Danishka Esterhazy on her decade-long journey to make her feminist sci-fi thriller Level 16

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Oct 15, 2018, 4:04 PM EDT

The goal is to be a "clean girl." Stay in line. Wash your face. Take your vitamins. Embrace the feminine virtues: obedience, cleanliness, patience, and humility. These lessons in female submission are the core curriculum of the Vestalis boarding school, where girls are not taught to read or write, but instead prepared to be picture-perfect adopted daughters for wealthy clients. At least that's what the headmistress says. But one terrible night awakens Vivien to something deeply sinister going on within the bowels of this strange academy in the dystopian thriller, Level 16.

Ahead of its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with Level 16's writer/director Danishka Esterhazy about the feminist film's inspirations, sexist obstacles to production, and decade-long journey to the big screen.

Ahead of our meeting, we spotted Esterhazy at a kick-off lunch event. She was the first to volunteer to participate in the champagne/saber tradition, in which filmmakers are invited up to see if they can clearly slice off the top of a champagne bottle without it exploding. The festival's co-founder Tim League held the bottle, while Esterhazy gave a swing of the saber to success! A clean slice is said to be a good omen of a smooth production on her next project. And she got to keep the severed top, its green glass a beautiful but razor-sharp point around the still embedded cork. "I kept my little cork top," she confessed, "They warned me it was very sharp but I've been safe, I've been careful. I've kept it for good luck."

"I've always wanted to come to Fantastic Fest," Esterhazy told us. "I've never been here. And the minute I arrived at The Alamo (Drafthouse, where the festivities are centered) everyone was just greeting us with figuratively open arms. And so going to that luncheon was pretty great, because when he said, 'Directors, step to the front,' I pretty much just ran for that sword. I really wanted to saber that bottle. It was a great way to start the festival."

Esterhazy's career in film began 15 years before. "I'm originally from Winnipeg in Canada," she explained. "There's a co-op there for filmmakers called Winnipeg Film Group, of which, I guess it's most famous member's probably Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World). And so I started there, making short films. Then I went to film school in Toronto, and then the Canadian Film Centre, and the Director's Lab. And then I graduated and actually immediately wrote Level 16. I wanted it to be my first feature. But because we were turned down for funding, again and again, I wrote two totally different features."

The historical drama Black Field became Esterhazy's directorial feature debut, then the modern fairy tale H&G became her follow-up. But all the while, she hoped to get Level 16 greenlit. It ended up being 10 years from the first draft to the film's world premiere.

"It was really eye-opening," she said of the journey. "I guess because it was my first screenplay I was trying to get funded. I love genre, so I wrote genre. And then I went into all these rooms where people were like, 'There's no place for women in genre, women don't like genre.' I'm sitting right here, liking genre. They were like, 'No one will go see genre that stars all women,' and I was like, 'This is crazy!'"

"The people making these decisions aren't genre fans," Esterhazy said. "So they don't know. It's just really weird sexism, so really frustrating. Then I went and actually wrote scripts in another vein. So my first feature that actually got funded was a historical drama that's in the style of a Brontë novel but set in Canada. Which I thought was like, 'You think my sci-fi film's weird, my Canadian Brontë film is really weird!' But I got that one funded, and then my second film was like a modern re-telling of Hansel and Gretel. So it's about child poverty, it's kind of a social realist film with a fairy-tale element to it. That's a really tough story about child abandonment, poverty, but I got that one made."

"There's still so many misconceptions about women directors," she mused. "First of all, people never think you're a director when you meet them. I've been on film sets to visit the director, and I always get asked the same question, they're like, 'Oh, you in makeup?' Or, 'Are you a parent of one of the child actors?' (laughs) That's the other question I get all the time. But it's like, 'No. Actually, I'm a director.' But people just have an image in their head of what a director is and it hasn't changed yet. I think it's changing but it hasn't yet."

Esterhazy also was confronted by sexism over the content of Level 16. "Well there was a lot of pushback against an all-female cast," she began. "Not that it's an entirely female cast but it's mostly. So that worried people. But that was the reason I wrote it was to make a sci-fi film with a lot of women in it."

"A lot of people thought because it was about teen girls, that (teen girls) wouldn't see the film if there wasn't a romance element," Esterhazy shared. "So could I somehow--could there be a guard who's an attractive teen boy who, like, switches sides? Could there be some way to have a love triangle or (have Vivien) fall in love with a boy somehow? And I was like, 'That is not my story, that's totally not going to happen.' Sometimes these are good meetings because you realize someone who would say that doesn't get the film. And so you can't really make the film with them 'cause they just don't understand it."

"And then there was a lot of advice about sexing it up, and showing the girls showering naked," she continued. "Suggesting their clothes be really revealing and attractive, and all these things. But I'm trying to make a film about female exploitation in patriarchy, right? So actually, (those suggestions) made me so angry. I think I went in the absolute opposite direction in terms of only doing the wardrobe choices where I was like, 'These clothes are going to be so unattractive, and it's not going to be about focusing the eye on these girls' bodies at all. It's about their minds.' So, that's what I did."


When it came to establishing the doctrine of this oppressive academy, Esterhazy looked to historical documents and modern religious movements for inspiration. "I read quite a few Victorian etiquette guidebooks on how to be a good young lady," she said. "And they're so interesting. I have a history degree, so I'm really big on history. But I love reading those because it seems so alien. And yet the values in those etiquette books, we're still embracing them today, just in different ways. So I try to include some language that was pulled directly from the Victorian etiquette books."

"Then I also did some research into some contemporary ultra-religious movements," Esterhazy explained. "Like there's the Good Wife Movement, which is where people are promoting wifely submissiveness, and that's completely contemporary. But there's all these arguments like, 'God intended man to be the leader of the family.' So these men and women take these vows that they will embrace these roles of the man is the leader and the woman is submissive. It just terrifies me completely."

"The vices and virtues are supposed to be something that (the Academy's director) Dr. Miro wrote up to keep the girls docile, to encourage them to embrace conformity," Esterhazy concluded. "And it's not that far from things we do teach girls."

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