The physical and emotional glamorization of women who willingly sacrifice their own happiness and self-worth, just so that they can satisfy the men in their lives, is a harrowing theme that appears far too often in many of Hollywood’s studio and independent films. The idea that these female characters can’t defend themselves because they lack confidence in themselves, especially when they’re constantly bombarded with stories about them being victims, is powerfully combated in writer-director Diane Bell’s new drama, ‘Bleeding Heart.’ The filmmaker’s second independent movie intriguingly celebrates women’s strength, as well as the fact that they don’t need a man to rescue her, just another female who strongly cares about them. Showing that a woman is willing to sacrifice everything to not only help themselves, but also other women, particularly when it’s the right thing to do, proves that they’re not just a glamorized victim; being self-assured and fearless when they pursue what they want proves they can move past being a target, and finally become a courageous leader.

‘Bleeding Heart’ follows reserved yoga instructor May (Jessica Biel), as she lives a peaceful, affluent and clean-living life with her boyfriend. Her carefully maintained equilibrium is thrown out of balance by the arrival of her long-lost biological sister Shiva (Zosia Mamet), a street-smart yet naive young woman who’s caught working the streets and trapped in an abusive relationship. As the two get to know each other, May feels compelled to rescue the hapless Shiva. But as May takes steps to pull her sister back from the edge, she finds herself increasingly drawn out of her sedate world and deeper into Shiva’s chaotic one.

Bell generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview at New York City’s STK Downtown & Rooftop Restaurant the day after ‘Bleeding Heart’ had its World Premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how she was drawn to write the script for, and direct, a film about a woman struggling to move past a destructive relationship after she taught classes in social welfare centers, and was shocked by the level of violence with which the women who attended her classes lived; how she initially thought Biel and Mamet were too glamorous for the roles of the emotionally struggling sisters, but instantly changed her mind after she saw how deeply committed the two actresses were to their respective roles; and how there were obstacles that she had to overcome while making the drama, due to the restrictions of independent filmmaking, but having those constrictions make her more creative in approaching such elements as the cast’s collaboration and the cinematography.

ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the new drama, ‘Bleeding Heart.’ Where did you come up with the inspiration for the story, and what was the writing process like for you overall?

Diane Bell (DB): The idea for the story came from my own experiences in life. I worked as a yoga teacher for many years. I taught in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is where I’m from, and then I went on to teach in Barcelona, Spain, where I opened a center.

During that time, I taught classes in social welfare centers for prostitutes, and that came about because I was working with social workers who suggested that I do it. I was shocked by the level of violence with which these women lived. It sounds really naive, but every time you went into that place, you would have to warn the women about a John who could beat them up.

You would think, this is going on in my city, and these girls don’t know what’s happening. No one’s doing anything about it, and everyone just accepts it. So this was the idea for the film’s story. Then about 12 years later, I just had my baby, so I thought I was just going to write something for me. So I started to write this film.

SY: Beside writing the script for the film, you also directed it. How did penning the screenplay influence the way you approached helming ‘Bleeding Heart?’

DB: I actually have never directed a film I haven’t written, which is something I find to be quite common amongst women directors. We generate our own material, which gives us the chance to direct, which is interesting. For me, it’s a whole process-when you’re writing it, you’re already imagining the whole film, and how you’re going to direct it. You’re also already imagining the whole rehearsal process with the actors, and how the people you’ll be working with will influence the project. In the process, you also try to stay true to the original idea that you wanted to express.

SY: What kind of research did you do into the obstacles women face as you were writing, and preparing to direct, the film?

DB: I was constantly looking at things involving women and violence. I remember one day I was sitting in a little cafe, and they had on CNN in the background. They were running a story about girls who were being kidnapped, including a woman who was released from a kidnapping situation in Cleveland.

At the same time, there was a big article about women not having confidence. I thought, how are we supposed to have confidence when all we see in the mainstream media is that we’re victims. The message is that we’re only important if we’re sexy or dead.

So there was something propelling about that that made me want to create characters who show a different side of womanhood, as well as the fact that we can be empowering as women. I wanted to show women who were doing something really strong, amazing, brave and courageous.

SY: Speaking of showcasing the brave and courageous side of the female characters in the film, particularly May and Shiva, what was the casting process like for the main actresses, including Jessica Biel and Zosia Mamet?

