Pippa Bianco doesn’t take awards for granted. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival she premiered her debut feature Share and hopped back on a flight to her native New York. “I was back at work when we got the call that we needed to come back for the awards ceremony,” she recalls. “I was not anticipating that part at all.” The story of a young girl, Mandy (Rhianne Barreto), who wakes up after a boozy party to find that a compromising video has gone viral, Share was acquired by HBO Films and picked up not one but two prizes at the indie festival, one for Bianco’s thoughtful script and another for her star, who received a special jury prize. In Cannes, where Share won the 2015 Cinefondation prize in its original 13-minute form, the director is eligible for the Camera d’Or. Given her past form, she may well win it.
Where did the story for Share come from?
It’s so hard for me to say. I had a friend—two friends actually—who’d been involved in something sort of similar as perpetrators. Men who’d made videos. And one in particular was a very good friend of mine. I wasn’t involved personally, he was just a friend who confessed to me that he’d done something similar, although the situation was different. The sex was consensual. It wasn’t the same [as the situation shown in the film]. But he wasn’t someone who fit any kind of stereotype of the kind of person who could do that to somebody.
I was struck by how easy it is to be outside yourself when you’re behind a camera, and how easy it is to dehumanize somebody else, and objectify them—to be so distanced from your own ethical decision-making. I’m not excusing that behavior in any way by saying that. But why does it happen so frequently? That question stuck in my mind: how does someone who is good friends with women and loves women—how can that person do this to someone they care about?
So why did you choose to tell the story from the girl’s point of view?
It’s much easier to see a way into a story about a perpetrator than a victim, because they’re much more obviously active—they do something to somebody. It’s much easier to tell a story, or structure a story, around someone who is very apparently an active protagonist.
So, to me, the interesting thing was the person on the other end of that equation—to tell the story from the perspective of the person who is experiencing it without using any kind of artificial device, like a revenge story or a detective story. And from there I began interviewing a lot of people who have gone through a similar experience.
How did you find those people?
I made the choice to only seek out people who had already been looking for a public platform. There were obviously people whose cases had been publicized, but who wanted to remain anonymous, and I didn’t think it would ethical to approach people who wanted their privacy. At that point in time when I made the short , there were fewer girls willing to do that, but obviously the world changed quite a bit once I was making the feature.
How did you get into filmmaking in the first place?
In college I’d gone for fine arts, studying painting and photography. But I was just really… lonely [laughs]. I was like, “I’ll be working alone forever.” Because you shoot alone, you print alone, you show alone—it’s a very solitary lifestyle. So I thought, What’s an artform that involves more people? One I can actually do, because I’m not musical. I thought, Well, I guess filmmaking has a lot more people. I like being in a team. So I applied for some PA jobs on Craigslist, and that was it. I really fell in love with it.
The short won the Cannes Cinefondation Award in 2015, didn’t it?
Yeah, we won the first prize there, which was very lucky and random.
When you went back to make the feature version of Share, did you start from scratch or did you refer back to the original?
I had two images in my mind. I knew how the film would end, and I knew how it would start. The start I kept from the short, so I had those two things intact. But the middle? Didn’t have it [laughs]. Still, I knew who I wanted this person to be. And I had the guiding principle that I was not going to use any elevated devices to make this a more interesting, or more entertaining, or more active story. I forced myself to find active choices in what people might often dismiss as passive choices. She was not going to go after this guy, or kill herself, or become a detective, if you know what I mean.
How did you find Rhianne Barreto, who plays the girl?
I think we went through 500 girls or something. And I just couldn’t find anybody. You know, I think—especially in the U.S.—there’s so much pressure from the star system on young actresses to be actresses/models/pop stars/Instagram influencers, and so I find that, often, young people look and perform in a certain way.
My casting director, Avy Kaufman, was like, “For what you’re looking for, you’re going to find the talent in the U.K., or Australia, or somewhere where theater is the underpinning of the craft, not necessarily fame.” That was definitely true, I think. And Rhianne came out of that.
Is it true that she couldn’t get a work visa?
Yeah, we tried. We had three appeals. We applied for the work visa, each time she was granted it based on her qualifications, and then when she went for the interview her heritage was at issue. Her father was born in Iraq, and they said things to her like, “You don’t look British to us. Do you speak Arabic?” She was mysteriously denied every single time we tried.
By the second or third appeal we had Congressional support. We had letters from Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren—all the New York senators. Which was incredibly kind of them. But even still, we were denied. We appealed all the way up to Homeland Security and were denied.
So then you decided to move the shoot to Canada?
Yeah. I mean, I did try to shoot in America. I tried very hard. But then it was like, are we going to fire Rhianne and penalize her for the way she looks and where her father was born? Or are we going to figure it out in some other way? It became a much more complicated production at that point, but everybody felt like, “Well, if we don’t support this kind of immigration policy, we shouldn’t cave to it.” Luckily, Canada gave us all work visas, and it worked out fine in the end.