Interview: A Talk with Writer/Director Steven Renkovish
Interview with Writer/Director Steven Adam Renkovish on The Awakening of Lilith
Synopsis: A woman finds herself in the midst of a dark mystery after the unexplained loss of a loved one. Her mind begins to unravel as her sense of reality begins to slip away.
Principal Cast: Brittany Renée as “Lilith” Justin Livingston as “Noah” Mary Miles Kokotek as “Mother” Rachel Sims Jackson as “Elizabeth” Tiffany Majors Doby as “Emily” Christiana Wilson as “Dawn” Jessie Roberts as “Iris”
Writer/Director/Editor: Steven Adam Renkovish
Director of Photography: Thomas Springer
Music: Seth Anderson
Producers: Ashley Renkovish, Lorraine Renkovish, Steve Renkovish, Brittany Renée
Special Makeup Effects: Jessie Roberts
During 2019, writer/director Steven Adam Renkovish decided to build off the momentum he gained from his short film, Fugue, by writing and shooting its feature-length version, The Awakening of Lilith. Starring Brittany Renée in the role of “Lilith,” the film addresses how we grieve in the aftermath of traumatic events and how some remain in that state, seemingly unable or unwilling to fight their way out of it.
“The Awakening of Lilith explores this idea of the weight of grief - how some of us long to forget it the minute we feel it, the very second it shows its face, and how others almost see it as a comfort,” Renkovish states in the film’s press kit. “Because grief tethers us to our loved ones for eternity, every time that we grieve for them, they are there, in some way or another… I hope that the experience of watching The Awakening of Lilith will initiate a conversation that needs to be had. I hope that, through the character of Lilith, people may see a bit of themselves. That is my hope.”
I reached out to Steven for an interview to talk more about the film’s themes and the challenges he faced in finishing it during the pandemic, as well as his plans for future projects.
Chris: The big theme of the movie is processing grief following a traumatic event. How would you describe Lilith’s dilemma and the more surreal experiences she has?
Renkovish: Throughout the movie, Lilith has two different realities that she's wrestling with, to cope with this tragedy in her life that she's blocked out. She's taken the reality and sort of put her own spin on it to be able to cope. … I did a lot of research about false memories, and how people who are grieving will create things to fill in those gaps in their memory of the stuff that they blocked out. … So I really wanted to play with that psychology of just how we can take the traumatic experiences in our lives and sort of whittle them down and get them to a point where they're something that we can live with. …
Describing a poignant scene in the film with Lilith and her best friend Elizabeth, played by Rachel Sims Jackson, Renkovish explains that it was telling because it reveals Lilith’s own emotional baggage and how it gets in the way of helping people close to her.
Renkovish: So, if you look at Lilith, you'll notice that there are similarities in the situations and in the dialogue, but they're twisted in a lot of ways. So I really wanted to play with that psychology of just how we can take the traumatic experiences in our lives and sort of whittle them down and get them to a point where they're something that we can live with. … Because in a way Lilith was never really prepared to help Noah in the way that he needed to be helped. … I wanted to touch on the fact that when we lose people - I feel like, we sit there and we ask ourselves so many times, what could I have done to alleviate their pain. … we have those dialogues with ourselves when really, I mean, we can't put that kind of pressure on ourselves. … And I wanted to touch on that sort of dynamic with her character of just the guilt that she's feeling and the way that it's just caused her to retreat. And it's almost like she finds comfort in her grief. And that's an odd thing, too, because we tend to look at grieving as something negative. … But it's also a comfort because whenever you grieve for your loved ones, they're there with you, in a way, their presence - it's just a lot of stuff to unpack. … But it was one of those situations where it's like, you have this opportunity to make this feature film. Why not say the things you want to say?
Chris: Exactly. When I was watching it, I felt like Lilith seemed like somebody who leans on people a little bit. She's a codependent personality. So I thought it was interesting for her to be having this stage of grief in her life by herself. You see a lot of movies where the main character suffers a loss, and the movie’s about somebody that they meet that pulls them out of that. When I was watching it, I thought it was interesting, this movie where she's in this state largely by herself and at odds with some of the people around her.
Renkovish: Oh, exactly. Yeah, to me, that was one of the big things because when you're in the midst of something like that, and if you're with people who are not ready to be emotionally available to you when you need that support, especially if you're someone like Lilith with the mother that she had. … the more I watch it, the more I see where my own subconscious sort of took over. And there's just so many possibilities with it. Like so many. There's a lot of mirroring in it. Like, one minute Lilith is the one just popping off or it's Noah who's popping off to Lilith in one scene. And then in the next scene, he's the more submissive one, and the more docile one, and she's the one who's aggressive.
