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“When You’re Filming in the Streets of New York, There’s No Need To Pretend”: Haley Elizabeth Anderson on Tendaberry

A young Black woman wearing yellow pants and a crop top hangs off of a street post.Tendaberry, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Tendaberry, the feature debut from writer-director Haley Elizabeth Anderson, follows 23-year-old protagonist Dakota (first-time actor Kota Johan) throughout an entire calendar year as she experiences day-to-day life in New York City. Specifically, Dakota and her boyfriend Yuri (model Yuri Pleskun, who previously appeared in the Safdie Brothers’s Heaven Knows What) reside in the South Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, which is alight with sunbathers and Coney Island-bound tourists in the summertime, but otherwise very quiet—save for the constant hum of ocean wave and gulls—during the off-season. A permanent air of loneliness engulfs Dakota when Yuri travels back to Ukraine to care for his sick father, becoming subsequently trapped in the country just as the Russian military begins its brutal siege. Unable to contact Yuri and confirm his whereabouts, Dakota ambles around the city, encountering kind souls and dangerous individuals as she attempts to stay afloat on her own. 

Featuring an unconventional, sprawling narrative bolstered by a wide array of cinematography techniques—from DV tapes to 16mm footage to handheld digital home movies—Tendaberry is both intimate in scale and ambitious in execution. While the film primarily follows one actor as she organically interacts with NYC, it was shot over several years in order to capture an entire year’s worth of seasonal shifts—and the textures that accompany them—making for a prolonged project that was nonetheless executed with the immediacy of sporadic guerrilla filmmaking techniques. With the title being a reference to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro’s 1969 album New York Tendaberry, Anderson also charts how the essence of the city, both past and present, converge to create experiences that are at once unique and familiar. 

Anderson, who appeared on our annual 25 New Faces of Film list in 2019, hopped on a Zoom call a few days before Tendaberry’s world premiere in Sundance’s NEXT slate to discuss the process of crafting her first feature. Below, she reveals how a discovery on the NYU Tisch campus spearheaded this project, the myriad narrative changes that occurring during the shoot and her personal connection to the late cinematographer Tom Richmond. 

Filmmaker: Literally speaking, in the press notes, you say that you began working on this film when you “found a free box of DV tapes on the 10th floor of the Tisch building” at NYU. Can you go further in depth on how you came across this discovery and ended up utilizing the footage in this film? 

Anderson: I mean, those tapes sat in my closet for six years, I’d say. I think I did film a little bit while I was at Tisch, but I always planned to do some sort of daily video. I knew about Nelson Sullivan’s archive before I came to New York, and it was always my goal to sort of do something like that. I remember telling someone, “You should film a film on DV.” Then when I saw that box, I was like, “Oh, I should do this myself.” So I did film a little bit with one of those tapes [during undergrad], and then the rest sat in my closet. I always had ambitions to just film New York, especially places that reminded me of what New York was before I was there. I wanted to film spots that felt like they were going to be lost soon, maybe in the next 10 years or so. And then there were always these moments where I would witness something on the street that was really interesting, but I didn’t have a camera. And I was like, “Oh, well, I’ll use those tapes for that.” But that in itself takes a lot of time. 

In the beginning, the script was more like vignettes or snapshots of different people. I remember I was out on the beach, and I saw this whole scene that I then wrote as something that was supposed to be in the film. We had people audition for it and had them act it out. It was my ambition to shoot all of those on DV. Every time I don’t do something for a film, I feel like I still have to do it. I still want to do a whole film on DV, but in this film, it’s utilized as Dakota’s footage in the interludes, and there’s a little bit of a memory sequence that’s also filmed on DV. So it’s used in small ways, but we have hours and hours of DV footage, because I did use all of the tapes in that box. 

Filmmaker: Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Fort Tilden and the subway lines that connect these NYC neighborhoods to the broader metropolis are gorgeously and intimately shot. How did you and your cinematographer, Matthew Ballard, collaborate to capture the raw ambiance of the city? What were your references? 

Anderson: From the beginning, we were talking about wanting to be inspired by what was in front of our eyes instead of references. When we were referencing something, it was Rosetta. I also talked a lot about The Decalogue, but I don’t think references were things that we leaned on when we were trying to film Coney Island. I think our references were more for the color grade, which I’m really happy with. We were referencing early Dardenne films, Lovers on the Bridge and, like I said, The Decalogue for some of the color. But as far as how we filmed Coney Island, what we are referencing is reality. You just kind of go out and dive in, and we just did it. Dakota is our guide; we’re always in her POV in some way.

All of the super slow stuff just sort of happened by semi-accident, because we were filming something, and I was like, “Well, what would it look like in 200 frames?” All of the experimentation came from the fact that we had no money, but we wanted to make it look really interesting and get more footage for less time. We were just going with what was there and capturing moments that we found on the fly. 

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about how you channeled this guerrilla filmmaking technique of shooting New York City. How did you navigate that as an independent filmmaker?

Anderson: That’s always really tough. It was very raw, we just kind of went and did it. We had permits for a couple of days for Fort Tilden, because Fort Tilden is really tough to shoot without [permits]. But everything else was guerrilla-style. There are, of course, pros and cons to that. We filmed for over two years, which was a huge obstacle. I’m trying to break this down, because we did have discussions about this and I’m still sort of distilling what I learned from it. 

I don’t think filmmakers should be afraid of taking the time, but time is money, as well, because you have to pay the [crew] who are there. But I was in-between the world of film-school filmmaking, where you do it for the love of it, and the world of “real” filmmaking—which is all filmmaking—but there is this in-between where you can sort of do wherever you want. You have freedom, but there are some things that you have to respect, like people’s time. I was really thankful for everyone that was giving up their time. Matt is one of those people, he was so generous. But because we shot it [during each season], we were not always consistent. There were a few hiccups in the middle, like when someone got sick or the funding fell through and we couldn’t film one chapter when we wanted to. That’s when you have to resort to actual “movie magic” to recreate something, and the goal was to not do that.

It’s strange—in order to do something like this again, I would need more money and I couldn’t do it guerilla-style. We embraced the rawness, but at the same time we were doing something that we probably needed more money for. It was ambitious to shoot an entire year. If you’re doing it without money, you have to sort of bend to the circumstances.

Filmmaker: Expanding on that, the film takes place throughout an entire year, and it does appear that all four seasons were accordingly captured. How did you and the crew—including the actors—approach shooting over the course of a calendar year? Did this affect the film’s structure at all? 

Anderson: Yes, it definitely affected the script and what we did. There were things that we would change every season. The film still holds some of the original ideas that I started out with, but a lot of them are different, so that was one huge effect. There’s definitely over six years of footage in Tendaberry if you count the DV tapes and the toy camera, which had my own old footage.

I feel like I was working on it for three years. I started filming Dakota on my own in 2021, and then we started [shooting during the] fall of 2021. It’s correct to say we filmed for two and a half years. I’ll say three. This affected the film’s structure, and it really affected Dakota. Everyone had to hang on for so long. Dakota and Yuri are the two actors that were affected the most, because they were there the longest. For other characters, I had to recast a couple of them. We filmed with one actor during the summer of 2022, then they had to leave and couldn’t fill the role the following year. So we had to recast and sort of edit around them in the footage. Then there was another character in the same scene that I had cast with the intention of having them come, but there then were some scheduling issues because somebody got sick. We had to change the shoot twice, I think, earlier this year. 

With Dakota, I was constantly talking to her, and we were friends before [the film]. I met her in 2018, and we’ve been in constant conversation since. I was also inspired by a lot of things that happened to her. We’d constantly talk, and that would inform the script, so we were very flexible. From the beginning, the producers and I made it very clear to her that once we started this, she would be locked and would need to be committed to the long shoot. I’m really thankful that we found two of the most gracious people to work with. Dakota’s just amazing, and she was excited from the beginning. 

Another thing is that we used a friend’s apartment for the shoot, which became a character itself. We’re lucky that we found a space that we could come back to again and again. Dakota and I were just talking about that apartment. It has its own smell, and we really miss it, because we’d been there for what, two and a half years?

Filmmaker: Not to spoil anything about the film, but part of the plot does involve the ongoing war in Ukraine. What inspired you to incorporate this specific conflict into your project? 

Anderson: Originally, that wasn’t in the script at all. We always said that since we were filming over the course of a year, we’d have to respect what was happening in the world if it affected us. I live in Sheepshead Bay—sort of near Brighton Beach—and there are a lot of Eastern European people. I always knew the boyfriend character was going to either be from Ukraine, Russia or Georgia. I wanted to pull that culture into my film, because that’s just the reality of the neighborhood. Originally, it was really about long-distance relationships and two people losing touch. In the script, he does go back to Ukraine, because Yuri is Ukrainian. We were filming, what was that, February of that year? Maybe like a week after we stopped filming, the war broke out, and the character was [written as being] there. We had to respect reality, and I think it was at that point that we had a huge discussion about COVID, too. If you make a film that’s set in the present without [acknowledging] it, then it’s a fantasy. 

