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Director’s Notebook

32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide - Director Hope Litoff and Producer Beth Levison

Hot Docs: What does it mean to direct such a personal story, and what does that practice look like?

Hope Litoff: It was very difficult, probably more difficult than I ever expected it to be. I was really lucky to have Beth; cinematographer Dan Gold, who I’ve known for twenty years; and editor Toby Shimin was also my mentor. I had a team that was like a family, and I definitely credit them with helping me direct, because being in the moment and also trying to be behind the camera was difficult. To have Beth there to say, “You forgot to ask this question,” or, “He said something interesting; maybe circle back to that.” I relied on them heavily, because I really wanted to be in the moment in the film. I am really grateful for my awesome team.


HD: Did you expect the filmmaking to permeate your personal life and your relationships so widely? Was that very unexpected?

HL: Yes, it was unexpected. I had falsely believed that if I could look at my sister through the lens of a camera, I would be somehow protected. I’ve been an editor for a number of years, and I can look at film footage and feel moved by it but feel very separate from it. So I had this fantasy that the filmmaking process would somehow envelope me and protect me, and that was a very false idea. I hoped for catharsis, and I do believe I’ve gotten to that point, but it took much longer than I expected and went way beyond the borders of the film.

I sort of realized that this was really a film for the survivors. I was hopeful that this would be mostly my sister’s story, and very minimally me, but as the film went on, it just sort of naturally became both of our stories. Our motto was to show what really happens when you go through this sort of thing, as much as we can. It’s real, but it’s not everything. We tried to be as real and as inclusive to the journey as we could, always moving the narrative forward but trying to stay true to the actual experience.

HD: What did your director and producer relationship looked like for the production of this film?

Beth Levison: I think that our working relationship really evolved over time. There was a period where we were going full steam ahead, fearlessly and with a lot of energy towards it. But as Hope started to face all the stuff that eventually arose, I certainly felt like my role became more protective. And that there was a constant conversation, not just about what the film needed, but what could Hope do that would not lead to her self-destruction.  

HD: At one point Beth appears in the film, and that’s a very strong creative and editorial decision to make, to get the producer involved. Was it a difficult decision to make, or did it feel natural to the process of making this film?

HL: To me, it felt very natural to the process of making the film. I wanted to make the film as honestly as I could, and I say as honestly as I could because there were some things that I couldn’t show. But Beth and my editor, and at times the cameraman, were very involved with my mental health and my acting out, and Beth was walking a tightrope between what’s necessary for the film and when we should turn the camera off and deal with something.

We had family therapy to discuss what was safe and what was going too far. It was kind of incredible and I would recommend it for other films.

When you have a schedule, a crew and civilians being interviewed, and all of these pieces coming together, you have to really be careful that everyone involved is up to the task at hand. That’s something that we talked with the therapist a lot, but it was really necessary in this case, because it was such an emotional Pandora’s box, and everything was unfolding in real time. I had no idea I was going to take a pill, Beth had no idea I was going to take a pill, and the camera kept running. We had to decide how much we were going to break the third wall and still maintain a narrative that’d show what was going on. It does break the fantasy in that moment, when you show a producer with a clipboard.  But I thought it was necessary to show the stakes that were involved at that moment; it wouldn’t have been honest to pretend that no one on the crew was concerned.

BL: That was the most challenging moment and period of time in my professional career because I felt so ethically compromised. I take the producer role seriously; it’s about workflow, project management, budget, getting the film from A to B on time, but I do believe there’s a tremendous ethical component to producing as well. I didn’t know if that scene would be career suicide for me. I’ve never told this to Hope before, but after that scene I ripped up my release, because I had been in earlier scenes that we had shot where I felt safe, and then I got really scared. And then when we finished the movie I re-signed my release.

HL:  Wow, I didn’t know that.

BL:  But it’s still a really scary thing. I had been protective of Hope for so long, and then in that moment I felt angry and betrayed, I felt like so many boundaries had been broken in that moment. I hope that I’m just so awkward comes across in the film, because I was really in a no man’s land.

HL:  For me, it was just like: it’s a documentary, keep the camera rolling. I probably could’ve taken some time off from it, but instead I had such a desire and passion and need to face all of these demons and to do it right now. I didn’t have a sense of pacing myself; it was like a bullheaded drive to keep moving forward.

HD: Were you appreciative of other people’s concern, Hope, or in that moment were you just thinking, “Guys, I need to do this and feel this?”

