Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale have got to see Level 16. Danishka Esterhazy’s chilling tale of feminist dystopia is a timely fable. The film takes audiences into a not-so-distant future where the current class of girls at Vestalis Academy are being primped and ready for graduation. Like Elisabeth Moss’s Offred in Handmaid’s, Vivien (played by Katie Douglas in a breakthrough performance) sees through the artifice of her coolly calculated world. Vivien and her friend Sophia (Celina Martin) try to open the eyes of their fellow classmates who are under the control of Vestalis’s tight regimen of etiquette lessons and beautification, led by the deceptive Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge) and the immaculately coiffed and composed headmistress, Miss Brixil (Sara Canning).
The film, Esterhazy’s sixth feature as a director, is her best yet after a diverse body of work that ranges from the Hansel and Gretel re-imagining H&G (2013) and the historical drama/love triangle Black Field (2009), just to name a few. Level 16’s effective parable about body image and the commodification of women is an especially relevant film for audiences demanding more stories by and about women. The director’s exercise in building the distinct world of the film, something both alien and familiar, should satisfy genre fans, while viewers in the Canadian scene will especially like seeing the new generation of talent it ushers in along with the strong female-forward ensemble cast that includes scene-stealing work by Canning and a completely unexpected cameo by Sheila McCarthy that’ll take audiences for a loop. It’s a tale of survival and female friendship that would make Margaret Atwood grin.
That Shelf recently caught up with Esterhazy via Skype from South Africa where she was on location shooting a TV project for Space. We geeked out about sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies, and talked about the challenges and pleasures of building a world from scratch, the conversation around #MeToo that will inevitably add to the film’s impact, and the journey of bringing to the screen a film over a decade in the making.
Can you tell me about the location where you shot Level 16? How did you shape it?
I wanted a real location and not a studio, so it would feel like a repurposed building that had some history because it’s a black market facility. I didn’t want it to look like a science fiction film where everything’s beautiful and clean and overdesigned. It had to feel very real and gritty.
We looked at a lot of locations and we really lucked out because the City of Toronto had a decommissioned police station that had been built in the 1930s. It had been out of commission for about five years. They gave us the run of the building, so we could do whatever we wanted to paint, dress, construct, and shoot in the cells.
The film does such a great job of world building – how do you create that sci-fi atmosphere where things seem alien and rooted in reality when you’re on a limited budget?
It’s challenging, for sure, but that’s the most exciting thing about doing science fiction: the world building. As a fan, I really love seeing a film where you feel you’ve entered a fully realized world. As a kid, I watched a lot of sci-fi and then wrote up the sequel stories in my head because those worlds felt so real. I wanted to invest that much in creating Vestalis. I spent a lot of time writing backstories and timelines, like where did Miro and Brixil meet? When did they start the facility? Who were their partners? How many years [classes] of girls had been in this school? I had a big background document that I was able to share with the group to get them going. We all knew this detailed history about the world of the film.
Did Level 16 build off you’d seen before? You mentioned that you did the exercises with imagining sequels.
No, it didn’t build on other films. I had inspirations–visual and thematic inspirations. I actually drew a lot of inspiration from Jane Eyre, the Charlotte Brontë novel, because I always loved the setting of Lowood, the orphanage for young girls, and how very dire that situation was for them. That was a touch point for Level 16. There are subtle elements of Victoriana in the story, but then also my deep love of science fiction and dystopian fiction, like Logan’s Run, which was wild 70s’ dystopia. I loved that contained world of the domed city and the weird set of rules, like the colored clothing they wore to symbolize their age or the life clocks in their palms. Those two inspirations fuelled my research and my brainstorming.
You’ve done period films before—is it more difficult to make something in the past or the future?
I think the future is harder because you have to invent so much information that doesn’t exist. My degree is in history, so I find historical research comes more easily because the information is available. It just takes time to learn about the period and to do the proper research to get the kind of real details about that period. Research also helps enter the mindset of people from a different period. That takes a lot of imaginative work because our views of the world transform through time. We’re not the same from decade to decade or from century to century. They both take a lot of time, but, creatively, I think it’s more taxing to make a new world than it is to research an old one.
Vivien and Sophia have such a strong relationship. What were your high school years like? I’m just curious because the story have easily had a high school setting. I guess, in a way, it does!
I absolutely drew on my own high school experiences because, as a 16-year-old girl, I felt alienated from my setting. I felt that the authority figures in my high school experience had no understanding or empathy for our experiences. It was a bit of a Draconian authoritarian system. Not like Vestalis, but that’s how it felt at the time. My best friends got me through those experiences with the kind of alternative world that we created as teen girls outside of the restrictions of school authorities. I drew upon my memories of friendship at that age—how powerful and how lifesaving it really was. At Vestalis, if you’re taking it even further, friendship literally becomes lifesaving. My friendship, at that age, was lifesaving as well.
How did you inspire the cast to confront the ideas of image, femininity, and beauty that drive the film?
Those young women were all very committed to giving characters depth that you create in that world. They spent a lot of time together bonding on weekends and hanging out on set. They were willing to step outside their comfort zones because strangely, one of the things that really scared them was being in a film without makeup. They’re required to have very severe outfits and very severe hair with no makeup. They felt very vulnerable in the beginning by appearing that way on camera, but they faced their anxieties and came through.
I love how the film plays with the stars of classic cinema like with the girls’ names and then the role of film within the film. How did that come into play?
When I was doing my research and my brainstorming to create the world, I tried to get inside the head of every character. I spent a lot of time trying to think like Dr. Miro and thinking, if I founded this academy and had total control of the environment, what would I do? I gave him some of my characteristics: I really love old movies and film noir. I thought he would indulge his passions—his favorite films, his favorite music, his favorite ideas. He has to create everything from scratch to create this world and brainwash the girls, so of course he would draw on things familiar with and enjoys. As the years go by, he develops this God complex with the naming and controlling of these girls.
