Tribeca 2018: James Gardner & Liv Hill Talk Jellyfish

Liv Hill as Sarah Taylor in Jellyfish.
Liv Hill as Sarah Taylor in JELLYFISH. Photo credit: Dan Atherton.

If there’s a film that blew me away during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, it’s Jellyfish from director James Gardner. Prior to the world premiere a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Gardner and actress Liv Hill to discuss the film. Remember Liv Hill’s name because she delivers a breakthrough performance in Jellyfish.

Thanks for joining us.
James Gardner: Thanks for being here.

How much of a thrill is it to premiere the film at Tribeca?
Liv Hill: First feature film, first ever festival, first time in New York. So very surreal. So very exciting. I can’t believe it. It’s a very good film in my opinion.

James Gardner: Even if you do say so.

Liv Hill: I did expect to do well but not this well.

James Gardner: Absolutely. It’s a real honor to have been invited to premiere the film at Tribeca. They’ve shown a lot of enthusiasm for the film, which has been humbling and more than we could have expected to make. We made the film by hook or by crook. It’s always been a very small film. To have it premiere at a big festival is pretty surreal but very cool.

You also wrote the script, right?
James Gardner: I co-wrote the script with Simon Lord, a writer who I’ve known for like ten years and worked with on three shorts.

How did you come up with the idea and what was the writing process like?
James Gardner: That’s a good question. The writing process—it was how I usually work with my writing partner. I had an idea that I developed that I kind of wrote it out and did a splash draft. I showed it to him and asked what do you think about this? He said that he really liked it but there was work to do as there always is off a splash draft. Then we sat about doing the research and fleshing it out. Then we kept building and we ended up with the shooting script. That’s the process really. It was very collaborative.

Where the idea came from, I was finishing my masters at the National Film School in the UK. When I was cutting my graduation film, I just started writing ideas in my notebook about thoughts of what I wanted to do next. I had this idea for this teenager, a character who lived in a small British town and wanted to get out by way of a talent and how the town conspired to keep that person there. That kind of gave me the set of the circumstances. It was the family dynamics and that provided the set of circumstances in which the character was going to exist.

I watched a short film at the Turner Contemporary Gallery, which is in Margate, by a British artist named Tracey Emin. When I watched the film, it kind of unlocked who the character was and what it was they were going to discover about themselves. That inspired Sarah and what was later to become her version of find a talent and telling her truth essentially.

Liv, what was it that drew you to the script?
Liv Hill: The whole plot. The whole story. The arc of the character is amazing. I haven’t been doing this long so I don’t know if the opportunity comes by a lot but this was like an opportunity that I had to fight for. I just had this intrinsic gut feeling about the script. I read it in one reading. I loved the complex character. I didn’t know anything about James or any of the production. I was only given the script and didn’t care who you (James) were. I just wanted—

James Gardner: She didn’t have to fight very hard (Laughs). As soon as I saw the tape that Liv did, that was it. A couple of auditions were like not formality. We had to make sure you got on—the self-tape was one thing. It’s a very complex character because she’s very dark but at the same time, there’s a lightness in her, too. There’s like a pathos.

Liv Hill: She’s vulnerable.

James Gardner: She’s very vulnerable but she’s very feisty. To find someone with the untapped talent to carry that off was always going to be a total (inaudible) but obviously we found it in Liv.

Your character turns to stand-up comedy, correct?
Liv Hill: Yes.

Do you have a history of performing stand-up?
Liv Hill: Nope. I have so much respect for stand-up comedians because it’s one thing getting up and being someone else—I love it. I relish it. Being yourself and speaking to a load of people is so exposing, I’d hate it. No past experience and would never do it. I loved playing Sarah doing it. It was a thrill doing it on the stage in front of these randomers off the street. Did they know it was real?

James Gardner: We did one take where the audience in the theater didn’t know what was happening.

Liv Hill: We got one heckler.

James Gardner: I think the difference is that when the performance is split into two in my opinion. There’s the bit where she’s trying to make the audience laugh and then there’s something happens, which I won’t spoil, and then it changes. It becomes about her owning who she is. It’s not about making people laugh anymore but it’s about her telling her own truth, which also happens to be darkly funny. I think that’s kind of what Liv does so well. She owns the truth in that character and can make people laugh but also presents the character in such a way where you see the vulnerability and also the talent as well.

How did you prepare for the role?
Liv Hill: I think after I found out I got the role –I’m still in school so I had to miss five weeks of school– I just immersed myself in it. We had maybe two afternoons where we went through the intentions of the character of who she is and going through the real important plots of it. We sort of just had to get on and do it and work with the other actors and just see what they bring to it. I did research on Young Carers so I could make sure I wasn’t going in blind. It’s obviously a real thing so you’ve got to give it some sensitivity and justice, I suppose.

On the stand-up front, do you have any favorite comedians that you looked to in getting for getting on stage?
Liv Hill: Ricky Gervais. I love him. I think he’s brilliant. I saw Humanity. It’s really good but not back then. We saw Frankie Boyle and stuff like that.

James Gardner: Frankie Boyle is a huge influence on the screenplay. I don’t know how familiar you are with him but he’s a British comedian. He tells quite extreme truths in the same way that I wanted Sarah to so he became a natural candidate to inspire the comedy.

We watched quite a few. We went to a few stand-up nights ourselves to get a flavor of what it’s like. If we had more time, we would have done more but I don’t think it matters anyway because Liv nailed it.

This is your first time in New York?
Liv Hill: First time in America.

Have you have a chance to go sightseeing?
Liv Hill: Yes, I went to Ellis Island yesterday and did the Empire State Building. I’m hoping to see the 9/11 Memorial, Central Park, Natural History Museum.

James Gardner: Eat, drink, be merry.

Liv Hill: It’s really like —we were saying earlier— I’ve grown up with just American TV my whole life so even seeing the Empire State Building where they filmed Elf with Will Ferrell was such a moment with me. It’s been really good. Do you live here?

I live in Chicago so I’m just here for the festival
Liv Hill: Oh, nice.

What are you looking forward to doing next with your career?
Liv Hill: I don’t know. Pursue as much as possible. I’ve got a really great agent who I’m working with and I really trust her. She sends me roles that she thinks—I’m in a really fortunate position where I’m still living with my parents. It’s not like I have to pay the bills. I’m not like a working actor. I’m still in school. I suppose one day it might come to pick and choose and do my best.

Thank you for your time.
James Gardner: Thank you.

Liv Hill: Thank you.

Jellyfish held its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in the Viewpoints program. Jellyfish is currently seeking distribution.

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