Artists can often find authentic creative inspiration in the most unexpected situations, and are subsequently shocked at how even the most harrowing event can encouragingly motivate their actions and perceptions. That powerful realization is one of the most prominent and gripping driving forces in the new thriller, ‘M.F.A.,’ which compellingly tackles the searing current issue of how victims should contend with sexual violence on school campuses.
The thought-provoking crime drama had its World Premiere in the Narrative Feature Competition of this month’s SXSW. The script, which emotionally explores how women in particular should handle being targeted as victims, was penned by first-time feature film writer, Leah McKendrick, who also starred in and produced ‘M.F.A.’ Natalia Leite directed the thriller, whose lead actress, Francesca Eastwood, solidified the strong and dynamic force of women on the movie who helped tell the important story of how victims become driven to create their own justice.
‘M.F.A.’ follows the quiet and withdrawn Noelle (Eastwood), a fine arts grad student who’s attending a university in Southern California. The introverted student is emotionally distant from her classmates, both socially and in impressing them with her artwork. Her luck seems to change, however, when one of her attractive classmates, Luke (Peter Vack), invites her to attend a party at his house. Noelle’s seeming good fortune is quickly changed, however, when he lures her upstairs and sexually assaults her.
Noelle’s attempt to cope with her trauma is stifled by the fact that she’s met with insensitivity, particularly when she tries to responsibly report the attack to a school administrator. Her own next-door neighbor, Skye (McKendrick), even tries to encourage her to move on from the incident. When the university’s rape advocacy group even fails to help her cope with the assault, Noelle decides to visit Luke’s apartment on her own. The confrontation ultimately leads to a violent altercation that culminates in the assailant’s accidental death.
In the aftermath of the accident, Noelle tries to return to normal, but is ultimately shocked to realize that she has become empowered by inadvertently taking justice into her own hands. So she begins to channel her trauma into her art, and finally begins to win praise from her classmates. When she then hears about another rape on campus, she feels courageous enough to take a stance, and becomes a vigilante. She sets out to take direct action on her own, and stand up for her fellow survivors on her own terms. As the local authorities begin to investigate Noelle’s vigilante, she finally begins to figure out who she truly is, and how to best protect not only herself, but everyone else who needs to be defended.
Leite, Eastwood, McKendrick and actor-producer Mike C. Manning generously took the time recently during the film portion of SXSW to sit down for an exclusive interview. After meting at Downtown Austin’s Driskill Hotel, the filmmakers spoke about writing, directing, starring in and producing ‘M.F.A.’
Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how McKendrick decided to pen the script for the crime drama because she wanted to create an empowering female-driven story that showcases how women can defend themselves during difficult situations. Leite, Eastwood and Manning added that were instantly drawn to the idea of bringing such a determined and strong-minded female protagonist to the screen as soon as they heard about the screenplay. The filmmakers also expressed their appreciation of having ‘M.F.A.’ premiere at SXSW, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Award, and was well received by audiences.
McKendrick began the conversation by revealing why she was inspired to pen the script for ‘M.F.A.’ The writer admitted that she “was very frustrated by seeing the same story in the media over and over again about girls being assaulted in school, and the school administration failing them. I also felt very powerless and angry, so I decided to channel that into making a film, and into searching for the right team. I searched far and wide for the right director who was going to give the story the right sensitivity it deserved. I then found Natalia.”
Then chiming in on what drew her to McKendrick’s story, Leite shared that she had “read Leah’s script, which was really great. It was engaging, and explored this social issue that I felt really passionate about. I felt as though I could put some of my own personal experiences into it, as the story felt really intimate, while also taking people on this roller coaster ride.”
Eastwood agreed with the thriller’s director that when she first read the screenwriter’s script, she felt it was “beautifully written and smart. There isn’t even one false line or moment. Every character also had a great voice. Now that I’ve worked with everyone, I still feel as though it was definitely a dream role. When I first met Natalia, I immediately told her, ‘I want to do it. Please let me!,” the actress divulged with a laugh. “We actually started shooting a week after I was cast.”
