It’s been one year since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein became public. In October 2017 the New Yorker and the New York Times published two groundbreaking journalistic pieces that would see Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Since then, nothing has been the same. We live in a post-Weinstein world: the Me Too era is now, and time is up.
But before the public consciousness was raised, before the world became more aware of Tarana Burke’s movement that would blow up in the Weinstein aftermath, writer-director Eva Vives (Raising Victor Vargas) had an idea for a film. A film about the trauma of sexual assault, and its various repercussions. A film that was largely based on her own experiences. Now, in the throes of the Me Too movement, All About Nina holds a special resonance Vives could never have predicted.
In this conversation about the film, Vives gets as raw and honest as her beautifully imperfect protagonist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead in one of the best performances of her career) talking about the trauma of sexual assault, the importance of female pleasure, and how our trauma doesn’t have to dictate our lives as survivors.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that a great deal of Nina came from your own life and experiences. Where do you and Nina connect? And who is Nina for you as a representation of women?
Oh, that’s a good question! And probably a little tough to answer in terms of, you know, I’ve been a writer primarily most of my life and so you always pull so much from yourself for any character. As an example, I am Nina, but there’s also a lot of me in Rafe, for example, or in Lake. So you always put yourself in every character. So it’s kind of hard to know where I start and she ends, and that kind of thing. And there’s also the added issue that, when you bring an actor in, they put so much of themselves in it and imbue characters with a different sense of stuff. At some point, I think I even liberated Nina from me and was like “sure, go do your thing,” you know? But yes a lot of it is taken from my life in terms of her past, which she talks about, of abuse at the hands of her father, and that’s all me. And there were all the difficulties that I had connecting with men, which is fairly common for survivors of this kind of thing. As we are now hearing every day!
That was sort of the impetus, but I always knew I wanted to write something about it and make a movie about it. I think I also needed to find a tone that, for me, makes sense. I don’t think I would have ever been able to tell it as a straight-up drama. Which is, of course, the obvious tone that one thinks about with a subject that’s so serious. I didn’t in any way want to trivialize it, but I also know that often the way this stuff is portrayed in film seems very unrealistic to me. You know, the survivors that I know are sort of most often down to earth. They can be very funny, a lot of times you just want to fucking forget about all this stuff and laugh and have a good time, you know? Comedy is such a conduit for a lot of that anyway. It’s funny because it’s true. There’s a lot of truth-tellers, and there’s a lot of darkness in comedians. And that’s always something that I was always really attracted to. And I was very involved in the comedy world in New York even though I was not a stand-up [comedian] myself. And so at some point, I was like oh great I can just marry those two things. And I love the idea of her being able to have a stage where she could express herself, you know?
I don’t know if that answered your question! I’m not sure what she means to women now, but I hope she means something because clearly it’s in the air, you know? Like, when I wrote this movie, the Me Too movement hadn’t happened yet, and I sort of felt like it’s a shot in the dark where I would just put it out there and hope that some survivors saw it and that it brought solace to them. And then maybe it shone a little light on the issues for people who didn’t know that much about it. And now it’s just, you know, the whole world has blown up about it!
That was one of the biggest things that struck me about the film because I’m a survivor as well, so sitting down and watching it, especially her moment of real transparency, was so striking. And one of the things that really struck me that will hopefully strike others is that it’s from your gaze. That it’s from the female gaze. So it’s a very honest representation of what we’ve been through and what we go through. And that’s so important.
First of all, I’m sorry for whatever it is that happened to you, and thank you for sharing that with me. And yeah, you’re absolutely right. Keeping her point of view in the movie was really important, and that also is true for things that aren’t necessarily directly related to sexual assault or to trauma. Like, for example, the way so many guys come up to her and hit on her, and that constantly having to deal with sexuality and men wanting to overpower her or own her or that kind of thing. So, and again I wanted to do it in a way that didn’t feel didactic, but just matter-of-fact. But yeah. Again, I’m sorry for what happened to you and also glad to have been able to put this out there. Because I think we need it, collectively. And individually!
Nina’s such an unapologetic character – she’s pretty crude, she’s rather brazen, but she’s also very sexual. You don’t shy away at all from representing her sexuality, and female pleasure. And it very much feels like you put female pleasure at the foreground of the film. That was fascinating to me.
