SMALL INSTANCES

An Interview with Fedra Grillotti: November's MAI + t Collaborator

Cover image courtesy of Eye-Contact archive
Introduction and Interview by Billy Zhao

When I first came across Fedra Grillotti’s Eye-Contact Tumblr, I immediately knew I must invite her to collaborate. The blog is a compilation of film screenshots that show characters breaking the fourth wall, making direct eye-contact with the viewer. This simple concept manifests in one of the most fascinating and captivating film research projects on Tumblr, highlighting key moments of connection between actors and audience throughout cinematic history. I initially proposed to Grillotti to extend the concept of the Eye-Contact blog by relating her curation to Marina Abramovic's Mutual Gaze Exercise:

 

Mutual Gaze Exercise

Sitting on opposite chairs, look at each other. Motionless.

 

As we continued to develop the themes for her curation, however, Grillotti became interested in stepping past the boundaries of her blog to research compelling occurrences of the female gaze in cinema. Just before she took control of the MAI Tumblr, I spoke with Grillotti about her interest in universality of film, her plans for curation, and more.


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BILLY ZHAO: How did you get into working as a film translator?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: I’ve always wanted to work as a translator — especially for movies, because I’ve always been a great cinema lover. I love to hear the real voices of actors because I really felt, even as a kid, that there was a lot of stuff that I was missing due to dubbing. My dream was always to become a subtitler.

 

BILLY ZHAO: That’s such an interesting dream career.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: I know it’s weird; it’s not a big dream, especially because it doesn’t pay very well. But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. In the meantime, I started working as a videogame translator, which is cool. I still do it. But since I’ve actually started translating subtitles for TV series and movies, I realized it is something that I really want to do. It’s funny how you end up watching the same three-second scene fifteen times in a row. It’s kind of exhausting but at the same time, you notice many tiny details as you try to find the perfect synchronization for the tiny little track of dialogue. I find it fascinating.

 

BILLY ZHAO: What languages do you translate between?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Mostly English to Italian. I did a little bit of French, but my French is kind of rusty so I’d rather not do that. In the past, it has occurred to me to translate into Italian a text that was previously translated from Japanese to English. This is more complicated, because I can’t even read the source and I have to rely on another translation. With subtitles, you have to be very concise. You have to respect every single word because if someone reads the subtitles, they can get lost if you miss out on some information or if you don’t actually reflect what’s happening on the screen, including facial expressions. In video games, you have so much more freedom. It’s more creative because you’re not only translating, you’re also localizing to the culture that you’re trying to adapt the game into. You try to make jokes and references so that they’re understandable for the target audience, and that gives you a lot of creative freedom. It’s a completely different job, two faces of the same medal which I both like.

In film translation, you have one piece of material and a very short sentence and you have to make it perfect to make the dialogue fit with the subtitles, the timing, etcetera. In video games, you have all the time in the world. It feels less strict and you can decide to change the dialogue from the source — even dramatically — if you think it works better. I’m not a creative person, per se. I’ve never considered myself an artist of any sort but I can see that I’m good at using other people’s creativity. I can see my strengths in these kinds of things. The thing that fascinated me the most about the idea of starting a blog on movie frames is that I like to capture very small instances that actually have very hard work behind them.

 

BILLY ZHAO: What was that initial blog called?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Movies in Frames.

 

BILLY ZHAO: How did it get started?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: It was a friend’s idea, actually. I have basic notions of Photoshop and he was looking for frames from a movie that I had on DVD. He was looking for pictures of the pie from the movie Blueberry Nights (2007) by Won Kar Wai. I took a series and he liked them very much. Afterwards, he said, “You know what would be cool? To start a blog about screenshots in movies that really capture our attention.” We started discussing the idea and eventually, we decided to give ourselves some rules so that it wouldn’t be yet another blog containing unlimited screenshots of the same subject. We decided that four frames per post would be a nice compromise and that gave us a little bit of liberty to give an interpretation of the movie, a way of reading it.

 

The thing that fascinated me the most about the idea of starting a blog on movie frames is that I like to capture very small instances that actually have very hard work behind them.

 

BILLY ZHAO: Wow, what a concept.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: If you decide to give importance to the scenery of the movie, you can decide to focus your screenshot on the surroundings and on the settings. That’s actually how Eye-Contact started too. I was really interested in eye contact with the camera, breaking the fourth wall. At some point, I decided that I wanted to create a side project about it. That’s how that started and then I got carried away by it. That was four years ago, I think.

