Toronto International Film Festival 2020: Interview with Director Nicole Riegel and Actress Jessica Barden for HOLLER

While survival and transitional stories are far from a new tale, their ability to interweave important topics and necessary conversations of the world into the narrative is what keeps them fresh and relevant. It is their ability to stay true to the issues through strong characters and solid setting that maintains their importance throughout the history of cinema. In 2020, director Nicole Riegel brings us Holler.

I had the opportunity to speak with both director Nicole Riegel and the film’s star Jessica Barden about the inspiration for the film, the challenges they faced bringing Holler to life, and more!

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: Interview with Director Nicole Riegel and Actress Jessica Barden for HOLLER
source: Toronto International Film Festival

Stephanie Archer for Film Inquiry: Thank you for both taking the time to speak with me today about your film Holler. I have to say after watching the film, I absolutely love Ruth’s story. It really resonates and it’s really, really relevant to both more noticeable things in the news and things that maybe need more attention. First and foremost, you were supposed to have your screening at SXSW before COVID hit. I was wondering what it’s been like for both of you having to hit pause and wait to premiere your film.

Nicole Riegel: I mean, it was a delayed birth for sure, but I mean, Deauville and Toronto came along and we’re just so excited to share the film with all of these people next week.

Jessica Barden: I was just going to say like I never for one second stopped believing in the movie. This is just another thing for this film. Like, it’s survived a lot of things, so I never stopped believing in it. I just had some sympathy at the time for the first time filmmakers not being able to experience people watching their movie the first time in a theater. I hope that everybody now is experiencing – I’m not jaded by it. Like, your movie will be fine and it will find a way to come back.

Nicole, you wrote and directed a short film called Holler as well about two brothers with a very similar synopsis. Was it always your intention to make it a full-length feature?

Nicole Riegel: Uh, yes, and no. I sort of made the short as an exercise to try filming in a scrapyard and in that sort of chaotic environment and to figure out how to really do that. I’d never done that before. And by the time I finished it, I made so many mistakes and learned so much on it, just in terms of how to film in that environment and how to bring local people in front of a camera and get them comfortable with a camera. And I’m really proud of it. But when I developed the feature, it was just about something so personal to me, and it needed to be about a young woman and it needed to be her story at the center. And it just sort of morphed into its own thing about this girl’s pursuit of college and an education and a better future for herself. I just took a lot of lessons from that short and into the feature – creatively, it just really went in a different direction.

And you said that this kind of came from something personal. Where did the idea for the film come from?

Nicole Riegel: I mean, I’m from Jackson, Ohio, where we filmed it, in my hometown in Chillicoth, Ohio, just a neighboring County. And I grew up there and the scene in the film where the teacher discourages Ruth from pursuing school and urges her to work in IT, but she says she doesn’t want to, that happened to me and it was really hard to just look around and see people who didn’t see that future for me because I think sometimes, people can’t because they don’t see something for themselves, it’s hard for them to see it for you.

And I wanted to make a film about that because if I felt that way, then lots of other young women felt that way. And it’s been so great for Jessica and I to hear from other young women and, you know, “Hey, that was said to me or someone discouraged me when I was younger”, and that it’s happened to so many girls that we just discourage our girls. And I wanted to put a hopeful story into the world about that and I hope we send a different message to them.

I have to say that was something that really struck me as well. Was the whole education and the deterring from advancing, from reaching for opportunities. Especially from those that are suppose to inspire like the teachers and the principals, and here she is taking a book because she wants to learn more.

Jessica Barden: And it’s so simple as well. Like, it isn’t supposed to be a big ask to want to further your education. It’s something that you have to learn very quickly. It doesn’t apply to everybody. You know, you go to school from your child and you just presume that that’s something that will be available for everybody. It’s not big ask. It’s not like you are asking for something like a car or like a vacation or something. It’s just further education, that’s it.

Well, and in today’s world, you have student loans, even if you get a loan you can’t make it even after. And that’s a deterrent on its own. And to see this representation of actual people saying no is really heartbreaking.

