Lily Baldwin is a director and performer. She sees story as a visceral trajectory of impressionistic moments. She uses these ‘stylized dreamscapes’ to investigate worlds that are shadowy and cutting, searching for signals of luminosity and commonality.
Her films are featured on Netflix, The Criterion Collection, Filmmaker Magazine, NOWNESS, Vimeo Staff Pick, Short of the Week, and Fandor. Her VR project, THROUGH YOU, co-directed with Saschka Unseld, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was a recipient of the Sundance Institute New Frontier / Jaunt VR Residency. Prior to filmmaking, Lily performed with The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Trisha Brown Dance Company, and David Byrne on his EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS WILL HAPPEN World Tour. Recently she has been a juror for The Tribeca Festival and the World VR forum.
Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave.
Lily Baldwin: For me, being brave is synonymous with being scared. Bravery comes after a moment of complete risk, abandon and vulnerability and then it’s the choices made that move me through that moment that I’d call ‘bravery.’ A time that tested my mettle like this was when I was dancing with David Byrne for his Everything That Happens Will Happen Today world tour with Brian Eno. Night after night I stepped onto stages in front of thousands of people. I felt naked and riddled with doubt. But the discipline of moving towards it — literally making myself go through the choreography when I was convinced I didn’t remember it — this synced me with ‘a deeper body.’ For the first time, I felt incredibly powerful — I felt my own impact — and I realized that in many ways until then I hadn’t taken myself seriously as an artist.
In one’s artistic life, there are some very long seconds or moments, that make us stop. There may be an epiphany or a shift. Can you tell us about a recent one?
LB: I haven’t gone public with a lot of my story, but I recently had a serious health crisis. On January 6th, 2017, my body went 80% numb from my waist down and I lost most of my motor control. For the past two years I have been living in and out of a wheelchair, and towards the end, with elbow crutches once I regained mobility. Terrible pain coursed down my legs and doctors diagnosed my symptoms as neurological. Then, after discovering severe arthritis in my hip, I had it replaced 8 months ago. It’s been a ‘dark night of the soul' — I’m a mover, and I simply couldn’t move. I’ve had to relearn myself in so many ways. This process has left me with an epiphany I’m still understanding: that living in pain and outside ‘normalcy’ is an insanely creative act. The body is mysterious and fiercely intelligent beyond comprehension, it’s fragile and stunningly robust. Life is fleeting and as of late my priorities have clarified: to wake people up to their strength AND vulnerability — the yin and yang of powerful individuality.
Now, continuing to reflect. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
LB: ‘Body’ is my medium, my lens, my call to action. One film didn’t get me started, but instead an experience — when I was dancing on tour. I was telling stories with my dance, communicating with thousands — the feeling of bodies in motion, myself in motion, and that exchange with the audience. realized the prowess bodies have to communicate. So I turned to a camera while on tour, determined to capture the electricity of the stage inside the permanence of an object. These first films were stop motion. I took photos on the bus, in restaurants, hotel rooms, while biking, capturing life on tour, letting the creative process continue off stage — and then I sewed these photos into raw short films. It developed into what I call ‘visceral film.’ I fuse virtuosic dancing and pedestrian gesture with the shifting perspectives of the lens and used editing as a choreographic tool. I use the universal alphabet of bodies-in-motion to tell common stories in unexpected ways. So many films inspire me, but today these come to mind: Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, or Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson. While watching Magnolia I would write down the story beats and act development in order to teach myself how to screen-write. I really dig his approach to ensemble and story climax.
How would you say being a dancer has impacted your film work?
LB: I’ve always paid attention to detail. Martha Graham said, “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit.” That rigor, focus, and discipline informs my filmmaking. I encourage nuanced focus and follow through with all production elements down to the smallest detail. However, because I want to harness something honest within the camera’s frame, I can’t always force what’s in my head to manifest so I rely on certain kinds of improvisation. This way of working with performers helps to capture authentic performances, which in my experience can only emerge from a trusting environment. In post-production, I approach editing with this same kind of experimentation — building and then breaking things down and finding story through trial and error.
