There are two cultural essentials every teen girl needs – an anthem or a song that will enable her to relive that time in high school where crushes on boys were everything, and a coming-of-age film which defines womanhood, love and life from a decidedly female perspective, rather than from a male perspective with narrowly-defined female characters as seen from the male gaze.
We had the chance to talk to an award-winning filmmaker about her first feature ‘I Believe In Unicorns’ which is getting critical acclaim for being an aforementioned coming-of-age film for a new generation. Leah Meyerhoff is the brainchild behind this cinematic piece of genius which is igniting the imaginations and desires of audiences around the US.
Leah is a graduate of Brown University NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the founder of Film Fatales, a female filmmaker collective based out of New York City with chapters now around the world. Leah’s badassery doesn’t end there, she is also a Student Academy Award nominated director and her film has been nominated for various awards. We didn’t just want to talk about her brilliant film, which is screening all over the US, but also about the current landscape of female filmmakers given that there is a movement in Hollywood and in the greater film industry to give women a platform and voice like never before.
We should also point out the film’s creative team consists of Oscar nominated producer Heather Rae (Frozen River), and Emmy Award winning executive producer Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging).
Since we are a website dedicated to feminism and promoting a positive and diverse representation of women in entertainment and the media, we figured Leah was the perfect person to answer some of our burning questions.
‘I Believe in Unicorns’ is the story of Davina, played by Natalie Dyer, an imaginative and strong-willed teenager who often escapes into a beautifully twisted fantasy life. Having grown up quickly as the sole caretaker of her disabled mother (The filmmaker’s mother Toni Meyerhoff), she looks for salvation in a new relationship with an older boy Sterling, played by Peter Vack. Davina is swept into a whirlwind of romance and adventure, but the enchantment of her new relationship quickly fades when Sterling’s volatile side begins to emerge.
The focus of the film and Leah’s career as a director created a perfect storm for our interview with her about being a female filmmaker, which we would kinda liken to a unicorn – a rare creature. Here’s what she had to say.
Let’s talk about Unicorns! How did you come up with the idea for the film? The film is focused on a teen girl protagonist looking to find her way in life and love. What made you choose this storyline?
For my first feature film I wanted to tell the story of a complex, intelligent, imaginative teenage girl – the type of girl that we rarely get to see on the big screen. In creating the character, I drew upon memories from my own life, and also collaborated closely with our lead actress, who was 16 years old when we made the film. Together we explored the interior world of an artistic girl with a vivid imagination, and the lengths that people go to in order to feel loved.
We feel as if every teen girl needs a definitive teen girl film as a cultural canvas for their life, and ‘I believe in Unicorns’ has been described as that by some pretty big media outlets. How does that make you feel as a filmmaker?
When I was growing up, there were not many female characters on screen that I could relate to, which inspired me to not only make this particular film but to become a filmmaker in the first place. It is incredibly gratifying when young women (and men!) see a reflection of themselves or their lives in “I Believe in Unicorns”. By making a film about an emotionally complex, honest and imaginative teenage girl, I hope to expand our collective consciousness and create empathy for alternate points of view. Through the stories we choose to tell, we can create the world we want to live in.
You have won some pretty big-deal awards with the film as well as having it screened at SXSW and many countries around the world. Does that give you confidence as a filmmaker that you are on the right track?
The creation and distribution of this film has been an incredibly magical journey so far. We have screened it at film festivals in dozens of countries around the world and I am excited that it is now available to an American audience in select theaters and online.
For us its as if the Unicorn theme is a metaphor for women in film as they are both rare creatures! Was this done on purpose?
This was a coincidence but it is so true! Part of the reason there are so few relatable female characters on screen is there are not enough women behind the camera as directors, writers and producers.
What were some of your film inspirations growing up and were there any that featured prominent female characters that shaped your ideas of the world?
Some of my favorite films with female protagonists are ‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Sophia Coppola, ‘Gas Food Lodging’ by Allison Anders and ‘Sweetie’ by Jane Campion. They showed me that it was okay for girls to have a vivid imagination and as someone who never quite felt like “I fit in”, they made me feel a little less alone. Also, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of these sorts of films with strong female characters are written and directed by female directors.
Speaking of women in film, there is a huge collective movement amongst badass filmmakers like yourselves to prove to the big Hollywood machine that you don’t need to be a Michael Bay or Steven Soderbergh to be capable of the job. How important is it to you being a woman in this industry?
In addition to being a director, I am the founder of a female filmmaker collective called “Film Fatales” based in New York with a dozen chapters around the world. We get together monthly to support each other, collaborate on projects and create a community to promote the creation of more films by and about women. Similarly, I hope that the experience of watching “I Believe in Unicorns” encourages other young women to tell their stories as well.
Have you ever experienced any backlash being a female filmmaker that you can share?
There is a persistent myth in Hollywood that it is harder to finance a film about a woman than about a man, since anyone will go see the next comic book movie but as soon as there is a female protagonist it becomes a “chick flick” with a limited audience. Obviously, I didn’t let this stop me and am happy to report that there is a huge audience out there hungry for films with a diversity of characters on screen.
Aside from the need for more women directors, producers & writers, there is a huge need for more complex and interesting females on screen. How do you hope to make this happen with your work?
I hope to continue making films with strong and intelligent female lead characters and inspire other filmmakers to do the same. My collective Film Fatales began two years ago as a group of six women directors and has since grown exponentially to include hundreds of members in over a dozen cities around the world. There is a tidal wave of independent female filmmakers with stories to tell, and it is only a matter of time before we begin to see an equal representation of female characters on screen.
There are so many more opportunities to start a career in film these days thanks to digital platforms and crowd-finding initiatives. How would you encourage filmmakers to take advantage of these if they can’t get into the industry in the more traditional way? What advice do you have for other female filmmakers who feel as if conquering their dreams is too hard?
I recommend aspiring female filmmakers to join a local chapter of Film Fatales or create their own groups within their communities. Pursuing a career as a filmmaker is challenging and it is a lot easier not to have to do it alone. As artists, we often are waiting around for permission to create our work. Film Fatales encourages us to give ourselves permission and find a way to tell our stories by whatever means necessary!
What’s next for you and where can viewers see ‘I Believe In Unicorns’?
I Believe in Unicorns is currently available in select theaters, cable on demand, iTunes, Amazon, Xbox and other online platforms. More information is on our website.
To catch a screening of ‘I Believe In Unicorns’, click here for the full summer schedule. Check out the trailer below: