“It’s a radical act for a woman to make a film.”
That’s what Leah Meyerhoff, director of the award-winning indie flick “I Believe in Unicorns” says. Having spent several years jumping between film school and working the festival circuit with her short film, “Twitch,” (which "Unicorns" is loosely based on), Meyerhoff is no stranger to the different ways in which men and women are allowed to navigate the industry.
While in pre-production for “Unicorns,” Meyerhoff formed the networking organization Film Fatales. What started as a series of dinner parties for women directors to share advice and experiences has grown into an organization with chapters in nearly 20 cities. In fact, several Film Fatales members will be showing their films during this month's Tribeca Film Festival.
Meyerhoff founded the organization to connect established directors making their way in the industry. But for those still starting out in their careers and hoping to be the next Kathryn Bigelow or Mira Nair, she has six key pieces of advice to cut through the red tape and get your film made.
Start out small — with a short film.
Meyerhoff says her best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers is to make a short that is “visually, thematically, or in some way related to the feature you want to make.” For “I Believe in Unicorns,” Meyerhoff cites “Twitch” as a key jumping-off point.
“Twitch” went to over 100 festivals and it was there that she was able to lay the groundwork for “Unicorns,” using the short as a calling card when applying for grants and programs, as well as tool for networking.
Be “fearless” when asking for money.
“Anytime I would meet someone else who believed in me and liked the short, I would say, ‘If you like this short film, I’m writing a feature script that’s also about a young female protagonist…please let me know if you’d like to get involved.’”
Meyerhoff took every opportunity to mention her developing feature and extend the opportunity for people to provide support.
“My first check came from a stranger that I met in the audience of the Sarasota Film Festival," she recalled. "(During the Q&A session), they always ask what you’re working on next. I said, ‘I am writing a feature script, and this is why I want it to be my first feature.’” After asking people to reach out if they wanted to be involved, one person in the audience approached Meyerhoff after the Q&A and offered to write her a check.
Build a network by talking to anyone.
“It’s a team effort," Meyerhoff said. "It takes a lot of people to invest their money in you, to invest their time in you, to really believe in you. They’re taking a risk on a first-time director, and on a woman.”
Meyerhoff says that having a short film, or a number of short films, under your belt gives you some credibility and something to show when reaching out to potential investors and collaborators (even those who may be skeptical about female filmmakers or stories about female characters).
No net is too wide to cast: Meyerhoff made connections with influencers and future crew members (including producer Heather Rae) at festivals, and Film Fatales started with a series of emails to women directors that Meyerhoff wanted to seek advice from on working with teenaged actors.
“There’s no reason to do it alone,” she noted.
Find resources and use them.
Once you have a completed short, Meyerhoff urges women directors to submit to a wide array of film festivals—even if some rejections roll in—and use all the resources (including networking opportunities) available there. The same goes for film school and other programs.
“There are a lot of lab programs geared towards first-time filmmakers and also geared towards women or people of color. I applied to as many as I could, and I wrote as many grant applications as I could.”
Meyerhoff's "Unicorns" went through the Tribeca All-Access lab, as well as the IFP Emerging Narratives and Finishing labs. Look for resources everywhere, both financial and creative, and take advantage.
Write low budget so you can do it yourself.
After meeting with a number of Hollywood studios who told Meyerhoff to come back after she made her first feature, she went back to the drawing board.
“I realized, okay, if I really want to make this feature soon, I need to make something smaller. So I rewrote it and made something that I could do with the means that I had.”
By scraping together the resources she had available, including borrowing a camera and and seeking out donated film (“Unicorns” was shot on Super 16), Meyerhoff and her team managed to make it happen without studio backing or “calling up a rich uncle.” Good news for those of us who also don’t have rich uncles.
Stop waiting and make it happen.
“Rather than waiting and waiting for someone else to write me that check or give me permission, at a certain point I just set a date and said, no matter what, we’re going to start shooting with whatever money we have in the bank.”
Meyerhoff cautions that this strategy is a stressful one, but in her case, it worked out. Be flexible with your budget, and find ways to cut down if need be. If shooting happens piecemeal, that’s fine too—having the first 30 minutes of a film to show around can help you find a way to secure funding for the next 60.
“It’ll never be that perfect thing that’s in your mind,” she pointed out, and that’s okay. Find a way to make it happen and get your story into the world.