Director's Cut: Jillian Schlesinger ('Maidentrip')

maidentrip

Imagine if “All is Lost” as a documentary starring Jennifer Lawrence, and you wouldn’t be too far removed from the instantly and enduringly compelling “Maidentrip”, in which a Dutch teenager chronicles her attempt to become the youngest person to ever sail around the world solo. Perhaps the most crucial difference between the two films, however, is that unlike “Our Man”, Laura Dekker is actually a competent sailor. In fact, she might be the Beethoven of the sailing world, a girl so preternaturally talented that the only force on Earth capable of interfering with her seafaring dreams was the Dutch government.

Born on a boat off the coast of New Zealand and crewing her own vessel merely five years later, Laura Dekker has never been hurting for direction in her life, only the freedom to follow it. When the media got wind of Laura’s plan to sail around the world by herself at the age of 13, they convened a special council in an attempt to obtain custody of the girl and ground her on Dutch soil. The local papers called her “impulsive”, “delusional” and “spoiled” and it wasn’t long before her story caught the attention of people around the world, including that of a budding New York filmmaker named Jillian Schlesinger who saw something of herself in a teenage girl 3,000 miles away.

Four years later, "Maidentrip" is finally ready to open in theaters this weekend. A unique and deceptively complex portrait that transcends the expected narrative of empowerment in favor of something far more resonant, the film augers well for another year of strong documentaries. I recently had the chance to meet with Ms. Schlesinger in Manhattan's Ace Hotel, where we discussed how this incredible mutual adventure came to be. As is fast becoming a Film.com tradition, this interview kicks off with me reflecting on how much of a living mess I am (there's context for it, but don't you worry about that).

FILM.COM: I’m trying to be an adult and doing a really bad job of it.

JILLIAN SCHLESINGER: I know the feeling.

I get the impression that you’re doing okay for yourself.

Well it’s funny, for most of the time that I was working on the film – before the film was actually something that people could go and see – it was kind of like “what are you doing?” I’d be here working and then I’d disappear for a month and go to Tahiti, or like sail across the Pacific Ocean, so I didn’t seem totally adult.

How many years did this take? I mean, there are some documentaries that you can make in like the span of a month with the right material, but this was not one of those. 

I’m so envious of those people. [Laughs].

I originally read about Laura’s story when she was 13 and the Dutch government was trying to stop her from doing her trip, and that was August of 2009. I spent like six months just reading about it and letting it percolate, and then in January of 2010 I tried to get in touch with her for the first time, and it wasn’t very easy. I emailed her through her website, and... somehow I was always really optimistic. I don’t know why, but I was confident that eventually I’d get in contact with her. I spent a few months with a graphic designer I met on Craigslist and we worked on this really elaborate personal proposal that was developed with a 13-year-old girl in mind. It had pictures and mood boards and things I thought that would connect with her. Because I hadn’t made a film before I couldn’t be like “Here, look at my work.” So I wanted it to be super visual, and we made some weird concept drawings and illustrations...

So there was this whole illustrated thing and then a very personal letter about my idea for the film and how I wanted to work with her. And that whole document was something that I revisited again and again as I was working on the film, and it was so nice to be able to go back to it because it’s so easy to lose touch with that original impulse that made you excited about something in the first place. You lose that perspective, that fresh perspective of approaching something you know nothing about. So it was nice to have a record of my idea of this person and then go back once I knew her and compare.

When you were reading about her story, what element of it jumped out at you and caught your imagination? Was it the idea that she was so young or that she wanted to leave the world as we know and accept it?

There were two primary things. One was that I grew up hearing a lot of seafaring stories from my dad, who in his late teens dropped out of school and began sailing with his friends around Central and South America. And of course all of the stories about seafaring about men, and typically in stories about the sea, if there are women they’re waiting on the shore or just along for the ride. So there was something that appealed to me about a seafaring story about a young person with a female protagonist, and the fact that it was real made it even more compelling. And the other thing that I was really drawn to about it, because I didn’t have any meaningful, long-distance sailing experience, I’ve always been really interested in coming-of-age stories on both the narrative and documentary sides.

I’ve always been really drawn to the intersection between fiction and non-fiction storytelling, and there was something about this that felt really narrative to me. Like “Oh, what an interesting experience to trace somebody’s adolescent years but also have them be so isolated in an unusual way and go through a lot of the things that any young person would go through, but experience a lot of those universal emotions in such an extraordinary environment.” It seemed to be a perfect combination between being relatable and being remote. You’re going into somebody’s very distant reality but you recognize so many things about it. It was cool, instead of writing something like that, to instead observe and construct it from Laura’s voice recordings.

