Review and Interview by Bears Fonte
Nietzsche said, “we have art in order not to die of the truth.” In M.F.A., our hero turns to her final art thesis to move on from her date rape, an incident everyone encourages her to not talk about. Played with assassin like precision by Francesca Eastwood, Noelle channels her rage into her work, and, unfortunately for the sexual predators on campus, her work chronicles her hunting down and killing off unpunished rapists. Natalie Leite directs the script from Leah McKendrick, a fresh approach to the rape-revenge motif that normally arrive male-gazey and exploitative. Instead, M.F.A. showcases a complicated heroine/victim/murderer who builds herself up from broken into something cold but triumphant.
In the post HUNTING GROUND world, it has become easier to take the next step in story-telling, and in the hands of Leite and McKendrick, unafraid to wear their outrage on their sleave, M.F.A. offers enough for both drama and thriller fans to absorb. The film is at its best right in the middle, as Noelle tries to ‘move on’ as everyone tells her to. Her foray into a campus support group provides the most biting commentary on how we combat rape culture. In the end, her solution, a.k.a. her thesis project, never glorifies the murders, but offers unflinching moments of uncomfortableness, just as most rape scenes have presented onscreen for years. If the past 40 years of rape-revenge cinema is a bit much to overturn in one film, M.F.A. does its best to offer a new take.
I had a chance to sit down at SXSW with director Natalie Leite, screenwriter Leah McKendrick, and actress Francesca Eastwood to discuss art and revenge.
Bears: So with the three main women behind this story in one place, let’s kind of work from beginning to end in terms of the process. What was the initial inspiration for the script? Were there news articles that jumped out at you?
McKendrick: I got so sick of seeing the same story over and over, and feeling like people cared about it for two seconds and then they were over it two seconds later. But these girls being assaulted on campuses and off, of course – and the system failing them miserably and just feeling powerless and frustrated and hurt. Feeling like I had to do something. So I decided to write a revenge thriller about murdering rapists.
Bears: And they deserve it. Did you do a lot of research? Or did you just dive in?
McKendrick: Well I minored in Women’s Studies in college so I was always very interested in sexual assaults and women’s issues in general. So I felt like I had a really large amount of knowledge to pull from. But then I didn’t realize, until I started writing it, how much I didn’t know. I really didn’t know that survivors online were encouraging other survivors to stay silent after their rapes because the trauma, the onslaught from what happens when you speak out about against a rapist – especially if they can be powerful, like popular athletes or fraternity brothers or sons of politicians, or just talented, good-looking, white—
Bears: Lacrosse players.
McKendrick: Lacrosse players, swimmers at Stanford. It’s like you’re taking on the institution. It’s really not a pleasant thing for Stanford to deal with, so it’s not in their own best interest to help you.
Bears: Did you get angry as you were writing it?
McKendrick: I had to put it down sometimes because – I don’t know if I’d get so angry as much as hurt and sad and emotional because I felt really connected to seeing a lot of it. There was nothing I could do and no film that would be strong enough to ever make a big enough difference.
Bears: Natalia, how did you get involved? What got you excited about the script?
Leite: Leah reached out to me and sent me the script. We didn’t really know each other and we didn’t have anyone in common – one producer I had worked with knew her. I read it and thought it was really exciting, a really exciting script. A fast entertaining read, but also touched on an issue I felt really passionate about. I had gone to art school. I feel like I have a specific aesthetic in how I make work. A different director would have done a totally different film and maybe take this already great script that was already so tight and also make it visually really interesting. I put a lot of my personal experience into the story in how we were shaping the character. I was just excited to tell that story.
Bears: Francesca, how do you approach a character like Noel’s, who’s so different in the first half of the film than she is in the second? How do you still let there be a strand that goes across it so it doesn’t look like you’re just doing a complete shift?
Eastwood: The script had the shift in it. Then it was after meeting with Natalia. I did a little bit of my own research then a lot of what Natalia sent me and we talked about certain character traits and themes. We just created this Noel. We met about a week before we started filming and created this human being and then got to do it in the moment. Just go through these experiences.
Bears: Were there touchstones that you picked that were like, “okay, I know she does this under this circumstance” – in terms of behavior, posture, or line that jumped out as saying, this is quintessential who she is – that you could use?
Eastwood: Absolutely. I thought it was written so specifically and intelligently, so every line to me, really said something. There was nothing that didn’t mean something – that didn’t tell the story. For me, shooting out of order, there’s a lot of physicality and sense memory work that I would do to keep me grounded throughout it. There were certain physical ticks and constraints and breathing patterns that were unique to the time of before and after. During. That I tried to stay focused on.
