When I look at a role solely from an acting perspective, that's the last thing I want to think about: Is my character likable?
Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. tells the story of a sexual assault survivor-turned-vigilante, who launches a bloody campaign against her rapist and avenges college girls whose attackers walked free.
Actress-turned-screenwriter Leah McKendrick started writing M.F.A. in 2015, as rape culture on U.S. college campuses continued to dominate the news cycle, like the case of former Stanford University student Brock Turner, who served a three-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. McKendrick also drew upon her own experience from a casting audition years ago, when a director allegedly groped and kissed her without consent. “As a very young actress, I felt like nobody would protect me,” she reveals. “M.F.A. doesn’t attempt to provide solutions, but rather showcase the ways in which people—and women in particular—react to rape.”
M.F.A. centers on Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), a withdrawn art student at a Southern California university, who’s having just as much trouble with her social anxiety as she does finding creative inspiration. So she’s thrilled when a good-looking classmate, Luke (Peter Vack), invites her to party at his place. But soon after she arrives, Luke rapes her, leaving her in a catatonic state. At first eager to report the crime to her school, Noelle soon realizes that the institution isn’t about to address her ordeal and a switch goes off inside. The formerly shy introvert transforms her quiet fury into a killing spree, channeling her new audacious self into her art, full of passion and rage.
M.F.A. is playing at the Busan Int. Film Festival in South Korea, ahead of its October 13 release.
[Editor’s Note: Filmmakers Natalia and Leah joined in during our chat with Francesca.]
This was the first time I saw you acting in a movie and you have such a presence.
Francesca Eastwood: Oh thank you. I really appreciate that.
M.F.A. tackles the rape culture epidemic on college campuses across the U.S. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but it ultimately aims to empower young women especially. When this script first came to you, what questions did you have for Natalia and Leah?
Francesca: Girls, feel free to step in here and remind me if I’m forgetting. I mean, we talked about the basic stuff. There wasn’t too much time to prep, at least compared to some other stuff that I’ve done. But I felt like there was an agreement and a trust upon meeting both Natalia and Leah, and just reading the script and how vulnerable the script was. This was a project that was exactly what you said: meant to empower young women and normalize the discussion about something that goes on all the time. We put it in a format that’s painful and it’s painful to watch, but it’s also in an entertainment format so it can reach a broader audience. It’s been cool. The response with young women has been touching. The response with the male audience has been really wonderful.
Natalia Leite: We talked a lot about tone. That’s exactly right: There are a lot of documentaries that touch on social issues and we did want to make something gritty and realistic, but we also wanted a sense of entertainment that won’t just preach to the converted about the social cause.
Francesca, so there wasn’t too much time to prep? How quick was the turnaround?
Francesca: Yeah, it was really quick. Was it two weeks or one week? I came in and it sounded like everything had just come into place. But yeah, I remember it was around a week of prep.
You’ve spoken in the past about the challenges of shooting out of order. It’s obviously the standard, but Noelle does go through such a transformation that it must’ve been difficult to place her on that emotional spectrum on any given day. How did you make that work?
Francesca: I just tried as best I could to serve the story. I was constantly in my head reliving it. It’s really just about doing my homework and making everything so specific. It’s a lot of planning. I was very antisocial during filming. [Laughs] I just had to keep track of these dots and feelings that I felt the character was having. I also had Leah there to remind me where we were and that was great. It was a lot of staying quiet in my head in the corner during set ups.
It’s sometimes jarring when female actors are asked about the likability factor of the characters they play. It’s conceivable that male actors maybe don’t have to answer for that, or not as frequently. What do you think that says about how we approach gender in film?
Francesca: That’s an interesting point because that’s come up a couple of times. When I look at a role solely from an acting perspective, that’s the last thing I want to think about: Is my character likable? I want to know, is it real? Is this the truth? Does this tell the story? So I hadn’t thought about Noelle’s likability too much. But that’s what’s great about having this collaboration, you know? Maybe I’m going on a different tangent now. [Laughs]
Natalia: We talked a lot about it on set because I know you, Fran, as an actor, didn’t want to be thinking about that, right? You just wanted to be this character and not worry about whether people liked you or not. I think that’s totally what actors have to do. They can’t be performing for other people to like them because there are really inherent parts to their characters. But for me as a filmmaker, I was thinking about it a lot because I wanted people to relate to Noelle. I wanted her to be likable and it was always in the back of my head. That was part of the challenge. She’s doing these bad things, but how can we still like her? We don’t have to agree with what she’s doing, but how can we at least understand it and somewhat be on her side? I think that comes out of showing the character really vulnerable and understanding her pain on an emotional level because then we can somewhat side with her. So that became an interesting conversation.
Francesca: There are so many bad guy, male characters doing whatever they want that are seen as likable, good guys. But I think it’s a positive reflection on this film because it’s a step in the right direction to break those limitations on female characters.
