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Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers caused a stir at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival with Fort Tilden. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize, Fort Tilden focuses on two spoiled and listless girls — Allie (Clare McNulty) and Harper (Bridey Elliot) — who are just out of college and living in Williamsburg. The film follows them as they venture on their own personal odyssey to spend a day on the beach at Fort Tilden. Privileged and self-obsessed, Allie and Harper aren’t your conventional indie film heroines, but writers-directors Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers manage to balance their millennial angst and sense of entitlement with the pathos (and healthy dose of karma) inherent in their misadventures. With Bliss and Rogers at this helm, the potentially toxic duo is oddly appealing, and this nightmare beach trip through several boroughs is damn near a delight.
We spoke to the first-time filmmakers about millennials, their stint as writers on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and why film festivals matter.
Tribeca: Fort Tilden deals with an unglamorous but very real side of life for millennials in NYC, particularly Williamsburg. What was the impetus behind the project?
Sarah-Violet Bliss: We were just shooting around ideas one day and came up with the seed of a story about two girls trying to get to Fort Tilden. We immediately knew what that meant. Everyone in New York has a messed-up travel tale and, usually, those stories are pretty hilarious. As we were writing, it really evolved into more complex ideas about what it means to be 25 and privileged in Brooklyn.
Tribeca: Why did you choose to make Fort Tilden their destination?
Charles Rogers: It’s a common destination for young people, and we ourselves have had difficulties trying to get there. I had a birthday party there that many people didn’t attend because they couldn’t get out there. There are a billion ways not make it to Fort Tilden, but at the same time, it’s actually not that hard to get there. Characters like Harper and Allie would, of course, have trouble making it there.
Tribeca: Fort Tilden won the 2014 Grand Jury Prize at SXSW. What was that experience like?
CR: I remember my adrenaline levels being higher than anything I’d ever experienced before. [Laughs.] I was actually just thinking about it the other day. When you win an award there, you’re immediately ushered into a press room, and I had to take a step out and collect myself. I had a panic attack and I remember thinking to myself, “I need to start a family now.”
SVB: [Laughs.] What are you talking about?!
CR: It was this crazy, tribal impulse: “You need control; have a family!” I had forgotten all about that until I started going down memory lane this week.
SVB: Well, I remember sitting in the theater for an hour and a half before they announced the final category. You don’t make films to win awards, but in the moment, you totally want to win. At least, that was the case with me. I was thinking things like, well if we don’t get this award, we’re still in the running for X award, you know? Finally, it came down to either we won the Grand Jury or nothing at all. Oliver Platt was presenting the award, and the protocol is for the presenter to describe the movie first before announcing the winner. When we realized he was describing our movie, we lost our minds. It was fantastic.
Tribeca: Why are film festivals so important to up-and-coming filmmakers and actors?
CR: I feel like our movie is a good example of why film festivals are important. We self-financed this movie with student loans. Plus, it’s not a movie that we could have explained easily to investors or to platforms that help independent films get made. We had a simple concept of two girls trying to get the beach and running into and creating a lot of obstacles for themselves along the way. We really owe it to SXSW for validating the film. Film Festivals curate films that people should pay attention to, and SXSW was culturally the right place to premiere our film. I can’t imagine what would have happened to us otherwise.
SVB: We didn’t go into making Fort Tilden with a distribution plan. SXSW brought us to the attention of the right people and platforms to get our movie out into the world.
Tribeca: You two have been collaborating together since your days at NYU. If you had to describe the other person in one word, what would it be and why?
SVB: Tall! [Laughs.] No, but I’m going to cheat and use two. “Hysterically observant.” He’s so specific and smart in his choices when observing other people and crafting characters. Not everyone can do that.
CR: I would say “unshakable.” She really feels what she feels and always believes 100% in herself and the moment. It’s an instinct that’s served her well in the past and will continue to do so.
Tribeca: I’ve read comparisons of the film to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, which I feel is very high praise, and well-deserved. Out of you two, who would be the “Allie” and who would be the “Harper” and why?
SVB: It’s complicated.
CR: Personally, I feel that we have traces of both characters in us.
SVB: When we were writing, I was always Allie, and Charles would read Harper, but I don’t necessarily think that means anything.
