Chloë Sevigny has a royalty about her. She’s a fashion icon, and one of the original indie film scene queens, coming up with directors like Harmony Korine in Gummo and Larry Clark in Kids. Her performance in the groundbreaking Boys Don’t Cry earned her an Oscar nomination, and she’s continued to choose interesting work like Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. Now, she’s taken the camera in her own hands and directed her first film. Kitty, a short that centers on a young girl (Edie Yvonne) who magically turns into a cat, is in partnership with Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology. The short is wistful, ethereal, and a calling card for the first-time director. It was released on Refinery29’s website last week—watch it here.
Paste had a chance to chat with Sevigny about taking the director reins and surrounding herself with an impressive team of collaborators, including cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina). Sevigny lifts the tale, adapted from Paul Bowles’ short story, off the page and onto the screen, finding its power in a child’s longing to be different, to transcend—a desire that carries into adulthood and makes us believe in magic. The film feels slightly like a memory, even while watching.
Sevigny also discusses the challenges of getting people to invest in your film, especially when no one is quite sure how to monetize the short form yet. But she encourages, “It’s a way for people to see your voice.” If this film is any appetizer of Sevigny’s voice as a filmmaker, we’re excited to see her continue in perhaps this most exciting role yet.
Paste Magazine: When did you first read Paul Bowles’ short story? Did you immediately want to make it into a movie?
Chloë Sevigny: That was around the time I made Gummo. 21, maybe, or 20? I was immediately struck by that story. I was really involved in the filmmaking process of Gummo, doing the wardrobe and having dated the director at the time. I was very interested in possibly directing. That story just seemed like it would make the greatest short. I talked with the cinematographer of the movie [Jean-Yves Escoffier] at the time, and I made him a little piece of art and when we wrapped Gummo, I told him, “If you ever want to make a movie like this, just let me know.” We were going to do it together but he passed away and time went by. But it always stuck with me, and I think I would like the idea of having that narrative to follow already—a place for me in an adaption rather than doing something original the first time out—like a blueprint as a filmmaker to have something to flow along with. I just made a second short film in Portland. It was all improvised and loosey-goosey, and I think I prefer the mannerisms of Kitty, having it more plotted out. I feel more comfortable in that space.
Paste: Seamus McGarvey. He’s been one of my favorite cinematographers for years. How did you bring him on board? Tell me about the process of working with him.
Sevigny: Yes, we did a movie in the ’90s together that he shot called A Map of the World, with Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore. We always remained friends. He dated a close girlfriend of mine, so I’ve seen him over the years. Obviously I was a very big fan, and I feel like he has such a sensitivity to the films he does, and he’s great with effects, the Joe Wright movies and things—he’s bridged both of those worlds. He was set at the top of my list of cinematographers. When I went out to him I had this lookbook done, hundreds of photos and visuals of, like, Beatrix Potter drawings to Sally Mann photos to Lewis Carroll photos and Francesca Woodman. I sent it to some of the department heads to get them involved, and excited, and to show the vision and whatnot.
It was very collaborative with Seamus. We spent many an afternoon at the bungalow he was staying at above Hollywood and just went through the script. He was pushing me, like a mini-film school, to come up with motivation for the camera and themes—things I found more in the editing process. But having gone through the process with him, not necessarily having answers but just having him ask the questions was super helpful and informed a lot of what I did. We storyboarded everything. We didn’t have a lot of time, so everything was very preplanned, which was great, but sometimes he wasn’t as open to just shooting up stuff. We’d be like, “Shoot that off!” but he’d be like, “It’s not lit.” So you know, there’s some great things about it and other things where I wish we could—actually, I stole a shot from the top, right before he pans the camera, where it’s accidentally looking at something. I snipped that from the top of one of the takes. I stole it from him, the poor guy, he’s probably going, “What the hell…”
Paste: The visual language of the movie is so specific and I think that by being adamant about sticking to the shot list, I felt like I was watching something very thought-through, and an entire world. And the music! I found it captivating. Tell me about choosing that.
