LA born and raised, acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager has long been a favorite of the culturati. Her playful, colorful work uses classic Old Hollywood tropes to explore dark modern themes, including those of isolation and the need for connection and empathy. Prager’s first solo museum show in the US, Face in the crowdstarring Elizabeth Banks, received a lot of attention when it was shown at the Corcoran Gallery in 2013. Over more than a decade, she directed nearly a dozen short films starring Riley Keough, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Cate Blanchett, among others.
Walk is Prager’s latest short film. With Katherine Waterston (Babylon, Alien: Covenant), the darkly comedic work is vintage Prager, using stylized imagery and an absurdist plot to explore the will to exist in a period of uncertainty and cultural ambivalence.
A slew of Hollywood insiders have already organized events for the film, with CAA (its agency) screening Walk early November (it was followed by a Q&A led by Everything Everywhere Everything at once director Daniel Kwan) and Prager who will host a screening party and discussion at the West Hollywood Edition later that month, attended by stars such as Olivia Wilde, Alicia Vikander and Karen O.
Of Walk on SXWS Monday night (her first film to be shown outside the confines of a museum or gallery) and an upcoming sci-fi film in the works to be produced by Elizabeth Banks’ Brownstone Productions (Prager co-wrote it with her artist sister, Vanessa) , the director and photographer is about to bring her work to a wider audience this year. In this exclusive The Hollywood Reporter conversation, Prager discusses her life, work and how art has the power to heal.
Why did you choose to take Walk to a party?
i felt like Walk was more universal in the message I was trying to get across in it, and I felt that while it’s still abstract and doesn’t have clear dialogue like most shorts that end up at festivals probably do, it has a lot more of a narrative to it that unfolds. … I really made this one for the masses.
How is it more universal?
I think a lot of people have been very much wondering what the future looks like and where we’re going, and just really looking at what’s important to us and re-prioritizing. What we’ve all done that we’re responding to some degree to a lot of things that are thrown at us all at once so this movie is an answer to that, asking all of my questions and fears that I felt that I knew everyone in different degree felt. … In making it, I felt some catharsis and relief and the ability to smile and chuckle again.
What are some of the issues you’re referring to that you or people in general have faced?
It’s everything. It’s climate change. It’s COVID. It’s race, gender, politics, just everything. I think whatever has been seeping in for a while has just decided to surface all at once and we are meant to have the solution. It’s this crazy world we live in now, but Walk is very much about, ‘OK, we’re all dealing with this and it’s all being thrown at us, but what motivates us? And how do we go on from here?’ Because we all decide to be here. It is a decision to participate in life regardless of the sadness and chaos and all that life brings.
You told me you changed the ending of the movie not long before shooting and made it more hopeful. Why was that?
I realized that what will get us through everything is just reconnecting with the human heart and connecting with each other. … That’s what always put me back in a hopeful state. I actually wanted to end it with that. I felt that all possibilities were available to us through human connection.
Your first short film was over ten years ago?
I started photography when I was about 21 and I had my first big break, you could call it, at MOMA in 2010. … I started to hit a plateau in my interest in photography, which I have now come to realize years later that it’s just part of my process. I have these impulses in photography for a while that seem exciting and challenging and urgent at the time and then I’ll hit a plateau until I need something else to revive me. And that was the first time I reached my plateau and it really scared me… and then I discovered the medium of film.
How did that discovery come about?
I discovered film in London at [one of my openings]. People asked me what happened to the protagonist in the picture. They just wanted to know the before or after of the photo they were looking at. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to show the before and after of the photo through moving images.
How did you end up working with and getting to know Elizabeth Banks?
By the time I started working with Elizabeth, I was starting to understand the rhythms of filmmaking a little bit better and what could be done with it. I started experimenting in other ways. … She is amazing. She is such a force. I didn’t know her then. She held out her hand to me. I think she saw my work and wanted to do something together. When I started looking for someone for my short film [Face in the Crowd], she was the first person I asked and she was totally down, really professional. One of the reasons I like working with really experienced actors is that they’re just so great to work with on set because they can direct with nuance and I just always get exactly what I need.
What are you looking forward to making your first feature film?
It’ll be great to be able to dive in and actually have time for rehearsals and talking about characters and the character arcs. That’s something I haven’t been able to do with short form, where there’s a backstory to talk about, but ultimately it’s very fast and intuitive. In the feature film world, I think it will be really satisfying to be able to take a bigger bite out of something as a director. I have much bigger stories to tell.
How did the writing process go?
That took a while. Learn the screenwriting process. It’s a completely different medium. My producer Jeremy Dawson sent me a huge list of books. I talked to other filmmakers. One of the things I like about the film world that’s a little bit different from the art world – filmmakers in my experience, at least – they want to help other filmmakers. The art world tends to be a bit more private. I really like the collaborative process and the creative family that the film world often sees itself in.
What is the movie about?
It’s science fiction from the near future. I think Run kind of showed me how I could make a sci-fi movie. I always love that retro future twilight zone kind of world, and I really feel like the future could look like this. If the robots and computers fail us, we will have to go back to all analog systems. That is what we can solve ourselves. To me, that’s a more realistic version of the future than the slick future you often see. I think it’s going to be much more of a mix of the retro analog and the remaining computers and AI that’s still around.
When do you hope to shoot?
It’s happening this year.
Are you still planning to be just as active in the art world, also as a photographer?
Certainly. I love the freedom I have in the art world so much. I would never give that up.