Interview: Leah Meyerhoff, Natalia Dyer & Peter Vack on “I Believe in Unicorns”

On the trust that went into this fantastical look at a young girl's hard reality.
Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack in "I Believe in Unicorns"

There was a golden unicorn dangling from the neck of writer/director Leah Meyerhoff when I met her a day after the premiere of her first feature “I Believe in Unicorns,” a gift from her star Natalia Dyer, who wore the necklace during the production when she was in character.

“At the end of the shoot she gave it to me, and said, “Wear this to the premiere,” says Meyerhoff. “And here I am wearing it, so it’s like we’re sisters.”

Fitting in both the literal and figurative sense, it was a way for Dyer to give back what Meyerhoff gave to her in the semi-autobiographical story of a 16-year-old girl named Davina, who more than most teens craves an escape after long carrying the responsibility of taking care of her mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis. She sees an opportunity when she meets Sterling (Peter Vack), a ruggedly handsome skater to whom she confesses, “It’s like we’re magnets stuck to this earth,” yet soon enough, the two hit the road that leads them out of San Francisco and at least in Davina’s mind, another sphere where the roadside attractions are akin to those in Oz and the unicorns that once lined the dresser in her bedroom come alive.

Although reality rears its ugly head every so often as Davina and Sterling’s torrid romance takes its twists and turns, Meyerhoff invests deeply in the film’s more fantastical elements to parallel the world Davina wants to live in with the one she actually does, using a variety of movie magic such as stop-motion animation. The filmmaker’s unwavering commitment to make both realms as real as other is what separates the film from other coming-of-age stories, unmistakable in its authenticity, and while in Austin, Meyerhoff, Dyer and Vack shared stories of how a deep sense of trust allowed for a most unusual and truthful film.

Natalia Dyer in Leah Meyeroff's "I Believe in Unicorns"How did this film come about?

Leah Meyeroff: “I Believe in Unicorns” is a personal story, on many levels. I started writing it while I was at NYU and when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of films about teenage girls that I related to or really saw myself and my girlfriends reflected on screen. I knew I wanted to tell a story about a real, authentic teenage girl, and auditioned hundreds of teenage girls and met Natalia. She was in Nashville at the time, and she flew up to LA and we had a proper audition process and fell in love with her, and then met Peter who could play this bad boy character, and we took it from there.

Peter Vack: It’s so strange to think back now on that part of the process because it’s in such stark contrast to what we did on set. The world that Leah created for us as actors to play in was so safe and free and unique, and specific, it’s amazing that our first meeting was in a room, doing a traditional audition.

Natalia Dyer: It was the first time I had this feeling I really needed to be a part of this, I really want to help realize this and bring it to life, because the script is beautifully written and it was like nothing I had seen. So I really crafted this audition on tape and sent it to Leah.

LM: We Skyped together. The autobiographical component of the story is my mom actually plays the mother character in the film, so we ended up returning to my childhood in Oakland, and filming in my mom’s house. From there, another important piece of this puzzle is that beyond wanting to create a character who felt real and authentic and had this complex emotional landscape, I was also interested in portraying a kind of interior world of this teenage girl. She’s imaginative, she’s creative, and she’s an artist, and I wanted the film to be told from her perspective, so that led to a lot of aesthetic decisions, such as shooting this film entirely on 60 millimeter, Super 8, incorporating some stock motion animation components and a lot of fantastical scenes. We ended up shooting that portion of the film separately and a separate stock motion animation shoot, which took a very long time.

And you actually involved the actors in the animation – I watched the fantasy sequence where a plant grows out of Natalia’s character’s mouth and thought that must’ve taken forever.

LM: It was crazy, and I was not an animator before. Most animators will tell you that you don’t mix that motion with live action. Having an actress and animation is a very challenging thing to do because one second of screen time is over an hour in the real time, so for that scene with the vines, we buried Natalia in the ground, covered her in dirt, and the animator comes out, and he’s taking these little vines and moving them one frame at a time. Two hours into it, all of a sudden, there was a thunderstorm and we were going to lose all this work we’ve done. I was in a panic, and everyone was putting up umbrellas, and luckily we got it before the weather shifted, but it was definitely an undertaking.

ND: That was a crazy day. But it was such a privilege to work with the stop-motion, and to see it from the perspective of being an actor, because to see the increments that took so incredibly long and were really very tedious brought to life on screen so seamlessly gives you the appreciation the real artwork deserves.

LM: In collaboration with the DP, the production designer and the animation team, we wanted to create a work that felt very hand-crafted, and textured. There’s not a people mixing actors and animation, probably for a very good reason, because it is so challenging. But we really were attempting to create a world that organically felt like it could come out of the mind of this 16-year-old character.

Did you actually shoot the live-action in sequence and then realize the animation after so you could build things off one another?

