Interview with Leah Meyerhoff, Writer and Director of I Believe in Unicorns
Could you sharesome of the similarities and/or differences between making a short film and working the festival circuit with it versus your first feature and the traveling you are doing with the distribution strategy of I Believe in Unicorns?
For my debut feature film I knew that I would be telling a story about an imaginative, dreamy, complicated teenage girl. And I knew that I wanted to cast an actual teenage girl, an unknown actress, and that I would be casting my mother. Because of these risky and unusual casting decisions, I ended up making a short film as a precursor. At New York University (NYU) I made a 10-minute short film called Twitch, which was a companion piece to the feature film that I was developing the script for. I did that mainly as an exercise to see creatively would the story, characters, and casting decisions work. But it had the added bonus of being critically and financially successful and was the best thing I could have done. So when aspiring filmmakers ask me for advice about how to get their film off the ground, I almost always say make a short first — something that is in some way related to the feature you want to make — because it can be beneficial in so many ways.
In my case Twitch cost $5,000. I financed it by participating in a documentary on IFC called Film School — a reality TV show in which they filmed four NYU students making their short films. An unusual way to finance a film, but they also helped with distribution. I submitted the short to dozens of film festivals around the world. It premiered at Slamdance and won a Grand Jury prize there, went on to a festival in France called Cleremont Ferrond and almost 100 other festivals. I only traveled with the film when I could get my transportation and expenses covered. The short film really traveled the fest circuit extensively, and I learned more about the real world and independent film than in film school in many ways. Almost all of the team that worked on the feature I met on the fest circuit. I met my producer, Heather Rae, through Sundance as well as my cinematographer. I met my lead animator through an animation festival. Costume designer, production designer — the film festival circuit is a wonderful resource (whether or not you’re in film school) — to meet other working independent filmmakers.
I also learned more about grants and programs that exist to help finance feature films, including many of the organizations that ended up supporting I Believe in Unicorns. We were lucky enough to receive support from the Tribeca Film Institute — I went through their All Access labs, and they were a financial supporter and have given ongoing mentorship. The IFP labs in New York, an incredible resource for first-time feature filmmakers. I received fiscal sponsorship and mentorship from SFFS as well as a grant from the Adrianne Shelly Foundation, which is geared towards female directors specifically, as well as support from NYU. So the entire journey from the short to feature was done through immense help, support, and collaboration of other people along the way and was a really positive experience.
As a student Academy Award nominee, as a filmmaker who has teaching experience and has been through a graduate film program, I’m curious to hear about your experience of the pros and cons or benefits and pitfalls of investing in film school.
In my experience I was on the full scholarship from NYU — so it was not a question financially. And NYU is fantastic; I think half of my graduating class was on a full ride. That program has a lot of resources for financial support. But I have also been involved in other programs and am a bit familiar with AFI and USC, and for students who are paying their way through grad school, it’s a really mixed bag. I think if you can afford film school, it can be a fantastic resource, but I would not recommend going into debt for it. … For students who are considering it and taking out vast amounts of loans, I don’t think it is a good investment. It is very difficult to make a living as an independent filmmaker right out of school, just like law, medical school, or any other field. And I do have classmates who are still struggling in a major way to pay back their student loans. That said, there are lots of programs that are less expensive than NYU, and there are ways to get the benefits of film school without actually attending. I knew several inventive people who would volunteer their time and crew for NYU thesis films but didn’t actually attend the program, which I thought was really clever and smart because really the best thing you get from film school — in addition to an academic program — is the network and community of other filmmakers, and it is a real luxury to be surrounded by people who are interested in doing what you’re doing and are willing to volunteer time to help you with your project in a barter system. For those unable to attend school for financial or any other reason, [you] need to manage to build that community however you can; whether through a nonprofit, friends in film school, or people you know who are interested in filmmaking. Which is the idea behind my collective Film Fatales — it is a community of women directors who collaborate on projects, share resources, and support each other, which is almost an extension of the benefits you get from film school, although overall geared towards female narrative feature directors.
I understand the origin of Film Fatales really grew out of your desire to pick some successful female filmmaker’s brains when you began to make your first feature film.
