Q&A With the Director and Producer of “Not Waving but Drowning,” Screening at AFI Silver This Sunday

First-time feature filmmakers Devyn Waitt and Nicole Emanuele (a Rockville native) on showing the movie to foreign audiences and how they managed to get a horse on a train.

By: Tanya Pai

The local film scene is abuzz this week with the kickoff of the ninth annual DC Shorts film festival. But this Sunday also marks the local premiere of the indie flick Not Waving but Drowning, screening at the AFI Silver Theatre. The music-driven movie tells the story of two teenage girls in a small town in Florida, best friends who begin to head down different paths when one departs for New York City and the other stays behind. It’s preceded by The Most Girl Part of You, a dark yet touching short film based on the story of the same name by Amy Hempel. This is the first feature from director Devyn Waitt, 26, who is from Oldsmar, Florida, and is produced by Nicole Emanuele, also 26, a Rockville native. The two met and became friends while attending film school at Florida State University (where, full disclosure, this writer knew both of them), and will attend Sunday’s screening. We chatted with Waitt and Emanuele about the challenges of a first movie, screening to French audiences at the Champs-Élysées Film Festival, and using Kickstarter to get a horse on a train.

Tell me how the movie and your partnership first came about.

DW: The idea started my freshman year of college, when I was 19—kind of from that overwhelming feeling of being trapped and being anxious. I started writing the script after I moved to New York [after graduation]. I went through this long period of restlessness, and a lot of the characters came out of that. It was a year of writing and working on it, and it was definitely a lot of getting to know the characters. It’s kind of a collage; there were lots of little things I knew I wanted to include, so it’s more like a novel in that you spend some time with these people and in the end maybe you learn something, rather than setting things up in the first act. At times it felt urgent that I be working on it, and at times it became distant. Like the characters—they kind of wax and wane.

NE: We started working on this in 2008 or 2009, and I quit my job in April 2010 to work on it full-time. Devyn and I were both delusional and thought it would take us one year to make the movie—it’s been two years, so only twice as bad as we thought.

When did you decide to include the short, The Most Girl Part of You, at the beginning?

DW: That was something that came about while we were in beginnings of preproduction. I wasn’t super-happy with how Not Waving but Drowning began, and I’ve been a huge fan of Amy Hempel since I was in college. I was thinking about how Girl would make such a great short film, and as I was walking home listening to music and imagining it, I got excited about making it. I feel like not a lot of people see short films . . . I liked the idea of putting a short with a feature so people could see both, like it being a throwback to when you used to see a short film before a movie.

What’s the common thread between the two?

DW: I felt like adding this other story brought the whole thing to completion and made it feel more cyclical. I hate the term “coming of age,” but Girl is one transition, going from a kid to a girl, and Drowning is a second transition that I think happens at different ages for different people. [Girl] is about a child becoming a girl and having her first sexual experience. I think that transition is very obvious; we’re used to seeing that in film, and by setting that up it makes it more open to the fact that Drowning is another transition. So though these are different stories with different characters, it could have been one person. I think there are a lot of similarities between the relationships themselves, in the sense that they’re these symbiotic relationships. [In Girl], Amy relies on Big Guy to be the mouthpiece in their relationship, and then they lose each other, so there’s the idea of having to grow that other half that you relied on in the friendship. The more I analyzed it, the more I could find a lot of things that were really similar between the two.

Since you had this idea when you were a few years younger, Devyn, how has your relationship to the story or the characters changed?

DW: That’s the hardest part actually, because the girls are supposed to be around 19 or 20, and so much in the movie felt really important and pressing [when I was that age]. By the time I was done with the script, that had changed. A movie is a long process, and I felt I was not in the same place as I was when I wrote it. I feel so different from girls in the movie. But there’s something kind of sweet about it now, this slight immaturity that the girls have and I think I had after writing the script. The fact I was so close to the age of the characters—it aggravates me, but I think it’s fitting because it’s close to how the girls are.

This is the first feature for both of you. What was the hardest part of the project?

DW: I think the hardest thing has been moving on from the movie because I was so wrapped up in it and it’s been such a big part of my life for so long. Everything else became second to it in a way that was pretty unhealthy and maybe not the way I would go back and do it again, but was the only way I knew how to do it.

NE: We had really bad car luck shooting in New York. Our vehicle that was supposed to be a main part of the story and was being used as a production car was totaled—although the driver was totally okay. The next day the car we borrowed from my friend to replace that car was in a hit-and-run, and day after that, a van we were using that had props in it was broken into. All this happened within three days. I was literally throwing things at the wall. But when it rains, it pours.

