Monday, November 30, 2015

Meyerhoff, Dyer, and Vack All Say "I Believe in Unicorns"

Playing in Theaters

Meyerhoff, Dyer, and Vack All Say "I Believe in Unicorns"

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 5/29/15)

Meyerhoff, Dyer, and Vack All Say: “I Believe in Unicorns”

IBelieveinunicornsposter. jpeg
By Danny Peary
I Believe in Unicorns fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  After a year of winning awards, receiving rave reviews, and gathering a huge Facebook following, Leah Meyerhoff’s semiautobiographical debut feature opens theatrically at the IFC Center in NYC and on VOD today, Friday, May 29, with a national release to follow.
Serling and Davina.
Serling and Davina.
For its week run at the IFC Center, Meyerhoff, who founded the collective Film Fatales to unify and promote women filmmakers, has assembled a number of post-screening panels with a remarkable array of talent, including herself, her movie’s stars Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack and crew members, and many exceptional filmmakers. At the end of this posting is a schedule that will help you pick the evening you want to go. The premise of Meyerhoff’s movie is familiar: a pretty, innocent sixteen year old California girl, Davina (Dyer), who lives with her invalid mother and dreams of escape and fantasizes about unicorns, meets and runs off with an older “bad boy,” Sterling (Vack).  Everything else in Meyerhoff’s impressionistic road movie is unconventional, as the writer-director shuttles Davina back and forth between reality and fantasy.  As one critic has said, “Meyerhoff rewrites the modern love story.”  Perhaps teenagers will embrace I Believe in Unicorns as they did the popular young-love movies, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars.  On Tuesday I did the following interview with Meyerhoff, Dyer, and Vack about their unusual movie.
Leah Meyerhoff, Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack.
Leah Meyerhoff, Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack.
Danny Peary: Talk about the title–is believing in unicorns a good thing, a dangerous thing, a girl thing?
Leah Meyeroff: All of the above. For me, the unicorns in this film are a really wonderful coming-of-age symbol.  A unicorn  is a childlike, innocent creature and also a majestic, phallic adult creature–and it symbolizes Davina’s transition from girl to woman.  Also, her believing in unicorns is her looking for an escape.  She navigates the complexities of her reality through a fantasy world and looks for a way out.  Her belief in unicorns is representative of that.
DP: Growing up, all girls…
LM:…love unicorns.  I did.
DP: Natalia, did you love unicorns when growing up?
Natalia Dyer: Oh, sure. I remember having a plethora of unicorn toys of my own.  When I was very young I’m sure I wasn’t thinking so very deeply about the symbolism of unicorns, but to me they were certainly about escape and creativity–so I’m sure I created a world that played to the more innocent side of the unicorn symbol.  That innocence was always there.
DP: Leah, do you define I Believe in Unicorns as a “rite of passage” movie?
LM: I wouldn’t say it is exactly what it is, but as I said, it’s a coming-of-age story and I don’t know if there is a difference in this case.
DP:  A rite of passage can take place when a person is fifty or any age, but what Davina experiences  in the movie is related to her becoming sixteen.
LM: Davina turns sixteen–and in that sense it is a coming-of-age story, but it is also an intense love story about these two characters who fall madly in love and want to be with each other but then realize they are wrong for each other in a variety of ways.  People in love figuring out that they shouldn’t be together is a rite of passage at any age.  This film is about that first love and those moments of a young girl being so infatuated with someone that she’ll go to any lengths for him.  In that sense the movie is about the lengths a sixteen-year-old will go to feel loved.  But of course that can be true of people of other ages as well.
DP: Peter, Sterling has a backstory about growing up in a home with a brutal father, but while playing him did you think of him primarily as a symbolic character—the embodiment of the unicorn Davina fantasizes about–and as such maybe should be mysterious and have no backstory?
Peter Vack: Leah gave him a backstory in her script.  So while part of my job was to flesh out details about Sterling for myself, the character arrived with a history.  As an actor I can say that having that knowledge of his past made my character more fun to play and also easier to play.  Also Leah provided me with other details that were fun to think about.  Approaching the role, I didn’t think of Sterling as being symbolic because it’s not possible to play a symbol, but when I now watch the film as an audience member I do recognize a symbolic quality to him.
DP: In regard to the movie’s “a girl’s sexual-awakening” theme, we are reminded that only a virgin can tame a unicorn.
