Interview: Danishka Esterhazy Talks “Level 16”

Source: IMDB

“Level 16” was one of those films I could not wait to watch. Written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy, it offers a grim look into the closed and highly strict boarding school where two students discover the true intention of that institution and its plan for the girls after they succeed their long-awaited level 16.

As there’s a lot to talk about “Level 16” that has already been reviewed for Let The Movie Move Us, I am sure you will have a desire to dig deep after reading the interview with Danishka Esterhazy who gladly agreed to provide an insight into the world of “Level 16”, and more importantly how it all started.

MOVIEMOVESME: How was the idea born to write and direct “Level 16”?

Danishka Esterhazy: I am a huge fan of science fiction. But it is a genre that, until recently, has not had many female-driven stories. So I wanted to write a great dystopian story about young women. I wrote the first draft of the script right after I graduated from film school in 2006. But when I tried to get Level 16 financed – there was no interest from financers. 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.

MOVIEMOVESME: 10 years is a long time. Why did it take so long to bring it to the screen?

Danishka Esterhazy: I think the film industry (investors and broadcasters and distributors) have for many years misunderstood the genre. I was told again and again that science fiction fans are all young white men. But the genre community (fans of science fiction and horror and fantasy) are very diverse. There have always been women fans. There are fans of all ages and ethnicities. There is an appetite for more diverse storytelling. The gatekeepers, for a very long time, did not understand this. But I think that attitude, those misconceptions, are finally changing.

MOVIEMOVESME. How challenging was it to develop the story through your script? Can you reveal the type of research you had to do for it?

Danishka Esterhazy: One of my inspirations for the Vestalis Academy was the Lowood Institution for orphan girls from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. I wanted to create a world that had many of the same elements as a grim Victorian orphanage. I read a number of “etiquette manuals” from the 1840s to the 1950s to create the rules of the Vestalis Academy.Those guides that were written to teach young women comportment and feminine graces. Their emphasis on docility and obedience is obviously historical but also felt chillingly relevant. Our modern society still encourages young women to be sweet and beautiful above all else. We need more Viviens and Sophias – brave young women – to challenge those values. 

MOVIEMOVESME: Another interesting fact is that you have created characters that needed to know everything about feminine virtues but could not read at all. What was the reason behind it?

As part of my research, I wrote an extensive backstory for Miro, Brixil and Vestalis. I imagined what difficulties they would face to create a hidden institution – how they would have to interact with the local authorities and local criminals. And I imagined how they would maximize their investment. Where they would spend money — and where they would not. The first obvious cutbacks would be teachers. There would be no financial benefit to teaching the girls to read. And illiteracy helps to keep the captives ignorant. Less critical. Less likely to ask questions.

MOVIEMOVESME: The cast was amazing and the performances were also very strong. Can you talk about the casting process? 

Danishka Esterhazy: I love my cast. 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. Katie Douglas, Celina Martin – all of the actors — are amazing. It took a lot of searching – and a great casting director (Jonathan Oliveira) to find the right actors.

MOVIEMOVESME:  What do you think is the moral of the story? As a viewer, we can take many things from it, how about you? What’s your major takeaway from “Level 16”?

Danishka Esterhazy: Level 16 is a story about how powerful young women can be when they come together and support one another. There are so many barriers that make it difficult for women to succeed in this society. But when we support one another we can break down those barriers. I hope Level 16 will inspire some future Viviens and Sophias to smash the patriarchy.

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