The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Holler.
The film is visually stunning. Can you talk about your approach, and how you worked with your collaborators?
Nicole Riegel: I knew the color palette I wanted to use before I began collaborating with my production designer and cinematographer. I knew I wanted to shoot on film; I had shot some short films on digital — but I came out of a film program in the midwest that was heavy on documentary and trained us on film. It was very old school, and so I think that really informed things. But with the colors, I worked with Lance [Mitchell] to… you know, we looked at a lot of I guess you could call it “color theory,” not to be too big of a nerd, but it’s so important to me, and I wanted to assign Ruth a color that no one else in the film really had, and also a color that connected her to home. I think you can tell relationship and story through color. So she’s in red as her color, and to signify both her passion and her singularity, and that she doesn’t really fit in that town. It’s a brighter red. And then sort of the matriarchal characters — Ronda, or Linda maybe — we kept them in a palette more along the lines of deeper pinks, or light-reds or burgundies… and we kept those as if they’d faded away, through the years, in that town. I had the help my wonderful costume designer Ciara Whaley to do this. The idea came from the question, “what are the natural colors in the town?” And the town just naturally has lots of red, white and blue… but very faded red white and blue, which I found to be quite haunting. And then blue became the brother’s color, and it was like, how do we go through the whole film and tell story just in color, and have this transference of color at the end? And with the cinematography, I’m a very big fan of Andrea Arnold, and Ken Loach, and documentaries like Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, the film Wanda by the late Barbara Loden, the film Rosetta by the Dardenne brothers… those were all huge influences, and I wanted the crew to feel invisible and to have minimal footprint, and for it to be handheld, and for it to be on super-16mm, because it’s a community in America that feels left behind. It doesn’t matter if they actually are or not— they feel that way, for all sorts of reasons we could unpack! And some of those I agree with and some I disagree with, but the fact remains that they feel that way. So to me, 16mm feels very left behind, and that’s how we arrived at that choice.
Nobody cares enough about this community to go there
What was it like making this movie in your hometown, and was there any hesitancy from the production company about going there?
NR: There was zero convincing of the folks at [the production company] Level Forward that I had to make the film the way I did. However, for four years leading up to that, over seventy people wouldn’t allow me, or give me permission, to make the film in the way that I wanted to. And this is such a… there are so many autobiographical elements to it that I could not allow a group of wealthy individuals (because let’s be real, that’s who finances independent film: high net-worth individuals who usually give you private equity, unless they’re more established companies), and this is a story that is about my life, and my childhood, and I needed control over my story. And it needed to be authentically told and not have Hollywood sets brought in, or be filmed somewhere else and then passed off as my hometown. Of course there is a level of artifice in every film— even in documentary. But I needed as little artifice as possible in order for this to be a film from the heart, and I needed to be very cognizant of how I was representing the people from my town, and because I come from the community — and although there are certainly ways in which I differ greatly from where I come from — but one thing on which I am completely aligned on with everyone from the community is that we role our eyes when we see Hollywood make films about Appalachia, because we know that it’s going to be a film that portrays us as ignorant hillbillies. The film Deliverance comes to mind, even though it’s not even remotely close to where we shot Holler. All of these stereotypes come to mind. There’s actually a beautiful documentary by Ashley York called Hillbilly that goes into a lot of what I’m talking about, and she’s from Appalachia as well. And I just had to get in front of it. I had to get in front of the stereotype. And it was so important that the film was shot on film, that it was shot on location, and that I could bring lots of local talent to the screen to play fictionalized versions of themselves. And I knew I could earn their trust, because I’m one of them! I’m literally from the town. They are going to trust me to an extent. And so I went through years of just telling people this is how I will make this film, and them saying ‘no’ to me. Or I couldn’t even get in the door, at all, to make the film. No one would even have a conversation with me about making the film this way. Or they would ask, “well is it a documentary,” and I would say, “well, no, it’s not a documentary… it’s a sort of docu-fiction hybrid,” and that was definitely not a popular response. But I really just had to keep moving on, and chipping away, year after year, until I found a company that said, “wow, that is actually the perfect way to make this film… that is the only way the film could be made.” And I will always believe that the challenge in those conversations is that this is a film that’s about class, and Hollywood and Appalachia have a very… tense relationship with one another because of class. And I think that is really… I’ll just say I think there’s a lot there to unpack!
The storytelling beats were inevitable and also surprising, somehow. Can you talk about creating those moments?
NR: First of all, in crafting the story, it’s all told from Ruth’s point of view. And I wanted us, as the audience, to stay on the pulse of Ruth the entire time, so you can feel the confusion, the frustration, of being her. And when I was seventeen, my school guidance counselor told me I would probably never go to college, I wouldn’t be a film director… and that guidance counselor was also part of a very limited system that didn’t really know what to do with kids like me. And that guidance counselor was my absolute lifeline. I’m the first generation in my family to go to college. I remember they set up meetings for high school seniors, and I was really looking forward to that meeting all year, because this was the one person who was going to help me pursue the arts. And the response I received was exactly what you see in the film between Ruth and the teacher. So the story started there. That is where my journey started in life, and that is where Ruth’s story begins. And after that, the story hinges on, how will Ruth go to college? How will this one girl in Appalachia get there? And I wanted us, as the audience, to feel just how fragile her existence is. To feel that, because of her station in life, she can’t even check out a library book. That is the drama of Ruth’s life. She’s dealing with the mom, she doesn’t want to leave the town… she finds a way to earn this money, but then she’s — routinely throughout the film, as you’ll notice, she’s discouraged by a lot of people, and she’s discouraged by a lot of men in particular. Men say very discouraging things to Ruth in this film. And, as I look back on what it was like to grow up, as I look at my life now… sure, women have said discouraging things to me. But, a lot of men in particular have said discouraging things to me, and I wanted that in the story because that is her fragile existence at an impressionable age, because I think at that age, you absorb a lot of negative messages, a lot of discouragement. And it takes an insane amount of resilience to come out of that in one piece. And all of this was baked into the initial idea of how to tell the story. How do I tell people, through a movie, how fragile my existence was? And with Hark, I see that relationship as a potential path she could go on. You could look at every character around Ruth in the story, including Linda, her mom, her brother, Hark… as potential paths for Ruth. Which one will she choose? Which one will lead her away from here? Which one will take her to higher education? And with Hark, he has this line in the film that I still find very powerful, which is, “at least here you can see the top.” And I think that idea really gets at the mindset of a place like that for a lot of people. “This is safe, here I can see the top. Outside the borders of this town, I am unseen and I am not wanted, and I am condescended to.” That’s the mentality, and I wanted the story to tap into that, and it achieves that through the character of Hark. And then the last thing I’ll say about the story is, people think Hark is the antagonist in the film, and there are many antagonists: You could look at the teacher as the antagonist, you could look at Hark as the antagonist… the intended antagonist in the film is the system that all of these characters are trapped in. And it’s faceless. Sometimes you hear a voice in the film, and people think that’s the antagonist. The antagonist in the film is faceless because the antagonist would never visit my hometown, and show their face. Nobody goes there. Nobody cares enough about this community to go there.