Dream Logic

Dream Logic

Writer, artist, photographer and filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman’s work is rooted in what she calls “the specific wisdom of women.” In conversation with actress Lola Kirke, Emma discusses claiming authorship and ownership over her work and her body, accessing creativity, and how beauty can be found in any quotidian thing.
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 16
Published: 2022/04/06
Updated: 2022/07/06
Lola Kirke

LOLA KIRKE: Tell me about the inspiration behind your first short film, 'The History of Caves'.

EMMA ELIZABETH TILLMAN: During my first year of film school at UCLA, I had a friend who lived in Laurel Canyon and we would hang out late into the night. On my way home I would drive by this old, decrepit house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard where a handsome, mysterious man worked alone on old vintage cars at night, (we’re talking four in the morning) with a work light on, on the side of the road in front of his house. I was so curious about his life and who he was. After about a year of driving by his house, I just walked up to him with a postcard that had my telephone number on it. And he called me that night.

Long story short, we spent one magical night together and then he disappeared. I had a dream maybe two months later that the reason why he was so mysterious was because he had his children living in the house with him. So I turned all that longing and mystery into a film, as a sort of resolution.

It’s the story of a man who is living two realities, to keep himself together. Or perhaps to keep himself from being whole. The character of the main girl in the film could be me, but I am also all the characters of the film and relate to the man just as much as the woman.

That’s so interesting because there’s definitely a dream logic to the movie. I really saw that. But it was also fully realised, which I loved. I loved it so much by the way.

Thank you, Lola.

I was noticing the difference between the scores in both of your films ['The History of Caves' and 'The Wheel']. I feel like the score of 'The History of Caves' reminds me of the psychedelic scenes in 'Easy Rider' or something like that, but I noticed a very spare score in 'The Wheel'. I was wondering what your choice was behind that.

Oh, that’s an interesting question. 'The History of Caves’ score was very inspired. Josh [Tillman] did an incredible job. And we had our other friend, Keefus Green, who is a very talented piano composer, working on it too. The two of them created real magic on that score.

It’s very visceral.

For 'The Wheel', Josh had several more songs that were potentially going to go in the film. 'The History of Caves' is 30 minutes, so I think it warranted more music, whereas 'The Wheel' is 10 minutes. The more we went through the editing process, I just asked to keep taking music out until there was actually no music left.

I felt like the story was too powerful to have music in it. It would have felt over dramatic or sentimental in places where you needed to just feel the direct feelings being expressed.

When you’re writing a film, are you imagining a score at all? You collaborated with Josh on both of the films. Are you thinking about working with him on those things? Or is that something that you think about after the fact?

I write to music, but I write to one song. I’ll pick one song and just play it on repeat.

Oh. Can you tell us? Tell us the songs?

I don’t know if I can remember now what the song was for 'The Wheel'. But I’ll pick one song. And then since I’m playing it on repeat, I can forget about the lyrics or the melody and write through it. If I’m listening to an entire album, I get distracted by the changing songs and the different lyrics and melodies.

How did you discover this very specific approach to writing?

I don’t know. Maybe because I feel, like most people probably, a strong emotional connection to the act of listening to music, especially alone. And I think that because I’ve always written stories—ever since I was a little girl—I’ve created, built over time, a bigger and bigger and bigger dream world to inhabit or to house all of those stories and those ideas and that world.

And then it feels like this secret, private world that I can go into anytime. And then adding music over time became a part of that. To more fully construct the world that I’m trying to build in writing.

How do you get into the world? Especially with all the quotidian tasks that a person has to do.

I certainly can’t do it on command. One of my personal heroes is Nick Cave, and he talks about keeping office hours and writing every day. That just does not work for me, for a lot of reasons, but one is that I have to be in a specific mood at a specific time in order to create in such a concentrated way.

But once I reach that place, I feel like I can dive completely in and channel everything from the divine creator, or whatever you want to call it. And then I wake up at the end of it and look back on what I wrote and be surprised that it’s there.

So dreaming feels like a very active part of your creative process?

Yeah, definitely. I have to go into some altered state of consciousness. I definitely don’t smoke weed or drink or do anything that a lot of people do to get to that state. It’s always been something that I can just access when the time is right.

But I do have a sixth sense as to when that is. When that time is. The other night, actually, I was in bed and I was about to fall asleep. It’s late. And a story came to me through the voice of a British man from the nineties talking about having a threesome with another couple.

And I just had to write the story down. So I got up and wrote it out on my phone on the floor next to the bed.

So to be clear, there was no British man from the nineties there?

Haha, no. Just his voice in my head.

You just imagined this. It was a fantasy.

