We open the 2019 series with writer and director Rachel Fleit, a woman who knows the meaning of self love.
Photo By Susan Hootstein
Can you tell us about your upbringing and background? What was your childhood like, and how was creativity and self-expression cultivated in your adolescence?
I was born in NYC and we moved to Long Island when I was 2, my dad got a job at Stony Brook University so we moved. Stony Brook is way out there-where the potato fields were, idyllic, but conservative and deeply homogenous. We are Jewish and I had just lost all of my hair from alopecia. We moved to WASPy North Shore Irish Catholic Long Island. We lived in a 1960s development where there were five different models of houses and all of the streets began with the letter S. Think: the opening shot of Edward Scissorhands. I was raised in a tight knit Jewish family. Being Jewish was really important and so it still is. Eating dinner together was really important. On Long Island I would either go to the beach or the mall or the movies. That was all there was to do and those remain some of my favorite activities, although shopping retail has been replaced with the endless hunt for great vintage. We went to the city all the time, my parents still got their haircut in the village and being bald with no need for a haircut, I would roam the streets of the west village and plot my eventual return. I loved NYC. I lived for it. We went to see theatre all of the time on Broadway and visited my Grandparents in Brooklyn and Queens. I liked art class and clothes and magazines. I was constantly rearranging furniture in my bedroom and adorning the walls with a collage of magazine clippings. I wanted there to be no blank space on the wall. One day I locked myself in my room and painted the walls with sunflowers and handprints and quotes from the Beatles. All you need is love. From the time I was very young I was telling stories, then writing stories. I had two imaginary friends named Pete and Joey when we still lived in the city. I have always had easy access to my imagination-In high school I really got into the theatre. I was constantly directing or producing a play. My parents would come home and the couch would be missing because my friends and I needed it for a scene.
Do you recall how or why you became a maker?
I was into making things and telling stories for as long as I can remember, drawing and painting and writing and making bracelets and tie dye and putting together looks and installations in my bedroom. In my late teens I fell in love with the theatre and I wanted to do that so badly but didn’t think I could support myself as an artist. I am a Capricorn so kind of logical to a fault–so I found a college program where I could learn how to be a producer. I went to Ithaca College. I produced theatre and performance and then films for a while, a decade in total... I was still making things but it wasn’t the same as me making the thing I wanted to make, it was always about facilitating someone else’s vision. I couldn’t figure out why producing would become so painful at a certain point. It was because it wasn’t really what I wanted. Fear was preventing me from doing what I really wanted. I wanted to make my own stuff. I wanted to write and direct.
My experience is that the thing you are supposed to do, will eventually just force itself upon you.
I realized I wanted to be a director when I was 27. It was a bit of an identity crisis but I started to write and then at 33, I was plopped behind the monitor and the rest is history. Now I am writing my own stories, and making my own films, it is glorious to say the least.
We read that you did not experience the stereotypical patriarchy growing up. What was that like for you?
I was not super conscious of it in my upbringing, I very much existed in a matriarchy in my immediate and extended family. The women ran the show. I have a vivid memory of being in my 20’s and asking my grandmother what she loved most about my grandfather, who had passed away for years by then, she told me that he let her be who she was, he gave her so much independence. Nana had a career, while Poppy had jobs. Poppy did the dishes every night. On the other side of the family my paternal grandfather would prepare breakfast for my grandmother, who liked to sleep until 10am. She would make these epic salads for lunch and he would make his signature dressing. They were a team. My father does the laundry and the food shopping and made dinner most nights growing up. All of the men in my immediate family did many domestic chores that at the time were reserved or expected of women, but they also gave their wives the utmost respect and admiration always and lastly they said “Ask your mother,” all the time. We should have made them a t-shirt.
What beliefs are of timeless value to you? Do you abide by any principles or traditions?
What’s mine will be mine. This is good to keep in mind when a relationship ends or I don’t get a job that I want. Also I have thought about getting “patience attains all it strives for.” on my wrist, it's a line from the St. Teresa prayer and I keep choosing not to because I can imagine my late Jewish grandparents rolling around in their graves, that I got a catholic prayer tattooed to my body. I am a late bloomer in every way but I really believe in that idea.
Photo by Rachel Fleit for Lingerie On Film
Is there anything you would like to share with other women who are bald or are experiencing any degree of hair loss?
The hard work is self acceptance. If you can put your energy towards accepting that this is you right now and there is nothing you can do to change that, it will be a lot easier.
What is a movie you wish you made and why?
Dirty Dancing because nothing can top the feeling you get from Dirty Dancing. I want to make movies that move people. There is such a specific clear illustration of that first experience of falling in love in that movie. I can watch it over and over again. Every time it rains in the summer I think of Baby and Johnny and the white jeans and the lift in the lake and the dance on the log and the leotard with the ballet skirt and the character shoes and the dance lesson with Penny and the Schumachers. It’s too good!
Who is your favorite director and why?
