Meet the Makers: Gina Hackett
BY Kio Shijiki, November 13, 2018
Current student, Gina Hackett is a research arts student with screenwriting concentration, currently working on her thesis script.
What's your background in film?
I’m originally from Wisconsin, and I’ve been a writer for as long as I remember, but originally, I wanted (and still want) to be a nonfiction writer, which is what I worked towards at Harvard before falling in love with film. This definitely informs my screenwriting, as I love to do field research. For example, I’m getting ready to go on a ride-along with some paparazzi for research on a feature I’m writing about a female paparazzo (women are so rare in this industry that there’s actually not a word for the female singular).
What’s the pleasure of directing?
Tapping into some sense of authenticity, both emotional and physical. A lot of what I’ve written is surreal, but I try to maintain some sense of grittiness within that. I find that many of my favorite scenes in film are those that feel both ethereal or stylized and yet true to life. I’m thinking of the slow-motion shots in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which should feel out of place in such a naturalistic film but actually allow us to immerse ourselves further in that girl’s emotional journey. Or the weird dance scenes in Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which are unexpected in a very stylized vampire film but really let you into those characters’ souls.
I have to say also that I take real pleasure in collaborating with other writers and DPs, which I’ve done a lot with my classmate, Waleed AlQahtani. He co-wrote, produced, and shot the short we made this past summer, Amateur Night, and working with him almost feels like communicating telepathically. It’s that strange, silent moment when your DP moves the camera or racks focus in exactly the way you wanted even though you never communicated it beforehand—they just know. I love nothing more. This is how I sense Andrea Arnold works with her DP, Robbie Ryan; everytime I think about him running backwards down the stairs with a film camera for that opening shot of her short, Wasp, I want to cry. It’s all about trust. The pleasure of directing comes when you trust your collaborators to understand your vision.
Did I mention that I love Andrea Arnold?
Tell us about a challenging moment on set, perhaps a light bulb moment.
A big lightbulb moment for me came while shooting my short film, Amateur Night, this summer, when I realized that getting emotional, feeling your way through a scene—even if it means crying on set—is actually the mark of a director doing their job. On the last night of our shoot, we were setting up for the final scenes of the film. I was reading the script to internalize all the beats we had to hit, and I...just start crying. It wasn’t a particularly emotional scene as written, but at that moment it struck me as one of the most heartbreaking of the film. It was unbelievably helpful at the time, because instead of giving the actors (one of whom was my 11 year-old niece) extensive direction, I just said a few key words and looked at them, and suddenly we all had tears in our eyes. I remember the crew falling uncharacteristically silent between takes; I even heard a few sniffles and realized we were all tearing up. It was a pretty magical moment, and the first time I’ve ever felt the energy of an entire cast and crew all tapped into the same emotional wavelength on a set.
For me, this was a hard realization, because...well, imagine this on a set: my whole crew is sweating, setting up lights, guzzling coffee to stay awake, and I’m sitting in the grass alone, crying. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. I like to give as much as my crew is giving, to suffer as much as they are. But I suppose this realization taught me that directing is largely emotional labor, just like acting, and that feeling through a scene cannot be classified as diva behavior.
So often, we think of a director as a decision maker, someone who points decisively and thus should avoid publicly weeping. But when you think about a director as the emotional pilot of a film, why not cry?
What are you currently working on?
I am editing the short I mentioned, Amateur Night, which follows a scrappy big sister who decides to strip in order to gather the money for her little sister to do ballet. I’m also writing what I believe will be my thesis script, entitled Paparazza. It follows a female paparazzo who, while confronting the moral repercussions of her job, begins ingratiating herself into the life of a female celebrity. This project feels like a real victory because I can now call my Kardashians addiction “research.”
Other projects include Powder River, a dual-narrator TV pilot about the 1880s Johnson County War that I co-wrote with my classmate Cameron Nelson; an as yet untitled feature script about Emily Warren Roebling (the uncredited engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge); and a proof of concept short for an existing feature script, Pink Noise, which follows a cult of desert girls who have taken a vow of silence.
What kind of a filmmaker do you want to be in future? What stories do you want to tell?
One of my mentors once characterized my target genre as “lady violence in a wasteland.” I often half-jokingly use this to convey the tone and aesthetic of what I make, but it’s pretty right on. (Although sometimes it backfires, as I’ve gotten “Oh, like ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ before...Let me be clear. Nothing like ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’). I love stories about women who pose emotional or physical threats to each other, instead of men posing physical threats to women. I became obsessed with revenge films shortly before coming to Columbia, but now I enjoy finding the nuance and humanity in notions of revenge and female violence; Thelma and Louise has remained my favorite film. I also love setting my stories in the desert or wilderness, which probably comes out of growing up in a Fargo-esque setting.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role of hope in these movies—is there a version of Thelma and Louise where they don’t drive the convertible into the Grand Canyon? Looking ahead, if I can make narrative films that feel like documentaries about spirited, prickly women who find hope in a wasteland, I’ll be happy.