Interview with Gabrielle Demeestere

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Indie feature Yosemite, starring James Franco and Henry Hopper, was recently acquired by Monterey Media with a U.S. theatrical released planned for this winter. We were lucky enough to interview writer/director Gabrielle Demeestere about the making of the film, working with three 10 years olds and her future projects…

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Can you tell us about how you got involved in the project?

James saw some of my short films when we were in the graduate filmmaking program at NYU together, and asked me if I would be interested in adapting some of his stories about childhood into a feature length script and directing the film.

The film is based on two short stories from James Franco’s “A California Childhood”. Why did you choose these stories and how was the process of adapting them for the screen like?

I loved adapting the stories because they’re very cinematic and have a lot of amazing visual and tactile details about what it feels like to be a child – details which became some of my favorite moments in the film (for example, when Joe lays the penny on the train tracks, or when Henry washes Joe’s feet with the hose).

James asked me to adapt two short stories, “Yosemite” (which became the first chapter of the film) and “Peter Parker” (the second chapter), so the main challenge was to figure out how to connect the stories together and find a dramatic arc for the film.

I ended up writing a third story (about Ted’s cat disappearing) because I liked the idea of preserving each story, as part of a triptych, so that we could get to know each boy separately. I had a strong memory from being that age and feeling like I had a private self, while at the same struggling time to assert a social self at school. I wanted each chapter to feel like the intimate life of one boy, who could later appear from a totally different perspective in another chapter.

This is your first feature film – did you ever feel overwhelmed by the challenge?

I felt a lot of momentum and excitement from having the opportunity to direct my first feature film, which didn’t give me too much time to question myself.

But I do remember trying to fall asleep the first night of the shoot, and suddenly being hit with the realization that I knew so little, and how there was no way to know something until I had actually done it. And finding it all hilarious.

It was exhilarating, in a way, to realize I couldn’t control everything, and that I had to give myself over to being open to the actors, trusting my collaborators and fully immersing myself in the experience of making the film.

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The child actors in the film were amazing. How was working with three 10 years old? How did you find them?

I loved working with them – they were excited to be in a film for the first time, and also strangely patient with me for 10 years old boys, and we developed a close relationship over the course of the shoot.
I spent a long time looking for the three main actors, because I knew that the casting would really make or break the film. I found the boy who plays Joe at an after school theater class in Brooklyn, when we first did a reading of the script at NYU. I also went out to the Bay Area on several research trips, and worked with a local casting director (Sarah Kliban) there to find the other two boys over the course of several months.

All the performances felt particularly real – did you rehearse with the actors or did you leave room for improvisation?

We didn’t really have the budget and time to rehearse, until the day of the shoot. But it was crucial, especially for the kids, to leave room for spontaneity and play, and not have them be overly tied to their lines. When they were less good with their lines, I would let them play out the scene in a different way, through actions alone. But because the script is carefully built on so many small incremental moments, there were specific times when we needed to make sure that a particular line or beat would end up in the film.

One of my directing mentors at NYU, Ira Sachs, also gave me an amazing tip which was never to call “Action” during the classroom scenes, but instead have the teacher actually teach the class (incorporating the lines from the script) and roll the cameras, which allowed for very spontaneous performances from the children.

Can you tell us about working with two DP’s, Chananun Chotrungroj and Bruce Thierry Cheung?

We were all in the graduate program at NYU together and they’re both very talented cinematographers. Bruce was born in Hong Kong and raised in California, and Chananun is from Thailand, and I love that they both share a foreign perspective on the US with me.

Initially I asked Bruce to shoot the film, because we work very well together – he’s an incredibly positive and soulful person who is great at injecting a low budget shoot with a can-do attitude, and also finding the poetry in everyday moments. We quickly realized that we would need two cameras to make our days with child actors work on such a tight schedule (17 days) – so he suggested that I ask Chananun to come on board as a co-DP/B camera. I was really excited by the visual ideas she brought to the table and the mood boards she created. It was sometimes a little disorienting for the camera crew to deal with us as a triangular force, but, in the end, though it was a very rushed process, it allowed us to get the film we wanted made.

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In the film there’s this subtle but constant sense of threat – was that something you always had in mind, or was it something you developed during the post production?

I always thought of the mountain lion framework as a way to create suspense and also bring out the children’s hidden fears and anxieties – but I didn’t realize how much dread and tension was in the film until we had edited a rough cut. Once we saw the first cut, the editor, Joe Murphy, and I realized that the fear of something bad happening was a strong thematic thread throughout the film, which we wanted to amplify through the edit, and eventually also through sound and music.

We realized that the film was not only about the fear that the children are grappling with for the first time, but also the dangers that we as adults come to grasp more clearly when we look back on our childhoods.

When did you decide you wanted to be in films? What inspired you as a writer/director?

I grew up in Paris and fell in love with film as a teenager. I tried to read every book on filmmaking I could get my hands on. I went to see a lot of classic and art house films, at a time in Paris when everything ever made was playing in a movie theater on any given day.

As a teenager, film made me feel connected to the world, because it gave me a way to process things in both an intellectual and emotional manner – but it took me a while to find the courage to make my own films. I was always jotting down little ideas and scenarios, but it wasn’t until I went to film school that I really found the confidence to make films, and understood what it was like to be part of a collaborative process and also to take risks.

What’s next for you? Any dream-projects in the making?

I’m writing an original script – a dark comedy with a strong female lead character. I’m also developing an idea for a TV show with my close friend Leopoldine Despointes, based on her life, about a French girl in a wheelchair who moves to New York to become an actress.

My dream project would be to make a television series about a 70s Northern California commune, where everyone is prancing around naked all the time, but I’m not sure TV is quite ready for that yet.

Don’t forget to read our Yosemite review here.

Elisa was born in the small town of Udine, Italy, where she made her first short films. Aged 18 she moved to London where she achieved a degree in Film & Broadcast Production with her film "A Tragedy", based on William Shakespeare's "Macbeth". She recently pursued a Master degree in Screenwriting for TV and Film thus joining the group of struggling writers. Ssst! She's brainstorming.