You just raised a whole bunch of questions.

I tend to ramble.

No, it was great. The first thing that popped in my head is if you think there would have been the same political furor over Laura’s decision to sail around the world by herself if she were a boy?

No. There have actually been boys who are not that much older than she who have done difficult sailing trips that no one ever talks about. And I don’t think that the thing with the government would have happened in just any country, there was something particular about Holland. It wasn’t so much that I thought there was more attention drawn to it because she’s a woman, but I felt like a lot of the language in the opinion pieces and articles about it felt very gender-biased. Just things about young women needing to be protected, and being naturally vulnerable.

Since I had been given a lot of opportunities for adventure as a child, I immediately felt like it just didn’t serve women well to spread that message about their place in the world and their own power and strength.

That’s exactly what I took away from the film, this idea that there’s one acceptable way to live her life and that Laura is adamant from a young age that she is going to do something different, and that she has the competence to do it. And despite the fact that it wouldn’t harm anyone back home, it’s still – 

– Threatening.

Yeah. Did this story prompt you into wanting to be a filmmaker, or had you always wanted to be a filmmaker and were just looking for the right story to tell?

I had always wanted to be a filmmaker, and I felt that a lot of messaging – when I was young – somewhat from my family but mostly just from the world, was that that was a really unrealistic and impractical goal. Like sarcastically “yeah yeah, okay, go be a filmmaker.” I just had it programmed into me that it wasn’t realistic. Actually, when I started working on the film I had a job on the side and I was working in the film industry in the promo department at Sundance Channel, so I wasn’t completely outside of the industry, but I wasn’t out making my own movies. And what you were saying about people being threatened by people who choose to live life a different way, it’s really interesting how people were up in arms about me saying like “Oh, you’re not doing things the expected way, what are you doing? You need to stop.”

Before I read Laura’s story I was at this really confusing point in my life where I was like 25 and there was a bad economy and I had a job at a good company and I just wasn’t that happy, and that made me feel bad. Like, this is what everybody does, you get up in the morning and go to work around 9 or 10 and then maybe it’s a late night but if not you might go out with some friends for dinner and then on the weekends you get to have fun. And something about it just felt off for me. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, but that was just the thing that everyone did and I didn’t know a lot of people who didn’t do that, so imagining some other way of life seemed really difficult, especially in New York where everybody is just “work work work work work.”

Suddenly I’m sitting in my cubicle and I read this article, and for me it was really about choosing to live your life your own way. It was here’s this kid who at 13 has such a conviction to live her life her own way and on her own terms that she’s fighting her government and battling these really nasty media portrayals and for me that was very inspiring and lead me to be like “Life is really short, I should do the things that I really want to do and live the life I really want to live.”

So Laura actually responded to the proposal we sent right away, and she was like “You know I get a lot of offers for movies and books and whatever but this looks really cool.” And she invited me to come meet her in Holland, I biked alone across Holland to meet her because I thought that would be a fun way and I hadn’t been on a vacation in years. And I was like this will be a great way to get into the spirit of the story. I took a ferry from England to Holland and then biked across southern Holland.

Jil11

That must have been a great icebreaker.

Yeah, exactly. It’s funny because it came from this genuine place of me wanting to have an adventure, and I didn’t even think of how it would solidify that sense that we were kindred spirits. And from that first meeting I went back home and put in my 2 weeks notice and suddenly my whole life transformed.

So to extrapolate from that, would you say that the film is your story as well? It sounds like it so accurately reflects the personal journey of its own making.

Yeah... I feel like the film is Laura’s story except... I feel like the really strong parallels between our two journeys give the film a greater depth. There were certain ways I was able to connect with her story both in my current life and through my childhood experiences that allows the film to tell a really personal story that is her story but, you’re right, is also my story.

And as a storyteller, who appreciates both narrative films and documentaries and how ridiculous the divide between the two, how was it to work with a subject who was so stubborn. And I mean that in the best way... I mean, how do you generate conflict when your protagonist is so fearless and undaunted by the challenges that confront her?

It’s funny, because I really didn’t want to impose my ideas of what I wanted the story to be on the way the story unfolded. I really wanted to let it breathe and let Laura breathe. Of course I had ideas of how I thought things were going to turn out, and one of the things that was really interesting was that at a certain point I realized that she was such a good sailor that even though she was encountering storms and things like that, it didn’t provide the narrative conflict that I expected based on Hollywood movies about people going to sea...

