DN alum Anna Maguire returns to our pages, for the third time, with her latest short It’s Nothing. Adapted from a stage play by Julia Lederer, Maguire’s drama focuses on a graduate named Robin who returns home to live with her parents and develops an obsessive need to dig an enormous hole in a nearby park. Whilst doing this, she’s accompanied by a seemingly perfect young woman who eggs her on in her task, which leads to a path of self-destruction. Maguire’s film is a subtle and visual human drama that cleverly uses metaphorical imagery to convey the inner workings of her protagonist. DN caught up with both Maguire and Lederer to discuss the thematically grounding of their short film alongside the practical challenges of translating the material from stage to screen and manifesting the large pit central to Robin’s troubling descent.
Trigger warning: This film deals with eating disorders.
Julia, what inspired the initial concept for the play?
Julia Lederer: It’s funny to think about it as a play because the play has yet to be produced, so I’ve never seen it fully realised, but that is how it started. With the play, as with the film, I was inspired by how difficult it can be to communicate emotion and, more specifically, by my own experience with an eating disorder: how difficult I found it to explain, how isolated it made me feel, and how, sometimes it was something I didn’t want to escape because it was safe and separated me from everything else. My experience with stories I had read or seen about eating disorders seemed to look at things from the outside in, how it made you look, the drama of getting someone to stop, how negative the behaviour was. I usually was left feeling triggered or more alone or like a failure. I really wanted to write something about how an eating disorder can feel to make it less lonely, less full of shame. When other people can’t understand your behaviour, it leads to a lot of shame. I think that often we feel alone for the same reasons but those feelings materialize in different ways that separate us.
The metaphor felt like something that could be relatable and communicate those feelings in a more universal way.
With my own eating disorder, the idea that it was a hole that I kept digging, often in secret, that sometimes I wanted to hide in, always stuck with me and felt true. The metaphor felt like something that could be relatable and communicate those feelings in a more universal way. So, the inspiration for the play was this image I couldn’t let go of (digging a hole), paired with a desire to try and show something I had never been able to properly explain on my own.
Anna, how did you first come to hear of the play and what interested you in adapting it for the screen?
Anna Maguire: Julia and I had a mutual friend who thought that we would get on really well so she introduced us and it went on from there! Julia is funny and fiercely intelligent, and I love her alternative take on things, she’s really creative. Up to this point I had never purely directed someone else’s writing and I thought it would be a great new challenge, as I usually write and direct. I loved working with Julia to help adapt the screenplay. The play leant more on comedy, but I realised I wanted to delve into elements of horror and film noir to tell this story. I’m very interested in internal worlds, and how to bring these topographies to the screen in a resonant way so that an audience can connect emotionally and viscerally with what a character is going through without being told exactly what that is. Julia and I worked together in a really collaborative way to make sure that each scene was doing what we wanted it to do, telling the story in a way that wouldn’t exist without our specific collaboration. It was a really positive experience.
What conversations did you have regarding how It’s Nothing would look cinematically?
AM: As mentioned above, I wanted to play with darker qualities, leaning into a more genre take on the experience Robin is going through. Then I met a few different cinematographers, but Guy Godfree and I really clicked in terms of how we felt we wanted to tell the story cinematically. I remember one of our references was Ida by Paweł Pawlikowski. I’m not sure if you see it in there directly, but there was definitely something in the framing, the stillness… I’m a big fan of talking about all different kinds of references and then letting them infuse the storytelling without being too direct.
We both also knew that we wanted it to be as dark, literally, as possible. To that end, Guy suggested using the Panavision DXL2 which is a large sensor 8k camera, which means it has less depth of field and a different field of view compared to regular Super 35 cameras. Since we made the short, this larger format system is now almost standard for many shows, but at the time it was pretty unique!
JL: For me, with the transition from a stage play to a film, we focused in on the details that a camera can communicate. I loved talking with Anna about the hole and dirt as visceral and real, and where those elements could be integrated most powerfully through visual storytelling.
A key part of the film is the central relationship between Robin and The Girl, how did you find the process of casting them and then developing their dynamic on set?
AM: Cara Gee who played The Girl had been involved in the project from the beginning and has been a great supporter of the film. She very kindly made it work with her super busy schedule shooting The Expanse, which we were so glad worked as her relationship with Emily is so powerful. We had a wonderful time casting the film and saw such rich performances from so many different people. The key was putting together a group of people who felt like they reflected the real world, and who believed in the project and what we were exploring.
I wanted to delve into elements of horror and film noir to tell this story.
What was so remarkable, upsetting and also galvanising however, was the number of people who came in to the casting room and shared their experiences either directly or indirectly with eating disorders or mental health. It both showed us the depth of this issue in our society, as well as making it clear to us that this was an important film to make, and that the material connected with people’s lived experiences. We ultimately felt so grateful that people felt comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities with us. We wanted the film to allow people to connect, to open up, to understand each other, to share, and this started very early on in the process.