As I was beginning pre-production on I Believe in Unicorns, I was looking for mentorship and advice from other filmmakers who had come before me. I reached out to a handful of directors I admired and respected and found women were the most generous with their time and advice, including Allison Anders, who became an Executive Producer, Kimberly Pierce, who gave me amazing advice. I hosted a dinner party at my house for six women who had made feature films before, and I asked them all kinds of questions: Does it make sense to cast a 16-year-old girl? What is it like working with an underage actress? What has your experience been like with distribution? What festivals are your favorites? All kinds of practical questions. And at the end of that dinner, it was so useful, educational, inspiring, and empowering to be in a room full of female directors, which is a really rare occurrence in this industry. In my experience in the festival circuit with my short film, I would very often be the only female director in the room, and people would assume I was an actress. Even in the independent film world there is an institutionalized gender bias. … At the end of that dinner someone said, “This is fantastic, let’s do it again next month — I’ll host it at my house.” And organically we began this rotating dinner party structure of female feature directors, and that was a few years ago. In the past few years, it really tapped into a need that female directors have for support and mentorship. That group has expanded into a formal organization of hundreds of women in dozens of chapters around the world. Every single month they get together in small groups of less than 20, and share information about their projects, collaborate, recommend crew, and share knowledge, and so forth. Film Fatales is a support network and community of women who mentor each other to build a world in which we can get our films made and seen. It is something I have become very passionate about traveling the festival circuit and now [with] the theatrical release of my feature film — everywhere I go I’m trying to spread that word and create new local chapters of Film Fatales, which is how it has been spreading around the world. Unicorns will play in a festival in Sydney, Australia, and at the end of the screening I’ll ask if there are there any female filmmakers in the audience. If I can meet at least three in any city, we get together and help form a local group for them. That is how it has been spreading and has become more than just a support network but almost a social movement for change.
It’s amazing that it has happened so organically in our ever-immersive technological reality. It reminds me of how Riot Grrrl spread in the early 1990s, which was not only about the music but also social justice and community, which was the underlying matrix of support. They seem to have similar goals — I wonder if there are any more politicized or militant members as opposed to general “I’m here to make a movie” members?
There are. I think less militant than Riot Grrrl — that spawned more from punk. There aren’t so many “punk” filmmakers, for lack of a better analogy. There are some members who are only going to hire women for crew — I met one here in San Francisco, and she said her goal is to work only with an African American female crew. So she is an example of what would be the most extreme from the perspective of a path [to] change the industry from the inside-out. Most of the women are navigating a way to work within the larger system, whether it’s Hollywood or independent, but doing so in such a way that it supports each other’s work, which is collaborative rather than competitive.
You have two really incredible giants in the world of independent filmmaking involved — specifically Allison Anders as Executive Producer of I Believe in Unicorns and Bette Gordon as a member of Film Fatales. Can you speak a bit about the shifting landscape, as you have experienced it, in independent film production? I know Bette Gordon has used Kickstarter to raise funds for production of her new film Border Crossing. Whereas your Kickstarter — which was totally successful and helped raise over $20,000 in completion funding — was an incredible help to wrap-up your film and actually get it out to audiences.
Allison Anders was someone whose films I respected when I was growing up. Gas, Food, Lodging in particular was an inspiration that showed me [that] not only could women direct films but that personal narratives were a viable path for storytelling. I reached out to her by email through a friend and said, “I’m about to embark on making my first feature, I really respect your work, do you have time to look at my script?” And she generously said yes — read the script, supported the project, and came on board as an Executive Producer and has really been a mentor from pre-production through distribution.
Bette Gordon is someone who has been a part of Film Fatales for almost two years now and also was this iconic female filmmaker with Variety. I can’t speak to her experience as to her new film as well as she could, but my understanding is that it is harder to get financing for independent films than it used to be. And a lot of filmmakers are beginning to use crowdfunding and make their films for a lower budget than they used to, and Bette is an example of that.
There is another director Deborah Kampmeier, who was at the first meeting and had made two feature films, including one called Hounddog (2007) with Dakota Fanning that was at Sundance that had been made with a reasonably sized budget, and has since had a difficult time getting films made. Through Film Fatales and being inspired by this new generation of young women who have a real D.I.Y. approach to filmmaking, she decided to make a much lower budget, partially self-financed film her third time around rather than waiting for permission. I think that is a good lesson that all of us have learned. Independent filmmakers as artists are often not in control of their own fate — they are often waiting for someone to come along and green light their project and give them financing and really give them permission to make their films. What Film Fatales has taught me is that you can’t wait around for that permission. You need to give it to yourself and figure out a way to get your film made any way possible. So maybe that is the similarity to Riot Grrrl: there is this passion, you can almost get your film made through sheer force of will. And having a community of other women filmmakers around you who have your back and say, “Yes — you can do this, I support you. I’m here to help you.” That is an invaluable resource. Filmmaking is hard and lonely. Being a female filmmaker even more hard, being a woman of color even more lonely, and so forth. The more that we can build community and support each other, the more it will help hold us up so we can not only get our films made but also seen.
