The most powerful scenes in Gilt are crafted without words. The muffled sound as 16 year old Renee (Amber Johnson) hits her stomach with a hammer, the suppressed repulsion when her friend (Jean Louis Droulers) hugs her, and everything that remains unsaid between them during their brief but life-changing encounter. Punctuated with almost unbearable brutality, this unspoken gravity, masterfully handled by writer/director April Nations and co-writer Armaan Uplekar, holds the audience’s unflinching gaze as the teenager’s story of enlisting the help of an old acquaintance to end her unwanted pregnancy unfolds. Refusing to wade into didactic political messaging, Gilt is instead suffused with silent suffering, fear and desperation – emotions shared by an increasing number of women faced with the same choice as the film’s lead character. Women whose stories are rarely spoken about. Johnson delivers a breathtaking performance as Renne, and her raw, almost primal emotional and physical pain haunts long after the credits roll. The strong performances paired with the confident direction make Gilt a thought-provoking triumph, that is not necessarily an easy watch but a compulsory one nevertheless. We are thrilled to feature Gilt on DN and to chat with Nations about finding stillness during the violent scenes, igniting a guttural reaction in the audience and the importance of bringing women’s stories to the fore.
Was the current state of abortion rights in the US the impetus for you and Uplekar to write this story?
Honestly, no, because this issue predates the current political moment. Women not being able to have control of their bodies is nothing new. It’s something women have had to deal with for centuries. We wanted to frame a story about abortion that highlighted the violence around women putting their lives at risk just to have any kind of control over their own bodies. Even the man that Renee calls on for a favor demands something from her. There’s a constant expectation of being used if you navigate the world as a woman, and that was the key motivation of writing and making this short.
The dialogue between the teens feels particularly authentic. Were the lines delivered straight from the script or did they come from exploration with the actors or improvisation?
The majority of it all came from the script. The film deals with a high-stakes situation, and when you’re in situations like that, so much is left unsaid because of how intense and personal things are; that’s definitely a quality that my co-writer, Armaan Uplekar, brought to the table when channeling how characters talk. So it was important to capture and convey the reality of that. I love working from a place where the actors have the freedom to take risks emotionally in their performances as opposed to maybe having to make up dialogue on the spot.
The performances are terrific. How did Amber come to play the lead and what was it like working with her and Jean-Louis Droulers while shooting the violent scenes in the film?
We came across Amber early on in the process and I knew I wanted to cast her immediately. She brought a lot of vulnerability to the character without taking away from her rage, which is a really difficult balance to pull off. Without that performance, the film doesn’t work. We did see a lot of actors for Kyle though, but when Jean-Louis sent his tape in, everything clicked. He brought a great physicality to the role, which added so much to his character. There’s a delicacy when filming violent or darker material, but it’s also the part of shooting that I look most forward to. Rehearsal is a big part of that process, because it helps us all – myself and the actors, especially – build a familiarity with the action while giving the actors room to breathe some creativity into the moment when we go for picture.
It was about creating imagery that showcases the brutality of what Renee is going through and how limited her options are.
There’s a timeless nature to the film, making it difficult to pinpoint a specific decade. How did you achieve this look and why was it important to you?
That’s really interesting, I never thought of that. It was important to my DP, Nicola Newton, and me that we use the look of the film to capture how the emptiness of a small town in Florida actually feels. Instead of leaning too heavily on dialogue to fill people in, it was about creating imagery that showcases the brutality of what Renee is going through, and how limited her options are. We felt that by using a handheld camera throughout most of the film would emphasize Renee’s lack of control but when she finally gets what she wants, the camera is locked off. Often violence is emphasized with quick cuts and a very mobile camera but it was important to us that all the violence was shot on sticks, completely still, so you are forced to watch the reality of what her character is going through.
Gilt is a deeply unsettling watch and as such, I’m curious about the audience feedback you’ve received so far and if that reflects what you were hoping for.
Unfortunately because of the pandemic, I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the film with an audience, but through online screeners the reaction has been great. I absolutely love making films that ignite a guttural response no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on. I strive to make work that generates a debate outside of the film, and I’ve been able to see Gilt do that with audiences who’ve seen it. I think when a film makes people confront a reality that they’re not used to, it can make audiences uncomfortable, which I enjoy doing.
Women’s stories are less present on screen than men’s and as such they’re often seen as niche. Yet Renee’s story is hardly unique and it’s one that many young women have experienced all over the world. Why did you feel this was a story worth telling?
I think part of the problem is that films that are directed by women or that feature women are constantly put into a separate category, and often are discussed in completely different terms. Like you said, stories like this happen in reality all the time and happen all across the world. Making Gilt was about framing a story around this culture of fear that young women grow up in, and there’s a universality to that that goes beyond the Bible Belt or America. I sometimes think that films that deal with topics like abortion are handled through a softened or sanitized lens, and I felt there was an urgency in telling this story in a way that was as direct as possible.
Why did you go for this spelling of the film title?
Where I’m from – and where we shot Gilt – most people hunt hogs rather than deer. Gilt is a term used specifically for female hogs who haven’t given birth yet, so it’s actually not a stylized spelling but I love that it plays on the word “guilt”. There’s this cultural idea, especially from having grown up in the Bible Belt, that a woman’s worth is dependent on either their sexuality or having children. The inspiration for the title was that I wanted to point the finger at this animalistic viewpoint of women. There’s an image at the end of the film of Renee discarded in the back of the pickup, and I wanted to be very literal about that kind of juxtaposition.
I absolutely love making films that ignite a guttural response no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on.
What are you working on next?
Currently, I’m prepping my debut feature which will be shooting in South Florida at the end of the year. I’m also currently developing Lamb on the Throne, my sophomore feature, which is being executive produced by PASTEL; Lamb actually shares a lot of inspiration with Gilt in that it directly draws from the place where I grew up and in some ways is actually an expansion on some of the themes we introduced in Gilt.
Gilt is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.