TIFF SPECIAL: Nadia Litz talks to us, part I

Illustration by Ayalah Hutchins. Interview by Laura deCarufel.

One of the best films at TIFF this year also has (hands-down) the best title. How to Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused by You!, a short directed by Nadia Litz and written by Ryan Cavan, packs a stylish, provocative punch into its 15 minutes.

Set in a light-filled Toronto apartment, the short follows Sadie (Sarah Allen) and Dennis (Joe Cobden) as they negotiate tenderness, resentment, and the other wages of coupledom—which, in this case, includes a sinister jar of lollipops and exquisitely filmed gore (think purply umeboshi plums).

The short is beautiful, bizarre and a major accomplishment for Nadia Litz, already an accomplished actress with credits in Blindness, Monkey Warfare, and You Are Here, Daniel Cockburn’s film which also premiered at TIFF last week.

Nadia talked to us about acting vs. directing, her inspirations for dressing the film, and which actor she found more difficult to direct and why.

Have you always wanted to direct? What appeals to you most about it?

“I’d wanted to direct for quite a long time, but I was a bit apprehensive to tell people—I stubbornly wanted to do it on my own. At 26, I went back to [York]  university to study film theory while also pursuing acting. I didn’t pick up a camera until my fourth year. I made a short film for class and finally embraced all the things that I was originally scared about—mostly the technology. I was a little afraid of the camera. After that, I taught myself Final Cut Pro, and started really learning about filmmaking and communicating with people. I applied to the Canadian Film Centre, and after a year, I was able to make this short.

There are certain limitations to what you can communicate as an actor—as a filmmaker, those limitations don’t exist. Communicating just opens up. That was really appealing to me.”

The look of the film is so considered—it’s obvious that details like costumes are important to you. What was it like working with Olivia Sementsova, the costume designer? What kind of direction did you give?

“Sarah is the prettiest girl in the world, so for me, it was like playing dress-up, but with someone a billion times prettier. Olivia and I talked a lot about the character, and shared ideas and images. Some of my photos were of Sofia Coppola, Kristen Dunst, ingenue girls—I wanted the girl to look really sweet and unassuming, so that the discovery of what she does is so unsettling. We ended up using a lot of my own wardrobe.”

Above: Sarah Allen as Sadie.

It’s interesting that Sadie is always nicely dressed, while Dennis is usually in pyjama pants. How did you use the costumes to further the storyline and deepen the characters?

“I cast Sarah because she’s a great actress and also because of that face. I like the idea of things not being quite what they seem—that sense of contradictions is really appealing to me. She’s meticulously in control on the outside, but internally, she didn’t have a healthy way of dealing with things. [laughs] She’s this little girlish ballerina type who cuts her boyfriend at home. Whereas, he’s more go-with-the-flow in the way that he dresses, and he also has an easier time communicating.”

The two characters go through an intense arc in a short time. As an actor yourself, what kind of direction did you give your actors?

“I had cast Sarah in one of my exercises from Canadian Film Centre—I knew her, so I knew there were certain things I didn’t have to say to her. It was an intense five days of shooting, and I knew it would be, so I told her that it would require a tremendous amount of concentration to go through a steep character arc in such a short time. We were also shooting film, so you can’t do take after take—there were two or three takes per scene. Understanding the tone was the most important piece of the puzzle for Sarah. You know, she can cry when you ask her to cry—but confirming the mood we were going for helped direct her performance, I think.

Joe is a very different kind of actor—[he and Sarah] have been a real-life couple for six years. We talked about understanding Dennis, what he’s all about, that Sadie is the driving force. It was harder for me to direct him because the Dennis character wasn’t as clear to me [when we started shooting]. I did some shaping of Dennis in the edit, to make the audience understand him a bit more.”

One of the things that struck me as I was watching your film is that it’s so rare to see a modern couple on-screen in a way that seems (mostly) realistic. Were there any movies that you looked to as a model?

“This might be a better question for Ryan, the writer—he’s such a genius at what he does. He knows how to very succinctly convey what those universal things about couples are. We spent a lot of time in the writing room talking about that—what are going to be those flags where people say ‘I recognize that, I get that, I think that.’  A corollary film was really hard for both of us to find. We didn’t look at the film and say, ‘Oh, it’s like this relationship.’ Punch Drunk Love came up a little bit—we both love that film. It’s hard to find films where the female is the complex one out of the two.”

Below, a still from the short.

Tomorrow: Nadia Litz talks inspiration, favourite directors,  style icons, and You Are Here.

Want more TIFF 2010? Read Leanne Delap’s first TIFF column, and check out our picks for the fest’s hottest parties. Torontoist’s complete coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is all right here.

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