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Director Matthew James Reilly on ‘Abigail’ and Growing Up With Actors

Director Matthew James Reilly on ‘Abigail’ and Growing Up With Actors
New York University graduate Matthew James Reilly was scheduled to start production on a film the week of the Cannes Film Festival, but when his short film "Abigail" was selected as part of the Cinéfondation selection, those plans were put on hold.

The day after winning second prize, Reilly sat down with Back Stage to discuss his film and growing up around actors.

Tell me a little bit about your film.
Matthew James Reilly: Well, it's a short film, 17 minutes, about a gas station attendant in a very poor part of New Jersey. When the movie starts off, it's her last day at work, and she wants to leave town. She's making her way to the train station, and we know nothing about her. There's very minimal dialog during the film, but as she walks to the train station, she gets caught up in different encounters and conversations regarding something that her mother did last night. And through that, we kind of inadvertently find out who she is. By the time she gets to the train station, she has to make the decision if she is still going to leave or not after everything she experiences throughout the day.

What inspired the film?
Reilly: I'm usually very inspired by very mundane observations, especially in very small town areas in America - low level type jobs, stuff like that. I'm very interested in American poverty and American struggling. I think it's very interesting in New Jersey. It's one of only two states left in America that still requires by law to have full-serve gas station service as opposed to self-service. And I think it's such an old-fashioned concept, something out of 50's Americana. It's funny that we still do it. One day, I was in New Jersey, just passing through, and I saw this very young, couldn't be older than 14-year-old, girl working at the pumps. She just looked so stoic, and she had a canvas of disarray on her face. I was just interested in finding out the stories of people like this who are blending in with pedestrian scenery.

What's your background in filmmaking?
Reilly: I came from a family of show business. My uncle, Murray Hamilton, was an actor. You might know him from "Jaws" and "The Graduate." My mother was an actress, and my grandfather was an actor. I come from a long line of actors, and initially, I thought I was going to get into acting. But through developing in middle school and high school, I realized that I had more of a desire for structure and creating and building something. Initially, I thought I wanted to be an architect. Then I realized I wasn't intelligent enough for that. Then one summer, I discovered independent cinema in high school. It really influenced me and guided me to what I wanted to do. Because, I really wanted to detach myself from my family, not do acting, but I was still very much interested in performance and stories through characters and dialog.

How did growing up around actors affect you as a director?
Reilly: I guess it establishes a lot of do's and don't's for directing. In terms of directing actors, I didn't' really develop my style until later on in school or college when I was more or less separated from my family of actors. I guess, subconsciously growing up, it had some impression on me in terms of timing and stuff like that. My family is very lively and dynamic and always doing performances when we get together. I guess it had some effect that way.

How did you cast this film?
Reilly: I had originally cast the movie for another actress who I was going to work with on a previous film, but she had to cancel. I really wanted the opportunity to work with her, and I was just in contact with her throughout the writing process, and it seemed like a very sure thing.

Then in one of my classes at NYU, it was a directing class, this actress comes in to rehearse a scene in front of us as an example. Our professor brought her in, and I thought she would have been amazing for the part if I hadn't already cast somebody. She had a real look to her and a style in her voice that I thought was very suitable to the character, but I had already cast someone. Then about a month after that, I'm about a few weeks away from production, my actress quits on me to do commercial work, and I had forgotten about seeing this other actress in my class. So, I just submitted a breakdown, and one of the very first submissions I got was this actress I had seen in class. And that's how I cast the lead. Some of the other roles are played by non-actors for the most part.

What does it mean for you to have your film at Cannes?
Reilly: It means the absolute world. It has been such an incredibly amazing experience and an incredibly surreal experience. I've been in disbelief since the day I found out I got in until last night. It's just so thrilling to be here presenting work, being part of the official selection with some of my personal heroes of filmmaking, some people who really inspire me. A few of my absolute favorite directors are here with films, and it's hard to believe. And the other directors in the Cinéfondation are amazing, amazing talents. It's just such an overwhelming validation to keep doing what you're doing.

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