After I graduated from college in 2011, I spent the summer housesitting for a professor who was in Greece. Much of my job involved trying (and failing) to prevent his old Black Lab from eating things she shouldn't, like crayons and kitty litter, and driving to the pet store in search of crickets for his daughter's Chinese Water Dragon. But mostly, I listened to records from his epic collection, smoked too much weed, and spent the summer thinking about how I had absolutely zero idea what I should do with my life.
Filmmaker Miranda Manziano just graduated from Brooklyn College in May and seems to have enviably clear career goals, along with the energy to accomplish them – traits I definitely lacked post-college. Even in the midst of a pandemic, her positive (or maybe just not 100% negative?) attitude made me feel a little less hopeless about the state of the world. Her senior thesis short, "Velour," has a lot to say about sexual assault, healing from trauma, and BDSM in just 10 minutes.
"Velour" is about a female fashion executive named Valentina (Lauren T. Mack) who visits a dominatrix (Neena De Ville) in an attempt to heal from a prior sexual assault. It's not available to the public yet but will hopefully screen at some upcoming (virtual) film festivals. When it does, I'll put out the good word on social media so everyone can check it out. In the meantime, please enjoy my edited and condensed conversation with Miranda.
Interview with Miranda Manziano:
WiR: When did you finish "Velour"? Were you able to promote it or see it at a festival before COVID hit?
MM: Unfortunately, no. I started editing the film in February during class but then when everything closed in March, I basically had to learn how to edit sound and color it by myself. I did the whole thing from home.
Well despite all of that, the film is visually beautiful. What made you want to focus specifically on this story?
I wanted to do something really personal. I've been assaulted twice and I'm only 22. I've also heard so many awful stories from other people who have had similar situations. I wanted to portray trauma in a way that's focused solely on the survivor. I didn't want to show the assaulter's face or have any kind of focus on him. You can't just get over something like that in one day; it's a lifelong process of healing. But I wanted this film to be hopeful ... to depict an experience where the survivor is completely validated.
I've been told that my experience was my fault. I especially wanted to portray someone who is also struggling with that self-blame, which I feel often happens, especially if alcohol is involved. This is why I had Velour tell Valentina explicitly that it's not her fault. Fashion and kink-wise, I've always had an interest in fashion and my cousin currently works in the industry, so that was a nice "in" that I had. I asked her a lot of questions to make sure that it felt accurate. It was important for me to portray an alternative to therapy with BDSM. My own experience with therapy wasn't great. The therapist told me that if I couldn't cry about my assault, she couldn't help me. It was fucked up. Obviously, not every therapist experience is like that, but showing an alternative choice was important to me.
After my own assault, I was very drawn to the kink community and especially dominatrices, due to the power they hold and the confidence they have. Everything in that community feels very thoughtful and consensual. It always piqued my interest, so I knew I wanted to incorporate it somehow and show that it can be a healing experience. I knew I couldn't write it by myself, so that's why I reached out to Neena (de Ville). She's amazing, and we definitely collaborated.
This question is a result of my own ignorance, but are we to assume that Valentina pays Velour for her dominatrix services (in the same way that a therapist would be paid)?
So, not only are we seeing BDSM in another light but sex work, as well. It's a therapeutic service, not necessarily something that is solely for sexual gratification. Have you seen a relationship like the one between Velour and Valentina portrayed elsewhere in TV or film?
You mentioned "Marcy Learns Something New" [in our email exchange], which I watched after I finished "Velour." It’s a great, complex film. I did do some homework before writing the script, but most of my education came from talking to Neena. I watched a few episodes of "Bonding" on Netflix and talked to her about it. She said it just reinforces stereotypes and doesn’t portray the domme as an empathetic caretaker. Knowing your sub[missive]’s trauma history is incredibly important. Consent is vital. Neena has said that good portrayals do exist, but there needs to be more because the bad ones ostracize the BDSM community even more and puts sex workers at risk.
I wanted “Velour” to be very tender, caring, and sensual. I think due to Valentina's nature, Velour knew that Valentina was assaulted but didn't know all of the details. Velour had to respect Valentina's boundaries while still asking to know important information about her past. For her, it was a matter of doing her job consensually while being aware of Valentina's trauma, safety, and being able to provide proper aftercare.
How did you connect with Neena and what was that working relationship like?
I actually reached out to her on Instagram last June. I sent messages to a lot of dommes on Instagram but she was the only one who had the time to meet me for coffee. We met up and her presence just made me so calm; I knew I wanted to collaborate with her. She read the script and asked me lots of questions about motivation/rationale, and told me stories about her experiences and life. We exchanged thoughts over text, email, the phone ... she gave me notes on the script – which went through many drafts -- and ideas. She pushed me on the specifics of the relationship and made me think about things more deeply.
Valentina is not a sub, she's a bottom. A sub would be there to serve a domme, but a bottom is involved mostly for their own pleasure. That distinction was very important.
I like that you consulted with and cast someone from the BDSM community. Is authenticity in casting something you discuss in school? I'm always curious how that's handled in an educational setting these days.
Yeah! I actually had some opposition to casting her. People told me not to do it because she isn't an actor and it could turn out poorly. We didn't really talk about it in school at all, but I knew from the moment I met Neena that she was this character. We ended up morphing it to the point where Velour was an extension of her, so she was comfortable in the role.
Neena seemed natural to me. I would not have pegged her as a non-actor.
