With an atmosphere that evokes The Handmaid’s Tale and Orwell, Danishka Esterhazy’s Level 16 has attracted major attention at genre showcases throughout North America and Europe. It is a dark tale of teens discovering that their world is something very different than what they thought. The film opens in Toronto on March 15, 2019.
I first saw Level 16 at Blood In The Snow Canadian Film Festival (BITS) last November. Esterhazy, cast and crew were in attendance at the sold-out screening. The film received such a great response, and it was one of my personal favourites from the fest. Since then, I’ve been wanting to ask Esterhazy my 5 Questions… here is what she shared with me.
HM: Let’s start with how the concept for Level 16 came to be. I know you worked on it for some time. Please share how you went from idea to script.
Danishka Esterhazy (DE): I wrote the first draft of the script right after I graduated from film school in 2006. It was my goal to make female-driven science fiction films and horror films. But when I tried to get Level 16 financed – there was no interest from financers. Every year, I rewrote the script and we pitched new investors. But it took over 10 years to raise the money. I thought that Level 16 would be my first feature film but it ended up being my third.
HM: Once you were ready to start the production, how did you go about casting the film? [I saw the film at a BITS with cast & crew. I will say, the young women are great on-screen, but they also seem close as a group.]
DE: I was fortunate to find such great actors for this film. Most of the actors are from Toronto and a few are from Vancouver. All of the roles are demanding. So it took some time to find the right actors who could bring a deep range. I wrote the part of ‘Miss Brixil’ for Sara Canning. And I have been a fan of Peter Outerbridge and Sheila McCarthy for a long time. But all the other cast members were new to me. And they are incredible. Katie Douglas (Vivien) , Celina Martin (Sophia) and all the ‘Rose Hall Girls’ have big careers ahead of them.
HM: I particularly liked the cinematography and use of location in the film. Could you discuss how did you and cinematographer Samy Inayeh plan for the look of the film?
DE: Thank you. As a filmmaker, it is important to me that the cinematography reflects and illuminates the story. I don’t want beautiful shots for their own sake. The composition of every frame, the choice of lens, the colour palette – they should all be motivated by the story.
For Level 16, I used a lot of lower quadrant framing to reflect Vivien’s emotional isolation. And I used short sighting closeups to reflect the fragmented friendship of Vivien and Sophia. As the girls begin to connect, I used more conventional eye lines and composition. So, the cinematography changes as their relationship evolves.
Samy suggested anamorphic lenses – which brought a strong cinematic feel to the frames and helped build the sense of claustrophobia in the school. Then, because the locations do not change much, we designed a lighting shift and palette shift from Act to Act to reflect the evolution of the story.
HM: Level 16 has been called a feminist, sci-fi, dystopian film, which I think it’s cool. Would you agree with these ‘labels’?
DE: Yes. I identify as a feminist genre filmmaker. My films are female-driven and I am proud of that. I like to think that I am making films that help balance the strangely skewed casting and storytelling that we get from Hollywood. And dystopian sci-fi is one of my favorite genres. I hope that I get to tell more stories like Level 16!
HM: When I saw the film with an audience, it was great to catch their responses… Especially towards the end. The film has been doing the festival circle, can you share some of your more memorable experiences traveling with the film?
DE: I have been very happy with the warm audience response to the film. Especially after so many years of rejection from funders and distributors. I was told again and again: “there is no market for female-driven science fiction.” I think about that every time I do a Q&A and I see the excitement and appreciation in the audience. It is gratifying and vindicating.
I certainly hope to see more films like Level 16, and more films by Esterhazy. You have a chance to catch the film’s Toronto run at Cineplex Yonge & Dundas starting March 15, 2019. For screening times and tickets, visit cineplex.com.