The controversy started straight away. In January, White Girl, Elizabeth Wood's film based on a youthful summer of her own life, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Hours later, at 3:25 a.m., Variety critic Peter Debruge published the first scandalized review. He used phrases like "wall to wall depravity," "cesspool of reprehensible behavior," and "unbearably realistic horror show."
When I met Wood in early August, the 33-year old writer-director was still hot under the collar about the review. Her film, which is in theaters September 2, tells the story of Leah (Morgan Saylor), a pretty, white college-age girl who moves into a sketchy Queens neighborhood and falls for the Puerto Rican drug dealer on the corner. The film is rife with drugs, nudity, graphic sex, and at one point rape. There is exposed male genitalia and cocaine being snorted off of it. White Girl is a challenging film. In so many words, Wood painted a portrait of the Variety critic as an aging square who stayed up late into the night in a state of sustained moral panic in order to pin the first scarlet 'A' on her debut feature.
"My opinion may have changed since then," she said last week, before a screening of the film in New York City. An angelic-looking sprite with a delightfully foul mouth, she was sharing a plate of fried cauliflower with Saylor, whose Leah is a housebroken version of a younger Wood: petite, waist-length hair, a little quieter but still prone to adventurous decision-making.
"I think the review was good, actually, because it led to other conversations," Wood went on. "To me, the title confronts the issues head on. Yes, this is a film about whiteness and being a woman, and yes, white girl is another term for cocaine. For me, calling it that was a way to say, 'Let's f---ing talk about it.' I know what we're dealing with here; it is in many ways a critique. But I can imagine someone way down in the YouTube comments being like, 'What, is this just a film about white people?'" She laughed. "Well, sure! We're talking about it!"
When Wood first arrived at the title White Girl in a screenwriting workshop, her professor was adamant that no one would ever make that film. Naturally, this only encouraged Wood, who, like any born provocateur, knows that a loud noise draws a crowd. When she was in high school in Oklahoma City, she embarked on a crusade for the issue of female genital mutilation, I suspect partly because the frank talk of sex parts made adult Oklahomans squirm.
"We were talking about the size of my clitoris last time, right?" she asked at dinner, bringing the conversation back around to a topic covered in our first meeting — then, as on this occasion, an unprompted non sequitur.
As Wood cackled gleefully, I looked over at Saylor, 21, who examined her director with parental exasperation. She was used to Wood's mercurial energy, unlike the moderator at the recent Sundance Next Fest panel in Los Angeles, who following a screening of White Girl posed a completely sincere question: "What's the realest thing about your film?" To which Wood responded: "I don't know, that dick looked really big onscreen."
Ignoring her, Saylor told me, "When I first read the script, I was scared of it." Now a math student at the University of Chicago, the actress best known for her role as Dana Brody on Showtime's Homeland presents as sweet, even a little innocent, but there's daring and will beneath the surface. "It was gnarly, this character Leah. She was doing a lot of things that young girls were doing, but that wasn't being talked about in films."
In White Girl, Leah and her equally thin, attractive, and white roommate Katie (India Menuez) become involved in the dangerous lives of the drug dealer Blue (Brian "Sene" Marc) and his friends. When Blue, who comes across as an ultrasensitive thug, gets put away after an undercover bust, Leah, an unpaid intern at a fictional indie publication (Bad Mag, hah), with no currency in the world except that she is young, beautiful, and white, tries to get him out by selling off the rest of Blue's stash so she can hire a lawyer (Chris Noth).
One scene stands out as the film's thesis on white privilege and exceptionalism, and it comes when Leah goes to visit Blue in prison. He breaks down in despair at his prospects. Leah is blissfully unfazed.
Leah: "I told you, we're going to figure it out."
Blue: "Is that what you think, shorty?"
Leah: "I always figure it out."
Then Leah flashes him and collapses into giggles.
"After my agents screened the film," Saylor recalled, "they called me and were like, 'We're disturbed.'"
"I mean, your titties will be on the internet," Wood pointed out.
"They were just glad I'm not doing cocaine now."
In fact, Wood informed me proudly, no cocaine was used in the making of the film. For the piles of white, they substituted inositol, a Vitamin B-adjacent nutrient powder that Wood swears was "as expensive as cocaine." "It gives you lots of energy," she explained. "Everyone on set was doing it, even the crew. We got reported to the union, so there was a union babysitter there — who was doing it, too."
To prepare for her part, Saylor spent a lot of time just hanging out with her director. Wood took her to the rooftop of the apartment where she lived during the film's fateful summer — "the best roof in New York," Wood said, and where they shot the film's most memorable sex scene. They took baggies of inositol to Le Baron, Andre Saraiva's now-defunct Chinatown nightclub where they staged the party scenes (Saraiva's ex Annabelle Dexter-Jones also has a role in the film), and passed out the fake cocaine to unsuspecting patrons.
Wood, who is far and away the best saleswoman for her own film, understands that it holds more appeal to tell these tales out of school than it is to keep drumming on the herculean effort it took to make White Girl. (Her husband, Gabriel Nussbaum, produced it.) These days, the $700,000 indie film that makes it into the mainstream conversation is a unicorn.
When she first pitched her project to Christine Vachon, whose Killer Films was also behind Kids and Party Monster, two cult titles that are natural spiritual predecessors of White Girl, Wood was seven and a half months pregnant. "I went in there thinking that maybe Christine wouldn't work with me because I was so pregnant," Wood recalled. She was wrong: "She didn't even bring it up."
Twice, on very short notice, the film's financiers fell through. So the producers cobbled together money here and there, from a number of smaller investors. "We just made it how we could make it," Wood said. "But it also meant that no one had final cut except for me, which was incredible. I don't know if I'll ever have that experience again, and that freaks me out."
She sighed and glanced at her phone. She and Saylor were running late for the screening.
"What else?" she said, looking up at me. "We could go back to talking about my clit?"
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