This is a complete fantasy that entered into my brain.

That’s so interesting. So it sounds like there’s a lot of commitment to fantasy involved in the creative process?

Completely. Which is why sometimes I question whether this is really a worthwhile pursuit because it’s so personal, and that doesn’t feel very necessary, or like I’m actively contributing anything to the world. Which is maybe why I’m more interested in thinking of other ways that I can contribute to the world. Because the personal creative process that I have is more rooted in fantasy.

I know, it’s really complicated. What you were just saying about the Nick Cave thing: ‘He keeps office hours.’ I feel like that’s something I hear a lot about artists. It’s like they got up every morning at 4am and had one cup of coffee and then wrote until noon when they had a whiskey.

Haha, right.

But as I get older and I’m like, ‘But there’s other things you have to do’, and those things aren’t necessarily pleasurable. And neither is creating.


But I think there’s a lot of value placed on this... On free time. And that’s harder to come by. I also feel so sad about how valuable making art is for other people. I guess my question would be: is it selfish to make art? And if it is selfish to make art, then why do it? And if the ‘why’ is great enough. Because I really enjoyed watching your movies and they did stimulate me. I’m so happy that you’re making work in that tradition, that is referential of other great film-makers and also referential of your own capacity for fantasy. Because I think that it’s really important to fantasise.

I don’t have the answer to that question. I think this whole experience—whatever this is that happened over the last year and a half with the pandemic—certainly clarified that there’s no time to waste in terms of working in some way to contribute to the enrichment of other people’s lives, and to the enrichment of the earth, whatever form that takes.

I’ve always been pretty satisfied with a very small audience. I have always felt that, even if there is something that I do that ten people like, that’s enough for me and maybe that’s the key—scale. Touching a small group of people around you, helping a small group of people around you, tending to the land around you. Whatever form it takes, make it smaller and less grand than you might have imagined.


With my books, we’ve only ever printed 200 copies. That’s why we sell them out. And it’s not like we sell them out in a second. You know what I mean? There’s 200 people out there that want to spend the money to buy one of my books. It’s more than enough, and I value each of those people for their interest in my work. The essence for me is always trying not to get ahead of myself in terms of what I have to offer.

I don’t need to impose my vision of the world onto a great number of people. What I balance out those anxieties or existential thoughts with is that it’s less about imposition, which I think has been maybe the main framework for which we’ve all been working off of to be an artist. Those have been the examples.

Oh my god. There’s so much to that. I was sitting next to a teenage girl who was on TikTok the entire flight today.


And it was amazing. But TikTok, I don’t know if you’ve ever been on it.

I haven’t.

Its format—I think it’s just an algorithm so you can follow people, but if you don’t follow people, it endlessly suggests who you should watch. And so we are constantly being imposed upon, but we enjoy that.

Right, yeah.

And I think that the target audience has grown so much from local community, as you were describing, to global...

Right. That’s true also of the old paradigm of the male artist too. It asks the question; do you appreciate my vision of the world? Whereas I think maybe women artists, or at least for me particularly—I can only speak for myself—when people like my work, it makes me more interested in them. Because I think, well what about you made you like this?

Yeah, right.


Stills from 'The Wheel'. Centre: Emma on set.

What do you have in your heart or in your experience that made you appreciate this? Or your appreciation for the things that I appreciate? Like mystery or intimacy or family dynamics. I like it more when it feels more shared, without being corny. Since that can also be very corny.

Sure, but I do think that that’s such a nice paradigm shift away from the God that everybody worships. I do think that there is this amazing pivot away from art being... Like the artist is for the people instead of the people are for the artist, because that’s created a lot of monsters.

Oh yeah.

I feel like this actually segues really nicely into 'The Wheel'. I think so much about maturity in a human being, having an ability to respond rather than react. And I think that the difference between [that and] a victim, which is what this film in a lot of ways would be about, is like how Susan [Traylor]’s character responds and what she does with her experience.


She is crafting something.


I just thought it was so interesting how this film is positioned in a world of #MeToo and sexual violence. And the way that it has a very nuanced portrayal of masculinity. Her ability to understand somebody, and then to move another man with her story of it while still claiming her own life and experience. What were you thinking about when you made this film?

I was thinking about all of those things, but it’s also important to note that the story came very symbolically. It wasn’t based on anyone’s experience. It’s not my experience or the experience of anyone I know, although there have been many cases of women doing this exact thing in order to escape a life-threatening situation at the hands of men. Those stories are true, and I have heard them and read about them in the course of creating this film.

But in this case, it was much more symbolic. And the idea for me also transcended male and female. It was very much about the woman’s experience. I think that the compassion this woman shows is particularly unique to women, I would say, in most cases.

