Looking Backwards and Forwards

Writer-director Liz Manashil on traveling through time in Speed of Life and on the eve of 2020.

I’ve always been obsessed with the passage of time. I’m a lifelong neurotic and was taught at an early age to be very early for every appointment, every class, every meeting. I also fixate on the future. Aging. Whether or not I will reach my potential, what I can accomplish before death. What will my legacy be? And as far as death goes, I’m preoccupied with that as well. Every plane ride, I think, this could be the one. In the car, I imagine high speed crashes on the freeway. And as an artist, I find that it’s always best to put yourself into your work in the ways that you can.

So, I made a movie about a woman who watches time itself manipulate her, her goals, and her love life. In my film Speed of Life, June’s boyfriend falls through a wormhole that was created by David Bowie’s death, and she essentially spends years afterward in a state of emotional paralysis. The film documents what happens when he returns.

I wrote it to work out some demons. I had a crush that I’ll probably never be over, and those feelings went into our main character’s longing for the man who disappeared. As mentioned, I have a lot of fears about aging and death, which I channeled into the film’s depiction of a dystopic society that keeps people over the age of 60 out of sight. I also made it to get closer to finding a seat at the table as a filmmaker.

In a world where making movies is easier than ever, artists are in an oversaturated marketplace where it becomes harder and harder to get noticed. In my mind, there’s an ever-changing table of relevant, topical artists who are top of the list when jobs come up, when agents seek clients, when producers are looking to attach directors. In my ridiculous imagination, they all sit at a table, playing musical chairs. With each film I make, I’m hoping I can get closer and closer to that damn table so I can steal a seat.

I started writing this article on December 27, 2019, and it feels apropos to be writing this at the height of sentimentality for the decade. I often force myself to sleep before midnight on New Year’s Eve, a strategy to help me avoid having a panic attack. As a control freak, I hate that we’re all celebrating something that we cannot stop – the ticking of the clock. Why would anyone support that? It’s our most powerful enemy as a life force!

This year feels like my first true year of adulting. I’m 35 and I gave birth to our son, Colin, in February. I’ve also just witnessed a close friend battle leukemia (and win!) and an acquaintance document her last days of battling pancreatic cancer (and lose). The stakes – which I was protected from for the past 34 years – seem real now.

That’s another thing my movie is about. When it comes down to it, would you do it all again? Would you go back in time, go forward in time to warn yourself? Or would you let the chips fall where they may?

Liz Manashil (center) on the set of Speed of Life with production designer Marcie Maute and script supervisor Josh Gannon.

Back to aforementioned table – what is so great about “making it” anyway? Why do I obsess over it? Why is it so important to garner the respect of my peers and strangers? Part of it is, of course, economic stability. I have put in the time, studied and worked toward a goal of a sustainable career and it seems like you still have to pass through a certain barrier in order to get recognized by others for salary-level gigs.

I think it’s also because I grew up watching movies and falling in love with those directors putting their perspectives up on the screen. I can’t paint or draw and I’ve never been able to write anything fictional other than a screenplay, but I’m drawn to exorcising demons publicly through my craft. I love the magic of imagining something really nutty and then seeing it projected to an audience who is forced to experience my perverse thoughts in the dark. Ultimately, I do want to share my bizarre worldview, and it’s hard to do that without funding. Funding seems to come from being at that table.

It also comes down to the fact that when you don’t believe in an afterlife (like I don’t), and you devote a lot of your life to one thing (like film), you would love for your work to exist after you go. If I were to die right now, my legacy would probably erode within a few years. I haven’t made a splash yet, and I don’t know if I’ve made an indelible mark on anyone’s life. But if I were to find a seat at that damn table, maybe I wouldn’t really die when my body gives up?

I worked for three years at the Sundance Institute, which only further fueled my passion to get to that damn table. Unfortunately, I also spent those three years comparing myself to each person who got a fellowship or was programmed by the festival, and it wasn’t healthy. I need to change that mindset.

If I think back on the Liz from 10 years ago, or even one year ago – the Liz before her son was born, the Liz before Speed of Life was released – she would be so proud of this Liz today. And even further back, when I was a teenager, all I wanted was to direct something, anything. Every year since then, the bar for achievement has been raised. Why? Because of my inability to be satisfied. And maybe I’m writing this all just to get to that point. The point is that I’m incredibly proud of the work I’ve put out, and maybe that should be enough. Just to keep making the work. However, the Liz of today just wants to make more, achieve more, tell better stories and have more opportunities to do so.

Ray Santiago and Ann Dowd in Speed of Life.

So, back to time and death. Great elements of David Bowie’s life and career. Our son was born to “Soul Love” by Bowie. My film was inspired by Bowie’s death and how I felt like the world split in two. And David Bowie himself prepared well in advance for his own last days. The colleague I mentioned who just lost her life to pancreatic cancer, she also documented her last days. She shared every moment with bravery and a smile. She produced a final video to announce the end of the war and in it, she talked about organizing her funeral and the need to “always be producing.” She experienced challenges that far exceeded anything I’ve ever done. But I have learned, through her, that attitude is absolutely everything.

My New Year’s resolution is to try to appreciate what I’ve achieved, and constantly to strive for more, but to stop comparing myself to others. From what I can tell, no one feels like they’ve made it. Have you ever met anyone who, when asked how they are, answers, “Fabulous!” and leaves it at that? No, we always gripe about one thing or another. Nothing is ever perfect, and no one is ever satisfied. When I express all these intense neuroses to my partner, he always tells me that a great artist is never satisfied. I don’t think I’m at the stage of “great artist,” but it makes me feel good to know we have that in common.

On January 10, my second feature, Speed of Life, will be released into the world. And I can’t help but think of the passage of time in these past few years, as we release the movie on the anniversary of David Bowie’s death. Life is short and days move quickly. I’m going to keep moving and making personal work as best as I can. I’ll try to fill my time with making work that, inch by inch, will lead me to a seat at the table. I’ll always be producing.

Liz Manashil earned her B.A. in Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and her M.F.A. from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Post-graduation, Liz spent several years as a film critic for the PBS/Hulu series Just Seen It (which she also helped produce and direct), while also working with distribution guru Peter Broderick. In 2016, Liz became the manager of Sundance’s groundbreaking Creative Distribution Initiative until the program’s close in 2019. Her debut feature, Bread and Butter, which was called “an absolute must-watch for women everywhere” by HelloGiggles, was released by The Orchard and can be seen on VOD nearly everywhere. Liz’s second feature film, Speed of Life (starring Ann Dowd and Allison Tolman), will be released January 10, and she is now in production on her third, Lady Parts. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Laura Palmer, her partner, Sean Wright, and her son, Colin. She currently works as the Senior Manager, Impact Distribution for Picture Motion. To watch Speed of Life: https://www.speedoflifefilm.