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“Trusting the Subject as a Collaborator:” Jillian Schlesinger on Maidentrip

Maidentrip Maidentrip

You may have heard of Laura Dekker, the Dutch wunderkind who announced at the ripe old age of 13 that she planned to sail around the world, by herself. Despite initial intervention attempts by her home government, Ms. Dekker set off from Gibraltar in August of 2010, in her 38-footer by the name of “Guppy,” and arrived in Sint Maarten 16 months later, fully intact.

Much like her subject, Jillian Schlesinger did not go the safe route in her first full-length voyage as a filmmaker. A project four years in the making, with no opportunities for reshoots or reenactments, Schlesinger’s portrait of the young Dekker is almost as unexpected as it is inspiring.

Drawing the majority of its content from camcorder footage shot by its own subject, Maidentrip is a collaborative work, one that dispels many of the preconceived notions of the supposedly solitary sailor lifestyle. Filmmaker spoke with Schlesinger about her relationship with Dekker, communal experiences in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the technical and financial challenges she faced as a first time filmmaker with an ambitious project.

Maidentrip opens today at the IFC Center and will receive a national roll-out from First Run Features.

Filmmaker: When and how did you first come across the story of Laura Dekker?

Jillian Schlesinger: In the summer of 2009, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times with the title “How Young Is Too Young To Sail Around The World Alone.” It was all about her story, and the fact that the Dutch government had intervened to prevent her from taking the trip. I was immediately fascinated by the topic and particularly by how genuine it seemed. The details of her life were so unusual and there was nothing about it at all that struck me as some big budget publicity stunt.

Filmmaker: She was born into this lifestyle, in a way.

Schlesinger: Yeah, she spent the first five years of her life at sea. You don’t read stuff like that everyday, and something about it felt very personal, not staged in any way and that’s such a rare thing. Also, there was something about it that I personally really connected to, certain aspects of her childhood experiences that I related to. I felt a strong enough connection to the story, and I was at a point where I was really looking for something to feel that passionate about, to go and make a film about, so I spent maybe four or five months thinking about it. A couple things led me to really taking the project seriously and taking myself seriously as a filmmaker around January 2010. I got in touch with a graphic designer, I met someone through Craigslist, and we worked on an illustrated proposal for a couple of months to send to her. We sent it in March and Laura responded right away. Before this, I’d tried a couple of times with her by email. If I did hear back, it was just generic responses. When we sent the illustrated proposal, it also included a very long, detailed personal letter about why I wanted to work with her.

Filmmaker: What else was in the proposal?

Schlesinger: Mood boards, illustrations, sample posters, and the page long, single-spaced letter about my idea to make a collaborative film, to tell her story from her point of view. Part of what I saw as I continued to read about the topic and research more was that so many opinions were expressed about it. People feel really strongly about whether or not a child could sail around the world, but I didn’t see her point of view really represented or explained anywhere. She didn’t have the ability to express herself outside the dramatic headlines and endless commentary. So she responded right away and I flew to Holland, and biked with her all across the South, and spent time with her and her dad on the boat they were living on at the time.

Filmmaker: So when was that?

Schlesinger: That was about June 2010. Almost a year after I first read about it. And then a month after that, she ended up getting the permission to take the trip and so I took another quick trip to Holland to meet with her before she left. Then I met her eight separate times over the course of her journey.

Filmmaker: Were you sure when you sent the proposal that this was something that could actually happen? At that point, her plans were up in the air given the government involvement.

Schlesinger: You know, it’s strange. I wish I could remember exactly what my mindset was. I think it was a combination of having a lot of confidence that she would do it, the same way I felt, “Oh, obviously it’s worth it to spend months on this illustrated proposal.” It just felt like something that was going to happen. I worked on the proposal as if finishing it and sending it to her was definitely going to result in her responding and saying, “This sounds great.” I approached it with a pretty high level of confidence, and I got the same feeling from her. Whatever the path was to get there, this was going to happen. The other thing was, I found her so fascinating, and her pursuit of her dream so fascinating, that I was open to whatever I ended up making a film about. Maybe I would make a film about a girl who really wanted to sail around the world, but never got to pursue that dream, and then what would her adolescence look like? I think that really helped, especially as a first time filmmaker, that I was contacting her and reaching out to her when she didn’t even have permission to do the trip, but was strongly hopeful that it would happen, versus just hopping on the bandwagon after the fact.