There’s also the scene in Drowning that features a white horse in a train car. I’m sure that wasn’t easy to coordinate.

NE: We had planned that scene from the beginning, so I’d been speaking to the location for three months out. Then a week before they told me their legal department said a horse was a no-go. I told them about the horse three months before, and they strung me along, so then I had to find a new location—a new subway car to put a horse on—within a week. It took some creative sacrifice and some production sacrifice. You always have to stay on your toes.

That scene was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. How did that work?

NE: We thought, “If I were someone who was donating, what would get me excited?” What made our movie a little bit different? We focused on a scene where we were doing something exceptional that people hadn’t seen before—it’s the only movie I know of that has a horse on a train. The name of our production company is White Horse Pictures, and when we were flying for houses to film in, someone noticed our letterhead and called me and turned me on to Fairwinds [Stables and Tailwinds Farms, in Maryland]. They train horses and have a lot of stunt horses, so they drove up to New York from Maryland with their horse.

The music is an important element of the film. How did you choose the songs?

DW: The majority of the music is original [composed by another FSU alum, John Ross], and the stuff that’s not you’d probably recognize, like the Cranberries and Fleetwood Mac, and is playing as part of a scene, on a car radio or in a store. I wanted people to be able to sit back inside the feeling of the movie and just be in it without having to pay attention to story. We never wanted the music to feel like a score so it needed to be engaging enough on its own. We gave the music a lot of weight in the creative process. John had so many ideas, and it was also important to me that it be somewhat consistent; I wanted it to be a storytelling voice as well. John’s voice is in the movie—he sings over some of the songs, so you have that person that comes up and keeps singing like in The Graduate. It took us as long to make the music as it did to edit the movie.

The films were recently part of the first-ever Champs-Élysées Film Festival in Paris. Tell me about that.

NE: We were a part of the inaugural festival, founded by Sophie Dulac, who is like a media mogul in Paris. She founded this festival, and it was amazing to be a part of it. The festival approached us—we were part of a work in progress program in Poland, where Devyn and I were invited to go to screen for international sales agents when our film was in rough cut. We won first prize there. Then the film screened three times in Paris.

DW: The screenings were really wonderful. People were really excited about Nicole and me being there, I think. I really wanted to speak French to the audience, so I wrote this whole big speech and tried to get the concierge at my hotel to help me practice, and then I wrote it on my hand. So I got up and started trying to speak in French and completely forgot the whole thing and had to read it off my hand. But everyone was really nice about it. It was interesting because the French audience laughed at completely different times. I don’t speak French, so I don’t know if that had to do with the translation, but it was great to get a different take on the film. The movie is set in Florida and New York, so I feel like it’s a really American story, but it’s interesting having the perspective of people who grew up in a different way.

What are your hopes or expectations for the premiere at the AFI this weekend?

NE: I can’t tell you how much this screening means to me. I’ve definitely wanted to screen near home, and the AFI has been there since I was growing up there. It really is the one of the only places that celebrates film in the area I grew up in, so it has a special place in my heart. I’m just so happy to screen there. To have my grandparents be able to come, and my friends from growing up, is amazing.

I also hope we’re able to reach out to some girls that are in the key range for the movie, 16 to 23. I hope the movie speaks to them. I remember movies that spoke to me when I was that age, that had great music that I still listen to the soundtracks of, and I would love for this movie to take that place for those girls, for them to identify with it and feel like there’s something out there that was made for them.

DW: For me it’s just exciting to play for any new audience. I just hope people like the movie!

What’s next for Not Waving but Drowning?

NE: We’re working on distribution, domestically and internationally, seeing where the movie’s home is going to be—whether it will be available in theaters or on TV or for rental or in Redbox or on iTunes. We also have an international sales agent now, so we’re trying to sell the movie in Venice this week and Toronto next week.

DW: Personally, I feel like I’ve made a lot of peace with the movie, and now I look at it fondly and am excited to show it to people. So whether we find distribution—theatrically would be my dream—or if we put it up on the Net for free, I don’t care. I’m just happy it exists.

Not Waving but Drowning screens at the AFI Silver Theatre this Sunday, September 9, at 6:45 PM. Tickets ($11.50) are available through the AFI’s website. Visit the film’s Facebook page for more information.