Filmmaker and actress Nadia Litz has fully reinvented herself and it only cost a thousand dollars, which might not sound like a lot of money, but it led to the immense opportunity of making her first feature-length film, the satirical romantic potboiler and comedy of manners Hotel Congress, which opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for a proper theatrical run this weekend.
Spurred on by local filmmaker Ingrid Veninger’s 1K Wave project (an initiative where Veninger would give five films a $1,000 that has already seen theatrical releases for Mourning Has Broken and Me, the Bees, and Cancer), Litz decided she wanted to challenge herself as a filmmaker in a way that she hadn’t been challenged before. Initially skeptical if she could make a film for a thousand dollars following her successful shorts (including the award winning and really awesome How to Rid a Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused by You!), Litz decided that the project wouldn’t only be artistically fulfilling, but also a chance for people to see her more as a filmmaker than the actor most people knew her as. All of that despite starring in her own feature directorial debut, but she still makes her point very well. If it weren’t for the obvious time and budget constraints (the entire film was shot in 40 hours at a Tucson, Arizona hotel with a skeleton crew and a cast of only two), she probably wouldn’t have been in it at all.
An actress who has popped up in films like Monkey Warfare, You Are Here, Fear X, Blindness, Litz really wanted to create for her own. She went back to school while acting, attending York University to get a degree in film studies. After stints as a student at the Berlinale Talent Campus and a director-in-residency position at the CFC, Litz was finally in a position where she could answer a challenge like Veninger’s, one that allowed her to draw upon her love of new wave cinema and her desire to tell stories of relationships that feel real and organic rather than forced. The results are a deliberately off kilter comedy that takes time for its core romance to blossom between Sofia (Litz) and Francis (Philip Riccio), a pair of unhappily married spouses who agree to meet up at a neutral hotel. They’re unsure if they want to cheat or if they’re even all that attracted to each other, but they do know that they can have deep conversations that might elucidate their problems back home.
We chatted with Litz over the phone as she prepares her next feature, The People Garden, set to go before the camera later this summer, about why she took the challenge to make a film for only a thousand dollars, the precise construction of her film’s dialogue and themes, and the push and pull between manners and self-awareness.
Dork Shelf: The film first debuted as a part of Ingrid Veninger’s 1K Wave, where she funded five projects with $1,000 each, so when did you realize that you had a good idea to pitch for her series?
Nadia Litz: It’s funny because I think when I first heard about the idea I had immediately rejected it as a possibility for anything I was working on myself. The primary reason was actually because I believe that artists should be paid properly for their work, and obviously you can’t really do that on that small and tight of a budget. HOWEVER, (laughs) my desire to challenge myself won out, and I decided to step outside of my comfort zone in the place where I was with what was going to be my first feature. That won out over my initial rejection of the idea, and so I think a couple of days before I had to pitch I reached out to Philip Riccio, who was the actor, and I approached him before I approached my real life partner Michel Kandinsky, who was my co-director and co-producer. Just over coffee I said that I wanted to see what I can come up with, and in fact I ended up writing more than a pitch. I ended up writing a whole first draft of the script (laughs). I just sat down for like four days and wrote it, and what ended up being fascinating for this thousand dollar experiment was building something that was borne from the constraints of what you have.
I didn’t start with the story. I really built the story by thinking of what we could do well under the directive and the time and money we had. It wasn’t just about the money or the budget, but it was also about the time, and that more than anything fascinated me because we had to deliver it. I knew that we could find an audience and earn some stakes and a sense of reflection if it was done well. So I really built the story around the constraints.
DS: Was part of the decision making process that was tied to time and money one of the reasons why you also decided to act in your first feature?
NL: I think for the acting there was really a combination of things. One, was that I was simply very affordable. (laughs) You had me there all the time and available to read over scenes if we needed to. I will absolutely say that the decision to act in the first feature that I’ve directed went against all of my intentions. I have sort of stepped back from acting to try and become a director, so much so that I went back to university and got a degree in film studies and then I went out and made a short film. I always said that I never wanted to act in any of my films, and that was mostly important for those first two short films that I made as a director because I really wanted to be seen as a director and to show that transition that was made.
Then that went right out the window. (laughs) And that was kind of scary to me, and sometimes you’re forced to test and play with the rules that you’ve made for your life that don’t tend to pan out. It was a budget issue, but it was also to sort of overcome that fear so that I didn’t feel too safe. This is kind of me introducing myself as a director that’s able to adapt to things.
But to be honest, it also seemed like it would just be pure, pure fun to work with these two guys that I really love. We didn’t want to put too many people into the mix. We had our DP and an editor and a local sound guy, and that was our whole crew.