Leah McKendrick: I think we have a very high tolerance for men doing bad things where we don’t consider them bad men necessarily—they’re still our heroes. Nat and I talked a lot about Walter White in Breaking Bad. We both love Breaking Bad. And he’s a bad guy! He becomes a bad guy. But we still love and support him in his bad behavior most of the time. So for me, it’s very important that you’re on Noelle’s journey and that was definitely one of the challenges with the script. I also felt like if I’m with her from the beginning and I understand where she’s coming from, I’m not so concerned with her being super likable the whole way because that’s not people. I don’t think it’s possible to be likable all of the time. Definitely for women, it’s always a challenge. You don’t want to speak too loudly. You’re always trying not to be portrayed as a threat to the rest of the world. I like that Noelle is a threat. When it was just me and the script, I was hoping that it did turn things on its head because women’s sexuality is seen as her only source of power. People do like to own a woman’s sexuality in the media and in our country. So I love the idea of her using her sexuality to take advantage of the misogynistic world we live in. Nobody is threatened by stepping into a bathroom with this beautiful young woman, but actually, she is a threat.
I think it’s safe to say that a role like this is a risky one for any actor. It’s vulnerable, it’s provocative, there’s nudity, there’s violence… Francesca, I wonder if you run these parts by your mother [Frances Fisher]. Not only because she’s your mother, but she has been incredibly prolific in her career. She must’ve seen all kinds of stuff come her way.
Francesca: Yeah, she’s had a lot of experience! She’s done a lot. But I don’t run stuff by my parents [that includes Clint Eastwood]. For one, I don’t have time, and I have my own gut feelings about things. I kind of go and do them and bring them home and say, “Here’s what I did in August.” So I haven’t had a chance to run anything by her in my career yet.
But it’s neat that you do work together sometimes and you seem to enjoy working together.
Francesca: Yeah, absolutely. I would definitely want to work with her again in the future.
I noticed that you shot M.F.A. on the Chapman University campus, although it is a fictional Southern California school in the film. Did you run into any trouble securing a location due to the subject matter at hand? Or maybe they embraced it, I don’t know.
Leah: I actually went to Chapman.
Oh you did? I didn’t realize.
Leah: Yeah, I studied acting there. They’ve been incredibly supportive of my career while I was in school and since graduating. They’re very proud of me going from being an actress to starting to write and produce. My mentor is a professor and the head of the theater school there. He’s one of my great loves in my career because he has always encouraged me to write possibly unlikable characters for women and roles that might normally be reserved for men. He always encouraged me to step outside the box. So when it came time to secure the campus, he put me in touch with the president of the university at the time, President [James L.] Doti, who said, “What can I do to help you?” and got onboard. They screened the film at the school as well.
Francesca: Oh wow.
Leah: You’d think the university might want to distance itself from something that’s so negative towards an institution and its administration, but Chapman wasn’t that way. I think Chapman is on our side, trying to end campus assaults and really fight for survivors. This is a testament of that.
Francesca, I met your co-star Peter Vack when he was promoting Assholes in South Korea.
Francesca: Oh my god.
Have you seen that film he made?
Francesca: No, I haven’t. I need to see this. [Laughs]
I’m going to be chatting with him this week. I’m wondering what he was like to work with.
Francesca: Peter was great. I felt like he really made some choices that were so interesting. It’s a testament to how talented he is as an actor. He was also helpful on our improv scenes.
Natalia: Yeah, Peter’s great. He worked really great with improv and some moments that we decided to do not exactly as written and try to loosen things up. I loved those moments. Especially with the rape scene, I didn’t want to choreograph it too much. We had some general blocking but the rest of it was like, “We’re going to play this in real time and I’m not going to be jumping in to yell ‘Cut!’ I just want you guys to play it from start to finish.” We obviously talked a lot about trust and more or less what was going to happen, but I think a lot of the magic comes from that moment where they’re just in it and being committed to their characters.
What do you all have coming up after M.F.A.?
Francesca: Well, my next project is called A Violent Separation. I’m not sure I’m supposed to say that yet… Well, it is. [Laughs] So I’m very excited about that. It’s about two brothers and I’m excited to go play a cool supporting role. You know, change it up.
Leah: I’m writing a few things, but the next baby project I’m working towards is essentially a father/daughter drama. It’s I Am Legend in the sense that there’s a zombie apocalypse. It’s about a girl, a MIT student. When the apocalypse hits, her father’s infected and she houses him in their country home as she searches for the cure in her kitchen. I just said, “I’m going to make a movie where the woman saves the world.” We’ve seen so many I Am Legends and The Martians and these one-man-against-the-world movies. I’m going to do a one-woman-against-the-world movie.
Francesca: That sounds amazing.
Natalia: I’m working on my next feature that I’m writing, which has two female protagonists. It’s a thriller—none of them are murderers, though. I’m also getting sent a lot of scripts and looking at other people’s ideas to potentially adapt. I’m doing some stuff on the TV side, too.