Alone in There: Marnie Ellen Hertzler on Dirt Daughter

Alone in There: Marnie Ellen Hertzler on <em>Dirt Daughter</em><em></em>

The latest short film to take the spotlight on the Criterion Channel, Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s Dirt Daughter emerged from the collaboration of a vibrant community of artists. Not only was it produced by the innovative collective the Eyeslicer, which supports cutting-edge work with its Radical Film Fund, it also features a score by the celebrated electronic musician Dan Deacon. Exploring everything from technology to conventional standards of beauty to sexual expression and fetishism, this impossible-to-pin-down short follows Lily (Isobel Arnberg), a security guard who has recently become single and works in a huge, desolate building owned by a company called AiNet. The film made a lasting impression on me when I first saw it on the festival circuit, with its bold fusion of digital angst, oddball comedy, and sexual awakening, and particularly with Arnberg’s uncanny, disarming performance.

Today on the Channel, we’ve paired Dirt Daughter with Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, another story about a female security guard whose loneliness manifests in unexpected erotic dimensions. Hertzler, whose work has played at a variety of festivals including Locarno, Rotterdam, and True/False, spoke with me about the inspiration behind her film, the themes it explores, and her process of collaboration.

How did your creative background eventually lead you to filmmaking?

As a child, I acted in theater and took a lot of dance classes. I was familiar with storytelling onstage at an early age and loved it as a way to connect with other people and as a form of expression. I studied sculpture and psychology in college, and after graduation I began production designing films for friends. I felt most comfortable on film sets, working with scripts and a cast and crew, and I loved the energy—it felt reminiscent of the stage. I moved around for a bit and ended up in New Orleans working random temp jobs and making animations.

I found my way back to psychology at one point and worked in a few research labs, and for a psychiatrist as a “care coordinator” helping people find mental health resources in small rural fishing towns in Louisiana. That was really where I learned how important telling stories is to living a full life. I saw how fragile the concept of reality is and how stories that walk the line between fact and fiction are the ones that most accurately imitate life. As much as I loved working in the mental health field, I kept returning to film. After four years in New Orleans, I moved to Baltimore and began writing and directing.

What is the independent film scene like in Baltimore, where you live and work?

Baltimore is a wonderful place to make independent films because there aren’t many rules. It’s relatively small, and people are still excited when they see a camera out in the wild. Most are curious and eager to help. The city is also filled with some of the best contemporary musicians, and it’s always fun to collaborate. There are a few colleges here with film programs, and I often hire students or recent grads, which always keeps the set feeling fresh and keeps me on my toes. I’ve found a really talented and creative crew here that I can’t imagine ever making films without. The trust is strong, and there is a general like-mindedness about films that is hard to come by.

How did the idea of the story come to you?

I love imagining loneliness as a physical thing that we sit in a room with, or on—like a chair. Rarely in my life have I experienced it as a feeling or a state of being; it’s always more like an obstacle I try to avoid or dance carefully around. I wanted to try to create a character who is also doing this strange loneliness dance. Then I learned about the Hutzler building in downtown Baltimore and the idea manifested.

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