First Run Features releases Maidentrip at IFC Center on January 17th, 2014.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you feel like we're in a Golden Age of Documentaries?
Jillian Schlesinger: Yes. I think a lot of more exciting and daring things are happening in the documentary form. There's a lot more overlap and stylistic comparisons that can be made between narrative films and documentaries. The blurring of those lines is what I find most interesting personally. I think it's becoming more of an art form than just a journalistic medium.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Are more people comfortable in front of the camera today compared to a decade or two ago?
JS: The smaller size of cameras now definitely make it less intimidating. I heard somebody say during Cinema Eye Honors that the personality of the cinematographer is so important to that. The subject's comfort is so much more dependant on that and what kind of camera the person is actually holding. A cinematographer with the right personality could be holding a giant, 1960's camera and make somebody feel at ease.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What drew you to making Maidentrip?
JS: Part of what drew me to this story was how narrative it felt and how much potential it had to be told in that style, so it was a very concious decision from the beginning to the story in that way, particularly because I knew that I wanted to tell a very subjective story from Laura's point of view. While there are some documenatry references for that, I found a lot more in the narrative form where people are narrating their own story and then you're also seeing it unfold at the same time. Typically, there are more points of view explored in a documentary, but that was not something that I wanted to do. This is my first film, but I was so sure that I only wanted to tell it from Laura's perspective. She's the storyteller, and she's telling you a really subjective story of her life. I thought that introducing any other points of view would take away from that overall spirit. I love working with a very strong editor, Penelope Falk. In the beginning, when she had screened all of the footage, she very firmly told me, "You're going to have to go back and interview the parents. No one will be able to watch this and not wonder what the parents say." I was like, "Well....let's try." We had a 30-minute cut the first time we showed it to outside people, and the best thing that happened in that happened during that screening was that nobody wanted to hear from the parents. They found Laura to be interesting. The only way this film would work is if it has a character who could carry it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you decide not to include yourself on camera in your first movie?
JS: I had the strong idea from the very beginning that I wanted to tell Laura's story. I'm really happy not getting a lot of attention, so I actually think it's great. There are obviously certain documentary filmmakers who really love attention. The film is designed to feel like a whole movie is made by Laura; it's actually made by filmmakers with Laura's collaboration which makes a huge difference. I actually love it when other filmmakers see it, they see something in it that an audience member wouldn't necessarily see. I love it when people not from the filmmaking industry come up to me after seeing it and ask,"But what did you do??" That's the ultimate success in my mind: they didn't feel the filmmaking. Even things like the animation which we slaved over. They're so precise down to the frame and all of the information and what information is put when and the day numbers. All of that is super-strategic. The fact that people experience that in such a seamless way and it's kind of eminating from Laura's brain is so cool.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you establish boundaries in your relationship with Laura?
JS: Partially, I just wanted to get to know Laura as a person and as a collaborator, so it was a very different dynamic from a typical person interviewing her to ask her questions. I saw very early on that not only was she very independent, but also that she had such a unique and unexpected skill with the camera. So, a lot of it was just remaining open and flexible to things and remaining respectful to her not just as a person doing an incredible thing, but also as a filmmaker. In that situation, you have to put a lot of trust in the subject. Instead of trying to control her in any way, I went the polar opposite direction which was to give Laura no instruction, no prodding. I never told her what to film or when to film. She figured all of that on her own, and as a result I think her relationship with the camera remained very pure throughout. The sort of friendship that she had with the camera evolved a lot throughout the film. If I had tried to interfere in that process at all, it would not have been such a cool, beautiful relationship, so I feel good about that decision. If we were on land and we were filming, Laura did not really enjoy having the camera around, so a lot of the time, especially when the cinematographer wasn't there, we would go on adventures together and exploring. On most of the trips, when it was just me and her, the things we were doing as friends and creative collaborators in many ways took precedent over anything else. That definitely gives the film a feeling of home movies instead of personal interviews. Laura does not like to be interviewed. Even as close as we were, when we would sit and there was a camera pointed at her, everything changed---even if I was being conversational. It felt stilted and she shut down. From the beginning, I had given her this recorder and I'd give her topics while she was at sea and on land. Sometimes she would talk about other things, sometimes she would talk about the topic that she wanted to talk about, but I was very clear at every stage about the things that I was really interested in hearing from her reflect on. That, I think, was a much more comfortable way for her to sit on her own, not be time-pressured and to get her thoughts out without any outside influences.
