Checking Your Privilege: White Girl Director Elizabeth Wood Navigates Sex, Drugs and Racial Stereotypes

The title of Elizabeth Wood’s audacious narrative feature debut, White Girl, alludes to Leah, a college student on a New York coming-of-age adventure, played fearlessly by Morgan Saylor (whom you’ve seen as Brody’s daughter in Homeland).

Leah is from Oklahoma, as is Wood, who wrote the script loosely based on her youthful experiences. The film’s title is also a slang expression for cocaine, and throughout the film Leah snorts enough to anesthetize a baby elephant.

Our heroine falls for a sweet and dreamy-faced Puerto Rican drug dealer, Blue (Brian Marc, a.k.a rapper Sene), and soon they’re in a Romeo-and-Juliet romance doomed to last only a summer (a fact that’s apparent to everyone but Blue). They meet when Leah moves into a summer rental, a trashy apartment in Queens, where she seems to be slumming it. Blue ogles Leah, who is wearing tiny shorts and hauling a dilapidated couch up the stars with her best friend (India Menuez), who turns out to be as big a druggy as Leah.

Later, when Leah runs out of weed, she approaches Blue. Soon his hand snakes up her thigh. “What kind of girl do you think I am?” she flirts. Cut to the next shot, where they’ve having wild and athletic sex against the wall, forever. (Interesting side note: According to IMDb, Saylor is a nationally ranked rock climber.)

Sex scenes like that caused jaws to drop at Sundance, where the movie was a hit, but some critics focused more on what they called the movie’s hedonism and “depravity.” Leah is maddeningly reckless and naïve. Smart enough to get into a fancy liberal arts college and to land a summer internship at a hipster magazine, yet dumb enough to fall into one jam after another, where she risks overdosing, being raped or even being killed. Leah’s sense of invincibility comes from her youth—nothing bad has happened to her so far, so nothing will—as well as the protective cocoon of her race.

Leah persuades Blue to leave Queens and sell cocaine to her boss (Justin Bartha) and his downtown friends, which for the first time gives her Latino lover a glimpse of a more desirable life. Soon he’s jailed for selling drugs—drugs that Leah does openly while dancing topless at a club, but her whiteness seems to put her above the law. As much out of affection as a sense of guilt, Leah hires a pricy lawyer (a terrifically sleazy Chris Noth), to help free Blue, who faces a three-strike prison sentence. To raise the scratch Leah tries to unload a kilo of coke, which leads her on more wild and harrowing adventures.

“It seems like all the characters in their own way are opportunists, whether it’s for experience or for money, or for sex. There’s always a price that has to be paid,” said Noth. “Everyone in this movie is finding ways to use people.”

For Noth, White Girl is reminiscent of “films from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” by way of its “tremendous sense of freedom when you came to the city if you weren’t raised there. It gave you anonymity, you were part of something, you were surviving. It was a feeling of an adventure. But there was also this sense that, if you were white and middle-class or upper-middle-class, [that was] an escape hatch from this world you’re dallying in. You get to leave it where others don’t.”

White Girl is a funhouse of a cautionary tale, the work of a bold and exciting new filmmaker in Wood. We interviewed the director (whose previous work has been a feature documentary and shorts) below. It’s easy to focus on the sex and drugs in the film, but its most intriguing aspect is the discussion it opens up on white privilege, gender inequality and racial injustice.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In White Girl, white people are the bad people or unwittingly create problems for everyone else. What are you saying about race?

Elizabeth Wood (EW): The movie is very much inspired by stories from my life. I wasn’t really thinking about these themes; they just were in my reality. And I think some people see the name of the film and they don’t understand that it’s in a way a critique of whiteness, in that the white characters are not likeable. This is not, like, “pro”-white girl. If anything, producers were worried I created an unlikeable protagonist. And yes, it’s kind of an uncomfortable look at some of the dark sides of white privilege.

I worked at a pancake restaurant one summer where at the last day of work I found out that the other host, who was black, was making a dollar less an hour. And this was in 2000, so I think it’s part of the way this oppressive system works is to make us think this is all taken care of and in the past, and that we are post-racial and that everything’s OK now, and we’re equal and have equal rights, and that’s actually quite far from the truth… I think it’s more important than ever to talk about so that we finally move past that, if we can.

MM: Were you concerned critics and audiences would not see past the partying teenagers and sex and drugs to what the movie says about issues like racial profiling, rape culture, and sexuality in general?