How did you settle on the Veronica Lake look for Sara Canning? That’s such a nice femme fatale touch. It really suits her!
That was exactly what we were going for–totally Veronica Lake. I just really love noir. When Sara came on board, we spent some time looking at the great actresses from the golden age of cinema and trying to find one who symbolized the glamor of that period. Brixil is also trying to play into Miro’s fantasies and play into his passion for that period. She’s transformed herself into something that he would approve of. Sara really looks like Veronica Lake, too, so when we settled on that hair, we put Sara in a hairdressing chair for, like, six hours just to strip her hair to platinum even though she’s blonde. Every day was a big glamour routine for her to put on that full head of Hollywood of makeup and hair.
How do you feel about the comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale? When did the production of the film start relative to the series?
I wrote my first draft of the screenplay 11 or 12 years ago. I love Margaret Atwood, so I’m quite flattered to be compared to her, but through this journey of trying to get the film made, that relationship with The Handmaid’s Tale was at first a real barrier. When I was pitching this film 10 years ago and I would put together a list of books and movies that might relate to this story. I would show the cover of the book The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of feminist dystopia. People would say, “You know that movie was a huge flop? Don’t reference it. Take that out of your pitch!” I’d encounter the notion that nobody wanted feminist dystopia. They felt it a road to ruin. But then the series came out and it was an adaptation that understood the book much more deeply and represented it more honestly—and was a big hit. That changed things a lot. I think the fact that The Handmaid’s Tale became a hit on television was one of the reasons we finally got the green light.
The film’s very timely within the conversations in the industry right now. So much has been addressed with women’s rights in terms of harassment and safe spaces, but do you still see the same pressures for conventional perceptions of conforming to beauty? Do you think the industry will ever actually change if it doesn’t change its definition of what an actress or star “looks like”?
On one side, I feel like we’re living in an exciting time. The dialogue that’s been created by #MeToo and #TimesUp is really changing the paradigm. We’re recognizing the inequality and the oppression of women and I think can only lead to change. But on the other hand, is the change happening? Not really. Is it happening fast? Definitely not.
These are still issues that we have to address passionately and vocally, but I’m hopeful because never before have we talked about things like sexual harassment so publicly. That can only lead to better reforms and better work environments. One thing that’s evolved in the last year is this idea to start hiring an intimacy coordinator on film sets. When you think of how women actors have been brutalized in the film industry for so long, that is one step towards fixing the problem.
And now, I know you can’t talk much about what you’re shooting for Space, but do you find there’s a different dynamic between film and TV in terms of how you bring a director’s vision to a project?
There’re pluses and minuses. When you’re making an independent film, especially a film you’ve written and directed as an auteur, your creative power is larger. Your vision is more important. When you move to television, there are far more creative partnerships—the showrunners, producers, and the DP, etc. have much larger roles in terms of defining the creative vision. There are also lots of opportunities in television that you don’t have in film. I think television is winning the fight to become more diverse, especially in casting. It’s so hard to get funding for a feature film because you have to get approval from so many distributors and they tend not to be very open minded about who is marketable. Whereas in television, I think the studios can take a chance. I think the cast we put together for this film that I’m working on right now—when I can talk about it—is pretty great.
You’re splitting your time now between Canada and California, correct? What could the Canadian film scene learn from the US independents?
I still really love the Canadian film scene. It’s such an interesting place to work and it’s where I love working, but to break out into international work, like this job I’m shooting in South Africa, it really is important to go down to Los Angeles and meet the bigger studios and work towards relationships that offer bigger budgets. It’s a long-term goal. I still plan to make films in Canada. I have a movie that going to shoot in Ontario at the end of the year. It’s called Jagged Winter and it’s a winter thriller that I’m going to make with the same producers who made Level 16, Markham Street Films.
I mostly work Markham Street for documentary, like their catshow doc Catwalk recently. How did the pitch for Level 16 go? It’s very different from what they usually do.
Judy [Holm] is very interested in doing narrative projects. I happened to meet her because I was at the Canadian Film Centre and I partnered with a producer, Stephanie Chappelle, and she was working for Judy, which is how we got connected. Judy just really loved the story. When I first brought the project to her, I hoped it would be my first feature. It was so hard to get financed because people really didn’t understand feminist dystopia at the time, so I made a couple of other features, but Judy never gave up on the project and just kept fighting for it. People don’t understand how important it is to have a producer who has a deep passion for a project and will go to the ends of the Earth to make sure it gets made.
You mentioned some of the challenges of getting feminist dystopian film made—horror and science fiction generally have a history of being unkind to female characters. I think we’re seeing a nice rebirth of feminist horror, like the Soska Sisters remaking David Cronenberg’s Rabid. Is there any film that you would like to tackle through a feminist lens?
I love science fiction, I love horror, but I would love to tackle the kind of blood-and-guts fantasy world we see on something like Game of Thrones. I’m a fangirl. I love that genre and I love those kinds of stories, but I’m often disappointed by how they portray women—or by the lack of portrayal of women. The world is starting to smarten up. When we were first pitching Level 16, distributors would tell me, right to my face, that women don’t read or watch science fiction. They really believed that. I was standing there, right in front of them, as a huge science fiction fan and I’m, like, “What?!” It was a real misconception because, for a long time, the industry was very separate from fandom. It looked like 15-year-old white boys and that’s all [the industry] could imagine. Fandom is diverse and I think the industry is starting to realize that.
Level 16 is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver