'Eloise' illustrator Hilary Knight talks new HBO documentary and his bond with Lena Dunham
In the upcoming documentary It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise, executive producer Lena Dunham explains that feeling ownership over Eloise—the six-year-old who lives at The Plaza Hotel with Nanny, her turtle, and her dog—is a “pretty universal feeling.”
“I think what’s universal about her is all children feel like they are alone, and all children feel like they’re smarter than the adults around them understand,” Dunham told EW before a screening of the documentary earlier this week, located at Eloise’s home base. “All children have a really powerful interior life, and I think Eloise illustrates that in a way no other book, appropriate for children, does.”
The documentary also explores the interior life and childlike creativity of illustrator Hilary Knight, as well as his relationship to his most famous creation. But Dunham, whose friendship with Knight began when he heard about her Eloise tattoo, is also a presence in the documentary. We see Knight through her eyes.
Dunham told EW that she didn’t initially plan to be part of the documentary. “We saw Lena as a kind of latter day Eloise figure in a sense,” director Matt Wolf explained. “Our goal was to get Lena into the story, and for Hilary to take over. As he says in the film, there is this strong lineage of these powerful, unruly women in his life—and Lena’s one of them.”
Talking by phone with EW, Knight discussed his connection to Dunham and what it was like seeing his life on screen. The documentary airs March 23 at 9 p.m.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first see the film?
HILARY KNIGHT: I saw a very rough cut a long time ago. It’s not the way you should look at something, and Matt said, rightly so, you need to see it with a group of people. So he wouldn’t let me see it until [Monday]. It was quite a thrilling experience. A lot of it is my very own film, and even films that my father took back in Roslyn [New York]. It’s a wonderful thing to see your whole life in front of you, and yourself, at 88—not looking too great, but I am still here and working.
The documentary explains that you decided to reach out to Lena after learning of her Eloise tattoo. Why did you want to make the connection?
For one thing, when I first heard about her having this tattoo, I really didn’t know much about her. I started watching Girls, and the minute you see this phenomenon at work, meaning Lena herself, it’s quite extraordinary. I knew this was going to be important for both of us. Someone who had all that insight about everything, the fact that she was a fan of Eloise was just one more lovely thing and flattering thing. It meant so much to her. I do hear that from people. It’s very rewarding to know that you have affected someone, but when you see a person whose work you really do admire, that’s what really got me going. And where I felt it was going to work as a friendship, which it did.
What struck you about Girls?
It is not a subject that would have ever interested me. Had I been a young person watching Girls, I would not have been really connected to it. I simply was not connected to this world at any time in my life. I’m not ashamed of that…Because it is so well constructed, acted, directed, that is what made me interested.
A lot of the documentary is drawn from your own personal footage. What was it like handing that over to Matt?
He was really interested. I had shown both of them some of my films. They wanted to see more and took quantities of it. The company themselves made it all look twice as good as it really was, and that was quite a treat for me.
When Matt and Lena approached you with the idea for the documentary were you at all nervous or reluctant to do it?
Nobody had ever done anything like this. Of course I was flattered. It’s kind of a strange invasion of your life when you have a crew come into your home. It was fascinating because I am a total amateur filmmaker. The process interests me. I was glad to see them doing it, and maybe I may have learned something. Who knows?
You may take some techniques for your own projects?
It is not something I’m going to end up doing, being a filmmaker. But within the movie there’s this little film, which is still in the works. It’s sheer amateur time. But it’s meant to look like that. It’s meant to be a child’s movie, done by a grownup, the way Eloise is. Eloise is a grownups’ book. It states that very clearly, but because it’s a visual thing it was accepted by children. That’s what my little movie, The Frog and [the Pond] Nymph is going to be. It’s a humorous take on a documentary nature film.
The documentary goes into your relationship with Kay Thompson, the author of Eloise, which had some fraught elements. Was it ever difficult to discuss that relationship?
I had a fantastic relationship with her. Those books would have never have been what they are if that had not been true. It was only at the end when she got bored with it. That was what the real problem was. She was a woman who never stuck with anything for very long. She was not able to do that. She was full of imagination and interest in everything going on, politics and fashion and very diverse subjects, and she felt she had done everything she could do. She went on. I wanted to keep going because I love this character, and I admired Kay, but it was simply not to be. I did other things. And happy to do it. I was really disappointed. I was hurt by her disinterest, because I wanted to continue it and I couldn’t.
The film draws a parallel between these women in your life—there’s Kay, then artist and musician Phoebe Legere, and then there’s Lena. How do you see Lena fitting into that group of women?
Well, she’s wildly different than all of them, because she’s a feminine, beautiful girl. If you look at Girls without knowing anything about Lena, you might not think so—she’s a lovely girl, and a brilliant, brainy… I cannot say tough because she isn’t tough, but she’s very loving, and has a force and the energy to do all this. All the people that I’ve known, beginning with my own mother, had this. It’s what really has kept me going. I could list many more people that have been very influential in my life. And D. D. [Ryan], the one person that really convinced Kay that this should be a book—she was an editor at Harper’s Bazaar and you see a lot of her, I’m thrilled. Eloise would never have existed without D. D. She is the force behind it, and boy was this a strong strong woman.
The documentary speaks about how Eloise in Hollywood was a disappointment. Do you ever see yourself doing another Eloise book?
I was hoping I could redo Eloise in Hollywood. I have a fantastic book that was not produced simply because there were people that did not think my version would be as good, but it was absolutely my own ideas. They were rejected. Eloise will always be with us. There will be things. I can promise you there will be Eloise coming.
What do you think Eloise’s place in the world is now?
I’m always asked this. I was asked it 20 years ago. I think it’s simply that people are interested in a character who has this tremendous imagination. I used to think it was just because she was a naughty little girl. It’s much more than that. It’s about a child or anyone who copes with what, in her case, is not a lack of a home and riches, it’s boredom. She knows how to deal with it—not with electronics or games. Those things don’t exist in her life, and I think basically they shouldn’t exist in most children’s lives today. If I had any comment about the future, I would be concerned about kids being too reliant on the electronic glories and incredible inventions of this current lifetime. I don’t think it’s the way to go.