Julia Stiles Never Lets Them See Her Sweat
The actress steps behind the camera to write and direct Raving
by Jennifer Straus

Julia Stiles
Julia Stiles directs Zooey Deschanel on the set of Raving.

When you’re a director embarking on your very first project, it might seem intimidating to have your work backed by one of the world’s top fashion magazines. But this is just how Julia Stiles found herself both writing and directing the short film Raving, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in April and aired on The Sundance Channel in May.

The film is the first in Elle Magazine’s new film series, "Elle Fashion Stories," and stars Bill Irwin and Zooey Deschanel in a tale of two lonely New Yorkers who form an unexpected bond after a chance encounter on a street corner. Using an article entitled "The Dress That Changed My Life" as the seed for her screenplay, the 26-year-old actress set about creating an intimate, character-driven drama that would challenge preconceptions of a fashion mag-produced film. Over the course of making the short, Stiles has acclimated easily to the role of writer-director and has quickly embraced the unique challenges inherent in moviemaking from the other side of the camera.

Jennifer Straus (MM): How did you get involved in Elle‘s film series and how did you go about writing the screenplay for Raving?

Julia Stiles (JS): The editors at Elle wanted to produce a short film, and they asked me to write and direct something. They knew they wanted it to center on the impact of clothing, but that was it. I wanted to tell a story that would go deeper and be something unexpected from a fashion magazine, so I started to really think about the idea that an article of clothing could change your life. I thought, "No, it can’t!" Then I was intrigued by the idea that it is not the actual object, but what it represents-the memories attached to it, the person who wore it, the story behind it-that gives an article of clothing its significance.

MM: How did your acting background impact your style as a director? Was it helpful when it came to working with your two leads?

JS: I started coming up with the characters first and then the circumstances that would bring them together, so I naturally approached directing from a character-driven perspective. I think, as an actress, I know how much fun it is to be given a scene to play as opposed to a speech telegraphing who you are and where you came from. So I tried to write something my actors could have fun with. It’s especially fun to play a scene where there is more going on than meets the eye, like where one character is lying or hiding something or trying to manipulate the other. That’s pretty basic drama, but it works.

MM: Why did you decide to direct Raving? Did you have this in mind while writing the screenplay?

JS: I knew I was going to direct it because I could see it so clearly in my head while I was writing. I just wasn’t sure the magazine would go for my story, because it’s not what you would expect from a fashion magazine.

MM: Did you find directing to be more or less challenging than you anticipated?

JS: I absolutely loved every minute of it! I loved having to solve problems constantly. I loved collaborating with the production designer and cinematographer. I loved racing the clock but having to stay focused. I loved seeing the story evolve and take on a life of its own-to see it go from something I imagined alone at my computer to seeing it actualized by the actors and the locations. I loved being in the editing room and playing with all the possibilities.

MM: Are there any directors-those you have worked with or otherwise-who you particularly admire, or who influenced your directorial style on Raving?

JS: I really enjoy the slowness and simplicity of movies made decades ago, like Cool Hand Luke and Days of Heaven. There is so much expressed in pictures and so little in dialogue in these films. I like letting a story breathe and unfold and take its time to reveal why.

MM: What is your best memory of directing Raving?

JS: My best memory is from our third day of shooting, where we had three or four company moves in one day that were all dependent on specific levels of daylight. (It was my stupid idea to have the first half of the film be vignettes all over the city!) The crew had to haul all the equipment up five stories (there was no elevator) in a narrow, urine-smelling building on the Lower East Side, because we had no money for a lift. It was for the opening shot of Zooey on a rooftop next to the Manhattan Bridge, and I kept apologizing to the crew saying, ‘Please, trust me.’ Not a single person complained, and when they saw the beautiful graffiti on the roof and the Manhattan skyline and the river, everyone got excited. As soon as we got the shot, the grips and electricians raced all the equipment over to the East River for a shot that had to be at sunset. I remember these guys running with pieces of dolly track and clapping when we made it before the sun went down. There was that feeling of us being a team, and that they cared about my vision as much as I did. I was so happy.

MM: Your worst memory?

JS: The worst memory I have is of the day I lost a shot of Zooey at the sprinkler in a park, because we didn’t have time to go to the location. I was really wedded to that image, but it probably wouldn’t have ended up in the edit anyway, so things work out.

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