Art Meets Reality: How Tatia Pilieva Captures Intimacy on Film, From 'First Kiss' to U2

The filmmaker is drawn to people in their most vulnerable moments

You probably know commercial director Tatia Pilieva from "First Kiss," the megaviral film she directed for fashion brand Wren in 2014, featuring strangers in Los Angeles brought together and asked to kiss one another. 

"First Kiss" won the Grand Clio in Film at the inaugural Clio Fashion & Beauty Awards that same year. Posted to Pilieva's personal YouTube account—it was first video she ever posted on the site—"First Kiss" has tallied almost 130 million views to date, and remains the gold standard for filmed social experiments in advertising. 

In the four years since, the Republic of Georgia native—repped for commercials by Pulse Fims—has continued to explore themes of intimacy and vulnerability for brands ranging from Knorr to Facebook to Lufthansa. She also recently directed a stunning music video for U2's track "You're the Best Thing About Me," in which she filmed couples in the final 24 hours before they were forced to separate for a length of time. 

We spoke to Pilieva about her special mix of art and reality, her best-known ads, and her feature film Forever. 

Muse: You grew up in the Republic of Georgia.
Tatia Pilieva: I was born and raised there. I moved to New York City right before high school. I went to the UN school in New York, and I moved to Los Angeles to go to film school. 

You studied at the American Film Institute? 
Yes, I was in the directors program there. It was a really great experience. I made great friends and met a lot of really creative people, many of whom are still my friends and people I collaborate with. The heart of L.A., for me, is that school. 

A lot of your work is about relationships and intimacy. Were those themes that you discovered early on?
I was always interested in love stories, and more human stories. Any genre, really, but anything that showed two human beings at their most vulnerable. I'm not sure I always knew how to capture it. I'm still figuring it out. 

Did you have mentors? 
When I was younger, even before film school, I was obsessed with Iranian films—[Abbas] Kiarostami in particular. There's one movie called Close-Up, which follows the story of a real man who pretended to be a famous film director. He lied to one family and said he was going to make a movie about them, and they figured it out, and the man went to jail. Kiarostami made a film about this man while he was in court, and had the real family re-enact the scenes of what had gone on. It's this weird moment where reality and fiction merge. The final scene of the film is when the real director and the fake director are sitting on a motorcycle together, with a bouquet of flowers, and they're going to the family's house to apologize. It was one of those really impactful films for me. It blurred those fiction/nonfiction lines in such a balletic way. If you want to put a finger on something I've been most interested in, that's probably it. 

You started doing social experiments in your films—most famously "First Kiss." Where did that idea come from? 
So many filmmakers—writers and directors—are obsessed with watching life unfold on its own. I wanted to control the bigger picture, and the parameters of it, but let life unfold on its own without me overly directing it. 

I find kissing to be such an intimate act, more intimate than we give it credit for. I had a folder on my computer of me and my boyfriend—who's now my husband—doing selfies, before selfies was a word, of ourselves making out. Very often I would go back and look at those videos, when I was upset or needed cheering up. I remember thinking, "This is such an intimate act. I wonder what would happen if you asked strangers to do it." I remember thinking it could be the worst idea I ever had. It's kind of clichéd, right? A bunch of people making out? It could be the worst idea on the planet. 

I had no money. I think I had $1,300. So, I did all the jobs. I produced it, I directed it. I had a great DP, so that really helped. I emailed friends, and friends of friends. Melissa [Coker], the founder of Wren, she reached out to friends as well. Some people got really excited about the opportunity to kiss someone they had never kissed before. Other people thought I had lost my mind. 

Then we filmed it. And the day itself was as magical as you see in the film. The quality that the film has—the day itself had that same intimate, voyeuristic but sweet quality to it. 

First Kiss

It must have been amazing to see how popular it became, and how quickly.
That was incredible. I just wanted my friends to like it! In 24 hours it had 5 million views, and then 20 million views in 48 hours. I had just opened a YouTube account. I barely knew how to post a video. 

How do you make the footage as real as possible at a shoot like that? It's a mediated experience, even as you're trying to capture spontaneity. 
Andre Lascaris, the DP with whom I often work, has helped me with that. For films like "First Kiss," social experiments or more intimate films, where I want to be really honest with what's happening, we shoot with multiple cameras. I always want to give it a cinematic quality. I never repeat any action, and I usually try to pick up a wide shot, a good medium close-up, and if you have more than one person, an over-the-shoulder so you are capturing everything. I just let it go and try not to get in the way of it all. 

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is not get in the way, and let it breathe. That's when true awkwardness happens, and when something beautiful happens. I always pre roll, and never call "Cut!"—just a few tricks I'm sure people have used before. They really help me find those moments. I sometimes call "Cut!" but I don't actually cut. Just keep rolling is my motto. 

Is it voyeurism that gets audiences to watch this stuff, or is it a yearning for connection? 
First and foremost, I'd say we all have a desire to connect and to love and be loved, at the heart of it all. More than the romantic side of "First Kiss," I think it's just people being kind to one another that really shines in that piece and in those moments. I think that's why people appreciated it. You never get a window into something like that. We see ourselves in it—I saw myself in it, at my best. I can't tell you for sure, but hopefully the viewers had a similar experience as I did. 

