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L.A. born and bred, the acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager has long been a favorite of the culturati. Her playful, colorful work uses classic Old Hollywood tropes to examine darker modern themes, including those of isolation and the need for connection and empathy. Prager’s first U.S. solo museum show, Face in the Crowd, featuring Elizabeth Banks, received considerable buzz when it was shown at the Corcoran Gallery in 2013. Over more than a decade, she has directed almost a dozen short films starring the likes of Riley Keough, Bryce Dallas Howard and Cate Blanchett.
Run is Prager’s newest short film. Starring Katherine Waterston (Babylon, Alien: Covenant), the darkly comic work is vintage Prager, using stylized visuals and an absurdist plot to examine the will to exist during a period of uncertainty and cultural ambivalence.
A slew of Hollywood insiders have already hosted events for the film, with CAA (her agency) screening Run back in early November (it was followed by a Q&A led by Everything Everywhere All at Once director Daniel Kwan) and Prager throwing a screening party and discussion at the West Hollywood Edition later that month attended by stars including Olivia Wilde, Alicia Vikander and Karen O.
With Run showing at SXWS Monday night (her first film to show outside of museum or gallery settings) and an upcoming sci-fi feature film in the works to be produced by Elizabeth Banks’ Brownstone Productions (Prager wrote it with her artist sister, Vanessa), the director and photographer is poised to bring her work to a wider audience this year. In this exclusive The Hollywood Reporter conversation, Prager discusses her life, work and how art has the power to heal.
Why did you choose to take Run to a festival?
I felt like Run was more universal in the message that I was trying to get across in it, and I felt like even though it’s still abstract and doesn’t have a clear dialogue like most short films that end up in festivals probably, it’s a very much more narrative sort of unfolding. … This one, I made it really for the masses.
How is it more universal?
I think a lot of people have been questioning what the future looks like and where do we go from here and just really looking at what matters to us and re-prioritizing. What we’ve all been doing, that to some degree or another — we are reacting to many things that have been thrown at us all at once, so this film is a response to that, putting all of my questions and anxieties that I felt that I knew everyone else felt in varying degrees. … In making it, I felt some catharsis and relief and ability to smile and chuckle again.
What are some of the issues you’re referring to that you or people, in general, have been dealing with?
It’s everything. It’s climate change. It’s COVID. It’s race, gender, politics, just everything. I think everything that’s been percolating for a while now has just decided to all come to the surface at once and we’re meant to have the solution. It’s this crazy world we are living in right now, but Run is very much about, ‘OK, we’re dealing with all of this and it’s all being thrown at us, but what grounds us? And how do we move forward from here?’ Because we’re all deciding to be here. It’s a decision to participate in life, regardless of the sorrows and the chaos and all that life brings.
You mentioned to me that you changed the ending of the film not long before shooting and made it more hopeful. Why was that?
I realized that what is going to get us through everything is just reconnecting to the human heart and connecting to each other. … That’s what always brought me back to a hopeful state. I really wanted to end it on that. I felt like all the possibilities were available to us through human connection.
Your first short was over a decade ago?
I started photography when I was 21 or so and I had my first big break, I guess you could call it, at MOMA in 2010. … I had kind of started to reach a plateau in my interests in photography, which now years later I’ve come to realize is just part of my process. I have these thrusts in photography for a while that seem exciting and challenging and urgent at the time and then I’ll reach a plateau until I need something else to reinvigorate me again. And that was my first time hitting my plateau and it scared the shit out of me … and that was when I discovered the medium of film.
How did that discovery come about?
I discovered film in London at [one of my openings]. People were asking me what was happening to the protagonist in the picture. They wanted to know the before or after of the photograph they were looking at. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to show this through moving pictures.
How did you end up working with and getting to know Elizabeth Banks?
By the time I started working with Elizabeth, I was starting to understand the rhythms of filmmaking a little better and what could be done with it. I was starting to experiment in other ways. … She’s great. She’s such a power. I didn’t know her at the time. She reached out to me. I guess she had seen my work and she wanted to do something together. When I was starting to look for somebody to be in my short film [Face in the Crowd], she was the first person I asked and she was totally down, really professional. One of the reasons I love working with really experienced actors is they are just so great to work with on set because they can take direction with nuance and I just always get exactly what I need.
What are you looking forward to about doing your first feature film?
It will be great to be able to dive in and really have time for rehearsals and talk about characters and the character arcs. That’s something I haven’t been able to do with short form, where there is some back story to talk about, but ultimately it is very quick and intuitive. In the feature world, just getting to be able to take a larger bite out of something as a director I think will be really satisfying. I have much larger stories to tell.
How was the writing process?
That took a while. Learning the process of screenwriting. It’s a whole different medium. My producer Jeremy Dawson sent me a huge list of books. I talked to other filmmakers. One of the things I love about the world of film that is a bit different than the art world — filmmakers at least in my experience — they want to help other filmmakers. The art world tends to be a bit more private. I really like the collaborative process and the creative family that the film world tends to see itself as.
What’s the movie about?
It’s a near-future sci-fi. I think Run kind of showed a little bit how I might do a sci-fi film. I always like that retro-future Twilight Zone sort of world, and I really honestly feel that the future might look like that. When the robots and computers start to fail us, we’re going to have to go back to all the analog systems. That’s what we can fix on our own. To me, that’s a more realistic version of the future than the slick future that you often see. I think it will be much more of a mix of the retro analog and the remaining computers and AI that still exists.
When do you hope to shoot?
It’s happening this year.
Do you still plan to be as active in the art world, including as a photographer?
Definitely. There’s so much I love about the freedom that I have in the art world. I would never give that up.
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