Filmmaker: The footage she shot on the boat, was that your idea or was she going to be filming herself regardless?

Schlesinger: I imagine that she would’ve filmed no matter what. The camera that she shot with alone at sea was her camcorder.  We offered her a different camera and I observed 1) that she was very comfortable using that camera and 2) that she was extremely gifted as a cinematographer. She just had a natural sense of how to shoot, and so I didn’t interfere with that process at all.  I didn’t really want to make that about me or about the film or my vision.  Part of getting involved in a project like this is really trusting the subject as a collaborator. She decided what to shoot, when to shoot, everything.  The only thing that I had her do while she was at sea, was, I gave her a voice recorder, and I would give her a topic. So instead of traditional, sit-down interviews, I would give her the topics that I thought were interesting, or things that I wanted her to reflect on, and then she would do those recordings both at sea and when she was in ports.  So that was a way to get things that I thought would be really important to telling the story without interfering at all with her relationship with the camera – making something that was so pure and kind of like an interesting friendship between her and the camera.  I didn’t want that to be a chore or something that she was doing for someone else and she’s a really independent person, so part of wanting to work with her was wanting to work with somebody who’s like that and trust her to do her part and to collaborate.

Filmmaker: Yeah, it seems like she’s someone who would respond well to that sort of freedom.

Schlesinger: Yeah.

Filmmaker: A segment I found interesting is when the journalist comes and visits her in Australia. She explains she that the two are friends, and yet she acts pretty cagey. She doesn’t at all like being interviewed or subjected to this sort of attention.

Schlesinger:  Mmhmm, totally.

Filmmaker: So when I saw that I was wondering how difficult it must have been for you to initially approach her about this, but I guess it all depends on the angle.

Schlesinger:  Yeah, I think it definitely depends on the angle.  I think because at the time I was also doing something for the very first time, so I was approaching her as much as a human being as a filmmaker, and learning certain things about the process as I went.  Obviously, I’d been in the industry and worked on films in lots of different capacities, but choosing to go out and just embark on a project like this is a totally new experience, no matter how much of the technical stuff you have down.  So our relationship just always had a different spirit. I don’t know exactly how to explain it or define it, but I wasn’t a journalist — I was more like a friend who was making a film with her, so I also think it was nice for both of us in the pursuit of these very different dreams to have some companionship and friendship, because no one else could really connect to either of those journeys in quite in the same way.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that you came and met her at points along the way.  I was curious about that, watching certain parts, like when she’s with the couple in the Galapagos. Were those were re-creations, or were you indeed with her?

Schlesinger: Yeah, not only are there no re-creations, but one thing that I actually really appreciated about the process, and the way that Laura worked was like, even if we were at a location, and I was like, “Oh, we agreed to have an establishing shot of Laura walking down the dock to X,” we would not get that, unless we shot Laura walking down the dock to X. There’s literally nothing in the film that’s staged or repeated or multiple takes.

Filmmaker: She wouldn’t play that game.

Dekker and Schlesinger

Dekker and Schlesinger

Schlesinger: Yeah, and I didn’t really want to. When she was in port, because we were visiting her in port, she never went out sailing so that we could film her sailing, and because of that, the only footage of her sailing, that’s not her shooting herself at sea or one of the go-pros, are those aerial shots that we finally got in South Africa. It was so complicated timing-wise to even get there ahead of her so that we could get those as she was actually coming around the Cape of Good Hope. That was like 14 miles off shore in gale force winds, you can’t tell, but the pilot was like, “Are you sure you guys want to go out?” and we’re like, “Yes, we have to get these shots.” So that was such an interesting challenge because it wasn’t like we could just go out for a shooting day and get some shots. I liked that about it, I mean, I think it’s rare, and it definitely posed some very exciting challenges.