DB: We were so lucky in the casting process. I worked with this fantastic casting director, Richard Hicks, on the film. Jessica’s name came up very early on, but I wasn’t sure if she could do it. My first impression of her was that she’s very glamorous. But then I met her, and the second she started talking to me about the part, I knew she was the one to play the role of May. She understood it on a very deep level, and was so committed to the process. So we cast her first, because we knew we had to cast that part before the role of Shiva. Since they’re sisters, we knew we had to cast someone who would fit with her.

When Zosia’s name first came up, I thought, no way-she’s so wrong for this part. I knew her from ‘Girls,’ so I thought there was no way she could do this role. This character in the film is the complete opposite of what she does on the show, so I thought there was no way she could do it. Then she taped an audition for us, and the second I saw it, I said, “That’s her. There’s absolutely no question.” I think she’s a phenomenal actress. Most people think she is somewhat like her television character, but she’s nothing like that. Working with them, and developing their parts, really brought a lot more richness to the table.

SY: Speaking of casting Jessica and Zosia against type, how important was it for you to showcase the different and unexpected sides of women in the film?

DB: I think that’s one of the most important themes of the movie. Jessica’s character is a yoga teacher, and her life seems perfect. She’s beautiful, and has this great boyfriend and house. While everything seems perfect, she’s really miserable. Deep down, there’s something completely off, because her happiness isn’t real-there’s a falseness to it all.

When I first spoke to Jessie about the part, she said, “I really relate to this person. Everyone thinks my life is perfect, but it’s about that truth underneath. Underneath it all, we’re all human.”

For me, the film really shows how these two women, who seem so different on the surface, actually have more in common than things that separate them. The film’s really about the discovery that they make in each other. Although they seem so different, they’re actually just the same.

SY: You mentioned the rehearsal process earlier-were you able to discuss the characters and the story with Jessica, Zosia and the rest of the cast before you began filming?

DB: To me, it’s essential-I cannot imagine shooting a film without having rehearsal time with the actors. When I initially spoke to Zosia and Jessica, I told them I needed them to commit to that rehearsal time beforehand. Since the shoot was really short, we wouldn’t have time to discover things as we were filming. So I was lucky they were both super committed to their roles, and they would go to my house every day.

For me, it’s not even going over lines together-it’s more about digging into the characters, in a way. I love it when actors question everything, and I encourage them to do so. That way we all know why every moment of this happens. They were really fantastic in that way, and I think that shows on screen.

SY: Speaking of having a shorter shooting schedule on the film, did having such a limited amount of time to make the movie, and filming it independently, add to the project’s overall creativity?

DB: I don’t know-I always fantasize about having a longer shoot. This is my second film, and I only had 18 days to shoot my first film (‘Obselidia’). On this film, I only had 19 days, and it had more complicated aspects. It wasn’t complicated in the overall grand scheme of things, but there were a lot of things that were happening. But we always made our days, and the girls were always amazing, even though we were moving at a very fast pace.

For my next film (‘Of Dust and Bones’), I’m setting up a situation in which I really have more time. That’s my fantasy-to go deeper into things as we’re shooting. But I think we pulled this one off, because the girls, as well as my crew, were so amazing. We did it, but it’s not easy shooting in that short amount of time.

But the schedule did bring some good things, as there was something more visceral about it. There were obstacles that we had to overcome, due to the restrictions of independent filmmaking. I think having all the time and money in the world isn’t always necessarily a good thing. Somehow having constrictions makes you more creative. Having those constrictions made me and my cinematographer, Zak (Mulligan), think about how we were going to do things. Often times, overcoming those obstacles makes the projects more interesting.

SY: Speaking of working with Zak on the cinematography, what was the process of working together to determine how to get the best shots of Jessica and Zosia’s portrayals and interactions?

DB: Well, Zak also worked on my first film, and I love working with him. He’s so talented, and has such an amazing eye; he really captures the moment. We took a long time before we began filming to plan how we were going to shoot this movie. We pretty much came up with a set of rules of how we were going to do it.

One of the things that we did, which I think no one will ever notice, is that we always shot the women on a really tight axis. If we filmed them over the other’s shoulder, it was almost like they were looking into the camera. But when they were talking to their boyfriends, we always shot them way off axis, so that there’s this feeling that they’re not really connecting. That way when we were filming, and things weren’t necessarily going exactly as we planned, at least we still had a set of concepts.

