Venice 2020 Women Directors: Meet Celine Held – “Topside”

Celine Held is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. She works as a co-writer and director with her partner Logan George. Their work as a team has premiered in competition at SXSW, Sundance Film Festival, and Telluride Film Festival, and has been nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. “Topside” is their first feature.

“Topside” will screen at the 2020 edition of Venice Critics’ Week, which is taking place September 2-12. George co-directed the film.

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

CH: “Topside” is the story of a five year-old girl and her mother, who live in the tunnels beneath New York City. It’s this chaotic, beautiful story that has been in the works since 2012.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

CH: In 2009, I was working in New York for Jumpstart AmeriCorps in a kindergarten class with mostly low-income students. A few months into my job there, a child was removed from my class by Child Protective Services. We found out later that his mom had been filling out job applications and marking she had a dependent, but had no permanent place to live — which is illegal in New York. His mom came at the end of the day to pick him up, oblivious to him having been taken away, and was inconsolable.

I started reading a lot about the foster care system after this incident, and the sometimes inconsistent rules that affect low-income families more than anyone else. There are currently about 22,000 children who are homeless right now in New York City and living in supportive housing or homeless shelters — a huge number that I had no idea existed.

I was also reading “The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City” by Jennifer Toth at the time, and came across a particularly striking line. When the author asked a tunnel dweller if there were children who lived down there, he replied no. After a moment, he added, “We have adults as young as five.”

That line has stuck with me — it was the clearest way to describe who the children were in this school, almost all living lives below the poverty line — all these five-year old adults forced to grow up too fast. I wanted to find a cinematic way to tell that story.

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

CH: I’m hoping that the film is hard to shake.

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

CH: The first third of our film takes place in a tunnel with no natural light, the last third of our film takes place solely on subway trains and platforms in New York City. The film also stars a seven-year-old girl, playing a five-year-old. It was definitely an unusual process throughout the entire shoot — we were lucky to have a truly dedicated crew who was excited to run-and-gun.

We were in the tunnel filming for three weeks in total, so it definitely took a toll on all of us in having no natural sunlight. You can feel that in the film. It was very important to us that we use a practical tunnel rather than opt to shoot some portions on a stage.

Zhaila Farmer, our seven-year-old lead actress, never memorized any lines or blocking, so we created 360-degree worlds — both through production design and lighting — for her to live in. Obviously, we insulated her from the adult aspects of the story and she knew we were shooting a film, but we tried really hard to keep the experience as organic and intimate as possible.

One of our PAs, Nikki Moriello, had the amazing idea of putting up a red light in the tunnel for when we were shooting — we avoided saying “action” and “cut” — so that Zhaila wouldn’t know when we were rolling, and her performance could naturally flow without being chopped up by production words.

Shooting in the subway trains and platforms also presented a lot of challenges. We were given a platform and train from the MTA for about a week of work, and had real pedestrians getting on trains on the platform right beside ours, as we were in a fully-operational subway station. It was wild.

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

CH: Our film came together through three different independent financiers. They were all instrumental with their notes, processes, and personal relationships to the story.

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

CH: My husband Logan and I both have degrees in drama from NYU, where we met back in 2010. We both had these small acting careers before we began writing our own material. We were both really dissatisfied with our role in the process of creating work as actors: you aren’t as involved as we thought we could be. With filmmaking, we could make these movies and create these worlds that were completely our own. It’s so exciting.

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

CH: Best: Don’t take anything personally. Best advice ever. Everyone’s going through their own stuff. Take it all in stride.

Worst: I’ve been told too many times to do less: to relax more, to take on fewer projects or roles within those projects. This has been the opposite of my life so far, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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

CH: Honestly, I try not to qualify myself as a female director. I’m just a director. There are some tropes in being female that I fight against: apologizing for myself, not speaking up, being too influenced by others, or worried about what people think of me — but those haven’t been issues for me.

I can see the film I’m trying to make clearly — it’s just about communicating that vision to my crew in the clearest way possible. Don’t try to apologize for that vision, or compromise that vision unless absolutely necessary — usually for budgetary reasons. Just keep forging ahead.

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

CH: I love all of Andrea Arnold’s work, she’s a huge inspiration for both me and Logan. Her work in finding moments rather than crafting, in shooting so much material, and in concentrating on the human aspect of filmmaking rather than the gimmickry has really influenced my own work. Other favorites: “Capernaum” by Nadine Labaki, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” by Marielle Heller, “Leave No Trace” and “Winter’s Bone” by Debra Granik, and “The Farewell” by Lulu Wang.

There are so many amazing female directors working today that top my list of favorite directors, period.

W&H: What differences have you noticed in the industry since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

CH: I wasn’t quite part of the industry prior to these movements.

Before my husband and I started making movies, I’ve been told to lose weight, to dye my hair, and to wear tight clothing to book roles as an actor. I was even told by my agent at the time that I had to do parts with nudity in order to get noticed in this industry. I think things would be really different if I was still just acting, that I would be able to concretely feel these movements more. As a director, though, I’ve always felt like an equal to Logan — I don’t know anything else.

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

CH: We are writing our next script. We love crowd scenes a lot — we love that kind of awkwardness and humanity that comes with large groups of people. However, our next script takes place in more of a nature setting. We found a setting that feels like a beautiful jumping off point, and could work with a small cast. We’ve been trying to write for a COVID filming world without losing a sense of cinematic scope to the story. It’s definitely different, but sometimes with restraints you can find something beautiful, something you would have never thought of without them.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. 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?

CH: We need these stories, and we need these stories to be told by the people who have lived them, or have the experience to tell them, and understand their own world best. Movies are made better when there are diverse voices involved in a story. The industry should finance more diverse storytelling and storytellers. We lose so much as an industry when these voices aren’t represented. We need to do more at every step of the creative process, we need to follow the guidance of these leaders in our industry, and we need to listen when we are told how to build a future that is more safe and inclusive.

September 4, 2020
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