Danishka Esterhazy knows things are changing in the film industry. Her latest movie, Level 16, wouldn’t exist if it had it not been for the renewed focus on women in the industry. Her girl-centric sci-fi story had languished in development hell for over a decade before a grant changed everything. Now, Level 16 is a reality Esterhazy can share with eager viewers.

In Level 16, a precocious teenager named Vivien (Katie Douglas) stumbles upon discovering the harrowing truth about the grim boarding school-like place she’s only known as home. The people in charge - Miss Brixel (Sara Canning) and Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge) – are not raising the girls with their best interests at heart. Instead, they’re infantilizing them, keeping the girls illiterate and teaching them that their femininity is the most important thing about them. But once Vivien’s illusions about her world are shattered, does she ignore the warning signs pointed out by Sophia (Celina Martin), the first girl to realize their surroundings were a lie, or does she try to escape?

No Film School spoke with Esterhazy about her layered approach to world building, how she finally got the project off the ground, and how she drew inspiration from her favorite sci-fi film to create the production design of Level 16.

No Film School: Tell me about the development process of Level 16. You’ve been working on it for some time, right?

Danishka Esterhazy: It was a crazy process. It's not like any of my other films because I started writing this one right out of film school. I wanted this to be my first feature film. I started writing it in about 2006, and then I finished it in 2007 and it was optioned right away. I was then trying to get it greenlit and it was just a disaster. No one wanted this film. It was really discouraging when we pitched it so many times, all over the world. There was just a huge resistance to the concept. People told me that you couldn't make science fiction about women, that women didn't watch science fiction, that a teen girl couldn't lead. No one could see that.

After one of these meetings, I said to my producer, “I think they're totally wrong, and I don't get where they're getting this idea that teen girls don't go to movies and that women don't want science fiction.” There's no facts behind this. They're just making this up, but they were convinced. We didn't give up.

I went and made my first feature Black Field and I made my second feature Suddenly Ever After. But we still kept plugging away at this one, and every year, I would dust it off, do a new draft, and we'd send it out for funding again. Slowly, things started to change and YA movies broke some barriers for teen girls. Then The Handmaid's Tale TV show came out, which was great because there's some similar themes. Previously, people would say, “Oh, The Handmaid's Tale movie was a huge flop. Clearly, no one wants to see dystopian fiction that women are in.” It actually was kind of counting against us for awhile.

But then the TV show came out and did well, and I think changed a bunch of opinions. Then, the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up happened. Suddenly, there was a bunch of new support for women directors. Even though we've been out in the wilderness for years, it changed. I guess one of the big changes was that the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, started this new fund, the Breaking Barriers Film Fund for women directors. We got it and that bit of money made everyone else reevaluate the project and come onboard.

These special funds for women directors actually make a big difference. They totally opened doors.

"I was looking at a lot of imagery on the Internet of Playboy Playmates in the mansion and Instagram influencers. Some of these women who just deeply embrace hyper femininity."

NFS:Funny you mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, because I thought of that a lot after watching Level 16, especially because of this tension between authority figures and the girls. Was that dynamic always in your story?

Esterhazy: Well, for Miss Brixel, I really tried to create a kind of transforming arc for her. I wanted to set her up so when we first meet her, she's kind of terrifying and seems all-powerful. She's the person causing everyone's misery. She's kind of like creepy ideal, very hyper feminine. I was looking at a lot of imagery on the Internet of Playboy Playmates in the mansion and Instagram influencers. Some of these women who just deeply embrace hyper femininity. It's a level of perfection and artificiality that's kind of terrifying in itself.

I wanted her to be this very dark character. Then as the movie goes on, I tried to layer in more, to show that she herself is a character. She's been trapped by buying into these things and by being so submissive and supportive of Dr. Miro. She's actually built her own prison and she's not happy. Sometimes, women are also the oppressors and are reaffirming those toxic stereotypes and ideas. There are women who buy into the patriarchy and they are the defenders of patriarchy.

NFS:How did you come up with the conclusion of of what the girls were being raised for?

Esterhazy: Oh, that was an early spark I've been playing in my mind for a while. I was going to film school and I knew that I really wanted to make a female driven sci-fi film. I knew I wanted to cast either entirely women or mostly women because that's something I have just never seen. I really love classic sci-fi and there are so few roles for women. They're like the girlfriend or they’re a thing to be rescued. But if there's an entirely male cast, we're also supposed to find that deeply universal.

So, I had a goal, but then when I was searching for the right story, it was around the time that the world's very first face transplant happened in France. It's funny, in the 10 years it's taken me to raise this money, that procedure has actually gotten better and better.

Level_16_01_4web_largeDanishka Esterhazy's 'Level 16.'

NFS:You also have a kind of mob element to the plot.

Esterhazy: It's a more criminal element. I was thinking when the cop shows up, it's like a human trafficking case. That's one of the reasons I set it in Belarus, which is where my family is from. Because my family is from Belarus, I knew that human trafficking was a very big concern in that region, especially in the area. I thought if I was a criminal mastermind and I wanted to have children to experiment on them and murder them, where’s a place in the world where I could buy some girls?