Sevigny: I’m a big fan of Mira Billotte. She was in Quix*o*tic, and now she has the band White Magic. I always knew I wanted to have her music in the film. Then I have another musician I’m a huge fan of in Los Angeles, Tara Tavi; she was sending bits of music. We were trying to do it ourselves, but it was so overwhelming to do the editing and choose music and figure it all out. We were trying to find stuff, and I was thinking of who do I know in New York who I love and can get along with, whose taste I admire, and who is knowledgeable—my favorite DJ, Brian DeGraw. He’s in this band, Gang Gang Dance, with my best friend, and he’s also her boyfriend. He has wanted to do work like this, so I asked him if he wanted to come on board, and he said, “Yeah.” We showed him the ideas we had. He just filled in everywhere else and wrote an original score. There’s not a lot of dialogue, which I wasn’t as aware of while we were making our movie, and then I got in the editing [and] I was like, “Oh my god, there’s no dialogue.” It’s all from the point of view of a cat, so the music has to be really stellar and he really brought it. It was a lot of fun, and we’re collaborating on the next project. I hope more filmmakers will explore the idea of working with him, because he has incredible talent.
Paste: Did you feel like this film came together at a time when you had this cocoon of collaborators that you’ve cultivated throughout the years?
Sevigny: I guess so, I mean some of them were so immediate. The guy who did the practical effects with the whiskers and nose, I had just worked with him last year on American Horror Story, the year I turned into Shelley [Asylum]. I just remembered him on set and he was so sensitive and sweet, so I called him. I think that maybe they’ve been slowly gathering or snowballing. Some of them I just met, others I’ve known for years. The first [assistant director], she was the first A.D. on Broken Flowers, the Jim Jarmusch film I was in, another film, and American Horror Story. Even the PAs were people I’d worked with before. Almost every position!
Paste: That’s really special.
Sevigny: It’s great to be surrounded by people who believe in me. I felt lucky to have been in all these films to make all of these relationships. But at the same time, I think if I didn’t have something that spoke to them they wouldn’t have come on board. I don’t want to discredit that, but I also know that yes, I have an advantage. I think it was meant to be now, I really do.
Paste: You’ve been on sets for years, but making your first film is a different beast. What was your biggest challenge? I know you were collaborating with Refinery29, but you were essentially producing this yourself as well.
Sevigny: I think initial meetings with producers were one of the harder parts—convincing people to come on board to help you raise the money. I don’t want to name any names, but I met some people who are pretty well-known supporters of female filmmakers and indie filmmakers, and most of them were like, “This is too ambitious, you shouldn’t do it, it’s too expensive.” Over and over again, I got that answer. I can’t believe that I’m even hearing this. I went down the road a bit with someone, he had done a breakdown, and we were in it awhile, and then he wrote me and said he can’t go any further with this. He said, “If you want to make a movie about a girl on the streets of New York in fashion….” Yep, fuck you.
Paste: I went through the same thing when I made my first short last spring. There’s also the fear that no one knows how to monetize short films. [Is that] why they were saying it’s too ambitious? Were they afraid it was bleeding money?
Sevigny: I think they knew it would cost a little bit of money, and yes, there are no monetary gains. Short films are hard—it’s hard to get people invested.
Paste: You make a short, there is no monetary gain, but you’re working with Refinery29 and went to Cannes with this and flew yourself there. Clearly there is something to be gained here. What do you think that is?
Sevigny: Well sure, for me there are the personal gains, and I had hoped to use it as a calling card. I’ve been sent scripts from filmmakers and they include their short film. It’s a way for people to see your voice. I think it has warped decisions for me in the past to work with younger and newer filmmakers. If there’s some example of their work that moves me, I can see some sort of vision or eye. For me, it was to fulfill a personal dream and gain personal confidence and learn about the filmmaking process, but also to show people in the future. I made another one because I had the opportunity.
Paste: Can you tell me what that one’s about?
Sevigny: That one? It’s about an artist, being on the road, the isolation of being in weird cities, ego and vanity, objectification, lots of things. It’s a portrait of this female comedian.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.