Leah Meyerhoff, “I Believe in Unicorns”
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Leah Meyerhoff, writer and director of “I Believe in Unicorns,” took time away from the international festival circuit to talk about making her first feature film while a grad student at New York University.
How much of your own experiences went into making this film? How did you come up with the idea for the story?
I began writing a story about a teenage girl who is creative, intelligent, complex and imaginative because when I was growing up (and even now) there weren’t enough female characters on screen that I could relate to. Naturally, I drew upon my own teenage experiences, and some elements from my life organically worked their way into the back story for the film.
What was it like working with your real-life mother?
The most autobiographical component of the film is that my mother in real life plays a fictionalized version of herself on screen. My mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis shortly before I was born and has been in a wheelchair for as long as I can remember.
Of course this meant there were certain sensitivities on set, in addition to the emotional challenges that come from working with a family member. Ultimately, she gave an incredibly brave performance and brought a new level of authenticity to the world of the film.
The visual look of this film is very unique, combining realism and fantasy. Please describe your filmmaking ethos.
I wanted to tell a story about an imaginative teenage girl told almost entirely from her perspective. Thus, all of the aesthetic decisions in the film were made with that in mind, from the decision to shoot on Super16mm and Super8mm to the time-lapse photography and stop-motion puppet animation created one frame of film at a time.
In many ways, this is an analog world and the film has a handcrafted aesthetic, as if we can see the character’s fingerprints on the edges of the frame.
How did you go about casting your film?
It was important that I cast an actual teenage girl to play her own age, and so the casting process was extensive. I met with hundreds of girls before I met Natalia, who was in high school in Tennessee at the time. I immediately fell in love with her, and the rest of the film came together rather quickly after that.
Peter and I have the same agent, and I met Julia Garner through her manager. Both of them had more film experience and brought a level of professionalism to set. Amy Seimetz is a friend of mine (and an incredible filmmaker in her own right), and my mom is (of course) my mom!
Natalia Dyer is quite amazing. How did you work with her and Peter Vack?
Natalia and I collaborated quite closely to create the lead character in the film. As I mentioned earlier, I drew upon my own memories when writing the script, so one of the first things I did was bring Natalia to my childhood home to introduce her to my mother and the world that I grew up in. She also brought some of her own high school experiences with her, and we fleshed out the character together.
Similarly, I worked with Peter to create his back story by bringing him to some of the local punk clubs and immersing him in the scene. We shot chronologically whenever possible, and it helped that the two of them had a natural chemistry so that they could fall in love organically as the story progressed. Sometimes I would have to yell “cut” a few times to get them to stop kissing!
I understand you’re still in graduate school at the NYU film program (my alma mater!). What about your experiences there helped you prepare to make a feature film?
This film was technically my thesis film at NYU, and we utilized the school’s resources and equipment as much as possible. Most helpful of all were the connections I made with former classmates (also from Brown University where I got my BA) who ended up collaborating on the film. I am so grateful for my creative community, and school was definitely a part of that.
What’s next for you?
Currently, I am traveling the film festival circuit with the film (Scotland, Germany, and Israel this month alone!) and hope to begin prep on the next project when I return. I am also the founder of Film Fatales, a female filmmaker collective based in New York, and have been helping produce some of our members’ films.