I tried this in different environments: once in Brazil, imagining that some of the shanty towns would be right for corruption and abducting children. I had it set in the Mexican/Texas border at one time, but I always sort of thought that Eastern Europe would be a good place for it. That's where it ended up being. But it's important to me to show that, okay, this is a place where you could hide criminal activity, but the people fueling the criminal activity with money are North Americans, they're outsiders. They're Canadians or Americans, the wealthy from Asia, Africa, everywhere in the world. Wherever there's an upper class – a one percent that has so much money, they can completely victimize the vulnerable classes.

"I didn't use subtitles because I wanted the audience to be in the same kind of state of confusion and mystery that the girls are in."

NFS:I also really appreciated that you use different languages to hide certain details of the story. Like the girls only speak English, but the guards speak Russian.

Esterhazy: So the guards were speaking Russian and they're actually from Russia. The police at the end are speaking Belarusian. I spent a lot of time thinking about how Miro would devise this system to make it easy on himself. One of the ways you make sure that the guards aren't going to start sympathizing with the girls, and they're not going to start bonding and communicating is if they can't communicate with each other. It's a natural way to alienate them from each other without having to be observed over time. I didn't use subtitles because I wanted the audience to be in the same kind of state of confusion and mystery that the girls are in.

NFS:And the girls are switched to different floors and levels in order to break up any kinds of friendships.

Esterhazy: I think friendship is an incredibly powerful force and a part of the way the patriarchy survives is by the divide and conquer technique of keeping women apart from each other, keeping them in competition with each other, telling them they can't be allies and that they should be all fighting for male approval. That's how you keep them from changing the system. Miro and Brixel don't want these girls getting too tight, to help each other. They mix them up, they encourage them to report on each other, you know, which is a classic fascist technique as well. You divide the populous and keep them from helping one another.

Another thing I don't see enough of in films is a celebration of the friendship between young women. It seems like when you see young women in movies, their friendship is almost toxic or very surface level, very nasty, very insincere, or something that they have to outgrow to become adults because it's not good for them. You rarely see a movie where teen friendship is the thing that helps you get through things.

I had two best friends who made high school bearable, and when I look back at all those years, all I think about is how close we were and how important that was to me as a person. I wanted to celebrate that kind of friendship too.

Level_16_02_4web_largeDanishka Esterhazy's 'Level 16.'

NFS:And speaking about the patriarchy, you also include a subplot about the guards taking advantage of the girls being drugged.

Esterhazy: The history of patriarchy is the history of sexual abuse. It's rampant in educational institutions where there are vulnerable children. It's wrapped in the film industry. It's something we're all really aware of. Because I'm Canadian, I was thinking about the history of residential schools in Canada. We've tried to come to grips with that as a country and talk about the history of sexual abuse in residential schools.

When I first started writing this and I was researching orphanages and facilities that incarcerate young people, I thought there was no way this system would work if there wouldn't be some form of sexual abuse. There's just no way. I knew I had to include that as an element, but I didn't want it to be a titillating subplot. I didn't want there to be a graphic rape scene. It was trying to bare truth to what these conditions would be like.

NFS:How did you come up with the visual style of the film?

Esterhazy: My initial inspirations are two stories that were my touchstones, Jane Eyre, the novel, and Logan's Run, my favorite childhood film. In the novel, there's an orphanage for girls. So, I had a lot of images of Victorian orphanages in my mind, a kind of Oliver Twist type of thing. That really influenced the costumes and some of the environment. I then wanted to include some classic sci-fi stuff, I have references, so that is why we chose that sci-fi gray and the blue cool colors, the exposed lighting that feels almost futuristic. It's a created environment.

The final thing was that we embraced its setting in Eastern Europe. My idea was that this would be a repurposed building, like an old Soviet military building or an old Russian industrial building that has been abandoned and they've purchased it. It's behind some barbwire and they've blocked off all the windows. When we were location scouting, we found this great decommissioned police station in Toronto. It was great because it was built in the late thirties or early forties, which is totally perfect. The sort of brutalist modern building that you could find in Russian for sure, and also because it had been decommissioned and kind of abandoned for several years, it was already in a state of decay, which was really nice.

"I love world building and creation. It's my favorite thing."

NFS:From a director's standpoint, what was it like working with that many girls on set at any one time?

Esterhazy: That was really tricky because they're all in the same room all the time at night. I remember when we were doing the breakdown, one of the ADs was like, “Well, could we just have like three other girls in the room since only three of them are speaking?” I said, “No, they're all asleep in those beds and they have to always be in the room together.”

I had drawn a little schematic of the floor, and I always tracked where each girl was. In some shots I was in this hallway and I knew Clara is doing chores and this is shower time for Olivia. I tried to reflect where they would be at one time so they're not all just all together.

NFS:I was also intrigued by the world building aspect, because obviously there's so many different layers to the story. How did you decide how much detail to pour into your story?

Esterhazy: I love world building and creation. It's my favorite thing. I love going to movies and leaving with the feeling that in my imagination, we can walk through that world. There could be more stories here because it's so fully realized. I spent a lot of time on research, trying to create the timeline of when the facility was built, how many years everyone's been there, where the money came from and then the rules about what movies they've seen.

I made a really big lookbook of research and I shared it with all my cast and crew. It was great because we all had this shared history that was much deeper than what you see in the film, but we could reference it where we could be like, "yeah, this is when this happened."