Eva Vives on Turning Her Painful Past into Art at the Sundance Director’s Lab

Eva Vives is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2000, she won the Best Short Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival with Five Feet High and Rising, a short she cast, edited and produced. She followed that up with the feature Raising Victor Vargas, which she co-wrote. Vives has been writing numerous projects, including Chrome & Paint, a film she co-wrote with Ice Cube. Most recently, she wrote and directed the short film Join the Club, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Earlier this year, she was selected to participate in Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab, which helped launch the careers of award-winning filmmakers Cary Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Marielle Heller, Benh Zeitlin and Quentin Tarantino. Taking place May 30 – June 23 in the mountains of Sundance Resort in Utah, the Fellows worked with an accomplished group of creative advisors, professional actors, and production crews to shoot and edit key scenes from their screenplays. Vives shares her reflections below on her upcoming feature film Nina, about a female stand up comic with a complicated love life, which she workshopped at the Lab with actors Shannon Lucio and Raul Castillo (Looking).

Almost right away after finding out you’ve been accepted to the Sundance Directors Lab (for me, a dream come true) they also tell you to start thinking about which scenes you want to shoot there. They recommend choosing the hardest scenes. The ones you’re worried about. This is how, despite the fact that my film is a comedy (albeit a very dark one about a stand up comic recovering from abuse) I ended up shooting four very serious scenes.

The first scene I shot was a date leading to a sex scene with my wonderful actors Shannon Lucio and Raul Castillo. I could write a whole other post about what that was like, but ultimately my cast and crew were pros and everything went swimmingly and we all got to see Raul’s culo so all was good with the universe.

We went from lovemaking straight to fighting. The second scene also included actor Kevin Zegers as our “bad guy,” though the Lab’s Artistic Director Gyula Gazdag (or Master & Commander, as I affectionately call him) told me not to refer to characters as good or bad. And therein lay a major problem with one of my characters: Joe.

In the script, Joe is a cop. He’s married, has two kids, and hits Nina from time to time, mostly when his power needs to be reinstated. Joe is partly based on a cop I met once but also on my father, who was abusive to me and to others. As the character is written in the script, there’s very little “good” about him, and I was fine with that. Nina knows she has to get away from him and eventually she does. The story isn’t with Joe.

But over and over again I kept hearing comments about humanizing him or making him more rounded. I think I understood what people were saying, but also, it often just sounded to me like they didn’t want to believe any one person could just be bad. “Isn’t there something nice he ever does?” Sure, he plays with his kids and makes dinner for Nina from time to time. I get it, but that’s not the story I’m telling (although I want to write that one as well).

But finally, and with Kevin Zegers in front of me willing to play, I took the challenge on. I had asked creative advisor Joan Darling (I cannot say enough good things about this beast of a woman — if you can, take her acting workshop, even if you’re not an actor!) for help, and she suggested I have the actors run through their entire relationship leading up to the scene we were shooting.

As it was written in the script, Nina comes back to her place late one night in the company of a guy she has just picked up at a bar. She is surprised to find Joe, whom she broke up with months ago, in her kitchen. He is not happy to see her with another guy. Said guy leaves and Joe slaps Nina around after she gives him a piece of her mind. She goes to the fridge to get an ice pack and we cut to the aftermath of sex. Joe leaves. Nina is numb.

After we figured out their entire relationship — dates, cop benefits, sex, humor, etc. — we rehearsed the scene again and it was completely different. There was love there. History. Feelings. And that made the violence all the more difficult. We kept working on de-villainizing Joe. Not because I needed him to be nicer, but because he would try to be nicer to get Nina back. And also because at some point, before he started hitting her, Nina liked this guy enough to be with him, and that means something.

We started the scene with Joe making Nina dinner. When he comes to the door now and there’s another guy there, it’s so much more humiliating for him. And laden with conflict.

Richard Jenkins was the acting advisor that week and was of tremendous help in general, but specifically with Joe. Both he and Glenn Close, who was there the week before, had talked to us about actors playing against emotion. Kevin tried a lot of different things under the anger. In one take, he ended up crying, asking Nina to comfort him. I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my life because I remembered my father doing that with me, forcing me to hug him and tell him I wasn’t hurt. For the first time, I was able to see the scene from Joe’s point of view, without that meaning that I agreed with his actions. The more I infused his actions with sweetness and emotion, the more pitiful he got.

Photo by Jonathan Hickerson. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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In the scene as we reinvented it that day, Joe offers to go down on Nina after their fight. It was another way in which he tried to appease her, knowing she likes it. The day we shot, I was watching Richard Jenkins’ face on location, as he played Joe his way towards Kevin, his eyes droopy like a dog who knows he’s done something bad. It was wonderful to see him do it and be so generous with the actors, but I also kept thinking: where does this leave Nina in the scene? So before we did again, I whispered in Shannon’s ear: “Ask him to go down on you in this take.” She did and it was magic. Having her ask instead of him offering gave Nina some power back, and I, at least, badly needed that.

Jenkins laughed so much at that line, I had to ask him to keep it down. And I won’t lie, that felt great. But I’m telling you all this because I was really frustrated going in to shoot this scene. I knew Joe needed to change, and that him changing would also change the scene, but I didn’t know how or to what end.

I went in to shoot without a shot list, which I don’t recommend. I also knew I wanted to focus on their faces and to show transitions (thank you Robert Redford for reminding me of that all the time!) on their faces. To say I was cranky that day is an understatement. But I went with it and stayed on my toes and tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t as we went along.

The next day I spent all day cutting with editor Tamara Meem who is smart and empathetic and has great instincts. Then we presented it to the advisors for comment, which is a very nerve-wracking thing to do so quickly after shooting and editing. Mind you, that week, the advisors were: Keith Gordon, Nancy Richardson, Josh Marston, Rodrigo Prieto, Richard Jenkins, Peter Sollett and Kasi Lemmons! Plus Gyula, Michelle, Ilyse, and a couple of other Sundance folks. There was some disagreement over time cuts I used but overall, everyone thought it was my best work so far. Everyone but me, that is. I just felt no ownership of it whatsoever. Couldn’t tell if it was good, bad, what I wanted… nothing.

It’s been three weeks since. I haven’t looked at the scene again, though I will. But I have thought about it a lot and I already know I’m going to rewrite both that scene and Joe according to what I learned, which was plenty. I also, incidentally, learned to trust my instincts! I gave Shannon two new lines that day that completely turned the balance of power between the two people in the scene. They might have not worked and that would have been fine but at least I got them!

So what I learned, as with so many things in life: plan the crap out of everything and then go with the best choice that presents itself in the moment.