The Lovely Idealism Of Leah Meyerhoff
by Noralil Ryan Fores
To her recollection, filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff has always made some form of art. "My whole life I've considered myself to be an artist," Meyerhoff adds, that defining noun 'artist' included as part of her character without the fear of pretension imprinting a waver in her inflection. While equally comfortable in both the visual and cinematic arts, Meyerhoff willingly admits a preference, saying: "Although I'm happy making art in a gallery/visual art setting, I feel at the end of the day I wasn't really effecting much, changing much or saying much. You can paint in your studio all day long and then have a show in a gallery, but no one really sees it. With film, since it has this distribution model in place and it's more mass media, you can reach millions of people."
For Meyerhoff, reaching millions has very little to do with personal recognition but rather entirely to do with her desire to affect social change. Before a screening of her Student Academy-Award finalist short Twitch at the HollyShorts Short Film Festival, Meyerhoff says repeatedly here in talking about her work the importance of bettering society, of contributing in some small way. It's idealistic. Lovely.
SM: What kind of social change is it that you want to affect?
LM: I, in particular, am interested in woman's rights and social equality—definitely in terms of gender equality but also on all levels. I'm not making overt political documentaries or anything like that. I'm interested in narrative filmmaking, but what I'm interested in doing is telling stories about people that don't often have a voice. Basically, I'm interested in telling stories that I haven't seen before in film and in that way empowering that voice.
Starting with Twitch and also in terms of my feature, I've been interested especially in the female coming-of-age genre...They're usually male stories. I haven't seen a lot of realistic female coming-of-age stories. As a genre, it has the potential to affect the way that teenage girls come of age in real life; media has the ability to influence the way that people think about themselves and the social roles that they then choose to play. At least when I was growing up the types of roles that I saw girls playing on TV and film were: you can grow up to be a housewife, things like Clueless or Sixteen Candles, these movies where all you're supposed to care about is how you looked and going to the prom. It just didn't match my reality. And so, I'm interested in finding stories that are more realistic and that reach the 16-year-old girl out there who is like who I was 10 years ago, someone who doesn't see herself represented in the media. I'm interested in finding that representation. It's a bit more esoteric and abstract than making a political documentary.
But, I do think that in terms of art, narrative filmmaking is just a good combination of a way to not be didactic and hit people over the head with things and being able to tell stories in a creative way.
Yet by choosing what stories you tell, I do think that has a lot of influence—sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more obvious ways. Team Queen was a bit more obvious in that it was taking gender roles and flipping them on their head and in supporting this queer band, this up-and-coming band who now are on TV and in all of these film festivals. It's a bit more obvious where Twitch was a bit abstract, but there are themes of gender equality and this idea of discovering what role you can play in society through what roles are represented in the media. Those themes are in most of my work—whatever art form it is.
SM: I might open a Pandora's Box, and hopefully it's not a hackneyed key of Pandora's Box: The amount of female directors in Hollywood—and even in independent filmmaking is still shockingly low—, and so that accounts in part for the lack of media representation that you've spoken to. But, it certainly doesn't make any sense to me a lot of the time, particularly considering the amount of female writers and producers that are in the industry, that we don't see more of those representations.
LM: The world is definitely changing. In a lot of fields and in the arts—arts is very male-dominated, and that's the history of it. We're at the point now where it's not an overtly sexist institution and women aren't allowed to make films; it's more that film in particular is really a boys' club. Films get made based on who's financing them and who you know. It is a game of who you know--not in terms of making the film but in terms of getting them out there, getting them distributed. Historically, men have been in control of the film studios, and the successful directors and the people financing the films are usually men. If they're presented with two pictures for film ideas and one of them, for example, is a coming-of-age story about teenage boys and one's about teenage girls, they're just comfortable I think picking the male story…At least the major Hollywood studios think that teenage boys are their main market when actually women make up more than 50 percent of film audience's usually. So, it is surprising that there aren't more female protagonists.
It's complicated. No woman has ever won an Oscar for directing. I don't think it's for a lack of talented female directors. I think they're out there. I think they're just not getting the financing and not getting offered the same amount of movies that their male counterparts are. That's basically just—you tend to invest in directors you've already seen be successful and keep those, and historically, those have been white men and that's what tends to be propagated.
So, the world is changing, but it's slow…There definitely are more female writers and editors, and their stories break through. With producers, there actually are a lot of women who are running major film studios now, but I think— and I can't really speak from my experiences; it's a guess—that because they live in such a cut-throat male-dominated field, they end up feeling like they need to emulate that and fight their way to the top. Then once they get there, they don't often reach back and help other women on their way up. That's unfortunate, and at least that is some of the experience I've had in approaching other successful female directors who are above me on the scale. Often they're not as interested in helping me out as when I ask male directors. That's interesting to me because it seems divisive. So I, at least in my life, have made an effort to help younger female filmmakers come up toward my level—whatever that means. I have taken on a lot of assistants and interns, and I mentor a lot of younger female filmmakers as well as do lectures. I just did this "Girl in the Director's Chair" lecture, and I do a lot of college lectures and lectures at high schools aimed toward teenage girls.