HL: I’m deeply, deeply appreciative now of course, but in that moment, I was being a total brat, and being like my sister, if you will.  But it’s like a moment where I’m almost possessed by her outlandish behaviour, because I’ve always been the very buttoned-up, proper girl.

I feel that it was incredibly special that everyone didn’t walk away. I made it difficult for everybody. I’m glad I did it, but it was a much more difficult experience than I ever could’ve imagined.

HD: Hope, you’ve been editing for twenty years, you didn’t edit this film.  Was that a decision made early on?

HL:  Yes. I knew that it would be very difficult for me to look at the footage of myself and be objective, and I think that’s crucial in editing. Also, Toby Shimin is my mentor, and she is an incredible editor, much more talented than I am. I wanted who I thought was the best editor working right now, and one of the best cinematographers working right now, and I knew it was my first film. I thought the smartest thing to do would be to surround myself with people who are really talented and seasoned and could help me get through this experience and make a great film. I never for a second thought that I could do it all myself. I still can barely look at myself onscreen.  

HD: What was it like to pitch at the 2016 Hot Docs Forum? It was your first public pitch, and it’s a very high adrenalin process regardless; pitching a personal film on top of that is much more loaded.  What was that experience like for both of you?

HL: I have to say, we had a wonderful experience; it was maybe one of the highlights of the whole filmmaking process, really incredibly special. I think the mentoring that we got before the pitch was with Andrea Meditch, Kristen Feeley of Sundance and Hot Docs’ Dorota Lech. We were very lucky to have forty-five minutes with these incredibly smart women to practice our pitch, get their feedback, and then to really incorporate that, Beth and I went back to our room and we literally practiced the pitch for the whole day, eight hours straight, and the next day, eight hours straight.

BL:  It was kind of a really amazing moment, because we brought our film to the Forum with a certain understanding of it, a certain idea about it, and then we had this mentoring about how to pitch it, and we had to pivot a little bit, we had to take it to the next level. It was an amazing moment for me because there was something about sitting at a table for eight hours, honing, shaping, re-honing, re-shaping, and then doing the pitch, and then have it be received so well, was such a gratifying experience. I really do feel like the Forum changed the course of the film for us in many ways. Funders that we know came on board then; we made some pre-sales, we developed relationships really important for our careers, and made so many friends that we wouldn’t have met before, and it created a community for us. It was more than just the pitch, it was really a wonderful way to meet other filmmakers and feel part of a larger group of other people struggling to get the same work done.

HL: There was also so much warmth from the crowd. People came up to me and said they had the same thing happen to them, and that gave me a fire to keep going.  When you work on a film, sometimes you’re just alone in a room with your producer and your index cards. You don’t know if what you’re doing is going to make a difference, but to have people come up and thank me because I’m telling this kind of story really motivated me.

HDWhat the outcomes were of pitching at the table?

BL: HBO came on board shortly thereafter, and much earlier than we had expected them to. I do feel like the fire from the Hot Docs Forum pitch really helped them make their decision. They saw that there was such support and interest in the film. We made three presales to Canada’s documentary Channel, Norway and Israel, and those deals started at Hot Docs.  

HD: Can you both share your biggest takeaway from this project?

HL: I’m never making a personal film again! It’s funny because the dust has settled, and I’ve started to think of the bigger picture: my children are going to see this film, and their friends. It’s a big deal that I put myself out there, and I’m aware more now that I’ve put my whole family out there, and they weren’t necessarily up for that. I have to think about the waves and ripple effect that it might have going forward, but my hope is that the film will continue to live and help other people who have been through similar experiences when they feel really alone. Not that many people talk about this topic.

BL:  Before 32 Pills I had produced a film called The Trials of Spring, which is about three women and their fight for human rights in post-revolution Egypt. When I took that job, it was supposed to be a historical film, and then it became a verité film, and I suddenly became responsible for people’s safety in a conflict zone. It was an incredibly stressful project, and when Hope approached me about 32 Pills and I thought, “Oh my god, this sounds great!  It’s in New York, it’s local, it’s a film about an artist, and Hope seems awesome, really together,” and then it became a total conflict zone of its own. And for me, it’s been this lesson that in documentary you just never know what you’re getting into. There’s no such thing as an easy film, and even emotional and psychological conflict can be incredibly intense. Some of the fun of documentary is the unknown, but it can also be really challenging when there is no script.  Reality is better than fiction. I never would have anticipated that the most difficult decisions I ever had to make were on a personal film. So, it was a real learning experience.

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