There’s a storm at a traditionally climactic point of your film that Laura just sort of shrugs off and plows through.

Yeah, and to a certain extent I guess we could have built those moments into something more conventionally dramatic, but one of the things that made it really easy to not do that was that I was so committed to telling the story from her point of view. The one drawback of which was that because she’s so relaxed about these intense and difficult things, because she’s such a humble prodigy you actually – as the viewer – it may be a little bit harder to put her in context. You’re only getting it from her point of view. So when she’s like “Oh, yeah, I guess I’m sailing through one of the hardest sailing passages of all time where thousands of people have died...” viewers may not recognize just how talented she is.

Well, I wouldn’t have made it one day on the ocean. As soon as she gets out there and Gibraltar is behind her I was already hugely impressed. I mean, Robert Redford couldn’t pull this off.

Yeah, it’s been interesting that all these films have been coming out, “Captain Phillips” and “All is Lost” and “Life of Pi” last year, and it’s great because it just enhances that original impulse and the idea that this environment and type of story is so man-heavy, and it’s so nice that this can be the female counterpoint to that.

I know that this was a relatively small team, but is it true that you made an effort to ensure that it was still an all-female crew?

Yeah. I mean, not to the degree that was discriminated against men...

[Laughs] I’m not offended.

[Laughs] It’s just always been really important to me to support women, and particularly women who are younger than I am in this industry. So our whole core creative team – director, producer, cinematographer, editor – all women, and then we made a priority of hiring female interns, so they were all able to have the opportunity to work on this film about a young woman.

When you mention the cinematographer, I’m reminded of the question of authorship as it pertains to this movie. Not to take anything away from your obvious hard work, but Laura filmed everything on the boat herself... it’s a semantic exercise, but how do you draw the line – 

– It’s a really interesting question. Yeah...

[Laughs] You know, typically I’m really bad at complimenting myself, but I think that I’ve successfully created a film that feels like a subject made the film, and I’m really proud of that. It demands a level of humility that I’m actually really comfortable with.

Right, you didn’t go the Morgan Spurlock route where you’d be the dominant character in the opening 20 minutes...

Yeah, the whole idea of the film and what I reached out to her with was that it was a collaborative effort, and that I had the tools for her to be able to tell her story from her point of view. So the whole idea of the film was that it feels like she made it, but it’s made by filmmakers. So it’s always a funny question, especially when people who don’t know anything about the craft will be like “Oh, so like... what did you do?” It’s just not something that bothers me. I don’t like a lot of attention, and I know what I did and I feel really proud, and everyone who is a fimmaker knows that it’s not just as simple as taking Laura’s stuff and putting it together. Even the logisitcs of meeting her in these places and going on all these adventures, I’m very proud of how effortless it looks. I mean, if someone can go see it and think “Well, what did the filmmaker do?” That’s kind of great! To see something and not be aware of the filmmaking. And I’ve enjoyed that process.

And also I really wanted Laura to be heavily involved in every aspect of the film, and she was actually really involved in the edit in a way that was very untraditional for a doc subject. To be in the room with an editor like that... Our editor had cut 15 documentaries, and had never had the subject in the room with her like that. And also to have Laura talk about things and be a part of the creative conversation in the way that she was representing herself as a filmmaker and not just as a subject... and of course that’s a really difficult thing to do as a director, to empower your subject in that way and trust them in that aspect of the process, but in the edit room together we decided to have the end credit be “A film by Jillian Schlesinger in collaboration with Laura Dekker”, and I think that’s accurate to the spirit of the film and the way we worked together. It was a very strong creative partnership. She brought her story and creativity to it, and I brought filmmaking.

And of course, directing is hardly just what happens between “action” and “cut.”

[Laughs] Yeah.

I was actually thinking about it in the opposite way, that your job was so much larger than most doc directors in that you have all this raw material and you’re shaping somebody’s entire adolescence.

The whole thing required so many things that were literally related to filmmaking and a lot of things that weren’t. It stretched me in so many different directions, and it was a really transformative experience as a result of that.

maidentrip-maps-1

About the other elements of filmmaking that visibly crop up in the film, like the beautiful watercolor title cards, can you talk about how those came to be? 

