Adapting Your Experience: A Conversation with Zia Anger

February 20, 2020   •   By Holly Connolly

CREATED BETWEEN 2010 and 2012, Always All Ways, Anne Marie or Gray, as it was initially called, was Zia Anger’s first film. Made on a micro-budget and shot in her hometown of Ithaca, New York, it was rejected from the nearly 50 festivals to which Anger submitted it. So where does a film go if no one gets to see it? With My First Film, Anger has created an event merging film and live performance — she calls it an “an interactive live cinema performance” — that provides an answer to this.

Seated in the audience, her laptop screen projected onto the theater screen, Anger pulls up an anarchic collection of media that includes clips of the film, old Instagram stories, and rejection emails which track the arc, from conception to “failure,” of Always All Ways, Anne Marie. Throughout, she uses a text window at the side to type a running commentary that’s contemplative, unsparing, and sharply funny.

As much as it’s an intimate excavation of failure, My First Film is a critique of the film industry that is especially relevant to young female filmmakers. Speaking to Hyperallergic, Indie Memphis Film Festival’s artistic director Miriam Bale said:  

I have attended dozens, or maybe hundreds, of talks about the lack of women feature film directors — an issue I care deeply about. But after a while, they all sound the same. Zia Anger has figured out a new way to discuss these issues, in an incredibly moving, personal, and creative way. 

The week after the closing performance of her tour, which took place at Los Angeles’s Downtown Independent in late November, I spoke with Anger over the phone. I am in London, and it feels fitting that Anger is staying with family for Thanksgiving in Ithaca, where she shot Always All Ways, Anne Marie. Anger is self-deprecating and untypically frank, not just about her work and process, but about the material reality of existing as an artist today. We spoke about rejection, defining success and failure, what it means to adapt your own work and life, and the value of sharing what you’ve learned.


HOLLY CONNOLLY: How do you feel the tour went overall?

ZIA ANGER: With film in general, the emphasis is put on the premiere of something. Over the course of a film’s life — from its premiere to it fizzling out or the eventual awards it will receive, whether it gets distribution or not — the emphasis is always on the beginning. The tour gave me this very different perspective on where things begin and end and what the most important parts of them are. Unlike a traditional film, where the high point is the premiere … what I realized in doing this [tour] is that [the performance] gains power and perspective with every show that I do. So, in a sense, it kind of goes against the traditions and rules of filmmaking, which I already knew, but I now know how it works.

I thought about all the programmers that didn’t program it, all the festivals that turned the performance down. I’ve obviously had a lot of experience with being turned down from festivals, but this kind of had a satisfying level to it, where I realized they really could not see what the project was or appreciate the mystery of what it was, and, for that, I was actually really grateful.

The format of the performance feels so new and so novel, I’ve read enough reviews now that said, “This is a pioneering thing!” But in a way, it’s also really not, in that it’s not that different from, say, a play — that it could go a slightly different way every night, and it has a specific audience.

One of the first things somebody ever said about it was that it was like autofiction. I didn’t know what that meant, so I had to go look it up and then I was like, “Oh, okay, yeah I get it.” The repetition has become really important for the development of the performance. I’ve always tried to write, and I’ve never considered myself or been considered a writer, and because of that, I’ve never valued or really learned what my process as a writer was. Doing this has been really interesting because all of a sudden, I realize, that 50 drafts in, things start to get really good. It was only by virtue of doing the performance so many times, and realizing that each time I’m doing it, I’m writing a new draft of this new thing. The first 20 times, I wasn’t that interested: I thought it was good, but I was really embarrassed by it, and then, by the 30th time I started to be like, “Oh, this could be really good.” I would never have known that about my process — that I need to do that many drafts of something to start to see how beautiful it can be.

How did you get over that initial embarrassment?

I’m probably a bit masochistic in that way. I’ve always thought there was a value in physical performance, and I was never taught, but, in college, I would always try out for plays, or if my friends would cast me in something I would always be in it. I always thought that there was a value in doing these things that made me really uncomfortable, and that started off with physical performance and being in other peoples’ work. I thought, “This will make me a better director and writer, I’m going to experience the world more if I do something that's really uncomfortable.”

Putting myself in the position of literally writing in front of people and performing in a different way that’s not physical, I think I was [already] familiar with being embarrassed, and at a certain point I realized that there was something there, and that I had to develop it more. So that’s what I did, I thought, “You’ve got to get over this initial embarrassment, and you just have to develop the piece into something that you know is really, really good,” and that’s what I did.

The performance is also about rejection or failure in some way, and there’s therefore an inherent value in the risk of that being the case every single night.