... Sometimes, we treat our loved ones, especially when they're going through something, we can be dismissive. It doesn't necessarily mean that we're responsible for what ultimately ends up happening, but that we’re imperfect. … There's a lot of twists and turns that it takes, and it is deliberately ambiguous in a lot of areas, because I always find that I would rather have that ambiguity, and leave some strings untied, rather than have everything presented in a nice big bow at the end.
... I hope it will be able to generate these kinds of discussions. And I think that these are things that need to be talked about, especially now when there's just so much loss going on in the world. And I understand that it deals with some heavy and dense and complex themes, but at the same time, to me, it is a hopeful film.
Renkovish and I spent some time talking about the challenges he faced while shooting Lilith during the pandemic. Besides directing a large pool of actors and fighting what he calls his tendency to be a “people pleaser,” he had to deal with time and budget constraints.
Chris: You shot this film in the middle of the pandemic. What was the most challenging aspect of the shoot?
Renkovish: Everyone that worked on it, God bless them, they were volunteers. Altogether, after the movie was through, we're like, “How much money did we spend on this thing?” Because we really didn't spend a lot. I bought a new laptop to edit; well, my sister got me one for Christmas. And we catered a little bit, paid for Thomas's gas money whenever he would let us do it. And about $3,000. About $3,000 for this little movie.
… We really wanted to have sort of a homemade, homespun sort of feel to it. And the challenge was working within those constraints, and still trying to be as true to the nature of the script as we possibly could. And I really think we did. … There were several days where I was thinking to myself, you've bitten off more than you can chew, because this is a huge project … [We] didn't have the luxury of having the time to block things out … And it was just chaos, because every person there had an idea of how they wanted a scene to go. And I got really overwhelmed because I'm a people pleaser, and I didn't want anybody to get offended. And I was trying to be that director who listens to suggestions, and just works with the group … Just the fact that we didn't have the time that you usually have on a film set with a big budget to block things out and to have all that planning ahead of time. And so that was a challenge. But it brought the best out of everybody.
During our conversation, I learned that Renkovish is “old school,” in his approach to filmmaking. He talks about Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch as he delves into how he thinks about the stories he develops.
Chris: As I was watching it, I was just thinking about directors who do movies with a similar tone to them. One of the ones that came to mind was Charlie Kaufman and the way some of his movies are about a main character [experiencing] a breakup or an imagined relationship, more so than the death of a loved one. They have some surreal elements concerning the state that this person was in and how they were coping with this new reality that they were having. I know you mentioned Roman Polanski, but I was wondering if there were any other directors that you looked at and saw yourself as emulating.
Renkovish: Um, let's see. Okay, so I think after I started writing Fugue, which was the lead up to this, I think by then Polanski was just no longer a blip in my mind at this point. My other influences at this point were Ingmar Bergman. Specifically, his film, Hour of the Wolf, and Persona. So I really had those on my mind. And then David Lynch. And Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, so those three juggling around in my brain, maybe with a dash of Terrence Malick. Yeah, just a little bit, I think.
... But then this was one of the first times where I could see myself also being influenced by my own little ways of doing and saying and staging things. With Fugue, Fugue was actually really big, just as far as trying to keep within the mood of that and the framing. And so it was one of the first times that I was acutely aware of the way that I like to do stuff. And then sort of pulling little bits of inspiration from these other people as well. … And so I definitely had my influences. And, especially Bergman, in this case, that bedroom scene with Noah and Lilith. I was thinking of scenes of a marriage a lot when I was shooting. So I got my people that I'm always thinking about.
Chris: What did you find more interesting, as a director, the framing, and I know you leaned on your director of photography a lot, Thomas Springer is his name?
Renkovish: Thomas Springer. Old Tommy, yeah.
Chris: I know you probably leaned on him a lot for your framing of the shots. But what did you find to be the more interesting part of making the film, the framing of the shots or the coaching up of your actors?
Renkovish: Um, I would say a little bit of both. I mean, as far as the framing and everything, I have a shot list prepared. And I talked earlier about having to make compromises whenever something needed to be changed up, Tommy would frame it up for me, and then he would bring me over and he'd be like, “Alright, boss, how does this look?” And I would confirm it and be like, “Yeah, that looks good. That looks really good; that actually looks better than what I had in mind.” So as far as that, with Tommy, I knew that I was gonna get as much coverage as humanly possible. And he was willing to do what I wanted, and then go off and experiment and do other things, too. So I gave him ... free reign. … I mean, when you have somebody like Tommy on your team that is just so dependable, and willing to just go all out. That took a lot of that aspect off my shoulders, although I was always very aware of it.
