|South By Southwest 2014 Interview – I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS director Leah Meyerhoff
by Jason Whyte
I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS - At SxSW 2014
“Davina is an imaginative and strong-willed teenage girl who escapes often into a beautifully twisted fantasy life. Having grown up quickly as the sole caretaker of her disabled mother, she looks for salvation in a new relationship with an older boy. She is swept into a whirlwind of romance and adventure, until the volatile side of his personality begins to emerge. “I Believe in Unicorns” takes us on a road trip through the stunning and complex landscape of troubled young love.” Director Leah Meyerhoff on I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival.
Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Berkeley High School, which is also where I shot my debut feature I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS. After high school, I attended Brown University and studied film theory and Art Semiotics. It was there that I began to understand the indelible impact that media has on our daily lives and our collective conscious as a culture. I realized that the makers of pop culture; the filmmakers, the talk show hosts, the magazine editors all hold a distinct influence on the way people navigate the world around them. After graduating from Brown’s undergraduate program, I immediately began studying at NYU Tisch Grad School for film production. My short film TWITCH, which in many ways was a precursor to I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS, was made as a class project at NYU. The process of production was profiled on Nannette Bernstein's reality show, FILM SCHOOL on IFC. While making this short film, I began to explore the artistic themes and creative strategies that I later employed in I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS.
How did this whole project come together from your perspective?
The success of my short film TWITCH showed me that there was an audience for personal and heartfelt narratives. I became interested in exploring mother-daughter relationships and what happens when a child becomes a caretaker at an early age. I further developed this character into a teenage girl who grows up quickly and begins to seek solace in relationships with men. I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS is a flawed and beautiful love story about two young people exploring the power of emotions and how to control them. Even though their hearts are pure, before long they are completely in over their heads.
What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?
Blurring fact and fiction even further, I chose to cast my actual mother to play a fictionalized version of herself in the movie and an actual 16-year old girl to play the lead. My mother is in a wheelchair, having been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when I was young. We returned to my childhood home in the Bay Area for production since she is unable to travel. The crew needed to be sensitive to her disability while simultaneously dressing the set and shooting the movie. Similarly, production had to be adjusted to accommodate Davina’s high school schedule and status as a minor. Ultimately, these casting decisions were worth the logistical challenges, as both actresses brought nuances to their performances and a deeper authenticity to the story.
If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?
Being able to call wrap on the first day on set was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was wonderful to be surrounded by talented cast and crew and know that a story I had been living with for so long was going to make its way safely out of my head and into the world.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?
I love every aspect of production and am continually developing a deeper respect for the hard work and dedication that goes into each element of the film. Furthermore, the emotional intensity of my young actors brought an incredible vitality to set which was completely contagious. It is a luxury to be able to work in a distinctly collaborative medium such as filmmaking and I am continually inspired by those around me. I became energized by the effort and passion by my cast and crew, who joined together to make I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS come to life. They helped a story by me become a film by all of us.
I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.
I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of our lead character, with the visual language of the film reflecting the internal emotional landscape of an imaginative teenage girl. We chose to shoot on a combination of Super 16mm and Super 8mm film stocks chosen for their graininess and depth of color. We selectively purchased expired stocks online, pre-fogged certain rolls of film, and did almost all of our effects in-camera using analogue techniques. In my early conversations with the DP Jarin Blaschke, we discussed a variety of looks to correlate with the trajectory of the main character’s emotions. In particular, we wanted the more fantastical sequences to embody a hand-crafted aesthetic, as if they were direct creations of her subconscious mind. We used an intervalometer for time lapse photography and extensive stop-motion animation sequences, shooting one frame of film at a time. Employing a wide combination of film techniques, I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS is a road trip through the stunning and complex landscape of troubled young love.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW?
With almost 100,000 fans on Facebook, I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS has been looking forward to launching into the next phase of its life. SXSW is an exciting place to introduce a film to the world, and I am particularly excited to share the film with a younger audience . The premiere is also a fantastic opportunity for reuniting our crew divided between San Francisco and New York. Unicorn stampede!
After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen?
Following SXSW, we have a dozen festivals lined up back to back, and it is all happening very quickly. I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS is excited for the opportunity to travel the country and the world and to bring this story to an audience hungry for stories about authentic teenage girls.
If you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?
I would love to screen this film at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, which is a theater I frequented as a child. I saw many influential films there which influenced my decision to become a filmmaker. Screening I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS in San Francisco would also allow me to show the film to my wheelchair-bound mother, who is a supporting actress in the film and unable to travel to the SXSW premiere.
What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film?
I recently screened a rough cut of I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS to a dozen high school students through a mentorship program at the Tribeca Film Institute. I chose to sit in the backrow, and over the course of the film three students in front of me were continually on their phones. At first I was hurt by this, yet when I went up for the Q&A, these three students had the most poignant and insightful commentary on the film. It turns out that they were texting to each other about the film the entire time! Although I do not personally ever text during screenings, this moment reminded me that the modes of communication are changing, and perhaps their use of phones allowed for a greater development of their reflections on the film.
There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?
Write a story that you know well and be prepared to scale down your ambitions so that your vision is actually attainable. I recommend starting by writing a script that keeps the scope of future production requirements in mind. It is helpful not to get lost in the black hole of revisions and get out into the world and find a fantastic cast. If you expend more effort in the audition process, your work as a director on set will be that much easier and you will be free to explore other elements of production. The process of filmmaking is just as important as the product and it is good to learn to enjoy each phase along the way.
And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?
I remember seeing GAS FOOD LODGING when I was younger, and it left a distinct impression on me at the time. The film stuck with me over the years and I reached out to the writer/director Allison Anders during development on I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS to request her insight on the script. She loved the project so much that she signed on as the first Executive Producer of I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS. I am very grateful for the advice and guidance she has provided during the creation of this film.
This is one of the many films screening at the 2014 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 7-15. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jasonrcwhyte
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3653
originally posted: 03/08/14 02:35:47