Eleanore Pienta plays Dinah, a notorious psychic scammer in Colin Kane Healey’s dark comedy series In the Cards (2021). Trying to raise herself from rags to riches the only way she knows how, Dinah begins to question the life she thinks she wants. That lands her on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.
Pienta has made an habit of creating peculiar characters, from Mona in See You Next Tuesday (Tobia, 2013), who was afraid of flies infecting her unborn baby, to her directorial debut short Ada (2018), about a competitive walker who makes a dress out of toilet paper. She appears on the New York stage performing her solo work, and partners with Sunita Mani and Tallie Medel, as Cocoon Central Dance Team. She streams her films on NoBudge.com, a platform supporting young and emerging filmmakers.
Speaking with PopMatters at the Tribeca Film Festival, Pienta talks about her passion for on the ground, getting dirty filmmaking, her fear of cultural correctness, and how we risk simplifying our complicated and broken reality.
Your creative output is diverse, from dance and solo work on stage to acting and filmmaking. When did all this begin?
It happened naturally. I always knew I wanted to perform, but I was very shy. I studied poetry at Emerson College but dropped out. There I met Sunita and Tallie, who I perform with as Cocoon Central Dance Team. I finished up at Hunter College studying photography and video, where I’d create characters and then explore them through video.
The first film I acted in was Drew Tobia’s, See You Next Tuesday (2013). Drew and I met at Emerson and we worked together on some of his previous shorts. He came to one of my open studios and he saw this black and white photograph of this character I’d cooked up. Her name was Mona, and in my head she was afraid of flies infecting her unborn baby.
He wanted to create this character with me, but I was finishing my degree, so I thought it wasn’t going to happen. Months later he gave me a rough draft of the script, I added some things to it, and then we made it. Mona still gets me roles, and people are still coming across that film.
It happened in an organic way, through the indie world of New York that extends into the comedy world, and also through Cocoon Central Dance Team, and continuing to make own work.
Studios have seen the value of the marketing ploy of the indie film, creating their own labels that misrepresent the realities of this type filmmaking.
The indie world I’m talking about is working for either no money or on a low budget. There are films that are made for $5 million and are considered low budget. It’s a lot money. If you gave me a quarter of that I could make a film. Indie film means being on the ground getting dirty.
I’m grateful coming up through that because not everyone–but most people who are working on these projects–cares about the film. It’s an attitude of, “Let’s get this scene. We only have today, let’s do it.” It’s that love for the project, the passion, excitement and willingness to go all out that I mean by the indie world.
Do the restrictions of time and money allow indie films to find an instinct and impulsiveness that we seldom see in crafted, bigger budget productions?
You’ll get upset thinking, ‘This shit is getting made, and it doesn’t feel that it has life.’ Art, whether it’s painting or film has to be alive. There are equations to get you to the finished product, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. I believe in finding it as you’re creating it. The tricky thing about film is that it parallels real life. You have to work against or with that, or both.
There’s so much money involved that people are less willing to take risks. You have all of these people onboard and it has to work. Filmmakers then force it to work when it’s not working. Now it’s an industry that depends on capitalism and while you lose some of the artistry, it’s still alive. There are filmmakers who know exactly what they want and can shape the project in that way. I’m not one of those people, I love being surprised and making discoveries. I believe you have a script to throw it away.
Are there specific filmmakers you’re referring to?
Drew hasn’t made anything since See You Next Tuesday, but he did a great job with it. I’m a fan of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016). It feels fresh, like there were moments that were found and discovered. Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021) is also a very fresh project.
I met Colin through Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life (2018). It’s a very singular film and what’s interesting is that it was shot like a play. We rehearsed a scene for the majority of the day and then we shot it. They were long takes, which I loved. Aaron is a good example of someone who knows what he wants and gets it done, but he also has the flexibility to find it in the moment.
When you first read the script for In The Cards, what appealed to you about the character?
Dinah is an imperfect person and she’s doing something that could be seen as wrong. I saw her as someone who was trying to survive and reach for her dream the only way she can. It’s relatable because that’s all of us. We’re trying to get what we want. But with Dinah, she’s trying to get what the world’s telling her she should want.
The series will be about her finally getting close to where she wants to be, and then realising, ‘Wait, is this what I want? Is it the house in the Hamptons? What’s this life I’m chasing?’
I’m attracted to characters that are broken because it’s about how we choose to work with or against our broken natures.
We’re in a scary time now culturally where there’s such an emphasis on correctness. It feels like you can’t have a character say certain things. As storytellers, do we have to tell one story? Does it have to be from a certain point-of-view? I’m excited to push against that with the characters that I’m given to play.
The opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) might be a fitting metaphor for society today – the picturesque suburbia with white picket fences that hides the decrepit reality just beneath the surface.
Art must not show fear. It must engage with and discuss our complex and difficult reality.
[Twitter’s] 140 characters cannot begin to explain the nuances of any given topic, and yet that’s how we’re getting our news. Social media has become the way we communicate. It’s degrading our complex and difficult reality. Art can address those things in many different ways, and that’s what’s exciting about it. We’re all broken people, and artists want to explore this brokenness.
There needs to be room for getting it wrong. It’s hitting on this idea of not addressing the decrepitness, of putting up this white picket fence. You can’t grow from getting it right. I’m not saying go and take risks that are obviously stupid and offensive, but it’s important to find and push those boundaries.
I’m a little nervous for storytellers having the watchdogs on us. I’m not making something to be wrong, but when you feel you’re being watched, that’s the death of creation. You have to be your audience, and you have to cancel out the noise.
As much as there needs to be room for making mistakes, we need to be cautious of trying to fix things through censorship.
In trying to fix things, you can simplify things. In this conversation we’re having, life is complex and nuanced. I’m thinking of Dinah and how she’s scamming people and lying to them. She could go to jail for that, but CEOs and politicians are doing the same thing, and they’re applauded for it.
Seeing that paradox and how people with power can get away with it, and the “little people” go to jail is interesting. It’s a complicated world we’re living in, and it can’t be overly simplified.
In the Cards premiered virtually through Tribeca at Home, and will stream on SeriesFEST throughout July 2021.