Oh, good! I’m glad! I mean, her sexuality part was a little more complicated for obvious reasons. But there’s a lot to chew off and, you know, there’s only so much that you can do in an hour and a half. But, I mean, she is somewhat reckless, and I think that’s a direct result of what happened to her. I don’t mean in the sort of traditional way that people think “oh, she’s sleeping around too much” and whatever. But for me and the way we talked about it with Mary [Elizabeth Winstead] was more that she needed to be in control, which I hoped I showed in the sense that she puts Mike (Jay Mohr) down, and then picks up this much younger guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Like, she needs to be in control. And obviously we don’t see her have sex with that guy, but she knows what gets her off. She knows how to get herself there, but it’s never intimate, which is obviously what happens with Rafe, and that’s why it’s so scary to her.
It was important to me that she reaches a place where she’s like this is good and enjoyable, even if it scares the shit out of her, but she wants to keep going in that direction, and that she could be happy. Also, honestly, that was important to me because that was also my life. I went through a lot of stuff, and recovery wasn’t always easy. But I live a fairly good life, I’m married, I have a good relationship, I have a son, I have really good friends. And often the representation of that kind of abuse is very negative, both in film and television. And I think there is still this idea that with rape or anything else, that it ruins your life, and you can’t get over it. And again I don’t want to in any way minimize the impact that sometimes these things can have. And I think for some people that’s true. But I also want to make sure that survivors don’t feel like their life is fucking over.
And that definitely comes through. Because you do get that feeling as a survivor, at least in the immediacy of acknowledging what’s happened to you, that you can never really be truly sexual or enjoy pleasure again. As just one example. And it’s just not true. And this is probably the first time I think I’ve ever seen that represented without any undue pressure. You don’t shy away from representing that women can still enjoy sex after what they’ve been through, but it takes time.
Sure! Sure! And, by the way, just because this happens to be a straight film that way, that the other big part of the male side, obviously. You know, Common and I had a lot of conversations about how to represent him as well, and how to make sure that he continued to be manly in a positive way. That he didn’t feel like he needed to sort of step on eggshells around her, while also being respectful and giving her what she needed. Enjoying each other in a respectful way. Which I think is huge, and I’m glad that he was a good ally that way, as an actor, as well. I personally loved the way he played [Rafe]. Which is also so important, because we don’t live in a vacuum that way.
Do you think that Larry Michaels’ (Beau Bridges) reaction to Nina’s uncensored discussion of her assault and its place in the Me Too movement is a bit more of a common reaction in the industry now?
I think about that scene all the time because, it’s funny, that a lot of people thought that it was too on the nose or something like that when we shot it. But I always thought that, I don’t know, it always rang true to me. I think if anything, now, they would just be more careful about not expressing what he does. You know? I think a year ago, yeah people didn’t know about it then, so move on. And now I think that people would think that we would have to be more careful about expressing something like that. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing. In other words, I think what I’m saying is that, instead of sort of going to the root of the problem and fixing a lot of these things, people are just like saying the right thing and then continuing to do what they always did. You know?
I don’t mean to be negative about it, and I’m generalizing. I don’t think that’s true for everything. I do think things are slowly beginning to change. But there’s so much fear around it, and that’s also another reason I wanted to make the movie, to make sure that we could start talking about it. And it’s been interesting that, for example, I think you’re the second woman I’ve talked to today in terms of journalists. Everybody else has been men. And I think it’s very uncomfortable for them to bring up this subject matter. You know? It’s a shame really. I mean, you and I have relatively easily started talking about it, and you’re not afraid of asking me those questions. Perhaps because you’re also a survivor, I don’t know. But I think it makes men very uncomfortable. So I’m also trying to be more open about it. And, again, de-stigmatize the taboo aspect of it. Because the only way to understand it is if we keep talking about it.
One last question for you, then. At The Shelf, we always like to ask what’s on your shelf at home? What are the things that are most important to you that you have on your shelves at home?
I don’t have a ton of tchotchkes because I have a five-year-old! So when he started walking, I pretty much just got rid of anything that was valuable to me or meaningful, so that he wouldn’t, you know, eat it or break it or something. So there aren’t any tchotchkes around, but I do have a ton of books. I still have a whole bunch of DVDs which I rarely see anymore. Although I did watch Taxi Driver the other day on DVD! But mostly movies, and books, and I do have a couple of African sculptures.
And what do you think would be on Nina’s shelf, if you had to guess?
Obviously, that’s another thing that’s kind of taken from me. Back when I was living on my own in New York like that, I would have a lot more stuff on the walls. Like photographs of people I admire. And actually, we didn’t get to do this, but I’d spoken with the production designer, and I really wanted to have a wall of people who are artists who were sexually abused when they were children. Because there are so many of them, and that’s something that I found out about over the years. You know, so like Billie Holiday, Rita Hayworth, Richard Pryor. Just so many people that are creatively important to me. Sometimes I think that maybe she would have had that up, even if we didn’t get to do it.
All About Nina is in cinemas on September 28.