Filmmaker Pippa Bianco Talks Teens, Tragedy and 'Share'

Her darkly provocative drama could change the way you think about Gen Z and social media

Three minutes before getting on the phone with writer-director Pippa Bianco, I receive one of those ominous push notifications from The New York Times. It reads: “Sexual Assault Charge Against Kevin Spacey Is Dropped.” And then the phone buzzes. It’s Bianco. Upon hearing this headline she has two words: “Oh, wow.”

However inauspicious that icebreaker may seem, it’s fitting given the subject of her directorial debut, Share. At the core of her powerful film, which premieres July 27 on HBO, is a complex conversation around consent and privacy in the 21st century.

It opens on Mandy (Rhianne Barreto), a 16-year-old high schooler who unearths a disturbing video from a party she doesn’t remember. In it, we see her blackout drunk, stumbling incoherently, as her ostensible friends remain on the sidelines laughing and filming. But it’s what we don’t see that forms the film's core. As the ambiguity lingers, Mandy searches for clarity. In the aftermath, she’s forced to navigate the fallout with her friends and family. She must bear the burden of a situation she neither created nor sought ought.

There’s a hope for reconciliation, closure, and yet Bianco’s writing circumvents easy answers. Share compels the kind of conversation we’re not having—perhaps a conversation we’re afraid to have because it may expose a moral messiness that can’t be encapsulated in 280 characters.
Growing up in New Jersey, Bianco first explored these themes in a short film of the same name back in 2015. In the mostly silent 11-minute film, a high schooler repeatedly receives text messages asking whether she’s the girl in a video being passed around. Skillfully and subtly made, the short has the lingering effect of a recurring nightmare. On the heels of premiering at SXSW, and then Cannes, Bianco was certain this story could be expanded. “I knew I wanted to make a feature before I made the short,” she says. “But through the process of making each film, it evolved into something else. And in many ways I am no longer the person I was when I first started writing, so it has changed organically with time.”

Here, I try to get a sense of who that person is, right now, as her debut film is being released after years of anticipation. We discuss the parallels between Mandy’s loss of innocence and Bianco’s own familial tragedies, how her personal grief manifested itself in Share and why filmmaking is inherently voyeuristic. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
In the process of writing this film you spoke to high-school students, principals, psychologists, civil attorneys. What did you learn about this generation of teenagers?
I don't know what your high school experience was like, but these kinds of things [in Share] were happening when I was in high school, prior to a Facebook or Instagram. The medium might change, but I think a human being is maybe a little bit more continuous over time and over generations than it seems. I guess when I heard those voices and thought about those kids, I actually didn't make a huge distinction between teenagers and adults.

The notes on the script I would often get that I didn't like were, “They don't say ‘like’ enough,” or “They don't talk like teenagers talk.” And I said, “I don't know about you, but all the teenagers I know, like my siblings—we’re all talking about Long Island, normal random teenagers—they speak in full sentences. They have nuanced, complicated thoughts and allow for silences and space.” In a lot of ways, I feel like teenagers are people and movies don't dignify or honor that. I think. This is England, Ratcatcher, Girlhood—those teenagers feel like human beings. They don't feel infantilized the way I think they do in in 13 Reasons Why. When I saw the bad boy in 13 Reasons Why, driving a red Corvette, it's like a JC Penney version of Happy Days. It’s both a weirdly nostalgic and infantilizing projection of teenagers by adults.

Throughout your research, did you get a glimpse into how social media is affecting their sense of self in 2019?
I feel like it affects my sense of self, you know what I mean? I wonder if it's taken for granted in some ways if you grew up in that. Does it affect us more profoundly because it's new for us? I feel like that idea of every moment of your life being documented, or the pressure to live your life as if every moment of it is being documented, is a new weird burden that I definitely didn't feel in high school. I mean, I often felt like a loser in high school, and that's an indelible John Hughes theme for everybody, but I didn't feel like a loser in the ways I think you could feel like a loser now. 
All the teenagers I know...they speak in full sentences. They have nuanced, complicated thoughts and allow for silences and space.
You think kids are more keenly aware of their loser-dom because of social media?
You just have an awareness of other people's moment-to-moment experience. I had a landline and Instant Messenger. I guess we had Facebook by the time I was in high school, but it still didn't feel like it was moment-by-moment. I could spend unstructured time and not know what other people were doing in their unstructured time. The other thing that exists that didn't exist when we were that old is this level of connectivity. My youngest sibling is 18, and we were out in Long Island, and she's a Comic-Con nerd, you know what I mean? That's what she loves, and in our town, good luck finding somebody who feels similarly passionate. Geographically, there wouldn’t be people she could share that experience with, but she's a child of the internet. So many of her friends exist in virtual spaces, in gaming platforms especially. I remember at one point my parents being like, “You gotta talk to her. She'll listen to you; you gotta tell her why this is dangerous.”

I then approached the conversation with her from a this is no good standpoint. And she was like, “Why? Why is it no good?” I'm like, “Well, you know, they're not your real friends. They're your virtual friends.” She's like, “Why are they not my real friends? What makes them any less real than your friends? What do you do with your friends? Do you talk about life and love, and what gives your existence meaning, and what you're scared of, and what you would want for the future—do you talk about that? Well, that's what I talk about with my friends. So I don't see why they're any less real than your friends.” And she's right. She's having profound and intimate relationships in a virtual space and just because they're not physical doesn't doesn't make them any lesser than the relationships in my life.

