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On Life and Love: An Interview with Director Hannah Fidell

Credit: Richard Koek

Hannah Fidell first burst onto the scene at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival with her debut feature film A Teacher. Two years later, Fidell’s second feature 6 Years premiered at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival before quickly landing a $1 million distribution deal with Netflix.

Propelled by fantastic performances from leads Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield, 6 Years upended the familiar narrative of a young couple’s struggles by offering a close, often uncomfortable examination of the gender dynamics intertwined with relationship violence. 

Fidell returned to Sundance earlier this year with her third feature-length film, The Long Dumb Road, starring Tony Revolori and Jason Mantzoukas as two men embarking on the road trip of a lifetime. As we wait for it to hit theaters, I caught up with Fidell to discuss everything from her approach toward portraying domestic violence to breaking into the film industry.

I loved 6 Years because of the reality of Mel [Farmiga] and Dan’s [Rosenfield] relationship struggles. With this abusive relationship, there doesn’t seem to be one right or wrong side, so we, as an audience, swing back and forth between who we side with or relate to. When making the film, how did you ensure that nothing was one-sided — that each character had such an equal amount of relatability?

I’m interested, in basically everything that I make, in finding the humanity and relatability within every character. While I definitely related to Dan more, I certainly saw elements of myself in Mel and was able to use that to help make a rich, full character.

Photo by: Andrew Droz Palermo

Portrayals of relationship violence in film tend to highlight men and how they abuse women. The movie is definitely unique in its ‘power struggle’ aspect, because not all the blame can be placed on Dan. Both characters are at fault at different times.

I was always concerned with this being a two-hander. And so in order to do that, we really had to understand the motivations behind both characters’ behaviors. I don’t think I went into the film thinking that the violence was two-sided, but I definitely went into it wanting to explore the complicated gender dynamics and victimhood.

Your latest film, The Long Dumb Road, had its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year, was acquired by Universal and releases in theaters in November!

It was so fun to make a comedy, which in a lot of ways is much harder than drama — since comedy is so subjective. The cast was fantastic; Tony and Jason have such wonderful chemistry, and Jason brought a warmth to the character.

The Long Dumb Road seems to be a more lighthearted departure from 6 Years and A Teacher. Was the process of making this road-trip comedy very different?

Yes, the process was very different. So much of comedy is in timing and the edit. It was fun to try my hand at making a comedy, while maintaining a more dramatic look to the film.

You’re working with Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield again for The Long Dumb Road. What’s working with those two like? They definitely have incredible chemistry.

They’re amazing! Sadly, Ben’s character was cut from the final version of the film. By no means was this because of performance. I think he’s a genius actor, but it just didn’t service the story.

Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

What’s on your radar right now? Favorite books, music, movies?

I’m obsessed with the show Killing Eve. I also have been reading Lydia Davis’s collection of short stories as an escape, when I don’t want to look at a screen.

Can you describe your own journey into film? Do you feel that a film school or film studies background is necessary to succeed in the business nowadays?

I studied film theory in both undergrad and grad schools, but I really didn’t start making anything until after I had graduated, which I regret — but I was terrified of failure and wasting people’s time.

There are a million ways to get into film, but I think the most important one is having a working knowledge of cinema and the confidence to make movies no matter what the quality is. The more you practice your craft, the better you get.

Do you feel that you’ve encountered any obstacles being a female director in the film industry? How can film become more inclusive in general?

This is a big question, and I don’t really have an answer for it.

I think I’ve been lucky to come up via independent filmmaking, which has traditionally been much more open to female voices. It’s really at the studio level where things get difficult. The more women executives there are, who aren’t afraid to push female and minority voices, the better it is for everyone — but I think this is very much rooted at the executive level.

More than ever, teens are wanting to go into film. But it seems that there’s no linear path to becoming a successful filmmaker. What’s your advice for young people who want to pursue film, but are unsure how to begin?

If you have a phone, you have a camera. Don’t worry so much about aesthetics, and just go out and shoot. Learn what the different shots mean emotionally, read up on story, watch as many movies as you can…but keep making stuff.

A Teacher is available on iTunes, and 6 Years is available on iTunes and Netflix.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Richard Koek.

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Written by Julianna Chen

Julianna hails from the wonderful city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she is currently a high school student. When not struggling with math homework or the demands of being a 21st-century teenager, she enjoys pursuing her passions of writing poetry, essays, and bios of herself written in the third person.