For years, there was so much rejection, and there was no potential of me actually succeeding as a filmmaker. I thought it was futile, and yet I still tried to do it. But I was so angry about this fact, because I could see the reasons that it was futile. I could see everything at play — it was very meta, it was very self-reflective.

And all I could think to do was make work about how impossible it is for me to make something, and that proved to be really uninteresting. I mean, everything that I started to write, I would not finish, because I thought, “This is actually not that interesting.” About two years ago, I thought, “I’m going to give myself one more year to try to do a film, and then if this doesn’t work out I’m going to quit. I’ll go get my degree as a nurse, or a therapist, or my license as an electrician.” So I gave myself this year, but I decided to only focus on my own work, my own thing that I could get excited about. And the moment I stopped trying was when this entire piece kind of revealed itself to me. Only when I stopped trying to make something that was about failing, or about something not working out, or that was self-aware or self-critical, did I actually succeed in doing just that. But it wasn’t until a friend of mine said, “You know this piece is really about failure,” that I realized I’d actually succeeded in doing that. When I was in grad school, all anybody did was talk about failure, and I thought it was so stupid. None of us have failed yet! We don’t know what failure is.

I have this conversation a lot, which is when do you know you’re not going to be “successful”? What’s the point that you get to where you realize that you’re not going to get a certain recognition?

My whole young life I was told, “You can do whatever you want to do.” Coming of age in the ’90s, all of a sudden there’s this idea that if you’re a young girl or a young woman, it’s like, “You could be the president!” It was some byproduct of feminism at that time. I was lucky enough to go to a college that my mom taught at, so it was free. So I don’t have any debt, and everybody around me has debt, and I still am being told, “You can do whatever you want!” I was very acknowledged in undergrad, where I got an award for drama, and I got an award for filmmaking, and I was on a ton of Adderall, so I felt like God!

Then I got out of undergrad, and I was not prepared at all! I knew nothing about the real world, I had never done anything, and that was probably the first time that I felt this could crash. I went to grad school and made my film, and after making it and seeing it as a failure, I still kept going, I basically just restarted again. I resurrected my spirit and my ideas many times. I used to look at these people that were acknowledged, had everything in front of them, and then they’d disappear. I always wondered what happened to these people that just disappear. Then, all of a sudden, I realized I was that person. I had resurrected myself many times, each time I was kind of acknowledged and recognized, and told, “You can do whatever you want to do,” and then it wouldn’t really work out. At a certain point, there was this paradigm shift where I saw everything differently and I realized, “Actually, I can’t do anything that I want to do.”

You’ve cited Maggie Nelson as an influence, and I want to talk about how her work relates to your own.

The Argonauts is the first book that I read that I cellularly connected with. I think that a lot of people experience that, where they go through the world, and they’re trying to be a writer, or an artist, a filmmaker, and they’re working in a system that wasn’t made for them, and they actually don’t see anything that feels like they know life to be, and so they’re constantly trying to make something that — or maybe they’re not, maybe they’re just capitalists. But for me, I was always trying to make something that felt like home, and I went to great lengths to do that. I could always see the system, but I couldn’t really locate myself in it. The performance has led me to this; it’s almost like I have to tell everybody, “You have to do this too! Like it’s therapy — you have to do this too, it’ll be so good for you.”

I feel that it’s getting harder and harder, and this kind of goes back to the autofiction thing, it’s getting harder not to make work that’s autobiographical in some way. I think we’re so introspective, because of social media and a lot of different things, that it’s harder to conceive of work that doesn’t directly relate to ourselves.

I’m adapting my own experience, so, unlike a science fiction idea or an independent drama set in a city that I’ve never been to with characters that I’ve never met, I’m adapting something that already exists. I started to look at it that way, and it became a lot less difficult than anything else that I’ve tried to make or pull out of thin air. What I’ve always liked that about Maggie Nelson’s work is that I feel that in a sense she’s always adapting her own work and her own life. And the cool thing about an adaptation is you change things. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s not called an autobiography.

Was it difficult to go back and interrogate your own work?

Similar to the idea of adaptation, as a person and an artist, I’m relatively pragmatic, and I’m obsessed with efficiency. For me, it became this really interesting thing, where the saddest, or the most haunting, thing about making a film that nobody sees is the wasted energy. There was so much energy that was lost, and it wasn’t just my own energy that I put forward — it was my friends’, it was my family’s, it was all the people that watched the cuts, gave me notes. Of course, it’s really hard for a filmmaker to go back and watch their own work, or read a script, or anything like that, but I realized that if I didn’t go and look at this stuff then it would have been a lot of wasted energy. So for me it became just very necessary and easy to look back at my own work, because it was just sitting there, and it was the most efficient way.

