroula and I were introduced by a mutual friend and hit it off so completely. She has an amazing way about her. She just understands that if you want to get something done, you find a way to get it done. Haroula initially asked me to write something for a competition she was invited to participate in. The script didn’t end up winning but Haroula was like “let’s make it anyway” and sent it to Rhiannon [Jones], who has a fantastic production company. Haroula really held my hand through this project and was so patient with me.
Maya and I grew up together in the Chelsea Hotel, a floor apart. She is my oldest friend and I’m glad she was a part of this. Haroula went through Maya’s agent; it was very official. Maya is a stunning actress and writer and artist and musician and all-around talent. Just a beam of creativity. I listen to her music and just have stars in my eyes. As kids, we would run up and down the stairs and explore the all the nooks and little doors in the Hotel and make up these wild stories. This is a new one.
MAYA HAWKE: I met Nicolaia because she was the girl who lived on 6, and I lived on 7, at the Chelsea Hotel. I think I passed a note under her doorway saying, “I saw that you are a little girl living here, and I’m a little girl, let’s set up a play date.” That’s how I know Nicolaia. We both grew up in The Chelsea Hotel, and we’d set up cookie sales in the lobby. Then we stayed friends because we had a lot in common. She’s incredibly intelligent and a special person who I feel very lucky to call my friend.
And then she got involved with Haroula. Nicolaia had written a short, and she put me in touch with Haroula. Haroula and I have a lot on common. Ten of our favorite films are the same, and three of the same incredible coincidences happened to us that week. So it was a no brainer, and that’s how I got involved.
HAROULA ROSE: I had met Nicolaia through a mutual friend, and she had expressed interest in learning more about filmmaking in general. But she is a terrific writer–I love her book–and so screenwriting seemed like the natural extension which would lead to being able to be on set too. Building a solid team and seeing how it can birth new ideas is one of the best things in life. Rhianon and I had already worked on “Once Upon A River” together so I knew she’d be into this collaboration. We started brainstorming and it just got a life of its own after that.
RHIANON JONES: I first worked with Haroula on her film “Once Upon A River”. That was one that I came later on. She just needed some finishing funds, so we put a little money into that film. Then we decided to do “As They Slept”. Haroula was like, “Look, she’s this young writer [Nicolaia Rips], she’s got a lot of potential. It’s Maya Hawke and Rachel Hilson. Maya Hawke is blowing up, and Rachel is a leading actor in a lot of hit TV shows. Both of them have a lot of potential.” So, I was like, ‘okay, let’s do this.’
RACHEL HILSON: Haroula and I are mutual friends with Josh Radnor, who I worked on “Rise” with back in 2018, and he so kindly connected us.
CHARLOTTE HORNSBY: Haroula and I had just made a feature together and she reached out with this script a few months later. Nicolaia’s script reminded me of my own anxieties and preoccupations when I was 19 and I think I would’ve felt less alone had I seen this short at that age. I think more and more we’re seeing friendships between women get the weight they deserve on screen and that’s been the case for so long in literature. It’s important to have stories where love between friends is shown to be as life-changing as romantic love. I’ve been challenged and shaped by the love and support of my closest friends and those relationships sustained me for a long time before I actually fell in love. It made falling in love feel very familiar.
“But then our two perspectives on the moment blended together really easily.”
How was it working together?
HILSON: Maya’s a lot of fun and a very in-tune actor. Wasn’t hard.
HAWKE: I think she hit the nail right on the head. She was so easy to work with, so smart, quick, and friendly. Whatever I thought was happening in the scene, it became elevated with her in a new way. She always showed me a different perspective on the moment that I saw. But then our two perspectives on the moment blended together really easily. Arguably that’s what created that kind of chemistry, but also friction, between those two girls.
“Not a kid, not a fully-formed adult”
How did it feel playing a character that was your age, someone who is on the brink of adulthood?
HAWKE: The film revolves around this decision about college. Friendships change and old friendships are changing. There are the friends that are unique because you are discovering together what you like and what you like to learn as a grown-up. And there are the friends that you’ve had, because you’ve had them forever. It’s a very painful process.