Leite agreed that “Everything came together really fast. We were shooting on a campus where, as soon as school started, it was going to become overcrowded with students.” McKendrick affirmed in that “we had to shoot over the summer.”
Manning then explained how he became involved in starring in, and producing, ‘M.F.A.’ “Leah’s a friend of mine. When I read her script, I thought it was a story I had never seen before, and was told in a very artistic way. When she then told me the team she was starting to surround herself with, I was like, ‘Please let me be a part of this.'”
While then starting to discuss how much knowledge they all had about sexual violence on campus, McKendrick noted that “I think us females had our own personal experiences with the subject matter before we started working on the film. My work in female studies made me feel as though I was the most educated feminist around.”
The writer also admitted that “I then realized how little I actually knew about the things that girls have gone through while speaking up. I didn’t know how survivors encouraged other survivors to stay silent. They did that in order to protect them, and save them the heartache of how the world would react to them, and treat them like the enemy and the one at fault.” McKendrick added that she “learned a lot through trying to write as truthful of a script as I could. I discovered the complicated emotions and aftermath that could come.”
“I’m a big researcher,” Leite then acknowledged. “I do a lot of prep work, and think about why I’m making each decision. That way, when I’m on set and everything’s rolling, I know exactly why I’m doing something, and have a specific vision for it. I’ll also know how to communicate with the actors.”
The director then further discussed what her specific research process was like for ‘M.F.A.’ “I read a lot of real cases that went to trial. I also read books, in which people told personal stories…I wanted to get as much information in my head in order to make the decisions that I did.”
The conversation then turned to what the process was like of finding the supporting actors who worked alongside Eastwood and McKendrick on screen. “We had a great casting director, Arlie Day, who helped us find Fran. She also sent us a list of people. Mike, Leah and I had long talks about who those people would be,” Leite disclosed.
Specifically, in terms of the character of Noelle, “we wanted to find someone specific, as we thought it was a challenging role. We wanted people to side with her, and see that there’s an innocence about her. But we also wanted people to have doubts about her, and also make her complex. Once we saw Fran’s work, we fell in love with it. It seemed like the perfect match” for the protagonist.
Eastwood also jumped in to further discuss the casting process, and added that “Mike was also involved in the casting process for the other roles. It was all happening so fast, we were pulling a lot of people that you guys knew personally.”
“When you pull in your friends, you don’t have to worry about their work, because you’re already pretty well-versed” on their acting, McKendrick added. “Mike had to take the lead on casting a lot of the smaller roles, and we didn’t know a lot of” the actors that ended up playing those characters.
“The nice thing though is that you always go out to actors based on the work you’ve seen, and the talent,” Manning chimed in. “You say, this person would bring a lot to this role, and would serve justice to the character. Then everyone who read the script said, ‘Yes, I want to be involved, and I’ll make it work,'” the producer also revealed.
Clifton Collins Jr., who played Kennedy in the crime drama, “had five other projects going on” at the time casting was happening for ‘M.F.A.,’ Manning also shared when he began discussing what the process was like of finding the actor who would portray the character. “But he still said, ‘Yes, I’m going to be a part of this.”
The producer added that “Everyone was so dedicated from start to finish, which is an element that I think makes this film extra special. The cast was so dedicated,” which Manning admired about his co-stars, as he then pointed out that the thriller explores a difficult subject matter for the actors to bring to the screen. “Everyone had to really trust each other” to fully explore the subjects that were presented in “Leah’s script, as well as Natalia’s vision. That trust was also needed to tell a complete story. I think we did that, and it translates” onto the screen.
“Peter Vack was also someone who Leah and I had in mind,” Leite also indicated. The writer confirmed that she first considered the actor for the role of Luke while she was penning the script. “He’s so talented, and I knew him,” the director also divulged. “I thought he would do an amazing job, and he did.
While then beginning to discuss the process of finding the locations where they would shoot ‘M.F.A.,’ McKendrick noted that “We really got hooked up by Chapman University, which is where I went to school. They supported us and gave us the campus.
