Tag Archives: Heartland Film Festival

HIFF 2022: Interview with The Moon and Back Writer/Director Leah Bleich

The Moon & Back

Below is my conversation with the writer and director of The Moon and Back, an official selection at the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival, and her directorial debut. We discuss the intimidation factor of working with well-known stars, the themes of the movie, and the impact that home movies had on her growing up. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Sears: You only had nine days to shoot the movie, so what was it like to be thrown into that kind of chaos?

Leah Bleich: It was really challenging, I think that our shooting schedule was one of the biggest challenges of the project. I think the only thing that was more difficult was the amount of prep time we had because that was really expedited as well, but I think there’s something really beautiful and fun about not having room to think or dwell or over-think while you’re on set. At every point you just have to keep moving, and that leads to a really charged environment where everyone is doing their job. It’s exhausting but there’s something very fun about that too.

BS: Did the final product have to change at all because of the shortened schedule?

LB: A bit. There was a B-plot that just wasn’t playing when we got into post-production, and part of that was that there was a scene that we just couldn’t get to during production, and it just wasn’t core to the story, which was where the audience was going to be investing emotionally. There were compromises that we made, but I’m very happy that we weren’t forced to cut anything or make sacrifices that affected the central emotional rhythm of the movie.

BS: You’ve directed a few short films before this. Were there any differences in your working style from making a short film versus a feature?

LB: Absolutely. I think the biggest change from my perspective, not necessarily in terms of working style, but one thing that took me by surprise was that, despite the budgetary and time constrictions, this was the first time that I realized what it felt like to be a director, where everybody else was a professional doing their job, and I wasn’t there with a backpack full of all of the props and costume changes. It was a very exciting thing to realize that I had stepped into a team where everybody was supporting one another and I wasn’t just doing everything myself. I think, with short films, unless you’re doing a well-financed short film, you’re just handling everything yourself.

BS: And you’re working with established actors like Nat Faxon and Missi Pyle. Was there a level of intimidation that came with that?

LB: Oh my gosh, absolutely! I don’t think I could overstate that. I remember on my first day of production, we were using my producer’s apartment as a home base, and just that feeling of stepping into her house and knowing that Missi Pyle was in a bedroom getting her hair and makeup done. I’m so honored that they gave me the time, and it was highly educational.

BS: One of your mentors also was Cathy Yan. What kind of advice did she give you, or help you out with?

LB: Contextually, because The Moon & Back was produced through Wayfarer Studios’ competition, they matched each of us with a mentor. Cathy was someone they reached out to and paired her up with me, which I was so excited about because she’s incredible. She was there for every step of the process, and she’s in New York, so we would have Zoom or phone calls. At the transition point between every major stage, whether it was pre-production or production, or post-production, we’d typically get on the phone for an hour or two and talk about everything from the fears that come into place to advice, things to avoid or celebrate. It was a really lovely experience and I’m very grateful to have worked with her.

BS: Coming-of-age films usually feel like they’re at least partially inspired by the filmmakers’ real-life experience. Was that the case with you, or was it a totally original creation?

LB: That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot, especially when we were initially sending out the script. I got a lot of questions about whether it was a true story because there are a lot of natural overlaps: I was a filmmaker making a movie for no money, and so was Lydia. We’re both women and we have a lot of shared characteristics. There’s a lot of myself in Lydia, and in the characters that I wrote, but it’s definitely not a true story either. I’m very grateful that my dad is still here and still alive, and hasn’t written any screenplays – as far as I know, although I’d be glad to hop in there if he chose to do so. So I would say that a lot of it is based in reality. The idea came into existence while I was home during the pandemic, staying with my family for a little bit as we were in that really scary moment, so it’s drawn from a real, emotional place, but I’m also grateful that it’s not based in reality. 

BS: Did you or anyone in your family make home videos when you were growing up?

