Q&A with to.get.her director Erica Dunton

by Keith Barber

Erica Dunton, director of to.get.her, recently sat down with YES! Weekly staff writer Keith T. Barber to talk about her film’s North Carolina premiere at the RiverRun International Film Festival this week in Winston-Salem. Dunton has directed a total of five feature films shot in various locations all over the world. To.get.her, a thriller about five teenage girls who get together for a night of no consequences, was shot in Wilmington last summer in 12 short days.

YES! Weekly: What was your reaction to your film winning the Best of NEXT! Audience Award during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival?

Dunton: It was a huge shock. You can’t think about the award because the prize was to get to Sundance and if you started focusing on trying to win something…. In truth, I didn’t even really realize how much in competition it was. When I first saw the ballots at the premiere, I was like, “Oh gosh, that’s real,” but you get so carried away with discovering, what we did at Sundance was we discovered what our film was. We discovered it was sort of this tangible thing because by the end of the week, the audience that we built the film for came. It’s like I say, “You build it, and they come,” and [Sundance audiences] were full of teenage girls and their mums. No one ever left the [question and answer sessions]; people just stayed and talked.

The film is supposed to start a conversation. What we realized was we provided this kind of tangible asset that would start that conversation, like a spark — it was like an insight into your daughter’s mind when something maybe your daughter would never say to you; so it would just start in a very natural way a conversation. That was the most exciting thing: I knew the audiences were loving it because I knew they were staying for the Q&A’s. I was getting loads of e-mails. I knew the girls, teenage girls, were loving it, too. And all our girls were being asked for loads of photographs afterwards so you could feel there was a buzz.”

Y!W: What’s your memory of that event?

Dunton: I’ve won before [at film festivals] you get a subtle heads up; like, “Are you coming to the awards tonight? You’re not leaving town, are you?” That kind of thing. I got nothing — no one had spoken to me for like two days. I just told everyone, “Guys, we didn’t get it because otherwise they would’ve checked that I was coming to the awards ceremony.” So I nearly didn’t go. It was a sad day because we were leaving Sundance and we had had such an amazing time and you don’t know where your film’s going. So we almost didn’t go, We went straight to the bar with the guys because there were all these chairs up front — sponsor chairs, press chairs, filmmakers; I was like, “Don’t even sit down guys.” We were just going to have a drink and go home. And then [Vera Farmiga] said, “The winner is…” and the moment she said, “To” everything went into complete slow motion. None of us had even contemplated that we had won.

The first thing I did is I went up, and I was like, “I was at the back waiting for the bar to open” and then I apologized to my mom for not wearing something nicer. I didn’t even wash my hair; it was really funny.

Y!W: Has the audience reaction to the film met or surpassed your expectations?

Dunton: One of the [Sundance] programmers had said that a film is not finished until an audience has seen it and talked about it and that conversation is the beginning of the film’s life. We had a group of ladies, women, mothers who were there and there were like, ‘“I’m not sure if my daughter should see this film’ because there’s a controversial element to it.” I was just about to answer her and this 16-year-old girl sort of stood up and said, “Do you mind if I answer that?” I said, “Go ahead, young lady.” And she’s like, “They absolutely should see this film.”

I think what I’ve done is I’ve made a film for teenage girls about teenage girls and it’s not necessarily about getting the boy. It’s about the stuff that goes on inside of you when you’re a teenager and I think that is rarely seen. This film is so girly — it’s so pink, there’s bubbles, you couldn’t get more girly. It’s so accessible; it’s a proper story — it’s a thriller; there [are] murders, there’s a whodunit element to it so it’s accessible. It’s not an after school special nor anything else but it deals with deeper issues in an accessible, interesting way for girls to watch. There’s not even a genre for that. I think that’s why its a smart film — teenage girls are really smart and it complements that rather than patronizes.

Y!W: While researching the film, what did you learn about the challenges teenage girls face in this day and age?

Dunton: I knew [lead actress] Jazzy [De Lisser] since she was 12…. Teenage girls haven’t changed but their world has. The emotions she felt and the phone calls I was getting — school issues, boy issues, parent issues; whatever it was, work issues, self-doubt issues. All of that was going on but the way she was interacting with her friends and her Facebook profile was completely different and I think what happens is conversations begin online and it’s the written word.

Our mantra ended up, “Stop typing, stop texting, start talking,” and kids have forgotten how to talk. The audio word and the word like us two with eye contact, you forget that and the power of black and white and how hurtful it can be or how dangerous it can be.

Y!W: You utilized a Canon D7 digital camera and a 600 mm anamorphic lens to shoot the film. How pivotal was the unconventional technical setup to getting the performances you wanted?

Dunton: The film feels very authentic and very real which is again why teenage girls like it. They did their own hair and makeup, they did their own wardrobe. It’s just very natural. You capture those moments without the girls even realizing it and that was really fun.

[Her father, Joe, a renowned cinematographer and camera technician] invented something called “pastelscope” for it. I wanted to make film very pink and very extreme and there’s like a hazy, dream world because the whole story is from the point of view of the girls and the world they live in. So we had a heightened sense of imagination which the audience just goes with.”

wanna go?

To.get.her will screen at the 13th annual RiverRun International Film Festival on Sunday, April 17 at A/perture Cinema at 6 p.m. For ticket info, call Stevens Center Box Office at 336.721.1945.