Especially with the way technology is changing and that film is becoming a more accessible medium for everyone, we're going to start to see a lot more stories from people of color, from women, ecetera than we have in the past—maybe not major Hollywood films but smaller independent films. Their voices are starting to be heard now that never could be fifty years ago. So, that's exciting—to be part of that.
SM: Moving from Twitch, which has done so astoundingly well from the Student Academy Awards to going to many, many film festivals, and now going to the feature, Even Unicorns Need to Breathe, is that right?
LM: That's the working title right now.
SM: On the site, it said the film's about an abusive relationship between a girl and her boyfriend. I was hoping you could tell me what the transition has been like going from Twitch, which has done so well, to the feature, which is wonderfully energetic but also uncertain.
LM: Twitch did really well, and off of that success, I was able to travel around the film festival circuit for over a year and raise the money to now make this feature. So, I did use Twitch as the steppingstone to that degree in terms of getting this feature into motion, but that process has just been so slow. It's been almost two years now, and I still haven't started shooting.
The jump from short film to feature is quite large in terms of not just the money you need but everything logistically. All of those logistics have really been difficult to deal with. Creatively, I want to be just making a film already, but I also think it's the right decision to take it slow and make sure I'm doing it right since I'm investing so much of myself into this project. In the meantime, I've been making a bunch of short things, music videos and commercials…
It's a scary transition. With short films it's a lot less of a risk; if it doesn't do well, no one really notices, and it doesn't really matter. Whereas with a director's first feature, it can often really make or break someone's career. So, I've been putting a lot more pressure on myself I feel like. At this point, most of my obstacles are internal: it's been hard to focus on the writing, hard to really take that step to actually say, "We're in pre-production." Every step of the way I've been hard on myself in terms of putting so much pressure that this project is somehow so much more important, whereas when I just make a music video or something short, it's just fun, easy and quick. It's been a transition that I expected, but it's been longer and a bit more difficult than I originally anticipated.
SM: Now, how have you gone about the writing process for the feature?
LM: I honestly had to sequester myself in a cabin in the woods away from all civilization to get the writing done. As I was traveling around the film festival circuit with Twitch, I was like, "I'll be writing as I'm traveling," and that really didn't happen. When I got back to New York, I was like, "Alright, now I'm really going to write," and again, any opportunity I could to go shoot some photos or go work on another friend's film, I'd take it. To sit down and write, it really takes a lot of discipline.
So, finally, I started applying to a bunch of writer's labs: the Sundance lab, Slamdance has a competition. I started applying to various programs, and I got into one out in Mexico. I went out to Mexico and wrote for about a month there, which got it started, and then when I came back to New York, I again was having trouble focusing on writing.
A friend of mine's parents had a cabin in the woods, in the middle of nowhere in Masschusetts, and they weren't using it. They said I could come up there for a month and write, so that's what I did. I got dropped off in a car, and I just stayed there until the food ran out. There was no TV, no anything, and so I just wrote every day for at least three weeks straight and just got it out.
I definitely think of myself much more as a director than a writer. I'm not a natural writer. To me it's more of a painful process than an enjoyable one…
SM: Now, how much of feeling that you had with Twitch in terms of working with actors, the Director of Photography, do you want to bring into the feature? Did you learn lessons on that short that pointed out, "Oh, this is what I want to do, and this is what I don't want to do" on the feature?
LM: In terms of the acting, I learned that the type of acting that I find most compelling is a very kind of understated method acting basically. When the actors are actually feeling these emotions, it comes through, and so one of the most important things I've learned is just how incredibly important casting is. Since I have the luxury that I'm not shooting until next summer, I have a long time for the casting process, which I plan to take full advantage of. If I can cast the right actors, I feel like 90 percent of my work will be done. In terms of working with the actors on set, it's just a matter of getting them to that emotional place and letting them go with it.
SM: When it comes right down to the matter, why is it that want to make films and have had a desire since a young age to make art?
LM: I think it's just something you're born with…I haven't really questioned it. I've just always made art. To some extent, it's a huge part of humanity. It's a much larger almost religious question or spiritual question of, "What is the point of being here? Why do we exist?" I obviously don't think I know the answer, but I feel like part of why humans are who they are and what our purpose is in life is to make the world a better place for future generations as well as the environment and the rest of the world. Also, [it's] to create beauty.
I feel like most people have some sort of desire to create. It just comes across in different ways. Someone baking a cake is just as creative as someone painting a painting. They're just different mediums. I have just been fortunate enough to be able to create art that's purely for art's sake, which I do think is a luxury.
It's just this drive of wanting to say something, seeing the world and then wanting to say something about it and do something about it, try to make it a better place to live in…I am more interested in trying to make the kind of art that will reach people, affect them on an emotional level, hopefully say something to them that they wouldn't otherwise have thought about and in that way communicate something new and hopefully improve the world to some degree. Since being an artist is such a luxury, I think artists in particular have this social responsibility to get out there and actually try to change something.