Nicole Riegel: It’s interesting that you mentioned education and how to pay for the education. One thing that’s intentionally left out of the film is FASFA and grants and scholarships because you need to have people telling you about those things and telling you about FASFA. And no one has ever told Ruth about FASFA. No one has ever told her about the plan or the paperwork or the process of going to college and how to pay for it. And so you can’t even really find accessible ways to go and maybe not have to raise all of that money, no one even tells you about that.

That’s not mentioned, scholarships are not mentioned. And she’s portrayed as an extremely brilliant individual and nothing’s provided, rather any hope is taken away.

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: Interview with Director Nicole Riegel and Actress Jessica Barden for HOLLER
source: Toronto International Film Festival

Nicole Riegel: Yeah. And how many girls like Ruth have that brilliance and have that talent and we have not nurtured it or kept it.

And speaking of talking about nurturing and the lack of opportunity, there were so many shots of the factory, of the stacks and the water, and everything’s kind of dull. It felt like it sort of mirrored, not only Ruth, but the town as well. For you, the inclusion of the factory, what was your thought process having so much of that showcased?

Nicole Reigel: Yeah, we’ve shot in an actual operational, frozen food manufacturing plant, and it was massive. And it was operating while we were filming in it. And we were allowed to, Jessica was allowed, to cut up all of this metal and have sparks flying all over the place while people were on their work-shifts, which I cannot believe we actually got away with. [laughs]

Jessica Barden: No one really asked any questions either. Everyone was just like, “Okay. Cool.”

Nicole Riegel: [laughs] Yeah, it was pretty gnarly. And I just kept waiting for us to be shut down. But we had lots of protocols we had to follow of course, but all of that machinery and all of that, you know, I think one thing creatively that worked so well in the film is that there’s a rhythm to it. This is the way of life. You go to work, you work this shift, you go home, you get up at this time, you take care of your kids. You know, there’s a routine. And that factory has a certain rhythm where the lives of all of those people revolve around this factory, but Ruth does not. She’s like this little iconoclast. And she does not fit in that machine. And she doesn’t necessarily want to be in that machine. It’s not that it’s bad. She just doesn’t see herself in the rhythm of that town. So it was important to show the rhythm of that town.

And it’s interesting, as Ruth is trying to break away from the monotony, it was interesting to see the other side where people want to be in a monotony because at least it’s a guarantee of money. At least it’s predictable. And you also see the opposite side where that monotony is forcibly taken away.

Nicole Riegel: Yeah. Especially in the character of Linda, played by the indomitable Becky Ann Baker. One of the scenes for me that was really sad to film was when she’s at her locker and takes her cigarette pack out and you see the photos and the employee of the month awards, and that it’s not the loss of a paycheck that’s so sad for these people. It’s the loss of community. And every day has been going to this job with people who’ve become your family and then those jobs are gone. That’s a real loss. Like what is a woman at her age do at that point, if for 40 years you’ve worked at a factory and now it’s your life is changing.

Jessica, I was wondering what drew you into the role? What attracted you to take on the part of Ruth?

Jessica Barden: I mean, the first time that I read the script, I just loved Ruth and Blaze, her brother. I can see so much of myself in the character and the way that I grew up and the town that I grew up in, which obviously is in England. But it felt extremely familiar to me. I have brothers as well. And I don’t think I’d read the script before I’d seen a movie that explored the relationship between a brother and sister like this as well because it’s complicated and intricate. The competition that you have and just how it makes you a very different type of woman when you’re growing up with a brother, especially when what you want from your life is so different, which is what I have in my life.

My brothers still live in the town that I grew up in. They didn’t have the same thing that me and Ruth have where you look around and you’re like, “Oh, I actually want to do something different than this”. It’s not because I don’t like these people. It’s just, I don’t know, just an instinct that you want to experience something different. And the anger that you feel towards yourself at that and the anger at the rest of the world, how completely confused and out of place you feel and not knowing what to do with this thing inside of your brain, where you want to expect more for yourself. And you’re like, why doesn’t the world expect more of me. I really wanted to play that and represent it on screen. Then when I met Nicole, I was speaking to somebody who actually was the same as me and this character.

