Clout Communications

This weekend Frightfest takes over the Glasgow Film Festival to offer up some alternative content. One film screening is Level 16. Set in an unspecified time, the film follows a group of teenage girls who live inside an educational institution. The girls have never seen the light of day and are raised to follow the female virtues, the goal to remain a ‘clean’ girl. At the age of sixteen, Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celina Martin) begin to investigate their environment and realise that there is a dark secret to their imprisonment.

Directed by Danishka Esterhazy, Level 16 a female-driven science-fiction film with a strong dystopian edge. In the wake of the Time’s Up movement, and shows such as The Handmaiden’s Tale, the story couldn’t be more relevant, and we sat down with Danishka to talk in-depth about the project.

Level 16 screens at Frightfest Glasgow and a lot of those attendees will likely be reading this trying to find out more about the film, can you just explain a little of what the film is about?

Level 16 is a story about a group of sixteen year old girls, whom live in a prison-like boarding school. It’s the only world they’ve ever known, they’ve never been outside. It’s about two young women, Vivien and Sophia, who team up to try and uncover the dark secret behind their imprisonment at that school.

Now if I’ve done my research correctly, it seems that Level 16 took a long time to come to the screen, what was that journey like?

Yes (chuckles) it was a long journey. I wrote this film right after graduating from film school, a little over ten years ago. I wanted it to be my first feature length film. I’d made about a dozen short films and I was looking to leap into longer format film-making. But I couldn’t raise any interest in the story. I found producers and they loved the film, but we took the screenplay to funders at film markets all over the world – this was ten years ago- and we couldn’t find any investors who were interested. Any broadcasters or distributors who thought the idea was exciting. Which really surprised me because I myself am a huge fan of science fiction and I’m a huge fan of dystopian thrillers and I thought, ‘well that’s a genre that is really wonderful and has a strong fan-base, but there isn’t really anyone telling stories in that world with a female point of view. With a female cast and a female protagonist.’

I thought that Level 16 was really going to address the lack of that kind of story being available, but when I first took it out to shop the story around there seemed to be this very deep misunderstanding about who watches science-fiction. I heard from many funders this idea, this misconception that science-fiction is a genre that is only appreciated by a male audience and that no one would be interested in a science-fiction with the female gaze. So there was a lot of no’s, a lot of rejection during the fundraising process. But my producer Judy Holm was quite wonderful, she never gave up and while she was continuing to fight to try and raise the money to make the film, I continued to go out and make two other feature films. So Level 16 actually ended up being my third feature.

When watching the film I got a very strong sort of Young Adult adaptation vibe and yet it’s not based on a novel, where did the idea come from?

Well it’s really kind of amusing for me because when I wrote this story, over a decade ago, the Young Adult movie experience hadn’t really happened. The Hunger Games had not come out, Twilight had not come out, so when I was writing this I didn’t really have that in mind at all. I was thinking more I think of classic science-fiction that deals with stories of children and young adults. I think I was thinking of concepts like Ender’s Game. One of the big inspirations that fed into my writing of this story was actually the first part of the novel Jane Eyre that takes place in the Lowood Orphanage for Girls. I really loved the way that that backstory unfolded between Jane and Helen in that Bronte novel. I thought I’d really like to tell a science-fiction about young women and set it in a school set environment, I thought that was a really interesting story. But I wasn’t trying to tap into any sort of Young Adult novels or marketing. Then, by the time this film actually got made, that is a genre that people are really familiar and so it’s been labelled as Young Adult, which is fine, it just wasn’t one of my goals.

Clout Communications

Well if ever you wanted to go back to it, I think you’ve got one Hell of a book in there as well as the film.

Thanks! One of the really fun parts of telling a story that’s science-fiction is this world creation. I certainly spent a lot of time writing backstories and histories and timelines about the Vestalis Academy. It’s a world I feel really familiar with and I think there’s definitely more stories that could be told in that world.

This is a story featuring teenage girls, they’re all locked up together, they can drugged and taken away at night, it being a film playing at genre festivals I fully expected it to go down a very different route. Was there any pressure to take it into the more expected direction?

Yes I think so. I think that was one of the really frustrating parts of the development process and trying to get this film made. I was trying to tell a story about the experience of being a teenage girl, trying to describe that experience truthfully, and with some insight as someone who was once a teenage girl. To try and show what emotionally and intellectually what that period of your life can be like.

When I would bring this story to funders, whom in this industry is still incredibly unrepresentative and full of inequality, so for the majority of time I was pitching to nobody but white men through the whole process of trying to raise the money. When I would pitch them the story, they would immediately go to kind of a teen sexploitation approach to the film. They would say, ‘oh the girls have to be really beautiful’, ‘oh their costumes have to be really revealing’, ‘you have to show the girls showering naked’, ‘there has to be scenes of sexual exploration’. That wasn’t the story I was trying to tell at all.

I was trying to tell a story about what it’s like to be a young woman in a world, in an educational system that undervalues you as a human being, that does everything it can to discourage your independence and your critical thought and your personal power. That was the story I thought was really interesting and exciting, I wasn’t trying to tell a story through a male gaze about how sexually titillating these characters are. Maybe one of the reasons so many of those meetings turned into a negative was that I knew the story that I wanted to tell and I refused to go down an exploitative path. People I think were very surprised and confused by that.

Clout Communications

Our society still seems to enforce a lot of the values within Level 16 for young women. How important is for you to get the message out there that women can be so much more?

