lena dunham and eloise, a love story
Filmmaker Matt Wolf discusses his new documentary about the eccentric artist behind every New Yorker's favorite children’s book “Eloise,” and its biggest fan.
photography georgie wileman
Lena Dunham loves the 1955 children's book Eloise so much that she got a tattoo of the littlest Plaza inhabitant at the small of her back. In a new documentary about the creation of the book and its illustrator, Hilary Knight, Dunham says, "I remember having an awareness of Eloise, and feeling very strongly that it was mine." And Knight, when he met Dunham not so long ago, felt too that he had found the living embodiment of his proudest creation.
Dunham and Knight's friendship became the starting point for filmmaker Matt Wolf's new documentary, It's Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise. Wolf, whose other subjects have included avant-garde musician Arthur Russell and the writer Joe Brainard, specializes in excavating the lives of cult outsider figures. And Knight, whose legacy has been eclipsed by a custody battle with the book's other creator, Kay Thompson — and who, at 88, gets his creative kicks from directing live-action backyard home movies in which his friends dress up as frogs and wood nymphs — fits the bill. The film is a 36-minute-long tribute to Knight's enduring creativity, his friendships, and his battle to gain control over his life's most famous work, Eloise. We spoke with Matt about the film, ahead of its premiere tonight.
How did Hilary's story come to you?
Lena's a friend of mine and she went to have dinner with Hilary — she actually texted me from his bathroom. (His house is very elaborately decorated and his bathroom is underwater-themed: it's covered in glass and barnacles and plastic shrimp.) She texted me saying, "I'm peeing in Hilary Knight's bathroom and it's incredible!" So I Googled Hilary and remembered how obsessed Lena is with Eloise.
I think Lena was really moved to meet Hilary. A day or two later she suggested writing a profile of Hilary. But his world is so visual, so she said, "What if we make a short video documentary?" We met with Hilary, and I learned that he had been filming all these home movies for decades — since High8 camcorders came out. That's a dream for me; I love working with found footage. I also did some archival digging and found some really rich 1950s Kay Thompson footage. So it became clear to me that there was a bigger story we could tell.
Were you at all familiar with the story of Hilary and Kay beforehand, and their struggle over Eloise?
No. And I don't think even most superfans of Eloise know about the conflict. I think it caught Lena by surprise. It's also what really appealed to us about making this documentary: there are very adult problems behind the legacy of this children's book.
Did that affect your ability to stay objective? Do you think Hilary got a bad deal when he signed away his rights to Eloise to Kay?
It's complicated. I think a lot of people make rash decisions when important opportunities come by for the first time in their lives. And I think that Kay Thompson was someone who moved on quickly from collaborator to collaborator. But that breakup was really devastating for Hilary; he's enchanted by their relationship but also haunted by it.
In the documentary, Lena describes the film as being a love story between Hilary and Kay. But it's also a love story between Lena and Hilary. Which do you think it is?
To me, the film is about collaboration. It's about the incredible generative aspects of collaboration, and the pain and the pathos. Collaborative relationship are, in some sense, no different from romantic relationships: the same intensity can be followed by the same devastation when collaborations break up. That's the case with Eloise. So much conflict has come for Hilary as he's tried to carry on her legacy on his own.
And what role does Lena play in the story, for you?
Lena is an entry point. I wanted her to bring the viewer into Hilary's unusual and eccentric world, and then I wanted him to take over and tell his story through his home movies.
I'm so obsessed with the live-action frog musical Hilary stages in his garden.
When he came at me with that, I was like, "huh?" But I'm so pleased to hear how people are responding to it. Hilary's obsessed with Hollywood technicolor movies and so of course he wanted to add a Hollywood-style musical sequence to the story of his life — though his has a much more D.I.Y. quality to it. It helps you see the fantastical, whimsical element that is always at play in Hilary's mind.
Once the documentary screens, do you think it will change things for Hilary?
I do think it will change his life. I hope it will. He's 88 years old but he's completely determined to keep making work and have his legacy be known. So it's not only going to draw more awareness to things that he's accomplished already besides Eloise, but also I think it will help him find platforms from which he can continue making work.
What are you working on next?
I'm starting a new film. But it's too early for me to say what it is!
Any clues? Who have you always wanted to make films about?
So many people, but I'm trying to access them right now. It's no one super famous; usually my subjects are more outsiders. But if I want to make a film about someone, I'm on it!
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Georgie Wileman