DS: I read that you’re someone who when they get an idea for a story, it’s usually a location that sparks the story. Was that the case here and what was it about Tucson that inspired Hotel Congress?
NL: Yeah, I think that’s true what you read. That’s a quote that I could definitely stand behind. I don’t remember how that came up, but locations do tend to start the process for me.
It wasn’t Tucson, Arizona per say that set it off. Politically Arizona is a tough thing for me to reconcile. (laughs) It was really the hotel. Seven years earlier I had been to that hotel for one night, and over those seven years it had an effect on me that I can’t really explain. It felt that the stars were aligned in some way that made it seem like I was in a Jarmusch or an Antonioni film. I was there to see a band play, and the backdrop of the hotel seemed a lot more isolated then than it does now. It was this cool place out in the desert that seems caught in a place and time from its heyday during the Dillinger days that it was known for. They really had to change their minds about the hotel.
And it was also strange because it was a New York band that was playing there and there was a sea of British music critics and models and just this weird cast of characters in this very isolated and evocative hotel. That stuck with me.
I think in order for me to fulfil the dare that Ingrid put out into the world, I needed to have something that would really excite me. I didn’t want to go and say “Let’s just shoot it in my apartment,” which would have been obviously a lot easier. So I immediately called the hotel before I started writing it, basically the day that I started planning, and I told the hotel everything thinking they would say “No, you can’t use it,” and then I would put it all to rest. Of course, they ultimately said yes. (laughs)
It was a way of kind of using that one night that happened seven years ago as a jumping off point, and then sort of playing off my own romanticized visions of what I thought that hotel was. I just thought it would be fun to go back to that place and just shoot the film there.
DS: It seems like a non-descript looking hotel, but in terms of how it sounds around these two characters, it certainly seems like a vibrant place with a lot going on outside the frame. It’s neat that the film sort of hints at a larger world around these two that they aren’t seeing or partaking in.
NL: Yeah, it’s a cool vibe to have. Some of the best artistic choices for the movie end up because of the constraints. Because of ACTRA rules, we couldn’t have anyone else in the film. We couldn’t even have anyone walk past. So it was a working hotel when we shot and no one could lock anything down at any point, so there really was a lot going on around us and we shot all around it. That made for a really interesting choice not only stylistically, but also theoretically, for the kind of story we were making. I do really think these two characters are in their own bubbles and sequestered from the rest of the world that’s happening all around them. Moving forward you have to wonder if they’re ever going to engage with it at all. So that sound element was emphasized a bit more in some of the post work that we did because if we didn’t want it there it would have been REALLY expensive to get rid of. (laughs)
But that also goes back to what you were saying about creating that larger world, and we had to do that in a way where the sound didn’t suggest that this noise around them was from some kind of haunted hotel or that there were ghosts or anything like that. We wanted people to understand that these people were focused on each other.
DS: This film has a very precise kind of dialogue and rhythm to it, and one scene that sticks out in my mind as being quietly impressive, is the scene where Philip is trying to do up the back of your dress and you guys have to find a way to keep it all going without the scene feeling staged, which is tough to do with such a simple kind of action. It feels real and precise and thought out, but I also know you only had 40 hours to make this. So how do you approach simple scenes like that one that some directors might play out longer when time is an issue and how do you get the timing right, because as a film, it’s very excellently paced.
NL: Thank you! Really, thank you, because pacing is one of the trickiest things on any shoot and in the assembly of the footage, and especially on something like this where you really just have conversations and a locked off camera.
It’s interesting that you singled out that scene because people most often talk to me about the sequence when we’re in the phone booth to illustrate kind of what you were talking about. But in terms of that scene, I like that moment you’re referring to quite a bit. In terms of planning that, before we went down to the hotel and after I spent three weeks finalizing the writing of the film, we had about two and a half weeks of pre-production with a few rewrites with maps of the hotel because I had drawn this idea of the hotel pretty much from memory. I was actually very accurate. (laughs) I knew about those doorways, which is a frame in and of itself, and I knew for that scene we wouldn’t have any room at all to move the camera.
That scene was verbatim to the script. There was no improv. Not one line of improv in the film, and I think that has to do with what you were referring to. Quite often with low budget films, people use the constraints in different ways. With a low budget, I think they often make the film come from a very organic place where actors will workshop things and rehearse and create these improv moments and it becomes a certain way over a long period of time. This is obviously the opposite. I wrote the script. We learned it. We had the shots planned. We knew what we had to get. We got them. And we left the city! (laughs) I don’t know if that answers your question entirely, but really a lot of that tweaking of the pacing to make sure it was right was a part of the script process ahead of time. Maybe it was also a bit of luck that it worked that way. (laughs) Maybe that scene also works because it has the static camera at its most voyeuristic, and it feels a lot more real that way. People can really identify and put themselves into this situation.