I think it’s so important. I still feel that our society and our educational system does such a great injustice to young women. There’s so many reasons why women don’t have equality in terms of job opportunities and leadership opportunities, and it starts early. It starts with how we raise young girls. We teach young girls to be agreeable. We teach young women to focus on putting others at ease and to be help and be of assistance. With men, they take on the world, they take on roles of leadership and power. We have to empower young women to step up, to have a chance to develop themselves to the fullness of their opportunities as a human. I think we’re doing the world an injustice by encouraging young women to be less and encouraging girls to lessen themselves just to be accepted into society. Even though the world of the Vestalis Academy is fictional and is taken to an extreme, I definitely think it sheds a light on how we raise young women, right now, today.

The girls watch a lot of films, were they created specifically for the film, or where they actual videos that already existed?

All the films are real yeah. The film noir and the Vivien Leigh movie, those are real classic movies and the educational videos they watch are all American school system education videos from the forties and the fifties. I watched a ton of educational videos from that period which I found incredibly amusing in their deep sexism. There is actually more scenes of the girls watching educational videos that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film. But the misogyny the school system had in that period is actually quite shocking.

I also read a lot of Victorian and early twentieth century etiquette manuals that would give tips to young women on how to become proper ladies and I incorporated a lot of those direct messages from those guides into the Vestalis rules and lessons. I didn’t invent it all, it was all there, I just moved it around a little to make it fit in with the world of the film.

When I was watched those videos in the film I just thought these are just so insane in what they’re saying, they have to be real.

Yeah, (laughs) and the REALLY sexist ones didn’t even make it into the cut. There’s tons of these videos that are supposed to be historic lessons about hygiene and behaviour, but the absolute message is, ‘young women, your entire focus must be to present yourself in a way that is appealing and will get you approval from the young men in your life’. The inequality is stark and yet amusing.

You have a young cast and they all go through the gauntlet of emotions and Katie Douglas is in practically every scene, what was it about her at the audition stage that made you know she was right for Vivien?

Well we looked at a lot of actors to try and find Vivien because you’re absolutely right, she’s such a key role. She carries the film so I knew we had to have an amazing actor for the role. What Katie brought was a huge range. She could go from very vulnerable and very fragile to incredibly fierce. That’s not a range you find that often in young actors. To be able to do vulnerability all the way to power and Katie can do that. Katie can do really anything! She’s such an incredible actor.

I had not been familiar with her work before we auditioned her. She’s quite well know in Canada for her role on a series called Mary Kills People, but I had not seen her work until the audition. Even at her very first audition she was incredible. We then did a few callbacks and I had a chance to meet her and talk with her and really discuss the story on a deeper level. Then I knew she was a really good fit. Then we almost didn’t get her because she was so busy on that show. We really had to negotiate with the producers for her because she was so busy on her other role. But we managed to get her and I’m really glad we did because she shines in the film. I think she has a very bright future ahead of her as an actor.

One other thing I liked when I watched it was the set design and the colour, everything was shades of teal and grey, were these choices intentional to get across the message of the film?

Yes absolutely. Colour palette is something I always find very important in film-making. I really feel that you have to make different colour palette choices to tell you story thematically. It’s generally one of the first things I start working on. Me and Dianea Magnus sat down and talked about the colour palette a lot. I wanted some different options with the palette. Obviously it’s science-fiction and I do love the convention of sci-fi grey (laughs) as a colour. I think it can bring a great sense of authoritarian and bleakness to the film, but we wanted to round that out. So we actually ended up with a colour palette design that changes during the movie.

Everything starts very cool blues and teals, everything all one colour to emphasis the lack of emotions and the element of captivity in the school. The colour palette changes as the girls finally begin to awaken, when Vivien stops taking the pills we started to bring in some hints of yellow and orange. Then in the final part of the film we bring it a lot more of the red to represent danger, threat of death, to really show their emotionally evolution from being quite sedated and quite unaware of the truth of their world becoming awakened and empowered at the end of the movement. That was a fun element and Diana was so great at weaving that colour palette into every choice and every set and stepping it up so the set design has a character arc as well.

Clout Communications

The film screens at Frightfest Glasgow alongside films about giant ants, dangerous sea creatures and murder, what will audiences get that they won’t get from other films on the line-up?

We’ve been playing a lot of horror and genre festivals and it’s always a bit of an outlier. It never looks like the other films. Whether it’s an art-house film or a horror film, Level 16 is always a little strange. It’s strongly female driven and it’s really truly a dystopian genre film. But I’ve been really surprised and thrilled at how well the audience respond to it, how receptive they are to it. I think it’s because the story has universal appeal. It’s a story about challenging authority and it’s a story about friendship. So even if someone’s not a hardcore fan of dystopia, and they’re just there to seek out a female driven film I think those universal themes make it enjoyable for a wider audience.

It was announced this week that you’re next project in a horror film involving children’s favourites The Banana Splits. What if anything can you tease about the project?

It’s quite an adventure. We have an amazing cast. What really drew me to the project is that in addition to the wonderful dark humour is that the core story, the story of Beth and of Harley is about a mother and a son. It’s a story again about encouraging children to be themselves, to embrace their full humanity and to resist the forces that try to make us lesser and the forces that make us conform. So there’s a lot of similar themes strangely between them. I hope people will come to it to get scared and to laugh at the film, but also be intrigued by this other story.

Level 16 screens as part of Frighfest Glasgow.