Q&A: Leah Meyerhoff, director of “I Believe in Unicorns”

by Annie Huang / Beacon Staff • November 11, 2015

Exploding cupcakes, doll heads, and stop-motion puppets: these are among the many unusual objects featured in Leah Meyerhoff’s “I Believe in Unicorns,” which was shown last week as part of the Bright Lights series. 

The movie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, tells the story of Davina, an imaginative and artistic girl who has grown up taking care of her disabled mother. The 16-year-old runs away from home with Sterling, an older, long-haired skateboarder, and quickly discovers that their life together is not the fantasy romance she had imagined. 

Meyerhoff, a Student Academy Award nominee, is the founder of Film Fatales, a collective of women filmmakers from all around the world who get together to mentor each other, collaborate on projects, and build a community, according to the Film Fatales website. Last week in the Revere Hotel Meyerhoff sat down with the Berkeley Beacon to talk about the challenges, lessons, and experiences of her first ever feature film.

Berkeley Beacon: What was your objective in making this film?

Leah Meyerhoff: I knew that for my first feature film I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a girl navigating the complexities of sexuality and growing up and all of those issues that we have all gone through. I haven’t seen enough films that really reflected my own experiences. In many ways, I was writing a script and making a film that my teenage self would have loved to see. I drew upon my own memories and experiences of that age, and research with teenagers today. On a personal level, I made this film as a way of communicating to my mother what the experiences were like for me growing up taking care of a disabled parent. 

BB: What are some challenges that you faced in the process of making this film?

LM: My mother, who is disabled, plays the mother character in the film. I can't think of another film that has a disabled character played by an actual disabled person. The level of authenticity that she brought to the film was so rewarding, but at the same time, [it] also made the production process quite challenging. We were being really sensitive to her physical needs, and as a result, the scenes with her were really limited. In Hollywood, you often see what I call a “90210 effect,” where you see a 25-year-old pretending to be 15. I want the film to feel as authentic as it could, but at the same time, there will always be limitations. With [Natalie Dyer, who played Davina], being an actress who’s under 18, she had limited hours on set. Also, for the sexual scenes, you cannot expose any nudity because that would be child pornography.

BB: What message(s) are you trying to convey to the audience through this film?

LM: The film investigates issues of sexual consent and navigating a volatile relationship with an older boy. In some ways it’s a cautionary tale. But really, it’s more trying to be honest about those gray areas in relationships where both people are really good people, but they’re bad for each other. This film explores those sorts of overwhelming and confusing things that happen in younger relationships. 

BB: What is the production process like for this film?

LM: For production, we shot the film in three weeks in the [San Francisco] Bay area. We came back to New York City and got a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute to do a fantasy sequence. We had five days of filming experimentally. For one day, we would call it “Fire Day” and everyone would bring something related to fire to the set. We would light the whole scene with fireworks and blow up some cupcakes. The last portion of production with animation was done separately over the course of three months. I had a team of animators come and build a miniature set in the living room and create these puppets for stop-motion shoot. Everyday was a new adventure.

BB: There’s a lot of water imagery in the film. Is there a particular purpose for that?

LM: The film starts in water and ends in water. With water, I was interested in this idea of washing away the past and moving towards something new. But I was also really liked water as a metaphor for a safe space. For Davina, I see her as a very watery character. She’s very fluid about the way she navigates through life and how she sees the world. Being underwater, it’s like a room where she can be alone with her thoughts, where her fantasy and dreams come to life. 

BB: What are some personal lessons that you’ve learned from the creation of this film?

LM: The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that often as artists, especially as women, we are always waiting around for permission to make our work. That can be waiting for someone to write us a check or for Sundance to accept us. Whatever that qualification is, if you want to call yourself a filmmaker, you need to give yourself permission to make that film. And that was the biggest lesson I’ve learned, which is to generate my own opportunities.