The director of ‘Never Goin’ Back’, ‘Euphoria’ and ‘Sweetbitter’ opens up about the vulnerability of acting, explicit content and the precise storytelling of branded content
Augustine Frizzell knows character and how to define story through emotion. From HBO’s pilot for ‘Euphoria’ to back-to-back episodes for ‘Sweetbitter’, Augustine draws audiences in to the worlds she helps create. Her work is original, nuanced, and unforgettable. Augustine’s first feature, the autobiographically-inspired ‘Never Goin’ Back’, World Premiered at Sundance 2018 and screened at SXSW before being released by A24 last year. Augustine was named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch and was nominated for a John Cassavetes Spirit Award. We caught up with Augustine to learn more about her recent work and process.
Q> Watching your characters is a catharsis and terrifying. How do you so effectively mine the psyche of the person struggling with spanning into adulthood?
Augustine> I think it’s more about exploring human nature than a focus on a specific age. As an adult, I still feel the same emotions that I went through as a teen. Connecting to those, fine tuning and focusing on experiences that resonate with people - even if they are raw - is all part of the process.
Q> How does your work as an actor impact your approach to directing?
Augustine> It’s a huge part of how I approach directing actors. Not just having acted myself, but also having observed the teacher / actor relationship in classes over the years. My acting teacher here in Dallas can hone in and pinpoint what an actor needs within two minutes of the scene being completed. She’s incredibly perceptive and skilled, and I learned a lot about directing actors from her. As an actor, you are extremely vulnerable and I appreciate how scary a place that can be. It’s about sensitivity. The best performances are from actors willing to go deep, which is what we pay to see when we go to the movies - something that moves us.
Q> What kinds of narratives appeal to you from a writing or directing standpoint?
Augustine> It is very dependent on mood at the time. My biggest draw to making films is to learn about different kinds of people, testing new avenues, and learning about myself. After Euphoria, which carries a lot of deeply emotional material, I wanted something more nurturing and the narrative equivalent of hygge - the Danish lifestyle movement of contented and cozy. This new project has stakes, but it’s a story centred on the emotion of love and the beauty within relationships. So more like being enveloped in a story you root for, than the intensity of Euphoria.
Q> The reaction to Euphoria has been as dramatic and divergent as the series itself. Did you anticipate the strong feeling it would elicit?
Augustine> Honestly, I didn’t think it would be as intense as it is. And I am fine with that. I came from a life similar to what it portrays - and, sure, it is dark and there’s sadness, but I didn’t anticipate that it would be shocking to people. Then again, I’ve had similar reactions to my personal story but for me, it was just the circumstances of my life. There are so many shows with extreme violence which people seem to accept pretty readily and without fanfare. This is explicit in other ways - drugs and sexual content. And while it is not marketed to teens, I would have no hesitation to watch it with my daughter as long as we made the time to discuss it afterwards.
Q> Do you think the reaction would be as strong if the leads were male?
Augustine> I can’t say. In general, I think women of colour face greater scrutiny than anyone else. So perhaps.
Q> Where do you find creative inspiration?
Augustine> Music is a huge inspiration. One song can inspire an entire script.
Q> How do you prepare for a project?
Augustine> It always starts with research. My current project is a love story set in the 1960s. So I am looking at my favourite romantic films, and watching movies from the 1960s and reading about the time, and listening to music. Basically surrounding myself with the influences and information of the time. It goes back to a love of learning.
Q> Many artists today feel driven to address current geopolitical events. Does that appeal to you?
Augustine> I find the state of our world so overwhelming that I don’t want to delve into it personally. I’m grateful for people who want to immerse themselves, and think it is important for art to address challenging topics, whether current or imagined.
Q> You have largely worked in long form but are also represented by Lucky 21 in the branded content space. How do you develop high impact narrative for the ad space and what about advertising appeals to you?
Augustine> I think it comes down to precise storytelling. There’s a photographic aspect to advertising, how one image - whether motion or still - can cut deep. It’s really reducing narrative down to its purest form, and I love that challenge.
Q> Half of this year’s academy new members are women. How are opportunities and access changing in the industry from your vantage point?
Augustine> There’s a definite shift and I am a product of it. People are actively seeking out women and people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to create content. On a recent pilot for Amazon, the producers, creators and I were all women and we wanted to work with as many other women on the crew. We wanted to make a conscious effort to be a part of the changing tide.
Q> Tell us about Sweetbitter.
Augustine> I directed Episodes One and Two for Season Two on Starz. Stephanie Danler wrote the book, which was turned into a terrific series. Directing a pilot, as I did with Euphoria, is like making a mini-movie where the characters, tone, and narrative are developed and established. It’s a fresh slate. Directing a show that’s already completed its first season is a creative challenge of a different kind; people place trust in you to carry a known story to the next place. It’s a moving train and you hop on it. Tess is a really appealing and relatable character and I had a blast being a part of the series.
Q> Where to next?
Augustine> I’m currently working on a new project in London. After that, I’d like to have time to work in short-form branded content or advertising.