Kira recently met with filmmaker, Leah Meyerhoff. Over the course of a few sessions, Kira and Leah tackled a number of subjects, which we decided to present as separate mini-conversations along with the main interview concerning filmmaking, women in filmmaking, and staying true to oneself as an artist even if it means exposing your vulnerability to your audience. Enjoy Leah’s interesting insights.
How did you first get into filmmaking?
I am from San Francisco and I attended high school in Berkeley. I started getting interested in film in high school but there were not a lot of resources available at that time, or I was not aware of them. I had an old Super 8 camera that I would play around with as well as a Hi8 video camera and I’d make little music videos and things. But I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I’d play with cameras in the way that kids play with dolls.
What about your education after high school?
I went to college at Brown University in Rhode Island where I majored in something called art semiotics, which is a combination of art history, film theory, and some production. While I was at Brown, I also took some classes at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which is the art school nearby. RISD has a sister relationship with Brown and I took some film classes there. That’s when I really decided I want to be a director. It wasn’t until I was around eighteen, nineteen or twenty.
After college, I really wanted more hands-on film production experience. Brown has a better film program now, but during the time I was attending college, Brown was much more of a liberal arts college. I applied to a bunch of film schools and I chose New York University (NYU) primarily because I wanted to be in New York. I attended NYU’s graduate program for film and I took my time to complete my Master’s degree.
While at NYU, I took a year off from school and followed a kind of an art path. I moved to Chicago and attended school at the Art Institute of Chicago. During that time, I opened an art gallery and was doing more fine art as well as video installations. I then returned to NYU to finish my degree and I just graduated last year.
“I Believe in Unicorns” was my thesis film for my graduate degree at NYU. I guess saying it now it seems like there was a linear path, but it really didn’t feel that way. It felt very circuitous. I’ve always been an artist and I’ve always been a storyteller and I continue to make all kinds of art. But it wasn’t until I was in college and was exposed to other films that my art took off.
From what you have described, college was a great place for you to learn filmmaking.
I was lucky to receive a scholarship and have the opportunity to go to film school. I don’t regret it at all. It was a great opportunity and NYU offered fantastic resources.
But I often think you sometimes have to work against film school because film schools often have a certain way of thinking. They teach you this is the right way to make a film. This is the wrong way to make a film. And actually, there are a million different ways to become a filmmaker and a million different paths to follow. I figured that out on my own. I navigated that on my own.
In terms of how I got to where I am, I did find my way through school but that’s not the only path by any means. A lot of people become filmmakers just by working on film sets and making films.
Was college your only educational preparation for you to learn about filmmaking and the industry?
I really learned a lot from film festivals. I started applying to film festivals with some of my more experimental short films when I was a senior in college and was accepted into a few of them. I didn’t understand how it all worked. Then when I was at NYU, I made a three-minute black and white short film followed by a ten-minute narrative, color, short film titled “Twitch”. I sent “Twitch” to all the film festivals. It started off at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend that festival and I have heard it’s a really great one. I should have gone but I didn’t know. Following that festival, “Twitch” went to Slamdance and it won one of the grand jury prizes there.
From there, all these other film festivals started requesting “Twitch” and I traveled as much as I could. I basically took a full year and any time the festival would pay for my travel or my housing or if it was a place I wanted to go, I would try to attend. I realized that not everyone could afford to do that. I was very lucky to have those opportunities.
From your description, film festivals were a great way to get exposure for your films. Did anything else come out of your film festival experiences?
Attending the film festivals was completely rewarding. I met almost everyone whom I ended up making my feature film with through the film festival circuit in one way or another. I met my producer through Slamdance, my cinematographer through Slamdance, and the girl who made my tote bags, I met at a film festival.
Film festivals are a wonderful way to meet other working filmmakers. Film schools, on the other hand, are a wonderful way to study and focus on yourself, and the film schools are this great luxury where you have time just devoted to making your art and being surrounded by like-minded people who support you. Film festivals, are the next stage of that process. The festivals are about being around people who are making stuff and finding your collaborators there. And you find your audiences. It’s a great time. It’s really fun. I learned a lot about how to navigate the film festival world with this ten-minute short film, “Twitch”.
