In Girl Talk, Director Erica Rose sets her sights on the serious issues surrounding the portrayal of female sexuality in the film industry. It is a short film about Mia, a young, queer woman who traverses the ever-complicated landscape of modern relationships. She, amongst the other characters in Girl Talk, are complex, well-rounded, and not there to service the viewer, but to have agency of their own. This is Rose’s aim, to tell stories that reflect her honest experiences, rather than facilitate tropes we’ve come to expect. DN spoke with Rose about the state of representation in cinema and how she manifested her thoughts into a narrative short.
Where did Girl Talk begin? How did you initially develop the idea?
I wrote the first draft of Girl Talk in early 2016, never thinking it was going to be produced. Part of that thought pattern stemmed from insecurity, before Girl Talk I had never made an acutely personal film. I had been living as an out gay woman for quite some time but making such a public and artistic declaration of my queerness felt insurmountable. Yet, for some reason, the story kept lingering and I knew that in order to advance as an artist, I had to tackle uncomfortable and painful moments from my own experiences. I wanted to showcase a queer character who existed outside of the false dichotomy we often find LGBTQIA characters. They are either depicted as ‘coming out’ or in a secretive relationship. In Girl Talk, we follow Mia as she explores the disparity between emotional and physical intimacy, coming to a head when she meets an intriguing couple. She’s navigating these issues as an out person, without any need to hide.
Making such a public and artistic declaration of my queerness felt insurmountable.
In the early drafts of the script, the story was so close to my true-life experiences that it wasn’t palatable to a cohesive narrative. It was also far more graphic, which just wasn’t necessary. Chelsea Moore, my producing partner, worked with me on the script to focus on the emotional beats of the story. Who is Mia? What does she want? What does she need? What does she lose and gain throughout the narrative? Once we nailed down those questions, we were able to launch into production mode.
Sexuality is forefronted in Girl Talk, what are your thoughts on the place of female sexuality in contemporary cinema?
So much of female sexuality has been at the hands of cisgendered, heterosexual and male creators. This has perpetuated so much mythology and misinformation about female sexuality, especially queer femme sexuality. I’ve seen representations of queer femme sex on camera that’s neither delicate, revelatory or novel. It’s by and for male viewers. Look at Blue is the Warmest Color, The Handmaiden, and Disobedience. All of those films have capitalised on lesbian sex, yet all fail in really examining the inner life of the characters.
The fact is those representations simply don’t portray the complexity and diversity of how our community has sex. Like gay men or heterosexual sex, sex between two women can be messy, vulnerable, ‘dripping’ with erotic passion, silly, or just sort of boring. Writing Girl Talk didn’t feel like a radical act, rather a truthful one. Yet, through multiple screenings, it’s become clear that speaking honestly about queer femme sex is both a radical and necessary act.
It’s important to also mention that even though Mia, played by Hannah Hodson who is just simply amazing in this film, talks with authority when it comes to her sex life, there’s so much she’s not saying, especially to the people she really cares about. That juxtaposition is present in every scene of the film.
Could you talk about working with your actors to make them comfortable during intimate scenes?
I was fortunate to work with an incredible group of performers who were simultaneously brave and vulnerable. Hannah Hodson and I had known each other for years and she was attached to play Mia essentially since the film’s conception. We worked with Casting Director Matt Glasner to round out the rest of the excellent cast. One thing I made sure to do was to have one on one conversations and meals with every single actor in the film. I wanted them to trust my vision and I wanted to hear their ideas for their characters as well. Directing a sex scene is and should always be approached with the same care and precision as an action scene. Many directors fail to do this, which, to me, is unacceptable and abusive.
I rehearsed each scene prior to filming. I said to the cast “Here are my ideas for blocking, let’s try it out and if you don’t feel comfortable, we can adjust.” We also had a majority queer femme crew, with a wonderful camera and wardrobe departments that helped the actors feel very safe and comfortable on set.
Directing is a balance of having a vision, executing an idea, and having a discussion to further the collaboration. Almost everyone who sees the movie compliments the actors, which is thrilling!
Directing a sex scene is and should always be approached with the same care and precision as an action scene. Many directors fail to do this, which, to me, is unacceptable and abusive.
I’d be interested to know what audience reactions you’ve had to Girl Talk?
We have screened all around the world, which has garnered through-provoking and striking conversations. A lot of audience members react to the depiction of consent throughout the film. On a more story level, so many people, of varied demographics, have come up to me or Chelsea and have expressed so much affinity to Mia and what she faces in this story. I do not need the validation of a straight, cis, white man, but it does speak to the universal truth of Girl Talk when one comes up to me after the film in tears saying how much he related to this film. Our goal was to always make people feel something, so we hope we continue to do that as we take the film around the world.
The penultimate scene of the film gets very intense emotionally, could you talk through blocking that scene, and its purpose in the flow of the film?
I believe you’re asking about the scene where Elle breaks up with Mia. That was probably the scene I re-wrote the most out of any, what was challenging about this scene was that it had to be concise but maintain a certain vagueness that often accompanies rejection. Throughout the film, Elle exists within Mia’s memory, at first, we see Elle in the height of Mia’s fantasy. As Mia loses control throughout the narrative, her flashbacks to Elle become more grounded in reality, to the point where Mia finally relives Elle’s rejection. This is what Mia gains. She gains the emotional strength to confront a painful moment from her past and begin to reckon with it.
We were so lucky that it snowed the night of filming. When we first see moments of this scene in the beginning of the film it feels romantic and dreamy. When we see how this scene plays out fully later in the film, the snow feels abrasive and chilling.
Girl Talk subverts the expectations and standards set by heteronormative culture we’re used in films about relationships, how do you think filmmakers can alter these perceptions?
In my opinion, the best way to confront the fallacy of heteronormative culture is to empower authentic storytelling by marginalized communities. This means financing, programming, and distributing stories that not only showcase different perspectives but disrupts the insidious stereotypes of these communities. One of my favourite examples of this in the past couple of years was Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual. What was so brilliant about this show was that it depicted a character who was unsure and ambivalent, but she maintained agency over her sexual encounters. The audience was with her every step of her journey, rather than her being on display for us to consume.
What are you working on next?
I’m co-writing and directing the feature film Dusty, which just participated in the Outfest Screenwriting Lab. A bit about the film – Fat, femme, and soul music-loving burlesque dancer, Dusty seems to have it all figured out in her realms of Brooklyn nightlife, high brow academia, and unconventional queer relationships. As her handle on these worlds begins to fall apart, Dusty discovers cracks in her self-perception forcing her into a journey of reckoning and freeing herself from the expectations of society.