When I first saw first-time feature filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe in Unicorns at SXSW 2014, one of the things I loved most about it was, just about every time I was afraid the plot would kick in – it didn’t.
The indie drama, which debuts simultaneously this weekend in New York and on VOD platforms, is a sensitive and engrossing drama about Davina (Natalia Dyer), a naive young beauty who tries to make her dreams come true – only to find how easily dreams turn into nightmares.
As I wrote in my Variety review, Davina “often seeks refuge from the universal anxieties of adolescence and the specific demands of caring for her handicapped mom (Toni Meyerhoff) by escaping to a fairy-tale world where unicorns frolic, dragons lie in wait, and a lovely princess like herself can gracefully traverse the landscape. Prince Charming is nowhere in sight, so Davina is drawn instead to Sterling (Peter Vack), a slightly older, punkish skateboarder who casually deflowers her in the back room of a music club, then treats her with stinging indifference the next time they meet…
“The heartbroken girl is elated when Sterling changes his attitude yet again: He behaves tenderly, even lovingly, and invites her along for the ride when he impulsively opts to take an open-ended drive toward ‘anywhere but here.’ The longer they’re together, however, the more Davina realizes that mood swings aren’t Sterling’s only unattractive quality.”
Think you know what happens next? Well, you’re probably wrong.
Again, as I said in my Variety review: “There are moments here and there — during an instance of shoplifting, for example, or an argument that dangerously escalates — when the filmmaker appears ready to impose a traditional doomed-lovers-on-the-run plot on her freeform scenario. As it turns out, however, this is not that kind of movie.” Indeed, I Believe in Unicorns is something unique and enchanting – and, as befits a movie that includes elements of fantasy and fairy tales, more than a little magical.
At the 2014 Nashville Film Festival, I had the privilege of hosting a Q&A session with Leah Meyerhoff after a screening of her debut feature. I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with her. And I suspect we’ll be hearing more from her.
Back when you were in the pre-production phase, did you have trouble explaining to people what your movie would – and wouldn’t – be about?
Well, obviously, this script does not have a very traditional plot-based structure. So it did take some convincing, particularly to some of our investors and producers, to say this vision will work even though it's execution-dependent. Even though the script doesn't have these traditional plot points that you’ve seen before again and again and again. Visually, it's going to create this world and this feel.
So how did you convey this?
Actually, in the screenplay process, I wrote both a traditional screenplay and I also did a visual lookbook. I did a lot of photographs [to illustrate] what the feel of the film is going to be. It's going to be very visceral, and very subjective, and in this girl's head. By doing that, I was able to shut down some of those people who said, "Oh, you need to have a gun be introduced there. It’s a lovers-on-the-run story.” Those sorts of things.
Which is not to put down, say, Badlands or anything like that. But this isn't that kind of movie.
Yeah. It's a different film.
Of course, I would imagine that, right after you finished the script and you’re feeling very proud of yourself, it hits you: “OK, now I have to find someone who’s actually capable of playing Davina.” How did you find Natalia Dyer?
She’s really fantastic, isn’t she? And she’s actually from here, from Nashville. It took me a long time to find her. Our casting process was really extensive. I knew that I wanted to cast a teenager to play a teenager. Traditionally -- or often, in Hollywood -- you see a 25-year-old playing 16, that sort of thing. We did as much of a nationwide search as we could. I went to high school plays, I watched short films. I called up every casting director I knew and said, "Who are the best teenagers out there?" The casting directors from True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ film, actually recommended Natalia. They said, "There's a girl in Nashville that you should be aware of."
We met via Skype originally. We Skyped together, and then she ended up flying out to LA. We had an audition. And I just fell in love with her. She just brings so much of herself to the character and to the performance, and was so brave, and so vulnerable. She’s so intelligent as an actress that it made my job easy while working on the set with her. The male actor, Peter Vack, who plays Sterling -- I found him more traditionally. My agent connected me to his agent. He came in for an audition. And I knew that he would play well with her. They just had this fantastic chemistry.