Once I completed my feature film, I was able to use a lot of the knowledge I acquired and return to a lot of those same film festivals, especially, the ones that I remember liking.
“Hey, you showed my short film years ago. I now have a feature that’s similar in tone. Are you interested?” Had I not already had the opportunity to screen my short films at different festivals, it would have been much, much harder to get my feature entered and screened..
There are hundreds of film festivals all over the world. How have you navigated the film festival circuit?
Over the years, I’ve watched the world change. There are many more film festivals now than there used to be. It used to be easy. Sundance, SXSW – there were ten festivals you would apply to. Now there are hundreds.
Just to know which festivals are even worth going to, which ones treat the filmmakers well; to be honest, a lot of them are not worth going to. There are a number of film festivals that are more of a scam; they are just charging you a lot of money for applications and it’s not about the films.
Then there are some that are fantastic. The experience of attending film festivals with a short film set me up to enter film festivals with my feature film. The experience helped me build a community of other filmmakers who all talk to each other and recommend festivals to each other and recommend crew to each other.
about I Believe in Unicorns
Davina is 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. Davina is 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 Believe in Unicorns takes us on a road trip through the stunning and complex landscape of troubled young love.
From Student Academy Award nominated director Leah Meyerhoff (Twitch), I Believe In Unicorns stars emerging talents Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack (Mozart in the Jungle), Julia Garner (Sin City 2), Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) and the director’s mother Toni Meyerhoff.
I Believe In Unicorns premiered in competition at SXSW, won the Grand Jury Prize in Atlanta and additional awards from Nashville, Woodstock, Anchorage, First Time Fest and San Francisco Film Society. It is supported by Tribeca All Access, US in Progress, Film Society of Lincoln Center, IFP Emerging Narrative Labs and the IFP Finishing Labs. I Believe in Unicorns was recently nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award and received a Directing Award from the Adrienne Shelly Foundation.
about Team Queen
The new girl in school is thrown into a topsy-turvy madhouse of high school hellcats. The cheerleaders are drag queens, the nerds are nymphomaniacs, the punks breathe fire, and the prom band is none other than the all-girl, post-punk phenomenon Triple Creme. Featuring the best of New York burlesque: including Murray Hill, Julie Atlas Muz, Tigger, and Scotty the Blue Bunny, Team Queen has screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide and aired on LOGO.
about Through Here Like Our Fathers
Two seemingly opposed worlds, a magical forest of innocent animals and a post-modern banquet of solitary excess, slowly collide and unravel in the latest video for Brooklyn rock outfit LUFF. the parallel realities of feathers and glitter, blood and snow, highlight the perils of existing within an emotional disconnect. The two worlds meet with destruction, despite a heroine’s best efforts to awaken a slumbering humanity.
Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature film I Believe in Unicorns premiered in competition at SXSW 2014. Her previous short films have screened in over 200 film festivals, won a dozen awards, and aired on IFC, PBS, LOGO and MTV. She has been shortlisted for the Student Academy Awards and Gotham Awards and received high profile grants from IFP, the Tribeca Film Institute and the Adrienne Shelly Foundation. Leah was one of eight filmmakers chosen to participate in IFP’s Emerging Narrative Labs and Narrative Finishing Labs and one of ten filmmakers chosen to participate in the Emerging Visions program at the New York Film Festival. She was also one of eight filmmakers chosen to participate in the Tribeca All Access Labs and was recently honored with the Adrienne Shelly Director’s Award. She has been featured in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times and starred on the docudrama Film School on IFC. She holds a BA in Art-Semiotics from Brown University and is a Dean’s Fellow in Graduate Film at NYU.
In 2013, Leah founded Film Fatales in New York City, a global network of women filmmakers who meet regularly to mentor each other, share resources, collaborate on projects and build a supportive community in which to make their films. Members meet in local groups hosted by different filmmakers each month, to share a meal, update each other on their projects, and engage in a moderated discussion about relevant topics in film.
- I Believe in Unicorns (2014)
- Through Here Like Our Fathers (2011)
- Eternal Flame (2007)
- The Heist (2006)
- Team Queen (2006)
- Not for Sale (2006)
- Twitch (2006)
- Packaged Goods (2003)
- Neurotica (2002)
- Wonderful Sandwiches (2001)