LM: Yes, that’s the mythology.  Sterling starts out as a unicorn but I think he becomes more of a dragon.
DP: Leah, when writing the script did you decide to give Sterling a backstory to make him a better, more-rounded part for an actor to play?
LM: Yes. I thought it was important that it comes across that Davina isn’t 100% good and Sterling isn’t 100% bad, and his backstory contributes to that.   I think Sterling and Davina are good people who are maybe wrong for each other.  The film is a very subjective story told from the viewpoint of a teenage girl.  We don’t know that much more about Sterling than Davina knows and are experiencing him in real time from her perspective.  As an audience member you might look at his backstory and say, “Oh, this is why he’s behaving this way, this is why he’s volatile, this is where he is coming from.”  But the experience of watching the film is her journey and therefore I really hope people will stick withher and see it through her eyes.
DP: Has that been the reaction so far?
LM: I’ve been traveling with this film on the festival circuit for the past year and it’s interesting that there has often been a difference in response to it according to gender.  Women view the film primarily through Davina’s perspective but some men view it through Sterling’s perspective, which I didn’t expect because I think it’s clearly Davina’s story.  But people do identify with Peter’s character and having that backstory there is helpful to them in understanding why is he behaving in a certain way.
DP: Do you think those male viewers are identifying with Sterling or identifying with a girl falling in love with his kind of character?
LM: Maybe it is the latter and they identify with the girl falling in love with this character.  Sterling is charismatic and sexy so it’s understandable a teenage girl would fall for someone like him.
PV: I had some guys come up to me after screenings who had a problem with Sterling.  I think they identified with Davina and felt very protective of her.
LM: A lot of people do. The movie has hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook and we get messages from young girls who say, “Thank you for making this movie with this character Davina!”  It’s very rewarding.  We’ve traveled with the film for a while now and we’ve seen that especially older people who have children of their own are very protective of Davina and want to make sure she is okay.  Younger viewers are often so in the moment that they don’t see it with that remove.  It’s: “Of course she’s going off with this guy, I’m fine with it.”  Then at the end they say, “Well maybe that wasn’t the right path.”  So it’s been an interesting diversity of reactions.
DP: Early in the movie, I was thinking that you felt it was almost your mission as a filmmaker to rescue Davina and make sure everything turns out well for her, because she is a nice girl and deserves good things in life.
LM: I feel very protective of that character, too.
DP: It’s interesting that, as you said, Davina isn’t a perfect girl, as we may wrongly assume at the beginning when we see her taking care of her invalid mother.  She is sweet but to be with Sterling, she ditches school and leaves behind her mother, although she does call home eventually.
PV: It’s interesting to me that Sterling and Davina aren’t 100% sure why they do what they do.  I tried to bring this idea to the work I did. Sterling and to a large extent Davina act impulsively, without necessarily knowing why. and there was something very liberating about playing that.  And the way the film is pieced together it is very relatable and speaks to a lot of people, because sometimes in life we all make these bold, life-changing decisions that do fall into that “rite of passage” category–without necessarily knowing why we are making them.  And it’s striking to see that in this film.
LM: There is an immediate, organic quality to the actions of the two people who are both in over their heads.  They’re not even sure what journey they’re on.  The idea is that the audience is with them for that journey, experiencing this collage of material that is coming at them in all different ways.  There is a timeless quality where you’re not quite sure how long they’ve been on the road or where they are and what exactly is happening.  It’s overwhelming to them, which is what young-love experiences are often like.   Only when you’re older can you look back on them with clarity.
DP: Natalia, if Sterling asked Davina to rob banks like Bonnie and Clyde did or drive to a state where she could marry at sixteen, do you think she would do that impulsively?
ND: I think you can see it a little in the film that Davina has a conflict of morality in regard to Sterling’s lifestyle and how he operates. There is some moral negotiation going on inside her, but it is just that time in her life when she isn’t sure of who she is and what she wants and what she should be doing.  I think the climax of the film is about Davina figuring out where she stands and what she wants.
LM: In many ways as a filmmaker I was going against some of those tropes that you see in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands.  There’s this expectation when seeing two teenagers on the run that it’s going to lead to their robbing banks and a kind of heightened drama, which isn’t true to the reality of the majority teenagers today.  I think what sets this film apart is that it avoids some of the familiar Hollywood tropes.  There is enough drama inherent in their dynamic and in their being in over their heads and overwhelmed and in love that we don’t need those sorts of plot points that we so often have.  This film almost works against audience expectations.
