Boys and girls who front campaigns are using their public platforms to make a change in the industry and the world as a whole. That’s why we decided to spotlight some of the trailblazers in the modelling world. This time it’s Lili Sumner, Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent muse who made her directorial debut earlier this year with ‘Lucan Asks Why’.
From the age of 10, Lili Sumner has been been an avid writer. Having a reasonable amount of time to herself growing up, she recalls writing stories, methodically typing them into her mother’s old Apple iMac. It’s a practice she continues today alongside modelling, writing both autobiographically but also dabbling in sci-fi for fun. It was an untitled short story upon which the screenplay for her first film Lucan Asks Why was based, which premiered this September in New York.
Born and raised in New Zealand, Sumner grew up between Auckland, Napier and Wellington before starting her modelling career half-way across the world in London aged 17. Her blonde barnet and bleached brows first burst onto our radar whilst making her runway debut in SS14 for Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent. Since 2013, Sumner has walked countless shows and appeared in an A-Z of the top style publications from Another Man to Zoo Magazine – including gracing the cover of Ten Magazine Issue 59 photographed by Derek Ridgers and styled by Tara St Hill. Now based in New York, she is equally known for her off-duty style as she is for her editorials and campaigns.
“I left school a year early for modelling and then did a semester of university; it was difficult to be travelling and living overseas for the first time and studying all at the same time,” says Sumner of her education. “When I got more settled in New York I studied screenwriting. I’m a believer in educating yourself on whatever interests you, learning is so accessible now,” she continues. When deciding she wanted to begin making films, Sumner began reading lots of screenplays, often reading along whilst watching the film. “To make sure I had all the technical bits down,” she enrolled in a month-long screenwriting workshop at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, an adult-education writing school.
Sumner’s directorial debut Lucan Asks Why is an intimate semi-autobiographical ten-minute short film written by the model and set in NYC. “The idea came from a short story I wrote about a conversation with my little sis,” she says. “It’s about sister relationships, being a kid with a lot of questions, that time when you really want to understand how everything works and why.” A candid dialogue-heavy snapshot into domestic life the film captures childhood curiosity and traverses subjects including capitalism, centring around sisters Ines and Lucan played by Coco Gordon-Moore and Lilac Sky Cianciolo.
“I found Lilac through her mother [artist, designer and performer] Susan Cianciolo, who was the right mother role for the film even though you don’t see her in it, she’s definitely in the house,” explains Sumner of the casting. “Lilac is a super smart and very New York kid. I wanted that because I’m not a New York kid at all, and the character had to be. Lilac is fun to talk to too, and it was her first-time screen acting, she was just so natural on screen… she barely forgot a single line and there was a lot of dialogue. The whole film is dialogue,” she says.
Gordon Moore, who plays older sister Ines, is the daughter of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore and was introduced to Sumner by her friend and stylist Thistle Brown. “We messaged over Instagram – I wanted someone who would curb, or negate the bubbly energy of the younger character and Coco has this reasoned and calm energy, even a little stoic beside Lilac’s character, but she’s still down to engage and guide just like a teenage big sister,” she continues. “Coco’s character is 20 or so but I find when you come back to family relationships you digress a little, fitting back into those comfy roles you grew up with, getting irritated because it’s cosy to be irritated like you used to,” Sumner states. What would Sumner hope that someone took away from the film? “Whatever resonates with them, I hope something that I didn’t even mean to be there makes someone feel something.”
Movie-making is somewhat a familial affair for Sumner. Her mother is a writer and producer Barbara Sumner-Burstyn and her father is Oscar and BAFTA-winning film editor John Gilbert, who worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sumner’s stepfather is an Acadamy Award-shortlisted cinematographer Thomas Burstyn, whom she worked with as her director of photography on Lucan Asks Why. “They are immersed but it’s also a removed experience to grow up in New Zealand. It’s not like Hollywood where you know everyone or all your parents’ friends are in the business; it’s much quieter,” says Sumner.
“The way I’ve been influenced most though is through my access to films whilst growing up, the sort of films you can’t get at Blockbuster.” Some of Sumner’s favourite films include Chungking Express (1994), Morvern Callar (2002), Fat Girl(2001), Carnage (2011) and Fishtank (2009) “I love the directors Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsey,” she says. “I went on set a few times as a kid but it didn’t exactly make me want to be a part of it.” It was, in fact, the story-telling aspect which attracted her to filmmaking: “I’ve always been coming from the story angle, just wanting to find the best way to hear a story. A film is such a great way – definitely the most complicated way you could tell a story,” Sumner continues.
“I like looking at documentary photographs and thinking of the story behind them, what the person or peoples lives look like, how their life might have turned out,” she says of her inspiration. An avid reader, she is currently finishing “a New Zealand classic” Bulibasha by Witi Ihimaera and has just finished reading the 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. “I love Carson McCullers so much, she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which everyone should read!”
Lucan Asks Why premiered in a somewhat “non-traditional screening” at the Gucci Wooster bookstore in September which was full of Sumner’s pals. “My friend & actress Sasha Frolova and I held a conversation and Q&A. It was beautiful watching my friends watch the film together,” she says. “The film is still in submission for festivals. It’s funny showing my first film ever and I look forward to using all I’ve learnt on Lucan to make my next film.” Sumner is currently working on some projects and confirms that there is another film in the pipeline. When asked of her experience working on the other side of the camera, “Great fun. I really love to be in control.” Her words of wisdom for any budding filmmakers? “I don’t think I’m sage enough to truly give advice, but why not make a little movie?”
by Helena Fletcher