I was fortunate to speak with “Holler” director Nicole Riegel and star Jessica Barden (“The End of the F***ing World”, “Pink Skies Ahead”) about their film that comes to select theaters and On Demand today. I talked to them separately, so the format of the interview is a bit unconventional, but that really fits within the indie landscape of this film. Riegel was able to find her support outside of the Hollywood system, and exceeded expectations with her directorial debut. The film is personal to Riegel, as it takes place in her hometown of Jackson, Ohio. In a way similar to “Nomadland,” “Holler” casts many non-actors that are part of the Jackson, Ohio community. The film represents a group of people that are often forgotten or misrepresented on screen. There is also a lot of beauty and grit in the film, not to mention numerous bad a** women, including Barden, Becky Ann Baker and Pamela Adlon. Riegel loves to bring rebellious and strong women to both the page and screen, and I’m so glad she did.
In a forgotten pocket of Southern Ohio where American manufacturing and opportunity are drying up, a determined young woman finds a ticket out when she is accepted to college. Alongside her older brother, Ruth Avery (Jessica Barden) joins a dangerous scrap metal crew in order to pay her way. Together, they spend one brutal winter working the scrap yards during the day and stealing valuable metal from the once thriving factories by night. With her goal in sight, Ruth finds that the ultimate cost of an education for a girl like her may be more than she bargained for, and she soon finds herself torn between a promising future and the family she would leave behind. Summary provided by IFC Films
“Holler” is now playing in select theaters and On Demand.
How did you come to this project?
NICOLE RIEGEL: I wanted to make a film about my pursuit of an education, while reflecting on why that was so hard. I was also thinking about films that centered on working class people, particularly ones with working class women at the center of them. I was watching a lot of films coming out of Hollywood that depicted the area I was from as all doom and gloom and in very black-and-white terms. They always focused on nothing but drug addiction, and they were made by people who treated where I was from like a sort of research trip. I felt like I wanted my voice to be heard.
I always wanted to be a film director. But there was an urgency to having my voice behind the camera in order to make this film as soon as possible, so that I could bring that nuance, that empathy and that warmth, as well as the grit, of course, to this place that I know like the back of my hand. I wasn’t really being given an opportunity to tell the story of where I’m from, so I had to do it myself.
JESSICA BARDEN: I came to the project quite conventionally for quite an unconventional film. My agent sent me a script and I read it. I met Nicole and she was one of the most formidable people I’ve ever met. I was slightly afraid of her, but it worked for the project. She told me that this was going to be one of the hardest projects I’ve ever done, and I was like, ‘Okay, that sounds like a challenge.’ Then I went in to read for her in an audition, and that was when I knew that I really wanted to do it. She was so great, even in the room, with directing.
Also, at this point in my career, I was 25, and I did really want to make a project that went back to my roots a bit. I did want to make a movie about a working class young woman because it’s what I am, the same as Nicole. I felt like I spent a big chunk of time in my career doing roles that were somewhat against that, because I thought that’s what I I was supposed to be doing. I realized that I wanted to make something that was much more me, that was based in my life and I could relate to, and that was Nicole and this project.
Nicole, can you talk to me about the approach of using actors and non-actors together in a film? I couldn’t help but compare this film to “Nomadland”, and Jessica Barden to Frances McDormand by the way you use the people in the community of Jackson, Ohio, in a way similar to the nomads in Chloé Zhao’s film.
RIEGEL: I love actors, I love people, and I love the process of putting people onscreen for the first time and getting them comfortable with it. Everyone in the film is playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It’s just a process I’ve fallen in love with. I love the spontaneity of it. It’s almost easier for me to get what I want onscreen from them, than by having classically trained actors play someone like Pudge or Tiger Boy. I like very natural performances on screen, not that Jessica Barden doesn’t deliver that. But Jessica also comes from a working class background in England, and I think she brought a lot of that to the screen. We definitely bonded over that.
I love that process. When you are merging actors and non-actors, you have wonderful partners like Gus and Becky, and Austin and Jessica. It requires them to be really cooperative with those people when you have scenes in the factory or the break room where they are all talking over one another, and sort of prompting those people. It is my job as the director to get them really comfortable. I look at the actors as my co-directors in a way.
BARDEN: “Nomadland” is amazing, and it worked. I loved that movie so much. It made me feel really proud because I was in a movie that was trying to achieve the same thing in representing real people. I know it may sound kind of cheesy, but I do really believe in that. And I felt really proud of myself because I love Frances McDormand. I mean, she’s everybody’s hero. Being in a similar position as Frances, I understood how daunting playing that role can be. Here’s the thing, regular people are way better onscreen than actors. If you’re surrounded by people that are just being told to be themselves, you don’t act. They understand this environment better than me or any of the other actors, and they’ll nail it every single time. You’ve got to be really brave to do that, and I felt really proud of myself by seeing someone I admire also doing it. I felt like I really did something good, I really went out and tried something. If you go with it, you’re probably going to be way better than you are when working with actors, because non-actors kind of force you to be in the moment.
