April 10, 2017
SXSW 2017

'M.F.A.': The David Fincher-Style Rape-Revenge Thriller That Rocked SXSW

Natalie Leite's rape-revenge thriller stars a riveting Francesca Eastwood seeking vigilante justice.

In a world where rape and sexual assault often go unpunished, the rape-revenge genre is woefully unpopulated. Last year, Paul Verhoeven's Elle marked a resurgence in sexual assault vigilante justice films, which emerged with films such as I Saw the Devil, the original The Last House on the LeftThe House of the Spirits, and Gaspar Noe's Irréversible, now a hallmark of the genre.

At SXSW 2017, Natalia Leite unveiled perhaps the bravest, rawest rape-revenge thriller yet. M.F.A. stars Francesca Eastwood as Noelle, a timid art student struggling with creative inspiration and social anxiety. When a fling with a self-aggrandizing classmate materializes, Noelle seems poised to emerge from her shell. But it turns out that her suitor is a rapist, and no one, including the school administration, gives a damn. Noelle takes things into her own hands.

"It's easier to just shut up. That, more than anything, was why I made the film."

With a strong screenplay from actress Leah McKendrick (who also plays a supporting role in the film), M.F.A. rips into the hypocrisy and injustice surrounding the response to sexual assault on campus and beyond. Leite's unflinching depiction of rape and its consequences has Eastwood giving a fearless performance that constantly challenges audience expectations. At the core of M.F.A.'s gritty, David Fincher-esque thriller appeal is a victim who wants to be anything but.

No Film School caught up with Leite and McKendrick at SXSW to discuss the challenges of raising money during production, working with micro-budget constraints, developing a complex and controversial performance, and the vulnerability of bringing your film into the world.

No Film School: What compelled you to tell a story of campus rape?

Leah McKendrick: I felt really frustrated and upset when I would see the stories in the news and on my Facebook feed, about girls being assaulted and the school system failing them; our government failing them; powers at be failing them. Feeling like I had something to say about it and just infused that into my art. 

NFS: I was so taken by that feeling of utter powerlessness. It's almost like Noelle's actions are the only recourse available to her. 

McKendrick: Right. And I've had my own experiences. Sexual [abuse] stuff happened to me, and I felt totally alone in it, very ashamed. There was no recourse unless I wanted to go to court and make this huge thing out of it. And I really admire any girl who has taken that route, and that's why I feel even more hurt [when it fails]. The system has failed them when they have been brave enough to go that route. 

NFS: In the film, you touch a bit on the impotence of education about consent. Can academic institutions do anything further to prevent sexual assault from happening?

McKendrick: I do feel torn about it, because it's bigger than [education]. I do think that even with the education, there are going to be cases where men do it anyway, you know? Some men are violent. That's why I feel hesitant to say that education is the issue.

"You work so hard and nobody knows all the challenges you faced to get something out into the world. If someone says anything that's even a little inch negative, it's really hard to hear."

One of the points that the films makes is that it's about conversation-starting. We have to be educated, as a public, on how common it is. This is happening all over our country, at every university. Women and men should feel they're not alone—there are people that have their back. Their feelings and their experiences are valid. So it's more than just education. It's also about the systematic changes that need to happen to protect survivors, and to believe survivors. 

My biggest motivation was that the idea that you're told that you're lying. You're so bullied, to the point where you feel like you should just shut up, or it's easier to just shut up. That, more than anything, was why I made the film. My rebellion was making a film about [campus rape].

Natalia Leite: We've had conversations with women who, after seeing the film, were like, "Wow, I didn't realize that maybe something similar happened to me, and I've been just holding back and trying to push it down." Of course, there's a whole spectrum of sexual violence. Some [incidents] are horrible, and some are maybe a little more confusing. But I think it's important for us to open up this conversation because it still feels very much like a taboo subject. A lot of women who have felt assaulted don't feel like they have any space to talk about it. They're being silenced. 

MFACredit: SXSW 2017

NFS: Bare, your directorial debut, premiered two years ago at Tribeca. How was it getting M.F.A. made as your sophomore feature?

Leite: I feel like every situation is different. I know some people spend years trying to make their next film, and it can go either way. For me, honestly, it just sort of came to me. I had been writing another script that I was thinking was going to be my next feature. I had started to get it out there, but I was also doing a lot of episodic work. Then, Leah [McKendrick], who wrote the script, had seen Bare, and had seen some of my previous work. She was looking for a director and just reached out.

It was all very quick. It was like, "Here's a script. If you're interested, we want to start shooting in a couple months." I had to make a quick decision. But I really connected with the story. Also, on a personal level, I had gone to art school and thought that I could really make something interesting with the words on the page.

"Money doesn't always equal artistry."

I guess a lot of the struggle was in the process of making it because we were still pulling in financing while shooting. All these things were falling into place in the process. We had access to Chapman University [to shoot], so that was really our timeline. Chapman was willing to give us the space for free, but we had to be out of there before school was into full swing. So it was like, it's either going to happen now or we're waiting another five months. Miraculously, we made it happen.

NFS: How were you navigating pulling all the different pieces together and directing at the same time? 

Leite: Everyone was really involved. Shin Shimosawa, who was one of our producers, was really masterminding how the final scene was going to come into place. And then Mike and Leah were both hustling, looking for the rest of the money. There were a lot of holes for production that we needed to fill. I put everything to the side and was working on this day and night, 24-7, to get it ready for the shoot.

Working on an indie film, you just have to work with your resources. Some things would fall through because we were on such a tight budget; we can't have everything we want. Then, we [would have] to reshuffle the whole thing. It's a lot of teamwork—everyone strapping their boots and not being picky about what role they've assigned to do.

