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.

This giant, deserted building so perfectly emphasizes how small and alone Lily feels. What were the logistics of shooting there like?

Twenty-five percent of the world’s internet runs through that building. I’m not kidding. In fact, the email I’m about to send to you right now will probably run through it too, which is both amazing and haunting. It was once Baltimore’s historic Hutzler’s department store, which opened in 1858, went bust in the 1980s, and then sat empty for years. Now it’s owned and operated by a company called AiNet and houses what is called a “server farm.” The floors are still mostly empty and in various states of disarray. The basement is where the internet is, and it shoots underground through a gigantic fiber optic cable up to New York City, and then under the Atlantic Ocean into Europe.

The internet is a physical thing, and that’s easy to forget! When I learned about this basement, I thought of Ulrich Seidl and wondered what he would have done down there. I approached the owner of AiNet, Deepak Jain, and his wife, Margot Jain, with the idea for the film and they loved it. They both appreciate and regularly support the arts and were happy to see the building used for creative purposes. They were very generous and pretty much gave us the run of the place for a long weekend. Except the basement, of course. Still, we all were nervous every time we had to unplug something or turn off a light switch, fearing we might accidentally shut off the internet.

The lead actor, Isobel Arnberg, brings such a strange, awkward, beguiling, vulnerable quality to her role. How did you cast her?

We met each other around 2014, when we were both living in New Orleans. I love her as a friend, but she also happens to be an exceptional actor and performer. She has been in two of my previous short films. I value and strive for strong, long-running relationships on set and in collaboration, and I try to keep with the same crew if I can. I wrote this role with her in mind. She is so magnetic and compelling on-screen, and she can do anything or be anyone and never appear boring, inauthentic, or unrelatable. She is also always dancing, and I just love being around that. It feels so healthy, and it was fun seeing her practicing her pirouettes in the hallways between takes.

The music in the film is so great and adds to this off-kilter, unsettling atmosphere. What was it like working with Dan Deacon, who is a bit of a legend?

Dan is totally a legend and has one of the biggest hearts I have ever been lucky enough to encounter. He is always down to get weird and is really good at it. He scored my last two short films as well. For the film I made right before Dirt Daughter—Hi I Need to Be Loved—Dan worked with a musical arts cooperative in Baltimore called Mind on Fire, and the score was made using structured improvs and fluxus-style performances as sample material that he then used to process and layer. It was cool to watch the recording process. We were all in this beautiful studio together, and Dan would give the musicians verbal instructions and prompts through their headphones. Sometimes the instructions were simple and straightforward, and other times they were intentionally absurd and confusing. During one take he had them play what they thought a spam email sounds like. He had them describe scenes and moods. He had them play what they thought they heard someone else in the room playing. My favorite prompt to watch was when he had them do a Rihanna song that had been playing in the club we shot one of the scenes in. It became a kind of theater. He created so much content from that recording session that we were able to extend it into the score for Dirt Daughter, which I do see as something of a sequel to Hi I Need to Be Loved.

The film seems to be saying something about how technology promises to alleviate our fears of loneliness while also keeping us perpetually alone.

I love technology, and I think it can absolutely deliver on this promise if you let it. People love to write articles and talk at dinner parties about how technology tears families and relationships apart and makes us feel more alone, but ultimately technology can bring together people who would be happiest together. I do strongly believe technology makes loneliness softer. Lily feels so small and alienated in her life alone in the building, but she does find hope and strength within her algorithm. We can all find strength in our algorithms. It may seem absurd, but they are like invisible self-portraits that will live on long after we do.

Technology is also growing at an exponential rate, way faster than the average rate of human development. This can be confusing. It’s difficult seeing something we create exist in a completely different time scale than the one we live in.

Can you talk a bit about the way the film explores the relationship between technology, commerce, sexuality, and standards of beauty?

My work explores the idea of who we think we should be due to societal expectations and pressures. Yes, the rule books often are written by commerce and the technology in our lives. Especially for women. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to find the perfect red lipstick, only to find out that I hate how I feel in red lipstick. Why do I keep trying? Probably because that girl on my Instagram ad looks so cute in it, and since I’m a girl, I would too.

Luckily for her, Lily looks phenomenal in red lipstick. The film is set entirely inside the server farm, and it explores technology and commerce and the absurd concept that everything we need to be beautiful, feminine, and whole is available for us with the click of a button, with free two-day shipping.

Aside from our complex and problematic dependency on capitalism, I do love that people can reinvent themselves over and over whenever they feel like it. Self-expression and self-exploration are important and healing, and technology makes it easy. If it doesn’t work out, there is a ninety-day return policy. It’s bittersweet.

I’m so in love with Lily’s look at the end of the film and all of the farmyard props. Was that in the script or was it more something that came about when you started working with your production designer and wardrobe? What inspired that very specific look and scenario?

I love how this turned out. This scene was the first I wrote in the script. I like writing endings first. Isobel’s character in my last short film is a dairy maid on a farm traipsing through a pasture at sunset, reciting my spam email into the camera. I wanted to continue that pastoral/digital mashup. I love a farm motif and love its visual juxtaposition within an empty department store and alongside the internet. This is on the nose, but the building is also a farm of sorts: a server farm that “grows” our data. I wanted this scene to feel theatrical and over the top, but also innocent and sincere, like a child’s birthday party. We ordered almost everything online and then returned it after the shoot, an action that felt oddly like an extension of the film—I did keep the cow-print stilettos though. I most of all wanted Isobel to have fun with it and perform freely. I knew something unique and strange would come from it.

Tell us about your new documentary project, Crestone.

Crestone is my first feature film. We made it with my friends from high school. They are SoundCloud rappers now and live in the desert of Crestone, Colorado, making music for the internet. Crestone isn’t completely a documentary; a lot of it is scripted. The film plays with fact and fiction as a mirror to our lives on social media, where performing and being become indistinguishable. Both reality and friendship are fragile, and I wanted to lean into that fragility. We shot it in eight days with just Corey Hughes (the cinematographer of Dirt Daughter and Hi I Need to Be Loved) as the DP and cowriter, my friends as actors, and myself directing and recording the sound. It’s a love letter to these friends and to the internet at the end of the world. It asks: What does music sound like if there is no one left to repost and share it?