 

BILLY ZHAO: It seems that Eye-Contact became your main focus.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yes. This happened because every time I watched a movie, I started noticing these moments of eye contact more and more. You know when you hear about something for the first time and then all of a sudden you see it everywhere?

 

BILLY ZHAO: Yes.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: It was the same with me and films. At first I thought, “Oh, there are the classic breaking-the-fourth-wall moments like in François Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) and Ingmar Bergman’s My Summer with Monika (1953).” Then I began to see it everywhere, even in commercial movies. It’s very common to use this device because it creates a link between the character and the audience. Sometimes it’s a bit abused, of course, but it fascinates me. I like the way that it can create a bond but also ruin it. Sometimes it’s too much or it’s not needed or it’s too obvious or too sassy. I like how these moments can have different meanings.

 

Courtesy of Eye-Contact archive 

Courtesy of Eye-Contact archive 

 

BILLY ZHAO: There’s also humor, sometimes, in those moments. In comedies, when actors glance at the audience, there is always an “expected” laughter. Then there are scenes in dramas when actors break the fourth wall and your heart stops. There is a lot of diversity in your blog. We see moments of eye contact from comedic late-night talk shows and then some from very serious art movies.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yeah, I think every moment of eye contact is so important because it always has a particular meaning, even if it’s fake or is just there for the fun of the audience. Another friend of mine, after starting this with me, started another blog called Mirrors and Co. She collects old pictures of reflections from mirrors and glasses in films, which is also fascinating. Sometimes these two facets combine. I like these kinds of things, the tiny details. How they are scattered through movies differs depending on the film style and country of origin. This gives me the sense that this is something really universal. There are also several ways of creating contact with individuals across the screen which again, I would say is universal.

 

BILLY ZHAO: For Eye-Contact, do you just watch a film during your leisure time and automatically take a screenshot when you find the characters looking out at you?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: No, actually. When I was taking screenshots for Movies in Frames, I noticed that often, the pictures that caught my attention were moments of eye contact. I have a series of the screenshots that I took for Movies in Frames blog in which I really noticed that I started focusing on eyes and on the eye contact of the character with the audience but also between characters. I always found this interesting and at some point I said, “Hey, maybe I should focus on this and see what happens.”

 

BILLY ZHAO: That’s a great observation.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: I’ve always had a thing for the importance of the looks, the eye, and the perspective of a single character.

 

BILLY ZHAO: Did you work with a lot of collaborators or was it small group of friends working on the two blogs?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Well, I started Eye-Contact with only one collaborator, a girl I met on Tumblr. Movies in Frames had a lot more — around fifteen people, mostly real-life friends.

 

BILLY ZHAO: Movies in Frames is a big project then.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: The cool thing is that with both blogs, we immediately received a lot of responses from people on Tumblr. They really liked the idea. This was before there was even a submission button on Tumblr, and my friend started receiving emails from people saying, “Can I collaborate?” It was fun and we didn’t really expect this. Eventually, a lot of people, without even being encouraged, started submitting pictures. Of course when the submission button came to Tumblr, there emerged many more photos and requests and comments. That is what I like about Eye-Contact — sometimes, for a whole month, I don’t have to post anything because I receive around three or four submissions a day. They’re all very cool and when I’m really busy, I basically leave it at that.

 

BILLY ZHAO: It’s so wonderful that you formed this community through these projects. It seemed to have started something that was for fun for you and your friends, but also that people on Tumblr were drawn into.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yes. Eye-Contact has more than 200,000 followers. I was expecting around 1,000. I never did any publicity  for it and it doesn’t have a Facebook page or anything like that. I love to see how people react to it. Sometimes, I think that maybe I should stop running the blog because I’m too busy, but then I see these reactions. Also, every time that I see a moment of eye contact while watching a movie, I can’t help but think, “I can’t wait to have a proper screenshot of this.”

 

Courtesy of Eye-Contact archive 

Courtesy of Eye-Contact archive 

 

BILLY ZHAO: [Laughs.] I love the support that you received from the Tumblr community. It goes back to what you were saying about how every moment that you capture in a blog is a moment of connection. When we are scrolling through our Tumblr dashboard, we stop and look.

 

I always like when someone is obsessed by a specific cinematic detail. 

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yes. Earlier, I had a different layout on the page, similar to your Tumblr theme. There were so many faces looking at you simultaneously that some people actually started sending comments saying, “My god, your page is freaking me out.” [Laughs.] It put you in a position of discomfort because it was really haunting.

