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LAFF | Imaginary Friends, Blanket Tosses, and Diaries: “Dear Lemon Lima,” Director Suzi Yoonessi

LAFF | Imaginary Friends, Blanket Tosses, and Diaries: "Dear Lemon Lima," Director Suzi Yoonessi

When 13-year-old Vanessa experiences her first breakup, she rebounds by following the boy to his stifling prep school, where she receives the only minority scholarship for her Yup’ik background. Landing at the bottom of the school’s social ladder and confined to the weight room during P.E., she begins to rally with the other school misfits, including an animal-loving boy with overbearing parents, a girl named Nothing, and a pathological liar claiming Puff Daddy is her father. Vanessa’s attempts to find herself and win back the love of her life flounder, until she’s presented with an opportunity to captain the oddball team for the school’s bastardized version of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics—the Snowstorm Survivor competition. [Description courtesy of LAFF]

“Dear Lemon Lima,”
Narrative Competition
Directed By: Suzi Yoonessi
Producers: Melissa Lee, Jonako Donley
Screenwriter: Suzi Yoonessi
Cinematographer: Sarah Levy
Editors: Mara Farrington, Matthew Linnell
Music: Sasha Gordon
Cast: Savanah Wiltfong, Shayne Topp, Melissa Leo, Beth Grant, Elaine Hendrix, Meaghan Jette Martin, Vanessa Marano, Zane Huett, Eleanor Hutchins
U.S.A., 2009, 87 mins

[EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling International Spotlight and dramatic and documentary competition directors who have films screening at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.]

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?       

When I was young, my grandmother would tell me Persian fairy tales about mythical lakes, talking cockroaches, and deserts that stretched miles beyond my imagination. I would put on a ridiculous, silky nightgown and pretend that I was a princess. Bundled under the covers with my sisters, we were transported from upstate New York to an enchanted castle in Iran. My grandmother’s storytelling inspired me to pursue narrative film, so I can visually capture that magical experience and share globally-conscious stories that inspire kindness, compassion and love. I am constantly inspired by cinema’s power to reach a wide audience, transcending cultural boundaries. 

How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project? 

I started writing “Dear Lemon Lima,” after the United States occupied Iraq. The aftermath of disillusion and racial prejudice was contagious, as my own father was pulled into the undertow, having his license to practice medicine revoked for no apparent reason. I was determined to write and direct a story that encourages love and kindness. The premise is based off of the passages in my childhood diary. The diary is a rainbow-studded, tragic and funny compilation of letters written to my imaginary best friend, Lemon Lima. These sticker-clad pages became the heart of my first feature film. It was a delight to create and capture this magical world through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, using a sherbet color palette, sweeping wide-screen aspect ratio and infusing the world with love and kindness. The film inspires the notion that every human connection deserves the honesty, love and compassion with which a 13-year-old girl embraces the world.
How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

I directed a short version of “Dear Lemon Lima,” as my thesis film at Columbia University’s Graduate Film program. Channeling my inner 13-year-old girl, I built a library of images, stickers and music that informed the artistic vision. I was fortunate to work with my director of photography Sarah Levy, production designer Kay Lee, and a group of talented actors to establish the visual aesthetic, palette, and tone of the film. Traveling through the film festival circuit with the short also taught me a great deal about the audience for the film, and that the film had the potential to fit in the family genre.  In 2007, I participated in the Film Independent Writer’s, Producer’s then Director’s lab, which was where the feature script really took shape. Regardless of the endless preparation, the filming of the feature was a constant learning experience that no film school, book, short film, or filmmaker could ever teach me. My lead actress Savanah Wiltfong is a non-actor from Eagle River, Alaska, so I was constantly coming up with different circumstances to enable her to discover an emotional truth.

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

From the outset of Dear Lemon Lima, it was imperative that the Alaskan Native elements were authentic.  The actualization of this film would not been possible without the support of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics organization. The film features WEIO games such as the blanket toss, the stick pull, ear pull, and high kick. The actors had to learn proper techniques to carry out the games, as well as the cultural significance of each event. We had the support of a female athlete who had actually participated in the Native games working as a supervisor overseeing scenes featuring the various games. Some of the games were quite an athletic feat; we even employed the help of a high school cheerleading squad with a scene featuring the 2-man carry, a Native game in which a single person carries two other members of his/her team in a race to the finish line. The “props” involved in the games are not easily reproduced, nor are they available from any prop house. The WEIO organization generously loaned the production these priceless items and brought the authenticity and recreation of the games to a whole new level. 

In addition to the numerous Native elements to secure for the film, “Dear Lemon Lima,” also features a number of other unconventional elements. Not only did the lead actors need to learn Native dance, they also were taught American Sign Language and Spanish, as the film features three languages. It was like our actors were in summer camp, constantly taking classes to prepare for their roles in the unique and original world of the film.  

There were definitely challenges in making this film. It required a tremendous amount of energy and determination to make the world we were creating believable. The story did not take place in just any American suburb. It took place in Fairbanks, Alaska. It did not feature just any 13 year-old girl. It featured a half Yup’ik 13-year-old girl. It didn’t feature just any competition. It featured the WEIO competition. But despite this specificity and our extremely low budget, we were able to pull it off.

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

Over the course of the shoot, Zoe, the adorable 7-year-old sister of one of the lead actors, became “Dear Lemon Lima,”’s set mascot. Bubbling with love and kindness, she embodied the spirit of the film.

On the last day of the shoot, I gave personalized diaries to each of the young actors. The diaries were passed around like yearbooks, so cast and crew could write in each other’s pages. Not to be outdone, Zoe also passed around her personal diary. Flipping through the journal, one of my producers saw a familiar “Dear Lemon Lima,” scribbled throughout the pages. Learning that my imaginary childhood friend had a new best friend, it felt like everything had come full circle.

The following is an excerpt from Zoe’s diary :

Dear lemon lima,
I’m so sorry about not writing to you this mornin’. Well, I got a warm bath, & a cold shower but my pap’s coming out tomorow. So, I love you Lemon Lima.
Zoe (ZoZo)

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

I would love to direct family films for Walden, Nickelodeon and Disney.  All three companies reach an audience that I’m very connected to; also, I am inspired by their storytelling because it inspires peace and love.  Family films have the greatest potential for social change because you are connecting with kids who hold our future in their hands.

With regard to genres, I am currently developing a television series based off of “Dear Lemon Lima,” so the possibility of finding a permanent home for these lovable characters is extremely gratifying. Also, there’s an interactive companion journal to “Dear Lemon Lima,” that I would love to publish, featuring girly fill-in-the-blank lists, MASH, stickers, doodles, illustrations and journal entries that are plucked out of the film.

What other projects are you looking to do?

I am working on an irreverent holiday comedy and a horror film that is set in Japan. I love the idea of incorporating Kawaii (Japanese for cuteness) into a horror film. Also, I co-wrote a book called “Miss Communication and the Vagina Whisperer” which is a relationship story told from a guy’s, then a girl’s perspective.

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