I tried to be very careful to address it only through Dakota’s eyes, because it’s such a fresh thing that’s happening. And I don’t know if films will talk about it in 10 years, but I just really wanted to talk about the human aspect of missing someone, which was the original idea anyway, and the world upsetting your plans for your life. Sadness, uncertainty and confusion were things that I wanted to address in the story, anyway. I was very open to depicting how quickly the world can turn bad. 

I can’t remember when, but I do remember those two subway shootings, and they were both on my line, the Q. I just wanted to be very sensitive about what people were feeling, the sadness and confusion. 

Filmmaker: I do also want to highlight the fact that your work as a filmmaker and artist blends aspects of documentary and narrative filmmaking. How did you follow or divert from those disparate filmic conventions in Tendaberry

Anderson: Well, the documentary stuff is also a skill. Pivoting is something that I have to do constantly, because we’re at the mercy of reality. I think that’s something we used here. Even if it was a scripted moment, if somebody wasn’t showing up or we didn’t get a location, we just turned it into something else. 

With the actors, I wanted to take the time for them to feel what the moment would be like in real life, because when you’re filming in the streets of New York, there’s no need to pretend. If [Dakota’s] singing in the subway, I didn’t want to feel the apparatus of the film. I just sort of wanted to stand back and see what she did. Some of the things that Dakota says are completely just her own words. I was careful to protect that.

I think back — there were days where we were hanging out on the Fourth of July at Coney Island, just capturing all of that. When you look back at the movies from the ’70s, you can see what life was like back then, because they were just shooting around real things. You could just sit there, watch out the window of a cafe scene, and actually see what was happening. Maybe if the film stands the test of time, you could sit there and watch people on the periphery of the frame and be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s how it felt like in 2021.”

I try to be very loose. You can’t hold on too tightly to what you’ve written when you’re shooting in environments that are very lively, because they can give you something much better than what you wrote.

Filmmaker: Another motif in your work is the examination of generational trauma, and I can’t help but connect the hardship of your characters to this overarching exploration of yours. Would you say it continues to be a focus of yours, on this project or otherwise? 

Anderson: I always want to talk about what came before, and that was something that was on my mind at the beginning of this film. When I started the film, I was extremely sad and had just come out of a very long period of depression. When I was going through that, I was thinking about how I could not be the only sad person in the city. I think it was the end of 2019, before I started this film, I was super sad and was walking around crying uncontrollably. Then I passed by this building, and I saw [Tom Richmond], one of my professors, who I was good friends with, who also looked like he was crying. I was like, “Do you need a hug?” We both hugged each other without explanation. I walked away, and a year later, while we were shooting the film, I found out that he had passed away. The funny thing is that he had also been a cinematographer on a film that was shot in Brighton Beach, [James Gray’s Little Odessa], which made me think about the layers of existence, and that somebody else is going through the same thing you are. It’s like The Decalogue, where you’re in one apartment complex and all of these things are happening to different people. 

So that whole layer came with the idea that the city can hold you in different ways. If you’re open to seeing other people’s sadness and suffering, you’ll feel less alone. We are so small, and we are not the only ones going through it. If generations before you went through it, then you can make it through, too. It’s just a cycle of life.

Filmmaker: When we interviewed you for the 25 New Faces of Film series in 2019, you spoke about another feature project, Coyote Boys, as likely to be your debut. I know you’re now working on that film as your sophomore feature. Is there anything you’d like to share about the development of that project at the moment? 

Anderson: Absolutely. Tendaberry was supposed to be an experiment, because it was impossible to make Coyote Boys during the pandemic. I guess I could say the pandemic fed into a lot of the reasons why we made it. But yeah, I was always writing Coyote, and we just brought another producer onto the team. Our home base will probably be in Dallas, and we’re planning to film it next summer.

I don’t think I would be able to make the film without the experience of making Tendaberry. I now know clearly what that film is and what it will take, and I’m really blessed with the team. I’ve learned so much on Tenderberry. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to approach Coyote the way I am now. I scouted over the past summer when I wasn’t filming Tenderberry, and started doing all sorts of research. But yeah, it’s still very much alive.

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