As Leah Meyerhoff was beginning production on “I Believe in Unicorns,” her first feature film, she reached out to other female filmmakers to get their advice and support. Before long, the group morphed into Film Fatales, a loose network of female filmmakers who meet regularly to mentor each other and collaborate on projects. Meyerhoff’s film is one of three new and recent indies, along with Eliza Hittman’s “It Felt Like Love” and Marielle Heller’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” to tell a coming-of-age story from a female perspective (all three directors are members of Film Fatales).
“Unicorns” focuses on Davina (Natalia Dyer), an imaginative teenage girl who escapes life with her disabled mother (played by Meyerhoff’s mother, Toni Meyerhoff) by diving into an intense and volatile relationship with an older boy (Peter Vack). The film was inspired by Meyerhoff’s own life experiences.
Indiewire recently spoke to the writer-director about her semi-autobiographical acclaimed feature, which premiered in competition at last year’s SXSW Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize in Atlanta, while picking up additional awards from festivals in Nashville, Woodstock, Anchorage and San Francisco.
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Was this an unofficial sequel or follow-up to your your short film “Twitch,” which covers some of the same ground?
The way I look at it, “Twitch” was a precursor to this feature. It wasn’t a direct expansion of the short, but I knew that for my first feature film I was going to tell a story about this character, about this imaginative, dreamy, authentic teenage girl. As I was working on that script, I naturally incorporated elements from my own childhood, the most autobiographical of which is the idea of casting my own mother in the film. My mother has MS, and she’s been in a wheelchair for basically as long as I can remember, and I’ve always been interested, in an emotional way and an academic way, in what happens when you have that mother-daughter reversal and when kids grow up quickly as the caretaker of the home. In my own experience, that unique childhood led me to act out in unique ways, specifically, running away and looking for salvation in relationships with older men. I knew that that was going to be a theme of my first feature film, and I was curious about whether it would make sense to cast my actual mother in the role. So I made the short film, “Twitch” as a kind of test of that idea.
What else did you learn from the experience of making “Twitch”?
I really wanted to cast an actual 16-year-old to play 16 so I tested it first with the short while I was developing the feature. And that short film showed me that it would work; it was a really positive experience that brought me closer together with my mom, and found an audience, a surprisingly wide audience for a short film. It got a Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance and was nominated for a Student Academy Award, and it went to dozens — actually probably over 100 film festivals. On that journey with that short film, I built the team who ended up working on the feature film. So I wouldn’t say it was like I set out to do it this way, but, in retrospect, it looks like I planned it. [Laughs] It worked quite nicely.
Would you recommend making a short film before making a feature?
Absolutely, I would recommend it, especially for filmmakers who, for their first feature film, are attempting to do something a bit different, or in Hollywood language it’s “execution dependent.” They’re attempting to make a film that is visually unique or thematically– if it’s something they’re really exploring, making a short film first that’s in the world of the feature film really goes a long way.
What did you learn from making the short?
The success of the short film showed me that there was an audience of primarily young women hungry for stories that reflected representations of their lives on screen. Some of my favorite moments of traveling the festival circuit were meeting young girls in high school and in college who’d say ,”Thank you so much for making this film,” “I’ve never seen a film like this,” “I’m excited to see what you do next,” and that just kept me going, in an emotional way, to make the feature.
“Unicorns” premiered at SXSW a year ago, and I’ve been to dozens of festivals around the world and connected directly with an audience who doesn’t get the opportunity to see films that have these strong, female protagonists that are dreamy and imaginative and different. It’s an alternative to some of the films that Hollywood is putting out, and you don’t often see it, especially in American independent film.
Was it a goal of yours to tell an authentic female coming-of-age story?
When I was growing up, we would sneak into the art house cinemas and see Jane Campion films, you know, there were a lot of seminal films that really changed my life and showed me that I wanted to be a filmmaker, to keep contributing to the cultural conversation and create more characters that felt reflective of my reality, and create a diversity of female subjectivities. And now it feels so good that I’ve been able to do that with my first feature film, and in conjunction with Film Fatales. Really, I feel like we’re at a zeitgeist moment in our culture where we’re starting to say “hey, it’s not okay that 90% of the films are about straight white men — that’s boring, that’s not reflective of our culture.”
It is a very ambitious film, technically, creatively, working with non-actors; what were some of the biggest challenges during production?
One of the biggest challenges — well, the biggest challenge from a technical standpoint was doing the animation. But from an emotional standpoint, it was challenging — I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to sugarcoat it — it was challenging to work with an underage actress, and it was her first film, and it was challenging to work with my own mom. I would stand by those decisions, I think they were the right decisions and I think the film is so much better off in its authenticity, but it is hard to do.
And were there other issues involved with working with an underage actress?
Yes, there are sex scenes in the film and it deals with difficult, mature subject matter and there are a lot of regulations, and child labor laws, and child pornography laws, and SAG laws, and a whole bunch of rules to follow, and limited working hours in particular, and Natalia is in every scene of the film, so we really had to build the schedule around that… There are a lot of logistical challenges with working with an underage actress, which is why it’s not done very often; you so often see the “90210” effect, with 25 playing 16 or whatever.
You shot the film on Super 16mm. How did that happen?
We were one of the last features to shoot on Fuji 16 mm film stock, they no longer make it. We got a fantastic deal, we basically got almost all of it for free, but it meant that I had to be very decisive as a director and not do a lot of takes. We had to move relatively quickly, so it was a blessing and curse. During principal photography, I think, shooting film was actually a blessing, because we were able to get a camera package donated, we were able to get a lot of things for free that otherwise we might not have been able to, and a lot of the crew, especially the camera department, was so excited to be shooting on film, that we got fantastic crew to work on this indie set.
Of course, the old maxim is that you shouldn’t work with children or animals and you did both!
Children, animals, and animation, fireworks, underwater cinematography… it was incredibly ambitious, and I think that’s what you do with your first feature film. You shoot for the moon, and then if you miss, you will still have reached the stars.
“I Believe in Unicorns” film will be released theatrically in New York on May 29, in San Francisco on June 12 and in Los Angeles on June 19. It will be available On Demand and Vimeo on Demand on June 1. Visit the web site here.