DS: One of the things that’s interesting about the story is that there’s this fight going on within these characters’ heads that isn’t conducive to romance at all holding them back. They’re mannered people, but mannered people quite often don’t have the capacity for self-awareness or analysis and reflection that these characters have. It’s a mannered comedy, but one with reflection, so what was it like trying to create that dynamic?
NL: Yeah, that’s extremely astute, and I’ve never had it put to me in that way, but I completely understand what you’re saying. I think that the mannered way that they are and the way they speak to each other really inherently adds to the comedy of the subject matter. We really wanted to deal with the subject manner in a light way. But I also wanted that because I knew the film was going to be full of monologues and long take scenes where people are just talking, because again with the constraints there aren’t a lot of options for what we can actually do. So when I’m writing that way in long monologues and these almost unstructured scenes, need something a bit more remarkable. When people usually talk like that in real life, they’ll take breaks and do other things and it won’t happen all in one scene, so I really needed to come up with ways of keeping them in the room. It came out that way, and the self-reflection, which you’re right to say is kind of incongruent to that matter of speaking, is obviously because we want the characters to be able to grow and change. And for the audience to be able to sit back and not just see the pretension of these characters was very important.
Pretension mixed with self-reflection adds to the tone in a way that I think adds a lot of levity to a situation that kind of showcases this depressing point that they’re both in. They don’t love their spouses. They’re thinking of having an affair. They’re probably the two most chaste people to be having an affair. The kind of salaciousness that we associate with affairs is not happening with these two people. Again, that was something that came out of constraints; that conversation over what may or may not be the beginnings of a sexual act. This just takes that entire act out of it and the lead up.
And I just wanted to add, and I know this is the longest answer ever (laughs), but the satirical element of all the films that I really love, like Eric Rohmer, or Jean-Luc Godard, or like Sofia Coppola with Lost in Translation, these people and these films are some of my favourites, and they’re all very mannered often times. Those films often have bits of satire. They’ve all made films that dance around characters so much that you have to wonder what it would be like if those characters ever sat down and had a REAL conversation for the first time. In this film, towards the end in the bedroom scene, they kind of undo a little bit of their pretension in a mannered way, but they’re a bit more honest. I really wanted them to kind of be these Rohmer-like characters that eventually have to admit their flaws.
DS: It’s a film where for the first thirty minutes, everything plays out very asexually, and that seems necessary if you want to understand these characters and what brought them there. What did you talk about with Philip if anything before you started shooting about the dynamic that existed between these characters before they met up at the hotel?
NL: Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. The biggest question was ultimately if these two had sex before, and that was something we had to figure out. When they meet up at the hotel we had to know if they had sex before, and I think the answer was no. And I think that’s because some of the best relationships that I’ve had are the ones that you share often times with fleeting people who you know will come and go from your life. You can have these very deep conversations with no small talk and just get to the core of what’s making these people tick. That asexual aspect certainly can come from that, but there’s a chemistry there.
That chemistry hopefully comes from a visceral kind of place, but that would be a different movie. So here we wanted to have more of an intellectual connection, probably because I’m a nerd. (laughs) Watching people talk and just unravel a bit and getting a little less uptight and you can see the thread is being pulled, that’s fun for me.
I mean, my partner and I, we aren’t those kinds of characters, but we do talk a lot, and that kind of brooding male character isn’t really what I always seek out of a relationship. So when it comes to Phillip, part of his inability to kind of stay silent is partly to keep the movie going and partly because it’s a male part written by a woman, I think. The men in my life are all talkers. There are moments where they would brood, but the funny thing about Philip as an actor is that in real life he is NOT a talker. (laughs) It was all about trying to find ways to put aspects of myself and my own partner into the film a little bit to help with that unravelling. It’s obviously an imagined version of us, but you can’t write a script in only three weeks and not put yourself in there.
DS: Before I go, there’s a scene in the film where your character makes it very known that she doesn’t like Chinos. So if you put yourself into the film, what is it that you have against chinos?
NL: (laughs) It’s not me! It’s all Sofia. Come on! I think that the guy that she would have been sexy with, that South Dakota Jimmy that she talks about, would have been disappointing to her because he was dressed sort of like a golfer or a nerd. I personally don’t have ANYTHING against chinos in THEORY, but Sofia I think would.
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