Lilah Vanderburgh, Bitch
This article is part of Filmmaker’s Sundance 2007 Special Coverage.
Bitch, the kinetic, black-and-white, Harold Lloyd-meets-Jello Biafra love story, is one of the most visually sophisticated and stylized films to emerge from that Sundance short film-factory, Columbia University’s MFA Film Program (eight shorts screening at the festival this year!). The film’s director, Lilah Vanderburgh, is obsessed with skater culture, punk-rock, underground comics, and displays the hip film literacy of another director with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. (Is it taboo to compare a young director to Tarantino? Who cares — in this case, it’s deserved). This film will kick your ass.
Bitch screens at Sundance in Shorts Program III.
Can you say a little bit about your background? Where you’re from? Age? Education? Film experience prior to this film?
I was born in Northern California but grew up in Long Beach. I moved to Texas for junior high and finished high school in Dallas. My mother is a professional Irish folk fiddle player and my father is a college professor. I’m 28. I got a BS in Film from Boston University and a MFA in Film from Columbia. I’ve directed a bunch of shorts, nothing major, done musical theater and run a theater troupe and done a tiny bit of film acting.
Can you briefly describe what inspired your film?
I’m always on that search for the perfect comedic short. I’m not saying I achieved it, but I was certainly aiming for it — something that wasn’t just based on a gimmick. Something that could perhaps be watched multiple times.) I love physical comedy and comedic dialog and wanted to try something that had both, even harkening back to early silent film. I love the idea of an ID character, someone that breaks social norms and acts purely on impulse. I also wanted to just try some fun stuff, a bunch of styles and shots that I thought would be funny or cool, and how many chances do you get to do that?
Can you talk about some of the people you collaborated with?
My producer was S.J. Main. [She is] also a Columbia MFA grad and another young, female writer/director. I think that helped because, not to totally over generalize, but she didn’t assume I knew nothing about film just because I was a girl. Like me, she’s a visual director herself and also really up on lenses, shots and processing, not just acting and script (which I think is the sort of stereotype of a female director — good at storytelling, but weak visually). My d.p., Jarin Blaschke (who, by the way, has three films in Sundance this year), is a mad genius. We had a great time collaborating on the shot list, and goofing off. We acted out quite a few scenes in the film to get the right angles and we were always trying to one up each other in coming up with something that was impossible to shoot with no money or equipment (and then shoot it).
My composer was Tim Den, and he composed an original soundtrack of punk songs for me (which I think is a bit of an unusual request for a composer). A hilarious guy also. He has a fast mind and doesn’t need to write anything down and retains hundreds of melody ideas in his head. We wrote and recorded the album together in five days. The sound engineer, Lance Reynolds, and I were the “producers,” and we both ended up singing on the soundtrack for want of backup vocalists.
Were there any compromises you had to make on this film? Anything you’d do differently?
I had to make a lot of compromises, almost exclusively because of money and time (money). I don’t know if I would do things differently, because it was an important learning experience, and in the end I still made the film I wanted to make. I’m very happy with the final results (because I think it represents me honestly), although it’s not perfect and there are mistakes I’m determined not to make again. You can always do better the next time.
Any film influences?
Too many to list them all. On this film: Dick Lester (A Hard Days Night, The Knack). Also a bit of Alex Cox (Repo Man) and Buster Keaton. I watched a lot Our Gang (Little Rascals), Blow Up. Listened to X, Minor Threat, The Hives, The Specials, The Streets. Read a lot of skateboard magazines and MoJo. Did newspaper and magazine collage, including things with dried flowers. Read a ton of underground comics. Always really influenced by Anime. What? Too geeky?
What are your expectations for Sundance?
Well, this is my first festival and the first for Bitch, so I don’t plan on selling it or anything. I’d love to meet a lot of cool filmmakers. And hang with some I already know. I’m excited about meeting people who are starting out like me. I feel sort of pumped to be part of this Columbia Mafia we got going at the festival this year. I think it’s best not to have too many job expectations. I’ll sandbag myself a little there.
Any films you’re excited to see at Sundance?
I’m excited about seeing a lot of docs. Autism Today, Hear and Now and Zoo are a few I’m looking forward to. Also curious to see The Signal. I’m really psyched to see the animation shorts, especially Don Hertzfeldt’s latest, Everything will be OK.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve read or received about filmmaking?
I think the single best piece of advice is, “Don’t settle, EVER!” That little voice in the back of your head that says “not good enough,” always listen to that. It’s not wrong.
What’s your favorite/least favorite question to read in interviews with directors?
What’s your favorite director/movie of all time? I don’t fuckin’ know. It changes with the wind. I’m better at spotting what I don’t like.