5 Questions for Yosemite Writer/Director Gabrielle Demeestere
Distracted fathers and sons left to their own devices; father surrogates and the salve of friendship — these are the themes that circle around Gabrielle Demeestere’s lovely and composed feature debut, Yosemite, which opens today in New York from Monterey Media at the IFC Center. Based on two short stories by James Franco (taken from the same collection that led to the film Palo Alto), as well as Demeestere’s own original material, Yosemite is set in 1985, when pre-adolescent dangers are symbolized by mountain lions descending from the wilds into this Northern California town, and when father-son bonding trips into Yosemite National Park can become tinged with primordial fears.
Yosemite is the first feature by NYU Grad Gabrielle Demeestere, who has directed a number of acclaimed shorts while also working in various capacities throughout the film business. Below, Demeestere discusses how she came to adapt Franco’s work, the challenges of making a period film on a low budget, and and her favorite movies about childhood.
Filmmaker: Tell us about this process of adapting James Franco’s work, and, particularly, mixing it with your material. How did you first come across and adapt the stories, and did James have any input on the material you added?
Demeestere: When we were classmates in the grad filmmaking program at NYU together, James asked me if I would like to adapt two of his short stories about childhood, “Yosemite” and “Peter Parker” into a feature length script and direct it. I read the stories and thought they were very cinematic: they had a lot of specific details and visual images that felt authentic to childhood, and I was immediately inspired to try and turn them into a film.
Each story had a specific feel: “Yosemite” I connected to the dread one can feel in a very beautiful, natural environment in which one is supposed to be having a transcendental experience, but instead is left to feel small and mortal (like a break up I once had in Alaska). “Peter Parker” is about exploring a kind of moral ambiguity in the relationship between a young boy and an older boy, and the grey zones in people’s desires and intentions.
I liked the characters and specific mood of each story so much that I finally decided to keep them separate (instead of creating a single character for the entire film), write a third story and connect them all as a triptych. This also allowed me to explore some of the ambiguities of being that age, the shifting nature of friendship, and the contrast between a private and a public self, which one is trying to assert at school.
James gave me a lot of freedom in the adaptation process, because I think he was curious and interested in seeing what I would do with it. Once I had a draft, we had a script reading during which he gave me great, insightful notes, and we talked about why the boys did the things they did — for example, why Joe would walk barefoot on the train tracks — which deepened my understanding of the characters.
Filmmaker: What attracted you to make a movie with protagonists who are young boys and their fathers? I thought about making the protagonist of the third story a girl (a French girl named Nicole who is mentioned in the story Yosemite and could have been based more closely on my own experience), but it seemed harder to connect all the stories together that way, since boys in 5th grade don’t socialize with girls that much.
Demeestere: I had assumed I would make a more obviously personal first feature, so it was an interesting challenge for me to project myself into these boys’ heads and write in their voices. I was recently told that I am secretly a mischievous 10-year-old-boy at heart, so that’s maybe why it came to me much more easily than I had initially expected…
Filmmaker: What were the biggest production challenges, and how did you handle a 1985 period setting on the budget you had?
Demeestere: It was a difficult shoot, as we only had the budget to shoot 17 days with limited hours for child actors. A lot of it was about creating the right circumstances for the young boys to get the scene to ring true, and then shooting it as quickly as we could. Of course I would have loved to have the opportunity to spend more time on set developing the visual language of the film, which a low budget shoot doesn’t always allow for.
The 1985 period design was largely the work of our amazing production designer Maki Takenouchi, who grew up in the Bay Area in the 1980s, and did very extensive, detailed research and put together an enthusiastic art department team. We had a lot of support as well from wonderful and generous people in Palo Alto, James’s hometown, who were excited that we were making a film, donated props and old computers, and let us shoot in their homes for free.
Filmmaker: What are your own favorite movies about childhood, and why?
Demeestere: I love the Truffaut movie Small Change, which gave me the idea of loosely connecting the characters together, and depicting the relationships between kids in a wider social setting (a town and a school). I also watched Paranoid Park and The Ice Storm a lot before making Yosemite. I love the subtle affection Gus Van Sant has for his teenage characters. The Ice Storm is one of my favorite movies of all time, because I find every frame beautiful, and relate to its outsider perspective on a very American, suburban story. I also love Jacques Doillon’s movie Ponette, and how truthful and honest the young girl’s performance is.
Filmmaker: Finally, how has working in the industry, as a producer and also in the field of foreign sales, affected your own practice as a director?
Demeestere: I think being familiar with all aspects of filmmaking is always incredibly helpful, which is why the graduate program at NYU was so great. I can now speak to the DP about lenses, understand what an assistant director’s job is from having done it etc. In the same way, directing a first feature film is essentially producing it to some extent as well, since the money will only go so far, and it will inevitably fall upon the director to really push the film forward in post-production and all the way to distribution. It’s also helpful to understand film festival strategy, how to find a sales agent, as they are all essential aspects of getting a film out into the world.