DP: Do you think Davina feels guilt this whole time?
ND: Yeah, it would be silly to say that she doesn’t feel guilt.  This is all very new to her.  I agree that you do make those rash, impulsive decisions from some place deep down that you don’t always know.  But she does care about her mother and she does have a moral, internal compass that procures a little guilt.
LM: Especially by the end of the film after she’s grown in a lot of ways.
DP: Leah mentioned that these young lovers might not be good for each other in the long run.  Does the film enter the realm of l’amour fou, where the romance is so intense that if the couple stayed together for more than a brief time they’d go up in flames?
PV: Freud said it was like a “psychotic stage.”  There is an element of that in this film I think.
ND: Me, too.
LM: It’s like an addiction almost.
DP: They might be good for each other, but only briefly.  Leah, were you feeling that?
LM: That’s absolutely where I was coming from.  I think that’s very true to thosefirst experiences.  This film has connected quite strongly with the younger female audience who can identify with Davina falling so much in love and going on a journey. Although their conscience would say, “Hey, I don’t know if this is the right decision,” they’d tell themselves, “I’m just going to impulsively go for it and see what happens.”  That’s how you often get into messy situations in life.  You know, all love is messy but particularly those first loves.
DP: In Splendor in the Grass, Natalie Wood falls madly in love with the handsome Warren Beatty, the coolest guy in her high school.  She doesn’t end up with him and has a breakdown.  Years later, she sees him again and he’s a nothing.
LM: That’s part of the process.
DP: Peter, does Davina see more in Sterling than there is and in time would she see him as a disappointment?
PV: Probably she would. That’s a prediction I would make for what will happen in Part 6 of the I Believe in Unicorn series.
ND: Yes, in a sequel.
DP: Leah, I read that you took Natalia to meet your mom, Toni Meyerhoff at the house you grew up in so she would better know your background when you grew up with a mother who has MS. And I read that Natalia also told you stories about herself at the time.  And that surprised me because I would have thought she would have told those stories to you when she was auditioning for the part.
LM: We collaborated on her character from the beginning and I told her early, early on about my experiences as a child and about my mom.  And Natalia talked about her experiences being a junior in high school at the time, but right before we started shooting we went to the house and met my mom, who plays Natalia’s mom in the movie, and she went into my bedroom, which would be Davina’s room. That allowed her to live in that environment for awhile, and it was a really immersive experience in terms of preparing herself for the role.
ND: It was very beneficial for me.  It was really informative and Leah was very open about where my character came from.  So there was a combination of being in that environment and bringing my own experiences that helped me find Davina.
LM: You can talk academically about how the mother character is disabled and this is what Davina’s childhood home life is like but it’s different to actually be there.  I loved that we had that opportunity before we started shooting.
DP: So, Natalia, was it a burden, intimidating, or a nice challenge to play a character based in many ways on the young Leah?
ND: It was a challenge for sure, and maybe there was some intimidation at first, but Leah’s openness and how attentive we both were to he character made it much easier and fun.
DP: A lot of times female writer-directors want their actresses to know more about their characters than they do themselves.  Did you want Natalia to eventually know more than you about Davina, even though Davina was based on you?
LM: I think all directors often want their actors to bring their own interpretations of their characters.  With both Natalia and Peter, we collaborated in advance so we knew who their characters were before shooting.  Natalia said who she thought Davina was and Peter said who he thought Sterling was, and it was a collaboration.
DP: Peter, I read that you were surprised by how “traditional” the auditions were for a movie that broke all kinds of grounds.
PV: Yeah.  That’s the kind of leap you make when you audition for any project. An audition is a very strange thing that very much exists outside of the film, especially for a film like this.  It’s like eating a burger they make in a laboratory and then you’re allowed to eat a great steak.  Natalia and I didn’t audition together but I think a smart filmmaker knows if there will be chemistry to the screen.  There is a lot of insecurity out there when a filmmaker will say, “Oh we must see these people together.”  No, if you have two good actors that you trust, you know they will have good chemistry.   I liked that we didn’t have a lot of auditions and we rehearsed just the right amount.