I felt like the female characters in the film were the strongest. Nicole, I know you mentioned that you identified with Ruth. But there were also powerhouse performances by Becky Ann and Pamela. What did these three women represent to you?
RIEGEL: That’s such a great question, thank you for asking that. I was raised by a single mom and my grandma, and they were very sassy, strong, and mouthy. I remember just being in kitchens growing up with my grandma and all of her five sisters. I was just always around really confrontational, very funny women. Of course, the things they said, the way they spoke and just their way of being influenced me. She has her brother, yes, but there is also a matriarch, which was very important to me.
Linda [Becky Ann] especially represents a lot of women in my hometown to me. She represents the women who really raised me. Most importantly, she represents a lot of the women that work in those factories in Southeast Ohio who are not the portrait of a big, die-hard Trump supporter that I think people see as the face of that region. The face of someone in that region is actually someone like Linda, a 55-year old woman who has worked her entire life in those manufacturing plants. When those jobs go away, what is someone like Linda going to do? She wants to work. It’s about the money, but it’s not really 100% about the money. There’s a livelihood and a way of living your life. Every single day, you wake up and you go to the same job. You have friends, you have relationships, you have a community.
And when that all goes away, what do you have? Someone tells you, ‘Just retire, or get trained on a new job,’ but that’s easier said than done, and we are not approaching that in a nuanced way. It’s hard for someone like Linda’s character to get trained at age 55 on a totally new job, when you’re not as tech or computer savvy and your whole way of living has been turned upside down. That’s really hard, and I wanted to approach that with empathy. In the scene at the locker, when you see her go back to get her smokes and the photo, you can tell she’s not there for a paycheck. She doesn’t know how to lead a totally new life, and we have to empathize with that. So Linda just represents so much of where I’m from.
And what about Pamela’s character?
RIEGEL: Pamela doesn’t reflect my mother in the sense that my mother didn’t experience any kind of addiction, or go to jail, or anything like that. But in personality and mother/daughter dynamics, it’s pretty spot on. We’ve always had sisterly sparring and a feisty relationship. A lot of her dialogue is pretty accurate in spirit. Like Linda, I feel she represents a lot of women in that community. I’ve always enjoyed rebellious women onscreen. That’s my favorite thing to write and direct.
Nicole talked about how she loves bringing rebellious women to the screen. I feel like in this role and others, you bring a bad a** confidence and vulnerability. How did you bring the rebelliousness to the screen through Ruth and how did that mirror your other roles?
BARDEN: I don’t know why I always end up playing these roles. [laughs] With this film, I think what I brought to it was probably the most obvious, that I’m not American. I’m from a different place, and I think it worked in this movie. I put a lot of work into the accent, while understanding the area that I was portraying and the type of person in this area of America. But I think it helped Ruth and that character to feel different than everybody else. I felt different than the other actors, and that is probably where the rebelliousness comes through. Ruth and I are both people who are out of our comfort zone. I was trying to figure out how to navigate this movie and this place. The majority of the people in the film that you don’t recognize are real people from Jackson, Ohio, so the rebelliousness came from that adrenaline and the survival of it. This is how I felt. I was just trying to figure out how to not offend these people.
What do you hope people see in your film?
RIEGEL: I really hope they see the beauty in the film. This is not another bleak independent drama about Appalachia. Those are the films that Hollywood has always made about that region. This is a film about that place, about the system, with a woman behind that camera who actually went through that system. I’m showing you the beauty in the midst of all of that. I think the film shows great beauty in a scrap yard of all places because I, as the filmmaker, truly see beauty in where I’m from, and I hope the audience sees it too. I hope they take away the warmth and the heart of the film.
I really feel we see that beauty through your eyes and performance. Can you talk about how something gritty can be seen with beauty?
BARDEN: I was actually really taken aback at how remarkable Ohio actually was. I really did enjoy being there. I loved the people, and I’m not just saying this, I was really happy to be there. I get that it’s not the most desirable part of America, and I get that it has issues, but I really loved it. There was something really emotive about the landscape in Ohio. I remember when they picked me up from the airport and I was taken to where we were filming. It was really late at night, but you could see the light on the horizon because the landscape was flat. I’ve never been in a place like that before.