I haven’t had that many friends forever. I changed schools a lot growing up, and I moved around a lot in the city. My neighbor friends, and my lower school friends, were always changing, but I’ve had a couple that lasted. What’s been amazing about the way those friendships have gone on to change is that the way our interests divided never felt that important. Because our friendship always had to deal with a change in location. Even Nicolaia, for example, always had a change of location, or a change of school, and it was really interesting to get into that headspace of somebody who knew the same people for forever. I was really trying to hold on to that idea.
Something I’ve always craved or wanted is to have really old friends, and to have a consistency in my life that I didn’t have. And to get into that headspace was very romantic to me, and I think it really fit into what my character was thinking and wanting through those scenes too. She was wanting something that she understood, and I was wanting and longing for something I didn’t understand. Both were really interesting to me.
HILSON: This was actually one of the first times I played someone not in high school, so it felt really nice to tap into my own present experience. Your early 20s are definitely a weird in-between age where you’re not a kid but also not a fully-formed adult, and you kind of feel simultaneously 14, 25, and 92 (at least I did/do). I, Rachel, was definitely in that middle ground headspace with Eleanor while shooting.
As I’ve gotten to know you better this year, which has been awesome by the way, I’ve marveled at your ability to portray real female stories that deeply move me, like OUAR. “As They Slept” transported me back to a time that I could totally relate to in my early twenties, when I started college. What did you want to bring out of these characters and how did you bring yourself to them?
ROSE: For “As They Slept,” I wanted people to remember that particular age and moment in life where the anxiety about identity is palpable. Nicolaia and I talked about it a lot as she was writing the script, and she is naturally so vibrant and funny that it was a joy to read. So when we got to filming, I just wanted to make sure that we could really empathize with both of these characters, and the heartbreak of potentially outgrowing your friendships as you change and evolve as a person. I remember that stage of life well, and I think we carry a sense of growing up throughout our lives, or at least I definitely do, so it is easy for me to keep relating!
“I’m excited to start playing less empathetic characters.”
I’m really excited about the characters I’ve seen you both play onscreen. What characters are you the most drawn to playing, and which ones would you be interested in tackling in the future?
HAWKE: I always find it difficult to answer that question. The thing I’m most drawn to is good writing. The thing I’m drawn to is real characters, or totally make-believe characters, but people who are dimensional and complicated as well as have complicated and dimensional relationships, and say beautiful words. I fell in love with acting because I fell in love with beautiful words.
I’m excited to start playing less empathetic characters. For the most part, the characters I’ve been asked to play are characters that the audience is meant to empathize with and care about. But I’d like to play a “bad” guy. Of course when you play the bad guy, you make them an empathetic character. I’m excited to play a character who does bad things in a real way.
Sometimes what can happen, I think, with a lot with female characters, especially when the industry tries to be better about womxn, is that they can become neutralized in their positivity, like they don’t do anything wrong. Bad things may happen to them, but they don’t make any real mistakes. As a young woman myself, I have done things wrong. I’ve lied, I’ve betrayed people, I’ve been cruel to people in my life who love me. I try not to do it very often–I don’t think I have–but I have done those things. If there was a movie to be made about my life, it would probably have to be about those moments where I did those bad things, and how I dealt with them, and how I became a better person and how I learned from those mistakes. Rather than the times where someone was mean to me, and how I got upset about it and moved on. Like if there was a time where there was a mean boy in my life, that’s really not what I’d want my story to be about. Being reactionary is not really how I’ve grown.
HILSON: Yes, I feel very fortunate to have had some great roles. I hope that continues! I’m very excited about a lot of new/new-ish writers and filmmakers that are really just creating space for women (especially those of color) to play and just have feelings and a nuanced journey. I feel like that’s all one can really ask for. I think theater has really allowed for that in the last couple years. I’ve seen so many amazing roles for women of color in that sphere. I just moved to LA from NYC, and that’s something I definitely have missed. I’m very excited about artists and filmmakers like Haroula and Ava and Barry and Jordan and Terrence Nance–his show “Random Acts of Flyness” on HBO is incredible if you haven’t seen it! As far as the types of roles I’d like to play in the future–just humans with a journey! But, if we’re getting specific, I’d love to go back in time and play some period roles.
