Lily Baldwin is a director, performer and maker of stuff that wakes people up. She employs bodies in motion, rhythmic editing and sound to craft kinesthetic experiences, and her practice is rigorously anti-disciplinary. Lily sees story as a visceral trajectory of impressionistic moments and is intrigued by imagination and subtext that which is felt but can’t be said. She investigates worlds that are shadowy and cutting, searching for signals of luminosity and commonality, often using the body and movement as her medium.
Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave.
Lily Baldwin: Having started as a performer and then turning to filmmaking later, to me being most brave is somehow synonymous with being most scared. Bravery for me 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 metal like this was when I was dancing on tour with David Byrne for his Everything That Happens Will Happen Today world tour with Brian Eno. Night after night, I had to step onto stages in front of thousands of people. The feeling of bodies in motion, myself in motion, and the exchange between the audience and the performer created this kind of proscenium electricity. For the first time, I felt incredibly powerful and realized that In many ways I hadn’t taken myself seriously as an artist until then. Living and performing with so many amazing artists that were diligent with their idiosyncratic curiosities inspired me to trust myself —and be brave in new ways.
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 increased 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. This has 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 is a creative act. It can shut you down, but it can also challenge you to re-evaluate your worth in a very profound way. It continues to be a learning journey full of fear, patience and compassion.
Now, continuing to reflect. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
LB: For me, it wasn’t a film, it was an experience. I was dancing on tour and I realized the power that bodies have to communicate. I started making visceral films, which is a way to use the universal language that everybody speaks - Body. This is my medium, my call to action. In terms of films I am inspired by, I’d mention Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoonor Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, or Magnoliaby Paul Thomas Anderson, which I studied from the script to the screen. I would watch it then write down the story beats and act development in order to teach myself how to screen-write. I do really love that approach to an ensemble cast.
How would you say being a dancer has impacted your film work?
LB: I’ve always focused on 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.” I really respond to that. That rigor and focus, that discipline really informs my filmmaking, which is about building things, breaking them down, finding your voice through trial and error. So, if I can capture a more authentic performance onset, then I feel we can grab authenticity with the camera that will resonate down the line when the film is finished. It’s a way of working with the performers and also my approach to the craft of editing - I have multiple versions of my films. I shoot something and then try to rediscover what it is through editing experimentation. Because I want to harness something honest within the camera’s frame I can’t always force what is in my head to manifest onset and I need to ride some level of improvisation onset and in the edit.
What was a recent film, video or series that you had a visceral response to?
LB: I just saw Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat, and it shed 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 bad 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 that are in development. The most immediate is a podcast, which I’m really excited about. It’s 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 invasion, which I refer to as #invisibleviolence. Stalking is a really ripe topic because we currently live in a culture that begs us to put our private parts out for public authorship right, So where are the boundaries? How do we measure violence when there’s no obvious blood? These questions are the foundations for a non-profit that Iâ€™m launching soon: Stop Stalking Us. There’s also a TV series in development called Underaged, which is an unapologetic, uncensored, immersive look inside NYC youth culture. I spent months with teenagers from all of NYC, from LaGuardia High School to Thompkins Square Park. I’ve given them cameras to tell their stories. 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) have a new project called Terrain, which we’re calling a social dance poem. 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.
What keeps you going?
LB: It’s really important to talk about breaking points because I think too often we idolize people only when 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 or struggles or confusion, I want to help. So, there’s this internal drive in me that wants to tell stories that need to be told. Also, spending time with people I love. I have some fierce friends and collaborators who believe in me when I don’t believe in myself. Lastly my mother has been an amazing backbone.
What does the world need now?
LB: I would say one big word would be intimacy: to encourage 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 as vehicles in motion and space and to 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