We chose to feature a lot of close-ups in the film, so that we could be close to the girls’ emotions. They really understand the cinematic quality of movement, including how even the slightest movement of the eye can convey so much.

SY: As an independent filmmaker, do you enjoy shooting on location, and feel it’s beneficial to telling the story?

DB: Yes, absolutely. I think that was especially true with my first film, as well as my next film (‘Of Dust and Bones’), which we’re going to shoot out in the desert. I enjoy filming on locations and in environments. I feel like the process added an authenticity to ‘Bleeding Heart,’ which we shot in real homes, and you wouldn’t necessarily get that same feeling in a studio. I think the way geography affects people is an important thing.

SY: What does it mean to you that the film had its world premiere here in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival?

DB: I was absolutely over the moon when we heard that it was going to premiere here. This festival seems like such a great fit for this film. I came to Tribeca as an audience member a few years ago, and thought, I would love to have one of my films play here one day. So for me, it’s a personal dream that has been fulfilled.

SY: What do you hope audiences, especially women, here at the festival, and those who will also watch the film once it’s released, will take away from it?

DB: That’s a difficult question, because the film’s ending is a difficult one. It really raises more questions than it answers. What I hope is that people will debate some of the questions that it raises, including what we should do for people who are suffering in a violent situation. There were a few people who reached out to me after the premiere and told me, “The film made me love my sisters even more,” and I love that. Women appreciating each other more is another important aspect of the film.

SY: Why is it important to you to include such important social issues in the films you write and direct?

DB: Well for me, I can’t be cynical about what I’m writing; whatever I write comes from my heart. Whatever I write tends to focus on what I find to be difficult, and can’t really find a solution for in real life. So somehow telling a story about it helps me process it.

My first film is very much about climate change, loss of species and environmental disaster, which were things I was obsessed with at the time I made it. This film’s very much about violence against women, and what we can do about it, as it’s very much an epidemic. My next film is about the widow of a war journalist, and what’s happening in Syria. You can’t help but write about what you deeply care about.

SY: As a female writer and director, are there any women filmmakers that you admire, and who have influenced you?

DB: There are so many who I really love, but when I was growing up, there weren’t that many. I never thought I could be a director, and the idea never crossed my mind. I always wanted to be a writer, but I never thought women could direct-the idea seemed so far-fetched.

But now there are so many incredible female directors. Some of my favorites are Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay, and there are so many more. I’m inspired by all of them, and the world is finally changing for them. There are so many stories they can tell, which is absolutely crucial for the world of films. It’s important that our storytelling reflects all of our ideas. I think the stories we tell don’t just reflect our reality, but also create it. If we can see more powerful women in media, that will help create more powerful women in real life.

People point out that only about five percent of studio films are directed by women. But there’s this whole other indie ecosystem going on, where there are a lot of women who are making films. Now I can name 10 or 20 female indie filmmakers, which I couldn’t do even 10 years ago.

SY: What advice do you have for women who are also aspiring to become filmmakers?

DB: There’s this massive change in grassroots filmmaking, and I’m thrilled to be a tiny part of it. I love helping other female filmmakers, and being part of women film groups. My advice to them is to write and film stories, and don’t take no for an answer. There are really smart ways to make films for a small amount of money, and the results can be fantastic. I made my first film for under $120,000, and it ended up premiering at Sundance in the dramatic competition. It was up against films that had up to 20 times our budget, and it won the Excellence in Cinematography Award that year.

I thought that process was really fascinating, so I’m now teaching these workshops. I’ve also set up a company called Rebel Heart Film, in which we have workshops that teach how to make films independently. It’s been amazing, because our whole idea has been about total transparency.

I feel like in our industry, there are so many lies, because everyone wants to portray the idea that everything’s successful all the time. So filmmakers don’t traditionally share information with each other all the time. We teach things like how distribution deals work, and how much money they can get from different avenues. So we really try to empower filmmakers, and it’s been amazing how other filmmakers have been responding to that process. But I think the bottom line is if you want to do it, just do it.

Tribeca 2015 Interview-Diane Bell Talks Bleeding Heart (Exclusive)

Written by: Karen Benardello

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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