Sundance 2021 Women Directors: Meet Erin Vassilopoulos – “Superior”

Erin Vassilopoulos is a New York-based filmmaker whose short films have screened at Sundance, the Berlinale, BFI London Film Festival, and Tribeca. Her directorial feature debut, “Superior,” participated in the 2020 IFP Narrative Lab.

“Superior” is screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which is taking place online and in person via Satellite Screens January 28-February 3.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

EV: “Superior” is an ’80s period thriller-drama hybrid about a woman on the run who returns to her hometown in upstate New York to hide with her estranged identical twin sister and, in doing so, alters the trajectory of both their lives.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

EV: The story was inspired by a short film I wrote and directed several years ago, also called “Superior,” exploring the relationship between teenage identical twin sisters. In the process, I became close with Ani and Alessandra Mesa, who played the leads, Vivian and Marian.

In the following years, I made a couple of other shorts and was working on a different feature script when Alessandra asked me to write something with her. She had gotten more into writing since we made the short. Given our positive experience and connection to that world, we quickly decided to write a longer piece about the same twin sisters.

Rather than expanding the short into a feature, we were excited to create a jump in time so the feature picks up with the same sisters, six years later, as adults.

Early on, I knew I also wanted the movie to be a dual narrative of sorts, split between a thriller and drama. As it turned out, both Alessandra and I had also been deeply affected by “The Jinx,” Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series about Robert Durst. So that was another jumping-off point for the story that influenced our decision to make the thriller aspect about a woman on the run from an abusive partner.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

EV: I hope the movie affects everyone a little differently, so it’s hard for me to say exactly. I hope the movie makes people feel something and that it lingers on after watching.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

EV: I’m sure this is often the case, but I’d have to say time. Our movie takes place in the weeks leading up to Halloween, but by the time we had enough pieces in place to start scheduling, it was late October. We were then faced with the reality that we’d be filming right up against Christmas in upstate New York. So, we had to decide whether we’d missed our window for the year — whether it might be too cold and better to push to spring and adapt the script accordingly — or to go ahead.

I was adamant we had enough pieces in place and I really wanted to maintain the Halloween setting. Luckily our producers felt similarly and were supportive so we decided to go for it.

I’m so grateful we didn’t push the shoot to spring of 2021 or else we would not have a movie today. However, by the time production was up and running we had little prep time.

Other challenges throughout the shoot included every department always playing catch up, and major pieces coming together only at the last minute — often literally minutes before filming. In the end it all worked out. but limited prep time was a challenge that kept us all on our toes.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

EV: “Superior” was independently financed. In spring 2019, when Alessandra and I felt we were close to finishing the script, I started searching for a solid producer to help us get the movie off the ground. I reached out to several people I knew but were either too busy or decided to pass.

Through a recommendation from a mutual contact, I was lucky enough to meet our producer, Ben Cohen. He read the script and connected to it immediately, in part, I think, from having grown up with twin brothers.

In our follow-up meeting, he indicated that we could make the movie pretty quickly. I was honestly a bit skeptical at first but in the following weeks, it became clear he was really serious about the film. He granted our project some final development money and helped us finish the script. Soon thereafter, we brought on a couple of other producers and the financing came together, allowing us to start filming in late 2019.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

EV: I went to film school at New York University but getting there was a fairly roundabout path. I studied English and Philosophy in college and a lot of my English classes incorporated film into the mix, which I loved. I had grown up watching movies fanatically, but never really studied them. In college, I was also exposed to truly experimental cinema for the first time. The movie I remember most clearly was Fernando Arrabal’s “Viva La Muerte.” It was the most surreal — and violent — movie I had ever seen. I was shocked and very excited.

After college, I lived in Minneapolis for a few years, interning and working at a couple of museums while supporting myself by waiting tables. I also worked for a small Italian film publishing company based in Minneapolis called RaroVideo. All these experiences got me more into film, visual art, and collections, and just as I was weighing several MA programs in curation/film studies, I went through a breakup that propelled me all the way to Madrid, seeking a completely new context and perspective.

I ended up living in Madrid for two years teaching English. During that time, I bought my first video camera and started shooting small observational videos, editing them on my laptop. I suddenly realized I had never considered actually making films. It struck me as something that combined a lot of my interests — storytelling, visual art, music — and I felt I could do endlessly if I had the chance.

Eventually, I enrolled in a month-long filmmaking workshop where I got to write, direct, and edit my first short film, which completely confirmed my suspicions. I applied to film school soon after and moved to New York City the following year to dive in.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

EV: Best advice: Imperfection can be a good thing. 

Worst advice: You can’t place the camera behind characters’ heads.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

EV: Trust your style and voice — it shouldn’t be a deterrent if it’s not immediately recognizable to others, since most of us grew up watching movies made by white men. Your movie can and probably should feel different.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

EV: Hard to choose, but the one I’d like to mention is Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization,” a documentary about the LA punk scene in the early ’80s. The live performances and interviews she captured from bands like Black Flag, The Germs, and X are incredible.

My favorite scene is a backstage interview with X, where singer Exene Cervenka shows off a wall of religious pamphlets she collected while touring. She was an inspiration for Marian’s character so I was sharing a lot of clips and images from this movie in pre-production.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

EV: We shot “Superior” in late 2019 and having the movie to work on this past year has been the best coping mechanism during the pandemic. Our editor, Jenn Ruff, and I got to really take our time with the edit and worked on it until fall 2020. We just finalized the movie for Sundance this week so it’s been keeping me plenty busy.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

EV: More space and opportunities need to be given to people of color so that their voices are amplified and elevated within the industry. I think the more that happens, the more diverse, nuanced, and innovative stories and representations we’ll continue to see which is incredibly exciting: I think so many people are eager for that.

Behind-the-scenes producers, directors — myself included — and executives should also make more of an effort to hire people of color at every stage in this process.

January 28, 2021
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