When director Natalia Leite (“Bare”), writer/actress Leah McKendrick (“Bad Moms”) and leading lady Francesca Eastwood joined forces to bring the ‘M.F.A.’ to the masses, they had no idea of the incredible bond they would form during the process. The hauntingly powerful film, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Award at the 2017 SXSW festival, tells a gripping story of a young woman forced to take action to protect herself in “perhaps the bravest, rawest rape-revenge thriller yet” (No Film School). Noelle (Francesca Eastwood, “Final Girl,” “Outlaws” and “Angels”), an art student struggling to find her voice, is sexually assaulted by a fellow classmate. Attempting to cope with the trauma, she impulsively confronts her attacker, leading to a violent altercation culminating in his accidental death. Noelle tries to return to normalcy, but when she discovers she is only one of many silenced sexual assault survivors on campus, she takes justice into her own hands. A vigilante is born – retribution is the inspiration she needs. Directed by Natalia Leite from a debut screenplay by actress Leah McKendrick. McKendrick also co-stars in the film along with Clifton Collins Jr. (“Westworld,” “Knight of Cups”).
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught with the inspiring women responsible for the success of this powerful film — Natalia Leite, Leah McKendrick and Francesca Eastwood. In the interview, they discuss their passion for the film, the challenges they faced in bringing it from script to screen and the lessons learned along the way.
It’s great to have you all here today. Tell us about what sparked the initial idea for this film and what made it a story you all wanted to tell.
Leah McKendrick: It started from me feeling very frustrated by the things I was seeing in the media. There were stories on constant repeat about girls being assaulted on and off college campuses who the system had failed. I was feeling frustrated, hurt and angry, so I started writing this script. Eventually, I got it to a place where it wasn’t so dark because it had been very dark originally. I tried to infuse some humor and levity into it along the way. It wasn’t long before I was on the hunt for the perfect director. I knew in my mind that I needed someone who loved it and had a connection to it. To be honest, that’s not that hard to find as most women have experienced something and would feel a connection to a story like this, so that wasn’t even the hard part. For me, the hardest part was finding a director who understands it and knew what to do with it. I’m not a writer that wants to direct. I’m a writer that loves directors and I want a director to make it their own. That’s the most important thing to me; that it’s someone who is going to share your baby. Natalia was that person! I had seen her work and I had felt that she had a very intimate connection in film. I also felt that she could be the perfect addition and the perfect person to helm the ship. That’s when she came onboard.
Natalia Leite: The script came my way and Leah reached out to me. I read it and really loved the script. Honestly, I just felt that I had to make this movie. I was really drawn to the concept and thought the writing was really strong. We had some conversations where I told her what I would do. I felt that we were a really good match and the film would be a good way to talk about a social issue that I care a lot about in a way that is so accessible to people and can be entertaining while still opening up a bigger conversation.
What went into finding the right mix of actors to bring these characters to life on screen?
Natalia Leite: In terms of casting, we had to cast very fast because we had access to Chapman University and we had to try to shoot it before school started. We hit the ground running as soon as I signed onboard. Francesca Eastwood’s work came my way through our casting director, Arlie Day. Arlie sent over some materials and I loved Fran’s work, so we met for lunch and talked about what I was going to do with the film tonally and what she would bring to it. We wanted to make sure we were on the same page and that we were gelling together. It was perfect! Once we found her, no one else could have fit the role! Peter Vack is someone who I’m friends with and Leah had also thought of him for that part, so he came on. A lot it came from reaching out to people we had some connection to and thought could be good for the part. Clifton [Collins] came onboard somewhat last minute but was fantastic in the role!
You all came together to make this film and you all saw it from different angles given your role in the production. What was the biggest challenge you faced on the project?
Francesca Eastwood: I think the biggest challenge for me was the subject matter and the timing. While it wasn’t something I had initially thought of when I read the script but my mom said to me, “Wow. You really go through a lot physically in this film.” It was a very physically demanding role in terms of running around, long shoot days and shooting every day relatively quickly. That was a challenge but it’s also part of why this project is so awesome! The challenges were all good things! It was just as emotionally challenging as it was physically challenging. It was an extremely rewarding project to be a part of.
Natalia Leite: For me, it was a lot about tone. Like Francesca said, it’s a very sensitive subject matter and a controversial film. Finding the right balance between making it feel very realistic, yet not having it be a sad story all the way through was a challenge. It came down to making good informed decisions on how we would talk about this issue while still having moments of being entertaining and thrilling.
Leah McKendrick: I think the hardest thing for me was getting over the idea of the script being your baby. It’s just one thing and it’s going to change. A lot of things may end up on the cutting room floor and you have to get over the initial vision you had when it was just you and no one else involved!
Natalia Leite: Yeah, that was a difficult thing for me as well.
Francesca Eastwood: Yeah, as an actor reading it, that was hard for me too.