Filmmaker: So were you in contact with her while she was at sea?

Schlesinger: Not really. I had the ability to send her iridium satellite text messages, so we would exchange one message on every leg, you know on every long trip, and it would just be, “Where should I meet you and when?” I felt like the idea obviously was that this is a solo trip, and my meeting her even at eight ports during the course of the trip had an influence on her experience, so my goal was to have as little footprint on the part where she was at sea alone as possible.  About two-thirds of the way into the trip, she got a more evolved e-mail system, and I hadn’t even had that iridium text thing for a while, but even then, our contact was super, super limited and only focused on logistics.

Filmmaker: It’s funny, I was thinking about it last night, how obviously there was a huge stink in the press and Dutch government about her age, and how crazy the whole thing was, but at the same time, I was thinking that maybe you have to be that young to embark on something like this. The rational side of your brain isn’t developed to such an extent, so you don’t really have that sense of fear that maybe someone like you or I would.

Schlesinger: I think that’s true. I mean, I think at any age, there are always a lot of — when you want to go do something that’s really crazy or different or as unconventional as what Laura’s doing, there always a million reasons not to, and obstacles that are in your way, and I think it certainly takes a young, optimistic mind to ignore or fight as hard as Laura did against all of those obstacles to overcome them. I think it’s easier when you get older to be like, “Oh well, if I do this, that’ll probably happen, that would be terrible.”  So yeah, I think that you’re totally right.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that you spent some time with her dad in the beginning.  Did you get a sense for his attitude toward the whole thing?  We see a little of him in the film, but is he just kind of resigned to his daughter’s dreams?

Schlesinger: I think that he was super, super supportive because he had a similar experience in childhood and ended up running out on his dreams, so I think he felt like, if Laura wanted to go, he was better off supporting her dream to do this, and helping her do it as safely, and responsibly as possible.  Because she learned everything that she knows about sailing from her dad, which is a lot. Her dad’s an incredibly talented — not just sailor — but boat builder, mechanic, everything.  So the fact that essentially, she and her dad alone with like, a few key supporters, made this all happen, and so successfully and so safely, is pretty incredible when you consider that most trips of this nature have huge teams.  There were people involved, but there was no one with her, there was no follow boat.  Other sailors would meet her along the way, and realize, “You’re not just alone, you’re like alone, alone.” She had to figure out how to get new food, how to check in to immigration and get all her paperwork, so that she was legally in every country — all of that stuff, she was just totally on her own, the way that all of the other sailors are who do similar trips and adventures. 

Filmmaker: Right. And it’s interesting because, yes, she is very much alone, but I think the way that the film is designed, and in the glimpses we see of her at sea, they don’t necessarily emphasize her isolation. We see her with people a lot of the time, and she feels connected to her surroundings and nature, and also narratively speaking, we get a sense for her personal history and upbringing. Is that a conscious choice you made from the outset?

Schlesinger: I think that one thing that a lot of people don’t expect going into the film — a lot of people expect that they’re going to see a kid get on a boat, and two years later, get off a boat — two things that you discover are a) that she is stopping and exploring in all these places, but also b) that there are other people. She’s not leaving Holland and going on this trip because she wants to be alone, she’s actually leaving to be part of a community that she grew up in as a kid that she feels more of a sense of belonging to.  So she’s leaving a pretty conventional life, going to school every day and doing normal kid things in Holland to go sail but along all these routes, but she’s meeting other sailors and people who are going along the same routes. There are a lot of retired couples, young families, people who decide to sell their homes and get a sailboat and within the community — they’re called cruising sailors — there’s very frequent communication, there’s a real sense of family. In every port, Laura was embraced by all these different people, and made so many friends in the process and as a result, I really became part of this community as well. At one point, I even sailed across the Pacific Ocean on another boat when we were in the Galapagos, just because we had made those friends in Panama and then saw them again in the Galapagos. We had very intimate friends out of this experience because it’s such a close-knit world that most people don’t know anything about.  And so that aspect of the film is so different from people’s expectations of a girl sailing around the world alone. They think of something more solitary.

