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SXSW Women Directors: Meet Leah Meyerhoff

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
March 10, 2014 3:00 PM
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Still from "I Believe in Unicorns"

In making her feature debut, director Leah Meyerhoff went back home -- literally. I Believe in Unicorns was partly filmed in the house Meyerhoff grew up and where her mother still lives, since the latter, who plays a version of herself in the film, is housebound by a chronic disease. I Believe in Unicorns explores the mother-daughter role reversal Meyerhoff experienced as a child and a teen -- that of caring for her ill mother -- while offering an "alternative role model" for teen girls in her resourceful, willful protagonist. 

I Believe in Unicorns will debut at SXSW on March 10. 


Please give us your description of the film.


Davina is an imaginative and strong-willed teenage girl who often escapes into a beautifully twisted fantasy life. Having grown up quickly as the sole caretaker of her disabled mother, she looks for salvation in a new relationship with an older boy. She is soon swept into a whirlwind of romance and adventure, but the enchantment of her new relationship quickly fades when his volatile side begins to emerge. I Believe in Unicorns takes us on a road trip through the stunning and complex landscape of troubled young love.   

What made you write this story?


I Believe in Unicorns is a deeply personal story that incorporates elements of my own life and adolescent relationships. When I was growing up, I rarely found a relatable female protagonist on screen. In writing the script, I strove to create a character who incorporated the nuances of adolescence and the challenges of developing an identity amidst the pressures of external influences. For my debut feature, I hoped to make a film that an adolescent version of myself would have wanted -- or even needed -- to see. To that end, I hope that audiences who see I Believe in Unicorns will find something on-screen that parallels and enforces their own experiences, hopefully finding an alternative role model in Davina as an authentic, intelligent, creative young woman.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?


Blurring fact and fiction, I chose to cast my actual mother to play a fictionalized version of herself in the movie and an actual 16-year old girl to play the lead. My mother is in a wheelchair, having been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when I was young. From early on, I was tasked with being her caretaker, and these responsibilities are paralleled on-screen in Davina's life. I have always been interested in this particular mother-daughter role reversal -- and what happens when young girls grow up too quickly. The decisions to cast my mother and a teenage lead brought a wonderful level of authenticity to the narrative along with a host of logistical challenges.

We returned to my childhood home in the Bay Area for production since my mother is unable to travel. Her limited mobility keeps her largely housebound, which impeded production at times. The crew needed to be sensitive to her living situation while simultaneously dressing the set and shooting the movie. Similarly, production had to be adjusted to accommodate Davina's high school schedule and status as a minor.

Ultimately, these casting decisions were worth the emotional and logistical challenges, as both actresses brought nuances to their performances and a deeper authenticity to the story. In a sense, Davina's story is my own, and making this film gave me a deeper appreciation for my mother's struggles and a great respect for the sensitivity that cast and crew brought to the set during production.


What advice do you have for other female directors?

Trust your gut, your heart, and your instincts. Instead of waiting for permission, you need to make your film on your terms. Statistically, being a female filmmaker is challenging, but there is a vibrant and emerging community of talented female directors who are creating powerful work. Join forces with fellow filmmakers, and try to build a community of mutually supportive individuals with whom you can share and gain production knowledge. To that end, I am part of a collective of female directors called Film Fatales who meet monthly in New York to support each other's work and talk about filmmaking. What started as a small group of friends has developed into a vibrant community of women making movies and causing change. In watching I Believe in Unicorns, a film directed by a woman and centered around a strong female lead, I hope that other women will be empowered to tell their own stories and make their own films on their terms.


Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?


It is an exciting time for independent film -- the costs of production has decreased while the opportunities for viewing have increased. Audiences who otherwise would not have access to independent films can now find them on multiple platforms. In creating I Believe in Unicorns, I knew that I wanted young people all over to see the film -- and new distribution mechanisms help make this goal attainable. With this in mind, we created a Unicorns Facebook page in conjunction with the development of the script and have been building our audience ever since. We currently have almost 100,000 fans, and are excited to share the film with them in the upcoming months.

Name your favorite women directed film and why.


I am inspired by the work of my peers and the female directors who came before me, including Allison Anders, Lynne Ramsey, Jane Campion, Mary Harron, Andrea Arnold, Lynn Shelton, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Sarah Polley, Catherine Hardwick, Tamara Jenkins, Jill Solloway, Ry Russo Young, Lena Dunham, Amy Seimetz, Hannah Fidell, and Miranda July. They are fearless in their storytelling and have a strong personal style. It is an exciting time to be making films and I am honored to be a part of this vibrant community.


Watch the I Believe in Unicorns teaser:


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