8 Female Filmmakers: Hannah Blair on Making Your Work
This story is part of a series of interviews spotlighting eight local female filmmakers in collaboration with the Cindependent Film Festival. Read more female filmmaker stories and thank you to everyone who came to support the inaugural Cindependent Film Festival! Stay tuned for our recap on this incredible event.
On a sunny spring evening, I walked through aisles of brightly colored international candies, hundreds of varieties of wine, and an array of flower-shaped cheeses to find Hannah Blair sitting at a table near the coffee shop inside Jungle Jim’s International Market. After swapping stories of the peculiar displays we’d each passed on the way in, we grabbed a seat and chatted about small town life, filmmaking, and what it means to “make your work.”
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I'm 24 and, right now, I go to Wright State University in Dayton. I'm a film student there. I also work at a library in a small town named Waynesville. I've worked there for like seven years now. I make movies. I really enjoy being outdoors in nature. I live in the country, like in this super tiny town that no one knows exactly where it is so you have to name the towns around it before people know where it is. [Laughs.]
So why did you choose to meet here at Jungle Jim's? What's the significance of this place for you?
So because I lived so far north of Cincy, trips down to Cincinnati were always special occasions. They were like day vacations for my family, or on birthdays, we would come down and do something fun. So Jungle Jim's was one of our destination places where we'd come for a fun evening. I have a lot of memories of when I was little, just walking through the endless aisles and looking around at all the stuff. It's kind of just off and unusual and I love places like that. So I was like, why not? This could be fun!
What's your small town?
You're right; not sure where that is!
Exactly. I have to tell people like three towns out before they know where I live. But I love it. I've lived there my entire life. Actually, I've lived in the house that I live in my entire life. I still live with my family. My parents actually built the house, and it's part of land that my grandparents owned and then gave to my parents. My grandparents still live right in front of us, so it's kind of this big land that we all live on together, which is pretty cool.
I thought I was going to write books. But then, every time I started to write a book, I would always write it thinking, "I hope this becomes a movie someday."
I went to Sinclair [Community College] before Wright State. This will be my seventh year of college, I think. I'm finally a senior, so that's nice! I'm really looking forward to graduating and considering grad school afterwards.
How did you get into filmmaking? Was it something you had always been passionate about, or do you have a moment when you discovered your love of film?
I have always loved movies. Movies were a big activity for my family. When I was young, we would have Friday night family nights and a lot of times, that would be going out to a movie. I would always leave the theater and get this huge rush of creative energy. I would just love it and it would be stuck in my mind for days afterwards. It would make me ask questions like, "Well, what happens to this character?” and "How does this work?"
So I always loved movies, but I never seriously considered being a filmmaker until probably the very end of high school. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller. I thought I was going to write books. But then, every time I started to write a book, I would always write it thinking, "I hope this becomes a movie someday."
It also lacked this visual element – I couldn't make the words match the pictures in my head and I just wanted to make the pictures in my head. So I finally connected the dots that I love storytelling and I love movies, so it was like, what about movie making? But it always seemed like something that wasn't possible. It's one of those things where you tell people "I'm going to be a filmmaker" and then they're like, "Well, that's a nice idea, but what are you really going to do?"
So then I was like, maybe not. But I finally came to a place where I was like, “I'm going to try this or I'm going to regret it.” Like, I'm going to be 30 and wish I had tried this. So that's when I decided to go to Wright State for filmmaking, and I haven't looked back since.
Is there a genre you consider your specialty, or do you experiment with all different ones?
Sci-fi. I really love telling stories that reflect reality without directly being about reality, so I love sci-fi. And I've always loved watching sci-fi and stuff like that, too.
I definitely am open to all genres and going through film school has made me appreciate all the different, varied styles of filmmaking. But for me personally, I think sci-fi will always be my go-to, where my brain automatically tries to work.
Do you watch a lot TV shows like "Black Mirror," "The X-Files," and stuff like that?
"Black Mirror," I absolutely love it. Yes. "Black Mirror" and the old "Twilight Zone" sort of stuff actually played a really big role in inspiring the thesis film I just made at Wright State.
But then I grew up on "Star Wars" and all those sort of things. "Inception" is probably the first movie that made me go, "I want to do this." For weeks after, I couldn't get how that world worked and how it was constructed out of my mind. It was actually more the conversations I would have with people about the film that really made me want to do it. I personally think it's a great film – I know not everybody loves it, but I had so many conversations with my friends about what they thought about the movie. And I was like, "I want to make something that makes people talk to other people about this thing that's not real that they're all really into." You know? So "Inception" was huge for me, too. I actually have a tattoo that's because of "Inception": the Penrose stairs illusion. They used it in that movie and I was like, I have to get that.
Do you have an all-time favorite film? Or maybe top three?
I'll probably get home and be like, no wait, this is actually my favorite film [laughs], so it changes. I would say in my top three, "Inception" is definitely up there, just because of the impact it had on me. Also "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which is sort of an oddball film. Something about it really captured my imagination when I saw it. This whole idea of creating things out of what's in your head is something I really relate to.
