If you grew up in the era of Britney Spears fever and thought a schoolgirl uniform was the height of sexiness and cool then Hilary Eden’s evocative debut short Bellybutton will bring you right back to those supposedly young carefree Y2K years. Eden took a core memory from her youth, wrote it into a short story and then after a gentle nudge, launched into the making of her film with a relentless fervour. Bellybutton recounts a foundational moment in time with throbbing nostalgia thanks to meticulous research into those glory days and its use of poignant 16mm cinematography. Alongside her timeless and dreamy visuals, there’s a deeper relatability to Bellybutton which also invites us to look inwards and examine the powerful and all-consuming commercial and cultural forces which have such a formative claim on coming-of-age experiences, both positive and negative. As her film premieres online on DN today we speak to Eden about naturally drawing away from the personal nature of the tale as the script evolved, really searching for a genuine specificity in her storytelling to heighten the period authenticity and the meticulous production preparation which involved capturing rehearsals with camcorders to nail their set ups pre-shoot.
Where did this strikingly nostalgic coming-of-age story originate from?
Bellybutton is based on a personal experience I had as a thirteen year old in 2002 when I worked up the courage to get my bellybutton pierced only to have my father find out later that day and insist it be removed. This event, while minor really in the grand scheme of things, seeped into the topsoil of my consciousness where it remains as a formative experience. I wrote the piece initially as a short story, just for fun, really as a creative exercise to write something from my own childhood. I showed it to my brother Oliver, and it hit very close to home for him and it was his suggestion that it would make a nice short film. I believe his exact words were, “This would make a good short, we could do it together, it’d be cool”.
We believed from the outset that shooting on 16mm film would serve the story we were trying to tell.
After Oliver put that idea in my head, I worked on the script for a few months and once we felt it was in a doable place we started looking for a DP. We believed from the outset that shooting on 16mm film would serve the story we were trying to tell and that the nostalgia of the grain would help build the early 2000s world of the film and give it a lo-fi, raw energy that felt right for a story about teenagers. So we looked for a DP in LA who would be excited about doing that with us and that’s when we found Adam Leene. The next big piece that fell in place was our lead actress, Izabella Johnson. We found Izabella through two wonderful casting directors Candace Berstein and Miriam Hoffman. We knew Izabella was perfect from her very first tape, she had such a rare combination of vulnerability and maturity in her performance, and once we had her on board, everything moved quite quickly from there.
We shot over two days in LA last August. Oliver and I did the production design and wardrobe together which was a huge amount of fun, many of the pieces are from our own childhood bedrooms or based on exact items of clothing we wore in high school. We really leaned into the Y2K era with references to commercial pop culture and all the things (good and bad) that were so central to shaping our senses of self as teens at that particular cultural moment in 2002. It is a really personal story based very closely on my own life, but my hope was always that we would create a story that anyone who saw it would connect with and relate to.
As I worked on it, it naturally pulled a bit farther away and the characters became their own people instead of just versions of myself and my brother.
This is a formidable and astute first film. Can you talk us through your writing process, especially as it was such a personal tale, did you struggle to remove yourself from it?
I initially wrote Bellybutton as a piece of short fiction, with no plan of making it into a film and at that point it was very much about the main character’s interiority, how she was feeling and what the world looked like to her. So once I did start adapting it into a script, the challenge was in translating all of the descriptive prose I had written into action, something for the actors to play to. Writing the script became an exercise in stripping back the language. I went from 20 pages down to 8 as I kept coming back to it and taking things out, chipping away until I felt it was the simplest, most true expression of the story. The initial drafts were very close to my real life and my personal experiences. As I worked on it, it naturally pulled a bit farther away and the characters became their own people instead of just versions of myself and my brother, etc. But in many ways it did stay very close to my life, especially in terms of the world itself and the wardrobe and production design. I really did wear lace up jeans and I felt I had to honor that!
The opening TV montage is so emblematic of the early 2000s. Tell us about selecting the clips to represent the era.
The opening intro sequence was not something I had written into the script. It was an idea that came to us later when we were almost done with the edit. We felt we needed something to place us in that world and situate the audience in the perspective of a teenager at that time who was consuming all of these different cultural elements in weird juxtapositions of violence, sexuality, commercialism, etc. Those TV clips were all burned in my memory from childhood, so once we had the idea to do an abstract montage of TV channels changing, I knew exactly which ones I wanted to pull and our editor Grant Singer did an amazing job cutting them together and adding VFX to give it the feel of channels changing. Michael Holcomb, our sound designer, also did a great job on the mix there to sell it.
For me as a viewer, specificity in storytelling is really powerful.
