'All About Nina' Director Eva Vives on How Being 'Headstrong' Created a Space for Her in Hollywood (Exclusive)

John Sciulli/Getty Images for NALIP

The Spanish filmmaker is being celebrated for her personal new film, but she says it wasn't easy.

It’s All About Nina in Eva Vives’ latest film -- and first directorial feature -- but really, it’s all Vives.

The Spanish filmmaker moved to the U.S. from Barcelona in 1994 to attend New York University. Less than a decade later, she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay for 2002’s Raising Victor Vargas, which she co-wrote with Peter Sollett.

The film was acclaimed for its authentic portrayal of what it was like to grow up in the Hispanic community on the Lower East Side, and it’s a project that to this day, Vives holds very near and dear to her heart. But if she put most of herself into Raising Victor Vargas, she put all of herself into All About Nina.

Vargas wrote the movie, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, about a comedian who tries to confront her intimacy issues and history of abuse while attempting to score a big new gig in L.A. The character is fictional, but the trauma she went through at the hands of her father is not -- it’s very much Vives’ story.

While she admitted to ET over the phone that she felt some trepidation over how the movie would be received amid the #MeToo era, it’s been praised by critics, and has already garnered some awards buzz. Last week, Vives was honored with the Best Latinx Filmmaker Award at NALIP’s 2018 Latino Media Fest Awards -- which she admitted was somewhat of a full-circle moment for her.

ET: Congratulations on this award! What does it mean to you to be recognized by this community?

Eva Vives: I know, it’s amazing… Raising Victor Vargas was my first movie that I ever wrote, I was like 21 or 22 when I wrote it with the director and I had moved from Spain to New York when I was 18 and I didn’t know New York very well, I had gone a couple of times and sort of only seen, you know, the touristy things that everybody sees, so when I moved there, I think it was in, I’m going to date myself now, but ‘94. Going to NYU was really when I first started to get to know the city… all of this to say that at the time, I hate to say this, but it wasn’t cool or accepted to identify as Hispanic or Latin. We didn’t even have the word Latinx, but I remember always feeling very proud of being that and of having that community, so it’s incredible to me. It took me a long time to make my first movie as a director, and to be awarded with a Best Director Award is especially incredibly moving, and so I’m very grateful.

How has your culture influenced your perception of beauty, and how is it expressed through your work?

Well, it’s funny. I’m a very headstrong person, so I never strayed away from trying to have that kind of representation in my scripts and in my movies, but I have to say that I think that has made it harder for me. It’s taken me this long to make this movie, for example, though I managed to have, like, a good mixture of races in there. But the lead is white, and again, that isn’t a criticism at all of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who I think is great and I always wanted to work with. But I just think that, you know, even [Raising Victor] Vargas was considered at that time just as a Hispanic movie. That’s how it was talked about, that’s how it was seen… I know that these things are changing, I just think we need to get talking about it and making people aware about how important representation is and those complicated, interesting, bold characters are not just stereotypes… We’ve always had people who wanted to do that and somehow some managed to do it, but not enough.
Things in Hollywood seem to be shifting, slowly, but it’s happening. Hispanic female directors, however, aren’t so common. What needs to happen for us to see more of you in the field? 
I get the feeling that we are all out there and want to work. I think it’s more of the people who are hiring. Honestly, it’s this catch-22 thing, because the more women, Hispanic, minorities that are in positions of power, when they’re the ones hiring, the more we will see that…. We’re seeing how the numbers, despite all this talk, have still not moved. So I’m sure somebody like Tanya [Saracho] who is doing Vida, I don’t know what her numbers are, but again, because she’s Latina and a woman, I’m sure she’s a making a point of hiring more people like her. I think that’s also interesting that it falls on us, the women, can you get better representation in your movies? Are you always going to tell stories that are about women? And I think it’s very important for all of us to do it, but I think it should be asked of white men. For example, they need to start hiring crews that are diverse and they need to start opening up themselves to more of that. The ownership shouldn’t just be on us.  
All About Nina is your first feature-length film, and it’s a story that’s very personal to you. What was the most challenging part of seeing it come to life? And what’s been the most rewarding?
Honestly, the opening of it and the subject sort of going wide in the country has been the most challenging in a way, and not in a bad way. Just up until recently, I was the one controlling that narrative, which was important to me. While we were editing, that first article about Harvey Weinstein came out, and you know the #MeToo movement has exploded, and it’s about time we’re talking this way, but to have everything amplified the way that it has has been incredibly overwhelming. Then our opening coincided with the Kavanaugh hearing. You know, this isn’t part of the movie, but I also testified against my father in Spain, and it’s an incredibly brutal thing to do, let alone somebody like Dr. Ford then becoming the focus of a huge political issue. I just can’t imagine how she had the balls to do it, to be honest, so that’s been really upsetting… It’s just this storm coming together that has been emotionally pretty difficult, and it remains to be seen how the movie will be received. 
I have gotten a lot of good reviews which is great, and I’ve been hearing a lot from survivors especially online, because again, these days you can get in touch with basically anybody. That’s been really rewarding and meaningful, but the struggle continues. I think that it’s a small film and it’s hard to get people out to the theaters, and it’s a matter that makes people uncomfortable, especially in regards to her anger that she displays. I think a lot of men are really uncomfortable with that. They don’t want to hear it, you know.
I think one of the reasons the film works so well is that Nina channels her anger through comedy. It kind of softens the blow. As a filmmaker, what was it like to write these stand-up routines, and why was that the right outlet for you to have Nina open up about her trauma? 
It was so much fun (laughs). I liked her having a platform in which to get up on and say what she wanted to say. I think there's a lot of power in that as well. But I thought, Am I going to be able to pull this off? I don't know. And I thought, Well, only one way to find out. So I wrote it down, and really, I was just trying to be as honest as possible, which really is my favorite kind of comedy. I think so much of comedy is recognizing.... we say, ‘We laugh because it's true.’ Same thing.

