Believing in Unicorns with Director Leah Meyerhoff
“What you really want a film to do is make emotional sense.” I Believe in Unicorns star Peter Vack pretty concisely summed up what the film’s director Leah Meyerhoff so seamlessly executed with this latest film. Wonderful on many levels, the most outstanding, most stand-out thing about Unicorns is its relatability, its honesty, its bravery; basically, its emotional accuracy.
Peter Vack and Natalia Dyer in Uniorns
Inspiring not just for her talent, Meyerhoff is also paving the way for the future of females working in film by creating interesting, provocative roles for women. The director is opening up female (and male) audiences to realistic portrayals of people and characters whose emotional lives may be too complex for your run-of-the-mill scripts or beat-by-beat story structure. Her work transcends for a reason—it aims to elevate, and she does this like a magician, incorporating whimsy to demonstrate the natural imagination often suppressed by the too-trained adult mind.
The film itself is the story of a young girl (played by newcomer Natalia Dyer) as she battles this suppression and gives into the imagination which propels her as she struggles with growing up. She falls in love with an older boy (played by the wonderful Peter Vack) who seems to be heading in the opposite direction, desperate for an eternal childhood. The two characters run away and end up on a sort of road-to-nowhere journey, searching for themselves and coming up often empty-handed; never reaching anywhere because one character wants to go toward adulthood while the older character just wants to go back. It’s a dead end that inevitably leads you directly to self-discovery and Meyerhoff illustrates this with zest and charm.
At this year’s SXSW, The WILD sat down with the director to discuss the emotional honesty found in the realistic portrayal of a young relationship, as well as the female status both on and off-screen.
What is your background as a director?
I have a visual arts background–I guess that’s the most concise answer. I grew up in the Bay area, went to Berkley High School, went to Brown for college. I took a few film classes at RISD and went to the art institute of Chicago. So, I was in the art school of visual art world as a photographer and sculptor and so forth and started an art gallery. And then I realized that the art world is very insular and felt very much like I was just preaching to the converted. You can be in your little studio making your own art but I didn’t feel like I was really connecting with a wider audience. And so, I made a decision to switch to NYU for Grad school, for film school—because I think film has this distribution model in place that if you kind of play along with it properly, your work can actually be seen by all kinds of people.
One of the main reasons that I wanted to become a filmmaker, and one of the main reasons that I wanted to make this film in particular, is that growing up I didn’t see that many characters on screen that I connected with, female characters that I really related to. I think I wanted to tell stories about women and particularly about young girls that feel real and different and kind of alternative. I don’t want to say role models because it’s a strange word but I think it’s great that there’s Twilight and Hunger Games. I think there is a resurgence of films about teenage girls but not nearly enough and I think it’s super important.
I wrote a script for a film once in which the protagonist was a female, but I changed the character to a male because I felt that it wouldn’t be as relatable with a female lead. I felt that you couldn’t tell that story through a female’s eyes because it would automatically seem too cliché—which is so wrong actually and I never made that film but it stuck with me as a story.
It’s amazing how many—in the genesis of making this film—how many people said, “You’re going to have an easier time getting this film made if you change it to a male.” For whatever reason and I was like, “No, that’s not my interest. I want to tell this girl’s story.” And it’s a girl and a boy’s story; it’s a love story. But I wanted to tell a story from this female perspective.
Director Leah Meyerhoff
It’s funny that in order to make it a universal perspective, you have to make it a love story for the woman. But if it were for a man, you wouldn’t have to add that.
Not at all…I could go on and on and get super political, but it feels like, “Okay, I’m just this one film doing my own little part and trying to just add to the conversation of the cultural landscape.” Just, “Here’s a film about a girl that maybe some other teenage girls out there are going to relate to.” The type of film that, when I was sixteen, I would have loved to have seen. There are films out there like that but there can definitely be more.
The borderline violence in the sex scenes were interesting to me because clearly that violence is a result of someone young who doesn’t really know who they are—they kind of get tumultuous within themselves and they don’t know how to express that so they express is violently, romantically.
Because you’re so young and don’t know better or you just throw yourself out there and get in over your head.
Peter Vack and Natalia Dyer in Unicorns
And you don’t know how to express that except for sexually or physically—
Physically often—in my specific upbringing. This film has a large autobiographical strain and the mom character is my mom in real life. My mom was diagnosed with MS right before I was born and has been in a wheelchair my whole life and since I was seven years old. I was taking care of her and I had a father around too, but I just grew up so quickly. I never really had my own childhood and took on this responsibility that I think, on a certain level, I just wanted to be a kid again. So when I was 13, 14, 15, I got into relationships with older men—often unhealthy relationships hoping that maybe one of them would maybe be a father figure or mother figure—just wanting to be rescued and often that became a way of relating to men via sexuality.
I think it’s universal. A lot of girls, their first experiences or their second or third experiences are…you know, you get in over your head. You’re figuring out who you are and you’re trying on all these different personas and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I think, in making this film, it was equally important for me to cast an actual 16 year old to play the lead. So, the lead Natalia Dyer was 16, she was in high school when we were filming and I think, again, that’s rare in Hollywood. For many reasons: it is logistically harder to shoot, especially sex scenes and so forth, when you have a minor. But you know, teenagers are having sex at that age, teenagers are running around behind their parents’ back and getting into trouble and going on adventures and I think it’s important to make films that explore that.
Can I ask you your WILD Wish?
This has been such a wonderful process in making this film and getting here and being at this festival (SXSW), that going forward—I just wish that this film continues on this magical journey and as it’s traveling the world, finds those girls and boys who it’s going to speak to in the same way that it feels it’s speaking to you and me. I just want it to spread. That’s my wish.