Absolutely. You have an intense personal desire to create a complex, realistic yet dreamy representation of women in cinema. Can you speak a bit about working with your cinematographer on coming to the ultimate look of the film, as well as infusing elements of fantasy, stop motion, live action, lighting scenes with fireworks, and how all of that distills into the final product of the film for you?
The driving force behind creating the story behind I Believe in Unicorns, and one of the main reasons I wanted to become a director in the first place, was to create a variety of representations of females on screen. [When] I was a teenage girl, I was hungry for representations of myself in the media and would sneak into the local art house cinemas and seek out obscure foreign films like the work of Jane Campion, Kimberly Pierce, Allison Anders — I had to really look for films that I could connect to. I would say even today there is a huge lack of female characters and protagonists on screen. So with I Believe in Unicorns I wanted to tell the story of a teenage girl who feels real and complicated and confused and smart and imaginative and is the agent of her own narrative and is the driving force behind the film.
I wanted to tell the story as subjectively as possible from this girl’s perspective, so I made all the aesthetic decisions with that in mind, including the decision to shoot on super-16mm film as well as super 8 and create an aesthetic that has a fluid structure that is very grounded and almost has a social realist or documentary approach. And then another portion of the narrative is much more dreamy and fantastical, and we really are entering the mind of this girl. There are a handful of coming-of-age stories about boys that explore the interior world of the main character, but it is very rare to see those stories with girls, especially in American independent cinema. I can think of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Virgin Suicides, and now perhaps we’re starting to see a little bit more with some Hollywood films. But in my experience with films like Twilight and The Hunger Games, they are so far from the reality of what it felt like to be a teenage girl that I was trying to create something that is true and honest to this character’s experience in life, as well as her interior world.
In terms of the cinematography we did a lot of visual experiments where we would let the camera roll out when shooting a scene so we would have flash frames to work with, so in the edit room I could transition through different perspectives through flashes of light. The stop motion puppet animation sequences were done in a handcrafted, intimate, visceral way — one frame of 16mm at a time using analog, old-school techniques similar to Jan Svankmajer’s work. We actually animated on film so we were animating blind and didn’t know what the final result would look like until we got the footage back from the lab, which is a real crazy way of working. But I also can’t imagine having done it any other way.
In the fantasy sequences, I wanted them to feel as if they could have been created from the mind of this teenage girl — it’s almost as if you see her fingerprints on the edges of the frame of this world. In terms of the production design we also came up with a shorthand language to describe the characters. The main character, Davina, has this watery quality and a fluid way of navigating the world, so we used a lot of blue and purple and gray in her costume, as well as in her bedroom. And for Sterling, he has a more fiery charisma — he is more dangerous and violent and volatile, so we placed him in a more punk rock setting with fireworks and cigarettes and explosions for a real volatile look. Those two ways of looking at the characters translate into the fantastical elements of the film as well, where we have a unicorn and a dragon. And the dragon puppet was actually created by repurposing the jacket that Sterling wears in the film — a green army jacket with all these little punk studs. The unicorn puppet was similarly created with fabric and a color pallet that came out of Davina’s world.
Some of the animation sequences were lit with fireworks and animated with sparklers. Time lapse photography of sparklers was used to create the fire that this dragon creature breathes. All of our special effects were done in camera in this really visceral way of working. It goes back to the main character, and she is an artist and a dreamer — the film is taking the audience on a journey through her perspective. Cinema, to me, is a language of dreams that taps into the collective unconscious and is another way of looking at the world that allows us to reflect on our reality and call attention to the way that things really are and also offers up an alternative for the way that things could be. This film is navigating both of those worlds: it’s exploring the reality that this girl is facing, but when her reality becomes too harsh or too overwhelming, she escapes into this fantastical, interior world. The film is fluidly balancing between these different perspectives with a very coarse border between what is real and what is not real. I think that is true to my experience of being a teenage girl: being dreamy and kind of slipping into daydreams and fantasy and also dealing with the realities and ambiguities apparent in teenage relationships and growing up.