But I called it 'The Wheel' because I was thinking about the Dharma wheel and the striving for consciousness at the hands of the experiences life throws at you. The act of taking those experiences and alchemising them to allow yourself to gain wisdom from them instead of getting the trauma stuck inside of you and destroying you. Instead of reverting backwards, it’s about transcending or moving forward. It’s about healing in your own way.

Right. It’s so interesting to think of that innate creativity we have.


That creativity can be this kind of actualised thing in painting or photography or whatever. But it’s like, we’re actually creative all the time with the ways that we choose to cope with what the fuck happens to us.

Absolutely. We’re meaning-making creatures. I think that if you make meaning of something that happens to you—I personally believe that trauma is the inability to make meaning out of an experience that happens to you. That you don’t know why it happened. You don’t know how it happened. You feel absolutely lost and untethered by the experience that you had.

But if you can touch your most essential self, then you might be able to find meaning. Or maybe someone helps you make meaning out of an experience that you’ve had. You don’t have to do it on your own.



Well, it’s so interesting to even think of Susan’s character as a film-maker. I mean, she’s a storyteller.

Yes, she is.

The whole movie is framed by her telling this one story. And that creativity—I’m just putting it together—creativity is just present all the time. And that’s what the kids are doing in 'The History of Caves' as well.

Yes. They’re making meaning out of a traumatic experience in that film too. Their mother has died. Their father is allowing new women to enter their home. That’s a completely disorienting experience. The lead character in that film is the oldest daughter who’s leading the children.

Who’s so good by the way. How did you cast that film?

Everybody was cast organically. Lucy [Mae] Sunday was a friend of mine. The father character, Rick Charnoski, was my best friend at the time. The girl who he sleeps with in the very beginning, Alyson Kennon, I found working at [the shop] Wasteland. I asked if she would ever be in a movie, and she said, ‘Yes’. She ended up being a friend after that.

The daughter, Sadie Wilking, was suggested to me by the cinematographer, Chris Blauvelt, then Sadie suggested Lux Lennox. And then Rick suggested Azalea [Chapman], the little girl. None of the kids were actors.

It has such an organic feeling. How did you work with those actors?

Oh my gosh, I was such a novice. I was 25 at the time and had no idea what I was doing. Basically, the kids came over to my house and we went through the script. But we also did playtime and they knew each other, so that made it easier.

What’d you do for playtime?

We just improvised. But they didn’t really know how to improv, so we just played. They were little enough. They were like 13 and 12, 11, or something like that, at the time. Lux was so young. He is a grown man now.

We had a lot of fun. And they did such an incredible job. Then my friend, Rick, had never acted in anything before. We also did an incredible amount of work together in improv. He cried in some of our sessions, he really opened up. It was beautiful, really cool.

I think now I would be more nervous to do that because I know more now. But at the time, I think I was more guileless in jumping in without knowing anything.

Sounds like a lot more than a lot of directors have ever done with me, by the way.



But it’s the most fun part! With Susan, we did the same. We took a couple of trips out to Joshua Tree together. We went to a thrift store. She found her clothes at the thrift store out in Wonder Valley [California].

I loved her clothes.

She found them. She’s an incredible actor and lives in her characters in a way that I’m lucky to have witnessed.

Let’s talk about your book. You taking naked photos of yourself. I’m really curious about it because I loved your photos so much. And it’s so interesting how not biographical your films seem to be. I mean, of course you’re in them in so many ways…


But then how much of your photography work is self-portraiture.

Never thought about that, but you’re right.

It’s naked self-portraiture and it’s super sexy. Before knowing you, I was like, oh, I bet she’s really scary. And then I met you and you’re the warmest person. So I’m just curious about it because... I have my own complicated relationship with my naked body.

Of course.

Was there something freeing about being like, here’s me naked? My sister paints naked women all the time. I was just surrounded by naked women in art growing up. So I’m curious about what inspired you?

To start doing that?


I do not have an answer for that; I don’t know. I mean, I think, number one, I’ve always felt pretty strongly that I have the ultimate rights to my own face. So I don’t ever have to worry about someone saying, ‘I don’t like that picture of myself.’ Which happens all the time.

Necessity births creativity.

Yeah [laughs]. So that’s one aspect—the least magical aspect. But I also have always wanted to see what I looked like. I feel like every time I get the film back, I can’t quite see what I really look like.

But the irony is that after doing it for so many years and then stepping away to make the book, now I see with that little bit of distance that I look exactly as I should look in every photo. But in the past my immediate reaction when I see a photograph of myself is to say, oh, I really don’t like that.


