Go behind the scenes and meet "Pin Up Camera Chick" Marie Ilene
By Christina Schultz
We started out discussing the effects of COVID on the film industry, but I’d like to dive right into Marie’s fascinating career in film and her rockabilly style.
CS: So where did you go to film school?
MI: I went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a small conservatory with only 80 people in my graduating class, so I got a lot of individual attention. We started making movies immediately, which gave me great technical experience as a cinematographer. When I moved to LA, I started working right away.
CS: Well that's encouraging to hear that it can be done! What filmmakers were your biggest inspiration or just your favorites in general?
MI: I am all over the map. My editors hate me because I’m a constructive filmmaker, which I learned from Alfred Hitchcock. Like him, I only shoot exactly what I want, leaving my editors no choice. I'm also a huge fan of Tim Burton. Even though the music video industry was tanking when I started out, I liked music videos by Mark Ronson, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. I was really into telling a story visually and I feel like all of them do that, as opposed to shooting for a sitcom, for example.
CS: That is quite a range, like you said, which also applies to the projects you’ve worked on. Tell me about what you've created so far and how those projects came into fruition.
MI: It's hard to make a living as a filmmaker - the age old artist conundrum - because I only want to do things that speak to me but then you have to pay the bills, right? Which is why I worked on the TV show Biggest Loser for three years because it was good money but I wasn't making art. I was learning a lot about documentary filmmaking because that’s pretty much what reality TV is. Around the same time I started doing short films. This will sound new agey but I feel like my favorite projects just came to me, which was the case with Pole Tricks. A [male] producer was looking for a female director because of its racy, yet sensitive subject matter. I am a very sexually liberated woman so a story about a stripper didn't scare me. The writer was telling her own life experiences in LA. I clicked with her, I understood what she was saying and the struggle she wanted to show and I thought let's do this, this sounds really cool. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is 588, a stop motion film set to an Emily Dickinson poem. A director that I worked with years before told me about an experimental project where she recorded people reciting poems like a Greek chorus and gave the recordings to filmmakers to have them make whatever film they wanted in response. It was so weird but I was totally in. I had never done stop motion before but I had a vision and made it happen. So all these projects are random but they're super me now.
Bombshells and Dollies was another project that fell into my lap. A friend of mine from film school was working with the director on some preliminary interviews. I helped out with an interview in LA and afterwards the director was picking my brain, seeing as though I was the target demographic: a woman into rockabilly. It eventually dawned on him that he needed a woman, which I have to give him credit for. A lot of men would have said I can tell this story about women. Not only did he need a woman to avoid being the weird dude coming over to the pin ups houses to interview them, but also to get those little extras. At the interview, I suggested we get some B-roll of her closet. He asked why and I said trust me, everyone wants to see her closet! He needed a woman for those kinds of things and then as we ramped up into production I just got more and more involved.
CS: So you did production and cinematography, and it sounds like you were advising as well?
MI: Yeah, I really consider myself a creative producer on Bombshells. My credit is just co-producer, but I helped shape the story. It was a cool position because normally if I’m shooting an interview as a cinematographer or camera person, the director does the interview and then it’s over and I pack up, but he would do the interview and then turn to me and ask if I had any questions. So I was able to help shape the narrative and when I heard something interesting, I was allowed to pursue it.
CS: Well that's nice there was that openness when you were working on the film.
MI: It was really. I have to say with men it's one or the other - either they're totally in charge or they’re super collaborative. I'd never worked with a woman who made me feel like I couldn't chime in, whereas I work with a lot of men who don't want anyone to chime in.
CS: I’m glad to hear there are men in the industry who are open and willing to collaborate! You already mentioned it but you are part of the rockabilly scene and you also are into burlesque, is that right?
MI: Yes, the two things were happening simultaneously. We were in full-scale production for three years on the documentary, so 3 VLVs. At the time I was dressing very vintage-rockabilly - my husband is also big in the scene - but I was more punk rock and goth growing up, so it's an interesting trajectory (although a lot of the pin up girls are recovering goths). In any case I got tired of wearing black all the time. I started wearing feminine dresses with an edge and I liked being in front of the camera. The more people I met at Vegas, the more I got sucked into the scene, which I’m super happy about. A part of that is also burlesque, because a lot of the girls are burlesque performers, too. At first I was on the sidelines but my husband encouraged me, knowing my background in theater, and he was totally okay with me taking my clothes off on stage. When we were wrapping up production on the film, I was rising in the burlesque scene and in the Los Angeles burlesque community and now I produce two shows a month.
CS: Awesome! Did you ever consider entering the Viva Las Vegas pin up contest?
MI: No, but people ask me all the time because now - even after the filming is over - I'm there every year as part of the burlesque that goes on. I've definitely thought about it because it would be really fun. But honestly I don't think I can handle it - I mean seeing what these girls go through up close, they look so perfect and they're all such gracious losers - it must be an amazing experience, but I would be so nervous. In burlesque, my costumes have to be on point and detail-oriented too but I'm dancing and doing the tease so there's a distraction and you're taking the clothes off, so you don't need that much perfection. I really have to give these girls credit.
CS: Who of the contestants that you had seen and worked with on the project were you most impressed by or inspired by?
MI: That's hard because I'm good friends with some of them, but I will say Marilia Skraba from Brazil. She is really amazing, I love her. I get to hang out with her every year at VLV - except this year unfortunately. In Brazil there wasn't a real rockabilly-pinup scene, so she started one and has her own clothing brand, which she created the audience for.
CS: The contestants have done impressive things! Victory Violet stood out to me in particular because of her involvement in the body positivity movement, which made it really interesting from a feminist perspective. How do you feel about body positivity? Is it an underlying principle of the vintage rockabilly pinup scene or is that just something the film emphasized?
MI: Yeah, it definitely has become a big thing in the vintage community in the past couple years because once you feel accepted, you’re going to thrive. The style of clothing is made to celebrate curves, so if you are a curvier woman, you'll look good. But even if you’re 90 pounds, the clothes still look cute on you. In the beginning, though, you did have to search a little bit more to find clothes, which created this camaraderie because if you were an “odd size” you would share tips with others. We were being really honest about our bodies and talking about them in a positive way - not what we want to change about them, it just felt so empowering. We’re basically playing dress up. When I walk down the street, even in Los Angeles, in victory rolls and a polka dot dress, I'm gonna get looks. And that’s the cool thing about pin up for me: we're all misfits, but still part of this awesome community.
CS: I think I already know the answer to this one, but do you consider yourself a feminist?
MI: I definitely consider myself a feminist, although everyone has a different definition of it. My definition is celebrating femininity in whatever form it takes for you as a person. I also work with other women to help them find their voice, since I’ve found mine. I'm very fortunate to live in Los Angeles - I work with female filmmakers all the time, I'm around all these really strong women. I’ve learned to stand up for myself and demand respect, and encourage other women to do the same.
CS: That is really important work, so thank you for doing what you do!