Right now it’s Mike Mills. I have been studying his films, Beginners, 20th Century Women. There is so much meaning and feeling in them. He has worked with the same teacher that I am working with so I am into watching his movies and seeing the work they did together in there…
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
I don’t know. I feel like my fantasy life is pretty abundant and I have some stories to tell and I think in images and I am obsessed with a narrative, a beginning a middle and an end, so this is my medium. I think I ultimately will write a book of essays, but for now, movies are the thing.
Is there a theme or question in your work that you keep coming back to?
Will you love me as I am? I think if I dig really deep that is the meaning behind all of the things I am writing lately.
Can you tell us about some of your muses through the years?
My maternal grandmother, Nana Claire died when I was 29. I didn’t think I could survive without her, honestly. And then one day she died and I survived. I have a pretty constant conversation with her. She is the inspiration for the character of Lenore in my narrative feature which I am in the process of making right now. In some ways she is in everything I have made since she died. My first film was sort of about a fantasy about bringing her back to life for one day.
Photo by Rachel Fleit for Lingerie On Film
Who or what has had the biggest influence on you creatively?
I think it’s been the experience of being a bald person in a world of hairy people. It gave me the gift of compassion. A heightened sensitivity. I am always interested in the other because of it. I would say, a second runner up was growing up on Long Island. It was the great juxtaposition of some of nature’s greatest beauty, the ocean-- and then the misery of big box stores and sameness and stagnant culture and political conservatism!!
What part of the filmmaking process excites you the most?
I love to write. I love to write a shitty first draft and then get in there and revise and revise and revise. I really do love to write. I have such massive levels of resistance but then when I get going I really just love it. I also love being on set. It is like we did all of the preparations and now we get to party.
How do you stay inspired?
I go to the beach. I have a house in Springs which is on the bay in East Hampton. There is a sort of secret walk to the ocean I like to take in Montauk. There is a tunnel of trees and at the end these huge bluffs. No one is ever there which is why I think it’s a secret, or people are just smarter than I am and are afraid of ticks. I am hairless so tick check is sort of super easy for me…
What motivates you to keep creating? Is there a part of the process that is nourishing for you?
I really like to share my work. You never know when you are making a film. The editing process is always relentless. You lose perspective. You never know if it’s good, I mean you sort of do know, but you also don’t know because of over-saturation. When people react positively it’s just such a joy.
Is there a particular time period in fashion or subculture that you feel a special kinship with stylistically?
Obviously it’s the 70s, for the clothes and the sex and the drugs and the cars.
Can you describe the outfit that you feel the best in? Can you tell us why it makes you feel so good?
I like a jumpsuit or a bikini. I wear jumpsuits a lot when I am working and I like to work! I wear bikinis all summer and it is my season and I have a deep affection, admiration, worship of the sun… so….
What is the best piece of advice you've been given?
Don’t chase a man, a job, a friend, a train. There will always be another...
What is something you've loved for a long time?
The ocean. Always and forever.
What is something you would love to learn?
I really want to learn how to surf. I have stood up on like eight waves so far. I live near Montauk but I have too many friends who are really good surfers so I wouldn’t want to be that kook that gets in the way. I’m investing in some tropical vacations, where I can make lots of beginner mistakes very far away from here. It feels like I have a solid five years before I can show up in Ditch Plains.
Are there any principles that help guide your day, actions, or lifestyle?
I try to stay in today. I try to let go of the idea that I can control the outcome of anything. I try to be kind and ask people how their day is going and also say thank you to everyone whenever possible. I try to get out of my own way, to not act selfishly or cause harm. Sometimes I fuck up, and I try to apologize quickly. Mostly I try to accept myself as I am.
Photo by Rachel Fleit for Lingerie On Film
What is the best gift you have ever given someone?
Gifts are not my love language! Sometimes I find something that is perfect for a person so I buy it, I am more into affirmations, quality time and acts of service if you have any idea about the five languages of love. I have to say I often show up empty handed to birthday parties! My friend just turned 13 and he is a big fan of my other friend who is on a tv show and this year I had my friend on the tv show say happy birthday to my other young friend on a video and it went over pretty well.
What is the favorite gift you have received?
It’s a tie between this denim jumpsuit and a vintage Dries Van Noten dress from my friend Sonia Boyajian.
Can you share a favorite quotation, lyric, or line from a book or song that has stuck with you?
Self preservation is a full time occupation and I am determined to survive on this shore and you know I don’t avert my eyes anymore …. (Ani DiFranco)
What are you currently….
Coveting? More silk pajamas from Araks
Watching? Big Little Lies
Listening? Franco Battiato
Reading? Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Dreaming? A summer vacation in Sicily, where we drive around blasting Franco Battiato and eat granita for breakfast and swim all day in the sea.
Thank You, Rachel!
Follow Rachel ~ @rachelfleit
Watch Rachel's Short Films: Gefilte and Barbara and Stanely: A Modern Romance