“. . . but that shit was fire.”
What was something you discovered about yourself during the making of this film?
RIPS: Growing up, I lived for old movies and comedy, but I never thought of it as something accessible. Writing on the other hand was so easy, expansive and you need so little to do it. You can keep it close. When/if I choose to share it, there’s a whole mental thing you go through every time: who’s going to see it, how will they feel, is this too vulnerable, is it ever any good? With this short, it was so sped up. People see your writing at what feels like a much earlier stage. It’s immensely collaborative.
To have people read something I wrote, to drag the story above and into the third dimension, to give characters and places a balance and nuance that I may have not given them myself, was thrilling and scary. I appreciate how much goes into creating movies.
And it really, really, made me want to do it again. Because I’m in quarantine, and my brain has turned to Jell-O, I am going to reference a TikTok here, but that shit was fire.
HILSON: I really enjoyed how this very much felt like a passion project–just a bunch of friends and people who care about each other and the art coming together to make something beautiful. I had really only been a part of a lot of these very structured network productions (which are great, don’t get me wrong!) but they are typically a little more rigid, so it was nice to feel a sense of collaboration and passion and just good ol’ fashioned fun
HORNSBY: It’s all about how you work with other people and what you bring out in each other. This was such a low budget project that we had very little control over our environments and really had to roll with the punches. Thankfully Haroula and I were very used to this after working together for a month with a skeleton crew in rural Illinois, so we were used to navigating curve balls together.
ROSE: There is this wonderful community in New York, and I wanted to have more experiences within that community while I was there doing post on “Once Upon A River”. It was really exciting to be able to make this film happen and within such a crazy timeframe. We had to squeeze it in right before Maya went off on “Stranger Things”, and before Charlotte was committed to another project also. So it’s a testament to having a great team, but also the determination it takes to make something happen. I feel more confident about that with every project.
“I love being a woman. I love working with women.”
MARTIN: How was it working as an all-female crew? What are your thoughts about female representation on camera and behind it?
HAWKE: It was incredibly positive. But I will tell you, I’ve worked in my life with a dangerous amount of women. And I don’t mean they are dangerous women, but I mean that in a wonderful way, I’ve been so lucky. My first job was with a female director, my second job was with a female director, my third job was “Stranger Things”, and then I did “As They Slept”, which is with an all-female crew. I worked with a female DP on this film I did called “Human Capital”. I’ve worked with Gia Coppola on a movie, which is about to come out. My experience is unique with the amount of women I’ve worked with, and it’s always been wonderful.
When you work on a movie set, it’s such an amazing place to work. And the only way a film is going to work is if you have the best people doing everything–the camerawork, the lighting, the costume, the acting. And the best people are just not always the same people. Sometimes the best people are women, sometimes the best people are men, people of color, it’s essential to recognize that, and have an understanding that everyone on set–whoever they are, whatever their gender, or demographic–they are the best people to be there, and that was definitely the case on “As They Slept”.
RIPS: It was incredible. I recently directed my first short at Brown, where the crew was basically all men, and the difference was striking. I had to fight a lot harder to assert myself and have the crew listen to what I was saying. I was left off of email chains and this one guy kept getting my name wrong. I was directing! My name is my email!
I realized that so far in my career, I’ve gotten to work only with women and enby folks. Everyone involved in the publishing of my book, from my lovely agents to the cover designers and my editors, were women. When I headed this project on gender fluidity for Gucci, I got to meet even more talented women and gender nonconforming people. I took it for granted but it’s really an incredible thing.
It goes without saying that the women I am talking about in particular are extraordinary and dedicated to what they do. Aside from all being women, Rhiannon, Haroula, Charlotte, Gabby, Maya and Rachel are all brilliant women. And Fred [Hechinger, who plays Alex] is also brilliant, my god.
