Petra Collins Talks Road Trip Rules and Taking Up Filmmaking

#1: No talking in the car.
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Eliza Brooke
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#1: No talking in the car.
Collins, on the road. Photo: Petra Collins

Collins, on the road. Photo: Petra Collins

Having made a name for herself in the world of photography, 22-year-old Petra Collins is adding filmmaking to her resume. In addition to creating a video for Cos shot while driving around LA, Collins took a road trip across the South to film a documentary with her sister and two best friends. Commissioned by BB Dakota and broken up into three parts — the first of which went up online Tuesday (see below) — the documentary focuses on young girls with a passion for dancing and how the practice impacts their self-esteem. 

We hopped on the phone with Collins to talk about going on what she learned from the teenagers she interviewed, Ryan McGinley's famous road trip and ideal driving snacks.

So how did this project get started?

I love being on the road and doing road trips, and for a while I've been wanting to work with my sister on something. So I somehow got connected with [BB Dakota], and they asked me what I wanted to do, so I said, "I want to do a road trip, and I want to do this with my sister."

Why did you choose young girls who dance as your subject for this film?

I grew up dancing; it was kind of my first art form, and my sister danced as well. I always had trouble in school and had self-esteem issues, and it was one of those things that helped me through it. I was able to use my body to get those emotions out. I had to stop dancing because I had a really bad accident while I was dancing — I found out I dislocated my knee and had kept doing it. So I couldn't dance anymore. My sister continued to dance, and she’s in school right now studying to be a dance teacher. We thought it would be cool to use this medium to explore what we’re most interested in, which is girls coming of age and how they deal with their bodies.

Is your sister younger?

She's three years younger. She's my best friend, and I love her so much. It’s like this special connection.

How did you find the girls you featured in your film?

I actually put out an Instagram call and a call on my Tumblr and Facebook. We had a lot of girls write back, so we found them through that and we also had our producer, Julia, contact some schools that had dance teams. We wanted to reach every kind of girl, not just girls who were fans of me and knew me.

How did your questions change and what kinds of threads emerged over the course of filming?

My sister and I had a crazy revelation on the trip because we went into the narrative thinking these girls would have the same issues we had when we were younger. When we were teenagers we didn’t have that many role models and we both felt a lot of pressure to look a certain way. We definitely didn’t feel like we had that much power. But we realized that each girl was from a different socioeconomic background, but they all had this one thing in common which was that they were super empowered and super strong. I realized that they’re growing up at this super awesome age where we have big pop stars like Beyoncé who say they're feminists and we have magazines like Rookie and we have the Internet where girls can carve their own paths.

It's so true. Despite growing up with the Internet, I feel like girls today have a different Internet. 

I mean, there’s a whole new sense of self. When I grew up, I grew up on dial-up and very early Blogspot. Now everyone has Instagram and Tumblr and you can also build your own websites.

What kind of effect did seeing these self-confident girls have on you?

It’s really hard to practice what you preach, because [confidence issues] are really hard to shake. During the trip my sister and I and my friends would always — it’s a bad habit — but you want to say bad things about yourself. It's just a thing that we always do. By the end of it we were like, "If all these girls can feel good about themselves, there’s no way we shouldn’t be able to." I keep that in the back of my mind now. It’s still hard. But yeah, I’m trying a little harder.

How did choosing which girls you wanted to interview work with choosing your locations on the road trip?

The two kind of informed each other. I had places I wanted to go, but if there was some really special girl we wanted to talk to, we made the route that way. We got to go to a lot of places I'd never been.

You've been on Ryan McGinley's road trip, which is also a creative project. Did that inform how you did things on your own trip?

That trip was so crazy. It was the most exciting trips I've been on in my life. I’m lucky to do what I love doing, so it’s anything I do or go [to] is super productive. I realized that I don’t like going on vacations without working, but it’s because I love what I do.

What was the McGinley road trip like?

It came at a super important time in my life where I was looking for a change. I was 19 or 18, and it was just... I had to do everything that I was super afraid of. When I went on this trip, the BB Dakota one, it was really emotional for me because I never get to dance, so I feel like Ryan's trip and this trip were really important to me. On Ryan's trip, I had to be moving my body the whole time. We were running, jumping, swimming, all these physical things. So while I was doing this trip, I really had that in mind. That's how dance should feel.

Do you have any rules for a non-stressful road trip?

I’m really intense about talking in the car. I don’t like when people talk in the car. Like, life is so intense and busy, and it’s a place where you physically can’t do anything. You have to sit and look at the scenery. I like to just listen to music and sit back. That's how I get all my work done. If I need to think of an idea, I’ll take the subway or take a walk or take a drive. 

One of my favorite movies is "Paris, Texas" with Wim Wenders, and there’s a documentary they made in conjunction to the movie about his process. The way he makes film is that he rents a car and just drives months straight listening to music, and that’s how he makes ideas. That really resonated with me. It’s such a great way to do it. So no talking in cars.

How about music? 

I have everything. I have a playlist for different moods and environments. With this one roadtrip that Tavi [Gevinson] and I went on, we both realized that we’d made these crazy specific playlists for the environments.

Road snacks. What are your gas station preferences?

I’m really big on candy. M&Ms. Pretzels, because I feel like they’re the healthiest thing next to fruit. Fruit is sketchy at gas stations; I don’t really trust that. I always look at the gift shops because you can always find awesome things, especially when you’re in the middle of nowhere. I’m pretty minimal with the snacks because I always end up with a stomach ache because I can’t not eat the full thing.

What were your sister and friends doing on the trip?

[My sister] was interviewing the girls... One of [my friends] was styling and the other one was doing sound. I always build friendships around creativity. Whenever we hang out, we’re always making things. I wanted them there because I trust their eye and I love what they do. It’s kind of hard, when you’re making a film and you’re also taking photos, to do a million things at once, so having them there was helpful. If I missed something they would see it because we all have the same eye and the same taste.

What do you see as the differences, if any, between shooting film and photos?

It’s such a different discipline. It’s definitely something I have to get used to. With photos everything is there in that one shot and you have to get all the emotion and everything that you want in that one photograph. But with film it’s something you have to spread out and consider that each of the things — lighting, sound — all contribute to the one image. You have to pay attention to everything. I don’t know if I did anything differently; I approached it the same as photo.

Did you edit the film yourself?

We have an editor, but I would be sitting with the editor. I have final say on everything, but editing is something that’s really hard. You need another eye to take it all out. I think I've finally come to the point where I’m good at photo editing. With film, there are so many things you can miss.