In M.F.A., director Natalia Leite and writer/co-star Leah McKendrick effectively rip into the complexities of rape culture, specifically on college campuses, with their revenge thriller about an art student (Francesca Eastwood) whose frustrations mount when her school won’t do anything to help her after she’s attacked. Once Eastwood’s character, Noelle, realizes that she’s not the only who has suffered an injustice, she sets out to right the wrongs against herself and her fellow female classmates, taking out one abuser at a time.
While at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Leite, McKendrick, Eastwood, and producer Mike Manning about the project, their approach to the challenging material in M.F.A., and more.
I watched this movie and I have to admit it absolutely ripped my soul out. I’ve seen other rape revenge movies before, but the way you handled the material here felt like it had such a different perspective. I’d love to start with you, Natalia, and hear what it was that you saw in this script at the beginning.
Natalia Leite: When this script came to me, Leah had written it, and I felt a personal connection to it, so I really wanted to do it. We spent hours, myself and the DP, Aaron Kovalchik, watching other rape scenes and other rape revenge movies, thinking about how could we make this one different. I feel like a lot of those stories, those rape revenge movies, are directed by men, so there's inherently a different gaze of what's going on. And in a messed up way, some of them are slightly fetishized.
We wanted to make something that's like, “How can we be really genuine?” So that people who have maybe gone through this experience in some way will connect to our story and feel a cathartic release in the revenge part of it, and do it in a different way than what we've seen before, where's it very raw, but isn't sexualizing this act in any way. We had to try to make Noelle’s experiences feel as real and visceral as possible.
Leah, what was your approach to this character in terms of writing her, and to the story overall?
Leah McKendrick: I approached it a bit as an actor, because predominantly that's what I've done and that's what I do as an actor. It's really important to me that there's a metamorphosis of a character, that there's a large character arc—just the way that a trauma like this changes you as a person, and how I feel in my past, things that had been very traumatic have changed me completely as a person. Sometimes I wish I could be who I used to be, and that's why she talks a lot about that in the film.
I hope that people see the film and questions are raised. Maybe you're not meant to sleep so well at night, maybe you're not meant to be so comfortable, and your eyes are maybe not meant to be closed. Maybe you're supposed to be a little uncomfortable with the state of the world.
Natalia Leite: There's a character transformation that happens, which is something I talked about a lot with Francesca, which is Noelle still figuring out her place in the world, and then she has this traumatic experience. I feel like how you respond to these experiences shapes who you become a lot.
Francesca, for you coming into this, your character becomes this anti-hero that takes on this really heavy and important social issue that a lot of young women are dealing with. Was that a huge appeal for you coming into this project, or were there other aspects of Noelle as a character that you fell in love with?
Francesca Eastwood: Yeah, when I read the script, I sat down and I read it in record time. I was going to just browse through it and ended up going through the whole thing. It was flawless, and it really spoke to me. I thought it was powerful that it normalizes the discussion of rape. Typically, it’s a topic that there's a stigma around—it's hard to talk about and there's a lot of shame. I think that like in the film, there's a theme of art, which is a way to comment on it and to speak about it.
Hopefully this film lets people know that you're not alone and there are ways to heal. Sometimes things happen to you, and once you’ve gone through something traumatic, the act of having to overcome it makes you a stronger person. That was the message that I got from it. I loved it.
In terms of producing, Mike, was there something in particular that made you want to get involved with this project?
Mike Manning: For me, it started very casually. Leah and I were friends before this experience. We were just talking and I said, "What are you up to now?" She told me the story and I said, "Okay, cool. Send me the script, I'll give it a read." And much like Francesca, I read it all in one sitting and I thought that the story was phenomenal. I called her and I said, “I want to hear more about this."
She told me about why she did it, why she wrote the script, her plan for making the film, and I said, "I don't know what that looks like, but I want to be involved. Let me know how I can help. I want to be a part of this story." It was that simple. And every step of the way, it's been watching Leah take her vision and go above and beyond what she said she was going to do, every step of the way. I just couldn't be happier with the way things ended up. It was a random thing, but it all boils down to the story for me.
When it comes to the trauma and the violence that comes with the act of rape, a lot of people see everything in this very black-and-white issue sort of way. With M.F.A., you guys really dove into some of the more complicated responses and emotions. Was that the biggest challenge coming into this project?
Natalia Leite: Definitely. A lot of that's in the script. We thought about how this issue affects this whole community, not just the person who was the rapist and the person who is the survivor. We wanted to show how all different sides are being affected by the issue. There's a guy at the end that says, “I'm sorry, I know what I did. I didn't want to do this.” He admits to having messed up and done something horrible, and that's a really big turning point in the film and it was a really important scene for Leah to put in the movie.
All Noelle really wanted at the end of the day was to get that acknowledgement where it’s like, "I hear you, I know you're here and I messed up. I take responsibility and apologize." That’s not to say it's an excusable crime ever, but the world would be so much better if people could apologize for their crimes. We wanted to show that, how it is a tricky thing from all sides.
Leah McKendrick: For me, it was really important while writing the script that it wasn't so clear-cut, where you have the good guys and the bad guys, that it was more of an ambiguous thing and that the emotions are not so simple and easy to figure out for yourself, and how to deal with them. But what happens if the system fails you, or if you're not ready to talk to a therapist, or if the world doesn't acknowledge your pain, or your rapist doesn't acknowledge the damage they’ve caused? How are you expected to just let it go? How far must we bend until we break as women that experience sexual assault? That is my question.
Francesca, there’s a lot that’s required of your character in this movie, both physically and emotionally. Do you have to build trust with both your director and your co-stars before you can really put yourself into a role as raw as this one?
Francesca Eastwood: It's obviously a big risk. I made a decision when I met these two women to trust them, and I knew that they trusted me. That’s all any of us could do. After that, the commitment was made and we put it all out there.
Shooting out of order was interesting, though. This project was a really challenging thing for me because it's such an important topic. I loved the script so much and I wanted to do it justice, very much like the character, so I felt a lot of pressure to do the best work I possibly could.
Leah McKendrick: I actually wrote the role of Noelle for myself, but over the course of getting it financed, and producing it, and finding my director, finding my team, it became apparent to me that having someone else come in and play Noelle was probably the best for the film. If it’s me as the lead, nobody sees my film, and I feel like it was all for nothing. But putting someone like Frannie in the lead, who is about to be a big star, who's so talented, I was not prepared to give up this role unless it was to somebody that I absolutely, one thousand percent believe is meant to play Noelle. And I felt that with Frannie.
Stay tuned to Daily Dead for more reviews and interviews from SXSW, and in case you missed it, check out our other live coverage of the film festival.