With the 22nd Tribeca Film Festival right around the corner, AFI caught up with writer/director Roxine Helberg (AFI Class of 2011) whose feature directorial debut COLD COPY, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Bel Powley, will have its World Premiere at the festival this year. Her dramatic thriller follows Mia Scott, a young broadcast journalism student (Powley), who is desperate to win the approval of the respected, yet cutthroat, reporter Diane Heger (Ross) who pushes her to reconsider the meaning of truth if it means she’ll succeed in the end.
After graduating from the Directing program at the AFI Conservatory, Roxine worked closely with director Jean-Marc Vallée on the HBO series BIG LITTLE LITES and SHARP OBJECTS, receiving a crash course in television production. In 2018 she was selected for Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative Program and shadowed director Jen Lynch on AMERICAN HORROR STORY. In addition to film and TV, her work also includes directing a pilot starring Kal Penn for Crypt TV and producing and directing a short documentary series for the LA non-profit Inner-City Arts. We sat down with Roxine to talk about the greatest challenges of making COLD COPY, working with editor and AFI Alum Arndt-Wulf Peemöller (AFI Class of 2010) and what she hopes audiences take away from the film.
AFI: Congratulations on COLD COPY premiering at Tribeca! How did you come up with the idea and how does it feel to anticipate sharing your film with an audience for the very first time?
Roxine: The story came to me in pieces. On a personal level I’d always had this interest in journalism. I think in a way, it’s the hardest form of storytelling because its aim is truth in the literal sense, not the kind of emotional or universal truth you might hunt for in fiction. But in a sense what it’s chasing is almost impossible to achieve because even when you’re coldly reciting a series of events, you’re also making narrative choices – where to start, how much detail to include – that ultimately reveal your hand as a writer or broadcaster, no matter how detached your intentions. That’s what’s so fascinating about it.
I was inspired to tell this story after noticing this drastic shift in the way people of my age were interacting with their own identities thanks to the rise of social media. It felt like there was an increasing pressure to project a perfect, amended version of yourself out to the world, and I became fascinated by the idea of how this might be affecting our minds. What happens when you get so caught up embodying an identity you want others to perceive that you lose sight of everything else? That’s what Diane is, and it’s the struggle that Mia grapples with through the film too.
The reason journalism felt like the right arena in which to tell this story was that I noticed a similar transformation happening with the rise of clickbait and rage-bait articles, with stories being framed to attract attention rather than relay facts. It just felt like the perfect backdrop to explore that insecurity. Now that the film is complete and Tribeca’s almost here, it’s an incredible feeling. It’s thrilling, nerve-wracking and hard to believe…but most of all I’m so grateful to everyone involved, and hopeful that audiences take something away from it, no matter how small.
AFI: What kind of research did you do to write the script and fully immerse yourself in this world of high stakes journalism?
Roxine: I watched a lot of interviews. For me, that was the element that felt most essential because I wanted that to be the “setting” Diane is on even when she’s just talking to another character out in the world. Her mindset is always “how do I make this person say or think the thing I want them to say or think?” I watched really great interviewers with Oriana Fallaci, Christiane Amanpour and even Dick Cavett to get a sense of their rhythm and how these experts put their interviewees in a position where they’re compelled to open up. I think it’s that high-wire act that makes this kind of journalism so engrossing. I also watched more overtly partisan interviewers, like Megyn Kelly for example, to see how they attempted to maneuver the narrative of an interview in a particular direction. I really wanted Diane to embody both sides in that way, to be someone with a genuine thrall over people, a kind of charm, but also with a sensationalist agenda that undermines her humanity.
AFI: How did you cast Tracee Ellis Ross and Bel Powley to embody your two leads and what did they bring to the roles that helped bring these dynamic characters to life?
Roxine: I was very fortunate to have spent a lot of time on sets with Jean Marc Vallée before shooting this film. I worked for him for many years, as a jack-of-all-trades, writing acceptance speeches for him in the morning and going through casting videos in the afternoon. I talked to him while writing the script but also during pre-production. He was the one who initially recommended I watch DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL because he had been so taken by Bel’s performance. This was a couple years before we were even casting, but I had always thought of her as I was writing. I knew this whole story rested on the duality of the two main characters, that gap between their outward presentation and their true selves. In her work, Bel has this ability to ride the line between wide-eyed and naïve on the one hand and sharp, considered and almost intimidating on the other. We need the audience to believe Mia could go either way, falling into Diane’s pull or loosening up via Igor [Jacob Tremblay] and realizing she was on the wrong path. I knew Bel could pull that off like no-one else.