LM:  There was amazing chemistry as soon as Peter and Natalia were together. so there was no question they were right for the parts.  We didn’t rehearse too much, but we did talk a lot and we Skyped alot and we hung out a lot.
PV: Why this movie was fun to make and why it works as well as it does is because Leah created this environment where Natalia and I and the other actors and the crew were vibrating on the frequency of her film.   And Leah made sure everything ran smoothly on the set.  Like with the scenes with physical violence, she made sure they were choreographed as if they were dances, because then she could fill it with all the danger she wanted.  You want to know what you’re doing physically so you don’t have to worry about hurting each other for real.
LM: We blocked the physical scenes, but in terms of performance we tried to keep it as fresh as possible and get what we wanted on the first take. I’m not saying the film was improvised because it’s not mumblecore in that respect, but it was fresh.  We shot as much as we could in chronological order and really went on this road trip and this journey as a team.  The three of us were kind of in our own little bubble, let’s live it as we create it. The process of making the film was quite intimate and organic.
PV: It did feel very intimate.   It was fun to do: closed sets, small crew. We didn’t have people just standing around.
DP: Natalia, one of the most unusual things about the love-making scenes is how aggressive the innocent female is.  Davina is with this older, more experienced boy, yet she doesn’t wait for him to take the lead.  She isn’t shy but initiates the kissing and even gets on top, really going after him.  Was that important for you?
ND: I think it was important. It felt right and real for me then.  To play passivity didn’t seem right.
DP:  The 1971 film Walkabout is also about a teenage girl experiencing her sexual awakening, only it’s not in California but in the Australian outback.  Years after making the film, the actress Jenny Agutter told me that because she had been the same age as the girl she played what emotions and confusion she felt about herself revealed themselves naturally in the character.  So the actress and character blended into one another. Did you really identify with Davina because she was your age and felt the same things you did?
ND: I don’t know.  But I will say that certainly that age is when everyone starts to kind of explore and figure out their personalities and that aspect of their lives. That felt the way to go.  I was sixteen at the time and the boy stuff, the family stuff, and Davina figuring out who she is and what she wants to do and what she wants to be was all very fresh and real to me.
DP: Leah, talk about your use of water in this movie and your short Twtich,which has much in common with the feature.  Natalia bathes, showers, swims in a pool.  I don’t think going for a sexual connotation, but does the water signify purification or rebirth?
LM:  The film begins in water and ends in water.  People see rebirth metaphors in it, but for me water is a safe space.  When I was little kid I saw Legend [1985],which has a unicorn in it.  It was one of Tom Cruise’s earliest movies–he was older but looked about fifteen and it’s so great–and there’s a scene where he dives into a river and the surface of the river freezes over and he’s stuck underneath the surface.  So when I would take baths I’d pretend I was underneath a surface of the frozen water and I’d hold my breath.  So there is something from that experience in the opening scene of Davina under the water in the bathtub.  She’s retreating into this interior space because when you’re under the water and everything is muffled around you, you go into your mind and find all these memories there.  It’s a way for Davina to access her creative side.
DP: Her emerging for the water and breathing is like a rebirth, and I think that’s a key part of your movie.
LM: It is. There’s a rebirth and it’s a rite of passage. For me, the water also ties into her mother’s disability.  This also that comes from my experience.  I have very vivid memories of swimming with my mom as a little girl, and she’d be wearing flotation devices.  Those were the only times that she could feel weightless and I connected to her and empathized with her then.  Here was this woman who had been unable to use her legs or walk for decades and being in the water allowed her some time when she could be free from the heaviness of her body.  I drew from that. Another ritual I did as a kid was pretend I couldn’t use my legs and I would sink down to the floor of the swimming pool.
DP: At the end of Twitch, the girl, who also has a mother with MS, restricts her legs with what looks like plastic wrap and jumps into the pool and sinks to the bottom.
LM: I was empathizing.  She wants to find out what it would be like to not to be able to use her legs.  At the last moment she kicks free and swims toward the surface.
DP: Natalia, were you told what to think while you were under water in the bathtub?  And were you to think in character?
ND: We filmed many different things in the water and there were different feelings I had doing many of them.  But I’m not sure if Leah ever told me to think of anything specific.
LM: It was long ago and I don’t remember either, except for the last time when Davina is under water in the bathtub  I asked Natalia to think of everything that had happened to Davina and then come up for air.
