AMERICAN FILMMAKER MAKES HER DIRECTORIAL DEBUT THE DIY WAY
Family, death, neglect, affection, recklessness. These are all themes that can be found in Santa Barbara-born photographer and filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman’s directorial debut, The History of Caves, filmed in an old abandoned Laurel Canyon house in the Hollywood Hills.
Tucked away from the glitz, glamour and tourist traps of Hollywood, Laurel Canyon is filled with a strange mix of characters. Famous as a home to many musicians in the 1960s, including Jim Morrison and Frank Zappa, the damp, cold canyon’s overgrown foliage and dark energy has inspired artistic creativity for decades. Joni Mitchell wrote about the area and its residents for her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, and the nearby Mulholland Drive has been featured in numerous songs and movies. Tillman’s husband, musician Josh Tillman (former Fleet Foxes drummer, currently performing as Father John Misty), lived in a house in the canyon while they dated, and when Tillman would visit, she would pass by the abandoned house that later became a character in her film. After breaking into the empty house one day, Tillman dreamt that a friend of hers lived in it and had children she didn’t know about. That dream eventually turned itself into a movie.
The History of Caves follows the story of the Snow family as they come to terms with their mother’s death. Evan Snow is the family’s watchmaker father, played by filmmaker and visual artist Rick Charnoski in his acting debut. After witnessing an instance of their father’s womanizing, the children decide to take the protection of their unusual family dynamic into their own hands. Tillman calls Charnoski’s performance “fucking amazing,” and notes that only one member of her cast had onscreen experience prior to the shoot.
The film was written, financed and filmed very much in DIY fashion, with Tillman and her good friend, set designer Adrianna Iantorno, filling the empty house with pieces mostly from their own apartments and partly from a prop house. The youngest actor, Azalea Chapman, lived in the house with her father and younger brother during the five-day shoot. Tillman says it was difficult to shoot in the house with a full film crew due to the crazy angles, but they figured it out in the end.
She showed the film to her husband when it was nearly finished, hoping he would be inspired to write the music for it. He agreed and she describes that experience as “mind-blowing.” The soundtrack was released by Sub Pop Records on Record Store Day in November and Sub Pop decided to distribute the film, as well.
“It was insane,” Tillman says of the writing of the soundtrack. “[Josh] just knew. We were so aligned in what we thought it should sound like. It was a really incredibly beautiful experience.”
Like many artists, Tillman has difficulty explaining how she creates her art. She doesn’t remember writing The History of Caves, which she says is common in her artistic process. She’s not always creating, instead spending much of her free time cooking, reading and writing in a journal, but finds creative inspiration when she’s feeling particularly vulnerable. Tillman says she’s attracted to dark themes like ghosts and the emotionally incestuous bonds in families.
“Even when I was a little girl, I was scared of the dark,” she says. “I have a big imagination, like I think a lot of people do, and I have a tendency to be able to really scare myself about the external world.”
Having recently moved to New Orleans, Tillman doesn’t believe that filmmakers need to live in Los Angeles to create their art. She notes that the films she wants to make aren’t films that Hollywood would be interested in financing anyway.
“In Los Angeles, films just don’t get made that aren’t huge budget films,” she says. “I used all my own money to make [The History of Caves]. I think you have to make your work wherever you are. I think it’s more interesting to live in Calgary or Nova Scotia or Kentucky or New Orleans or wherever, and to make something that’s representative of the area you live in. Being in an environment that is inspiring to you is the most important thing.”
The History of Caves is now available in Canada on iTunes, and on Amazon and Netflix in the US.
By Jessica Melnychuk
Photo: Emma Elizabeth Tillman