Do you think social experiments are a phase that brands have gone through, or do you think there's a future in it? 
I think if you can come up with a good one that's connected to the brand, there's a future in it. It's hard to design a good social experiment. For me, it's a genre within documentary. It's art meets reality. It's a combination, and it's not just social experimentation. People fascinate me, life fascinates me, and people at their most vulnerable inspire me. It's hard to find those magical moments. 

Your film "Love at First Taste" for Knorr was the second most watched ad of 2016. That was another film about strangers and intimacy, but this time with food!
That was actually really fun. It was such an international group of people. And food really brings people together, so it was a great way to stage a social experiment around that.

Knorr | Love at First Taste

Casting is the most important part of these quasi-documentary films. You really have to know who you're talking to, and somewhat predict what's going to happen. When I sat with them, I just told them, "Hey, I'm just going to set you up on a boring date." That's all they needed. And I asked them, what were the food groups they liked? The idea was that people with similar tastes in food perhaps would connect in a bigger picture in life. But it was not until they got on stage, where we had set up a little dining experience—it was right at that moment when I told them they had to feed each other. Which is another incredibly awkward human act. 

It was sexy, it was hilarious, it was all of those things—it was like life. Some people really connected, others really did not. People would say things like, "Don't touch my face." Which was really awkward. (laughs) And others just loved it, and really went with it. The couple that did the blindfold thing—they did that on their own. If you had told me to blindfold them, I would have said, "Oh, that's such a cliché! A terrible idea." And of course, it happens and it's beautiful. 

You did a Lufthansa spot recently. What was the idea with that one?
The idea was to inspire people to go to places not just for locations or landscapes but to experience people in other cultures. The idea of putting seats in different countries—that actually came from the agency. But how the people were combined, and how we got them talking about things that were dear to them and intimate about their lives—that came from us. I cast for real people in New York, Munich, Shanghai and India. I learned a lot just traveling around the world and meeting people. I loved the campaign because it wasn't just about places and culture, but about culture and humanity through its citizens. I thought that was a really beautiful thought.

Why do you love the world | Lufthansa

Tell me about the U2 video you did. That was an amazing project, too. 
That's probably been the single favorite project I've worked on since "First Kiss." U2's management called and said they had a new single, and would I listen to it and see if it inspired me to come up with a short film. Which was an insanely amazing opportunity. So I listened to it, and it was a love ballad—so it already hit close to home. 

I remember I was on a plane coming back from my grandmother's funeral in the Republic of Georgia, and I'd just seen my whole family, old friends, in a short amount of time, and said goodbye to so many people. Because I'm an immigrant, and I've lived in so many different countries, I feel like my life is full of goodbyes. And they never get easier. Between the song, and my personal experience at that moment, that's what inspired the project. 

U2 - You’re The Best Thing About Me (A Film By Tatia Pilieva)

I decided to film people in the last 24 hours they spent together right before a separation. They weren't leaving each other by choice, but because of life circumstances. I wanted people who were still very much in love, but life was forcing them to separate. That was really intimate, because I was in their homes, and in their private lives, for two or three days. I was really grateful that they let me in. It was a small group—me, my DP, a soundman or woman, and my producer. That was it. 

The casting must have been complex. 
Very. It took over two months to pull it together. I also really wanted to portray people from different countries and backgrounds. 

You have such a knack for zeroing in on these moments that are full of meaning.
Thank you, it's nice of you to say. I was on set yesterday, and I broke down and cried. I got so emotional that I buried my head in my monitor. I quite embarrassed myself. We were working on a Mother's Day project, and as you know, that's such a wonderfully complex dynamic in all of our lives. 

You also made a feature film called Forever. Where does that fit into your body of work? 
I had just finished editing Forever right before I made "First Kiss." Features take such a long time, and you always have to beg and wait for money. It was a point where I wanted to make things that didn't take forever, and so short film was really exciting. I didn't even know advertising very well. I didn't know how competitive it was, and also how many talented people are in it. 

Forever is a love story. It's a very dark love story that I wrote years ago with a wonderful man called Gill Dennis. It was a great group of actors. We made it for very little money, and a great nonprofit organization was behind it. They helped find the financing for it, and all the profits would go back to it. But then "First Kiss" got all the attention, so people forget that I've actually made a film that's not documentary! 

I also wanted to ask you about the state of commercial directing for women, and why there are still so few women directing ads?
Going into it, I didn't realize there are even fewer women directors in advertising than there are in TV and film—and there are already so few in that world. Once in a while I wonder if they throw my name in there just to say they have a woman. But then I've also been in situations where I've wanted those jobs. I feel the corporate world is often affiliated with money, and somehow they think women are not able to deal with finance. That trickles down, even to directors, in that world. But hopefully that is changing and shifting, the more we can show we're just as good—and often better. 

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of Clio Awards.