Leah Meyerhoff is no stranger to winning accolades on the festival circuit. Her short film, Twitch, screened in an absolutely towering number of festivals (from Cannes, to Milan, to Newport), and garnered over a dozen awards as it made the international rounds. Not bad for a first outing. Right now, she’s in the process of repeating her short success with her first feature length movie, I Believe In Unicorns (you can check out its Facebook page here), a story that’s as much about the need to escape an unfulfilling home life as it is about the rawness of our teenage years.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Meyerhoff, as well as her leading lady, first timer Natalia Dyer, about the personal stories and experiences that influenced the picture, as well as the production process, finding balance between fantasy and darkness, and the challenges women face making movies within Hollywood and without.
MM: With the film being so female-driven, I was wondering how you two got together and if you could talk a bit about the casting process?
Leah Meyerhoff: We had a really extensive casting process. I auditioned hundreds and hundreds of teenage girls. I wanted to cast an actual teenager to play a teenager, and that’s just a hard thing to do. So what I did was piggyback onto as many other larger Hollywood films that had done a nationwide casting search as possible. So I asked every casting director I knew who had recently cast teenage roles, “Who were your top five? Who were the best out there?” Somehow through that, I came across Natalia’s name, looked her up, found her manager, emailed him, and said I’d like to meet her, and we had a Skype – actually several Skypes, we Skyped for a while – and then she flew out to LA, and we had a proper audition. From there, it was just smooth sailing. She’s amazing, she is this character, and I cast every role around her and we moved quickly from there.
Natalia Dyer: I remember when I got the script and I read it, and the way it was written – all the beautiful and fantastical details – it just really hit me. When I read it, I was like, “This is something I want to do, this is something I really want to go for, I want to be a part of this”, so I tried to be very proactive in the casting process. She was looking for Davina, and I was like, “Here I am!”
LM: You sent us more tapes than anyone!
ND: Yeah, I remember, I would pick some scenes from the script, put them on tape, and send them. So yeah, and then we met in person.
LM: She was actually a junior in high school in Nashville at the time, and I was in New York, we were casting in LA, so we were kind of all over the place. I’m so glad it worked out, I cannot imagine the film without Natalia.
MM: Yeah, you’re really the center, the heart and soul of the film. It’s a performance that the movie builds itself off of. Was that kind of intimidating to you? I’m actually not sure, is this your first feature role?
ND: I’ve been acting since I was nine, in theater and smaller things, but this was my first feature, yeah. It was a big deal! So, yeah, it was intimidating. I was in high school, and I had the script all of a sudden, and I was like, “This is what I’m going to be doing this summer!”
LM: And she’s in every frame, every scene, every day of shooting. You did not have days off!
ND: It was like its own little world!
LM: We were in this little bubble during production, non-stop, every day.
ND: We just lived and breathed it, but it was fantastic that way! It was so immersive, and wonderful, and you made so many great relationships, and everyone on the set was really close because of that.
LM: Yeah, it was actually a really magical production.
MM: Listening to the two of you talk, you sound extremely close, which kind of feeds into the sense I got while watching the movie that I was watching something really personal. I was wondering, is there a lot you both drew on in your own lives to inform the shape of the film during production?
LM: Yeah, it’s a personal film, in literal ways and in more metaphoric ways. The mother character in the film is my mother in real life, so when I was writing the script, I always knew I wanted to make a film that had a teenage girl as the lead who felt authentic, and real, and different than other female characters that I’ve seen on screen, of which there are so few. I naturally wrote from my own life, as well as auditioning other teenagers I was meeting, and I used to teach, so I kind of drew upon a bunch of different sources. One thing Natalia and I did, because we were filming in the actual house that I grew up in, and the high school that I went to, and a lot of real world locations that I have a personal connection, we went out to California a week early and just immersed ourselves in the world. We hung out with my mom, we went to my high school, I taught her how to darkroom black and white photography for the photo scene. I feel like she became my little sister/doppelganger. It was a merging of our lives.
I think by it being personal for me, and bringing that kind of vulnerability to the film, I think that really helped with Natalia being able to be vulnerable as an actress. We just created this safe and trusting space that felt, I don’t know, really special.
ND: So safe, so emotionally safe. Which is really important for the content of the film, to have that safety and feel like you can go there, which was fantastic. But yeah, a lot of that comes from sharing so much of Leah’s story, and her life, and to let me bring that to life. She allowed me to bring my own experiences. Like, I was a real sixteen year old girl at the time, dealing with all of this identity set – who am I, who do I want to be?