“There were certain things that were written in the script that Nat wanted to be really cinematic. She’d say, ‘I want to have it in the gym!,'” the writer-producer also divulged with a laugh. “As a producer, I was dying, but as a writer, I thought it would be great to secure all of these locations.”
Eastwood then jumped in with a laugh, and asked her fellow filmmakers, “Remember in the beginning scene, we were all just laughing? There were all of these families on campus. But there were also all of these skaters who were just running as were were shooting this chase scene, guerilla style. There were also babies and dogs on campus, and you were all yelling at me, ‘Run that way!,'” a memory that also garnered a laugh. “I’d ask, ‘Are we rolling?!?'”
“We set up this remembrance for the guys who were murdered” in the story, McKendrick also shared. “So everyone who walked past were like, ‘Oh, no!’ So we’d have to tell them that it wasn’t real, and we were just making a movie,” which also drew laughs. “Everyone was also like, ‘Is that the guy from ‘Twilight?,’: the writer added, referring to the fact that actor Michael Welch, who’s known for portraying Mike Newton in the hit supernatural romance film series, was included in the vigil scene in ‘M.F.A.’ “We’d say, ‘Sorry, but we’re shooting.’
“So there was a lot of chaos, but I don’t think we could have faked a lot of those things. I think filming on real locations added so much scope. The college campus was actually an essential character in the story,” McKendrick also pointed out.
“It’s so interesting-I just remembered that while we were shooting the end scene, we were losing the light. We were literally shooting until the sun was completely down,” Leite then revealed. “I felt like it was such a hard scene. But to see the way it ultimately turned out, I was blown away by it.”
The director noted that “When you’re shooting a film like this, you have to get your shots on schedule. You have limited resources, and in our case, limited sunlight. But everything worked out like magic.” Manning agreed, and affirmed that “There were a lot of happy accidents.”
Leite then admitted that shooting a movie like ‘M.F.A.’ independently “is a challenge. But we also knew that we didn’t have time to mess around.” McKendrick agreed with the director, and conceded that “it was super ambitious for us to make this film with the number of days we had. We had stunt scenes and special effects blood.” The writer added that she gives the entire production team credit for being able to make the entire shoot possible.
“That process actually kept us in the moment and constantly living that life,” Manning then affirmed. He added that Eastwood “was ready to explore so many different elements of her character on a whim whenever we said, ‘Let’s try this.’ There wasn’t any time to sit there and think about it.”
The conversation then turned to the process of creating the stunts and special effects for the crime drama. Eastwood mentioned that there were some effects, but they were filmed on the set during principal photography. “Nothing was done in post (production); everything was done practically, but those effects take time to set up,” she explained. “It was fun for me,” the actress added with a laugh.
“I think there’s something to be said about practical effects,” Manning then chimed in. By using real effects, “people don’t have to pretend to see blood on the floor, for instance. People are really seeing that blood, and it helps the actors. I saw blood being splashed on your face,” the actor said to Eastwood. “That wasn’t something that was done in post (production).”
Leite added that she “had this image in my head of blood spilling on Francesca’s face, and then having her wipe the blood off…That was the one scene that we did have to block.”
With production on ‘M.F.A.’ now completed, the cast and crew is excited that the film had its World Premiere at SXSW. “We wanted the film to come here. We think this festival has the right audience for it, as people are excited to see it here,” Leite admitted.
Manning added that “There’s a rush to seeing people line up outside of a theater, and being excited to see our film. Then watching a theater fill up on premiere day, and then seeing people be so responsive to the film, has been amazing. People have been so positive. This is my first time at SXSW, and I couldn’t have asked for a better premiere.”
McKendrick then chimed in to reveal that “people, even other filmmakers, have been so supportive. You initially think that nobody knows your film, but then people started saying, ‘I’ve keep hearing about ‘M.F.A.,’ so I’ve been excited to see it.’ You don’t realize how huge the festival really is until you get here. It’s incredible, and we’re stoked.”