I feel like I need to throw in some classic film to prove I'm a filmmaker or something [laughs], but I don't know! I know those two would be in my top. I also loved "Cloud Atlas." I haven't seen it in a really long time. It was so incomprehensible, but some of the connections they made between things, and the fact that they tried to tell such a large story, were so impressive to me. And it was another one of those films where I had conversation after conversation with people about it afterward. My other tattoo is from a line from "Cloud Atlas," so it has a special place in my heart.
Do any of your other tattoos relate to films?
I only have the three, and those two are film related. So this one [points]: There's a line in "Cloud Atlas" where two characters are talking and one is trying to discourage the other from doing something that he feels like he needs to do. And this character says, "Your actions are just a drop in the ocean" to kind of discourage the other from trying. The other character responds, "Well, what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?" So it's this idea that small things are important because they add up to big things, and then big things are not incomprehensible because they're just made up of small things. That was something that really stuck with me and it made me want to keep that advice close to me whenever I'm feeling anxious about things or that something is impossible. I just try to remember that.
The other one is just because I love "Inception" and I love things that you can make with art that couldn't exist in reality. So the idea of the Penrose stairs – stairs that are endless – you can make that through art, but if you tried to make it in reality, it'd fall apart. I like that idea, too.
You submitted a film to the upcoming Cindependent Film Festival; can you tell us about your submission?
Editor’s note: We interviewed Hannah before the featured films were announced, but we’re excited to now share that “Waves of Color” will be shown during the festival’s Opening Night Shorts, beginning at 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 23, at the Woodward Theater.
It was an experimental documentary, "Waves of Color," and I actually made it in collaboration with one of my friends, Alyssa Burns. It's about people's voices and their relationship to their voice. I wanted to make a documentary that was about voice, but I wasn't really sure about what aspect to focus on. And then we had this realization one day that we had both gone through phases where we did not like the sound of our voices. We talked to more people and they were like, "Yeah, I hate hearing my voice." Then we talked to one person who was like, "I actually love my voice. I love hearing it recorded!"
My dream job, I think, is being in a position where I could produce my own work without having to wait for someone else to give me the means to do so, but also being in a position where I could do that for other people, for other artists.
So we were like, “Why do people have such varied relationships to their voice?” It's like, your voice is so much a part of how you present yourself to the world and who you are. I think the vast majority of people do have this negative reaction to hearing it. That's interesting to me – like, what is it that makes people do that? So we went around and interviewed a bunch of people – box pop style – on the street. We asked them to describe their voice, how they feel about their voice, and how they use their voice.
We compiled it into this documentary. It was originally just an audio doc that kind of followed different descriptions of voice and then went into people's relationships with their voice. Then we got a professor and Neenah Ellis, who works at WYSO Radio, to talk about the idea of voice, philosophically and psychologically. We used that to guide the discussion. Then we decided we wanted to use an abstract visual to parallel talking about voice. So we bought a bunch of crayons and basically destroyed them and shredded them, and then used them to create this sound wave picture that comes together at the end to talk about the varied feelings about voice and how you relate to your voice all comes together to make this picture of yourself.
It was this really long process over a couple months. Figuring out what it was going to be like, working and getting more interviews, editing it, and then getting some more and re-editing it… It was really fun to make. I think that through making it, I definitely came to love my voice more.
Someone recently told me that Alfred Hitchcock really thrived coming up with concepts for films but got bored during the actual filming, editing, creating of the movie. Do you have a favorite part of the film production process or do you really enjoy the entire undertaking?
I think my experience with the filmmaking process has been different for every film. With the documentary, I think my favorite part was probably gathering the interviews. It was super intimidating to just go up to people and be like, “Can we talk about your voice for a second, which you may or may not be self conscious about?” But, you get so many varied answers and that was really interesting to me – just never knowing what people would say.
I just did my junior thesis film for Wright State, which was a science fiction film, and my favorite part of that was probably the actual production – not so much the pre-production. I do love all of it, but being on set and seeing months – actually, over a year – of work finally coming to life… I would love to continue working on sets for the rest of my life, because of the collaborative aspect of having so many different people putting their skills and their effort into making this one thing happen – kind of the insanity of this huge of group of people working so hard for such a short thing. The amount of work that goes into a film for it to come out is – a short film being like 15 minutes – like three days of nonstop shooting. It's crazy. But I think the collaborative, intense aspect of being on set is my favorite part. But I have a feeling it will change with every film.
Especially if you have different jobs on different films and stuff. Like my junior thesis, I directed and wrote, but then I was photographer on another friend's thesis, and those were totally different experiences. Just being the top creative person versus working in this kind of collaborative, subordinate creative position was very different. I really enjoyed getting to see both sides of that.
So what would be your dream job?
In five years, I hope to have made at least, maybe, three more films of my own that I can show and say, “This is my work; this is who I am as an artist and a filmmaker.” And hopefully, you know, take them to festivals and share them with people. I want to have somewhat steady work in the industry – I'm not sure where, exactly.
