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'Maidentrip' Director Jillian Schlesinger On How She Made Her First Film (With A Mostly Female Crew)

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire January 16, 2014 at 11:16AM

Jillian Schlesinger talks about the challenges of filming 'Maidentrip," about Laura Dekker, an intrepid young sailor who set out to be the youngest person to successfully sail around the world.
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"Maidentrip"

"Maidentrip," which will be released in New York tomorrow, provides a fresh perspective on the men lost at sea sagas we saw onscreen last year in "All is Lost" and "Captain Phillips." Unlike those films, "Maidentrip" is nonfiction and its focus is an intrepid young female sailor, who, is decidedly not lost. 

Directed by first-timer Jillian Schlesinger, "Maidentrip" tells the story of 14-year-old Laura Dekker, a Dutch teenager who endured a highly publicized custody battle with the Child Welfare Office in order to pursue of her dream of becoming the youngest person to ever successfully sail around the world.

Though Schlesinger initially learned of the story through the press surrounding the custody battle, she was much more interested in Dekker's story. Not surprisingly, the resulting film spends little time dwelling on the courtroom battle and, instead, focuses on Dekker's and her amazing voyage.

"I I first read about the story in August of 2009 when the court case was happening and the Dutch government was trying to get custody," Schlesinger recently told Indiewire. "I read a story in the The New York Times. People had such strong feelings about it in multiple directions, but Laura's voice was absent. I was struck by the details of her own personal story and I was really just interested in finding out more about who she was from her perspective and was interested in giving her a voice and elevating her point of view so people could understand what the story was from the person experiencing it and not just from the media storm."

Schlesinger also related to Dekker's quest because, like Dekker, she was determined to do something she had never done before: direct a film. "I never had any doubt about the fact that she was going to do it (become the youngest person to successfully sail around the world) and I approached the film in the same way. We shared that same element of undaunted optimism. There are obvious reasons why I can't do this and so many millions of obstacles, but we both knew we were doing this thing."

But how to assure the teenager that she was the right person to chronicle her journey? Schlesinger sent Dekker a proposal with illustrations that made her enthusiasm for the project clear.

"I made a lot of mood boards and worked with a graphics designer to make the whole thing very experiential and also wrote a personal letter about my excitement for making the film and the fact that I had not made the film before and it would be a creative adventure and that i would be doing something I had never done and it would be a dream that was important to me," said the director.

Dekker responded favorably to the proposal and invited Schlesinger to visit her in Holland where Schlesinger made it clear that she was "more interested in the coming-of-age story and her personal odyssey" than the custody battle.

At the time, Schlesinger was working on staff at the Sundance Channel as a production supervisor, but, after meeting Laura, she gave two weeks notice and went freelance so she could devote herself to the film, which she eventually spend 3 1/2 years working on. Of course, raising funds for any film project isn't easy and it's that much harder for a first time director. "It was challenging early on because it was my first film and it was such a weird film in terms of the production process," said Schlesinger. "It was hard, having never made a film, to ask 'would you fund my trip to Tahiti?'" She turned to Kickstarter to raise funds even before getting a commitment from Dekker.

Schlesinger was able to keep expenses low by using her grandparents' frequent flier miles. "We were able to fund the production really cheaply through the original Kickstarter funds as well as strangers who continued to support the film as we kept going. Also, my grandparents had collected airline miles since 1986!"

First Run Features Laura Dekker on her solo voyage around the world in Jillian Schlesinger's "Maidentrip"

It was important for Schlesinger to hire women for the principle crew and interns. "We generally wanted to be a vehicle for supporting women, especially young women, in the industry. We all knew from experience how difficult it is to start out," she said.

While Schlesinger films Dekker at her various exotic ports of call, Dekker herself serves as unofficial co-director, shooting all of the footage at sea herself. "Overall, we shot a lot more than she did, but in the final film, the stuff she shot was so compelling with her personality and her development, that became a very very strong part of the final film," said Schlesinger.

in each port, the filmmakers would collect footage Dekker had shot, but due to limited financing, they weren't able to translate it until she had finished her trip. They also gave Dekker a zoom sound recorder so she could record her thoughts and reflections along the way. "It was a great alternative to on-camera interviews Laura associated with negative media experiences in Holland," said Schlesinger.

Toward the end of production, Schlesinger started to self-finance (breaking out the credit cards) so she could afford aerial shots and a cinematographer and sound person for their last big shoot in South Africa (The film also includes footage from far-flung locations including the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia and Australia.)

"We were very very lucky that after Laura finished the trip and we had all the footage, we met this amazing guy (Louis Venezia) who runs a commercial production agency called Pilot. He supported the film in post-production enough so that we could hire a very experienced documentary editor to get the film done," said Schlesinger. She finished the film a few days before last year's SXSW, where it went on to win the Audience Award and was later acquired by First Fun Features.

Ultimately, Schlesinger sees the film as a coming-of-age story about Dekker forging an unconventional life for herself at sea, defying society's expectations. "The story is much more about her growing up and exploring the world and exploring themes of adolescence and forming one's identity," explained Schlesinger. "There's a difficult tension because she obviously feels so drawn to a way of life that most people don't understand and she has to just fight to live the way she wants to live."

Watch a trailer for "Maidentrip" below:


This article is related to: Maidentrip, Maidentrip, Maidentrip, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Interviews , Women Directors, Women