It’s not like that in England, or anywhere I’ve been to in America, like Massachusetts, California or New York. I remember being in the car in the nighttime and the morning. I was looking around me and I was like, “Oh, this is where these characters live.” It was an interesting perspective because the land was so flat. You don’t know how far away a tree is, and I thought that was very appropriate for the movie. The landscape, and the people, all informed the film. I thought it was really beautiful, even the parts of it that are not good, which the film had to portray in order to be realistic.
There was something really interesting about the fact that all of the graveyards are next to a factory where the people who are in the graves probably worked at, which is a devastating thing to observe. Why do they literally lay people to rest right next to where they spent their entire lives? It’s crazy. There is so much land in Ohio, it is a beautiful place. I was really obsessed with it the contrasts there. I could talk about Ohio for like an hour. You could make a million movies there.
I’m in Chicago, not Ohio, but I appreciated how this film took a look at the midwest in more of a beautiful way, not a boring or ugly way.
BARDEN: I don’t think American films, in general, want you to do that. I’ve been in Los Angeles now for two years. I don’t think that America wants you to think about places like the midwest. I don’t know why. I think it informs a lot of things in America that are not great because the people feel forgotten, and I think that if you actually did think about where you get potatoes from, things could be different. That’s my really simple take on it.
I was really impressed with the producers you had involved in the film. Can you talk about their contribution?
RIEGEL: There are some really impressive names like Abigail Disney and Paul Feig. There are a lot of impressive names on the movie for sure, but what people don’t see behind the scenes and something that I want them to know, is that those people only came on board to this film after everyone in Hollywood said no. Every one of them said no. Big names said no, medium names and small names said no, everyone said no. And at the end of a journey that took so many years, I found a couple champions with loud microphones and resources who said, ‘Why is everyone saying no? And why aren’t they helping her?’ Especially people like Paul and Abigail wanted to use their resources to say we should get behind this voice. This voice isn’t like mine, but we should support this rising filmmaker, and I’m forever indebted to them for that.
How was it working with Pamela and Becky Ann?
BARDEN: As always on an indie film, we shot this in 18 days. Pamela came in for one day and filmed, and we didn’t meet her beforehand. Becky was a similar situation. She came in for one day, and then came back 10 days later and did another day. That’s the other side of independent films. I think we come to love independent films just as much, if not more than these bigger budgeted movies. The audiences don’t get to see that other side. It’s extremely hard to make these movies. Pam had to come in and do these three scenes. She didn’t know me and Gus, and we had to pretend to have this insane relationship with each other. She obviously did it extremely well.
One of my favorite scenes was when you were sitting with Pamela with the box of cigarettes between you and your fingers touch. The scene is so intimate and it’s hard to believe you didn’t know each other before that moment.
Thank you. I really enjoyed working with her.
Any advice for emerging filmmakers?
RIEGEL: Do not wait on someone to give you permission to make your film or to make your art. I don’t say this to discourage. I don’t like to discourage anyone and it’s my biggest pet peeve to discourage people. I don’t think anyone is in a place to tell someone that they can or cannot pursue their filmmaking dreams. But you will most likely, as an underrepresented voice in this industry, not be given permission to make your art. When you go to the Hollywood system and ask permission to tell your truth, you’re going to get a lot of “nos”. You’re going to a lot more “nos” than “yeses”.
I think if you can develop a chip on your shoulder and an attitude of, ‘Okay, I’ll let that fuel me, and not let it discourage me,’ you will be so ahead of the game. Don’t rely on Hollywood to give you permission to make your art. They may not give you all the money and resources you want, but then you have to think of a new way that you’re going to make your art. That’s what I did. And you don’t have to choose non-professional actors and mix them with seasoned actors, or shoot in your hometown. You don’t have to do exactly what I do, but you do have to figure out how you are going to get your art made. That’s what you have to do. People told me to make a film about people in a room, because mumblecore films are easier and cheaper. I could do that, but that’s not my voice. So you need to figure out, if you’re an emerging artist, how to make your art when people aren’t giving you permission. When you take that permission out of their hands and really empower yourself, you’ll feel really free.
I watched an interview where you talked about how, as actor, you can be immortal on screen. How does that translate into your performance?
BARDEN: The first movie that I watched was “The Wizard of Oz”, and I couldn’t believe that everyone who acted in it was dead. But they were alive to me because they were on screen. I thought that was pretty cool, and I was like, ‘Why doesn’t everyone want to be an actor?’ There is obviously something quite infantile about that way of thinking. I guess the only thing that translates to my performance is that I’m always aware that you are making something that has the potential to be around for some time. You should try to do a good job because if you’re embarrassed by it, you’re going to be embarrassed for a long time.