I cannot explain how much I felt watching the girls practicing their Britney dance, as a woman whose youth looked EXACTLY like this I almost cried! How did you work to collate all of those lived memories into something that went beyond nostalgia and would reverberate with a wider audience?
I love that it spoke to you in that way! I have always liked stories that take teen girls’ experiences seriously, those feelings of anxiety, playfulness, longing, fantasy and rage. I think if it is done truthfully, it doesn’t matter what time period you place the story in, those feelings are universal and we can all relate. For me as a viewer, specificity in storytelling is really powerful. The more personal and specific something seems, the more I find I can connect with it, even if it doesn’t look anything like my own life. So I definitely drew heavily from the details of my particular childhood for this, but hopefully the nostalgia functions as a fun, interesting wrapper to deliver a relatable portrait of a moment in adolescence.
As a first time director working with younger actors what approach did you take with them to garner their convincing performances?
I don’t think I can take too much credit because the actors we were lucky enough to work with on this were all exceptionally talented, so natural and at ease in front of the camera. I have to mention Izabella Johnson, our lead actress, who was 14 when we shot and is in every scene. Her performance seemed to come so naturally and instinctively and took very little effort on my part to get.
In terms of process I wanted everyone to feel as comfortable with the script and with me as possible before we shot, so we rehearsed as much as we could. I did scene workshops on Zoom with all of the actors where we worked on each scene and I rewrote a lot of the dialog in those workshops, based on what the actors were saying and doing, which was very fun and massively helpful in making everything feel more natural. We then also rehearsed everything on location, in wardrobe, a few days before we shot and worked out all the blocking. So by the time we got on set on the day to shoot, everyone was pretty comfortable with each other and with the material.
Hopefully the nostalgia functions as a fun, interesting wrapper to deliver a relatable portrait of a moment in adolescence.
16mm is notoriously expensive, as compared to digital, to film on. What preparation did you do for the shoot to make sure it was as efficient as possible?
In hindsight I was totally naive because this was my first film, I really didn’t know to be nervous about that aspect of it. I’m an over-preparer by nature so I did a thorough shot list which I worked on closely with my producer Oliver and the cinematographer Adam so we had a solid sense of what we were doing and were all on the same page. We also did storyboards to have as a visual guide on set. I mentioned rehearsing with the actors earlier, we shot the rehearsals on a camcorder so we could get a grasp of set ups, which made me feel more prepared. Adam is obviously very comfortable shooting on 16mm and he had a great crew so that gave me a lot of confidence. We also had an amazing 1st AD, Elaine Chu, who kept everyone very focused, which was critical with a limited number of takes per set up.
Apart from the personal touches, what references and research did you do with Adam to create that perfect world from the 2000s which you NAIL?
Early on in our conversations I sent Adam a copy of Lauren Greenfield’s 2002 photography book Girl Culture; she captures this particular moment in American girlhood so perfectly in her pictures. I also bought every teen magazine from 2002 I could find on eBay which we referenced for color palette and overall vibe. There was one key image that was kind of our hero which was a Skechers roller skate print ad featuring Brtiney Spears from an archive issue of Seventeen magazine.
We shot the rehearsals on a camcorder so we could get a grasp of set ups, which made me feel more prepared.
In terms of films, we had a ton of references that we pulled things from here and there. Thirteen, the Catherine Hardwicke movie of course was a big influence especially for the rawness of feeling that comes across the screen. Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love was one we looked at quite a bit for the closeness of the camera work and the floaty, handheld feeling of being inside the moments. Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto has great scenes of teenagers hanging out in it. We watched Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl and Larry Clark’s Bully too, which are both obviously very different from what we made, but there were things from each that we took inspiration from in terms of energy, color, etc.
The animated sequence adds a particular dreamlike touch, further adding to the film’s nostalgia.
I had written that scene in the script as a fantasy sequence, where the character is in a state of euphoria, having gotten this thing she really desired and so I wanted us to achieve lift off in some way there. We played around with the idea of adding CGI elements like sparkles or glitter but doing something digital felt at odds with the film texture.
I was familiar with Alia Wilhelm’s collage + illustration artwork from Rookie Magazine which has a dreamy youthful feel, so I cold emailed her and asked if she would create something for that scene. She made all of those beautiful physical elements individually as well as doing all of the hand drawn typography for the title and credits. Our motion designer, Tim Hubner then took those elements and designed the animation. I think the music, which was created by Max Hershenow, does a lot to heighten that moment as well, in addition to Izabella’s performance.
Has Bellybutton lit a filmmaking fire in you and if so, what will you be working on next?
It absolutely has! I have another short that I’ve written and am aiming to direct this year and am working on what Bellybutton could look like as a feature length script. I’m definitely trying to make the most of this wave of creative inspiration while it’s here.