I AM ELO: Celine & Logan
Celine Held and Logan George are the Brooklyn-based husband and wife duo behind Palme d’Or-nominated short Caroline—the only US entry to be accepted as part of the Cannes Shorts Competition this year. Their critically acclaimed shorts have showcased and won dozens of awards at South by Southwest (SXSW), Seattle International Film Festival, Palm Springs International Shortfest, Raindance Film Festival, Aspen Shortsfest, among others, and premiered online as Vimeo Staff Pick Premieres.
I AM FILM caught up with the unstoppable auteurs to discuss their journey to fully financing their first feature film, based on their award-winning short film Caroline.
Caroline Official Trailer - Courtesy of ELO films
Tell us about the story of your first feature film
Celine: Our film is about a five-year-old girl named Little who lives in the tunnels beneath New York City with her mother. A police-mandated eviction forces them topside, above ground, for the first time, threatening their future as mother and daughter.
Logan: Little lives as part of this community of people who have chosen to set up a home down in this abandoned tunnel, and it’s based off of real-life stories. One tunnel, in particular, in the 80’s in New York, is called the ‘Freedom Tunnel’ where there’s a community of hundreds of people, who stole electricity from the grid above ground. They built dozens of makeshift homes down there. It’s a massive tunnel, like 35 foot high walls, and you can see for blocks, all the way underground. So, they built this whole, real, vibrant, thriving community.
Our story takes place in modern day, but it’s based off of this true-life story.
Celine: It’s based off several books which were written about this phenomenon that mostly happened in the 80’s. But there are still people who live underground today. There’s this one line from The Mole People by Jennifer Toth: Jennifer’s talking to someone who lives in the tunnels and asks them if there are any children living down there. The tunnel dweller says, “No. We have adults as young as five.” We thought that was really poignant.
We’ve been writing this piece since 2012 and we wrote it before we wrote any of our shorts. We made our shorts in order to make the feature.
What lead you to focus on this particular story?
Celine: I wrote the very first draft before Logan came in and rewrote it with me. So, through Jumpstart Americorps, I was working at an elementary school on the Lower-East Side.
A little boy in the class I was volunteering in was taken by ACS (Administration for Children’s Services). We found out later that his mother had been filling out job applications and marking that she had a dependent and also that she didn’t have permanent housing—not technically that she was living on the streets—but that she did not have housing. So, they took her child and I’ll just never forget when she came to pick him up at the end of the day, not knowing that he’d been taken by ACS.
I started doing research on homeless children in the city and there are 25,000 homeless children in New York—right now. That’s kind of where the impulse started for this story, and then, doing research on the people who lived in the tunnels, and Logan and I doing a lot of urban exploration.
You were saying that you created the shorts as a part of a strategy to get this film made. When you worked on the feature, had you directed a short together yet? Or was that something that happened afterwards?
Logan: It happened afterwards. Our feature script got Celine and I working together professionally, in a lot of ways. Celine shared it with me. She had been writing it on her own, before we were together. So, once we started writing it together, that got us working in that kind of environment and it’s why we branched off and made the shorts.
It wasn’t as clear cut as: “We’re going to make these shorts and this will prove that we can make the feature.” But I think, it was an avenue that was accessible to us financially; in terms of funding our own work and making something that could prove we were writers and directors.
Celine: We do a lot of commercial work, mostly internationally, as a two-person crew. In 2015, we’ve even, in research for our feature, we went really crazy and Airbnb-ed out our apartment and biked around the city all night, writing, and then, came to sleep during the day, and then, Airbnb-ed our place out that night—so we could concentrate on writing our feature.
Take us back to when you got your break in the industry. What motivated your passion for directing and writing together?
Logan: Well, we both majored in drama, actually, in college at NYU (New York University). That’s where we met. And we did acting separately, post-college. And, I think, both of us, in our own separate careers, became just very unsatisfied with that grind: investing in projects that you ultimately don’t have control over. A lot never see the light of day or are just handled in a way that makes them poor pieces, despite giving 110% of yourself and not seeing the pay-off for the work that you’ve put into it. I think, we both naturally drifted away from working in that capacity, towards creating our own material.
Celine: I think we just found working together, that we just have the same vision, and we’re really attracted to the same type of stuff. And working as two people, you can get so much more accomplished, than just one. So much was limited in the one of two things previously, that we’d done (separately), that suddenly, working together felt like a whole new world.
Talk to us about the financing of this feature film. What was the process like? Was being a unit of two directors more appealing to investors?
Logan: I don’t know if it was, necessarily. I think meeting us and seeing us and the amount of work that we’ve done together, and the fact that we don’t have separate careers, is probably appealing, in that, we really come off as one unit. Our careers are so intertwined.
In terms of the path to finding our financiers: we made three shorts in 2016, and one of those was really successful on the 2017 film festival circuit.
Mouse FULL FILM - Courtesy of ELO films
But, that film doesn’t have a strong connection, tonally, with our feature. So, we were taking meetings, having come off the success of that short. And there was just this disconnect between people understanding what we were going for with this feature, and this latest round of shorts we made.
In 2018, our short Caroline featured a child protagonist and young actors. Suddenly, financiers and producers were able to see what we were going for, and that we were capable of executing a film that has a five-year-old as a protagonist. That’s a huge hurdle. It’s a thing we heard a lot: “It’s really really hard to work with kids.” We understand that. Caroline was a huge step in being able to overcome that one. As soon as people could see Caroline, they could see our feature.
