Well before Lena Dubham's Hannah moved to Brooklyn on HBO's Girls, New York City was home to another precocious and fun-loving young lady who entertained us with her antics. We're talking about Eloise, the protagonist of a series of children's books, who lived on the top floor of the famed Plaza Hotel. And a character who's long overlooked co-creator is the subject of the upcoming HBO documentary, It's Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise, which airs on Monday...and is produced by Dunham.
Published in 1955, the first Eloise book was the collaborative brainchild of author/actress/musician Kay Thompson and artist/illustrator Hilary Knight. Three sequels were created after the first became a hit, all before 1960, but following a falling out between Thompson and Knight no new books were released and the sequels became out of print at Thompson's request. After Thompson's death in 1998, the sequels were republished; bringing with them a resurgence of Eloise mania and a fifth book in 2002.
The philosophical connection between multi-media modern feminist Dunham and Eloise more than makes sense. Both are charming anti-authoritarians with wild hair (in Dunham's case, it's usually a wig for an amazeballs guest-staring role on Scandal). And the latter was even an early influence on the former.
"I have loved Eloise for as long as I can remember," Dunham said in a statement released by HBO. "The deciding factor in my passion for her, before I could even read, were the complex, whimsical yet distinctly adult illustrations by Hilary Knight."
The filmmaker/actress/writer adored Knight's art for the books so much that she even got an Eloise tattoo. After Dunham's rise to fame, Knight heard of her passionate fandom and wrote her a letter. The two became friends and the seed for a documentary profiling Knight was planted, thanks in part to his unique interior decorating style.
According to Dunham's friend and documentarian Matt Wolf, who directed It's Me, Hilary, the Girls star messaged him one night while having dinner at Knight's house--from the artist's bathroom, which was festooned in an underwater theme, complete with barnacles and plastic sea life.
"She took a picture and said, 'I'm peeing in Hilary Knight's bathroom and it's incredible and I can't wait to tell you about it,' Wolf recalled in a recent interview with EnStars. "And we talked on the phone and it turns out that his whole house is this kind of autobiographical artwork."
From there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to Dunham and Wolf teaming up to do a documentary on Knight's apartment, using its distinct interior design as a narrative outline of Knight's life.
"Lena thought, '... I want to do something that would kind of pay tribute to Hilary.' And she said, 'What about a short documentary about his apartment?' Because it tells his life story and I loved that idea," explained Wolf.
But after finding a cache of news and interview footage from when the Eloise books first became popular, as well as learning of Knight's habit of filming and documenting his own life, Wolf says the decision was made to instead create a straight documentary profile.
"It became clear to us that there was a bigger story to tell," he said.
The result is a roughly forty-five minute portrait of an uncompromising, colorful and creative man, whose life story is a tale that spans from classic New York to the present day, and all the eras in between. The film gives a solid sense of not just Knight's life and career, but also an understanding of his very essence.
"He would say stuff like 'I want you to really get me,'" said Wolf. "And I feel like over the course of making the film, I really did get him."
(Photo : HBO)
Along with Knight's life, the film is also an exploration of the cost and reward that comes with creative collaboration. It details not only Knight's relationship with Thompson (and its end), but also showcases his similar bonds with other creative women, including the multi-talented Phoebe Legere and of course Dunham.
"For us, this film, the bigger idea was about collaboration," explained Wolf. "We wanted to make the analogy between a creative collaboration and a romantic relationship and how that kind of passion and the kind of regret that can come from a creative falling out."
Creative cooperation is so at the heart of It's Me, Hilary that at one point Knight even addresses the camera and admits his desire to have more control over the film being made about him. When asked about that moment, Wolf admitted that working with Knight was not without some conflict.
"It definitely was a struggle because Hilary, as a visually inclined person, has a lot of strong opinions about how his world should look and how it should be represented and I, as a filmmaker, had a perspective on that too," he said.
But Wolf was quick to add that such contention is not always a bad thing and can even be a sign of a healthy creative relationship.
"There was a push and pull," said Wolf, "but it ultimately was an act of collaboration."
It's Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise airs Monday, March 23, at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.