Interview with Leah Yananton, Director and Writer of Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie
This interview is part of a double feature on the film Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie. Please check out Elena Cronick’s review of the film.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film and your performance. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, writing, directing, and acting in a film. Did you always intend to play the supporting character of Kiera or did you ever entertain the idea of playing the protagonist, Sophie?
Thank you. It revealed itself that I could play Kiera when we secured financing and saw that it would save us money! My background is in acting, so it was thrilling to play the supporting role—Kiera is such a hoot with her over-the-top upside-down feminism, but there was a degree of pain to her that I wanted to make sure came through in portraying her. To answer the second part of your question, I did not want to play the protagonist Sophie because I thought that would be interfering with the telling of her story, whereas directing I could facilitate the story. I needed to direct. I wanted an actor to bring authorship to Sophie’s character, and Christine Ryndak did an outstanding job at that. Every time I watch Surviving Me, I see something new and am continually amazed by Christine’s performance as Sophie and the vulnerability she brings to the role.
Sophie is intimate with several people in her world, so in addition to her complexity, the actor playing her needed to have the emotional space to interact with the other characters, as well as chemistry with them, and again, Christine Ryndak was the outstanding actor to do this. Christine had phenomenal on-screen chemistry with Vincent Piazza, who plays her boyfriend Jimmy, with Fredric Lehne, who plays Professor Slateman, and especially with Mira Furlan, who plays the professor’s wife, Jacqueline Slateman, in an exceptional performance, and is Sophie’s wake-up call and hero in many ways.
Tell us about Sophie. She’s a very interesting character, not black or white. The story is about her journey. Did the script begin with Sophie? If not, what inspired you to write this particular script?
Yes, the script began with Sophie as a character study. The story was inspired by the hypocrisy I saw around me at college when I was an undergrad at Columbia, and hypocrisy really makes me angry!
The social scene was like a wasteland of people hiding behind each other’s bodies, using each other for immediate gratification and avoiding having to be real. It seemed that boundaries to value oneself were balked at and that intimacy and commitment did not exist in NYC. I felt like I was lost in the River Styx, where the pressure to be hypersexual was inescapable, morally degrading, and damaging. Yet it was justified as “being liberated” even though it was the men who still held the upper hand in this scenario. But the story of Surviving Me focuses on the young woman’s journey through this backdrop, as she tries to have the upper hand and make it work for her. It was very confusing to be among young women who were hypersexualizing and objectifying themselves under the “feminist” and “LGBTQ” banner because women were not the winners in this situation— no one was. It felt like people were treating each other (and themselves) not with respect but with consumerism. That made it into the script, in Sophie’s opening monologue:
“I was nervous about everything at college, but especially about the social scene. They say romance is dead, and hooking up, you know—sex with no strings attached—is the norm. But I refused to believe that people would be so shallow, as if consumerism was at a personal level now.”
Sophie’s journey comes from having to navigate her way out of this, but things go from bad to worse. The structure of the story organically followed the nine circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno with its warning about the consequences of moral failures and about behavior motivated by fear, such as greed, anger, and lust, etc., but at the same time it also maps the way out into the light, if you are brave enough to face yourself.
What is it like acting in a film and directing yourself and the cast? How do you approach the process?
Approaching the process, I had practiced directing this material for a couple years leading up to production, workshopping the script with actors in Our Workshop East, a development collective for directors, writers, and actors led by Artistic Director Lenore Dekoven, who is the author of Changing Direction (a book I highly recommend) and whom I’d first met at Columbia. Her illustrious alumni include Kimberly Peirce and Ang Lee—DeKoven is an incredible teacher of directing and my respect and gratitude for her is infinite. I also did many practice shoots with actor friends and my director of photography Larry Engel before pre-production began, as well as shooting the comedic short film The Burial where I played two different characters in addition to writing and directing. When it was time to rehearse Surviving Me with the cast I knew exactly what I wanted as a director, and jumping into a scene as Kiera was already established as part of the process.
What advice would you give to women actor/directors who are thinking about directing themselves?
Have a team that you trust, especially your director of photography and assistant director. Make sure you have a team who is fully committed to your vision and supporting and protecting your artistic process. Don’t let ambition to act get in the way of the story. Practice. Breathe. Don’t drink too much coffee … breathe more.
The film came across as very personal. Do you have a personal connection to the story?
I tell stories that I feel need to be heard because they are first ripping my heart out in some way. For Surviving Me, the issue of people using people and exploiting themselves and each other sexually got me so outraged that I had to write about it and find my voice on the matter. I needed to start this dialogue because I didn’t hear it happening in any accessible way—when I was an undergrad there was no discourse about campus rape, sexual assault, or exploitation of sexuality fostered by the hook-up culture. These are rather recent topics of awareness and I am grateful that Surviving Me can add to that conversation.
Thank you for noticing the film comes across very personal—I put a lot of time into it, obsessing about every detail and then refining my vision during post-production, which ended up taking several years because of independent financing hurdles and challenges. The film took over my life, and took me on a creative journey on a scale of magnitude I couldn’t have imagined. It killed me many times over and I’m so glad it did!
We also conducted test screenings during the edit to receive audience feedback, which is a fine-tuning process I will always depend on for my future films, too.