CR: Plus, they are both crazy. [Laughs.] But in wonderful ways.
Tribeca: Sarah, I know you knew Clare McNulty from your days at Oberlin, but how did you find Bridey Elliot for the role of Harper?
SVB: We didn’t initially write the role of Allie for Clare, but once we met with her, we started to evolve Allie’s voice to fit hers. As for Bridey, Charles had shown me a bunch of videos she did on the internet, and they were so funny and weird. We immediately loved her. We knew she’d be perfect. So we met with Bridey and showed her our past work and chatted, and she was in.
Tribeca: You get to know about Harper’s father over the course of the film, but you really don’t know much about Allie’s family. How did you work with the actresses to build their backstories?
CR: We were very conscious about what we did and did not reveal about their past in the movie. We only wanted the audience to know what they know and to fill in the rest with an assumption or a feeling about the character. You also get the impression that if you don’t know something about Harper’s dad, it’s because Harper doesn’t exactly know either. For the most part, I feel that the characters are strong personalities and pretty telling representations of aspects of our generation. Clare and Bridey are the sweetest girls, but they are also not like their characters. Nevertheless, they had no trouble sinking into those roles. We didn’t need to do anything intense like an acting workshop or a concentrated development period because they got the characters immediately.
Tribeca: I think that you shot the film in sequence, for the most part. That’s not exactly typical of a production.
SVB: All the outside scenes were shot in sequence, but that wasn’t the case for the interiors. Our shooting schedule just worked out, and it was good that we shot it the way we did with the action and the characters just building over the course of the trek. It also was easier for us to remember what just happened if we had shot it the day before.
Tribeca: Did you encounter any major challenges while you were filming Fort Tilden?
CR: It was a really low budget production, so time and money were not in abundance. We couldn’t shut down any of the streets we filmed on, and we were constantly dealing with foot traffic and crowds. I really feel like we had to experience the chaos of this city to capture that same feeling in our film. The most difficult scene to shoot was the one with Bridey in the water. We had to shoot that scene all day and it so, so cold. Bridey’s teeth were chattering until she was silent and blue. [Laughs.] But she was fine! We all had ramen and sake afterwards. It was as though we survived a plane crash or something.
Tribeca: In addition to making Fort Tilden, you’ve worked as writers for shows like Mozart in the Jungle and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. I am a huge Wet Hot American Summer fan.
SVB: It was incredible to be a part of those projects. We had really tight deadlines for both Mozart in the Jungle and Wet Hot so the work was difficult but awesome. We learned so much from Michael Showalter and David Wain. It was an inspiring and really intense professional experience.
CR: Michael brought together everyone in the writers’ room, and he knew who would mesh well together. It was an honor to work with such smart, experienced people. The whole writing process on Wet Hot was a very smart and very controlled circus. Basically the same energy generated by the show was present in the writers’ room. Michael and David are a comedy institution. We still have a lot to learn from them.
Tribeca: Did you find that your creative process changed when you wrote an indie feature?
SVB: The only thing that changed for me was that final say was with us rather than with Michael and David. On the television shows, if we had an idea that they really didn’t like, that was the end of the story. Thankfully, that didn’t happen too much. In a weird way though, working for someone else takes the pressure off you. With our film, the responsibility was solely ours.
CR: I think the process was the same for us in terms of writing with each other. The work we did on shows like Mozart and the Jungle and Wet Hot was almost a strengthening exercise that we now can apply to our own sensibilities.
Tribeca: I saw that you are working with Michael Showalter on a pilot called Search Party too.
CR: Yeah, we shot the pilot in the beginning of the summer. Jax Media is producing, along with Michael, and it also stars Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development. It’s very much in the same tone as Fort Tilden but a mystery comedy about a group of old college friends who are reunited. Right now we’re pitching it and divining its future.
Tribeca: Given your success with shows on streaming platforms, would you be open to digital release or would you prefer cable? Also, does the distribution process really matter nowadays?
CR: Creatively, it doesn’t really matter because I think cable and platforms like Netflix and Amazon speak culturally to the same place. Network TV is a different story — it has a different aesthetic. Platforms that would find a dark mystery comedy about young people palatable would be streaming — either Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. That’s where the future of storytelling is.