Liza Mandelup has had fantastic start to her year. After years working in photography and making short films for outlets like Dazed and Vogue, Mandelup world premiered her debut feature documentary, Jawline, at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The reception to the film was incredibly positive, and Mandelup won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker.
Currently on the festival circuit, Mandelup next travels to Chicago to present Jawline as the Opening Night presentation at this year’s CineYouth Festival. We chatted with Liza ahead of CineYouth to talk about her photography background, how she found the aspiring social media influencer Austyn Tester at the center of Jawline, and filmmaking in the social media age.
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How did you make the transition from photography into filmmaking?
I always knew that I wanted to make films but there is obviously no rule book for how to get from point A to point B. You can read as many stories about how other people broke into film as you want but ultimately you need figure out what you have access to and what’s going to work in relation to your life.
For me, I just started with what I could do myself. I realized pretty early on that it’s an industry where you just need to show people what you’re capable of before anyone will even talk to you about your projects and so I started doing that. The first steps to showing people I had a vision for something was through photography. I gravitated towards it because I could do it on my own and express my ideas in a visual way. The years I spent focusing only on photography were the years I found my voice. I started making photo books and after putting each one together I would look back on it like “oh this could’ve been a great film.”
My first documentary project was following a group of kids who were building huts by train tracks who dreamt of lives with no responsibilities only to realize they could never escape that. I couldn’t convince anyone to come with me to film with them so I ended up traveling with them around America by myself. After I showed a few people the short film that I made with them, I started being able to get small crews to come out and eventually I was able to make my first film which felt like a complete vision. That was Twinheads.
What was it about Austyn Tester that made you want to anchor the film around his story?
I had been filming in the world of live broadcasters for about a year, developing the story for the film and searching for my main character. I went on tour with a few different broadcasters and did the whole “meet and greet” circuit. For the film, I was looking for someone who we could follow starting at the moment that person decided they wanted to give it their all to become famous through these live broadcasting apps. I wanted to follow their journey to try and get famous and observe how their “online self” was different from their “real life self.”
Someone we met had randomly found Austyn online and he had hardly any following. I flew to meet him based on the description of him alone, I hadn’t even seen anything he did online. Austyn’s personality and charm was undeniable and when we went to meet him in Tennessee for the first time and talked to his family, everything felt very cinematic. I think Austyn truly believed he could make this dream happen for himself, he was so passionate about it and there were high stakes around making it happen. This was exactly the kind of character I wanted to find to tell the story of this world.
As a photographer, you have published two photo books. How did you apply that experience to your work behind the camera for Jawline?
Everything is about framing for me and I’m constantly thinking about photography when I’m making a film. How do you tell a story that doesn’t rely on audio or motion. I talk about that a lot with the cinematographers I work with – I won’t want to use a scene in the edit if I don’t like how it’s covered, even if the moment is great. I’m constantly working with the DP to find the perfect middle ground for getting all the spontaneity and chaos of doc while making sure we are filming it in the most cinematic way possible. This challenge never gets old for me.
How has making Jawline changed your own relationship to social media?
I try to remind myself of what a healthy relationship is. I don’t want to live someone else’s life through social media personally – I’d rather be living my own! So, I just don’t take it too seriously and I try not to consume too much of it. Social media really has a way of messing with your emotional stability and I’m very aware of that so I try to not let it get to my head.
I will say that finding online communities for filmmaking has been a generous gift to my career. I’ve been able to premiere a lot of early work online, I didn’t do the festival circuit with any of my shorts I’ve made, I went straight to an online platform. This allowed me to have a dialogue directly with audiences far before I had the means to anyone releasing my work in a more traditional way. I continue to have a dialogue with an audience online and think it’s a great space for filmmakers. Using social media goes hand in hand with that. I’m definitely all about connecting with communities online – it’s just important to remember to be present in the world around you first.
How have young audiences responded to the film?
Ask me after CineYouth 🙂
What are you most looking forward to in Chicago?
Sharing the film with a new audience! It’s still so early in that process so every time we get to screen the film is very exciting.
Jawline is the Opening Night presentation for the 2019 CineYouth Festival, running April 26-28, 2019 at the Music Box Theatre. The screening is free and open to the public. Free tickets are available here. Jawline will be released this summer in select theaters and on Hulu.