A woman at the turn of the twentieth century is haunted by the child she lost and struggles with her physical and mental health, while her husband writes her off as insane. Claire de Lune is directed by Sydney Van Leeuwen, a recent graduate of the Motion Picture Institute.
Sydney grew up in Medina, Ohio. She wanted to incorporate her hometown into her film school thesis, so she spent months coordinating shooting at the local historical society and hours poring over a script about the plight of one woman in the late 1800s faced with a future in a lunatic asylum. The project was filmed in the summer of 2020 in Medina and was a huge success--a testament to the strength of community and cooperation among Medina citizens and film students from Troy, Michigan.
Since graduating from MPI's year-long filmmaking program, Van Leeuwen has freelanced throughout the greater Detroit area and settled in as part-time production coordinator for the Lansing-based Cold Box Films. She aspires to work in the AD department of the Midwest film industry.
It is with great pleasure to interview Sydney Van Leeuwen for Toronto Film Magazine.
What was the inspiration behind the making of Claire de Lune?
I wanted to tell the story of a woman suffering from mental illness, but I have a great passion for period pieces, so I set the scene for late 1800s/early 1900s America. I also liked the concept of someone suffering from something larger than a mere diagnosis, someone with legitimate concerns who wouldn't be believed, so I crafted a story involving the supernatural--secretly, I've always wanted to make a horror movie! Additionally, I grew up in Ohio so I secured the location (a historic house museum in my hometown of Medina, Ohio) even before the script was fully written. Furthermore, I love piano solos and have listened to them while studying for years. I recalled liking Debussy's pieces, so I named my protagonist after his "Clair de Lune," which also heavily influenced my score.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you created?
I was on the video announcements team in high school, and I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. When I went to college, I minor-ed in communications until my junior year when I turned that designation into a contract minor entitled 'Documentary Filmmaking'--which looks good on paper, but didn't get me a lot of jobs after graduation. I did make a senior project, a documentary about the local veteran's home in Erie, Pennsylvania where I attended university. After a year of hopping from job to part-time job, I decided to go to film school where I realized my passion for narrative film. While a student at the Motion Picture Institute at Troy, Michigan I made three shorts, but most ambitious was my thesis film, "Claire de Lune."
What were some of the challenges of making your film as a director?
COVID-19 threw a wrench in many of my plans with this film, as I'm sure it did to many other people in 2020. My location, a historic house museum run by my hometown's historical society, had many COVID concerns and almost chose to withdraw their permission to have us shoot there approximately a week before our date. We were able to ease their minds by assuring them we would be following a laundry list of safety precautions. We lost our Grip about a week before shooting as well due to scheduling conflicts, and our original Hair & Make-Up Artist came down with a fever the morning of our departure to Ohio from Michigan. Both positions were thankfully filled before the principal photography began, although we were unable to keep a Grip the full weekend due to scheduling conflicts.
How did you fund the film and how did the film go into production? Tell us about how you finalized your casting and crew as well.
We had a budget of about $1200 from money I saved during my "gap year." As this was a student thesis film, the school helped us during pre-production by setting up a remote casting call where actors could submit digital auditions. I hired my main crew from among my peers at school but also recruited family members and friends to fill in where needed--one of our MVPs was Paige Lakovic, a film student at Pittsburgh's CCAC. I reached out to my hometown historical society for the location and my hometown theatre group for wardrobe in the spring of 2020. I appealed to a family friend for cast and crew lodging about the same time. We held weekly crew meetings via Zoom through late spring and early summer. I wrote the script in April of 2020. My DP and Gaffer went on a location/tech scout with me in May, most of the cast and crew attended a rehearsal in June, and we shot in mid-July.
Where do you see the future of female directors in cinema and why is it important to have the perspective of female directors in world cinema?
It is shocking to me that Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker," 2009) is the only female to have won an Oscar for Best Director. I see us breaking into that male-dominated and extremely prestigious award category in the near future. Women have an important POV because we represent half the world's population (technically more than half, if my research is correct) and we deserve to have our worldview acknowledged. We have been shushed and disregarded for too long. It's time for our recognition.
Which genre is your most favorite genre to work on? Why?
In my year and a half of working on film sets, I've dabbled in comedy, horror, drama, romance, action, and historical fiction. I love period pieces, as I was a history major in college and my mother was a history teacher for many years. I jump at any chance to geek out about the past.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
I spend most of my time trying to get steady work in the industry, but I am currently writing another period piece--a drama relating to the American presidency.
How can cinema and films have an impact on society and change the world?
I believe cinema and films can get people interested in things they normally don't care about and get them thinking about how they can enact change in their own lives. I take particular interest in history because I've heard more times than I can count that "history is boring" or "history doesn't matter" which is incredibly frustrating. History is the story of us as a human race, and it is both beautiful and unsightly, fascinating and terrifying. If more people knew about the past, the future could be so vastly different than it's turning out to be.
Why do you want to make films and what gives you satisfaction to work on creative projects in the media?
I believe that there are so many stories that deserve to be told from history. I seek to give a voice to those unspoken narratives, and especially to women, in every script I write. I get a certain satisfaction when people learn something or feel something from a tale that I have told or contributed to in some way.
Please name three of your most favorite filmmakers who have been influential to your work and please tell us the reason for being inspired by their work.
I remember watching James Cameron's "Titanic" on my 13th birthday. I fell in love with the story, the characters, the set, and I wanted to make something as powerful as that someday. It's the movie that made me want to make movies (although I didn't know that at the time). I watched "Pride and Prejudice" in high school and fell in love again, this time with Roman Osin's cinematography. Osin shot a breathtakingly beautiful movie, one that has inspired my approach to shot lists and aesthetics. Finally, I loved Mike Flanagan's The Haunting of Hill House. The twists and turns of his screenplay give me chills--I usually never rewatch movies, or I wait years before I even give a favorite another view, but I've seen this series three times and each screening impresses me more than the last. The one-shot episode and all the match cuts are positively brilliant.