Courtesy of The Orchard

How important was it to find the right person to play Nina? What was it about Mary that made her the right fit? 
Oh, I mean, obviously, hugely, because the movie lives or dies on her. It's All About Nina, right? She's in every scene of the movie. She carries the weight on her shoulders. Nina is a really difficult character to get right because she's abrasive and gets in people's face, which I think can easily be overdone, but at the same time, there's a lot of stuff that she's hiding through a lot of the movie. So I really needed someone who could play a lot of those things, which is a very difficult thing to do. And I didn't write it with anyone in mind per se, because it's so based on me that I was just wanting to get the story out, but then the minute that I saw it was starting to work, and I was like, Oh yeah, this could be a film, I started, of course, thinking about who could play her, and she immediately came to mind. 
I hadn't met her before. My husband had worked with her and sent her the script and she really liked it. So we met for coffee, and I think really the first thing she asked me is, 'Is this your story?' And I think it was important to her not only that it was truthful, but that I could also give her a lot of information about what had been going on with me so that she could pull from that. But then she said, 'I've never played anybody with this much rage inside of her, and it's going to be a question of how much we show when.' And I thought, Oh, that's exactly what I think. The rage quotient of the movie was something that was really important to me, and that I think defines Nina for some time until she gets it out. So I think she and I just did [see the character the same way], and then from there, it was just a question of talking a lot about her and filling her in that way. 
All about Nina is getting some awards buzz. What’s your reaction to getting this type of attention? 
I mean, look, it's obviously, to some extent, what everyone wants. I don't know that I was so focused on awards before, because so much of it was for me to get my story out, and again, it's coincided with so many other people doing that in this time and age, that I'm just happy to be a part of that, and to be putting it there. I think Mary deserves the attention. I think Common is fantastic in the film, and I'm glad that they're being recognized for that… Someone said, ‘An actor can only be as good as the part you give them,’ or something like that, so you gotta press them a little bit and give them the opportunity to stretch and say, 'I know you can do drama, now can you also do comedy?' Or with Common, who has a certain feel to him, that people don't expect him to be goofy and sensitive and charming as he is playing Rafe, when actually I think he can do that in spades, and I think he's also a very underrated actor. So I'm just glad that I could do that, and they gave me so much back. Because I got incredibly lucky with everybody in this cast. 
I was an especially big fan of Common’s character in the film because he seemed so real. He was lovable, but he had flaws. 

Oh interesting. I'm glad. I have to say, I think on the page, Rafe was a little more flawed. But because Common is so damn charming, I think he comes out a little more perfect than I think I intended him to. But then I also really like that, and I also liked it because, and he said this himself, ‘I don't think black men get to play that kind of character,’ still, which is a damn shame to say the least. So I thought, Fine, let him be charming. It's a great thing. I think it's more about playing with the stereotypes in the beginning, which I try to do with all the characters. When we first meet him through her eyes, she's immediately suspicious of him, because he's so suave and charming that she's like, 'Yeah right, this guy's going to be a player.' And then it turns out, he's not at all. He's the real deal. 
What’s next for you? Would you consider directing for TV? 
Oh sure, yeah. I mean, of course. [There’s] so much exciting stuff going on on TV. I would love to direct other shows as well as... I've definitely been kicking around a Nina-like show for a while, because so many of the subject matters that we touch upon there, I feel like I have a lot more to say, both in the comedy world and in relationships and dating, men, women, that kind of thing. And I finished writing a revenge script, which seems like a natural place to go to after Nina, and considering everything that's going on in the country right now. I think I exercise a lot of my demons in that one. But yeah, I hope I get to get that up soon and keep directing and writing.