“A Young Woman in a Very Harsh, Muscular Environment”: Nicole Riegel on Her Powerful and Flinty Debut, Holler
When I last spoke to Nicole Reigel for Filmmaker, it was in 2014 to profile the Jackson, Ohio native for our 25 New Faces list. After a stint in the military and then time producing her own plays for theater, Riegel had arrived in Los Angeles and quickly made a name for herself as a screenwriter, with directors such as Cary Fukunaga and Justin Lin on board for her scripts.
But her ultimate goal, she revealed in the piece, was to direct — an ambition realized this year with her flinty, tremendously assured and compellingly acted debut, Holler. Selected for SXSW’s 2020 Narrative Competition, which was cancelled back in March, the film reaches audiences and industry this week at both the Deauville American Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival — the latter where it will screen in the festival’s recently announced industry marketplace.
Set in Riegel’s Jackson hometown, Holler is a tale of ambition struggling against a conformity shaped by economic circumstance. It chronicles the efforts of teenage Ruth to escape her distressed hometown — where Trump’s cynical promises of “jobs, jobs, jobs” bleat through the AM radio — and go to college. With her mom (Pamela Adlon) in rehab, it’s left to her and her brother (Gus Halper) to make ends meet, an effort that steps up when Ruth receives a college acceptance letter. A gig hauling scrap metal that the local yard boss will sell to offshore buyers starts out physically grueling and then turns criminal, becoming just one of the series of adversities that Ruth must conquer if she’ll rise from her surroundings. As Ruth, Jessica Barden (The Lobster, The End of the Fucking World) is propulsive, engaging, and, with often minimal dialogue, powerfully unlocks for the viewer her character’s deep inner world. Inspired by Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Riegel shoots in handheld Super 16mm, the wintry landscape rendered in deep blues and grays by DP Dustin Lane.
I spoke to Riegel earlier this month about the road that led her from the 25 New Face selection to this first feature, seven years later. She shared the experience of learning to “throw away the script,” shooting in working, practical locations, and why a new generation of storytellers needs industry advocates.
Filmmaker: The last time we spoke for Filmmaker was in 2014 when you were one of our 25 New Faces. You were primarily a screenwriter at that point, and you said you had hopes to direct. You talked about in that piece, but Holler was not one of the scripts you mentioned.
Riegel: Holler was not.
Filmmaker: Could you tell us, then, about the path that led to you making this first feature several years later?
Riegel: In 2014, shortly after [that interview], I started working on Holler. I had come out of the military, had gone to film school and made short films. I always thought I would leave film school and work in film curation in some capacity, or be a critic or write about film in a more academic way. That was the goal, even though that’s not what I truly wanted to do. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found some ins as a screenwriter and was able to cobble together a living and make rent. And then as time passed that became a very comfortable way to make a living for me. But I was told, “Give those scripts [you’re writing] to these male directors who are very hot right now. And you’ll get your chance, you’ll get your chance, girl!”
The years passed, I was trying to make Holler, and then in 2016 everything changed. This Harvey Weinstein watershed moment happened. Companies like the company that made my film, [Level Forward], were created to help women directors and not just give us mentorships or apprenticeships or internships — so many ships! — but hiring and financing us. Saying “yes” in the room. I feel like I benefited from that moment because before that it was years of “We’ll give you this shadow [directing] position” but then [they would] give the script to someone else to direct.
Filmmaker: Did you have the script for Holler before you made the short, or did you make the short and then develop it into a script?
Riegel: I made the short, and I had an idea of what I might want to do with a feature. The short was an exercise of getting to film in a scrap yard. I grew up around that environment, but I didn’t know how it would work [filming] with machinery and power tools and factories in an almost “documentary fiction” kind of way. How do you take a professional actor and surround them with “first timers,” as I call them. How do you blend those worlds? I come from a documentary background — I went to undergraduate film school in Ohio and studied under people like Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. I love documentary but how do you merge the two? I learned all those hard lessons on the short. Then I wrote the feature and it became a more personal story for me. I sort of took the lessons from the short, but creatively went in a very different direction.
