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Short Film Premiere: Nat Gee, Lily Baldwin and Joshua Echevarria on Waves

The abstract yet oppressive sensation of an anxiety attack is captured through intense corporeal movement in Waves, the latest from Brooklyn-based filmmaker Nat Gee. The film stars Lily Baldwin as a woman in the throes of an anxious episode, her oft-idyllic surroundings transformed into hostile environments. A well-manicured flower garden becomes a frightening, frenzied feast (and viny prison); gentle waves crashing upon a sandy shore morph into a violent assailant; a stroll in a verdant, tranquil park turns into an uneasy exercise in losing bodily autonomy. Yet as fascinated as Gee is in conveying the unsettling feeling of being consumed by raw nerves, she is equally invested in portraying the strength one must possess to push through such an episode and regain control of one’s senses, mind and selfhood.

Filmmaker is happy to share the online premiere of Waves, which can be watched above via Vimeo. In addition to hosting the film on our site, I spoke to Gee via email, who forwarded relevant questions to Baldwin and DP Joshua Echevarria. We discussed the inception of her collaboration with Baldwin, shooting on Super 16mm and 35mm film and Gee’s next project, Buried, which will also star Baldwin and is currently in post-production. 

Filmmaker: First off, I’d love to get some insight into your collaboration with Lily Baldwin, whose background as a dancer and performer feels especially apt here. How did you two come together on this project, and what was the process of choreographing her intense movements? 

Gee: I wrote the piece specifically for Lily, though at the time, we had never met. I’m a huge admirer of her work, and asked a mutual filmmaker friend to connect us. I saw the bold and fearless stories she created and took on, carried with such vulnerability and rawness, and wanted Waves to be grounded by a performer who could bring such depth. Dance captures emotions better than words, and I want an audience to feel the piece rather than intellectualize it.

Pre-production and production took place during the pandemic. Since we couldn’t meet in person, we had long FaceTime sessions where we really broke down the script and together created an arch to the story that carried different emotional shifts. What’s so invigorating about working with Lily is that there’s such an openness, which created a lot of honesty in sharing this story with her. We delved deep into meanings behind the visuals: whether they came from memories or triggers, how that impacts her size and sense of tactility and space. Other times called for being definite about where the source of torment or relief was coming from—was it her stomach, ear, throat—and how Lily could move through this immobility to reconnect with her body. We focused on the push and pull of disjointedness, chaos and defeat, and the shifting temperature of these sensations at particular moments in time.

Baldwin: Nat has this amazing fine-tuned eye, brilliant patience and respect for the body that’s rare. It’s felt like a perfect match. After years of dancing, I’m still committed to taking the performance out of performing. Authenticity rules and Nat not only understands but prioritizes the space for this to happen. We spent a lot of time in prep investigating the scope of panic—all its layers, stages and hard to communicate parts. I explored where panic lived in my body. On set, Nat gave me the time to truly mine what felt true and translate feelings into movement. I can only do this—let go—when I trust the director. Shooting on film reminds me of being on stage, which I love. There’s no playback, and you only have one take. The stakes are high, so everyone has to believe in it in order for good things to happen.

Filmmaker: Expanding on that a bit, I’d like you to take me into the broader development of this project. Where did this idea stem from, and what was the process of writing the prose and constructing the abstract visual narrative? Can you give me a rough timeline from its conception to completion?

Gee: For me, anxiety is like a dreamscape, one with many layers and depths. It’s part horror, with constant motion and negotiation between the mind and body, often feeling otherworldly. I wanted to explore what is felt rather than spoken about. The most important approach to me was sharing a story where the release is just as important as the terror. It takes a lot of muscle to not get buried by the collapse of an anxiety attack, to ride out the waves. Those moments are to be celebrated. A lot of films focus on the panic, but it takes a lot of strength to sit in anxiety and let it pass. When it does, I wanted to explore the relief and resiliency in that because those prior moments are exhaustingly terrifying. 

