THE SHORT TAKE: Interview w/ writer/director Leah Yananton
writer/director Leah Yananton
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THE SHORT TAKE: Interview w/ writer/director Leah Yananton

With her first feature film, Surviving Me, just screening at this year’s Hollywood Film Festival, I spoke with writer/director Leah Yananton about her latest project.

 

How how did the journey of this film come about? How did you get the to be the director of the film, and not just the writer?

 

Leah – I wrote the script coming right out of college, and during my undergraduate time, I went to school at Columbia University, I worked in film production as my job, so I worked as I did undergrad. In fact, I started working in film before I started college. I got an internship on Spike Lee’s movie Bamboozled, in the camera department, under DP Ellen Kuras. Then I got on another film after that, and then I went to Columbia University for four years, knowing that I wanted to be a filmmaker, but also wanting to study other things. Going to school in New York was very intense, and 9/11 happened while I was a sophomore, and then the whole world changed. So for the next few years, the air outside smelled like char and death. I felt like all of my peers were going through an existential crisis. I mean, the whole city and whole world was.

 

Then I had saw other sides of people that I was not aware of before, and I was also a young woman working in the camera department. I love my mentor Mark Benjamin, he’s been like a surrogate to me. But other film sets that I worked on, there was a lot of sexual harassment, and sexual assault at times, and I just saw this acute side to certain people, like married men who would hit on me, and show me pictures of their wife and kids. Then it was like…meet me in my trailer! I was like what is going on? But I am glad that there are more women in film work now, and there is now a dialogue about how hostile of an environment the film industry has been towards women. Maybe that’s just a side note, but that’s sort of what inspired writing a story, in this case Surviving Me, about a girl trying to find her footing, and her boundaries, in this very confusing environment, and finding herself in this sort of adult world. She has an idea of what the adult world is, but her idea of what it is is still based on her childish, twenty year old view. So she’s unprepared.

 

So I had made a short film when I was an undergrad, a documentary about home universities, and that was called Manhattanville. And after I had graduated, I had received grants from the New York Foundation of Art, and then I had then made a half hour documentary, and then from there I did a couple of experimental short films that played at LA Shorts Fest, and other festivals. So I made some short films, and I had this script, and I had a lot of production experience, and then I also had my mentors, and then after a few years, I had financing for the script.

 

Now from a writer’s standpoint, what made it to where poetry was something that played heavily in the story of this film?

 

Leah – It was inherent in Sophie’s character. I think for me as a writer, I was a creative-writing major in undergrad, and I was taking a medieval poetry class when 9/11 happened. And with the existential crisis I mentioned, in my junior year, the Iraq War was declared, and everybody was just like – this doesn’t make sense. And we were reading all of this medieval poetry, and when we read Dante’s Inferno, I found that this tale’s politics of human behavior and morality, we were experiencing that. Being in political hypocrisy, and then what is your personal role in the midst of the world, and the world in chaos? So I found a lot of comfort in the medieval poetry, and I found that there was a dialogue between those authors, and the reader. So I felt this whole time-travel thing that was happening, and it was kind of transcendental, you really can hear these author’s voices from hundreds of years ago, when you read their work. With Sophie’s story, and with my experience when writing the script, as sort of being this reflective, creative journey for myself, I felt like the seeds for the idea of this story was when I felt that I had crossed the River Styx. When I was in a social scene…a social environment in college, when I felt that I was in over my head. Then looking at the structure of Dante’s Inferno, and the nine circles of Hell, and have Sophie’s journey mirror these nine circles, for her own personal experience. So I just had fun with it, and also I’m a huge fan of William Blake, and he illustrated Dante’s Inferno, so those are the illustrations in the opening credits. All of them throughout the movie are by William Blake.

 

What do you want for audiences to take from your film?

 

Leah – That it’s okay to make mistakes. I think that growing up is really difficult, and finding yourself is very difficult. I would say that the growing pains are worth it, and if you can face yourself, and get through the hell-fires of maybe your bad decisions, that when come out on the other side, you’re definitely better for it. That’s part of growing up. I really wish that somebody told me for myself, that it’s going to be really hard growing up. Nevermind just making a feature film. My twenties were hell. And if I can share that message of – Hey, I know what you’re going through too. It’s not always pretty, but it gets better.

 

Now that you have directed a feature, what do you feel like you’ve learned the most, when making this film?

 

LEAH – I learned everything. I really did. I learned how important it is to have a producer, for which I didn’t have all of the time, and ended up having to learn to produce it as well. So, I think as a director, I would say let the importance of working with a good producer, is probably my main lesson for my next film. I want to make sure I have a producer who’s able to stay with me throughout the entire run. But as a director too, I learned from working with the camera, to working with the actors. We ended up having a crew of about forty, so it was a huge crew. Also, getting ready for seeing your movie, and the dailies for the first time, and seeing what it actually looks like. And seeing where our camera moves are, and where to cut. Working on the edit was really wonderful and awesome, I love editing. Just watching the story emerge, I feel like I’ve had a very rich experience of story directing, and storytelling.

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