You don’t have to be Julian Assange to get the truth about Leah Meyerhoff. She’s not afraid to tell it like it is.
She made a big splash on the film festival circuit with her honest NYU short film Twitch. It was a very intimate and dark film that portrayed disability and love in a new way, her way. She let audiences see her true self at work in the docu-drama series, Film School, directed by Nanette Burstein (Going The Distance). Now Leah is at it again with her first feature Unicorns. About a teenage girl who falls in love with an older guy and finds herself in a destructive relationship, this film, like her last one, stems from Leah’s own true experiences.
After a unique childhood that left her more responsible than some adults, Leah went to Brown University to study Art Semiotics and then later studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s currently enrolled in NYU’s Tisch for a Masters in Filmmaking. Off of Twitch’s success Leah teamed up with Heather Rae, producer of Frozen River, and they began to work on Unicorns.
The long process in which this project has come together is a testament to Leah’s determination and ability to adapt to struggles. At one point, they were cast (past attachments for the lead include some high profile thesps), financed and ready to shoot. Just when everything seemed too perfect her father became ill. She chose to focus on her family.
When Leah decided she was ready to take a stab at it again, she wanted to do it the way that she knew best, intimately. Now with new financing, she’s edited the script to be feasible even on a micro budget and is full steam ahead to shoot in 2011 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here’s what she had to say when we met up at Café Pick Me Up in the East Village last week.
Nicole Emanuele: Can you tell us about the story of UNICORNS?
Leah Meyerhoff: UNICORNS tells the story of a 16 year old girl named Davina who has grown up taking care of her disabled mother. She falls in love with an older boy named Sterling who she thinks will be able to rescue her from her life. They run away together in a whirlwind of adventure and quickly realize that they are in over their heads. The relationship goes to a dark place and ends up becoming emotionally and physically abusive. As Davina’s reality gets too harsh, she escapes to a fantasy world. That’s where the unicorns come in. There is a stop-motion puppet animation element woven throughout the narrative.
Emanuele: Explain a little about the animation.
Meyerhoff: The fantasy world is both an escape from and a commentary on the surrounding narrative. Similar to Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, there is a porous boundary between the real world and an alternate reality. These two worlds collide so that the edges are blurred. I didn’t want the film to be dark, dark, dark punch-you-in-the-stomach all the way through – so the fantasies serve as a sort of release.
Emanuele: Like in PRECIOUS?
Meyerhoff: This is subtler than that, but has a similar script function. The fantasy world itself is very gritty and handmade feeling. It has a three-dimensional quality like old-school frame-by-frame stop-motion puppet animation. The objects in it are very tactile, heightened by lens flares and sparks of light. It is a world that Davina could have crafted herself. Each fantasy has its own visual approach directly stemming from the surrounding scenes. It’s really a collaborative effort between me, the DP, the Production Designer, and the Animation Supervisor to create a world that is aesthetically coherent, financially viable and has its own story arc which adds to the surrounding narrative. It’s an ambitious undertaking and a total risk, but also what is exciting about the project. You need to push yourself and challenge yourself; it’s an opportunity for our entire creative team to go beyond our comfort zones.
Emanuele: Please tell us a bit about how this project has come back together, it’s been a long process.
Meyerhoff: The first step was for me to realize that I was ready to make the film. Part way through pre-production, my dad got sick and went into the hospital. He ended up dying – sorry, I don’t know a not-awkward way to say that. Obviously, the entire film got put on hold and I basically had this period of my life where I removed myself from anything professional. At the same time, I learned a lot from the experience and “came of age” in a way, which I think has informed my sensibilities as a filmmaker. So on a personal level it was a matter of being emotionally ready to tackle this story and on a practical level it was a matter of pulling the trigger myself rather than waiting for someone else to give me permission. It was really a conscious decision to say, “Ok, we’re setting a start date and making this movie with whatever we have in the bank.” This led to script rewrites and difficult creative conversations about what needed to be scaled down but also created a renewed sense of urgency. At the end of the day, the story is coming from a more heartfelt place and it will be a better film for it.
Emanuele: Do you feel going into this as a first time director that you have a good army with you?
Meyerhoff: Yes, I have a fantastic team! I feel blessed to be surrounded by people with far more experience than I have. Our producer Heather Rae has been in the business for twenty years and her film Frozen River started off as the little story that could and ended up winning Sundance and getting nominated for two Oscars. Our other producers Rob Profusek and Ryan Silbert’s first feature Holy Rollers premiered at Sundance last year and found theatrical distribution nationwide. Everyone from the Cinematographer to the Script Supervisor has been through this before one way or another. But even though it’s not their first film, they still share that adventurous spirit. We are all on the same wavelength of “Okay, let’s get it done no matter what.” It’s an ambitious concept, especially for an independent film. So in many ways we’re taking the same leap of faith that I think every first time filmmaker takes.
The way that I work as a director – and I’ve learned this about myself over the years – is that I do a ton of homework in advance and am very hands on. I like to watch reference films, look at photographers, and compile an extensive visual lookbook so that when I get to set the first day of shooting I can let go of as much of that as possible and just be with the actors. This approach requires building intimate relationships with the key crew. Not only by choosing to collaborate with people who bring their own vision and creative energy to the project, but also making sure that our visions mesh allows us to produce something that is greater than the some of its parts.
Emanuele: Emanuele: Ok – so what is the deal with the unicorns?