EW: I try to not think about what the outcome will be or what people will think because that literally freezes me from working. I start being very self critical and that’s really why, I think, I write mostly in the middle of the night, when I’m almost brain dead, to just be able to get my thoughts out without reflecting.

My fears were not ever in making it about the sexuality, because I almost take it for granted that sex is so natural. My fears, if anything, were more discussing race. I think that that’s OK because talking about race and privilege and whiteness as a white person should be uncomfortable, and it shouldn’t be all like, “Great, easy for you,” because for people who are experiencing this oppression it’s difficult every day. Really my anxieties were the discussion about race, and yet it was sex that it seemed to stir the few people that have seen it. I watch PG-13 movies with my niece and nephew that are more graphically violent than anything that should possibly be seen by a child, but yet sex is still, after all these millions of years on the planet, something so inflammatory?

MM: Do you think there’s still a taboo against portraying women who like sex except in a slut-shaming way?

EW: If it had been a guy in this movie that was having sex with two people and doing drugs, would it be such a discussion? No.

Elizabeth Wood, writer-director of White Girl. Photograph by Ryan Kobane SUndance Institute

Elizabeth Wood, writer-director of White Girl. Photograph by Ryan Kobane, courtesy of the Sundance Institute

MM: How personal is the story? Were they your experiences and those of friends?

EW: The film was drawn from a combination of my own, and my friends’, experiences. In real life there were two roommates not one. In real life there were other girls around us, and I have combined my experience with those around me to kind of create this narrative that I think identifies what it was like for all of us at that moment. And maybe more so me because I think maybe I’ve often lived in a more extreme manner than other people I know.

MM: What did you tell Morgan Saylor to help her find her way into the role of Leah?

EW: It’s inspired by true events, but it’s by no means my biopic. It’s very much fiction. I would tell Morgan anything I thought relevant about myself to explain where the story is coming from, but it was important to me that Morgan not base this character on my experience, and that she created a character that would have her own adventure, her own journey. That being said, any time she had questions I was happy to answer them.

MM: How did you transition from making documentaries into narrative films?

EW: I always loved writing, which I came to college in New York to study. I took some video classes and my roommate got me into experimental avant-garde film. At the same time I started making short documentaries, and my first short documentary for a school project was about the boys that sold drugs in my neighborhood in Queens—this very world—and about one of them going to jail. It juxtaposed their lives with the students I was going to school with, at this fancy school, who would brag about all the drugs they were doing, whereas these drug dealers weren’t touching the drugs but were selling them. I found this story really interesting.

I made the documentary [Wade in the Water, Children, with then boyfriend and now husband, Gabriel Nussman, who is also a producer of White Girl] kind of unexpectedly when I was volunteering in New Orleans and then I realized I was writing to combine all these interests into more of a traditional feature film. I realized I didn’t really know how to do that, so I applied to Columbia because I met one person that went there that seemed brilliant. I got in with a fellowship and for two years I went there with the idea, “I will learn how to make this film.”

MM: Morgan Saylor looks nothing like Leah in real life; she’s a brunette and dresses conservatively. It was interesting to hear her talk about how she was perceived differently when her hair was blond and her skirts got shorter, and how people made skin-deep snap judgments about her.

EW: So different from Leah—she’s a different person. She studies math in college and she’s very buttoned-up. She dresses a bit conservatively and she’s a bit shy. Even her body language is a bit closed off and you certainly don’t see any of this in the character.

I actually forgot who “Morgan Saylor” was until, a few months after the project, she came back to visit me, and her hair was back to the way it had been before filming and she was wearing her clothes and she’d moved past the character. I said, “You’re an incredible actress! Even I forgot who you were when I met you.” I think already she’s gearing up to be in character. She just finished playing a nun [in Novitiate].

Morgan Saylor (L) and (R). Photograph by Brad Balfour

Morgan Saylor (L) and India Menuez (R) co-star in White Girl. Photograph by Brad Balfour

MM: How did you prepare and shoot the sex scenes, especially the ones that are pretty athletic and racy?