Filmmaker: What were some of those practical lessons learned?
Riegel: How to work with people who really live in the communities [the story takes place in]. How to have something that’s like a script, just so that we all know the beats, the motions of the dance we’re about to do, but then put away that script, abandon it and be in this very chaotic scrap yard together and embrace whatever these people are going to do. Preparing as much as possible and then putting all of that preparation aside. In the short film I think I tried to stick to the plan too much. I think to get a really good performance and to have things that feel authentic, you have to let go. If that’s your approach, you have to allow that person to do whatever they’re going to do. You can’t over direct them.
Filmmaker: And then what was the personal story you wanted to weave into the feature version of Holler?
Riegel: The most obvious one was that it’s a young female lead. That made getting the film made very challenging at the time. I went in 70-plus rooms where people wanted a male lead. They saw my short film, and they liked those boys who were in it. Those boys are locals, and they’re incredible in the film, but it didn’t feel personal to me because I’m not a young boy. I wanted to tell my story, and I only knew to tell that if it was about a young woman in a very harsh, muscular environment. And then I wanted to tell about how hard it is for young women to pursue an education in America. I grew up as a poor woman in Southern Ohio, and no one else in my family above me had attended college. I didn’t have people telling me about grants or FASFA or scholarships. And I thought, if I felt that way, then lots of other young women are feeling that way. I wanted to tell that story.
Filmmaker: You have a number of producers involved in this film. What was the process of connecting to the different producers, how did they function together, and what was the catalytic moment that led to the film actually being made?
Riegel: I feel like all first films have so, so many producers and they have such a large special thanks section. Katie McNeill and Adam Cobb were my producers on the ground with me. Adam was there from the short to the feature to the screenplay through pre-production, production, until now — from the beginning to the end. Katie and Jamie Patricof of Hunting Lane are incredible — they were involved from some of the development and pre-production until now. And then Level Forward, who helped with the financing and producing the film, is just a wonderful company. They were the first ones to say “yes” — they made this happen.
And then as for the executive producers, there were just so many people along the five-year journey who helped with different things that I needed — most notably Paul Feig. I explored finding an executive producer who could introduce me to financing for the movie and maybe some cast, or just get people to take me seriously and give me a shot in the room. And Paul is one of those big powerful directors in Hollywood.
Filmmaker: Did you connect to him through your screenwriting?
Riegel: No. An agent I work with, who sits on the Reframe project in Hollywood, knew Paul through Reframe and told him about me and set up a meeting. Paul read the script, brought me in and he asked me how I wanted to make the movie. He thoroughly vetted me. How I planned to shoot on Super 16mm film, what the days would look like, about the weather and everything. He said yes in the room, and then he attended meetings with me to get financing. He was in the room with me with Level Forward. He put in phone calls for me. I’m really grateful for Paul. He’s part of this generation that’s been able to make so many movies. And I think that if you care about your profession and you want to see it thrive, you have to pass it down and help people who have marginalized voices have a seat at the table so that cinema continues. He’s generous in that way.
Filmmaker: How many shooting days did you have?
Riegel: Eighteen. We were largely in one place.
Filmmaker: That idea of shooting in a practical working location was carried over in a big way from the short to the feature. Could you talk about the challenge of shooting in what looked real functioning factories and scrapyards?
Riegel: Yeah, the manufacturing plant and the scrap yards were operational. We could not shut them down. We were in the middle of a polar vortex and shooting on film and worrying about film economy. I found those places because [the location] is in my hometown — I was born and raised there. I knew all of those locations. I had driven those back roads growing up. I didn’t have to do much research. I remember selling cans to that scrapyard when I was kid, so it was an emotional thing to go back and film there.
Filmmaker: Then how did you connect with Jessica?