In terms of casting Emily Piggford, I have known of her work for a long time and think she’s a supremely talented actor. She has a stillness that is mesmerising. Her ability to convey emotions in such a focused and present way gives Robin a three dimensionality. She is a grounded performer, which was all the more important due to the fact that we were playing in a space of metaphor, and the viscerality and reality of the character could have gotten lost without her sensitivity as a performer.
JL: I have known and worked with Cara for a long time on lots of projects. I had always thought of her in the role of The Girl, knowing her strength and intelligence as an actor, and the fierce commitment with which she approaches everything. Also, she looks great in a leather jacket. Personally, there was no anxiety or barrier in explaining anything about what that experience was for me or feeling nervous about her being able to build on that in her own way. It was a very lucky confluence of someone I am very close to in my life also being immensely talented, perfect for the project, and willing and ready to do anything to make it happen. I had known of Emily’s work and was so excited by the idea of casting her. She’s so thoughtful, honest, and grounded. And then seeing how they worked together was just amazing.
With the transition from a stage play to a film, we focused in on the details that a camera can communicate.
So much of the powerful imagery of It’s Nothing is metaphorical, what interests you both in telling stories this way?
AM: As I mentioned, I am really interested in telling internal stories through film. I studied literature at university and I always wanted to find ways to get across the psychological reality of characters through a different medium to novel writing. I feel like the visual world contains just as much richness and information that an audience can access in a more instinctive way.
JL: I think part of the reason Anna and I work so well together is our shared interest in exploring the internal. To me, that lies in emotion and its complexities and depths; its truths and tricks. I am really interested in the gap between the internal and external and have an inclination to pull out feelings and guts so we can examine them together in the light and compare. I am not a surgeon or big on gore, so the way for me to sift through guts and brains and hearts has to come through metaphor. I’m so curious about other people, about emotion, about how we contend with it together and separately. Being a human being is immensely trying, and doing it alone even more so: which we all are, to some extent. I think stories that use tactile imagery to show emotion can help us connect to ourselves and others in different ways, or just help us feel recognized as we exist.
How was it sourcing the location for the pit? And how challenging was it to practically create it?
AM: It was definitely an ambitious film to make on every level, the pit was only one bit! Luckily we were able to dig a hole in a park in Brampton, and Helen Kotsonis, our amazing production designer moved heaven and earth, and many tons of dirt, so that we could have a deep enough hole for the metaphor to work. She also created an ingenious wooden levels system that we pulled out layer by layer as the hole got deeper and deeper. Really, we owe most of this to Helen’s ingenuity.
It’s Nothing has had such an impressive and broad festival run, playing everything from TIFF to Final Girls in Berlin. What have the different audiences across the globe made of the film?
AM: Thank you! Yes, even during the global pandemic the film managed to find international audiences, and the response has been overwhelmingly moving. Many people have reached out either at in person screenings or via email to say how the film connected to their own personal histories or the histories and experiences of loved ones. We wanted to make a film that would maybe give some insight into how it feels to suffer through something as difficult and painful as an eating disorder without imposing one narrative on the experience. It’s an offering which I hope allows people to feel seen, or at least less alone.
JL: Yes, exactly. It’s been exciting. With this film, connecting with audiences and seeing how it resonates with different people in different ways has meant more than anything. Sharing it was something I was a little afraid of… it’s been so interesting to see it screen at such an array of festivals. Even in different contexts and places, I have found audiences to be really open and to want to talk about the film with us in ways that have pushed me to be more honest. People have told me they’ve shared it with their families or classes to help create a different kind of understanding. Talking to or hearing from people who it resonated with has been incredibly significant. That was the goal: to offer something that might open up lines of communication and help people affected by eating disorders feel less alone and a little more understood, all through telling a story.
We wanted the film to allow people to connect, to open up, to understand each other, to share, and this started very early on in the process.
What does the future look like for both of you?
AM: We’re actually just working on a feature together right now but this time Kim Albright is directing and I’m starring! Julia has been adapting her play With Love and a Major Organ into Kim’s first feature and as I write this I’m in Vancouver about to start shooting. It’s characteristically another ambitious project and I’m excited to get going on it… Other than that, I am working on my first feature An Empty Space. I just finished the development lab Less is More run by Le Groupe Ouest which was transformational, so I’ve been drafting a new script and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to shoot it before too long. So lots of pies, many fingers in them, for me it’s all about working on interesting projects with interesting people, whether I’m acting, writing, directing or even producing! I feel lucky that I get to do this, I love the collaborative element of film…
JL: As Anna said, my first feature is about to shoot in Vancouver, an adaptation of my internationally acclaimed play With Love and a Major Organ, with her playing the lead. I’m currently in Chicago working with Filament Theatre on a new play for young audiences, the first time they’ve opened their space in two years, so it feels special for lots of reasons. I have a couple of television projects I’ve been developing at different points, and have been working in different forms: some audio, on an upcoming poetry publication, and on a new play. This feels like a big time: with the play and the feature. It’s exciting to think about now, and exciting to think about other work to come.