EW: We talked about it a lot beforehand and then we kind of choreographed it so we knew what to expect. I feel it’s harder for actors when they have to initiate something they don’t understand, or that is too creepy or sexual. We joked a lot. The more laughter and silliness, the more free they can feel to then take it further than we discussed. The real trick is to let the takes go on so uncomfortably long that the AD, and the producers go [whispers], “Cut, cut.” And if we’re starting to feel uncomfortable watching it, that’s usually a good indication that it’s going to feel very uncomfortable and real to watch. Once they’re really getting into it, you feel so much like a voyeur, that you shouldn’t be in the room with a camera, like you shouldn’t be seeing this—but that’s when we’re actually seeing something real start to happen. They’re just waiting for me to say “stop,” and I’m like, “No, just go! Forget this brief feeling of discomfort, this moment will live in this film forever, so let’s all get weird!”

MM: What was your shooting schedule and budget?

EW: It was 22 days—long days, starting up every morning at four and going often way over schedule. I had a newborn at the time, so when I went home at night I’d mostly just breastfeed because he would be missing me. So it was a blurry month [laughs].

MM: Talk about how you shot the film, mainly which seems mainly with a hand-held camera.

EW: It was an Alexa and a smaller Red. Our cinematographer, Mike Simmonds—he just made Nerve—operated the camera the whole time, which he hasn’t done in years. It was hand-held and it’s heavy, 30-50 pounds on your shoulder for a month. By the last shot of the movie, which was at 5 a.m. on the 22nd day, he was literally hallucinating and collapsing because we hadn’t slept in days. We were on a night schedule and he couldn’t make himself sleep during the day. When we got to the last day he literally just laid down and we put him to bed.

There are only a few shots that aren’t hand-held. We did it this way to get the energy and to be able to move around intimately with the characters. Also, so you could use more of the room, and move 360 degrees, because the lights were very much hidden and we just used lamps as natural light. So our characters could move more naturally and we could work in real locations, which were often very tiny rooms. It just made it all a more intimate experience.

MM: What did you learn about yourself making this film?

EW: It’s the first big thing I’ve done that I was terrified of doing, absolutely terrified—and I did it. So I know that I can take a risk like that and it can turn out OK. In retrospect, of course, it’s just a movie, but it felt for me like everything was on the line. “What if no one sees it and it turns out terribly? What if all this money, that could have been used somewhere where people need it, is wasted?” These fears every day. I had to work on preparing myself to ignore that anxiety, and so it makes me interested to see what other risks I can take that are equally, if not more, terrifying.

MM: How have things changed for you since the film’s premiere at Sundance?

EW: I’ve been sent a lot of scripts and gone and done the rounds, meeting everyone. I’ve had some really cool opportunities, but right now I’m really focusing on continuing to write my own stories, because that may be the part of it that excites me the most right now—creating my own universes and spending time alone. [Even though] I’m such an extroverted people person, the time I spend alone thinking and writing is really maybe my favorite part of my life.

Saylor as Leah in White Girl

Saylor as Leah in White Girl

MM: What can you say about all the rumors about you directing Captain Marvel in 2019? What’s happening?

EW: I’m not sure. I’m not sure. [Laughs]. I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say. I know I signed something but I don’t know what it said… I’m certainly not the director of Captain Marvel as far as I know.

MM: Would you like to do a big super-hero movie?

EW: What would be the ultimate fantasy for me is that I write a film with that kind of budget and scope that I direct. I would actually create the universe. I’d love the opportunity to make a big Hollywood film, but if I do someone else’s film, if I’m the director of someone else’s script, I’d just like it to be very far away from what I would do as a writer, totally different, just something wild and out there. Or [else] I’m going to write my super weird stories. MM

MM: What’s your next project?

EW: It’s about a relationship that’s in trouble so the couple decides to take a vacation to Brazil. Damn Zika is getting in the way of production. Anywhere warm in the world right now has Zika. I don’t know what to do with Zika, but the story is about being in the jungle and in nature, and the world is about to end while this couple is on vacation. It’s like, “Be careful what you wish for,” basically. MM

White Girl opens in theaters September 2, 2016, courtesy of FilmRise.

2 Comments

  1. Ricardo Cantoral

    September 4, 2016 at 6:31 am

    An independent film inspired by white, liberal guilt ? What a novelty ! I am black and I was raised in a mostly white town. I have never been oppressed. I have never felt mistreatment by the police because I was black. The only person who ever called me a nigger was a black woman. I don’t need your pitty Wood.

    • Ricardo Cantoral

      September 4, 2016 at 6:58 am

      *pity

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