Cedric Hill is a native of Newark, a Rowan University graduate and, currently, a visiting associate professor of acting at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. And in May, he added a new and distinguished way in which he can be identified: Award-winning director at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Hill’s 10-minute “Noisy” took home the American Pavilion’s Best Short Film award, capping a long run of accolades for the wonderfully minimalist story about two strangers who meet and communicate through sign language on a loud subway ride.
Hill also wrote the film and worked on it through steep physical challenges that he has grown accustomed to, since losing the use of both kidneys in 2002. The director spoke to me the morning after arriving home from Cannes, while receiving dialysis.
Q: So, how’s it feel?
A: Winning the award, or the dialysis? (laughs) The dialysis is painful as hell, I won’t lie. The win was amazing, but going over there is a lot more work than most people realize. Between attending all the necessary meetings and the networking, it can be a lot. Networking in our industry is not like, “Hey, let’s go hang out.” It can feel very much like work.
Q: Was there ever a time, while growing up in New Jersey or attending college here, that you thought you might find yourself in France, on the shores of the Mediterranean, watching people watch your film at Cannes? And then winning a prestigious award for it?
A: No! Absolutely not.
Q: Well, you are known to be an extremely confident person and it’s a wonderful film …
A: I agree. But still, no. I mean, we had been at other festivals with it and I’ve learned that this film always has a chance. It is a well made movie that people connect with. But this was Cannes. And when I looked at some of the other films and filmmakers we were up against, I said to myself, “Well, you know, I’m glad we made it” (laughs)
Q: Your movie screened at the festival’s American Pavilion. Did you attend, and watch it with the international audience?
A: Yes. I tend not to get overwhelmed, but it was an incredible experience.
I usually stand in the back of the room when it shows somewhere, and spend the time looking up and thinking to myself, “Oh, that cut was wrong” and “This cut is wrong.” But the audience sighed and smiled and reacted at the right parts of the story, so that was great.
Q: By then, the judges had already seen it. What was the setting when you were told that you won?
A: The other filmmakers and I were standing onstage together awaiting the announcement and then they said, ” ‘Noisy’ has won for best short,” and my editor Daniel Phillips and I looked at each other dumbfounded, like, “Who are they possibly talking about?” That was my first thought: “Who the hell can they possibly be talking about?”
Q: Once you fully realized it, what was your second thought?
A: I looked at Daniel and thought … should we run? (laughs)
Q: The movie is about two strangers who encounter each other on a subway; one is hearing-impaired and the other can communicate by signing. Where did this idea come from?
A: It actually came from a bus ride, and not a train. I was on my way home from New York late one night, and a couple got on. The woman sat down and I noticed her hands. She wrapped her hands around the man’s body like she was holding onto the planet, and she had a lot tension in her hands. Then he sort of leaned back, made one sign to her, and her hands relaxed.
That was very interesting to me, so I started researching sign language and observing what it truly looks like. It’s obviously a very visual thing, but I was most taken by the fact that you can sign things that you can’t express through words. We would later see that on display in a scene in “Coda” (a highly acclaimed 2022 movie centering around the lone hearing member of a deaf family). The character says, “Tell me about the song,” but she couldn’t tell him. Yet she could sign it. It’s a device that can be used like singing. If you’re at any point of a show and somebody breaks out into song, it’s often because spoken words weren’t enough to express the sentiment.
Q: You filmed “Noisy” on location, on a New York subway that was actually loud, while it was fully conducting business as usual. That sounds challenging.
A: Definitely, but I have a lot of experience directing live, for the stage, and that helped out a lot. Getting the look down was a challenge. While we were shooting it, everyone wanted more contrast. The gist of it was, you know, “Let’s make it look like New York.” But I felt it needed to look like when you’ve been riding the subway and it’s hot and you look up and think you saw something beautiful. Then you look up again and it’s gone. That’s what this movie is.
It also helps that the actors were great. They worked really hard, and it was easy to just turn the text over to them and see what they could do with it.
Q: You were requiring two people to visually build an interest in each other, but to do it without making a sound, while using sign language. Was this difficult to cast?
A: Yes, exactly. That was the thing. I found that a lot of people could sign and a lot of people could act, but these two could do both at such a high level. Max (Lamadrid, the male lead) had studied sign language for years simply because he was fascinated by it. Gabi (Faye, female lead) started learning it more out of necessity because her mother has ALS and lost her ability to speak.
A cool thing happened when I cast her. Outside of simply being great, a beam of light hit her perfectly while she was auditioning. I said, “Gabby, stop!”, and asked her to come closer and open her eyes and I just saw it.
Well, there was that, and her mother and I share the same birthday. (laughs) It was meant to be. Her chemistry with Max turned out to be exactly what we needed.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I just finished a small feature about sexual consent in a marriage called “Two Peas in a Pod.” The composer is composing for it now, and that’s the final aspect of the project. And hopefully, this summer we will shoot a short I wrote called “My Friend.” It’s about a man who befriends Death for over 100 years, and they meet every year in the same restaurant.
Q: You’re a busy man for someone with your health challenges. How often do you require dialysis?
A: Three times a week. I usually do it Sunday night, Tuesday night and Thursday night for six hours at a time. No matter what project I take on, I have to be mindful to work around it.
Q: So you won an award at Cannes, and came straight back home for these treatments?
A: Nope. I won an award at Cannes, partied and mingled for days, and then came home for these treatments. (laughs) I felt like I deserved it. But yes, when I got back home, I got into my car and drove here (the dialysis clinic). This shit is not fun. I enjoyed having this discussion about my movie, though. It keeps my mind off of it.
For more on the film, visit noisyfilm2021.com.
Follow Hill on Instagram at instagram.com/chill2772 or Twitter at twitter.com/Cedric_V_Hill.
Here is the film’s trailer:
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