 

BILLY ZHAO: Your blog makes me feel like I’m at the cinema because of the black background.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yeah, eventually I changed the background layout because I couldn’t find one that I liked. I also wanted the title to be always clearly visible. I like when there’s a collection of pictures that you can just scroll through, but, being a cinema lover, I always hate when I see a picture and I’m intrigued by it but at the same time I have no idea what it is. I like when you can see an image and know immediately what it is and where it is from.

Another cool thing about Movies and Frames is that at the beginning, people started telling us that the way we had curated these images gave them so many ideas. They wanted to watch movies they’d never heard of before just because they saw this small composition and they said, “Oh my gosh, the movie must be great.” And it’s not even a trailer for something.

 

BILLY ZHAO: I get that feeling too, looking through your blog. What are some of your favorite film blogs by others?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: I really like this one by a friend of mine, a girl that I met through Movies in Frames. Her name is Marya and her blog is called Old Films Flicker. She currently works for Rotten Tomatoes, runs her own blog called Cinema Fanatic and watches an awful lot of movies — like 1,000 per year. It’s impossible.

 

BILLY ZHAO: That is an insane number of films.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yeah, she’s great. She has a strong community and sometimes posts thematically. For example she features a “Female Filmmaker Friday” every week, where she watches a movie by a female director and writes about it. I don’t know how she finds the time, but she manages to write, even just a few lines, about every movie she watches and her perspective is always very interesting. Since I don’t have much time to spend online, I like these kinds of thematic pages.

 

BILLY ZHAO: That’s great.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: I always like when someone is obsessed by a specific cinematic detail. I have a friend who’s really into food and she started a blog about the movies that made her hungry. For example, there’s the scene in classic western movies where they eat beans out of a can. She would watch those scenes and say, “Oh my god, I want a can of beans right now.” [Laughs.] I like when movies make you feel that sort of feeling. You feel like you’re a part of it, like you could just grab it.

 

BILLY ZHAO: I love Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners in films. Those are some of the most amazing food scenes.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: I love dinners in movies. Being at the dinner table is always a very important scene in a movie. You can be sure that something interesting is going to happen. Being reunited around dinner is a communal experience and there always a lot that happens in those scenes. The cool thing about Eye-Contact is that it’s just focused on one tiny detail. Since I began doing this, I’ve noticed that there are so many tiny details that are spread throughout movies from every country. They are so universal and contain so much variation at the same time. I don’t know anything about philosophy, but there was a philosopher who said we have some ideas that are inside us even before we know it consciously. I think that not all directors have watched movies from all over the world but, at the same time, you end up finding the same ideas and patterns across films. This makes it possible to relate to stories from many different cultures. Through the perspective of the camera, you can enter so many realities or unrealities. Eye-Contact is just a tiny stone in the sea.

 

BILLY ZHAO: I like that. On your blog right now, you have stills from Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) to the Matthew Akers film about Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present (2012). Then there’s Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2012), a film taking place far out west.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: I also like portraits, and I really like when actors look straight at the camera during shoots.

 

Being at the dinner table is always a very important scene in a movie. You can be sure that something interesting is going to happen. 

 

BILLY ZHAO: I remember in a lot of childhood cartoons, like Dora the Explorer, characters would always speak to you through the screen.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yes. Of course, that’s even more intentional. Even though it’s just a cartoon, it ends up creating an immediate sense of connection.

 

BILLY ZHAO: When you were younger, it was something that you want to interact with. They’d say, “Hey, let’s go on an adventure!” And you would immediately get off your seat.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yes, that happened to me as a child when I went with my dad to see puppet shows. I lived in Rome at the time, and there’s a very famous place called Gianicolo where there were always very tiny puppet shows at the top of a hill. I loved it because it was with all the famous characters from Italian comedy, like Pulcinella and Arlecchino. I thought it was magical how the puppets were moved. Then, all of a sudden, they’d turn to the audience and ask the kids to help them to find the solution to a mystery or something like that. I thought, “But if there’s someone moving the puppets from below, how can they see if the kids reply or not?” It was really magical to me.

 

BILLY ZHAO: I bet all the kids would jump up and scream in excitement.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yes! “He did it! He did it!” When you’re a kid, it’s important to find this sense of participation. Later, it changes a bit. Do you remember the scene from, Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life To Live (1962)? Anna Karina watches Jeanne d’Arc at the cinema and starts crying when Jeanne d’Arc looks through the screen at her. She feels like they’re sharing a connection, and she just can’t help but cry. You are there watching her crying and you feel like you’re part of it, too. And then you start to cry. [Laughs.]