... But then just going in and talking with my actors, and especially Britney and Justin Livingston, who played Noah. Justin is like, he is incredible. I'm so proud of him in this role, he did such a great job. And he was the perfect match for Britney because they both played off each other so well.
... So I would send them long texts with background information about their characters. And they would read that and incorporate that into their characters. I would go in before each scene and we would talk about the subtext of every scene and what the scene meant and what the characters were thinking. But you give them that bit of direction, and then just let them go with it. And they'll surprise you. There's no need to get in there and micromanage and overcorrect a scene when you have actors as good as that.
One of the most expensive elements of making a film is promoting it. This exposure is important for gaining “buzz” about the film, which typically leads to viewership and prospects for distribution. Renkovish described film festivals as the path to doing this for Lilith.
Chris: You were talking to me about submitting to festivals, and you said you've gotten yours into the Tryon International Film Festival in North Carolina, and also the Mental Filmness Film Festival in Chicago. Were you able to attend those in person? And what was your experience like?
Renkovish: Well, the Tryon International Film Festival in Tryon, North Carolina, is like the Sundance of this area. Like they got it going on, and they never let me down. Just about every single thing that I've had. I mean, everything that I have made thus far has gotten to try on in there. They really have been supportive of my work. And I'm telling you, Chris, they are so I mean, they're with it. Like they're there.
... A lot of festivals, God bless them, they just don't have the budget, but the people at Tryon, they take every penny and they make it stretch, and they put on quite the event. And they're always so accommodating and familial and welcoming. It really is like a home away from home. If you ever get the chance to go to the Tryon International Film Festival, you need to do it. It is well worth it. You will go away feeling so loved.
... And that's where we had the world premiere of Lilith, and it was quite the event. There were just, there's nothing like seeing your dream come true. With a room full of people that you've known your whole life who are there rooting for you. And that's it. The premiere of Lilith at Tryon was something that changed my life and something I'll never forget. It was one of those landmark moments.
... And the Mental Filmness Festival is a virtual film festival based in Chicago. So I actually didn't attend in person, but [Sharon Gissy] who runs it is phenomenal. Like she knows her stuff. She's very well read and Mental Filmness is basically a film festival that focuses on films that have the theme of mental illness and try to take away from the stigma of mental illness. And they brought our film on and we're happy to have it, and it played on their platform for about a month. And they were wonderful too; just really good people. So that was, shoot, I would’ve gone if I could have if it had been a physical event at a venue. But not at this point. It's just virtual, but another good festival.
Before ending our talk, Renkovish touched on several of his upcoming projects, including a collaboration with his co-editor on Lilith, and one that he hopes gets him in a “little bit of trouble.”
Chris: That's cool. I'm glad you got to have those experiences. I mean, it's really impressive that you were able to put this film together with the resources you had and in the time period you were able to, and then I'm glad you're able to not only get it into those, but probably future ones as well. And so I will of course be rooting for you, not only for the future of this project, but for your future projects. Any, of course, is there anything else you wanted to say?
Renkovish: Oh, well, number one, thank you so much for this opportunity. Like, it really means the world to me that you reached out for an interview. Yeah, I'm definitely going to keep you posted on my future projects. I've got two short films that I've sort of got on the back burner right now. One of those is going to be shot completely on eight-millimeter film stock. So that one is coming up. And then my next feature is going to be called Immersion. And it's basically going to be like an anthology film about people that are wrestling with faith and doubt in many different forms. And I'm going to take the Evangelical crowd to task a little bit in this one. But yeah, I'm hoping that one gets me in a little bit of trouble. We'll see what happens. I'm going to stir the pot a little bit. So yeah, I've got those things going.
... And my brother from another mother, Bradley Andrew. He was the assistant editor with me on Lilith. There's like a big dream sequence in the midsection of Lilith. That just comes out of nowhere. And he and I edited that together. We stayed up to like three o'clock in the morning one night and edited that whole sequence together. And so yeah, me and him are doing a short film called 16. That is shot on eight-millimeter film stock. And it's sort of like an experimental, psychedelic film. And he's also going to act in it as well. And he's a film director and also an author, and he is working on his own series of comic books right now. So he's got a lot on his plate, too. So just a lot of really good things are coming on down the pike. So I'll keep you posted.
Having submitted to 70 film festivals, the filmmaker describes himself as “broke,” but his comments indicate that he is passionate about the work while also hopeful that the film hits strongly on its themes. “I’m not always going to make films that are palatable to a mainstream audience. …,” he says. “But I’m hoping that it does well … and resonates with people [who] see it.”
Check out our review of Lilith in our Movies section.