Riegel: I received a call about her, and this person asked me to take a lunch with her because they read the script and I was specifically [saying], “I want, I want a fresh face, someone who will jump in and use an angle grinder, who will go to this frozen scrap yard with me and really roll up her sleeves.” I think a lot of actors really loved the role but when it came to that way of working it, it was maybe not for them. And so I get this call about Jessica, and we had lunch andtold her how challenging this was really going to be because of the cold, the location, and it being so immersive with local actors and not holding onto that script. That’s really hard, especially for television actors — [they’re] on a very strict schedule on a show and the script is everything. It’s such a writer’s medium. And she had no problem hearing that. So Jessica auditioned — she was the first audition of the day. And she does the scene and throws away the script in the middle of the audition and started improvising with all the readers in the room. It was amazing, electric. And then I had to go to New York and audition about 200 girls we had already scheduled. I was on the phone [to the producers] saying, “No, we already found her. We can cancel [the remaining auditions].” But they weren’t okay with doing that. And then in the middle of that process, Jessica somehow got my personal email and sent me this Channel Four film she was in, Ellen. And she was Ruth in that film. I was like, this girl is tenacious for this part. This is so something Ruth would do.
Filmmaker: And when you talk about her being immersive with the local actors, what form does that immersion take? Are they spending lots of time together off-set?
Riegel: It means like being open to someone who’s worked in a scrapyard their entire life telling you, “That’s not how I would do this. I would do it this way.” And letting that person be your teacher. There’s a lot of humility in that. I wanted an actor who would be affected [by that kind of interaction] and who would not say, “Well, I’m the actor and I’m making a choice.” She allowed herself to be a student. I think you have to always be a student and not get too much in your own head if you’re going to mix a documentary approach with fiction.
I said to her, “I’m going to send you to work in the scrapyards before we film. I will not be there with you. I’m going to drop you off.” We dropped her off in this rainy, snowy scrapyard in Jackson, Ohio, and she did hard days work, day after day. She, loaded the cans and the baler. They made her lug around metal. They operated bobcats around her. There’d be a line of customers from the door to the waystation, and she had to help the workers with all of that. I remember her little hands being so blistered and bloody, and it was so cold because it was a blizzard, and she was game. And then it was like, “Well, now you’re going to chop wood. And then we’re going to be in this factory and you have to learn how to use all these power tools.” We made a rule early on that [she wouldn’t] do anything that I wouldn’t do. If she’s handling an axe, I’ve already chopped wood with that ax to make sure the blade is safe. If she uses the angle grinder, I’ve worked it a day with her before I left her alone. I don’t think you should ask an actor to do [something you won’t do yourself].
Filmmaker: You came to Holler from professional screenwriting, and you developed a directing style that involves throwing away the script. I’m presuming you are still writing screenplays for hire.
Riegel: Yeah, I still work on things I’m not directing. You could call that my day job.
Filmmaker: So has your process or attitude towards that day job changed after making Holler? Your approach to writing dialogue?
Riegel: I would say when I’m writing something that I know I’m not making, I am just writing. I’m in a different, very pragmatic headspace where I’m figuring out what they want — “they” being the producer or an executive. It’s always for [producers and executives] — I’m not writing things for other directors. So it’s like figuring out almost what the client wants — I look at it like that — and delivering that to them with as much care and hard work and skill can go into it. But it’s a very different mentality when I’m working on things I’m not directing.
Filmmaker: And what do the scripts you are intending to direct for yourself look like?
Riegel: Well, they’re a lot shorter.
Filmmaker: Is the kind of mixture of fiction and documentary that you explored in Holler something you intend to continue with?
Riegel: Yes. I enjoy making independent films. I, I love it so much. Yes,, there arechallenges with financing, but that’s a challenge with everything. But making films like Holler, making portraits of, of young women like Ruth and telling women’s stories is what I want to continue doing.