I read that as brave, because I think that if you produce any work in a creative capacity, there’s a natural impulse to feel like in one, two, three years, that you’ve somehow outgrown it, gone beyond it. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but it’s a knee-jerk thing. There’s also a lot of generosity in being willing to engage with it and also to share that knowledge.

Certain directors or writers for the most part will not share what they’ve learned, because what they’ve learned is almost proprietary to their brand, and you could never, ever give that information away to anybody else, because that’s basically like telling somebody how you became a better artist. Maybe the thing that I believe in most is that there’s a certain transparency we owe to ourselves and to each other as people who make things.

I’ve definitely learned from the experience of people not being transparent with me. I’ve felt a lot of pain and anguish from things I’ve had to learn on my own, and I realized when I was learning those lessons that somebody could have told me and I wouldn’t have had to go through this, so there’s a part of me that just doesn’t want anyone else to go through that. I really value the health of others, and I don’t want anybody to be in pain. I think the other side of that is that working with young people and seeing what other people are doing really inspires me, because, for the most part, independent movies, cinema, anything you see, any moving image, is so fucking boring. I mean, that is horrible to say but there is just so much boring stuff that is not intersectional or inclusive of the extreme range of human experiences. I realized very early on the power of moving images and how little I actually thought was interesting, and so, for me, anybody coming along that wants to make moving images, I’m excited by, and I’m excited to share with them what I know, because the reality is that the potential is so great and if we don’t acknowledge that potential and foster it, then we will just be bored out of our minds.

Your parents are artists, what effect do you think that had on you?

I have two moms, one of them is a mime and performance artist, and one of them is a self-taught folk artist, and then my dad is an actor. I think that what’s really interesting is that all of them always also had day jobs, so some accumulation of that, when it comes to the pragmatism of the way I am as an artist, you know I just always thought I’d be an artist that had a day job, which for the most part I still am. I think that there’s also that I have been relatively scared to just be an artist, I’ve tried to make the jump from day jobs a few times, and it’s never worked out for me.

It’s never worked out in the sense of money?

Yeah, in the sense that it’s not sustainable financially. But also, I think that most people my age [early 30s] that are trying to make it, and that have a relative amount of success, in the past maybe you could have gone and made the jump to doing, to practicing your art, and that doesn’t exist anymore.

It’s very hard to separate yourself from your capitalist self or from the side of you that’s commodified, and so I think that watching my parents make art and work, and seeing those as two very separate things, was very important to me. Now as somebody who is trying to do the same thing, it’s a very slippery slope, but, for the most part, even if I hadn’t been able to separate myself from my working self, or from my capitalist self, I’m aware that those two things exist.

What else are you working on?

I’ve had this one movie that I’ve been trying to get made for years, which will be considered my first film, my actual first film. But now we’re kind of moving into the next phase of the performance of My First Film, and trying to figure out what that looks like, because it’s very difficult to go on tour with it: I mean, it’s physically tolling. But I have finally made something that I think is very good. I don’t say this without knowing that this sounds like I’m bragging, but the response has been so positive, like I’ve made something that’s good and not enough people have seen it yet. So there’s going to be another phase of figuring out what My First Film is, and I don’t know if that’s a performance yet or what. Now that I’m done with the tour, I’m giving myself two months to figure it out.

It’s so funny you think that sounds like bragging, because to me it doesn’t, especially when you’re talking about a project of which the premise is this very vulnerable excavation of what could be perceived as a failure.

I’m just so used to saying that I’ve been working on something, and it’s never going to see the light of day. The fact that I’ve made something that has seen the light of day and has had a positive response, and the fact that it’s a performance, and that not everybody has seen it, makes me want to continue to pursue this thing. I don’t want to jam it down anyone’s throat, but it’s not done yet. In the spirit of resurrection or rebirth I can’t just stop right now, although I don’t know exactly what the next steps are. But — I’ve been — I’ve been in this place before so I know that it will come.

I see your trajectory as valuable in terms of what you’ve learned from things falling through or not going the way they could have gone. Do you think it would have been as valuable if you’d made the first film and it had got picked up by lots of festivals and been this runaway success?

I think the original film would have put me on an entirely different trajectory and probably one that I would have been pretty unhappy with. That doesn’t make me feel better about having been so unhappy and so depressed about my career, my life, for the past number of years. But it certainly has led me to value things taking a longer time.


Holly Connolly is a London-based writer.