When Jillian Schlesinger had read about Laura Dekker’s plans to set sail on a 27,000-mile voyage around the world, it wouldn’t be enough for the New York-based filmmaker to document the then-13-year-old’s adventure, she had to go on one of her own first.
“I took my own solo bike trip alone across Southern Holland to go meet [Laura] and her dad for the first time as just a way to get into the spirit of the project,” recalls Schlesinger, who was just one of many who had approached the young sailor to tell her story. “We had a really instant connection and I just think it was a really exciting opportunity for each of us to pursue a deeply held dream.”
That dreamlike feeling can be felt throughout “Maidentrip,” Schlesinger’s feature debut which charts Dekker’s journey as the youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe, an achievement that raised the ire of Dutch authorities who believed that letting a teen venture out on her own was a matter of parental neglect. Being raised by a seafaring father, Dekker’s well-prepared for the open water, but less so for the challenge of growing up, a story that Schlesinger allows the mariner to tell herself, arming her with a camera and a digital recorder to capture her travels in vivid detail. Shortly before the film opens in theaters this week, the director spoke of what it’s like to make a film from afar, how her own life path was rearranged by hitting the water and why a lack of fluency in Dutch helped make the film so special.
I was really struck by the details of Laura’s personal story and the fact that her voice didn’t seem to be represented at all in the very sensational media conversation around her, so I reached out to her. I spent a couple months developing a pretty elaborate proposal that I thought would connect with a 14-year-old girl. I had not made a film before, so I wanted the proposal to give a visual and impressionistic sense of what the film would be about and what the process and style would be, so it had things like mood boards and different illustrations of various concepts and a pretty detailed personal letter about my interest in the story. The concept that I was considering for the film was this collaborative project that would allow Laura to tell her own story from her point of view in a way that hadn’t really been possible for her as this whole thing was happening with the Dutch government. She responded really quickly and said I’ve got a zillion people pitching various projects, but this actually sounds really cool.
I’m a little surprised to hear she responded almost instantly when her relationship with the media must be quite complicated given how scrutinized her decision to go it alone was. Did she really see this as an opportunity to tell her story?
It’s interesting. I think that we had a very different relationship. She would complain to me about how annoying journalists are, but this whole thing was really more about us getting to know each other and working on this project together so that it really didn’t have the same vibe for her. It was very important for me that this was something she enjoyed. The very first time I had met her, I brought a camera in my bag and instantly got the sense that she had had such traumatic experiences with people with cameras, she was just very distrustful of journalists, so I made a priority of just getting to know her as a person and showing her a level of respect and interest in her that went way beyond what we did in making the film together. Throughout the process, our friendship was really paramount or what was driving the filmmaker/subject relationship and as a result, I think the film is a lot more intimate than it would be otherwise. I didn’t make the same decisions that a lot of other filmmakers in the same position would’ve made.
Since filming on the boat yourself wasn’t an option, how did you devise how this would be shot?
That was all done in collaboration with Laura. She had a little camcorder that she was really comfortable using and loved, so she didn’t want any of the camera equipment that we had planned out for her to use. A lot of that was about being flexible and really listening and learning from her and figuring out what was most natural for her to do. She had that camera and then the voice recorder that we gave her became a really important part of documenting her more internal, emotional experience. I would give her a list of topics throughout the trip and she would just sit alone on the boat and think about these topics and have this opportunity to reflect without the pressure of an on-camera interview where you don’t really have the time to think. You have to immediately answer questions that are often really difficult, especially when you’re a teenager, about growing up and who you are. I think it was really nice for her to have that space and to be able to think about those questions, so it became something she could really enjoy and take a lot away from rather than feeling pressured to answer and have a good soundbite. She was actually able to figure out what she thought about a lot of things and share that really openly and honestly, which I completely credit to her.
When you would visit her from time to time, would you collect footage and the voice recordings so you could steer her in particular directions with the topics for the voice recordings?
The topics for the voice recordings were really independent of what she was shooting at sea. We actually didn’t have money to translate the footage that she was shooting at sea until after the whole trip was done. I learned a little bit of Dutch in the process of making the film, but we would watch the footage] all back without much understanding of what we were seeing, at least in terms of the language. The cool thing about that was the first time you were seeing anything, the things that would really stand out would be the moments that completely transcend the language. You don’t really need to be able to know what she’s saying to be very moved by the scene [when she sees] the dolphin. But the topics really just came out of observing her and getting to know her.
For 2011, I was basically going back and forth every couple months or so, spending pretty concentrated time with her when she was in port and then going back to New York and working crazy hours on freelance projects as a promo writer/producer, so I actually didn’t even have a lot of time to be working on the film. My priority was really just making sure that we had enough money to get to the next place because there’s so much pressure when you’re filming something as it’s happening and especially because I was a first-time filmmaker and I didn’t really have access to a lot of funding sources. In a way, it was nice to have that pressure, especially towards the end of the trip to start putting things on credit cards and being a little bit riskier about the financing because it was so important to document this as it was happening. This is only going to happen once. Like if I don’t get these aerial shots in South Africa, we’ll never have footage of Laura sailing her boat around the world from off the boat. It ended up paying off because in post-production, we were able to get more funding.
For that year, I met her every couple months and even at one point, totally unplanned, I sailed on another boat from the Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas and French Polynesia when she was sailing across the Pacific Ocean, so a lot of that process of meeting her was just about remaining flexible and up for any adventure. Those were things that really helped us connect personally.
Yeah, absolutely. I was really craving that. I had a staff job at Sundance Channel and everything in my life was fine, it was great. But as soon as I read Laura’s story and started working on the film, I just felt such a strong desire to live in a different way. It was very similar on a much smaller scale to Laura at 14 being like, “I’m going to do this totally different unconventional thing that a lot of people don’t really understand or approve of, but this is what I have to do to live life the way I want to live it.” That empowered me to make choices in my own life that allow me to live in a way that just felt right for me, so it was really great to go back and forth between working crazy insane hours in New York and spending three weeks on an ocean playing cards and reading. It’s really interesting to experience the world in such different ways and it was such an impulsive, quick decision I had to make to do that, but it seemed like oh my gosh, when am I ever going to be able to do this again?
Last but not least, one of the most distinctive elements of the film are the maps that chart Laura’s travels. How did that come about?
I’m so excited that you asked about that. I first got in contact with Margaux [Tsakiri-Scanatovits] and Dan [Chester] of The Moth Collective in early 2010, so even before I met Laura, I had this idea of really wanting animation to be part of the final film. At that point, I thought the animation would be an even bigger component of the film, but then as things progressed, there was so much compelling live-action material of Laura at sea and she had all of those nice childhood videos that I never anticipated having. But there were a lot of challenges with the geography and the logistics [of the trip] that were really tripping people up in the earliest rough cut stage and upon observing those distractions about the basic understanding of where she was and how that all worked, I realized the maps really had to do a lot.
The Moth Collective had been along for the whole journey and from the very beginning, they were so immersed in her character that they were able to render those maps really strongly from her point of view so that they feel like they came from her, almost like she doodled them and they came to life. They were able to seamlessly integrate all these really minute, difficult details that were messing people up and all of those initial questions that we had in early rough cuts where the animation wasn’t in the film yet completely evaporated once those were in there. It was a very, very tedious process because they look so freeform, but I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.