NYC MOVIE GURU: At what point in your life did you know that filmmaking was meant for you?
JS: I think it was the first job that I was aware of. I used to watch The Oscars with my mom. The only movies that I wasn't allowed to watch as a kid were super-violent or horror movies, but otherwise my parents just took me to everything. When I was 8, Philadelphia was my favorite movie. I saw The Piano when I was very young and knew that a woman had directed it. I thought, "Oh, I could do that job! I want to make a movie like that!" So, I either wanted to be like Jane Campion or Anna Paquin. That was an early impulse. It was until I was 25 and read this article about Laura and I thought, "Here's this 13-year-old fighting a government to do the thing that she most loves to do---not just fighting a government, but fighting negative press attention too." I thought that life is just too short to throw out the thing that you want to do, so I did it. It took a long time to know what I wanted to do and actually gathering the guts to do it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you think the relationship with Laura's parents impacted her life?
JS: Laura obviously had a very complicated upbringing. I think that definitely having such a supportive father helps. He's really been there a lot for her in every way at every stage. Her mom has been a bigger and bigger influence as she's gotten older, and now they have such a great relationship and are spending more time together. In a way, both of her parents have had an influence on her, but, in reality, all of our parents have complicated our lives. We are all the product of some sort of complicated situation.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What would you say to a parent who asks his or her child "Why can't you be just like everyone else?"?
JS: That's a really terrible thing to say to your kid. I hope I never have to say that to mine. There's nothing better than being unlike everyone else. As a society, we should support kids to do any number of exciting and daring things.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that public school encourages individuality enough?
JS: I went to public high school in Santa Cruz. There were a lot of interesting and individual characters there. There was something for everyone--a club or an interest group. There was somewhere to fit in. There wasn't a conformist culture in my high school, so it's hard for me to know what's true elsewhere. I think it's becoming more and more acceptable to be different.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you imagine a sequel to Maidentrip?
JS: Laura and I are both very happy that there will be no follow up to this film. I love her dearly and I prefer to have her as a lifelong friend than continue to have her as a film subject.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you discipline yourself as a filmmaker to cut the running time down to just 82 minutes?
JS: I like to tell stories very efficiently, and a lot of people who know me find that very funny because when I talk I can't do that. I ramble on and on forever and go off on tangents, but whenever I have control or I'm constructing a story, I look at it and say, "How do we bring it down to its most essential parts? Do we need this or is it communicated by that?" That's how I approach it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would Maidentrip work in 3D?
JS: That would be awesome. It would have been fun to play with. Obviously, it would never have been projected in 3D. In my fantasy of the film, it would be completely re-created in 3D. I'm fine with it exactly as it is.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would something be lost if it were watched on the small screen?
JS: That's something that most filmmakers worry about. Probably there was a time when I was like, "Oh, I really want this to be seen on the big screen!" But because we've had so many people watch it on the small screen now, people essentially have the same reaction. As a filmmaker, it's obviously most exciting to experience your film in a big theater with a bunch of people and they're all laughing together. Embracing the way that media consumption is moving is a really important thing. If your film doesn't hold up on the small screen, then you gotta get with the times. There are some films for which that's really not true, but I think that if your emphasis is on narrative, then narrative holds up on the small screen.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What documentary film do you think would pair well with Maidentrip?
JS: Slomo, a documentary short film by Joshua Izenberg about an old man who gives up everything to roller skate in slow motion on the boardward in San Diego. It's a totally different character, but the spirit of it is so similar to Laura's trip when embarking on her journey. I would really like that to play before Maidentrip. I know that it will happen some day---I'd really like to meet the person who made Slomo because I think it's a fantastic film and I'm glad that it's been on the festival circuit the same year as Maidentrip.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What narrative films would pair well?
JS: Sophie Coppola's Somewhere and Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are.
NYC MOVIE GURU: If Maidentrip were to turn into a Hollywood film, which female actors do you imagine in the role of Laura?
JS: Saoirse Ronan, but she's too old now. A few years ago, Jennifer Lawrence could have played her.