Yeah. This is actually a perfect example of just letting things unfold. I imagined that so much of Laura’s trip would be internal and emotional that originally I thought there would be a lot more animation. I had come across the Moth Collective somewhere, I can’t remember where, but even in 2009 when I was first thinking about the film even before I met Laura, I reached out to them. So over the years I kept reaching out to them about what I was thinking about the animation, and that was one of the things that was in that original proposal to Laura. So as I was cutting and realizing that we didn’t really need so much animation because Laura’s footage was so visual and also she had all of this childhood video footage that we didn’t know about, I never lost sight of the fact that I wanted to have the animation.

We did a rough cut screening with these little maps, and there were so many geographical and logistical issues that came up, and there was this great moment after the screening when Emily, the producer, took this deep sigh and was like “Are people ever going to understand this movie?” And right away I realized that that was the logical place for the animation, and I think the animators were so excited because they had been jazzed about the project but didn’t completely understand how the animation was going to fit in. And it was really difficult for them. I didn’t realize, but maps... there are so many things that never occurred to me. Like how many details do you put? And the artists are used to being very creative, but there were all these unyielding details that had to be involved in this. And they’re actually nominated for a Cinema Eye award for graphic design animation which is so cool. It was such a grueling and amazing process getting those animations done.

And what’s so beautiful about them, beyond their aesthetic, is that it feels like such a part of the tapestry of Laura’s story rather than taking you out of it, as title cards tend to do. Also, the first thing I ever knew about your movie back when SXSW started last year was the amazing poster. The whole aesthetic presentation of the movie feels so coherent and unified.

Thank you! For the poster actually we used some of the watercolor animations that are in the movie. And the poster was designed by that original person who helped me make the proposal to Laura, so it was really nice that it all came together.

Going back to shaping Laura’s story, there’s something about her that’s so transparently authentic that you never feel as a viewer that the story was manipulated. Obviously edits were made, because that’s how filmmaking works, but it never feels deceptive. What sort of stuff were you trimming away to cut to the heart of who she is?

As you see mirrored in the film, as her journey goes on Laura’s relationship with the camera changes a lot. And I loved that, it was one of those things that you just can’t anticipate but it was also so beautiful. She first of all started out filming a lot more, that first long leg across the Atlantic Ocean she was filming confessionals all the time, selfies to the camera, talking to the camera in a conventional way... but then as time went on she started filming much less frequently and much more experimentally. So like when she took the camera into the Indian Ocean and set it up and just sort of made noises for it, or just set the camera up while she was on the radio or eating for an hour... just doing weirder stuff and not really talking to the camera, I thought that was so fascinating both sort of in regards to her trajectory as she was growing up but also it showed such an evolution as a filmmaker. And she absolutely is a filmmaker.

The last thing I wanted to ask you about was Laura’s somewhat heated conversation with the visiting Dutch journalist.

Oh yeah.

I thought that scene was so interesting.

I thought so too, but it’s funny because Laura has never really liked that scene, and it was a big point of contention in the editing room. And the rest of us all felt really strongly that it really makes her character so much more whole and it’s such an interesting moment of her becoming herself and establishing her independence, and you really understood in that moment how genuine she is. Also she’s a kid, and kids get grumpy around people sometimes. And it just seemed like such an essential moment in her evolution and becoming her own person, and it’s such an angsty process and it’s so fraught with moments like... I can remember things that I did and said when I was 16, and going through those same emotions, and I’m probably not super proud of them now. I’m hoping that with more time and distance she’ll come to like it and appreciate it.

As a filmmaker, I’m sure she’ll come to appreciate it. 

Yeah. As a filmmaker, I think she knows that that’s how the film should be and that the scene is really strong. It’s tricky because it was really important to me for her to love the film. It’s an interesting experience to work so closely with someone who’s so young, and doesn’t have the experience of being in a film, and she’s isolated in so many ways that it was very important to me that this would be a positive experience for her, so there was an interesting tension at that point in the edit where I was confronted with the question of “at what point do I stand by decisions that I feel are really essential, and at what point am I doing something that hurts the film just because I don’t want to make Laura unhappy?”

And by that point she has to trust you and know that you’re not doing a hatchet job.

Exactly. By that point the film had already won multiple audience awards and received some positive reviews, but it was scary for all of us when it was coming out for the first time. I was like “What if people see the scene with the journalist and think she’s horrible!” And no one does. Or like two people do, but who cares about those two people?

"Maidentrip" opens at the IFC Center on January 17th, 2014.