What’s the budget on your first feature?
Celine: It’s a little under a million right now. It’s still in a low-budget range. We wouldn’t want much more, if I can be perfectly honest, for this topic—especially. We think it’s really important for us to be as honest as possible.
In all of our movies, we were the production designer on Caroline, we also did costumes. On Mouse, we did catering. So, for us, we’re used to working very dirty. And we know that with a feature film they’ll be a lot more hurdles, in terms of getting permits, for example. And that stuff is incredibly important and things we’re going to follow, but, we wouldn’t want a huge budget for this. It just wouldn’t be right.
In light of the journey that you’ve been through, if you were to look back on everything that you’ve learnt in the process, what advice do you wish you had?
Logan: I probably would be less resistant to the concept of making three shorts that first year. We made them in a year, but it was really six months; in terms of shooting them. And you know, there was a point where three of our shorts we had shot were on hard drives, but they weren’t edited. And that caused me a lot of anxiety. It’s like, all of your financial and energy investments are on there, but, you just don’t have time to sit down and edit them all, because you’re preparing for the next one.
So, I would have told myself to relax and trust Celine more and really be excited by how prolific we had the potential to be.
We’ve been able to do that for all the reasons we mentioned before; we’ve been able to pool our resources and work doubly as fast, sometimes, because we’re two people. I think we’ve really used that to our advantage.
Celine: There’s this really great anecdote I love; there’s this teacher that divides his pottery class into two halves. He tells one half they only need to make one perfect pot the whole year, whereas the other half he says to make as many pots as they possibly can. And of course, the side that had to make one pot ends up not making the best piece because they’re focused on making one perfect work of art. The half that’s making as many pots as they can ends up better pots, becoming better potters because they’re not worried about getting it right. I love thinking about that, as far as working in film. There’s just trial and error, and trial and error.
I mean, our first short, Fever, we shot as a two-person crew over four different countries; Nepal, Oman, Japan, and the US. We cast high schoolers from these drama/film classes we were teaching in the various countries. And that played at a tonne of festivals in 2017 and has been really great for the kids involved and a really great journey for us, to really just dive into it.
I really think, without that kind of resilience, we wouldn’t be where we are, which we are incredibly grateful for. We can’t believe we’re here.
FEVER FULL FILM - Courtesy of ELO films
There’s a consistent style in your co-directing together. Was there a specific influence, or was that something that you developed by yourselves?
Logan: There’s no one influence in particular or anything. I mean, we edit our own stuff, and we write our own stuff. I think we have a leaning towards certain types of stories that take place within a finite amount of time, in terms of our shorts. But in our feature, as well. It takes place only within a week, with the main story taking place over one 24-hour period.
So, we’re not out to do a huge epic that happens over months. Our stories are very vignette-y and finite. That’s something that we’re attracted to; sort of seeing films in real-time. Our use of music is quite subtle and our edit is quite subtle, as is our use of cinematography. I think we’re quite character-driven in the way we orient ourselves around a story and that means that we’re not out to be very flashy in other departments, because, you ultimately don’t want to detract from someone who is invested in the characters and what’s going on.
So, as much as we’re excited by certain types of cinematography in the world or certain editing styles, or use of colour or costume, I think we’ll always be leaning more towards this sort of modest stripped down subtle realm, where if you want to focus on any one of those departments, you can, but we always want to give the story the centerstage.
And, if you could fast forward to this film being released, how do you want people to feel when they walk out of the cinema?
Celine: That’s the thing. We’ve really gone back and forth about this. We want people to think about, just the same way with our shorts, the same way with Caroline; you could watch it and you could feel compassion or curiosity for the mother or the good samaritan or her siblings.
Logan: Or you could feel anger towards the mother or the good samaritan.
Celine: Exactly. We’re presenting the grey in everyone. We’re interested in the humanity of people and not the black and white, archetypical way of looking at characters.
What was the experience like of being selected in Cannes?
Celine: It was such an honour to have our film shown on the same screen with the other short films in competition. I mean, those other films were the best in those categories of film. I don’t know any other way to describe it.
They are all so different, aesthetically. It’s art that you can look at and say, “We would never make a short like that.” We have such respect for it, because of how well they executed what they were trying to do.
If it’s not the way that you personally would make it, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We have a style and the styles we saw on screen with Caroline at Cannes were breathtaking.
There are big changes happening within the industry. What do you think will be different about your generation of directors from the ones that we’ve seen before?
Celine: My first thought would be: bravery. We really love the work of Andrea Arnold and Jeff Nichols. We think artists like that can take pieces that aren’t necessarily commercially viable and create incredible stories out of those; we’ve also seen a lot of our peers making stories like that.
That’s something we’ve always been attracted to: these characters on the fringe. So, that’s something I think we’ll see; a natural tendency to drift away from anything that feels even a little conventional.
Celine and Logan are currently in pre-production for their first feature film, shooting in late October this year. You can visit their website to discover their latest Cannes-nominated short Caroline at www.elofilms.com/caroline and follow them on Instagram @celineheld_ and @loganwgeorge.
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About the filmmakers
Celine & Logan
Producers, Writers, Directors
Celine and Logan were named one of Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film” of 2017. Their work has played at over 200 festivals worldwide, premiering in the Main Competition at Festival de Cannes, and in both Midnight and Narrative selections at SXSW. See more at www.elofilms.com.