Leah McKendrick: I think, as an actor, when you pick up a script and are reading it, you become attached to the vision you have in your head. Maybe that comes from being an actor; becoming very attached to the journey that the characters go on. If one character gets cut out or whatever, your vision starts to feel incomplete. I think the strongest writer is the writer who can get over that. My mentor, Shintaro Shimosawa, who is also a producer on this film, is a writer. He is so un-precious about his work. He is always all about the best idea. I think while you can think you just want the best idea, I think you can be emotionally stunted by the fact that you’ve only been seeing what you have in your head and can be cutting yourself off from greater possibilities. Sometimes you’re just not seeing straight and you just want what is in your head. Getting over that and realizing that what can be created is better than what was in your head or on the script is definitely a lesson I’ve learned. It took me two years to write my script. There are points where it is just you alone in the coffee shop with your vision and you have to fight for it. Every step of the way you are fighting for that vision, so as it gets dismantled it can be heartbreaking. With that said, I’m very proud of our film and how it changed because of Nat and Franny, the producers, performers and creators on the film. I’m really proud of the end product!
It’s cool to see you all working together in this capacity and creating such an awesome film as the end product. What did you bring out in each other creatively?
Leah McKendrick: Building off of what I just said, I would say that Nat forces me to see my work in a completely different way. An example is that, as a writer, I use a lot of my real-life experiences. The scene where Fran’s character, Noel, is being peer-critiqued was different initially. In the original script, it was a conversation she was having with her professor and her professor is saying, “This isn’t good enough.” Nat came in and said, “I went to art school and a big part of art school is being critiqued by not only your professor but your peers.” I thought, “Oh my god! I love that!” I would’ve never thought of that because it wasn’t something that occurred in my real life. I went to school for acting and there is also peer-critique but, in my mind, I was remembering these moments where professors would pull me aside and say, “This isn’t good enough.” So, to answer your question, I think that Nat brings this whole world of experience to my work. I love the sense of judgement that it brings to Noelle’s early life in the film. She feels so naked initially. I really love that Nat is always forcing me to come up with the weirder, more unique, intimate and vulnerable version. Another great example is with the pool. Initially, after she went through her trauma, she ran and got in the shower because that is where I go when I feel very alone and very vulnerable and I need to feel more in touch with myself. Nat said, “I want her to do something weirder, more unique and more off because she is feeling off.” So, we had her walk into the swimming pool. That’s some of my favorite footage in the film. I think that another director might have just taken my script and made it the way it’s written, where I think Nat has challenged me to get a little weirder. With Franny, I think you are right in that we just trusted her and you ran with it but I love that! When I watch the film, sometimes she looks like a little girl to me, especially the scenes with my own character, Skye. I feel like we look like little girls and that is something we bring out in each other but, at the same time, there are times where we are vicious to each other, crying, upset and angry. I feel, as an actress, I’m able to both love and hate her at times in the film. In real love, I have the most love for you! I think we played it really well from both sides and it’s something that comes across really well. I think that is why people say to me so often that we work well together in the movie because it’s so sad, loving and all of these things. I think that is because we have that chemistry in real life?
Natalia Leite: I would add to what Leah said about pushing her to a certain place, I feel that you also did the same for me. I have a tendency to linger in these moments and I’m sure from an outsider’s point of view, I seem like a pretentious artist to sit in this scene for so long! [laughs] Leah would be like, “No, no. We’ve got to move. We’ve got to get to the point. We don’t just need to sit here. We get that she’s in pain.” I think that gave it more of a commercial appeal and made it a little more hard-hitting and faster, which was really good. It was such an amazing collaboration between the three of us because we are all strong women with strong ideas and all felt very invested in this story and film. There were times where we had to hash it out. I might think something should be one way in a scene but someone else felt it should go another. We would have to figure it out. For me, as a director, I’m also like, “OK, if you feel really strongly about it being this way that I didn’t really envision, convince me.” I’m always open to hearing someone else’s opinion about something, especially when it’s not my writing and ultimately Fran is the one who is living the character. It was a really awesome collaboration in that way.
You are inspiring females. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey as artists?
Natalia Leite: Thank you for calling us inspiring females! [laughs] I love that! Thank you! I almost dropped the phone. [laughs] This film had a small, small budget and we really had to be a team and work together to make it happen. We had to really trust each other. Starting out, we didn’t even know each other when she sent me the script. Since making the film, we have all become friends, which is awesome! I think the lesson is that we all need to do it together!
Francesca Eastwood: I would say the most important lesson is to take risks, to do the things you believe in and also the things that you’re afraid of. If you believe in it and your heart’s in the right place, it’s a pretty good feeling getting to share that.
Leah McKendrick: If somebody would look at my career, I would hope it would inspire more women to take things into their own hands. No matter if they want to be directors, writers or actors, they shouldn’t be afraid to create their own work. You don’t need to wait for the industry to give you permission. As many leaps forward as we are making as female filmmakers, there is still so much work to do. I think you’re in trouble if you’re waiting for permission. For a long time, I felt so frustrated by the industry while trying to get work as an actress. That’s when I started making my own work. I’m glad that I did because not only can I make my own roles but I can make work that I believe in and speaks to the sort of issues in the world I feel need to be spoken on. I hope more women will do that!
That’s an awesome way to look at things! Thank you all for your time today! We can’t wait to see what you all have in store for us in the years to come and wish you continued success!
Dark Sky Films’ will release the haunting thriller,’M.F.A.’, in theaters, VOD and HD Digital October 13, 2017.