I don’t think I’ve worked with a director at this point who had the same background as me. That is not taking anything away from anybody else I’ve worked with, it’s just like, I’ve never worked with somebody who actually was the same as a character, especially a working-class character in script form. And she told me that it was going to be really challenging and that it was going to be the hardest movie that I’ve made and she was going to make me work harder than any other director. And I was like, yeah, definitely want to do this. This is 100% why I’m an actor. And I just was really obsessed with working with Nicole who had such a strong vision for what the movie is going to be and had such high expectations for the movie and for herself. So yeah, I just was obsessed with getting the role.

And you mentioned that Nicole had said it would be challenging. What were some of the challenges that you faced?

Jessica Barden: I mean, it was so cold. Can you remember when it was the polar vortex last year at the start of the year? Well, we were in that, that was our filming schedule. We worked in a blizzard, we filmed on film, and we still have a low budget movie. Most movies this size wouldn’t attempt to film on film because you’re limited with how much you can film every day. We got a maximum three takes of things. So everything had to be, you had to be so sure of everything when you’re doing it, but of course, you still want things to be in the moment, which is a difficult balance with filming in a place where people don’t film.

The people were amazing. The locals made that way easier than it could have been. We were filming on a real scrapyard. It was a real place. We were completely open to the elements. There were no days on a studio, you know, even on an independent movie, there’ll be like a studio week or something. We didn’t have anything like that. Everything was completely real. Every single day you were waking up and going to work and just being like, “well, this is the plan, but like, this might happen soon. We’ll just have to go with it”. But it wasn’t as physically hard as it probably seems because Nicole created such an immersive experience. The environment really felt – I feel like Gus would say the same, he plays Blaze. Like we actually felt like Ruth and Blaze. So whatever we were asked to do, we just did it because we had that survival mentality at that point when we were filming.

Nicole, one of the things that really stuck that I really want to ask is, the red beanie that Ruth wears.

Jesica Barden: You can have one!

Nicole Riegel: [laughs]

Jessica Barden: We have loads.

[laughs] It’s really hard to miss. Especially since it contrasts the dull and kind of color drained town and the rest of her wardrobe. What was the reason behind the beanie and its color?

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: Interview with Director Nicole Riegel and Actress Jessica Barden for HOLLER
source: Toronto International Film Festival

Nicole Riegel: Oh, wow. Thank you for that question. I’m obsessed with that red beanie. It was actually supposed to be the gift given out at all of these film premiers was for everyone to have a Ruth hat. So hopefully that can, and some members of the press have them, but hopefully, that can become a thing during the film’s release or at the right time. I love the colors red, white, and blue for this. It’s filmed in Ohio. It’s a deep look in American film and a global story with American film. And I think the color red is Ruth’s color and there’s a whole – I don’t want to bore you with it. There’s a whole color scheme, but Lance and Sierra, my production designer and costume designer, did where we went through the script and we charted, we start with red and there will be this transference of color by the end where she is red and he is blue, and she will give that hat to him by the end. And if you notice in the last shot of the film is the only time in the movie where Ruth is wearing blue. She has taken home with her. There has been a transference of color.

I think I’ll always have red as the primary color in my films. I feel like it’s iconic for the character, for the leading women that I want to create – and a specific kind of red, Lots of hours when to the selection of this red if you only knew. I wanted her to have something like the leading lady in this film that’s iconic for a tiny indie film that not only just works creatively, but that you take with you and that people want to wear and they want to use and that can symbolize the film. Like my dream is that girls everywhere want a red beanie because they want to be like Ruth because she’s cool. And the things she does in the film are inspiring and empowering, and she speaks her mind and she’s opinionated and she has this full angle grinder, and people discourage her, but she finds her way anyway. I think all of those things are so positive and that’s what that beanie symbolizes. So it’s my dream that everyone has one of those beanies and are like, “yeah, I want to be like Ruth”.

I love that. I absolutely love that. I’m also in love with the score for Holler. It fills the screen during the film’s more pensive moments, but it always seems positive – almost promising. What was it like working with Gene Back to bring that score to the film?

