I Believe In Unicorns – A Visceral & Handcrafted Hit

    Several weeks ago East Orlando Post founder Jacob Engels and myself had the opportunity to attend the Florida Film Festival. During the festival, we were pleasantly surprised with Leah Meyerhoff’s film I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS. Below is my Q&A with Leah, examamining the film from concept to completion.


    By Jason Jack Underwood


    First, tell us a little bit about your background and your film – I Believe In Unicorns.


    I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS takes us on a road trip through the stunning and complex landscape of troubled young love. The film tells the story of Davina, an imaginative and strong-willed teenage girl who often escapes into a beautifully twisted fantasy life. Having grown up quickly as the sole caretaker of her disabled mother, she looks for salvation in a new relationship with an older boy. She is soon swept into a whirlwind of romance and adventure, but the enchantment of her new relationship quickly fades when his volatile side begins to emerge.


    I am a filmmaker based in New York whose previous short films have screened in over 200 film festivals, won a dozen awards and aired on IFC, PBS, LOGO and MTV. My debut feature film I Believe in Unicorns premiered in competition at SXSW 2014, followed by screenings at the Dallas Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival, IFFBoston, Nashville Film Festival and a Grand Jury Prize win at the Atlanta Film Festival for best narrative feature.


    In comparison to other festivals, what stood out about the Florida Film Festival and the Enzian Theater?


    It’s an invaluable cultural asset in Central Florida. It takes the risk other theaters in Orlando won’t. They show great movies and enrich that community.


    You mentioned during the Q&A segment after the film that you had someone local to the area help produce I Believe In Unicorns. Tell us about how you made that connection and how they influenced the project.


    My associate producer Hannah Beth King grew up in Winter Park. We met at the Student Academy Awards and quickly became friends. We are also both members of a female filmmaker collective in New York City called Film Fatales (www.filmfatalesnyc.com). During the animation portion of my shoot, Hannah was instrumental in finding us a Super16mm camera that we could use for weeks on end, and she also helped with many other aspects of post-production. In return, I am helping produce her upcoming debut feature “Dirt Roads” which we are hoping to shoot in Florida next year.


    Shooting entirely on film must have been an amazing experience. What were some of the aesthetic and practical factors at play that lead you to this decision?


    I Believe in Unicorns is told from the perspective of the lead character, an imaginative teenage girl, and all of the aesthetic decisions were made with this in mind. We chose to shoot on a combination of Super16mm and Super8mm film for their nostalgic, grainy, textured qualities.  This is a visceral and handcrafted world, one which this teenage girl could have created, and where we can feel her fingerprints on the edges of the frame. She is also a photographer so we purposely shot a lot of flash frames and allowed the film to roll out at strategic moments, so that later in the edit room we would be able to transition in and out of different scenes through flashes of light.


    Can you describe the creative process for the portions of the film that involved stop-motion? Did you script them as you did the rest of the film, or was there a different approach you had to take?


    Behind the scenes photo of one of the stopmotion segments being shot. Photo by Shlomo Godder


    We shot the stop-motion animated sequences on Super16mm film as well, which is an incredibly laborious process, and each frame had to be not only scripted in advance but meticulously storyboarded.  As for production, we literally built a miniature forest, with real dirt and dozens of plants. We had to water the set every morning! And then we would set up the camera, lights and puppets inside this world. We would shoot a frame of film, move a puppet a tiny amount, shoot another frame of film, move the puppet, and on and on. Because we were shooting on film, we were essentially animating blind, and didn’t know how it was going to look until we got the film back from the lab weeks later. It was a fantastic leap of faith and luckily it paid off.


    You had mentioned during the Q&A that this film comes from a very personal place in your heart. Not only can this be a strength during the filmmaking process, but in certain circumstances can serve as another hurdle to overcome. Were there certain elements of the film that were more difficult for you to tackle than others?


    The most personal aspect of the film is that the mother character is played by my actual mother in real life. My mother is in a wheelchair, having been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when I was young. From early on, I was tasked with being her caretaker, and these responsibilities are paralleled on screen in the main character’s life. Ultimately, this casting decision was worth the emotional and logistical challenges, as she brought nuances to her performance and a deeper authenticity to the story. Making this film gave me a deeper appreciation for my mother’s struggles and brought us closer together in real life as well.


    Having such a genuine and authentic cast really made the story sink in and resonate for me. How exactly did the casting process pan out for the film? Did you seek the leading actors in your film or did they happen onto you?


    Natalia Dyer (Davina) and Peter Vack (Sterling). Photo by Chloe Aftel


    Even at the script phase I knew that I wanted to cast an actual teenage girl to play the teenage lead in the film. Too often in Hollywood, we see younger roles played by older actors and it never rings true for me. Our lead actress Natalia Dyer was in high school at the time of production and was surrounded by many of the same experiences portrayed on screen in the film. She was thus able to bring her own truth to the story and we collaborated closely on shaping the character together. I auditioned hundreds of other young actresses before I met Natalia and once she was attached we had to move quickly to work around her school schedule and everything else pretty much fell into place. I met our male lead Peter Vack through our respective agents and after a series of callbacks knew that they would have fantastic chemistry together. Meanwhile Julia Garner gives a fantastic performance as her gay best friend and Amy Seimetz is hilarious as the quirky photography teacher. I believe that casting is 90% of directing and then on set it is a matter of creating a safe space for the actors to do their best work. In this case, I was lucky to work with such authentic talent.


    Production design and wardrobe are two elements of film that I really appreciate. The spaces that your characters inhabited as well as the clothes they wore did a magnificent job at furthering their personalities and depth. Can you tell us a little a bit about how you approached this?


    Our production designer Katherine Rusch and Costume Designer Emily Batson are both complete geniuses and a joy to work with. Together we developed a shorthand to describe the worlds of each character. For example, Davina lives in more of a “watery” world full of blues and purples and greys, while Sterling’s character is more “fiery” with harsh reds and blacks. Davina’s home life is grounded in earth tones while her attempts to escape have an “airy” quality. In subdividing the world into various elements we created consistent color palettes for each character, which transformed as the story progressed. If you look closely, you will literally see the characters’ wardrobes disintegrating as their relationship falters and their worlds collide.


    The film making process is unarguably an extraordinarily difficult process to take on. If you’re willing to share; what would you say proved to be the most frightening or challenging task while working on the film? The easiest?


    The most challenging task was staying true to my vision despite numerous logistical obstacles and the easiest was surrounding myself with talented collaborators who expanded upon that vision. The process of making this film was just as much of an adventure as what ultimately ended up on screen.


    What’s next for you and I Believe In Unicorns?


    I Believe in Unicorns is currently traveling the film festival circuit (SXSW, Atlanta, Florida, Sarasota, IFFBoston, Nashville, Brooklyn, etc) and we hope to release the film to a wider audience later this year. More info can be found at www.unicornsthemovie.com and you can join the thousands of fans following our journey at www.facebook.com/unicornsmovie


    Jason Jack Underwood is a professionally trained photographer and filmmaker. You can learn more about him by clicking here.