Interview: Leah Meyerhoff Brings Retrospective to Boston Underground Film Festival
TFPN: Can you give a little preview of what you’ll be talking about at the Boston Underground Film Festival? Have you been there before?
Leah: This will be my third time there. They showed Twitch and Team Queen there before. It’s a fun festival. They’re calling it a retrospective, which is a little strange because I don’t think I’m old enough for a retrospective. Isn’t that what happens after you’re dead? Anyways, I’ll be screening about a dozen of my short films. A lot of films I made in undergrad at Brown University, some experimental films I made when I was in art school in Chicago, and some of my shorts from grad school NYU. Then I have some commercials and music videos I made outside of school. I’ll be talking about my progression as a filmmaker and how I got from being a teenager going off to college to where I am now about to make my first feature film Unicorns. They’re promoting the Q&A to undergrad and high school students in the area. It’s supposed to be somewhat educational, like an artist lecture, and hopefully will inspire aspiring filmmakers to pursue their own path. Since Twitch was so successful on the festival circuit, I also give lectures at various film schools around the country about how to get into film festivals and what to do once you get in. I enjoy educating people on that process, something I didn’t learn in school and had to figure out for myself.
TFPN: What made you decide to become a filmmaker?
Leah: I originally thought I wanted to be a marine biologist, something totally not in the arts at all. Then I went school at Brown and started taking film classes. I started with film theory, kind of more on an intellectual basis and then began taking film production classes at RISD which was this art school nearby. I continued to make sculpture, painting, photography and other kinds of visual art for years and went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a year. It was almost a half-creative and half-practical decision to go into filmmaking, a way of doing something that I love while also having an impact on the world. I enjoy the collaborative aspect of filmmaking rather than being in a tiny studio all day painting by yourself. It also has a potential to reach a wide audience and affect social change on a level that other art forms aren’t capable of. The distribution system can be mind-bogglingly complicated, but it’s also great because if you can tap into that, you have the chance to really change the way people think. That is part of the reason why I’m particularly interested in coming of age stories about teenage girls. That was the age range for me when I was figuring out who I was in the world and what it meant to grow up as a female in this society. I didn’t see myself reflected in the media. To me, all the TV shows and films I saw were not my reality. Now that I’m older, this idea of creating characters that young girls can look up to or can identify with is a powerful idea.
TFPN: Who are some filmmakers that have inspired you?
In general, I’m inspired by artists who show the world how it is, raw, gritty and real. Kimberly Pierce is a great example. I like Lynne Ramsay, Jonathan Caouette, Catherine Breillat, and Gus Van Sant. I like artistically-minded filmmakers who are making stories about real people. And at the same time, having a creative take on it and making the world a more beautiful place.
TFPN: What is Unicorns about? Has it been cast yet and when do you go into production?
Leah: Unicorns is a coming-of-age film about an awkward teenage girl named Davina who escapes to a fantasy world involving unicorns when her first romantic relationship becomes abusive. The film starts on her sixteenth birthday and follows her relationship with an older, punk rock boyfriend. It starts off being fun and exciting, that kind of butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling, and then progressively becomes more and more emotionally and physically abusive. At the same time, her best friend Cassidy has a crush on her and her father is marrying a woman she despises. It’s kind of like an updated Welcome to the Dollhouse. Or another good reference is The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys or Heavenly Creatures. It’s a straight-forward narrative drama, but then there are these fantastical animated elements as well. Were hoping to start shooting this summer. Alison Anders, who is executive producing, is a filmmaker I really admire. Her film Gas Food Lodging was instrumental in my teenage years, so I’m excited to have her attached to the project. We’re hoping to start casting next month with Judy Henderson, who also cast L.I.E. and Twelve and Holding and Eyde Belasco, who cast Half Nelson. She also casts the actors for the Sundance Labs, which the Unicorns screenplay was a finalist for, so that’s a great resource as well.
TFPN: Do you have anyone in mind who you’d like to cast in the role of Davina?
Leah: It’s tough, because I really want the 16-year-old girl to seem like a real 16-year-old girl. There are not a lot of name actors out there who actually look 16. I like Kristen Stewart a lot. I like this girl named Mia Waskilowska who was in a short I saw at Sundance called I Love Sarah Jane. I’m guessing what’s going to happen is the lead girl will be someone we discover who is authentic and real. For the lead boy, it might be more of a name actor, along the lines of Emile Hirsch or Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Really I just want to cast whoever is most right for the part. Whoever feels the most real. I am not interested in making the next Clueless or Mean Girls. It’s more My So Called Life than 90210, you know? There are not a lot of films about teenage girls to begin with. There are a lot of coming-of-age films about boys, but there are not a lot of female stories out there. And of the ones that are, they’re usually so unlike any reality that I experienced. Which is what inspires me to make this film. To dig beneath the glossy surface and scratch at the heart of the matter. The brutal realities of adolescence. This is why I spend so much time on casting. If I can cast someone compelling and authentic, then most of my job as a director is already done.
TFPN: What were some of your favorite films you saw and panel discussions you attended at SXSW?
Leah: My favorite film was a documentary called Beautiful Losers, which was about street artists like Shepard Fairey and Harmony Korine. It was beautifully shot. I also liked Lynn Shelton’s film My Effortless Brilliance. And it was fun to see Bi the Way in a theater with a lively audience. Honestly, I came away from that festival wishing I had seen more narrative films. At one point, in the middle of a screening, my friend turned to me and said I just really want to see a scripted film. Kimberly Pierce has been giving me advice on my film, so I really wanted to see Stop-Loss but it played the day after I left. I also went to a lot of panels. The writing panel was useful to me, with Amy Dotson and Scott Macaulay. Also the Fact or Fiction one was interesting. I went to part of the one the Four Eyed Monsters kids were on about digital distribution. I’ve spoken on a lot of panels myself so it’s always interesting to be on the other side. In general, festival panels become somewhat redundant, but at SXSW there were so many incredible people smashed together in this small venue that even if you came in part way though you could pick some stuff up and move on to the next. That’s kind of what I did.
TFPN: What would you say are some of the best festivals you’ve ever been to with the best panels?
Leah: This year, I actually found the panels at Sundance and Slamdance to be really interesting, but SXSW is definitely up there in terms of good panels. They’re well moderated, have interesting guests, and are short and to the point. I tend to judge festivals on more of a filmmaker criterion. I like smaller festivals that take good care of the filmmakers and have really good programming and fun parties. I really like Woodstock, Milan (in Italy), and Avignon (in France). I used to like Brooklyn Underground, which doesn’t exist anymore. I also really like the Sarasota Film Festival as a filmmaker and an audience member. It’s a really well-run festival. And there’s another festival a lot of people haven’t heard of called Cucalorus in North Carolina that I would put on my top 10 list of all time. They make a point to bring all the filmmakers out, no matter where you’re from. You stay with a volunteer and they give you a bicycle to ride around in this tiny little town. The audience is fantastic and the theaters are beautiful and all the films are great. I also like the Newport International Film Festival in Rhode Island. They have parties in mansions with lobsters. It’s fancy but it’s also down to earth at the same time. I was there the year that they were missing the print for the closing night film and a helicopter landed in the middle of town to deliver it, and because of it, they ended up pushing my screening block. To make up for it, they gave us all a free sailboat ride the next day. I don’t like Sundance and Cannes and the larger festivals as much, especially as a short filmmaker because you can get lost in the mix, but Venice is a really great one. Actually I think Venice has the best Q&As I’ve ever seen where it becomes a real community discussion. Plus, it’s in Italy, which is always nice.