LB: Yea, definitely. I had been playing around with VHS’s before I found out about the Wayfarer competition. It’s funny, when I found out about the Wayfarer competition, I knew they were looking for movies that could be made for a really small amount of money, and I was trying to figure out what my unique angle could be to win. I had previously made a short film on VHS and was having a really fun time playing on VHS, so I had initially pitched this as a VHS story, like a found footage kind of coming-of-age story, because it could stand out and be produced for a small amount of money. It ended up transforming into something else, and I’m really glad that we went the direction that we did. This is all to say that I love VHS and it’s something that I grew up with, and I spent a lot of time digging through the archives of our own home movies. There’s actually a clip of me as a baby, in the montages, subbed in for baby Lydia.

BS: Do you want to continue working in the coming-of-age genre? Did Cathy Yan pitch you on the next DC project?

LB: [Laughs] I love coming-of-age. I certainly wouldn’t turn down a bigger project, but I love big stories, stories with heart. Any project that marries a sense of love and joy, and emotional grounding, with a story that also gets your heart racing is exciting to me. As a creator and a writer, there’s a lot of reason to continue to build in the coming-of-age genre, and it’s something that I can’t get enough of. I’m very happy to continue to work in that space for now, but I wouldn’t say that my ambitions are small in terms of the kinds of things that I’d like to make, but I look forward to continuing to expand as a filmmaker.

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HIFF 2022: What We Do Next, Home Is Somewhere Else, and It Happened One Weekend

It Happened One Weekend is filled with so much affection for Indianapolis that you’d swear its writer/director/star was a native of the city. Filmed mostly around downtown Naptown, Zac Cooper’s film is a kind of take on When Harry Met Sally… as it explores two long-time friends and their budding romantic feelings for one another. The film doesn’t exactly break new ground in the romantic comedy department, but Cooper and co-star Merry Moore have palpable chemistry together, and it serves to highlight some of Indianapolis’ brightest spots. Shot in black and white, the film shows that Cooper knows how to craft an engaging story, and can lead a film both in front of and behind the camera. Indy residents will appreciate the spotlight on some underappreciated landmarks, but film fans in general will appreciate Cooper’s engaging characters and relatable story.

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If you’re among the many that liked last year’s Oscar-nominated Flee, you’re likely to enjoy Home is Somewhere Else, and not just because it’s another animated documentary about immigrants. But whereas Flee told one man’s traumatic experiences in a foreign land, Home is Somewhere Else is more of a triptych, comprising three short stories about migrating from Mexico to the United States. Each segment is introduced by a type of emcee, who spews platitudes about home and longing, and each segment has its own unique animation style. This creative decision adds to the sense that each of the stories comes from a personal place, rather than a uniform experience. The stories range from those of young adults to children, but they all share a common theme of fear. Fear of fitting in, fear of the authorities, and fear of forgetting their birthplaces. Thankfully directors Carlos Hagerman and Jorge Villalobos steer the film away from tugging at heartstrings and stick to telling their subjects’ stories with an emotional honesty that will resonate after the credits roll.

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What We Do Next shares a lot of similarities with Mass, one of Heartland’s biggest hits from last year. The film bills itself as a story told in seven parts, and each of those parts unfolds as a sort of short play, with a story that continues to build in tension and stakes. Specifically, it’s a film about a young girl named Elsa (Michelle Veintimilla) who was born fighting an uphill battle and was never given the tools to succeed. After a heartbreaking opening during Elsa’s childhood, the film picks up after she’s been released from prison for murdering her father, who molested her. But it turns out that Sandy James (Karen Pittman), an up-and-coming politician, may or may not have supplied Elsa the money to buy the firearm used to kill her father. Thus begins a back-and-forth that spirals throughout the film of bribery and underhanded tactics to make one party look less culpable than another. Also brought into the fray is Paul (Corey Stoll), an attorney and former partner/fling of Sandy’s. The film can’t help but feel like a stage play; each scene is contained within its own location, and only utilizes the three actors. The only times we see New York City is in the interstitials, when we can track Sandy’s political career through a radio narrator. Sometimes the profundity that director Stephen Belber seeks works, like when race is brought into play in such a sticky legal situation, and sometimes the tightly-packed dialogue lacks the emotional oomph it needs. At a brisk 77 minutes, What We Do Next announces itself as efficient, effective cinema that shows confidence on the page and behind the lens.

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