What led you to cast your own mother as Davina’s mom?
That's kind of an autobiographical thread in the film. While I was writing the script, I just kind of naturally drew upon memories from my own childhood. I had an unusual childhood in that my mom has MS. And she has been in a wheelchair since I was born. I grew up taking care of her, was the caretaker in the family -- and never really had a childhood of my own, so to speak.
In collaboration with Natalia, we kind of fleshed out what happens when you have a girl, a teenager, who has grown up quickly and never really had a childhood. She's kind of clinging to this lost childhood and these unicorns. These kinds of very girly, young childhood objects. Yet, at the same time, she’s wanting to escape from that and wanting to become an adult. She’s often very selfish and really very much in her own world -- as sometimes happens when you're a teenager.
Just how autobiographical is I Believe in Unicorns?
I would say maybe 50 percent autobiographical. I think it comes from a personal place. Not just making the film, but wanting to be a filmmaker in the first place. When I was growing up, there weren't that many films that spoke to me, that I related to. That had a female as a lead character. That’s what drove me to be a filmmaker. I think we need more films that have alternative portrayals of young women. I brought as much of my own experiences as I could to this film. [Laughs] And then a bunch of fictional as well. Like, obviously, the dragon and the unicorn.
How difficult was it to do the stop-motion animation in the fantasy sequences?
We did it the hard way -- we did it on film. We literally built a miniature forest in my living room. Then, built puppets. The dragon puppet is made out of the jacket that the Sterling character wears. The unicorn is made out of ribbons that Davina's character has in her outfit. We would take these puppets and shoot one frame of film. Then move them. An hour would go by in the real world. Then another frame of film. Ad nauseam. Eventually, we would have enough to put on screen.
There are some very affecting – well, I guess I would call them privileged moments throughout the film. Like, the day after Davina loses her virginity to Sterling, we see her reaction when he's more or less brushing her off. I've got to tell you, that hurt. I'm a guy in my early 60s, so I have no idea how a 16-year-old girl would feel in that situation. But you made me feel her pain while watching this movie. How do you direct an actress to give us that privileged moment?
Natalia and me, we just bonded. Physically, she looks quite young. But emotionally and intellectually, she’s very intelligent and mature. We communicated so clearly ahead of time about, "How are we going to navigate some of these delicate scenes?" We created a really safe space. We had a lot of closed sets. We talked through it all of the time. In terms of our working method, both actors, Natalia and Peter, came out to California in advance. We just hung out and got to know each other. We kind of blocked everything out and figured out, "How can we get through the technical aspects of filmmaking?" So that while we're actually rolling film, we can allow there to be these moments that feel really fresh and vulnerable.
I think it helps that I’m a female director. Honestly, I think this is a female-driven film. That goes all the way to a lot of our crew as well. A lot of the people really connected to the film through their own coming-of-age experiences. So it was a really safe environment for the actors.
Finally, I’d like to ask about the look of the film. In addition to animated sequences, you experiment with varying film stocks. Did you indicate this in your shooting script, or…?
Like I mentioned, I had a traditionally formatted script. But I also had this visual lookbook. I have a visual art background as well. I'm a photographer. What ended up on the screen – I would say it was maybe 80 percent scripted. But by doing the film in stages, we were able to have what we called this “fantasy shoot,” where we did allow ourselves to do some visual experimentation.
When I worked with a couple of cinematographers, we bought expired film on eBay. We're like, "We don't know what this will turn out like." We did some time-lapse photography, where we weren't sure what it was going to look like. Even the animation, like I said, we did it on film. Which no one does anymore. We wouldn't know until we got it back from the lab how it was actually going to look. A lot of it was from the gut. Like, "I know this will work." Luckily, some of those experiments were some of my favorite moments. Maybe that 20 percent of the film was just left to magic.