LM: And sometimes, when we weren’t shooting, off-set we would be hanging out, and Natalia told a story about cicadas that had just come out of the ground in Nashville that hibernate for seventeen years, and then they emerge. And she was like, “And those were older than me!” I loved that story so much that I wrote it into the script. So I would rewrite dialogue as we went sometimes, shake it around. It was a very fluid creative process.
MM: Was there ever any concern that, because of how personal it is, other people might have a hard time relating to it?
LM: Yeah, I was concerned with that, and yet what I did is, before I made the featire, I made a short film called Twitch, which was similar. It also had my mom in it, and it had a sixteen year old actress, and that was kind of a test not only from a personal perspective, but whether or not it’s going to work, will an audience respond to it. And they did, and that short film did so well that it kind of led to the feature in terms of raising the financing, finding the crew, and so forth. So because I’d gone through that before, I didn’t have the same concerns this time around, and the response has actually been really overwhelmingly positive, especially from the young women who see the film.
That has been so rewarding. I think it was after our second screening at South By Southwest, there were teenage girls, and college age girls, in the audience who came up after and were hugging us, crying, and thanking us for not necessarily telling their specific story, but telling a story that felt relateable. I think that kind of personal, heartfelt core to the film translates to people in a way that they don’t often get, especially young women. So that’s just been really wonderful. That’s why I’m going to so many film festivals, because I love connecting with younger audiences.
MM: I agree about how well it translates, even though I’m not a young girl!
ND: There’s a young girl in everyone!
LM: I love it when older white men relate to it too, you know what I mean? I don’t think it’s just for young girls, but they do have the strongest connection so far.
MM: I do think it’s interesting to talk about young women relating to it, because I think we’re seeing female voices in film on the rise, and that’s becoming more of an issue in film culture. Women in Hollywood and in filmmaking at large have more challenges and hurdles to overcome than men do when it comes to movies getting made. Do you think is becoming less of a reality or is it just as prevalent as it’s ever been?
LM: You know, I actually started a female filmmaker collective in New York called Film Fatales about a year ago, which is a group of other women writer-directors who have made either narrative or documentary feature films. We meet every month, and get together and talk about film, and talk about the challenges and benefits of being a female filmmaker. So I know a lot about this topic!
I would say that if you look at the math, the statistics, it’s the same. It’s 6% of directors are women in Hollywood, and it’s 16% in the indie world, and that’s been the same since the 70’s, and I don’t actually think that’s changing. I think there are very few female directors making films. What I think is changing is perception. In the past year or two, it feels like the press, and the media, and the public are starting to become more aware, and say, “Hey, this is actually a problem, this is an issue, women are half the population, maybe half the directors should be women!” And even more important than who the directors are, we need more female characters on the screen that feel real, and that have speaking roles to start with.
So I think those two things go hand in hand. I think the more women that make movies, women tend to make movies about women more often than men do, just naturally, so I think that’s helpful. But I think male directors also can write more female characters, and I think they’re starting to. I think some of the franchises, like The Hunger Games, and Twilight, and so forth, are helping that, helping show executives that female-driven films can make a profit, and I think in the indie film world, there are starting to be more films that aren’t just comedies. Like, Girls is fantastic, and Obvious Child, there’s a bunch of films about women kind of lubricated with humor, but I think there’s beginning to be a shift of films that are dramas about women that feel honest and real without the comedic element. That’s really exciting for me, because those are the types of films I love.
There’s a film out right now called It Felt Like Love by Eliza Hittman, which I think is phenomenal. It’s in theaters now. I feel like my film is in a similar genre of the female-driven film, but with some fantastical elements as well, and there are a whole host of other films in pre-production and in production now, and they’re starting to add to that language. So I think it’s an exciting time. I’m optimistic.
MM: I like that you’re talking about mixing all of this with fantastical elements, which was one of the things that struck me while watching the film. How did you come up with the overall aesthetic for the film, between mixing the realist elements with the stop-motion and time lapse that make up the fantasy interludes?
