Leah Meyerhoff really identifies with unicorns. In some ways, her debut directorial feature, titled I Believe in Unicorns (2015)—about a teen girl naively trying to cling to idealism and magic in a harsh world that keeps grounding her—was a direct precursor to her founding Film Fatales; the nonprofit pushing for parity for women and non-binary directors in film and TV. On International Women’s Day on March 8, LAMag sat down with Meyerhoff, who again invoked unicorns when asked to sum up her career in a single metaphor.
“There’s this pathological optimism that is required to try to create art when you are an outsider, and this persistence of, okay, I can’t get in the front door, like, let me sneak around through a back window,” said Meyerhoff, who was dressed in her typical all-black outfit; a remnant of her decade spent in New York where she attended NYU film school. “I think it’s quite easy to just give up and drop out in this industry… It is a broken system. Not just the systemic racism and sexism and vast discrimination that happens and hiring inequalities. On top of that, just the social element. It’s very much an industry of, you know, people hire who they know, and systemic inequity.”
This is especially resonant as the Academy is just days away from hosting its 95th Oscars ceremony in which women have been shut out of the Best Director category, despite a slew of big, female-helmed releases this year—Chinonye Chukwu’s Till, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King, and Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, to name a few.
Meyerhoff’s affinity for magical escapism and desire to break the status quo arose from an early age. She was born and raised in the Bay Area, the daughter of divorced parents and a mother who uses a wheelchair from the effects of Multiple Sclerosis since Meyerhoff was a toddler. At 7, Meyerhoff became her mother’s caretaker, which fostered an early sense of responsibility for others.
“I grew up really quickly… It was a really challenging childhood in many ways,” said Meyerhoff, who, as a teen, began to sneak into local arthouse theaters where she was first exposed to films from female directors like Allison Anders and Jane Campion. “Film was really an escape from the day-to-day reality of the traumas of high school. I think until then, my image of a director was like a white guy with a baseball cap… [Directing] never seemed viable to me. And then I saw those films and thought ‘oh, maybe there’s a way’.”
It seemed inevitable, then, that Meyerhoff would go on to study filmmaking at Brown and then NYU, among a cohort that included Cary Fukunaga and Chloe Zhao. Her thesis film, I Believe in Unicorns—starring an as-yet-undiscovered Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, and Julia Garner—is a portrait of teenhood etched in the disillusionment of first love and colored by elements of Meyerhoff’s own childhood (she cast her own mother in the film). Her directing debut, which premiered at SXSW, was met with acclaim by critics (Roger Ebert proclaimed Meyerhoff a “major new talent”). But soon, burdened with the urgent question of “what next?”, she began to wrestle with the financial and emotional realities of independent filmmaking.
“I was still naive. I was like, ‘oh, yeah, I’ll just direct these short films, I’ll win these awards, I’ll get offered a three-picture deal and I’m set’,” said Meyerhoff. “And then when I started to go out on the film festival circuit, I realized looking around me and anyone who wasn’t a cis, white man—especially women of color, especially queer folks—it was often five or 10 years between projects.
“I was like, ‘okay, I need to first figure out a day job or figure out how I’m going to continue to pay the rent, while I pursue my passion projects,” she said. “And I need to have a support network and a support community, because it can be so isolating, you know—emotionally and also physically isolating.”
Film Fatales was born out of Meyerhoff’s desire to create a sense of community for marginalized female and nonbinary filmmakers. What began as a pot-luck dinner for six directors hosted out of her Brooklyn living room in 2013, has since turned into an organization of more than 2,000 plus-members in more than 100 cities around the world.
In an industry where less than five percent of top box office films and less than 20 percent of episodic TV shows are directed by women, Film Fatales aims to connect women to each other and the industry through mentorship and career development programs like their upcoming “Parity Pipeline” initiative, as well as provides networking opportunities and various panels and workshops. Recently, one of the organization’s 50 volunteers nominated Meyerhoff for a $10,000 grant from M&M’S for “flipping the status quo inequality in filmmaking.” Meyerhoff was one of 20 recipients of the award, announced on Wednesday.
Still, the sobering absence of women in the Best Directing category at the Oscars and DGA awards this year represents the “two steps forward, one step back” stance taken by the industry as a whole, said Meyerhoff, who gave the example of Chloe Zhao’s directorial win for Nomadland in 2021.
“Her Oscar win was huge and really did break barriers. But then people are like, ‘okay we checked that box,’ you know, and they forget. And that’s the danger of tokenism,” she said. “Award ceremonies… really are markers of success for audiences, and getting that nomination, getting that award can propel a career. Black women in particular have been really thrown under the bus this year.”
Meyerhoff said that Hollywood snubbing the 2022 film Till is a prime example: “That film made millions at the box office. It was critically and financially successful—God, it did everything right. And to not be nominated by a roomful of voters who didn’t even watch the film. You know, it’s just soul-crushing.”
Meyerhoff is currently putting her own creative projects on the back burner to balance raising a young son with running an ever-expanding organization that has been buoyed by its own members’ continued achievements. Through participation in the Parity Pipeline, Isabel Sandoval became the first trans woman of color to screen at the Venice Film Festival in its 89-year history and is now directing for television.
“Those success stories bring me joy in a deeply meaningful way,” said Meyerhoff.
This year, Film Fatales also celebrated six of its members who were nominated in various categories at the Independent Spirit Awards, where member Nikyatu Jusu took home the “Someone to Watch” award for her film, Nanny. Jusu’s film was also the first horror feature to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize.
“You know, [Jusu is] breaking barriers everywhere she goes, but it shouldn’t be on her shoulders,” said Meyerhoff. “It shouldn’t be on these unicorns to have to change it for everybody else.”
For now, Meyerhoff is employing a healthy dose of magical thinking or “pathological optimism” that change is on the horizon: “It’s gonna be bumpy, and maybe next year will be better,” she said. “It’s a long path. It’s a long game.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.