Bears: Did any of you ever worry at one moment that you were essentially making a film that is encouraging the audience to cheer for a serial killer? To cheer on a serial killer?
McKendrick: I never worried. It was brought up to me. There were definitely suits that would tell me . . . there was one suggestion, “do they actually have to die? Does anybody have to die? Can’t we make this point without ever killing anybody?” And I was like, “You don’t get my movie at all.”
Eastwood: We wanted them to cheer for her. That was a big thing on my mind. I wanted people to really like her and relate to her. Yes, she’s doing something terrible but it’s not about the right and wrong in this situation. It’s more complex than that. We’ve talked about this, but, between us, there are so many men that are doing terrible things in films and we’re cheering for them when they kill the bad guy. Why can’t we have that same story as a woman?
Bears: So Leah, you ended up playing Sky. Was that always a part of your plan? Did you write it specifically for you?
McKendrick: No. I wrote it to play Noel. I wrote Noel as my dream role. I was tired of playing dumb, weak characters. You know, the hot girl, or the naked girl, or whatever. I was tired of it. I wrote my dream role and out of necessity, you end up producing it as well. It became bigger than me and I needed to do everything in my power to make the film succeed. Having to wear so many hats, I decided with Natalia that we should cast somebody who could play it as well, or better, than I could. That had all the qualities, and the willingness to dive into it, the way I would have because it’s my baby, right? That’s not that easy to find. Somebody that has the skill, that has this amazing faith and talent, that is also going to be brave and just go for it. For that reason, we chose Fran and we really thought she was Noel. I decided to take Skye on, who was obviously a character I already loved. I was happy to play that with her.
Eastwood: She’s still really strong and wonderful. Wonderful character.
Bears: Was that a little extra pressure to know that Leah had written the role for herself and then you were going to take it on?
Eastwood: Well, I thought the script was so fucking good that I felt the pressure to tell the story as best as I possibly could. I’m so lucky that I had you to run to. You were like my mom at times… thank God I wasn’t trying to do anything else at the same time because it was an all-compassing thing for me. It was a very emotional couple of weeks.
Leite: I also feel like you do Skye so well too because Skye has this very happy, positive, bubbly nature about her. That came across with you so well in that role. It’s part of the collaborative process. Once you start adding more people – now there’s a director, now this – it just becomes this slightly different version than what you initially thought what it would be.
Bears: So I love to think about art as the act of self-discovery. Art played such an important part in this film. Can you talk a little bit about art’s role in the film and how the art in the film was created?
Leite: Well, it was important because I see so many films where the lead character is an artist and the art is terrible.
Bears: So true.
Leite: And she’s getting her Masters in Fine Arts, we’re playing it like a good university, she has to be a good artist. The audience has to buy it. That was one of the first things in prep that Leah and I started digging for. I ended up finding this girl in New York through some friends of friends who – her name is Christine Wu – who did the artwork for Noel. She was phenomenal. Her and I talked a lot about what the art would be. It could have gone in so many different directions. Water-colors, painting, it could have been drawing, whatever. What colors and everything. I feel like that was such a blessing, having Christine there. A lot of the sketching was maybe my hand at times, sketching stuff. And Fran had fun getting her hands dirty too.
Eastwood: I’m not an artist. Not that kind – I’m not a drawer.
Leite: But it’s also important in the transformation because in Leah’s script, the art was a very important part. Seeing the art transform, as she’s going through this journey. That was all really thought out. A process of what is it going to look like? How is it going to be different?
Eastwood: But the getting messy theme was so wonderful too. As we’re making a film that’s art and has a message, there is this character that is starting to put herself into her art.
Leite: It sets it up right away. The teacher’s like you’ve gotta get messy, fail. And her response is a perfect, nude portrait that she decides to get her hands all messy and paint it black. That was a big transformative moment for her.
M.F.A. is not a perfect film, Clifton Collins Jr. is honestly laughably terrible and has this beard that seems to do its best to undermine the timeline of the film. However, the core of the film is gripping – Eastwood turns in a starmaking performance, Leite fills every frame with tension and McKendrick delivers fresh insights into a topic that is both overworked and underexamined. There is a lot of passion in this film, and art is messy, like Noelle learns, so if M.F.A. is a little rough around the edges, it surely comes from artists exploring tough subject matter and doing their best to get that emotion on screen.
M.F.A. world premiered at SXSW.