Art and Experience: If your short deals with a timely subject, it must be made in a timely fashion.
Short films notoriously can take as long to make as features; with less money to throw at problems, the pace can be glacial. With her new short, photographer Jill Greenberg wanted to make a film that responded to recent news, and hustled to make it happen quickly.
Greenberg was inspired to make a short film on the abuses within the motion picture industry, focusing specifically on those people who might not have committed an abuse themselves, but who are complicit in supporting the system of abuse. When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, she dove into action, working with cinematographer Sarah Cawley (best known for Fay Grim and the pilot of Salem) to capture the truly nauseating events in record time.
“I think it was 10 days after we started that we shot.”
The resulting film, Honeypot, introduces Sophia, an Executive Assistant to a powerful producer named Harvey—the portrayal is pulling no punches. It externalizes an internal conflict, as Sophia must be complicit in Harvey’s misbehavior to keep her job. There’s some part of her that must be horrified and then there’s the part of her that decides to play along for whatever benefit she thinks she’ll get long term. This tension makes for great visual storytelling.
No Film School: Your average short film finishes in a year, right? This story broke the first week of October and your short is released in January. How were you able to put something together so quickly?
Jill Greenberg: Basically I’ve been thinking about the subject for a very long time, about the patriarchy and women—whether it’s going to be a comedy or whether it was going to be a drama. I started out, I had someone write a script that was a drama for a short film with a woman capturing and torturing one guy. Then I freaked out on that a little. I thought that wasn’t right. I realized it needs to be a comedy. I ended up shooting that as photos. It’s going to be photos which are animated.
I’m still in the middle of doing that. I shot the photos in August. I actually have some decent actors in it, like Charlene Yi who’s pretty vocal about sexual harassment and things like that. The bad guys are specifically supposed to be inspired by Terry Richardson and Roger Ailes. I’ve been working on that for so long Roger Ailes has died and Terry Richardson has pretty much been outed although I would be surprised if he wasn’t still working.
I have been in that world for a very long time so when the Harvey Weinstein thing came out, it was of course very interesting to me and then when I saw the audio on the New Yorker website, I was frustrated that “Feminist Pigs” [the photo project] hadn’t ended up being a real short film. I just really wanted to shoot a proper film as opposed to animated photos, which is not a film. I was like, “This is like a script. It’s a he said/she said.” They have the closed captioning on the New Yorker website and then I could just add a character and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted it to be open-ended.
Obviously, it was all still happening at that time. The New Yorker, I think it was October 5th that the Harvey Weinstein thing happened and then it was the 10th the New Yorker audio came out, and then we shot on October 20th which was crazy. I think it was 10 days after we started that we shot.
Sarah Cawley: It was breaking news, for sure.
Greenberg: It’s because my husband’s a producer. He came from Conde Nast Digital and he still had his person and that’s how we put it together. We had a free location here. Right downstairs. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I didn’t have that location.
NFS: Of course, in New York especially it’s always down to the location. In terms of shooting violence without actually creating violence, what did the shoot environment feel like?
Greenberg: I don’t know. I think it was all pretty chill.
NFS: But as an audience member it is disgustingly uncomfortable to watch the film. It must be an uncomfortable thing to put actors through—to recreate these disturbing events.
Cawley: I remember before, Robert and I were getting the camera lined up and didn’t [actor Meadow Tien Nguy] say to you, in the hallway before the bathrobe scene, “Now let’s talk about any moment when he’s going to touch me because I want to be very, very crystal clear.” She said something about wanting to know in advance if there was going to be any contact.
Greenberg: It’s true, she did say that.
Cawley: Since the dialogue was a little bit fluid, I know that you talked her into a place where she felt comfortable and he was responsive to her concern as well but I know that that hallway scene is the one that’s super tough and I know she wanted to have a talk about that before we started rolling.
Greenberg: Yes. I think that Meadow knew that I was 100% being sensitive to anything that she needed and she knew why we were doing this whole thing and she just knew that all she needed to say was “stop” or anything and I would stop. At a certain point later in the afternoon, she did say, “I can’t really do this anymore,” and I said, “Okay, we’re done.” I know she was totally happy and fine at the end of the day, she felt listened to. She felt enough in control of what was going on and I think she felt okay about the whole thing.
NFS: It was your job to communicate and it’s your job to be super clear and upfront ahead of time about exactly what’s occurring to create that trust.
Greenberg: Exactly. To be clear, I have about 20 years of experience being a photographer and I’ve done film things and some commercials but this is my first narrative short that is all me. I always joke, when you’re a photographer, you’re like the host of the party. Your energy is the energy that sets the mood and you have to make sure that people understand. It’s your job to make sure that everything’s happy. You just want to make sure that everyone’s in a good mood. You want to make sure that things are flowing smoothly.
Especially something like this where you certainly wouldn’t want to have an actor be hurt trying to recreate a horrible scene.
“My phone rang on Wednesday. On Thursday I met Jill. Then on Friday, we started shooting.”
NFS: Sarah, I noticed there’s a lot of foreground obscuration—some really deliberate objects in the foreground. What thinking led you to make those choices?
Cawley: Yes. This came together really quickly. My phone rang on Wednesday. It was UTA. On Thursday, I met Jill. We prepped and crewed up. Then, on Friday, we started shooting and as we got rolling on the first shot, we were happy with the image but it had a little bit more of a sterile feeling than I would have wanted for a piece like this that’s about intimacy.
Jill mentioned that she had a prism. She said, “I have a prism.” I said, “Can we see it?” I felt like some foreground obstruction would lift the stylization to a place where the piece is easier to watch and craft a more beautiful image.
I know also that Jill’s bar is set really high from her years as a professional photographer so I wanted to put the technique in there that would make it look special. She had this prism and we fell in love with it and used it on every shot. We also use some foreground glass palettes that she owned that are used for mixing paint.
NFS: That’s interesting. I thought it was about the male character’s desire to obscure and control messaging because obviously, you can only behave like that if you are in charge of what’s seen and not seen by the public. I thought the deliberate foreground thing was a thematic echo of that.
Cawley: It’s interesting to think about it as a way of allowing us a window into seeing things that are too uncomfortable to watch. It’s two interesting, different ways to end up in the same aesthetic space.
Greenberg: We were shooting even before more people were coming out, because, like I said, it was shot October 20th. Maybe there were more people coming out but I don’t feel like that might have been happening that early. I knew that there were so many other quote-unquote “victims” and so many other bad men who were out there, so I really liked the prism for duplicating all the characters. There’s more than one of her, there’s more than one of him. That’s what I really liked.
NFS: The prism plays a whole lot of different roles in the visual language, and it echoes the interestingly shaded separator between the lobby and his room that has that translucent glow.
Cawley: The film is not just about Weinstein. It’s also about the complicity of the woman who procures for him. In fact, it hinges on that. Seeing the double image of her at the moment when she exits the room and leaves Meadow alone with him I think is a really powerful one. When he says, “I need those chocolates,” and she says, “I’ll get …” and then she exits the room and leaves the younger woman alone. I felt like that was a moment when the prism really reinforced the scene, because there’s complicity and deception.
Greenberg: It creates a double face. On set, we were like, “Oh my god this is so amazing. She has two faces.”