Yeah, she was definitely captivating on screen. Aside from her natural talent, I think because she was a real part of the process, she really knew the character and story and could portray Velour authentically. We had a few rehearsals focused on the suspension. We had a safety coordinator named Lubegirl who did the suspension and tying, and taught Neena a lot of the ties. Lubegirl, Lauren, and I had 2-3-hour-long rehearsals where we practiced the suspension to make sure that everyone felt safe. We fostered a very communicative and calm environment so that there was no pressure on Lauren to do anything that made her uncomfortable. They were all so amazing to work with.
Going back to what you said about authenticity ... a lot of times, people are told that they should write from their own experiences, but that suggests they can't write other people's experiences that need/deserve to be told. I'm a strong believer in finding the right people to consult on a project if it's an outside experience. Otherwise, you might be portraying their story negatively, which could open up opportunities for further stereotyping. Going forward, I want to use my skills to give other people the opportunity to tell their own stories. I want to be able to help lift them up in that way.
I think there's also something to be said about telling your own story, but from an experience that you haven't necessarily lived. I see nothing wrong with that approach as long as the proper research is done, and the right people are consulted. Since this story is a sensitive one, were there aspects that you knew you needed to give special care?
I wanted to be very sensitive when it came to the flashback [of Valentina's sexual assault]. There are a lot of triggering, harmful, and violent portrayals of sexual assault in media, and while it is graphic [in "Velour"], it doesn't exploit the situation or delve into gratuity. I view my own experiences in quick snippets and only remember certain parts, so I wanted those scenes to be non-linear in the film. I wanted it to be more psychological and less violent ... more sensitive to Valentine's experience where she is the main character. Instead of focusing on the assaulter, I wanted it to be about her experience in the moment.
While filming, it could have been triggering to me and other people on set who have had similar experiences, but instead, people have said they felt okay while filming and watching. I wanted it to be respectful toward people who have lived through similar situations. Same with the dommes scene ... it was important for me to make it an intimate moment of connection, not just some bodies on screen. I tried to always be respectful/mindful of where the camera was.
In your film, the sexual assault reveals itself over time. Before the flashbacks, I remember thinking that Valentina was just in a shitty mood or a bad boss. Did you take inspiration for her character from anything in particular?
A lot of people compare her to Meryl Streep's character in "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006). I didn't even rewatch that movie before filming, although I probably should have. I wanted to take a strong, dominant character [like Miranda Priestly] and show her vulnerability without invalidating her power.
Back to your question about portrayal, one show that I'm currently watching is "I May Destroy You." During the first episode, I was like, "Holy shit." We had a similar experience and way of telling it. What really stood out to me are the points where the characters are triggered by something and reminded of the assault. It's very similar to Valentina with the buzzing and the distant look. The flashbacks are similar, too, although mine are longer. I think the experience is more universal than people think and a huge issue right now. I was really triggered by "IMDY" at some points. I have a hard time grappling with the idea of where the line should be drawn when it comes to violence. I think it depends on who the target audience is. With "IMDY," the way they're handling it is really good and sensitive. The blurriness on what to show and when is hard to navigate sometimes.
After the first episode, I wasn't sure that I could keep watching it because it gave me a lot of anxiety about my own past. My investment in the characters trumped those feelings, though. Is there anything else you've been watching and enjoying in quarantine?
My girlfriend and I finished "Insecure," which we loved, and just started "Atlanta." We also watched all of "New Girl," which I think is totally underrated. I had never given it a proper chance before.
Me neither. Maybe "New Girl" will be my next quarantine show. I feel like this is kind of a lame question, but do you have any advice that you would give to another young filmmaker? Anything helpful that you've discovered or heard from a mentor?
I think that people in the industry tend to say the same things over and over: it's all about who you know and making those connections. I feel like what I want to say is ... I've gotten into situations where I could have compromised my values and who I want to be creatively, but I think it's important not to lose track of who you are and what you want to do. You don't have to say yes to everything. I got offered a position driving this famous writer/director down to Mississippi during COVID -- 17 hours there and back. But I turned it down because not only did he say things about assault that I didn't like, but he also said that he would rather die on the job than stop filming because of COVID. When it comes down to getting ahead in my career v. dying v. getting assaulted again ... it's just not worth it.
Be true to who you are and want to be and work really hard to get there. Try to keep in contact with everyone you've worked with. My producer [Samantha Granados], Caroline [Mariko Stucky, DP], Adriane [Moreno, art director and actor], Jose [Gonzalez, AC and grip/gaffer] ... these are people I've worked with repeatedly. Keep people you love working with close, foster those relationships, and don't take them for granted. Sam, Adriane, and I are actually working on starting a production company, Facing Venus Productions. We call over Zoom weekly to talk business and have an expanding writer’s group. I love them, and I’m so excited to tell more stories with them!
Thanks to Miranda for having a nice, open conversation and making a great short film with an original point of view. Also thanks to Caroline, who you might remember as the DP on "Con Spirito." She introduced me to Miranda and kept the conversation rolling as I disappeared into a depression hole for a few weeks. Caroline has a really great short out now that everyone should watch. "Us" is about two women navigating the challenges that come with a queer multi-cultural relationship. It is fantastic and shows how much can be done with limitations (single location and static camera).
If you want to follow Miranda on the Internet, here's where you can find her:
The header image of this post is also c/o Katelyn Kopenhaver.