A few years ago, if you had told me that my
first feature would follow three ten-year-old boys growing up in Palo Alto in
1985, I probably wouldn’t have believed you — especially since one is so often
told to write about what one knows and to find inspiration in personal
experiences. And I’m a woman, who grew up in France.
I have spent the last six months traveling the
festival circuit with my film, “Yosemite,” and the question I’m most frequently asked is: “How did you, as a female, come
to direct a movie about three boys?” The simple answer is that I went to NYU’s
grad film program with James Franco, who, after seeing some of my short films, asked me to adapt two of his stories from book “A
California Childhood” into a feature-length script. I loved the cinematic mood
of the original material, but did briefly wonder if I was suited to making a
film about 5th grade boys, who
were puzzling and
foreign creatures to me at that age.
While people of different ages and backgrounds
are moved by the film, men often come up to me after the screening and tell me how much
they relate to the way boyhood is depicted in
the film. They identify with specific,
visual memories of childhood (a boy laying a penny on a train track, wandering unsupervised into a
forbidden part of town, etc.). They also
respond to the young actors’ honest and authentic performances. Strangely enough, when I first watched
the film, even though I wrote and directed
it, the boys still carried the same mystery
to me as they did when I was 10.
me realize that the beauty of filmmaking lies in the fact that while you may know your characters very well
on paper (what they want and need, why
they do the things they do), once they become embodied by actors, an unknowable element is re-instated. Your job as
a director is just to create the conditions for
an authentic experience to happen on set and to capture the mystery of actors being alive
in front of the camera. One of my directing teachers at NYU, Ira Sachs, gave me the best advice before the shoot,
which was not to call “Action” when
filming the classroom scenes, in order to make the kids feel like they were really in class, and to always
keep them busy with simple tasks. I
became obsessed with finding the right activities
to give the children so that they would lose themselves in an experience. Once I figured out how to make them
play at something “real,” directing
children felt second nature.
came to understand with some distance that I had made a much more personal movie than I had previously realized.
A lot of the actions I asked the boys to
perform came from my own childhood memories.
In the film, all three characters are dealing with death for the first time, and I remembered the whispered
prayers and ritualized gestures me and my
best friend made when we hosted a secret ceremony for my grandfather when he
passed away. When you’re 10, events, no matter how upsetting they are, are experienced for the first time and still
feel full of redemptive possibility. I hope that
I was able to convey something universal
about the way we look back on our childhoods and to mourn a time of innocence before a certain darkness is incorporated into everyday
these stories my own in the process of adaptation has been liberating to me as a first-time filmmaker, and
specifically as a female filmmaker, from
whom one often expects, it seems, a personal or autobiographical story. It made me realize that, with enough research
combined with compassion and observation, there is no limit to the kinds of characters one can find inspiration in (though
the issue of who is or isn’t allowed to
tell certain stories is obviously a very complicated
and sensitive one). While I look forward to writing strong female roles in the future, making this film has
helped me realize that gender doesn’t
limit the kinds of topics I want to approach as a filmmaker.
Born and raised in Paris, Gabrielle Demeestère is a New York-based
filmmaker. “Yosemite” is her first
Yosemite screened at the ArcLight in Hollywood on Sunday,
July 12, as part of the Slamdance Cinema Club will be released theatrically and on VOD this fall.