HBO’s production of “It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise” screened on Monday afternoon in New York at the legendary and most appropriately chosen Plaza Hotel. Dressed dapperly for the occasion were executive producer and “Girls” star Lena Dunham, director Matt Wolf and the subject of the film himself: children’s book illustrator and artist Hilary Knight.
The documentary follows Knight and Dunham’s first meeting and instant connection, also backtracking to chronicle Knight’s early success (at age 29) and subsequent turmoil following the publication of the first “Eloise” book in 1955.
Knight (now 88) contacted Dunham after a friend informed him that Dunham had an Eloise tattoo. The New York City native revealed that she felt a lifelong connection to Eloise, dating back to when she was 2 or 3. She describes the character as an “individual, iconoclastic, feminist little girl in a world where that’s not necessarily what our literature is feeding us.”
What drew Wolf to Eloise? “To me, she was an unruly woman, and I like having those in my life,” said the director. Dunham spoke warmly of both Wolf and Knight: “(Knight) is someone who is very worth documenting and Matt, being one of my all-time favorite documentarians and a very close friend, was the man for the job.”
Though Knight is consistent with Wolf’s favorite sort of subjects, he notes the artist’s particular appeal. “I’ve made a lot of biographical films about artists and about gay artists, so Hilary fits into that mold a little bit, but for me it was exciting to make a film that was a little more whimsical in its tone,” said the director. “I love making films that use home movies and materials shot by my subjects, and Hilary had been documenting his life for decades, so that’s kind of a filmmaker’s dream.”
Prior to the screening, Sheila Nevins, president of HBO documentary films, introduced Wolf and Dunham, whom she thanked for putting her heart and soul into the project. Nevins then handed Dunham a mysterious envelope, joking that the contents were to inspire her next tattoo (it was the “HBO Docs” logo).
Dunham and Wolf mentioned that this would be the first time that subject Knight was seeing the film. The pair also thanked Nevins, exec producer Jenni Konner, producer Stacey Reiss (who, Dunham said, fell into a pond during filming) and co-producer Ericka Naegle.
The film tells of the dismantling of Knight’s relationship with the author of the “Eloise” books, Kay Thompson — a disappointment to him, both personally and professionally. Following the book’s initial success in the ’50s, and after penning three sequels together and planning a fourth, Thompson pulled the three sequels from print in the mid-1960s. Despite this setback, Knight continued to work in the ensuing years, illustrating numerous children’s books and theater posters.
After Thompson’s death in 1998, Knight was finally able to realign himself with “Eloise,” and to be involved in the publication of “Eloise Takes a Bawth” in 2002. The film also includes interviews with Fran Lebowitz and Mindy Kaling, both of whom cite “Eloise” as an influence and inspiration. Viewers get to see Knight as he is today, living in his eccentric homes in Manhattan and on Long Island, both brimming with creativity and imagination.
“I had no idea (what would happen),” said Knight about approaching Dunham. “The only thing I knew about her was that she was obsessed with ‘Eloise,’ which was interesting to me.” Knight hadn’t even seen her show at the time, but quickly took it up. “The minute I got to know her and started (watching) ‘Girls,’ I thought, ‘Well, here is a show that has no relation to my life — young girls, living in Brooklyn — not too interesting.’ (But) it was so riveting, and she and everybody in the cast was so absorbing. It didn’t take any time to know that I was involved with someone really interesting.”
What touched him the most? “(Dunham) always impressed me, and it amazed me that a girl that young — and even people today — could still be interested in this little child. It’s extraordinary and thrilling.”
Though Dunham has a lot on her plate, this project was a priority. “We’re getting ready to create the next season of ‘Girls,’ so we’re going to be shooting in a month, and the paperback of my book comes out in October,” she said. Still, she professed, “I really just want to support this film and what Matt’s done as much as I can, and get as many people to see it and know about Hilary’s life as possible.”
Following the screening, attendees hobnobbed at an Eloise-themed full tea service reception, complete with cotton candy, under Art Deco stained-glass ceilings. Fresh from the film, guests marveled at Knight’s creative energy and unwillingness to be deterred by Thompson’s harsh decision to exclude him.
Knight’s literary agent Brenda Bowen similarly spoke to his tireless work ethic — and revealed a final surprise. “(Just) this morning, before we left for this event, (Knight) says, ‘I’ve got something to show you!’ And he takes me over to his drawing board, and there is a gorgeous new Eloise image that’s going to be in the new ‘Eloise’ book, ‘365 days of Eloise.’”
“It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise” will premiere on HBO on March 23.