DP: Why did you choose the name Davina for the girl?  I thought no one had that name and you made it up, but I found a few Davinas on Google.
LM: Davina was my best friend in college so I named the character after her!  She was a little freaked out when I told her  I did that.  And she’s coming to the premiere and Natalia and Peter are going to meet her!  I also like that it’s an unusual name. Davina, divine, there’s an innocence there.
DP: Leah has said she made this film in part because there weren’t any truthful films about authentic teenagers when she was a teenager.  Are there other films like this today?
ND: I don’t think I’ve come across a movie like this before, especially not in my teenage years.  I wasn’t exposed to anything like this and think I would have liked that.
PV: If I were still Sterling’s age and watching this movie, I would die a thousand deaths because I’d be so in love with Davina and want so badly to be Sterling.  I like that it is a relationship movie that doesn’t deal with irony. Other films are ironic and cynical.  It’s such a common complaint so maybe we shouldn’t bother to complain anymore but one of the things I find refreshing about this movie is that it’s an epic, beautiful love story that is straightforward and earnest in a good way.  I like seeing movies like this.
DP: Leah, in this movie, you have a real world and a fantasy world, but what makes it risky for you as a filmmaker is that your real world has fantasy elements in it, too.  There is in fact stop-motion animation in both Davina’s fantasy and real worlds.
LM:  It is risky. I haven’t seen many other films that take that approach.  It’s hard to navigate a film that deals with both fantasy and reality and find a balance.  The way we tackled it was by making a very porous border between what’s real and not real. That speaks to they way people are in their minds.  Right now I can be focused on the reality of what’s right in front of me but I might drift off into a daydream and then fantasize about something.  There is a fluidity between the worlds that we found when making the film, especially in the editing process.
DP: Peter, were you thinking in your scenes that it was partly fantasy or were you thinking it was definitely reality?
PV: I was thinking it was definitely reality.
DP: Of course it was Davina, who when Sterling wasn’t there, had vines growing out of her mouth.
ND: Yeah, we did, filming-wise, set aside some of the more fantastical sequences for when Sterling wasn’t present.  But for the bulk of the movie we were very much in the present..
PV: I don’t know if I thought this consciously, but now I definitely think that if we had indicated anything about the fantasy during our scenes together, in our performances, it wouldn’t have worked.  It was Leah’s job to include the fantasy elements, and we had to stay grounded.
ND: We had to stay real.
Fri May 29th 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “The Making of I Believe in Unicorns”
Panel: Leah Meyerhoff (writer/director) and the Unicorns cast and crew
Sat May 30th 3:10pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Editing for Performance”
Panel: Michael Taylor (editor, Unicorns), Natalia Dyer (actress, Unicorns), Peter Vack (actor, Unicorns)
Sat May 30th 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Coming of Age”
Panel: Mary Harron (director, American Psycho), Eliza Hittman (director, It Felt Like Love), Caryn Waechter (director, The Sisterhood of Night), Natalia Dyer (actress, Unicorns)
Sun May 31st 3:10pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “DIY Techniques”
Panel: Ryan Koo (founder, No Film School), Aly Migliori (assoc producer,Unicorns), Joe Stillwater (sound, Unicorns)
Sun May 31st 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Independent Visions”
Adam Leon (director, Gimme the Loot), Deborah Kampmeier (director,Hounddog), Laurie Collyer (director, Sherrybaby), Rob Meyer (director, A Birder’s Guide to Everything)
Mon June 1st 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Stop-Motion Animation”
Panel: Signe Baumane (director, Rocks in my Pockets), Leah Shore (director,Hallway), David Bell (director, The Sacred Engine)
Tues June 2nd 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Personal Narratives”
Panel: Jonathan Caouette (director, Tarnation), Reed Morano (director,Meadowland), Ryan Piers Williams (director, X/Y), Kim Levin (director, Runoff), Petra Costa (director, Elena)
Wed June 3rd 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “The Casting Process”
Panel: Nicole Kassell (director, The Woodsman), Laurie Weltz (director, Scout), Sara Colangelo (director, Little Accidents), Anja Marquardt (director, She’s Lost Control)
Thurs June 4th 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “The Female Gaze”
Panel: Bette Gordon (director, Variety), Alison Bagnall (director, Funny Bunny), Enid Zentelis (director, Evergreen), Gail Segal (professor, NYU), Terry Lawler (executive, NYWIFT)


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