Tracee is just charisma embodied, but then she can plumb these incredible emotional depths when she wants to, and it’s so effortless. That’s so perfect for Diane. You need the audience to fall under her spell a little in the way that Mia does, so that when the deeper emotional cracks start to show it has real impact. I love to challenge the norm when it comes to casting, and I hadn’t seen Tracee play a character like Diane yet. She’s actually the opposite of Diane, very warm and spontaneous, so I was excited to see her play a character like that.
I think what’s most interesting is that it’s ultimately what you don’t expect the actor to bring that then ends up being definitive. Tracee gave Diane this incredible underlying dignity that I hadn’t found on the page, while Bel was able to balance Mia’s doggedness and drive with a real playfulness I hadn’t expected. I don’t think they just brought the characters to life; they transformed them for the better. They were both just so ideal for their roles, and they really took a risk. I’m a first-time director for one, and then the story itself isn’t one that has safety nets either, so I’m immensely grateful that both of them took that chance, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we achieved together.
AFI: What did you find were the greatest challenges of making COLD COPY?
Roxine: There were definitely challenges at every stage, but I think, as someone directing their first feature, there were two main ones. The first was learning to focus on what’s in the frame because everything else is out of your control. The second was learning not to be too precious about what’s in your head because ultimately, it’ll never be as raw and invigorating as what happens naturally on the day. What’s magical is that your collaborators are creating work inspired by you, but also that’s inspiring to you. As the film progresses and you’re working with all these people, it’s as if the movie starts telling you what it should be, and you hold the reins just enough to get it there. As a director, you can feel when something is working and when it’s interesting and exciting, so it’s really about being as present as possible.
AFI: Can you talk about what it was like working through the post-production process with your editor and fellow AFI Alum Arndt-Wulf Peemöller to bring your final vision for the film to fruition?
Roxine: Arndt and I had previously worked together on a short film, and I knew what a talented storyteller he was. From characters to structure to pace, he has such a natural understanding of visual language and how to affect viewers emotionally. I trust his taste and we also have very similar sensibilities, which was so helpful during the collaborative process because you’re operating from the same frame of reference. There’s a kind of pre-existing shorthand you’re using that just makes everything run a little bit smoother. It was easier to be creative and to find solutions to editing problems because there was always this base level of mutual understanding. He also had ideas I hadn’t thought of that made some of the scenes even more compelling. That’s the magic of collaboration.
AFI: What do you hope audiences take away from the film in terms of the theme of the dangers of manipulating the truth in journalism?
Roxine: I want them to leave feeling uneasy about the way truth can be weaponized and how that’s affecting us as human beings. It’s really the second part I think is the most important, as in what is the personal cost of the manipulation of truth, not just on the people consuming it, but on the people doing the manipulating too? We can talk about the damage it can do to democracy or to our faith in existing power structures, but I think maybe more important than that is the fundamental crisis of identity it creates. We shape ourselves based on how we perceive reality and, if our perception of reality shifts away from the truth, then our identities become warped too.
I don’t think the movie presents answers to that problem, but then it isn’t meant to; it’s meant to show this idea that manipulation and dishonesty will always breed more of the same, that it always has a personal cost, that we can all fall prey to it. I think if people come away from it questioning their own definition of and relationship with the truth, then the movie will have succeeded.
AFI: Are there any lessons you took away from the AFI Conservatory that have stayed with you as a filmmaker, and do you have any advice for other emerging filmmakers as they embark on their first feature?
Roxine: What I really learned, and this would also be my advice to people starting out, is the importance of your collaborators. Film is an ensemble and so a big part of a director’s job is having the ability to pick the right collaborators. Tracee isn’t just a talented actor, she’s also a great person, and I admire the way she thinks about life. The same can be said about my DP Matteo Cocco or my editor, Arndt Peemöller. They’re so talented, but also interesting people from different backgrounds. Matteo is Italian, Arndt is German and Toti Guðnason, our music composer, is Icelandic, and they’re just a few of the many other people who worked on the film. Your collaborators and you will be part of this boiling pot of energy and creativity and ideas. It’s magical!
COLD COPY will premiere at the 22nd Tribeca Film Festival on June 11, 2023 at the SVA Theatre. Learn more.