NFS: How did you find your lead actress, Francesca Eastwood? She is fantastic.

Leite: Francesca came with a recommendation through Arlie Day, our casting director. I wasn't too familiar with her work previously. I know she had a film that went to Sundance last year. I thought she was super magnetic onscreen. I was looking for someone who had an innocent look, because I really wanted the viewer to sympathize with her story and love her, even though she's doing really bad things. Fran had that, and also had a lot of depth in her performance. She can convey a lot. Her expression goes so deep. There's so much that could be said without words. And she had a lot of range. 

"A big component for me in casting her was wanting someone that was really willing to take the risks, and wasn't going to back out."

We met and had lunch and just hit it off. She really understood the story. And I think another big component for me in casting her was wanting someone that was really willing to take the risks, and wasn't going to back out. A lot of actresses are like, "Yeah, I want to do this edgy thing, and I don't mind nudity, and I'll be fully committed to these things that are kind of challenging." But then on the spot, they're like, "Oh, I don't know." It just happens, especially if you're a young actress in Hollywood. But Fran was like, "No, no. I get it. I know why this is important, and I'm going to go there and I'm not going to let you down." And she did it.

MFACredit: SXSW 2017

NFS: She has such an interesting transformation throughout the film. In initial conversations with her and on set, how did you work through her dramatic arc?

Leite: We were shooting everything in a totally wacky order, so a lot of it was trying to track where she was at emotionally. I was always trying to make sure she knew exactly what place we were at. I'd be like, "Okay, this is right before this, and after this." For a lot of the emotional scenes, Fran would sit off and not be interacting with anyone else just get into that headspace. 

Wardrobe and all of the other visual elements also help convey what the character's going through. There's her performance, but then Tika, our costume designer, showed a gradual change and transformation via what she was wearing. They're little details that I don't even know if anyone notices, but I think it all adds up.

NFS: Leah, what did you learn about screenwriting from your first film? And Natalia, what did you learn about directing on your second?

Leite: Well, you can imagine anything, but it's like, "Okay, here's the reality: this location we had fell through, or this actor's no longer. And this crazy idea might not be possible at all." I think it's a really good challenge to think super creatively about how can you get the same point across without all this stuff that you wanted in the scene. It all comes down to the script. When you're working with a small budget, there so many ways to do the same scene, but what is actually possible? 

"It's a really good challenge to think super creatively about how can you get the same point across without all this stuff that you wanted in the scene."

McKendrick: Since this takes place predominantly on a college campus, we really got the hookup from Chapman University, where I went to school. And we wouldn't have been able to do it shoestring like this if we didn't have that support behind us. So, work with what you have. And sometimes, yeah, it requires a little bit more creativity, but sometimes the films will be better for it. You have to think outside the box a little bit and fight for certain locations. Amazing films have been made with not a huge amount of money. Look at our Oscar winner, Best Picture, Moonlight, made for $1.5 million. Money doesn't always equal artistry. 

Leite: Yeah, thank god, really. I think it's a crazy thing to be a first-time filmmaker. A lot of times you get really attached to your ideas and your vision, and you want it to be this way, and then it's not possible in a certain budget. It's a skill to be like, "Okay, I'm still going to make this super specific. I'm not going to lose track of my voice in this process, while still being flexible and compromising all this stuff that I can't have." It's a tricky line to ride.

McKendrick: For me, a big part of it was allowing other artists to come in and watch my vision transform. Just learning to be less precious about your work. This being my first feature film to get made, I felt so close to my script and my characters that when things changed or didn't work or were cut, it's super heartbreaking. And I know that my second time around, I will be prepared for that a little bit more. I would advise other first-time screenwriters to just be really open to the possibilities when other artists' visions come into play. 

NFS: Is there an example of a time when you relinquished your original vision in the service of something better?

McKendrick: Before Natalia came in, those peer-review scenes where students are reviewing her work and critiquing Noelle's work...that was originally just a scene between her and her professor. I think I was relating that to my own real-life experience of having professors tell me, "You're better than this." It was Natalia's idea to make it a group critique, and I love that. It's one of my favorite scenes. It speaks to the pressures of being publicly criticized. Your heart is out there on the line. 

That's how I feel right now, after the SXSW premiere. I feel like my baby is out there and I'm so naked and exposed. Critics can come and say whatever they want. Nat had a talk with me this morning, like, "That's the business. That's the nature of the beast." I have to toughen up a little bit because this film is so close to my heart. I just feel like if anybody knew how much we had worked and how hard we had tried, maybe it wouldn't be so easy to say certain things. But I guess I have to build that thick skin. 

Leite: I think I realized that a lot in my first film. It's so hard—you work so hard and nobody knows all the challenges you faced to get something out into the world. If someone says anything that's even a little inch negative, it's really hard to hear. But the critics are doing their job. And by the way, we've gotten amazingly positive reviews. But you have expectations and you start to wonder, "Is everyone going to love it?" And I think for me, at least, I try to remind myself, "Not everyone needs to love it. Not everyone's going to love my work, or me, or anything. Because we're all unique individuals." It's about just finding that audience that's going to absolutely adore it. 

McKendrick: Absolutely. If you were trying to make a film that would please every critic and every audience member, it would probably be one of the most boring films you could possibly make.

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No Film School's coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Vimeo.

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One of the best interviews I have yet read on NFS! It definitely speaks to the wide range of challenges (and opportunities) of the indie filmmaker. I note that the directory didn't mention camera equipment once, which is appropriate, because a great film is really about the story, the characterization, the sets, the acting, and, most importantly, following the process, even when the process takes unexpected turns. Bravo!

April 11, 2017 at 9:34AM

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