What was a recent film, video or series that you had a visceral response to?
LB: I just saw Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat, it sheds light on the layered complexities of the female condition within our corrupt cultural paradigm. Basically, I can’t stop thinking about it because I feel so much for this young woman who is living in shame and becomes a scapegoat for her family’s discomfort. It made me feel unexpected empathy for how much we marginalize ourselves as women and how even loved ones can encourage this. Breillat brilliantly constructs an efficient, complex and unapologetic story.
On the future. What is next for you?
LB: I have several projects in development. The most immediate is a podcast called Stories of the Stalked. It’s based on a piece I wrote in Glamour Magazine four years ago. To this day I’m still contacted by people who have experienced similar kinds of violation, which I refer to as #invisibleviolence. Stalking is a really ripe topic because we currently live in a social media culture that has us offering our private parts for public authorship, so where are the boundaries? How do we measure violence when there’s no obvious blood? These questions are the foundation for a non-profit I’m launching soon: Stop Stalking Us.
There’s also a TV series in development with Ventureland called Underaged, which is an unapologetic, uncensored, immersive look inside NYC youth culture. I spent months with teenagers from LaGuardia High School to Tompkins Square Park. I’m exploring this idea of ‘performative journalism.’ I’ve given them cameras and I’m trying to find a way to incorporate social media into a narrative form.
Saschka Unseld, my VR collaborator (Through You, Sundance Premiere, produced by Shruti Ganguly — xxo— and Elliot Whitton) and I have a new project called TERRAIN, which we’re calling a “docu-dream”. It’s an oblique approach to documentary that uses ‘physical poetry’ to tell story instead of words. We want to push beyond the cumbersome, exclusive nature of the VR headset and are working with design architect Kumar Atre to design a public facing installation that lives in companion to the virtual experience. Where does the real and the virtual meet? Can it create something new?
What keeps you going?
LB: It’s really important to talk about breaking points because I think too often we idolize people only once they’ve become a beacon of achievement. I think that on the other side of confidence and strength is vulnerability. When I see other people’s pain, struggle or confusion, I feel called to action. So, there’s this internal drive in me that feels like I have work to do. Also, spending time with people I love helps! I have some wildly good friends and collaborators who believe in me when I stop believing in myself. My mother has been an amazing backbone.
What does the world need now?
LB: How about this fat word — Intimacy: an interconnectedness between people you love and people you don’t love. I also generally think people need to be woken the f*** up to their bodies in motion through space therefore their sense of self.
8 film scenes or filmmaker quotes that have stuck with you.
“I know why I make films - cinema is a mode of expression that allows you to express all the nuances of a thing while including its opposites. These are things that can't be quantified mentally; yet they can exist and be juxtaposed. That may seem very contradictory. Cinema allows you to film these contradictions.”
“Only conformists are ever adored.”
- Catherine Breillat
The fast cutting apex of scenes in Magnoliawhen time slows and all of these seemingly disconnected lives rhythmically share a moment in time
A study in choreography for camera when Maya Deren uses Talley Beaty’s movement to seamlessly cut-on-action between locations. It so clearly says: a body can transport us through time and place. It’s been really formative for me.
The dance sequence in Pina by Wim Wenders, when the dancer is boldly sweating in the foreground. He uses technology to highlight the human form without glorification.
In The Act of Killingwhen the lead character vomits as retells his personal experience. To me this scene illustrates how fiercely this film uses the process of creating a documentary to literally transform a person. In capturing story you can employing the tools of self reflection and inspire change. I aspire to this.
That scene in Princess Bride when the lovers tumble down the hill. It gave my early pubescent self romantic chills that I still crave. It’s film as a transportive fantasy
In Dancer in the Dark,when Bjork listens to the wall. These simple, idiosyncratic human actions that put us so authentically inside a characters experience. I’m always searching for these.
In Under The Skin when Scarlet Johansson walks into a house filled with black liquid that she dissolves into. I love the unabashed stylized approach to metaphor that happens so confidently without explanation. Reality and dream really aren’t that far apart.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Photography by Rachel Kessler
Edited by Shruti Ganguly