Nicole Riegel: Well, Gene is incredible and this was his first film too. He used to be in the band, The Books, and he’s a violinist in Brooklyn and we met through the Sundance Institute at the Skywalker ranch, and we had the opportunity to test out a lot of different things. And I really wanted a score for the film and I wanted it to be orchestral. And I think a lot of people I’ve talked to before Gene had imagined like an acoustic guitar. They wanted like a stereotype for a film, something like this, but everything has to be on the pulse of Ruth. And so Gene and I, the first thing we did was we have to identify what Jessica sounds like.  [laughs] And we tried so many different instruments and we’re like, she sounds like a string quartet. Like, doesn’t she? Because you would never imagine a string quartet in a dirty, frozen scrapyard in Appalachia and a string quartet against manual labor. Like that does not make sense.

But it’s that juxtaposition that I think is really compelling musically because it’s the sound of Ruth. And then Gene wrote Ruth’s theme, which plays during the kitchen scene. And then that scene evolves and changes as she evolves and changes. And sometimes it’s dark and moody and sometimes it’s bright and hopeful. And we just wrote a theme and then we twisted it to suit the mood. I’m so happy that there’s a string quartet in a film like this.

It’s like you said, you wouldn’t expect it. In a movie like that, in that setting, but it just fits perfectly. And it’s because of the beat of Ruth. Everything just culminates. What do you both hope audiences will take away from the film?

Jessica Barden: I hope that the ending reminds people that you have traces and you make decisions in your life. The movie ends and you don’t know if she’s going to college. You don’t know if she’s moving away. All you know is that she realized that she can leave is she wants to, and she can decide that she’s not stuck here. She doesn’t owe anybody anything here. All she has to do is say yes to something or say, no. I think that is a confidence that comes from just realizing that you have choices. And I don’t think it’s something that people take the time to tell kids that come from these types of places that it’s up to you and you can do it as you want. And she realizes that in the end. So that’s what I hope people take away from him.

And how about you, Nicole?

Nicole Riegel: I can only echo everything Jessica said, I hope they take that away from it. I hope they encourage our girls to want more and to know that they can do it, that it’s possible because I think it’s such a triumphant bittersweet ending to them for the film. And I hope that girls watch the film and feel whatever they want to do is possible. Maybe they don’t want to be film directors. [laughs] Maybe they don’t want to be actors. Whatever it is for them, it’s possible. And it’s possible because we made Holler. Because Jessica and I made Holler possible. And that I think is the evidence.

I also wanted to talk about your influences. I couldn’t help but get a feeling of a Winter’s Bone and Another Earth at the beginning of the film. What influences did you draw on that influenced your filmmaking?

Nicole Riegel: Yeah, I mean, I love Deborah Granik. I mean, Deborah Granik is amazing. She’s aggressively committed to authenticity and researches everything so well. And I love Winter’s Bone. I love Andrea Arnold. I’d say Andrea Arnold is kind of like queen and kind of everything to me in film. I think she’s the best. I don’t think there’s anyone better than Andrea Arnold. I am terrified that she’ll see the film. Kelly Reichardt, Dardenne Brothers, Ken Loach.

But Andrea Arnold is, yeah, that’s a pretty intimidating and inspiring one.

Are there any other projects you have lined up for either of you that our viewers can look forward to?

Nicole Riegel: Yeah. I’m working on my second one now and it’s another portrait of a marginalized woman that’s accessible. That’s probably what all I’ll just continue to do. That’s what makes me really happy and creating those roles and then getting to work with, you know, women like Jessica really. That’s really all I want to do. [laughs]

Jessica Barden: I have another movie coming out on November 6th called Jungle On, which is a similar type to this movie. It was filmed in Massachusetts and set there. But it’s much more in the world of men and working-class wealth. I love it and it’s coming out soon. And then I was filming a Netflix series before the pandemic. So, I’ll go back and film that soon, but that wasn’t announced like I can’t say a title or anything. And yeah, I would love to work with Nicole again.

Nicole Riegel: Yeah, that will definitely happen. Any chance to put her in roles like this and just sort of let her free and do her thing makes my job so easy.

Film Inquiry thanks Nicole and Jessica for taking the time to speak with us!

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