It’s Me, Hilary Director Matt Wolf Discusses his HBO Doc

Who exactly is Hilary Knight, the artist behind the iconic "Eloise" books? Director Matt Wolf sets out to paint a complete portrait of the now 88-year-old artist, covering not only his odd and wonderful life as an illustrator but also his often contemptuous relationship with not only his most famous creation, the character of Eloise, but also to Eloise author Kay Thompson, who passed away in 1998. If you missed last night’s premiere of It’s Me, Hilary, catch it on HBO OnDemand or HBOGo, or set your DVR for this Wednesday at 12:30pm EST.

Your collaborator and executive producer, Lena Dunham, tweeted, "Hilary's work has had a more lasting impact on me than anything else." Do you feel the same way?

Lena, who’s a friend of mine, became friends with him first. One day she texted me a photo from Hilary’s bathroom, saying, "I’m in Hilary Knight’s bathroom, and it’s amazing." I had to Google, 'Who is Hilary Knight?' I realized he was the illustrator of 'Eloise,' and I knew she was obsessed with Eloise, so that was my reintroduction to Hilary. I saw his books as a kid, but I revisited his work when Lena told me more about him. That’s when I started looking more deeply at all the different works he’d made over the course of his entire career and came to appreciate it.

The first Eloise book, 'I am Eloise' was published in 1955. You've called her a 'little punk' and 'a feminist icon.' Why has she resonated with so many people for so many years?

It's that feminist spirit. It’s about a willful, defiant little girl who is extremely self-possessed, and for any girl who doesn’t fit into the mold, that’s really gonna resonate. It’s interesting to think that when the book was written and published in the 1950s — that was a real trailblazing attitude for a young girl to have. She continues to resonate for little girls who don’t want to see cookie-cutter images of what they should look like or who they should be. So there’s that feminist dimension to it, but there’s a bit of wish fulfillment, in that i can’t think of any kid who wouldn’t want to live in an adult world without supervision, without rules, without having to go to school, without really having to get dressed. [The Plaza] is a fabulous hotel where everybody caters to your needs. It’s kind of the ultimate for a lot of kids, and a fantasy a lot of adults hold onto as well.

Have you been to the Eloise-themed tea at the Plaza?

I have and it’s fun. It’s interesting because the book has a lot of period references that don’t make it feel stodgy or old fashioned. Kids still connect to it, and I think that’s because the character is so singular and succinct and has so many layers. She has such a visible personality — it’s something kids and adults respond to.

How did you capture the emotional ride of this film? Hilary's life has been a lot more complex than people might think–there’s darkness, struggles, and ups and downs. Kay and Hilary eventually had a falling out.

We knew there was a potential to tell a bigger story rather than to do a rose-tinted portrait. We knew there was a complicated relationship to Kay Thompson but also to the character to Eloise, and we wanted to get into those emotions. For all of us as filmmakers, we collaborate with different people and we know how intense those relationships can be–they can be as consuming and as complicated as romantic entanglements, and I think Hilary’s union with Kay, and also his fallout with her, is kind of an epic example of something that happens all the time between creative people. To us, it seems like an apt metaphor for these people who created this child and who have divorced, and the custody battle that ensues, trying to look after her as she grows older.

You said it was tricky because his life was highly curated. How did you deal with those challenges and make sure that all parties involved were ultimately happy?

Yeah, it’s tricky to make a film about an artist and to interpret their work in a way through the visual language of the film. Hilary is prone to being kind of controlling in a way that makes his work excellent and very precise, but when you’re the subject of a film, you’re not in total control, and that was sometimes difficult for him. But I think he respected the process in a way. A lot of the visual storytelling was collaborative for me, because I relied so heavily on Hilary’s footage that he shot. We were like, 'Let’s tell the story through his eyes,' how he documented himself for decades. On the other hand, I knew it was hard to make an illustrated image translate to to a rectangular screen, so I had an amazing collaboration with the animator Howard Nourmand. They did an incredible job of creating an animation and graphic language that really brings Hilary’s work to life in 3D and in motion. The goal for me was never to try to tinker with the authenticity of Hilary's work, but to put it in a context that would connect on screen rather than a flat page.

How was working so closely with your good friend Lena?

We had no Kay-Hilary fallouts (laughs). It was great. It was incredibly supportive, and also very useful to have her as a subject because we were in dialogue about the kind of ideas we wanted to communicate in the film, and she’s also a character in the film. We figured out what we wanted to communicate and were able to bring that onscreen through her interviews and what we chose to shoot. It was a unique and special collaboration.

Do you have an Eloise tattoo like Lena does?

I don’t have an Eloise tattoo–i’m tattooless. But at one point they talked about making fake Eloise tattoos. I wish they’d done that–it would’ve been great.

They should have — I would wear one of those! How did you first know you wanted to become a documentarian?

When I was in high school, I was this very politicized gay teenager and I was into anything that was anti-establishment. I got into punk music and it was in the mid-90s when independent film was at its strongest. I would go to the local art house movie theater in San Jose, California, where I was from, and watch all these movies. I knew independent filmmakers lived in New York, and Hollywood filmmakers lived in L.A., and at that moment I had this fantasy of moving to New York and being an independent filmmaker. Of course, when I got here, independent film was kind of dead (laughs).

So then what?

I went to NYU.

Did you get a lot out of film school? Some filmmakers I’ve talked to think it’s essential, and some say, ‘Don’t waste your time.’

It’s a mixed bag, like any college experience. The most important thing you get at film school that you don’t get elsewhere are relationships with people who are really good at their craft who are gonna continue making films in the years that follow. A lot of people on this film are friends from school. I feel lucky that I had exposure to that.

What do you hope at the end of the day audience members take away from Hilary’s story?

Something that occurred to both Lena and I is that as creative people, we have a strong drive, and sometimes an obsession with our work, and I think that we often assume that older people are kind of — I don’t know — different than us in a way. The biggest learning experience for me making this film is that at 88, Hilary still has that drive and determination and creative energy. He may be physically older, but mentally, he’s still kind of with it in that regard. If anything, the film should make people contemplate the longevity of a creative life, and how the creative struggles and triumphs that any artist might face can unfold over such a long period of time. I doubt Hilary was ever expecting that HBO would be making a documentary about him when he was 88 years old. He’s so determined to be making new work. The film also gets into the complexity of collaborative relationships and relationships in general, and how tenuous they can be. Great things come out of them, and sadness comes from that as well.

Featured image: Hilary Knight and Lena Dunham in Matt Wolfe's documentary, 'It's Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise.' Courtesy HBO