 

BILLY ZHAO: [Laughs.]

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: The connection goes back and forth and it’s just perfect. I don’t know if you have the scene in mind but that I think that’s really great when you are in between these two characters looking at each other through a screen and you’re looking at both of them at the same time and you can relate to both of them in different ways. Godard just stole a scene that he thought was interesting. He took it and he framed it forever. He added an extra level of depth and meaning to it.

 

BILLY ZHAO: Yes, and you feel sympathetic for both characters. Like at the very end of films, when you don’t want to let go of characters because they’ve become kind of like your friends.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yes. That happens even more with TV series. It’s all just different ways of bonding with characters. I think even the actors have a hard time letting go of their characters. With Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), for example, the actors all lived through the experience together for twelve years and they went through so much… Not just the main character, but also Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. Not to mention the director, of course. Again, it’s like watching Anna Karina watching Jeanne d’Arc. It’s the same thing but in real life. The actors have look at their own character and let them go.

 

BILLY ZHAO: It’s like in method acting when you entirely become your character beyond the screen as well. Letting that take over and then having to let it go is all a part of the process.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Have you ever seen Husbands (1970) by John Cassavetes, for example? It’s a movie about three guys that are really sad because their best friend has died. They make a mess so they escape and fly to London, where they make more of a mess. Two of them decide to return to their wives and their normal, everyday lives. The third one gets lost and can’t return. Each and every actor and the director himself — because he’s one of the three friends — put so much of themselves into the movie and into these three characters. They just acted as they would do in everyday life. One day, to create the right atmosphere, they started singing at a bar. Then the director said, “This is perfect! This is what I want from this movie! This is what this movie is about!” He put a nine-minute long scene into the film that is just them singing really badly.

 

Courtesy of Eye-Contact archive 

Courtesy of Eye-Contact archive 

BILLY ZHAO: That scene is so true to the characters.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yeah, exactly. It was what the movie was about for him. He must have said, “I don’t want to show where this is going because this is not going anywhere. This is about three people grieving for their friend so they do meaningless things. Singing is what they felt in the moment so why don’t we put that in the movie.” I think that’s how you make characters real. I’ve never academically studied film. As a part of the general audience, that’s what I like to see in movies. I’m not a great fan of the crazy preparation that some actors do for certain movies. I’m more interested in the way that some actors manage to put everything they have already into their films.

 

BILLY ZHAO: Yes, it is more interesting this way. It makes them more vulnerable in assuming a new role. Acting has to be genuine in order to be credible.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: One thing that Cassavetes said is that he never really liked to write the lines for the characters. He wrote what was going on in the scene and he was really precise about that. Then he left all the characters, the actors, to choose what to say.

 

BILLY ZHAO: I wanted to ask you: what are some of the longest films you’ve watched?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: I have to think about that. Some movies seemed really long but probably weren’t. I think the longest film I’ve seen was Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982). It’s around five hours long. It was cut and there was a shorter version for TV. Originally, it was meant to be a TV series but it ended up being an actual movie. Actually, I think I watched a longer one than Fanny and Alexander. It’s an Italian movie, which was also supposed to be a TV series. It became so popular before its release that it was just released in the cinemas. It’s called The Best of Youth (2003) by Marco Tullio Giordana. It’s 354 minutes long.

 

BILLY ZHAO: What is it about?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: It’s the story of a family. It tells their whole story from the 60’s to the early 2000’s. The whole film from the moment the two brothers’ lives divide. They meet a girl who is kind of mad and one of them decides to take care of her. They take two completely different paths and you follow both of them. I like those kinds of movies. I like movies about families. I find it hard to watch very long movies rather than watching TV series for a whole night. I have so many friends writing about TV and how TV is the new cinema but I don’t think this is true. It’s just a completely different viewer experience.

 

BILLY ZHAO: What are you watching now and what is coming up in the future on your film list?

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Well, I’m really excited because I’m going to see a couple movies at the London Film Festival. I don’t have time for much but I’m going to see the new Xavier Dolan movie Mommy (2014) then I’m going to see on Sunday White Bird in a Blizzard (2014) by Gregg Araki.

 

BILLY ZHAO: I’m very excited for Mommy to come out in the United States. You have to let me know how these films are once you watch them.

 

FEDRA GRILLOTTI: Yes. I will send you my first impressions straight away.



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Fedra Grillotti is an Italian translator living in London. She runs Eye-Contact and a personal blog on Tumblr. You can follow her cinematic adventures on Letterboxd and Mubi.