Meyerhoff: I like the symbolism of them, especially for a coming of age story. On the one hand, they have a childlike innocence, like the plush stuffed animal at the foot of the bed. On the other hand, they have this majestic wisdom, powerful and strong. Even the phallic undertones are appropriate for a film about a teenage girl’s sexual awakening. The more I started researching them, the more fascinating I discovered the mythology to be. In my film, the fantasy of the unicorn functions as a parallel to Davina’s unrealistic expectations for her first romantic relationship. She wants this older guy to rescue her, but realizes that instead she must rescue herself.
Emanuele: Right. Does that come from having studied Art Semiotics? Does that influence your style or how you view filmmaking?
Meyerhoff: Art-Semiotics is a typical Brown University major. It’s a combination of post-modern theory, cross cultural studies, art history, and film criticism. Basically, it’s a very intellectual way of looking at film. I like to carry that around with me in my back pocket. At the same time, it’s something I need to move away from the closer I get to production. I have found that a certain critical distance is useful as a writer and a viewer, but directing comes from a more instinctual and emotional place. I would say that that the most obvious way that my studies have affected my filmmaking is in choosing which stories to tell. The portrayal of women in the media is particularly powerful for teenage girls who are coming of age and looking to their environment for potential subject positions for themselves. For that reason, I think it’s important to create not necessarily role models, but realistic female characters. Ideally the audience should be able to recognize something of their own realities on the screen. UNICORNS touches upon the very-real issues of family illness and teen dating violence in an artful way. I want to make something both gritty and magical – that ultimately provokes dialogue about difficult subject matter and in that way helps make the world a better place.
Emanuele: You said this story is personal – how does it stem from your life?
Meyerhoff: This film draws upon several of my life experiences and combines them with fictional elements to create a sort of hybrid collage. To begin with, my own mother is disabled and is also starring in the film. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis shortly before I was born and was in a wheelchair by the time I was four. My dad left her shortly thereafter and we were unable to afford professional nurses so I grew up taking care of her. That experience has indirectly affected everything in my life – and more directly – inspired this film. UNICORNS explores a similar mother-daughter role reversal and portrays a girl who is compelled to become a woman before she is really ready. She acts out by running away with an older guy, in some ways searching for the parental figure she never had. I have not seen films that portray disability in a real way – I can safely say – ever. There is something both physical and mental that happens when you can’t use your legs for decades and hopefully my mother’s performance will bring a level of truth and rawness to the production. Some of the relationship elements are personal as well. While I was at art school I dated a much older guy and it was almost like I was addicted to him. When I finally left him, I asked myself how did a smart, strong, independent woman like myself got into such an unhealthy relationship in the first place. Luckily, it never got to the point of intense physical violence, but the emotional abuse was the kernel of starting to work on the script. The idea of exploring the messier side of relationships in a film is really exciting to me in that it also has the potential to help people in similar situations. It goes back to my art-semiotics background; the way to change the world is to create the media. Even though I come from a more experimental artistic way of thinking, there is this apparatus in place that has the potential to reach a wide audience.
Emanuele: Can you tell us about your IFP grant?
Meyerhoff: IFP has been an incredible support. UNICORNS participated in their Emerging Narrative labs, which introduces filmmakers to various financiers and producers. By that time, I had already teamed up with Heather Rae so the timing was a bit off, but the relationships I developed have continued to inform the project to this day. In fact, it was Scott Macaulay who originally suggested that I meet Heather in the first place. Amy Dotson, Danielle Digiacomo and Milton Tabbot all recommended various crew members. I could go on and on. The grant that we received was a donated camera package from Panasonic. We are applying for all the grants that we can. We’ve had a lot of in-kind donations throughout this process – film stock from Kodak, lenses from Panavision, catering services, etc. In many ways it’s easier for people to donate physical objects or labor than for them to put money into something.
Emanuele: Every filmmaker has constraints, time, money, etc. that force changes once production starts. Going into this what are your priorities? Where are you unwilling to compromise?
Meyerhoff: By far my priority is in finding the best talent and eliciting the strongest possible performances. That’s where I won’t compromise. I am casting the actors that are right for the role. The strength of this film will in be in the believability of the performances, and finding those actors who can create that realness is key. I am willing to compromise on other things however – whether we shoot film or digital, trimming the script down to cut out expensive locations, and so on. What matters most is casting two amazing kids and allowing them the space they need to create a raw and heartfelt performance. I know that we will be up against budget constraints, and in a way that has been helpful. Sometimes limitations lead to more creativity.
Emanuele: This is your first time through all this. Have you found yourself needing to push for yourself more than you expected?
Meyerhoff: Yes, I think it’s naive to think that someone else is going to swoop in and say “here we’ll do everything for you.” First time directors who want to have creative control over their projects need to be an incredible driving force. It’s a collaborative effort – but no one is going to make your movie for you – at the end of the day you need to motivate yourself. We are in the business of people saying, “No, it’s impossible, it can’t be done.” You just have to push through that. No one else will ever believe in your project unless you believe in it first.
Emanuele: What would advice would you give to yourself three years ago when you started writing the script or putting it together?
Meyerhoff: It’s important to stay true to the story you want to tell, because you will be living with that story for a long time. Your first film should first and foremost be about something that you believe in and have an emotional connection to. You will need to convince all of these people around you why THIS HAS TO BE done, why this particular story needs to be told and why you need to be the one to tell it. In my case, it was easy. I believe in UNICORNS.