At our most recent screening, a woman stood up during the Q&A and thanked me for making this movie. She said she cried because now she understands what her female students’ world is like, what they are going through, and how they objectify themselves because they think they have to. She said she heard fifty girls’ stories in Surviving Me, and that now she can start the conversation with them by showing them the movie. This is why I made the film. It is awesome to connect with people and give their voices a platform to be heard. There is humor throughout the film too, so it’s not a heavy-handed thing. It’s satirical—tension-relieving laughter is welcomed.
Your female characters are very complicated. We never quite know who’s right or wrong, bad, or good. Can you talk about how you create characters?
Thank you, yes! I’m fascinated by how people believe the lies they tell themselves. I’m interested in the space that exists when those lies are revealed for a character. Speaking to their innocence, I put myself in their shoes, and usually a character is a composite of several known impressions of people I have come across in my life, imbued with imagination and metaphor. The conflicts within their characters must incite narrative transfiguration.
How open were producers to financing a film with an unknown female lead who is on the road to self-discovery?
Finding producers was the most difficult thing—even after I had secured the financing on my own through private equity. The investors I found were certainly angels—they were not from the film industry, so it was a cultural endeavor for them to invest in an art film, as well as it being a business venture. We had a very low budget, which made it perhaps “easier” to find investors—a journey that took three years of obsessive networking through my friends’ circles in the business school—but very hard for me to find producers who would agree to come on board. I was talking with a fellow woman director recently and she said you have to do things yourself if you want to get it done, when it’s your passion project. Indeed, I became a producer too.
What advice would you give to women filmmakers embarking on making their first feature and raising funds?
Do it, do it, do it, and hire a female director of photography! Hire a female director of photography and hire a female assistant director. Keep at it and find the message of your story that will inspire others to want to help and contribute.
Work with as many women as possible and connect with your local women-in-film group for support. It is important for a production to hire women in order to bring equality to this industry and defeat hostile sexism on sets. Women are stereotyped so severely that they do not get hired to work on film crews, and that is unacceptable. Did you read the interview with Maureen Dowd about her investigation into sexism in Hollywood? Dowd said she found the situation depressing. “The other two things I covered like this were the Catholic Church and Saudi Arabia,” she said in an interview with The Wrap. “Somewhere along the line I realized—wow, this incredibly liberal town full of men who say they’re feminists has been warped. It’s a sick society—like the Catholic Church and Saudi Arabia. If you exclude the hearts and minds of women, you get warped. That’s what happened to Hollywood.”
I also highly recommend reading up on the data gathered on this by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her team at USC/Annenberg School. Her studies provide the cold-hard facts for how women are shut out of working in Hollywood through male-dominiated industry networks, gendered financial barriers, and belittled into sexualized stereotypes, etc.
Sundance and Women in Los Angeles also funded a study, which revealed that even the Sundance Institute has been favoring male filmmakers, even though films directed by women are just as successful at the box office.
The characters’ relationships, especially between Sophie, Jacqueline, and Kiera were very messy, complicated, and real. Talk about creating those character relationships and how you approach rehearsals.
Thank you. Those character relationships … none of them know healthy boundaries really. Sophie is the one who is lying to herself in the most unaware way, which is how she comes to damage her relationships, mistaking her sexuality for a means of security. Kiera seems to know when she is lying to herself, but doesn’t know how to stop (until the third act), Jacqueline tolerates lies in her life but has found her own truth, and Jimmy is the most innocent one, from my perspective.
In order to bring out the complexity of the characters, it was important for the actors to come from a place of goodness, a place of innocence where their characters mean well even if they are not behaving with integrity. Jacqueline sees herself in Sophie. Kiera wants love and loves Sophie, but Sophie is lost in her own confusion and in the terror of her sexual identity crisis.
I cherish rehearsal time, but of course our time was limited because of the low-budget nature of the production. Before we left New York to shoot in DC, we had a table reading with our cast and a few rehearsals for some key scenes. During production, I would meet with the actors to rehearse in the mornings, when the crew was setting up, and before scenes. I am an actor’s director. When it was time to shoot, the actors brought their magic and gave their hearts.
The story was very psychological. What did you want the audience to take away, feel, wonder after seeing the film?
An unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said. Plato’s Apology actually makes a cameo in Surviving Me when Professor Slateman thumbs through the book at the outdoor stand. The story is very layered and watching it more than once is encouraged. Life is about the journey of discovering who you are. Dante essentially echoes Socrates when we enter the ninth circle of treachery in the third act: “If the present world go astray, the cause is in you. In you it is to be sought.” -Dante Alighieri
Examining one’s life and admitting to ourselves when we’re wrong, becoming aware of when fear has gotten the best of us, knowing how to take responsibility for our behavior and actions is how growing up happens. It’s actually a good thing, and builds character. Such is the theme of this coming-of-age film and why the title is “Surviving Me.”
What will you work on next? And will you act, direct, and write in your next project?
I have two documentaries in development, one is an environmental justice documentary and the other is a social justice documentary. I will definitely write and direct my next narrative film as well, which will be a musical drama. There will be a role for myself somewhere I’m sure, but I leave it to the Muses.
I am currently building an interactive storytelling machine in my backyard, which unifies my performance art with my visual art. This will allow me to tell my stories with greater immediacy, and to have real-time interaction with my audiences.
Thank you for being on the journey with me! This was a great interview. I really enjoyed your questions. Thank you, agnès films!
Thank you for speaking with us!
View Danielle Winston’s profile here.
Check out Elena Cronick’s review of the film.