Moviemaker Emily Abt is no stranger to dealing with issues of race and sexuality in her movies, from her documentary All of Us, which focuses on the rates of HIV in female African Americans, to her first narrative feature, Toe to Toe.
Set at a prep school in Washington D.C., Toe to Toe, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, follows Jesse and Tosha, two high school seniors with very different backgrounds. Jesse is a privileged, yet disturbed, Caucasian, while Tosha is an intensely determined African American from one of D.C.’s most impoverished areas. The girls’ lives drastically change as the school year goes on, as Jesse spirals deep into self-destruction and Tosha pursues her dream of attending Princeton. As their friendship takes its toll, they end up helping each other in very different ways.
Abt talked with MovieMaker about juggling writing, directing and producing duties and the best way to shoot a lacrosse game.
Michael Gerali (MM): What made you want to write this movie? Is it based on any of your personal experiences? What was the process of writing the story like?
Emily Abt (EA): I’ve always been very interested in race relations and especially in the relationship between black and white women in America. Interracial friendships between us are not as common as one would think (according to the New York Times, interracial friendships end at age 14 for 87 percent of Americans) and I wanted to make a film that explored why. The film is inspired by some of my own experiences: I too attended an elite, politically correct prep school on the East Coast, and there are parts of my personality in both the Jesse and Tosha characters.
MM: How was directing this movie different from your other ones?
EA: My background is in documentary filmmaking, so Toe to Toe is my first narrative feature. Narrative filmmaking requires less patience than documentary filmmaking because with the former, you can create the artistry and the drama however you wish. With documentaries you have to wait for good scenes to unfold, and that can take years. Casting is critical to both forms of filmmaking and since I like my fiction work to drip with authenticity, I borrow from my documentary background a lot when I’m on set.
MM: Why did you choose lacrosse as the sport the girls would play? Were there any challenges in shooting the lacrosse matches?
EA: Jesse and Tosha, for all their weaknesses, are strong girls who aren’t afraid to go “toe to toe” with each other and I think some of that confidence comes from playing sports. I also think team sports are something that a lot of high school girls bond over and I liked showing the girls engaged in an activity that’s good for their self-esteem, whereas some of their other activities are not! I chose lacrosse as the team sport they play mostly because I thought it would help capture the East Coast, preppy world that these two girls are in. The lacrosse scenes were indeed very challenging, but we had a great coach, Samantha Eustace, who helped us choreograph those scenes and also helped train the girls. She actually plays our lacrosse coach in the film.
MM: What do you want viewers to take away from this movie?
EA: I wanted to make a film that challenged the status quo on race and sexuality. The character of Jesse and her story tries to raise questions about the rampant sexualization of teenage girls. The “let’s get f-ed up and hook-up” lifestyle is so ubiquitous in pop culture these days. I think this trend endangers young women, so I tried to tell a story that showed the darker side of that lifestyle and how young women can get hurt even when they think they’re just having fun. The relationship between Tosha and Jesse hopefully inspires folks of different races to be more real with each other, even when that’s awkward. What I love about the girls’ relationship is that it’s complicated and it deals with the messy, subtle forms of racial tension that are usually overlooked by mainstream media. Some of their conflict isn’t even about race, but it gets amplified by the fact that they’re from different backgrounds. These girls are authentic with each other, they don’t always say the polite thing and they don’t shy away from conflict with each other. I think there’s beauty in that realness and it leads these two girls to a place where they’re willing to sacrifice a lot for each other.
MM: What’s up next for you?
EA: I’m currently working on a script about a woman that takes on the foster care system in Boston by running for mayor. I’m also engaging on some studio projects (both as a writer and director), but my agent and manager wouldn’t be pleased if I gave more details than that. I also teach social issue filmmaking at Princeton University. Ironically, Tosha is referred to as “Ms Princeton” by her grandmother in Toe to Toe, but I wrote that before I started teaching there.
Toe to Toe opens in limited release on February 26, 2010. For more information visit http://toetotoethemovie.com.