Do you really believe you were a loser in high school?
Well, doesn't everyone say that? I've never met one person who's like, “I was really popular.”

I've met those people, but I don't know if I want to be friends.
[laughs] Okay, it could be I'm self-selecting a pool of not those people, but my high school experience was a weird one. I have an autoimmune disease, and I got sick in the middle and had to take a year off school and come back, which I think, maybe more than anything else, fostered a real sense of self. I had to spend so much time alone, and be cool with being with myself, without stimulus, without activity—to just sit in my own head and enjoy that, or learn to enjoy it. Honestly, I was super depressed for a while. I drank alcohol for the first time, did all the things bored, sad people do. And then I would paint and listen to weird books on tape, and I started to really value my time alone in a way I probably didn't before, which I think is a big part of how I spend my time now. In hindsight, that probably was really good for me—to be forced to get comfortable just sitting alone with my thoughts definitely pays dividends now.

In the press kit there’s this great quote of yours where you say, “To me part of working with cameras is acknowledging that photography is to some degree inherently objectifying and exploitative.” How did that affect the way you approached the teenagers of Share?
I think about this a lot. I do think that filmmaking is inherently voyeuristic and objectifying, and there's no such thing as an objective perspective or truth. You can’t tell a story from someone's point of view. It's always your point of view, imposed and filtered through a creation. A film can be aware and in conversation with that and not pretend to be true. I don’t want movies to pretend as if a good deed is being done, you know what I mean? I can tell a story but it’s my version of it, and what it really ultimately is, is a reconstitution of my own experiences, translated as empathetically as I can. It can be a douchey conversation. 

Why is it douchey?
Because I also just like movies because they make you feel stuff, you know? And I do think films work best as entertainment. I don't want to see an intellectual meditation. I also don't want to see a morality play or to have someone preach to me. And I think there are vehicles, other mediums that are more appropriate for that kind of communication. The whole medium is human emotion. I like work that feels intellectually and aesthetically rigorous, you know? And intentional. But I don't want that at the expense of just a good story about shit you actually care about.

I know the journey of this film has taken years, and in that time a lot has happened in your life. As the movie finally comes out next week, where are you at right now?
Part of why I absolutely hate watching anything I've worked on is because for me it’s so tied into where I was at emotionally. I watch scenes and feel all the shit that I was going through when I wrote them or cut them. That's one of the beautiful things about it, you know what I mean? So much of you ends up on the page or on the screen, whether you intend for that or not. And the years between the short and the feature were complicated ones for me personally, I think.

I ended up finishing the film in a long stint of grief. I became the oldest living member of my family while we were cutting. When I made the short, I'd just written the script, and the night I agreed to make the film through AFI my mom died. There was a lot of that in the film in ways I don't think I knew or appreciated. And then the same thing happened with my aunt and my dad when we finished the feature. He died in the middle of cutting, and I think that really changed the cut. It changed the way I saw what I was doing. I had to take some time to be with my family. But even when I returned to it, I don't think I returned to it the same person. I think I've definitely thought of Mandy as someone who is grieving the loss of her own life, and I thought of Three Colours: Blue, which rings truest to me when it comes to grief on film. That film lets someone occupy silence and themselves for huge portions of time, without adding any kind of plotting on to the experience of grief. Honestly, I think the stages of grief are bullshit at this point, but it was a helpful tool in terms of thinking of what it means to make peace with something horrible. What are the different methods a human being has of fighting, resisting, pleading, begging, accepting and transcending a painful experience?

Since we’re talking over the phone instead of in person, this is a bit more difficult to ask—but truly, how did you move forward in the aftermath of your parents’ passing?
I have never had an interview take this turn, so I think it's a testament to you, actually. I feel very comfortable right now. I don't know the answer to that… I don't know that I have, totally. I think that may be a lifelong process. I was waiting for the pain to stop. I was like, “Okay, it's got to get easier. People survive. In fact, most people go through exactly what I'm going through sooner or later, and they all survive, so I'm going to survive and it just must get easier. The pain must go away.” And it didn't go away, and it hasn't gone away.

But what happened instead, I think, was my heart expanded to hold the grief and all the other parts of my life that are not grief. I assumed that if you were feeling sad and you were feeling pain, that's what you were feeling. You never stop missing the people who are not with you, but you can hold space for that and honor that and also love being alive, and love other people, and love what you're doing, and love to eat food and drink and be a body that's existing. So I guess in that way, maybe I made peace with it. Maybe the point isn't to get rid of the pain and push it away. The point might just be to let it be, and be okay, and not feel terrified of it—of the pain itself.

I’ve realized that I'm still going to be alive and I'm still going to have room for a lot of happiness and joy with that pain. Perhaps in some ways there’s more room for happiness, actually, than I would have had without the loss.
Sam Fragoso is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. His debut film, Sebastian, premiered at Ebertfest and Palm Springs International Shortfest. You can watch it here. He’s also the host of Talk Easy, a weekly podcast of long-form conversations with directors, writers, actors, and, once, his mother.

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