LM: It all comes back to Natalia’s character. Because this film is her film, and it’s a film about an imaginative, creative, alternative teenage girl, the concept is that the entire film is told from her perspective, so all of the aesthetic decisions in the film were made with that in mind. How would this character see the world? We wanted to create a really fluid feel to a very subjective experience, where sometimes it feels very raw and very real, and kind of like these social realist elements, and sometimes it’s shifting into more daydreamy fantasy worlds, kind of the way that imagination works. Sometimes you’re very focused in the moment, and sometimes you’re in your head.
So we wanted to make this fluid feel, and we decided to shoot primarily on super sixteen and some super eight. While shooting, we purposely did a lot of flash frames, so we had these transitions through light. And for stop-motion animation, I’ve never animated before, so this is my first attempt at it, which is overwhelming and insane, especially to do so on film, but we did it! So we animated one frame at a time, by building a miniature world. She wasn’t there for that, but it was crazy!-But again, that just felt true to the character. We wanted to have a really handcrafted aesthetic, textured and visceral, a world that could come out of the mind of this sixteen year old.
So our two cinematographers, and our production designer, and our costume designer, together we all crafted an aesthetic that felt timeless and somewhat nostalgic, and yet also really personal. You can kind of feel the fingerprints on the edges of the film, which is again, something I haven’t seen before. Some of it was purely scripted, and some of it was just magical accidents.
MM: Those are the best kind!
LM: They are the best kind!
MM: Natalia, did you find it difficult as the lead to straddle the two sides of the movie, between those fantasy moments and the realist moments?
ND: We did a lot of the fantasy stuff as a separate shoot, so we were in San Francisco for a month shooting the bulk of the film, and then a week later, we did pick-ups for about a week. Fantasy stuff. And that made it a little bit easier to get in that head space and stay in that head space. You know, I feel like when we were filming it, there were probably some times where it did feel a little in between head space there…
LM: But it was helpful that we did the film in three stages, really. We had principal photography, which is straightforward, live action, regular film shoot. And then we had this fantasy week, and then we had animation. That fantasy week was like film camp! It was a smaller crew in upstate New York, and we were burying her in the ground…
ND: Yeah! We had the saran wrap…
LM: And we were animating vines crawling out of her mouth! We were doing all kinds of crazy stuff…
ND: And the balloons!
LM: And the balloons popping! That was where we let the magic happen, where we didn’t quite know how things would turn out. We bought a lot of expired film on EBay, and we were like, “Hopefully this is gonna work!” And it did! We shot multiple cameras, I was operating one while another person operated another. We did all of the filmic experiments we could think of. The process was just as important as the product, and just as magical. I didn’t want it to end! I just wanted to keep shooting these fantasies forever, but we only had a week!
MM: And there’s so much else to shoot in the film apart from that. The movie is obviously Natalia in every frame, but you also spend a lot of time with Peter Vack…
LM: Yeah, we should definitely speak about him as well.
MM: He’s really terrific, and I thought you two played off each other very well. But a lot of the scenes you have, they range from bubbly effervescence between the two of you, and then it just goes very dark. I was shocked by how grim it gets. How did you approach those darker moments with Peter?
ND: Yeah! Well, again, I will say that it always felt safe, you know, as far as being in those dark places and having to be in those moments. So that’s important. And Peter is fantastic. He’s such a great person to work with. He was very safe, very protective, always making sure that it’s okay, that I was okay.
LM: You’d actually never met before production. I auditioned him more traditionally, I didn’t do a nationwide search, it was just through our agents, and he was in New York. But I knew that they were going to have chemistry, I had this gut feeling, and we flew up to California a week before the shoot, and they met, and luckily, they did! They had a natural, kinetic energy, so we worked with that. We tried not to over-rehearse. We did some blocking and stuff, but we didn’t do a lot of rehearsing. We shot the film as much as possible in chronological order, so that their love story could progress somewhat naturally, and linearly.
ND: And then you have things to draw on when you get to those darker moments. I had kind of had this relationship with Peter throughout while we were filming, so I had these moments that I referred back to…
LM: And like, use that first butterfly moment of, “I’m really nervous meeting this really cute boy”, while we were rolling, which was really helpful. And like she said, the more intimate, challenging scenes we shot in as safe a space as possible, with closed sets and as few people as possible around. We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable together, and we knew that in the edit, we would find it. We shot hand-held, not a lot of light, we used natural light, and we kept it as small and intimate as we could.
Upcoming screenings of I Believe in Unicorns are listed here: http://unicornsthemovie.com/