Very rarely will I be like, ‘I look so great in that one. I’m an A-plus.’ Most of the photos in the book and in the general collection of all the self-portraits I’ve ever taken were initially rejects. Only later, I can come back and go, ‘Oh, I don’t look so bad in that.’ But that’s not really the right way to think about it, I was asking the wrong questions of myself for so long.

I look exactly the way I should look in each photo. That there is no good or bad, no right or wrong. It just is, and that’s the right way to look at it.

So in the end, the book is just that. A collection of what was, and what is. It doesn’t need to ask the question: do I look good or do I not? I find that very liberating. Because probably the genesis or the seed of each one is like, ‘Do I look good? Am I okay?’

Right, right, right.

All the insane questions you ask yourself as a woman about your appearance. And none of them matter.

You have such a loving gaze, like through your pictures of your friends and places. And it’s like I always want to go to places that you photograph. Like that picture that you have of lunch in Greece—I want to eat that lunch.


There’s an enjoyment of life. But there is something very different about some of your portraits of yourself, I think. Some of them that are in the mirror I think are more honest. But then there’s … I don’t know, the ones of you on all fours and on tables... I mean, they’re incredibly sexy.

But I think it’s so interesting too, the ability for people to take those pictures on their phone now with such different intention. And then the ability to do it with their camera because this is something that you’re intimate with.


So how do you feel about selfies?

I mean, I don’t want to think about it. I have a very cranky opinion that probably wouldn’t serve anyone or do any good.

Cranky is a great way for me to describe most of my opinions, by the way.

[Laughs.] Here’s what I’ll say: taking a selfie with your iPhone is like asking it a question. Your iPhone is a magic eight ball. You can ask the question I asked of myself in my self-portraits, ‘Do I look good?’, and you’ll get a very immediate response. But how much time are you going to spend with that response?


That’s my thoughts on that. Probably not a lot of time, is my guess.

Yeah, right, right, right. So is there something about developing the film?

Yes. I think that with a camera, there’s a nice stopgap there that lets you breathe a little bit into your consciousness, to know that something happened in the camera that maybe isn’t exactly what happened in real life, right? And so there’s an element of a willing suspension of disbelief that you will—

And fantasy, still. And that dream space.

And fantasy, right. And dream space. And there is not that with a phone.

No, it’s the opposite of that.

Yeah, which is why I love when you, Lola, take really hideous under-angles pictures of yourself and put them online. Because I’m like, God bless her for doing that. Like, that is just… That is exactly what that thing is for because that’s exactly how you’re using it.

It’s true.


It’s exactly true. I mean, it’s how it always sees me.

Yeah, it’s how it’s looking at you. I was going to say that; if you think of it as something that’s a little bit less an extension of yourself and more as like, its own entity, then that’s how it’s always seeing you.

I’m getting this sense that a lot of what your work is about is seeing things more beautifully?

Yeah, oh yeah. I mean—and I think that’s true of anything... I think beauty can be seen in any quotidian thing.

Oh man, it’s taken me a really long time to understand that, and I’m not there yet. But now that I am a homeowner, and I’m 30… I hung out with somebody the other day. She’s still in her twenties, God bless her. And she was playing the acoustic guitar and watercolouring.


And petting the dogs.

And you were like…

I was like, what the fuck. Are you kidding? Get a job. Like this is insane.


But I spent years just wanting to do all of those things. And to feel satisfied by doing it.

Right, right.

I’m a very result-oriented person so I don’t actually really like sitting there and creating. I like having created.


For me, realising that taking care of business—be it cleaning your kitchen or raking leaves—can be just as creative as any of those other things. And that creativity is not a lofty goal a lot of the time. We are innately creative.

Totally. I’ve been talking about this a little bit lately... I’ve been taking pictures with my eyes lately instead of with my camera. Because I’m realising that I don’t need a tangible artefact to take the photo.

You’re a high vibrational being.

[Laughs.] I just have been asking myself: what if I just looked at it and just took it in? Drank it in and then left it be?


I agree with you, too; I think it actually makes you completely fucking nuts if you sit around creating all day. You know?


I think that doing the dishes and raking your leaves and paying attention to what’s happening outside—which you actually inherently have to do if you’re taking care of a piece of land or you’re taking care of a house—you have to see the ways in which it changes. I mean, you would be a real narcissist if you didn’t see those things as you take care of the things around you. And take care of the people around you.

Last question. If there was a museum of your life, what five objects would be in it?

Oh, an incredible question.

Isn’t that an amazing question? My friend Greta came up with it, I can take no credit.

My wedding ring; a strand of sea grass from Brittany; my daughter’s first breath; my own braid; and the sheets on my bed.



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