Live from Cannes: Chloë Sevigny on her Directorial Debut
After roles in American Horror Story, Bloodline, and Portlandia, Chloë Sevigny goes behind the camera.
Premiering tonight at the Cannes Film Festival, Kitty follows a young girl who wakes up to find herself transformed into a kitten after months spent wishing she was one. Based on the short story by Beatnik writer Paul Bowles, the fifteen-minute film marks Chloë Sevigny’s first time behind the camera as director. She enlisted an impressive cast of characters for her first project, including keyboardist Brian DeGraw from Gang Gang Dance and Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey (Atonement). “The film is very music heavy, and there’s not a lot of dialogue, so thank god I had Brian!” she explains. Sevigny looked to the photographs of Sally Mann and Louis Carol as atmospheric inspirations, and says her biggest task was convincing her seven-year old star, Edie Yvonne, that dirt was, in fact, ok. “There was a lot of scenes where she had to be on the ground,” says Sevigny. “She didn’t like getting dirty and she’s wearing these white dresses. That was the hardest thing to communicate – that it was okay to get dirty.”
When did you first read the short story “Kitty”?
I read the book when I was in my twenties. My boyfriend and I were fans of Paul Bowles’ work and his lifestyle – how he was the godfather of the Beats, gay, having a wife who was also a writer, his whole story and vibe. I read a collection of short stories called “Midnight Mass,” which included “Kitty,” and fell in love with it. It’s six pages, and I felt it was so cinematic and that it had to be put on film. Luckily enough, the Paul Bowles estate, who are very difficult to deal with because they are so protective, gave us the rights, so I went for it. I sat down, I wrote it. It was something I’ve wanted to do for twenty years.
The film has a sort of eighties vibe.
Cinematically, yes. It was more that I love eighties fantasy movies, and I love the way eighties films are shot. I wanted it to be sort of timeless, so you couldn’t figure out when it was taking place. I love Flashdance, and Foxes. Those movies have such a dreamy quality. I loved the magical realism elements to it. I love practical effects, and no one uses them anymore because everything is CGI.
Magical realism, transformation, the story sounds pretty Kafka-esque.
People are saying that… that it has a little “Metamorphosis,” a little Kafka. It’s very sweet. I wanted it to be a little whisper of a tale. Not a lot of dialogue, it’s very music heavy.
When you were little did you want to be an animal?
Oddly no. I was happy being a little girl. But I do remember looking at myself in the mirror and seeing that I had blonde hair, blue eyes, and having that sense of vanity creeping in, that sense of self when you’re discovering your image. I think that’s what I wanted to explore with her in the beginning, when she’s contemplating whether she likes her existence as a little girl, or whether she would prefer to be something like a cat.
Everyone goes through that when they’re little. Was there some magical circumstance you wished for when you were younger?
I wanted to live in another time… I remember my mother would be like, “Well then you couldn’t do this, or couldn’t do that,” but I was just like, “that’s ok, I would do other things.” I was obsessed with “Little House on the Prairie.” I wanted it to be colonial times or prairie times. I slept with a white nightcap.
And how did your career as an actor help or inform your directing abilities?
I’ve been on so many sets and around so many different directors. I poached from a lot, it definitely helped when I was speaking with Edie, my seven-year old star, talking her through the scenes. I wanted to build a safe environment for her, so she can feel free to try stuff. I had it very quiet around set, kept it mellow and polite. I feel the director sets the tone on set. It was only three days of shooting so I didn’t have to maintain it for that long, but I really wanted to create this warm environment. The first day I showed up with this floral skirt on to dictate the tone. And I think it helped. The feeling of the movie is really delicate.
It’s funny how that matters. Was there anything in the directing process that particularly surprised you?
Well I’ve never been a part of the post-production process of course, so that was difficult and I learned a lot. Editing, sound, mixing, all of that.
Did you bring on people you already knew to do all of that?
Yes, I had my friend Brian DeGraw, who’s the keyboardist in Gang Gang Dance, do the scoring. Then I hired a young girl Sophie as the editor, she cut Love & Friendship, the Whit Stillman movie I’m in that just came out Friday. Then I’m using cinematographer Seamus McGarvey [Atonement], who I shot with in the 90s. I think he kind of set the bar. People were like “Seamus is shooting it?” He was the big ingredient.
So it was a family affair.
We made it one.
Was it challenging to work with such a young actress? Guiding her, and getting her into character?
I always treat children like they’re adults. Except for cursing, that’s the only thing I curbed around her. Otherwise I spoke to her like she was 40. The only difficulty I had with her is she didn’t like getting dirty, and there was a lot of scenes where she had to be on the ground, so I had to tell her not to worry about getting the nightgown dirty. She’s kind of a city kid, so she’s not into getting dirty. Then she’s wearing these white dresses, so she’s kind of confused. She’s like “I don’t know if I should be lying in the dirt” – that was the hardest thing to communicate, that it was okay to get dirty. Her mother said, “Yeah, she’s a bit more galleria.”
Was there something that spoke to you about her immediately?
She has hair down to her waist, and these big blue eyes, and she just looked very fairytale-ish, from another world. She’s very sensitive and considered, and had never been in front of the camera before. She’s a little serious too which is why I think I responded to her.
It’s challenging to make art films with children involved. Was there any particular vibe you were trying to channel?
Not necessarily, we looked at a lot of photography. Like Sally Man, Lewis Carroll, and David Hamilton. We didn’t want to sexualize her though, and it’s such an easy thing to do.
And you shot on film. What led to that decision?
It’s so much prettier! After we shot I had all this film leftover, which is actually in Kim Gordon’s garage in Los Angeles. She’s storing it for me. So I want to shoot something in LA when I’m there this summer.
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