LM: We did. We shot the film in stages, and the principal photography was all of the live action, and we even shot those sequences as much in chronological order as possible, so that as these characters are falling love, and the production was equally in love with them, and going on this journey. Then our pickup shoot was purely with Natalia and the animation team, then our second unit, and our third shoot was just animation and puppets, so they built this miniature set, a miniature world, and the actors weren’t there.

Since this was inspired by Leah’s personal experience, is it interesting for the actors to have that as a resource on set?

ND: Absolutely, the reason this film is so rich and authentic is that Leah was so incredibly open and giving to inform my character. She was there, talking about this very personal account, and I was really 16 at the time, so I think that really brought something too, to make this really real and complex character.

LM: We had this really beautiful collaborative process where we went out to the Bay Area a bit early, and I introduced Natalia to my mother, and we spent some time in my childhood bedroom. I told a bunch of stories from when I was 16, and Natalia told me stories of what was going on in her world at the time. We developed the character together, and I think she did a wonderful job of bringing this strength and emotion to this character. With Peter as well, we did a lot of work on back story.

PV: Yeah, we did. It was a joy. As an actor, you do as much imaginative work as you can to really create the world for yourself before you go to set, and there are often times when directors leave that all up to you, and that can be fine, but it’s a real treat when that the character is coming from the director’s experience. It’s very moving, in fact. There were moments on set where even just the truth of that was something that sparked emotion or grounded me in a moment.

You’d just look at Leah, and go, “Wow, here I am a vessel for her story”, and that charges you. That actually gives you a responsibility that as an artist is what you want. That’s what we all hope for, to be telling things that feel like they deserve to be in the world and there’s nothing that’s more deserving than a personal narrative that also has these rich, political implications.

LM: One thing we did with Peter’s character Sterling that is his character is this drifter, this punk, so we went to a local punk club [in the East Bay], which I remember from my teenage years, and spent some time with the real kids there. All the extras in the punk club scenes actually were punk kids living in their space.

PV: I remember talking to this dude, Tony, who was a little older than me at the time, but he had a kid, and he’d just gotten over drugs, and just talking to him, that’s the kind of thing that you can’t buy that kind of authenticity. It shows in the film. It’s a cool glimpse into a world that a lot of people don’t often get to see.

LM: Tony, the kid he just mentioned who was living in this punk squat, we ended up casting him as one of the friends. We ended up borrowing his jacket, we were appropriating wardrobe from these real kids, to bring the element of truth to it.

PV: That’s also very much a testament to the kind of filmmaker Leah is. What I always admire about the work she does is that faking it is not an option.

Peter Vack and Natalia Dyer in "I Believe in Unicorns"As great as it is to see a 16-year-old playing a 16-year-old dealing with real things 16-year-olds go through, the film depicts a quite volatile relationship involving sex. Was that challenging to navigate since what’s authentic about it is what makes it dangerous?

LM: This was something that was very considered ahead of time in my decision to cast a 16-year-old. It was very important to me to actually have a real 16-year-old playing this role, because in so many Hollywood movies, you see a 25-year-old pretending to be 16. I am aware of some of the controversy, or some people finding it disturbing, or too intense, or too real. The film lab, where we sent the film off to, called our producers, and [said], “These sex scenes are too raw. There’s this girl, she’s underage, is this okay?” And our producer had to go down, and go, ‘Actually, we did everything by the book, and everything’s legal.”

Those types of visceral, emotional reactions are a testament to the incredible performance that both of them gave and I think that both of them handled themselves with such maturity. We created this safe space on set, which allowed us to really explore the characters.

ND: Absolutely. [looks at LM] I definitely appreciated you trusting me as a 16-year-old with my first real opportunity to be a big part of a film, and I will say that the safe space that was created on set was really the key to the performances that we gave. We had closed sets. There was a lot of sensitivity from everybody, but really, it just allowed for Peter and I to explore these characters in the most raw, vulnerable, authentic way that we could.

LM: Teenagers like this were my experience, and it’s coming from a place of truth, which is what I think keeps it away from being exploitative. Instead, it’s authentic. Being a teenager’s confusing, and your first relationship, you don’t know how to navigate it yet. Having Natalia actually be at that age, and grappling with these issues herself, and me, at that age, grappling with those, I think we both brought our honest hearts to the projects, and I think it comes through.

PV: There might be some people that feel uncomfortable with it, but teenagers need that. This is actually a gift to teenage girls and boys because they’re going to see their story reflected to them and it’s going to make them feel many things, but among them, understood. That’s the gift of the movie.

LM: I will be personally gratified if teenage girls and boys watching this film see something of themselves reflected on the screen, and say, “I’m going through these types of messy, confusing, overwhelming relationships, and feel a little bit less alone. That was part of the motivation for me writing this story was to create a film that I wish I could have seen when I was a teenage girl, and I think we’ve really achieved that.

“I Believe in Unicorns” will open in New York on May 29th, San Francisco on June 12th and Los Angeles on June 19th. It will also be available on demand and on Vimeo on Demand on June 1st.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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