My dream job, I think, is being in a position where I could produce my own work without having to wait for someone else to give me the means to do so, but also being in a position where I could do that for other people, for other artists. To be like, "I think your story is really good and I think it needs to be told – let's work together and make this happen." I don't know exactly where that would be, like if that'd be as part of a production company or more of an independent thing.
Are there any female directors who have been big influences to you or that you really admire?
This is kind of a more recent example, but Greta Gerwig – what she did with "Lady Bird," I thought was incredible. I loved that film. And I think also some of the things I've heard about the on-set environment was really cool. I mean, being on set is one of the things that is important to me in film. The comradery that was able to exist on that set seems really cool. So that, for the work that she produced, but also the way she was able to produce it.
I don't know that I'd consider her an inspiration in terms of style or anything, but I do remember the year that Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar. I don't even remember how old I was, but the Oscars were a huge deal in my house when I was growing up. My mom would watch them every year and it was super exciting for me when I got to watch them. I remember seeing her win the Oscar and it being talked about like this big deal because a woman did it. And even then, it was strange to me. It never occurred to me that a woman wouldn't have already won it, you know? So it made me want to be there someday, doing that same thing because I saw her doing it. It drove me to dream bigger when I saw that happen.
The film industry, like so many other industries, has historically been pretty male dominated. With the need for diversity and representation getting so much attention right now, plus the #MeToo movement, do you think that things are getting better in that regard? Do you see more women getting a seat at the table?
I certainly hope so. I know a lot of women that I have personally worked with who deserve to be in positions on film sets. From seeing that, it does make me wonder, like, “How has this not already happened?” And I think that the fact this is getting brought up and talked about so much, that it will change.
I think it might take a while – I do feel like in some sense, there's probably positive change that's actually just like a reaction to backlash from this. So it might take longer than people expect it to. But I think just because it's being brought up and talked about, that is a positive step forward. I think that one thing it will do is encourage women to push for what they want. And encourage them to continue to go for it. Those women will be the ones that do make the change, the ones who refuse to stop, and refuse to be silenced. That's when the change will happen, when they come up. I think it's recognizing that it is a reality but refusing to let it change how you view yourself and your own work. And just, like, putting yourself out there constantly and refusing to take no for an answer.
What's the best piece of advice that you've gotten in your career up to this point?
To make your work. It kind of has a dual meaning. Don't let anyone else tell you what your work should be. If you have a strong feeling that this is the work that you're supposed to make, even if it doesn't make sense to everyone and people are like, “If you change this, it would be better,” but that is your work, then make your work. And it's not going to be easy and you're going to have to fight for it, but you need to make your work.
And then also, to keep making work. It's not like a one-and-done thing. It's not like you just finished your film and now you're a filmmaker, good job, now you can rest. You keep doing it. And it is a little bit of work. It is a fun job and it's probably the most fun I've ever had, making movies, but you do have to discipline yourself to keep making work. And you're going to become a better filmmaker the more work that you make.
There's a lot of voices that probably are more experienced and might not understand the work you're making. And while it is valuable to hear it and listen to it, you also do have to have that inner line of like, “This is where my work stops being my work and this is the line I'm not going to cross.”
What would you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I would like to say finishing the thesis films that I just finished, because they were over a year of planning and work and investment. They were probably the hardest projects I've ever tried to finish. This was my first narrative film that I made. That is a huge accomplishment for me. I know it's not a perfect film and I'm probably going to hate it by the time I'm finished with it [laughs], but the fact that I did… That's what, when I was a kid, I didn't think I could do. So the fact that I stuck it out long enough to actually achieve that is pretty cool. And I also feel that now that I've done that, what's the next thing that I don't think is achievable? That's what I need to work for. It now opens up this new level of “What's the next ‘unaccomplishable’ thing that I can try?”
Who's been an influential woman in your life?
I would say my mom. I'm sure that you get that answer a lot! My mom actually homeschooled me from second grade through high school. She made sure that I was able to learn about the things that I was interested in, and that is probably part of why I was able to become a filmmaker – because she allowed me to learn about storytelling and read more books since that is what I loved and do film-related projects and stuff. And so I got to try out things that I wouldn't normally have been able to try. She also instilled in me this kind of independent learning thing where if I need to learn something, I just do it on my own. That was all her, teaching me through school and stuff. And the fact that she gave up a lot of things so that she could homeschool me and took a lot of time to figure out how best to teach me things meant a lot.
And even still, she is so supportive. For my film, I needed food for set and she made all the meals for all the people. They were delicious, too, which is not something you usually get on our film sets. She was like, "Yeah, I'll just make all this food and take a whole weekend and cook for you and your crew." She is super supportive of my desire to become a filmmaker, even though that is probably not the most practical thing. She's probably like, “Oh gosh, how are you going to feed yourself someday?” But she believes in me and she will tell me that and continue to invest in me in very practical ways.
Explore the rest of our female filmmaker series here, and thank you for joining us in celebrating independent film in Cincinnati.