Filmmaker: So what was the editing process for this like? You must’ve been drowning in footage.

Schlesinger: Yeah, to an extent. You know, while Laura was alone at sea, she didn’t film as much as you would expect, which actually worked out really well, I thought, because the stuff that she did shoot was so compelling.  So once we had everything — we did not cut it at all along the way — so it was important to me to collect everything and then figure out what story we wanted to tell. I also felt like it was important to bring a strong editor to it, because it was one of those situations where I had both lived it and documented it, and so I wanted someone with a fresh perspective but also a great sense of storytelling to work with me to tell the story that was in the footage, and not just the story that I experienced, or that I thought should be in the footage. I worked with Penelope Falk. I had been an intern, or an archival assistant, on a film that she had cut five or six years before and just remembered loving her editing style, and I reached out to her.  We met and at the beginning of the meeting, she was like, “I actually decided to take another job, but I didn’t want to cancel the meeting and maybe I can help you find someone,” and an hour and a half later, we were working together. I think the footage spoke for itself. 

Filmmaker: So the filming was obviously a lengthy process with lots of travel.  Did you get a grant for it?

Schlesinger: So we started with a really limited amount. I mean, we raised like $5,000 on Kickstarter, which did not take us very far at all.  I was in the very fortunate situation of getting a bunch of unused airline miles around this time — totally unrelated — from my grandparents, and I ended up using a lot of them for the film. Especially at first, it was a hard sell during production: “Oh, fund my trip to the Galapagos islands so I can go hang out with a teenager and film a little bit.” We continued to raise money, and I think it got really tight around the middle of the trip.  I mean, I was already working like crazy. I would go on a trip to meet Laura, and then I would come back and work, do freelance work, usually two shifts a day. I was working double-time, working a 10 – 6 shift at one network, and then, either at the same network or a different network, I would work 6 to 2 am, so I basically didn’t see people for like four years.  We applied for so many grants, but didn’t get them, so it actually became more efficient to just like work insanely and spend money I was making, and because the story was unfolding, I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. I wasn’t going to have a second chance to go back. We did all of production insanely frugally, like it doesn’t even look like a real film budget, because I stayed on the boat with Laura. We didn’t have hotel expenses, I ate what she ate, which was mostly ramen and pancakes and bread and peanut butter and canned ravioli.  So then as soon as we finished production, and we were trying to get into post and do expensive things like translating, editing, animation, at that point, once we had all the footage, and it was a known quantity and not a risky project, we were really fortunate to encounter this company Pilot that became a co-producer and really invaluable source of support. That’s why we were able to work with such a great editor, get the film done in a timely manner and get everything done to the level that we wanted it to be, given that the production phase had been so shoestring, so that was really nice.

Filmmaker: Regarding the translations, I noticed how much better Laura’s English had gotten by the close of the trip/film.

Schlesinger: That’s true. In the beginning, I was a little more nervous, because while she could communicate in English, I felt like it was going to be hard to get to know her. Just from the couple of times that we were together in Holland, I was like, “Oh my God, I have to learn Dutch.” So I started to try to learn Dutch, which it turns out, is really hard, and by the time I saw her on the next trip, her English was great, because English is the language of the sailing community and you know, a pretty international language in general. Now she’s living in New Zealand and her English is pretty great.

Filmmaker: She’s still there?

Schlesinger: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Have you been in touch with her recently?

Schlesinger: Yeah, we’re in touch like every couple weeks or so.  We haven’t talked on Skype in a while.  I think it’s been kind of a complex process for her with the film coming out.  I think she’s really proud of and happy about the really positive response to the film, and the fact that it’s done so well or better than any of us hoped.  But I think, you know, she obviously doesn’t like a lot of attention. I think there are things about having it out in the world that are also less comfortable for her. She hasn’t done any press related to the film and I’ve totally respected that, and kind of think that’s what’s so cool about her, that she does do her own thing. I almost feel like having her show up for interviews would undermine the spirit of the film.

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