In terms of writing, I focused on its assault of the body and mind and how can this woman find a place to hold on to and not disappear, but surrender. I wanted to explore how our splintered selves give light into our own power. I was always trying to match the perfect visual and movement to the beats and rhythms of an attack. The magical realism came really from how surreal these experiences always feel to me and how they transport me to other realms, whether that was being consumed by fog, to paralysis or feeling like the goodness is being stolen from you, or when you try and trick yourself out of it through distraction or disassociation.

Filmmaker: For a film that delves into the deeply unsettling feeling of having a panic attack, the production design and shooting locations are nonetheless bright, beautiful and generally associated with peace and tranquility—a flower garden, the beach, a verdant park. Yet as the film goes on, these spaces become hostile, dangerous and unnerving. Though this richly curated color palette certainly falls in line with your previous work, I’m curious about what drew you to that distinct contrast in Waves. 

Gee: I really wanted the piece to feel feminine and to have a feminine power to it. Anxiety shows up in the beautiful and the ordinary. Lily is always dressed in shades of blue, but I didn’t want to make the piece overly dark and depressing. For instance, when she’s on the street, it was important to us that we knew exactly where she was going and why. Even though you may have anxiety, you still have to show up and go somewhere, be someone. A lot of spaces don’t feel safe with anxiety. A beach can seemingly be safe, but waves are dangerous, perhaps even more so if you fight, rather than surrender, to them.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the film’s colorful production design, the fact that it was shot on Super 16mm and 35mm adds another dimension of lushness to the film. I know you’ve largely shot on film for your past projects, but I’m interested in hearing what conversations you and DP Joshua Echevarria had during the shoot? 

Gee: I love shooting on film, both for aesthetics and performance. This was my second time working with Josh, and we spend a lot of time in prep discussing framing and movement. We treated the studio like a theater stage and mapped out Lily’s blocking to help inform when we wanted to transition from objective to subjective based on Lily’s movements, rhythms and the intimacy we wanted. 

Echevarria: It was important to build an underlying impression of unease. It wanted to feel like something could shift suddenly and disrupt the stillness—like the balloon could pop at any moment. This was achieved by utilizing flowing jib and dolly movements during moments of calm and then switching to a handheld approach that follows Lily’s sporadic movements, almost as if we were attached to her. The space was tight and we were on the 8th floor, so to achieve the desired look, we placed units above each window for soft daylight ambience and then mirrors bouncing hard light from units placed strategically behind our set to create shafts of sunlight. Waves was a huge collaborative effort for every department. For me, it went from picking weeds and plants for our garden set with our production designer, Allie Leone, who’s incredible eye for color and clever set build and design also created a heighten world for Lily, to building a custom light for our celosia flower to planning out a complicated 90 degree camera turn with our key grip, Gulab Singh. All of this was matched by Lindsey Nadolski’s intuitive and beautiful edit, which heightened the anxiety and unease.

Filmmaker: I notice that a forthcoming project of yours, Buried, is currently in post-production and also stars Lily Baldwin. Similarly to Waves, it will explore mental health issues and how they manifest physically, this time focusing on work burnout, stress and rage. Can you speak to that project a bit—namely when might we expect it, and what motivated you to collaborate with Lily again? 

Gee: Lindsey Nadolski, who edited Waves, is also editing Buried, and Lindsey is pure joy to work with. We’re looking to premiere this fall. The lyrical narrative follows a winemaker plagued by stress and sickness who is convinced her vineyard is being poisoned, but a sinister presence confuses the truth around her chaotic and mysterious illness. Buried explores how self-compassion is difficult to channel when we push ourselves to exhaustion. The script won a production grant from the Jerome Foundation and was shot on super 16mm. Lily’s dedication to pushing every moment and detail to be as authentic as possible really excites and impresses me. I wanted to be just as rigorous with Buried. It’s exciting to collaborate with her again and build on our relationship as director, and actor and deepen our trust with each other to create a story that crosses traditional forms and embraces a physical world. 

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