Inside those walls, there was space to create and dream
When filming at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, directors Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier wanted to tell the story of the last residents who are still living amid the renovations. They present a look through the backdoor of the infamous hotel with their film Dreaming Walls. Today, they talk about what the audience can expect from the documentary at Film Fest Ghent.
Can you tell me what the film is about?
Maya: It is an exploration of the Chelsea Hotel today. During the 60s, 70s and 80s the hotel used to be a shelter for artists like Andy Warhol, Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs. Ten years ago new owners bought the hotel and started renovation work in order to make it a luxury hotel. We filmed the last residents of this place who are still there during these renovation works. A lot of them are artists and have been living there for thirty years.
Amélie: Our main goal of aim was to tell the story of those artists who stayed in the shadows of some bigger names. The hotel was fertile soil for creativity due to the mix of different artists. The Chelsea hotel was built by Philip Hubert in 1883 with a utopian aspect to it, based on the French philosopher Charles Fourier. It was architecturally planned as a place to gather together, with a lot of communal rooms and apartments where people from different social classes could live and which allowed for many great artists to grow and emerge. This diversity is disappearing today, so we wanted to address that.
Our main aim was to tell the story of those artists who stayed in the shadows of some bigger names
So it provides a social commentary in a way?
A: Yes, because we didn’t want to focus on the glamorous aspects. We wanted the audience to enter the backdoor of the hotel. The bigger names are often used to promote the hotel but the historical meaning disappears when it is turned into a luxury. It’s the same with the gentrification of New York.
Why did you want to make something about the hotel?
M: Four years ago we were in New York for Amelie’s previous film, The Elephant And The Butterfly. It just so happened that the cinema she presented the film in was on the same street as the hotel. Seeing it was under renovation, we decided to enter. We met one of the residents, Merle Lister, in the lobby. We became friends with her and this was the very beginning of the project.
Why did you choose the format of a documentary?
A: The border between documentary and fiction doesn’t really exist for us, so it’s not a classical documentary.
M: It’s very cinematographic. It feels like wandering through the hotel and entering some doors where people talk about their vision of the place. There are also doors that open up to archives. There is a dialogue with the past because we wanted to play with the different layers of time.
There is a dialogue with the past because we wanted to play with the different layers of time
Why was the cinematography so important to you?
A: Everything was decrepit and the lights were either really cold or warm so we constantly needed to think about what cameras we could use to be softer on the residents’ skin for example. We wanted to find the right way to film the subject. We also wanted this square 4:3 aspect ratio to emphasise how enclosed it is, and that each resident’s identity is part of the setup of their room.
Was it difficult to make it?
M: It was especially difficult to make a film in the US when you’re not from there. I learned a lot about production because it was so tough.
A: The production aspect was difficult. After this experience, I’m willing to create a cooperative for production to think of new ways of working. The classical production system is too pyramidal and often the authors remain in a form of ignorance for budgeting or production decisions, which will inevitably have an impact on the artistic decisions.
Were you afraid to film about the Chelsea Hotel, knowing it would be compared to everything that has been made before?
A: Sometimes we thought about how people would receive it. We were particularly stressed by the fact that we, as Europeans, were telling a story of a landmark in New York. But the more we knew about the place, the more we understood that the hotel was a meeting point for people from all over the world, so quite an international space. We quickly found our own place in the hotel.
M: And the relationship we had with some residents was so strong. The more we were with them, the more we knew that we were on the right track because they gave us their confidence and trust.
We quickly found our own place in the hotel
How did you end up with the title Dreaming Walls?
A: Initially it was our working title but we kept it because we couldn’t find anything better. For us, it resembles the novel A Room Of One's Own by Virginia Woolf a bit. The hotel was really a room of one’s own: inside those walls, there was space to create and dream.
Would you have loved to stay at the Chelsea Hotel?
M: We stayed there during some shootings, but I would have loved to stay there during the 70s or 80s.
A: Yes, when New York was really juicy. People were experimenting and exchanging with each other. There were so many things going on.
An extra note about the clothes Amélie and Maya are wearing in the photos:
We chose to wear clothing by Jot Fau, a dear friend and artist who has also been ‘sculpting’ clothing since 2016 with used fabrics and leather. She uses rejected materials that she instinctively transforms into precious ones. Her garments resonate with our work as filmmakers. Just like Jot, we collect pieces of life, which we transform in order to create a living canvas that becomes the film. Her clothes feel like armours, ornaments, bodies of fabric that take care of us in the same way we take care of the characters and the images of our movies.