At the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival, Leah Meyerhoff talks I Believe in Unicorns, the perks of student filmmaking and the female film collective: Film Fatales.
When Leah Meyerhoff was six years old her parents took her on a holiday to the Isle of Skye for the first time, it left a lasting impression on the recent NYU-graduate. “I remember it being so beautiful that when I came back to America I changed my name to Skye for about a year. I told all of my friends about it.” She did return there during her stay in Scotland, but Scottish Isles aside, Meyerhoff recently attended the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival for the international premier of her strikingly imaginative and original debut feature: I Believe in Unicorns.
This semi-biographical film tells the story of Davina: a teenage girl trying to figure out who she wants to be. Whilst doing so, she runs away with the charismatic but explosive Stirling to find the place that is “anywhere but here”. By mixing stop frame animation with live-action, Meyerhoff puts a spin on a familiar narrative. Instead of observing from afar, we dive into Davina’s mind and follow her journey towards self-discovery from an intimate and refreshingly honest perspective where reality and the fantastical merge.
“I see the film almost like a series of self-portraits and the more fantastical sequences like different parts of her own psyche. She’s trying on these different personas, figuring out who she wants to be and how she sees the world. There’s also a progression from very young, childlike fantasies into a more mature darker imagination. So I think that in an abstract, quite poetic way shows how we navigate the world.”
Davina’s world is confusing, exciting, and terrifying, and her way of navigating it is by taking photographs. Photography is something that Leah has a background in and it also becomes an intrinsic part of the film both on a technical and thematic level – adding to the film’s unique character.
Could you please speak a little bit about the use of photography in the film?
“Sure! I think – forgive if I ramble – that this character, she’s a photographer, an artist. She’s like a younger version of myself when I was that age. Her reality, her situation with her [chronically ill] mother and this boy can become overwhelming, and when it becomes overwhelming she will either retreat into her own world or take a photo. There is something about the act of taking a photo that allows you to slow down time and it gives you the still moment and puts it in a frame that makes it containable in a way, and I think that that kind of works as a metaphor for the entire film in that it is the art of framing life, slowing it down saying ‘let’s take a look at this moment, let’s look at it this way’.”
Everyone takes with them different things from the film, and one way of looking at it is as a series of self-portraits of Meyerhoff as well as of Davina. The film is not completely autobiographical, but as Meryerhoff quick to point out, many parts of the film are. She even cast her real-life mother in the role of Davina’s mother.
“I mean, I am not this character and the film is not a documentary about me, but there is a lot of my own heart in the film. [—] I actually think that all films are somewhat autobiographical, cause it will always have the heart of the filmmaker in them.”
There is no denying that Meyerhoff has put heart and soul into this project. It started in 2005 with the short film Twitch, about a teenage girl’s irrational fear of getting her mother’s disease. This is present in Unicorns as well and when taking a closer look at both films it becomes clear that Twitch has functioned as a springboard that allowed Meyerhoff to make I Believe in Unicorns.
“Twitch was really the back-story. I knew that I wanted to make this feature film, and while I was figuring out how to get the money and the crew and everything, I made this short film. Both as a creative test to see if I can do this, while it also helped with the business side, cause it travelled around festivals, and I met people who I showed that short film to, who then became part of the team who made this film.”
What Meyerhoff has done is quite a staggering achievement, especially considering that this is her first feature-length film, not to mention that I Believe in Unicorns also marks her first attempt of animation. Additionally, when I sit down to speak with her, only two weeks have passed since she graduated from NYU.
So this was your final project for school. How come you decided to make something so ambitious?
“Most people in my school programme, for their thesis, they just made a short film, and I was like ‘I’m gonna do a feature length film!’. I think that you only get to make your first feature once, and you might as well shoot for the stars. So if you fail, you’ll still hit the moon.”
Making a stop frame animation motion is a huge commitment in its own right, and to make one with very little animation experience on 16mm film, which stops you from detecting mistakes before it’s too late to correct them, is very brave and slightly insane. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but on the contrary, quite gifted.
“I am not an animator, so I might have been a bit naïve, but I was very much like: Well, we shot everything else on 16mm, and I really want the animation to be on 16mm as well. People that I talked to were like ‘Leah, you’re crazy’ ‘it’s going to be so difficult’. And I think that because I was so naïve for my first film, it was almost like a blessing – and I did it! If I had known better I might have done the animation on a computer, but it would have had such a different emotional feel. So I am glad that, in spite of the mistakes, I think that they’re all charming mistakes.”
Listening to Leah reflecting on her experiences makes you want to make your own film, and even though student and independent filmmaking presents many challenges it definitely has its perks. You rarely meet anyone as cunning, innovative and able to turn pennies as student and independent filmmakers.
“We were just ambitious. With not a lot of money or resources we did everything in a very student-y way and it was so much fun! When we lost the location for a circus scene, Katie, the production designer went to Wallmart and bought 100 Christmas lights and just put it on a credit card. Then we put them everywhere and returned them just after filming. Then I called in a lot of my performers – circus friends – and had them all come out. They all brought their own costumes, and performed. We did everything very last minute and I loved it.”
The film is filled with charming moments like this, and this proactive attitude is something that Meyerhoff has carried with her outside I Believe in Unicorns as well. During the European Tour of the film she also attended a panel on female filmmaking in Munich, and has even started a female film collective called Film Fatales, which has grown across America and Europe since she started it in New York last year.
“I think that it is about 5% women directors in Hollywood, and close to 15 % in the independent world. It’s still not even close to 50%, and the numbers have been the same for years. So rather than getting depressed about that, I decided to do something immediate, and get together with a group of filmmakers and do a very hands on grassroots way of helping each other to make films. For Unicorns for example, the woman who edited my trailer is another filmmaker who did it in exchange for me helping her out with casting, and the woman who was producing the animation shoot is now directing her first film.”
It must be exciting to see the collective grow so quickly.
“Yeah, it’s really exciting and it has grown much faster than I could ever imagine. I thought it would just be a group of ten women who keep meeting, but there’s clearly a need to a sense of community and support. It’s more of an organization. We even have a full time staff, a screenwriting group and hold master classes on things like ‘How to do a kick-starter’, or ‘self-distribution’ [—] More than talking about the problem – because that’s something that’s been done for a long time – we can do something about it and it is great.”
With so many things happening at the moment this must be a very exciting time for the ambitious filmmaker. In one way, this is only the beginning of what will hopefully be a long and successful film career, but the release of I Believe in Unicorns also marks the end of an era.
How does it feel to have finally completed something that you have worked on for so long, and now being thrown into the thick of it so close after graduation?
“It’s fantastic! It feels like a rite of passage, or like, closing that chapter and going right into the next chapter.”
What is the next chapter? For starters this busy filmmaker is going to complete the tour that she is on with I Believe in Unicorns then, who knows- More films? Hopefully. The one thing we do know is that the sky’s the limit.