This experience also leaked into the rest of my life. I’m currently working on a graphic novel and the most important thing about the project for me was that the illustrator be a woman.
With regards to female representation, and this is a little bit of a tangent, I’ve made it a point this year to only read female authors. I got into a bit of a spat with a friend who’s a snob for “classic” literature. If you’re confining yourself temporally to the past, you basically are saying you don’t read women. Because female writers were so marginalized. Now, you see these brilliant literary voices emerging. So, if you’re not paying attention, what are you doing really? My thoughts are that there should be more female representation everywhere.
HILSON: I love being a woman. I love working with women. It was a great experience to work with this team.
ROSE: I really loved this whole crew so much, and it’s like “Once Upon A River” in that regard, where it’s primarily women department heads and crew. I have worked with all types of people, but there is something inherently supportive in telling young women’s stories with a crew that is also made up of women. There is a lot of trust and support that goes unspoken, a certain comfort and knowledge that people will just “get” a moment or how to go about it and be respectful of what is needed without having to explain it all. Not wanting to generalize or suggest that one has to explain everything to a man, but just that there is a certain flow and care that I loved and that I know the actors loved also especially in more vulnerable moments.
JONES: It’s kinda cool that now you don’t necessarily have to go out looking for an all female crew–you can hire a few key players, like a DP, who are female, and they bring with them a team of trusted crew members who are more likely to include other women. So a little bit of intention can go a long way into getting more women on set, in positions of authority, which in turns clears the path for other women who are maybe less established in their particular fields, looking to get a foot in the door of the film industry.
” . . . that period of life where you are becoming yourself yet someone else but more of yourself in a sense”
Cinematically the city of New York hit all the right notes for me. The lighting enhanced the NYC cityscape at night, specifically the shots where they are in the subway, and in the bar at the end. What strikes you about the city on a visual level?
HORNSBY: I first moved to New York when I was 19. I think the initial shock to the system was that Manhattan at night is drenched in artificial light. When you’re 19 and infatuated with the idea of hooking up, that constant, prickly glow feels like it’s telling your body you should be out clubbing. So when instead you’re walking around feeling lost and aimless, the “party lights” are a reminder that you’re failing to have a good time. My gaffer Sean Gradwell and I chose a lot of aggressive party gels and brought the S60 out on the street when we could try to keep that artificial club vibe alive in the streets–so it’s stoking Margaret’s anxiety that she needs to be “living her best life” hooking up with someone at a prestigious club even if that’s ultimately an empty commercial fantasy.
JONES: “As They Slept” was actually my first proper shoot in NY, which was such a great experience coming from LA. I know there is a lot of LA vs. NY talk, but the film industry really does operate differently in each place. New York is, in some ways, more film-friendly, with more permissive permits and obviously a wealth of different interior locations. But LA has a bigger pool of talent and trained professionals, plus the weather and more diverse natural settings. Which is why I think both places will always be separate hubs for the industry. It was great to work with the mostly NY crew there and get to meet the young female filmmakers who are making things happen on the East Coast!
ROSE: New York is a city filled with light, so capturing that was not a problem at night. While on one street scene we used what was available, and that worked great, on the main street scene outside the club, Charlotte and I discussed setting a certain vibe. We also had discussed a certain visual theme for the film overall when indoors and that was achieve. I wanted a kind of warmth and iridescence like the inside of a coral reef that represents that period of life where you are becoming yourself yet someone else but more of yourself in a sense… So there is a lot of that in the dance scene and I just about cried when Charlotte and Sean [Gaffer] were setting all that up.
“She holds the room with this incredible ferocity.”
HAWKE: The last thing that I’ll add is that Haroula is truly a wonderful director. I’ve witnessed it in the way that she can see character, and the way that she can hold a room. She holds the room with this incredible ferocity. She has the ability to move the day forward and to get the scene done. She makes sure the set and the camera are perfect, while still creating space for the actors, and make them feel like they have all the time in the world to get it exactly right. As actors, we feel that we can experiment, and be bad, and try things, and she will pick the perfect moment. That’s a very special sort of director. I’m really excited to see what she does in the future for her career.